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The Seventh Stone

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- The Seventh Stone-

 

Tall ships and tall kings

Three times three,

What brought they from the foundered land

Over the flowing sea?

Seven stars and seven stones

And one white tree.
--
Tolkien

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~*PART ONE*~

The night birds did not dare stir and only one or two of the braver crickets let out a peep to break the sudden silence that moments before had been sheer chaos.

Trelan stood slowly from where he had fallen beneath the bulk of the orc he had just slain. The ground was littered with corpses of the dead creatures.

"Strider?" Legolas looked around them for signs of the human. "Raniean where is Strider?"

The warrior glanced around them, dazed momentarily as he recovered from the battle. Orcs strew the ground around him and their blood dripped from his sword as he searched the immediate area for the human. This was not how they had expected the night to turn out.

The four friends had left Rivendell nearly a week ago, traveling south to the Gap of Rohan on their way back to Mirkwood. Lord Elrond had sent them off with full provisions and blessings for a safe journey. He had declared the northern pass off limits until the whereabouts of the Nazgûl that had enslaved Legolas could be determined. Winter would set in within the next few months and Elrond had asked that Aragorn return home before the pass was closed over the Misty Mountains by the seasonal snows.

For once their journey had been easy and light. In the company of the Silvan elves the ranger had felt right at home. The evenings were still warm, although the mornings held the chill of autumn on their breath. They had made good time, staying to the forests and traveling from early light till just after dusk.

Finding a tiny hollow in the forests that they traveled, the elves and the human had made camp last night. The small meadow was surrounded by gently sloping hills ringed with golden hued trees, their leaves just beginning the threat to drop. Trelan had built a roaring fire and they had roasted a wild boar on crude spits that Raniean fastened for them.

Whether it was the smell of the roasting meat or the light of the fire that drew them, none would ever know.

They had been taken unaware by a band of orcs near midnight, the small hills that sheltered them had also shielded the presence of their enemy. They lay in wait until the fire started to dim. Legolas had been uneasy, unwilling to bed down, a disquiet had kept him up, gnawing at his consciousness.

When the first attack came he had roused the others and countered the wave of orcs that rushed them, but more had only taken their place.

The battle lasted longer than it should have, the fell beasts intent on taking down their prey. And so the orcs had driven them from their campsite, consuming their supplies and carrying them off with them much to the dismay of the travelers.

Now as the normal sounds of the forests began to fill the quiet of the glen once more Legolas realized that his friend was not among those standing. The elves glanced worriedly between them, uncertain where to look for the human.

The ranger stumbled back into the glade moments later, breathing heavily, "They took everything, there's nothing left." He leaned over resting his hands on his knees as he caught his breath.

"You followed them?" Raniean asked incredulously, glancing from the man to Legolas. Aragorn only nodded in reply as the prince approached him.

"Strider you are insane." Legolas bent down to stare into the human's eyes. "Are you all right?"

"I'm fine." He slowly straightened up, "I just thought I might be able to salvage something."

"Nothing is worth salvaging from orcs Strider." Trelan dusted himself off and collected his arrows from the strewn carnage about them. "I suggest we move on quickly."

"We'll need supplies. We can't make the trip through the Gap of Rohan with nothing, not even a blanket between us." Aragorn glanced at the elves, they were trying not to smile at the man. "Oh fine! Well *I* need supplies then, and I wouldn't mind another bed roll. I can't believe they took those too!"

He glared out-right at his friends as they laughed aloud. "We can use the trees to sleep in Aragorn. Its safer and warmer there." Trelan offered.

"No, *you* can use the trees to sleep in." The ranger quickly countered. "I remember the last time I tried that."

Legolas laughed even harder at the memory, "Oh I remember the last time as well. No thank you Trelan, *I* need to sleep too."

"Very funny." Aragorn jerked a piece of leather from the body of a dead orc and cleaned the blade of his sword off on the hide, throwing it back down. "Well we aren't but a days walk from Adirolf, it's not the best of places to visit but we ought to be able to pick up a few supplies there." He winced as his arm began to throb from a cut he taken in the battle. Slowly he rotated his shoulder, trying to work out the stiffness in the joint.

"Were you injured?" Raniean eyed the man carefully.

"No." Aragorn absently answered as he helped collect the elves arrows from the corpses, "It's just a scratch, nothing at all really."

Legolas stopped and glanced at the ranger, "The last time you said it was nothing your shoulder was dislocated from that fall you took with Sarcayul."

Aragorn rolled his eyes and ignored the elf.

"Estel."

The human stopped at the sound of his elven name and slowly turned towards his friend, "I'm fine."

"I'll decide that. Your brothers would have my hide if I let a cut from an orc blade go untended." Legolas stalked towards the man.

Reluctantly, Aragorn seated himself on a fallen log, muttering, "My brothers would have a fit if they knew we were anywhere near orcs."

"Exactly." Legolas crouched down near his friend. "Now, let me see it."

Aragorn shrugged out of his overcoat and unbuttoned his shirt, pulling his left arm free of the tunic to expose the ragged cut to his upper arm. The wound was bleeding freely again, having been pulled away from the shirt. He winced as Legolas prodded the cut, cleaning it out with water from his flask.

"How does it look?" Raniean stepped over a dead orc and pushed in close by Legolas. The prince moved slightly aside so the tall warrior could glimpse the wound.

"It looks bad, but it isn't feverish." Legolas glanced up as Trelan pressed in, "I think there was no poison, but we'll need to watch it." He looked between the two warriors, "Were either of you hurt at all?"

They both shook their heads.

"No, of course not, just the human." Aragorn muttered, resting his head in his good hand.

Legolas laughed and softly cuffed the man, "Stop that. You'll live." He pulled Aragorn's shirt back over his shoulder and stood, smiling down at the man. "Besides I seem to remember that you were the one that saved Trelan from the warg that orc released on him."

Aragorn shrugged back into his overcoat and turned a small smile on the elf in question. "You should have seen your face."

Raniean apparently had, because he laughed merrily at his friend's expense.

"I wouldn't laugh if I were you Raniean." Trelan warned as he turned to leave the glade. "I am sure there are a few things the prince would be interested in hearing about you."

The tall warrior immediately shut his mouth and glared at the shorter elf.

"Ran?" Legolas questioned with a raised eyebrow.

"It's nothing my lord." Raniean jogged to catch up with Trelan, elbowing the smaller warrior as they left the battle scene.

"We do need supplies." Aragorn repeated himself once they had walked a short distance.

"Agreed." Legolas stopped and turned towards the man, "Let's head for Adirolf then."

The sun rose and it set but the small band pushed on without halting to rest again. It was growing late when they finally stopped, the sun having once again fled the forests where they walked hours ago. Aragorn paced to the edge of the woods they were in and overlooked a small grassy valley, its depth glittering with the tiny, winking of firebugs that darted to and fro on the gentle breezes.

"We can't all go." He turned back and glanced at the elves. A slight shimmering glow exuded from them in the full darkness of night. One had to know to look for it, but Aragorn had long ago become used to the faint brightness of the elves. "You are all elves and Adirolf's inhabitants are not open to strangers. You will be certain to draw attention. Strangers passing through are barely tolerated when they are human, but your presence there would go ill. I cannot protect you all and I do not wish a fight with the people there. I need to slip in, gather what we need and leave. But I'll need a bit of help packing everything back."

Legolas nodded, "Fine then, I'll accompany you, Raniean and Trelan will wait here." He did not laugh at Aragorn over the suggestion that either he or his elven companions needed the human's protection. Of course they could take care of themselves, but he knew what his friend meant. On more than one occasion humans' mistrust of elves or elves' mistrust of humans had caused them both more grief than they cared to remember. It was better to avoid trouble than invite it whenever possible.

The elf frowned as the human looked him up and down. "Wait a minute," Aragorn shrugged out of his hooded cloak and passed it to Legolas, "You can't go like that."

The elf stepped back from the proffered clothing, "I am not wearing that."

"Legolas, you're an elf, have you not noticed?" Aragorn sighed in frustration. "Even if you use your own cloak you still look like an elf! We need no more trouble than we have already garnered and I do not wish to attract attention." He stepped closer to the fair being and shoved the coat at him, "Now put it on!"

The elf wrinkled his nose, "It smells like..."

"It smells like me!" Aragorn cut him off.

"Oh and here all along I thought that was Trelan." Raniean laughed as he glanced at the glaring elf. "Please my prince, wear the cloak. If we cannot accompany you then at least we will know you are safe. That garb alone will keep anyone from getting too near you."

"You are all so very funny, do you know that?" Aragorn was getting irritated. Being woken up from a sound sleep by a pack of orcs, spending a good part of the night battling for his life and walking for the next twelve to fifteen hours straight with companions who didn't even seem tired had not put him in a good mood to begin with. The evening was not especially warm and he needed help with the supplies. Indeed they would not reach Adirolf until sunrise if they left now but should they cross paths with any of the villagers, he wanted to be prepared. His arm was throbbing and his temper was growing short. He would have rather worn his overcoat himself but had thought it smarter to keep Legolas safe. He frowned at the laughing elves and threw the coat across a fallen log. "Fine, I'll go by myself."

"No, Strider wait! Legolas grabbed the ranger's coat from where it lay and ran after the human.

"We were just teasing!" Raniean called out after them.

Aragorn just shook his head, his irritability showing through. He was tired, frustrated and they were without supplies because of the band of raiding orcs. He hated Adirolf and was loathe to have to go there. The last time he had been in town he had nearly been robbed, beaten and killed, and of his own choice he would never return. However, their journey was going to take them far to the south and they would need the food and bed rolls if they were to make it.

Legolas caught up with his friend and grabbed the man by the arm, slowing him down. "Strider, I'm sorry, we were only teasing you." The elf shrugged into the worn overcoat and pulled the hood up around his head to show his compliance. "I did not mean to anger you."

The ranger allowed himself to be stopped and watched as his friend fiddled with the buttons on the jacket, his frustration slowly ebbing. "Here, let me." Aragorn stepped forward and lightly brushed the princes' hands away. "It's all right Legolas, I think I am just tired and I hate Adirolf about as much as I hate orcs. It's an unpleasant town full of thieves, thugs and bandits, but we have no choice. The bartender there is helpful to the Dunèdain at least, we can get what we need from him."

"I understand." Legolas tried to stifle a laugh as Aragorn tucked stray locks of the elf's blonde hair behind his ears, concealing them in the dark hood.

"What?" Aragorn glared at the elf.

"Well, it's just that no one has dressed me since I was very young." A small smiled crept onto his face. The man in front of him simply stared down the elf until the prince stopped laughing. Normally Aragorn would have joined his friend, but he was too tired and too worried for humor.

"If they find out you are an elf they will not let you be. In all likelihood you will be detained... and worse. Much worse. They have no love of outsiders and have never befriended Rivendell or any who come from thence. I would not see you beaten like Mora, or like what happened with Taradin and his men before they knew you, and that is exactly what will happen if these people discover who you are. Do you see why I am so adamant about this? It's not funny." Aragorn spoke quietly, his weariness showing through.

Legolas easily slipped out of the coat and handed it back to the confused human. He drew the man aside, deeper into the forest and pushed the ranger down on a bed of pine needles. "Sleep." The elf stared hard into Aragorn's eyes, "You are weary, you are wounded and that is nasty combination in a human." When Strider started to protest, Legolas sat down cross-legged next to him, "I mean it. We can go tomorrow, we'll be there by dusk. You need the rest. It is not wise of us to travel into a hostile town with you so overly tired."

Aragorn didn't protest, it was true enough - the elf knew him well. He hated the weakness and the delay but one more day wouldn't hurt.

"Trelan and Raniean will be fine. They'll keep camp while we are gone and tomorrow, knowing them, they will steal to the outskirts of the city and wait for us there." Legolas removed his bow and quiver, laying the weapon in his lap and the quiver within reach, near his left leg.

Aragorn unslung his pack, the only item to have survived the orc attack, and laid his head down on it, stretching out underneath his overcoat and staring at the elf. "I'm sorry Legolas."

The elf smiled slightly and reached out towards the man, covering the human's face with his slender hand, "Go to sleep. I hate it when you are tired, you become quite grumpy."

The man laughed slightly and relaxed, leaving his eyes closed. He trusted the elf to watch over him through the night. "Wake me before dawn."

"Of course Strider." Legolas answered softly, watching as the man's breathing slowed and evened out as he quickly fell asleep.


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~*PART TWO*~

"Estel." A soft voice intruded on his sleep and Aragorn resisted the urge to ignore it.

"Strider, wake up, it is nearly dawn." Legolas gently shook the sleeping human.

Bleary silver eyes opened and gazed dully at him for a few seconds.

"Are you awake?" Legolas whispered.

"No." Aragorn answered softly, "I've taken to sleeping with my eyes open."

Legolas smirked at the human and pushed him gently over, "Get up. Let us be off."

It took all day to walk to the outskirts of Adirolf. The sun was just barely tipping the trees in flaming red as they entered the town and headed for the inn. The merchants were closed for the night, but the inn keeper always held a good stock of supplies that could be purchased by late night stragglers, rangers and the like who didn't especially mind paying the extra tacked on for his services. Aragorn felt it was well worth the price if they could get what they needed and be gone before first light.

Legolas walked a step behind the ranger, allowing the human to take the lead. He wore Aragorn's overcoat, the hood pulled down deeply over his face, hiding his hair and fair features.

"We'll go to the inn. We can get what we need there." The streets were deserted by this time of night and the occupants that were still awake quietly closed their shutters as the two strangers passed up the middle of the town.

"Friendly bunch." Legolas muttered softly as he glanced towards a hovel, the owner, glaring at the foreigners, quickly snapped his windows closed.

"I told you." Aragorn sighed and motioned up the street, "The inn will be better. Just stay close."

The warm lights of the tavern flooded the dirt street in front of the inn. Raucous laughter spilled out onto the night air and the smells of men crowded into too small of a space reached out to the elf, causing Legolas to wrinkle his nose. "Nice, Strider."

The ranger laughed softly as he pushed the door in, "Just let me do the talking." As he passed through the entry his demeanor changed. Legolas found it curious to watch the human as he blended in perfectly with his surroundings. Aragorn glared at the patrons, his lips set straight, his eyes half hooded. His whole countenance brokered no curiosity and surprisingly the others in the room kept their distance. He walked slowly up to the bar and raised his eyes to stare at the bar keeper.

"What can I get you?" The burly man leaned on the wooden shelf and nodded at the two travelers.

"We need supplies." Aragorn's tone was short, clipped and completely business.

"There's an extra charge."

"I know." The ranger held the man's gaze.

"Fair enough." The owner stood up, his eyes softening a bit, "Name's Rixin, what can I get you?"

Strider began to give the man a list of items they would need. Legolas tuned the conversation out and turned around, casually leaning his back against the edge of the bar. He eyed the mix of humans in the tavern, his bright eyes concealed by the hood he still wore. It interested him. He had never been inside such a place in all his life. The sounds and smells were crude but the overall feeling was of a place where one could get lost if they had a mind to and where no one would care who you were or what became of you. It interested him.

"Four blankets?" The bar tender was questioning Aragorn and Legolas looked back at his friend.

"Four." The ranger restated, "You never know when you'll need extra." He added by way of explanation. His eyes met the hooded blue ones of his friend and he smiled slightly.

"Alright." Rixin, looked at the list of items he had scratched out. "It'll take a few minutes to round this up. I'll have Maree fetch them for you. Why don't you and your friend take a seat. Can I get you anything while you wait?"

Aragorn nodded, "Well have two of the house brew."

The hooded figure glanced sharply at the ranger. Aragorn was sure Legolas was frowning at him but he simply pushed away from the bar and walked to the far corner of the room, settling himself into a chair near the back. He propped his boots on an empty stool and watched the room intently. Legolas dropped lightly down beside him.

"The house brew?" The disdain in the elf's voice caused the ranger to smile.

"It might be good." Aragorn shrugged.

Rixin stepped up near the table, "Two house brews. You gentlemen let me know if you need anything else." He walked away, shoving an inebriated patron out of his path. The man stumbled and fell, crashing to the ground, asleep before he hit. The men nearest him laughed at their friend.

"Nice." Legolas picked up the mug of ale and smelled it, "Such a pleasant establishment, I can see why you like these places."

"Funny." Aragorn mumbled, "We'll be out of here soon. Drink your ale."

The elf tasted the amber liquid. It was smooth and warmed him as he swallowed it. He nodded slowly and took a bigger drink. "It is good."

When Aragorn didn't answer, Legolas glanced at the man. "Strider?" The ranger was intently watching a table off to their right. Several patrons had gathered around and were listening to a couple of nearly drunk men brag. Aragorn leaned back in his chair, tipping the seat onto its back legs and shifted closer to Legolas.

"Listen to their conversation. That one there on the left, in the green tunic, he says they have a map that leads to some treasure of the ancient world... one of the lost seeing stones I think. I only heard snatches of their talk but I could swear that's what he said." Aragorn whispered the words to his companion.

For a moment Legolas didn't follow his friend's meaning, then he realized the significance. "A palantir?" Legolas turned his sharp hearing towards the hushed conversation. That was strange talk indeed for such a place as this. At first glance the elf would have wagered that none of the men in this room had enough wit to even comprehend what the lost seeing stones of Nùmenor were, much less claim to have any knowledge of them.

"Yes. What do you make of it?" Strider glanced at him.

For several minutes the elf sat silently and listened to the talk at the table adjacent from them; his shadowed eyes memorizing their faces. Aragorn sipped from his mug and pretended not to notice, refraining from asking any of the thousands of questions screaming in his mind. Elrond had told him vague stories of the palantiri. Originally he said, there had been seven, but of those it was thought that few, perhaps only two or three remained. If the tale he had overheard snatches of was true and someone had discovered the whereabouts one of the seeing stones of the ancient Kings, lost so many years ago and now nearly forgotten, Aragorn was determined to find it before they did. No one knew exactly who they had fallen to now or where they lay hid, and such knowledge could be dangerous in the wrong hands. He wished he knew where Gandalf were.

"Legolas?" The ranger whispered softly.

The elf held up his hand, quieting the human for a few more minutes until the table of men broke up.

"You always were a bag of wind Glecyn!" One of the men pushed out of the group, shaking his head, "Where do you find these tales?" A few others followed, voicing their disbelief as well. "Treasure maps, crystal balls... you're cracked!"

"It's true I tell you!" A dark haired man shouted after them, "And it's gotta be worth a fortune to someone! We'll be rich and you'll be sorry you didn't believe us then."

"Sit down Rigo, let them go." The man named Glecyn pulled his dark haired partner back down into an empty seat. "Less for us to have to share."

As Aragorn watched the group disband, his attention was drawn to a table next to where the two braggarts were sitting; now quietly talking back and forth. Three men sat at the far table, intently watching Rigo and Glecyn. In all truth half the room was watching the two inebriated patrons after the loud outburst that had ended in the taunting and joking at the expense of the partners. But the demeanor of the men that Aragorn had his eyes on was unsettling. Their gaze did not shift away after the commotion had died down and they did not converse amongst themselves nor drink from the mugs before them. It was as though Rigo and Glecyn held their rapt attention.

Legolas noticed them also and glanced at Aragorn out of the corner of his eyes, "They will be trouble. They have no good intentions I fear."

"I agree." Aragorn took a swig of ale and turned towards his friend as Rigo and Glecyn walked past their table, heading for the door. "What did you overhear?"

The elf did not answer outright but motioned with his head towards the three men. They had gained their feet and were following the others out, paying the bar tender quickly and leaving the establishment on the heels of what seemed to be their prey.

"Tell me Legolas, what did you hear?" Aragorn watched as they left, his eyes still locked on the men as he questioned his friend.

"You were right." The prince leaned forward and moved slightly closer to the ranger, "They do indeed claim to have a map that leads to a secret chamber that holds one of the missing palanitri. Which one, I do not know."

Aragorn turned his full attention on the elf.

"The one named Rigo was bragging of stealing the map from a poor farmer along their way here to Adirolf. They performed some task for the old man and he could not pay so he offered them the map in return for their service, said it was worth something and supposedly led to treasure. It seems they couldn't read the writing but somehow they are assuming that it does indeed speak of a palantir, although they do not know that name and regard it only as some kind of mystic crystal ball. I am not convinced they really even know what the seeing stones are, except by uncertain legend. However, by what means and to what end they have decided and discerned all this I know not."

The two sat in silence for several moments.

"Shall we go after them?" Legolas questioned softly, "It could be nothing but the rambling ignorance of drunkards, but if it truly is a palantir..." He let the implications hang in the air between them.

"I know. I just..." Aragorn's response was cut off as a red haired, slightly overweight woman approached their table.

"You the ones that ordered all them supplies?" She asked cheerfully. When they nodded she pointed over her shoulder with her thumb, "Then they's over there waiting for you. Just pay Rixin on the way out. Hope I remembered everything for you." Without waiting she turned and walked off to the back of the bar and left through the pantry door.

Aragorn smiled and chuckled lightly, "I think that was Maree." He glanced back at the elf and sobered immediately as their former conversation floated back to him.

"We should find out if its true, Strider." Legolas eyed him anxiously. The thought of a palantir in the hands of men like that bothered him deeply. The seeing stones were not toys or things to be bartered by the ignorant. They were royal heirlooms made by the Noldor, maybe even by Fëanor himself in ages long forgotten, and were part of the high, elder days that seemed to be fading ever farther and farther from the memory of Middle Earth.

The ranger nodded slowly and stood to his feet, "Let's go collect our things and see if our friends aren't nearby. They were too drunk to have gotten very far."

It was only a matter of moments before Aragorn had paid the bartender and he and Legolas divided the supplies between them, strapping them in packs upon their backs.

The night air had chilled and the full moon rode high in the darkened sky. As they stepped into the muddied dirt street Aragorn stopped and stared up the alley. The bar door closed behind them and they were able to better see that a group of men had gathered not far away, a small struggle was ensuing but who the combatants were they were unable to tell.

A short, sharp cry pierced the night and one of the men dropped to the ground and did not rise, his blood mingled with the pooled water beneath him, turning the street a darker shade of black.

"Glecyn!" the scream caused the ranger to jump and glance at Legolas. They had no time to react as a dark shape broke from the huddle of men and staggered up the street towards them, the others running to catch up with their prey.

The man raced by Aragorn and crashed into Legolas. His tunic was stained with blood and his eyes were glazed and haunted. He grasped the elf, trying to right himself but his body was failing from the fatal wound he had sustained; it was Rigo.

His attackers approached the ranger more slowly, wary of the strangers.

"I'm sorry." Rigo whispered in Legolas ear, as he pressed his head near the elf's hooded face. He quickly thrust his hand into the prince's quiver before his life fled him and his body fell limply against the elf.

Legolas lowered the man slowly to the ground. The front of Aragorn's overcoat that the elf still wore was stained with the man's blood and the elf turned to the human in confusion as he slowly rose back to his feet. He would never get used to death or the swiftness heedlessness with which mortals inflicted it upon one another.

"Who are you?" One of the men questioned Aragorn as he brushed by the ranger and knelt next to the dead body, rifling through the man's pockets. "It's not here either." He turned and spoke to the men who had followed him.

"Were these men with you?" the ranger answered by way of a question. He reached casually behind him and dragged the prince with him as he attempted to walk past the small group that was slowly trying to stop up their exit, effectively blocking them into the ally.

"I asked you a question." The same dark haired man spoke. His voice was quieter and held a harder edge than before as he stood to his feet and walked back in front of the ranger.

"We've only stopped for supplies. We don't know your business and we don't care. We'll be leaving now." Aragorn's voice hardened to match that of the other man.

"I don't think so." The glint of a dagger caught the ranger's eye and he stiffened imperceptibly.

"What is it you want?" He asked the man directly in front of him who had unsheathed his knife.

"Just give us the map and we'll let you leave," The man said with quiet menace.

Aragorn was confused; he glanced back at the dead man behind them and frowned at the men blocking his path. "I don't know what you are talking about. We just left the tavern. We don't even know these men." He indicated the still bodies in the street.

"Paxcyn, maybe they don't know." The assailant who originally questioned them addressed the leader of the small group.

"That one does." Paxcyn raised his hand, pointing the tip of the dagger he held at Legolas' heart. "That fool drunk gave it to him before he died."

Aragorn glanced over his shoulder at Legolas. The elf shook his head slightly. Rigo had given him nothing that he knew of.

"What, you don't talk?" A man near the elf spoke up.

"Shut up Deollyn." Paxcyn barked at the man. He turned his attention on Legolas, "Just give it to us and we'll give you no more trouble."

Legolas glanced at Aragorn, unwilling to reveal his identity by speaking but slowly loosing his patience with these men who had mistaken him for the map holder.

"He doesn't have whatever you're looking for. I suggest you take a second look at the two men you killed. Perhaps in your haste, you killed them too quickly." Aragorn replied evenly.

Deollyn leapt forward and grabbed Legolas' hood, jerking it back, "What are you? Some kind of a..." The man's voice faltered as the elf's blonde hair fell around his shoulders and he stuttered in shock, "a... an elf?"

"It's a blasted elf!" Another man muttered incredulously.

"What kind of a human keeps company with elves?" Paxcyn's dagger scraped the underside of Aragorn's chin. "Do you know what we do to their kind that comes sneaking in here?"

Aragorn breathed out slowly and balanced his weight; tensing his muscles, he waited until Paxcyn glanced back at Legolas. In one swift move the ranger stepped closer to the large man, grabbing his arm and twisting the dagger out of his hand. He used his attacker's weight against him and slung the man around in front of him, holding the dagger beneath Paxcyn's throat.

Paxcyn's men scattered outward, thrown off by the suddenness of the ranger's movements. It took them only seconds to recover from their initial shock. Deollyn pulled his sword from its scabbard and pointed it at Legolas.

"Release him." Deollyn growled at the ranger, "Or I will split your pretty friend in two."

"I think not." Strider's voice was low and the smile he turned on the man was anything but friendly. "We are leaving now. Whatever you are looking for I suggest you take it up with your dead friends." He began to back slowly away from the group, dragging Paxcyn with him.

"You'll regret this." Paxcyn growled at him.

"Meeting you?" Aragorn jerked his arm more tightly about the man's throat, "I already do." The ranger glanced at the elf and switched to the grey tongue, calling his friend to follow him, "Come on Legolas."

"No." Deollyn advanced on the prince, who was standing perfectly still, gazing intently out into the forests. "This one knows something." The man took another step towards the elf and flicked the tip of his sword against the side of the prince's face, cutting a fine crimson line across the elf's cheek bone. Legolas flinched at the unexpected action and jerked away.

"Don't you little elf?" Deollyn stepped even closer, but was stopped abruptly as arrows whistled through the air, appearing seemingly out of nowhere and embedding themselves into the dirt around the man's feet.

Legolas raised one fair eyebrow and glanced at Deollyn, "I believe I will be going with the ranger." He glared at the man in front of him, thoroughly irritated with the human as he slowly wiped the blood from his cheek with the sleeve of the overcoat, his eyes flashing.

"I'd let him go if I were you." Strider called back.

"Deollyn. Let it go." Paxcyn glanced over his shoulder at the ranger, "We'll catch up with them later."

Legolas stepped lightly around the man and walked past Aragorn.

"Smart man." The ranger spoke quietly to Paxcyn. He shoved the fellow forward and walked slowly backwards a few steps before turning around and joining Legolas.

An arrow streaked past Aragorn's head, landing with a soft, warning thunk in the dirt behind them, staving off any thought of attack by Paxcyn and his men as the ranger and the elf quickly left town, disappearing into the edge of the forest.


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


"What was that all about?" Trelan asked, wide-eyed as he helped Legolas set down the pack the elf was carrying.

"They think we have something those two dead men claimed to have found." Legolas frowned at Aragorn, "That was close."

Aragorn shucked his pack off and set it on a fallen log, swiping long strands of hair out of his eyes, "Too close." He glanced back down into the valley the town was set into, intently watching for any movement, "I don't think we've seen the last of our friends either."

The human turned a brilliant smile on the two warrior elves, "That was perfect timing for the two of you. I wasn't sure how we were going to get out of that one." With a sigh he glanced at Legolas.

"We followed you to the edge of town and waited, we thought you might need an extra hand." Raniean laughed as he divided up the provisions they had purchased. He tossed a bed roll to Trelan, the soft blanket smacked the elf in the head and he glared at his friend, much to the amusement of Aragorn.

"Oh sure, go ahead and laugh." Trelan retrieved the roll from the forest floor, "I'll get you back." He smirked at Aragorn before turning to Raniean and growling, "And you too my friend."

"Aragorn." Legolas whispered his friend's name. He was crouched on the ground, reorganizing the supplies in his pack and had dumped his quiver out on the earth. The arrows lay skewed on the grass as he smoothed out a rumpled piece of old, yellowed paper. He knew for certain that it had not been there before.

The ranger turned at the sound of his name and sobered immediately when he saw what Legolas held. He knelt beside the elf and unfolded the corner nearest him. The map shimmered softly in the faint light; the words reflected the moons glow and seemed to come alive as they held it out between them.

"Is this what I think it is?" Aragorn asked quietly, glancing at his friend.

"Yes. It was in my quiver. Rigo must have dropped it in there before he died." Legolas stared at the runes on the map, "I can only read parts of it. This is no ordinary writing, see how it glows." He brushed his fingers lightly over the glowing letters. "It is some form of moon writing. This is elvish, but these... these words here are not. I do not know what they are."

"Is it what we thought?" Aragorn pressed his forefinger against the silver lettering.

"It is indeed a map to a hidden palantir. Or so it claims to be, although I have no recollection of a city where it indicates the location of the seeing stone." Legolas moved the human's hand away gently, indicating the words beneath his fingertips, "This word here, is elvish for 'seeing stone' and these, he ran his fingers under the delicate sentences inscribed on the edges of the map, "These are the tale of why the stone was concealed, but some of the words have been worn off." He indicated the ratted edges of the old map.

"What have you there?" Raniean knelt down on the other side of Legolas and stared at the intricate pictures depicting part of Middle Earth."

"Why that's a map!" Trelan leaned over Raniean and glanced at the paper.

"Good thing we have you along Trelan, we never would have guessed." Raniean glanced over his shoulder at the smaller elf and answered sarcastically.

The short warrior gave his friend a good shove, pitching the elf forward.

"Stop it you two." Legolas glanced at Aragorn, "This is serious."

The ranger nodded and pressed closer to his friend, trying to see the map better. "Is that not the Gap of Rohan, there below where the seeing stone is said to be located?" Legolas nodded once in answer.

"That lies on our path. We need to go see if its still there. It is not a price for treasure hunters; we can't let it fall into the wrong hands." Aragorn shook his head, unconsciously resting his hand on his sword-hilt.

"Agreed." Legolas quickly collected his arrows and replaced them in his quiver. "Ran, go watch our backs. Those men will be after us, they were right, we do have the map and we are safe here no longer."

"My lord," Raniean hesitated, "Should we not get this information to someone better suited to handling one of the stones when it is found?"

"Ran, has a point." Aragorn interjected, "We need to get word back to my father and yours of the detour we will be taking and perhaps my father can find Gandalf. We could use his expertise in this matter. There is much about the palantiri that has been forgotten..." the young human looked thoughtful. "I wish I had paid more attention when Elrond spoke of them."

"If you should meet up with those men from the town you will need our help." Trelan didn't like the thought of leaving them alone.

"We'll be fine." Aragorn replied absently as he lightened the supplies he carried, shifting the pack onto his back.

"Oh yes, I'll be fine, I have Strider." Legolas glanced out of the corner of his eye at the ranger, trying to hide his smile as the human started and glared at him.

Trelan and Raniean however could not contain their mirth quite as well and they burst out laughing.

"Hey!" Aragorn slung his bow over his shoulder and stood to his feet, challenging the elves.

"Estel, I am only teasing." Legolas refolded the map and slipped it into an inner pocket on his tunic, "It is a good idea to let our fathers know. Heaven knows mine is going to have my head anyway, no need to make it worse by being even later without sending word. And I would feel much better if Mithrandir were here also. His wisdom and knowledge would be a great asset."

"I say we make for Moria. When we were last there Balin said his people had control of both gates, so there must be an outpost on this side of the mountain as well. We can stop there for more supplies." Aragorn glanced back into the valley. Dim shadows caught his attention.

"I would feel better if we accompanied you. I do not like this splitting up, Trelan is right." Raniean rested his hand on Legolas' shoulder and stared hard at the prince, letting his gaze linger meaningfully on the thin cut across Legolas' cheekbone.

"I understand your hesitation, and I would rather have your company, but this is important. A palantir is no small thing to fall into the wrong hands." The prince glanced at the smaller warrior, "Trelan, go, warn Rivendell and ask Lord Elrond to send for Mithrandir if he can find him." Legolas turned back to Raniean and wrapped his hand around the warrior's foreman, "Ran, please, head with all speed to my father's and inform him of my delay..." Legolas resisted the slight wave of regret that tugged at him. Further prolongation of his return to Mirkwood was going to do nothing but irritate whatever problems might result between himself and his father over his long absence and tardy response to his father's summons. But it couldn't be helped. This was important and could not be put aside. His father would just have to wait a little longer. "Let him know the seriousness of the situation. Strider and I will do our best to retrieve the seeing stone and return it somewhere safe. We will make for Mirkwood as soon as we have it."

"As wish you my lord." Trelan answered as he readjusted his pack, he glanced at Raniean and the warrior nodded his head.

"We will go back toward Rivendell and I can take the northern pass, it will be quicker and we will be safer together until Trelan reaches Lord Elrond." Raniean addressed the prince.

"Go swiftly and may the Valar watch over your path." Legolas bid his friends farewell.

Without a glance backwards the two warriors silently raced off through the darkened woods, back the way they had come.

Legolas walked to the edge of the cliff and followed Aragorn's gaze down into the valley.

"They are coming." The human whispered.

Several dark shapes rode out of town on horses, heading up towards the hills in the direction of the two friends.

"Trelan and Raniean are away. We should be as well." Legolas left the cliff and darted back into the forest, "Come Aragorn, we'll head for Moria. We will find safety there."


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


Two days passed without event and the ranger and elf made the most of them. Aragorn and Legolas covered the distance before them swiftly, and since they knew they were being hunted they took even greater care to leave no tracks, no trace for Paxcyn and his men to follow. They were drawing very near to the west entrance of Moria now. Neither of them knew exactly where it lay, but they remembered Balin telling them that he and his folk had re-opened both the east and the west gate, and from what they could recall having heard of it's general location, they knew they must be getting close now, although their actually finding it was going to depend a lot more on chance than either of them liked.

Neither of them really relished the idea of going into the mines again, even if they could find the doors, but they knew that it was the only place between here and Rohan that they were sure to be able to re-supply without their presence being given away to those they wished to avoid, and the gap of Rohan was still a long distance off.

When the third day dawned with still no sight nor sign of the men who had pursued them, the two friends felt fairly confident that they had given Paxcyn and his mercenaries the slip.

Legolas, as usual, was up before the dawn. The previous night they had made camp in a large, sprawling strand of woods that crossed their path. Legolas felt fairly certain that beyond the forest they would be able to see the mountain walls close at hand, and hopefully some sign that they were going in the right direction to find what they sought.

It had been too dark last night by the time they stopped for even the prince's keen eyes to see anything, but now he wished to take a look in the daylight.

Silently, Legolas left Aragorn still sleeping and made his way quickly through the quiet woods. Last night they had passed a particularly tall pine that seemed to be higher than the other trees. If he could get up into the top of it, the elf knew he should have a good view of the surrounding area and a better idea of where they were and what direction they should take from here.

Finding the tree without difficulty, Legolas shimmied easily up the long, bare trunk until he could reach the first of the lowest branches and worked from there. It took the elf several minutes to make his way to the top, but the climb was well rewarded. Just as he had suspected, the pine was the tallest thing in the immediate area, and the prince's keen elven eyes were able to see for miles in every direction. The woods stretched out under him to the right and the left, unbroken and rolling, obscuring sight of all that happened beneath their branches. Behind him he could see the direction in which they had come, but Adirolf was now much too far behind them for even his vision. Ahead of them and slightly to the right, the grey, craggy face of the mountains rose up steeply in the not-so-far-off distance.

A stream separated the woods from the rock face, but Legolas was gratified to see what looked like a huge doorway, standing partially open in the face of a sheer cliff some distance off. A shallow pool lay near the gates and the newly rising sun glinted dully on its waters. Unless he was greatly mistaken, those had to be the western gates of Moria; there was no other purpose for such an entryway into solid rock.

Legolas descended the tree quickly, satisfied with the result of the expedition. Leaping lightly to the ground from the lowest branch, some twenty feet in the air, the elf landed cat-like on his feet, letting his knees bend to absorb the impact with the soft, springy earth.

Suddenly, a swift, sharp blow to the base of his skull sent him lurching forward, off balance. At the same moment an arm snaked around his neck from behind, pulling him back, and he felt the sharp, rough bite of a dagger against his throat. A second arm wrapped around his chest, pulling the elf back tightly against the one who held him.

For an instant Legolas struggled against his captor, but a sharp tug on the knife under his chin put a stop to that. The rough blade dug into his flesh and the man holding him was not being gentle nor careful.

"Now, now, none of that little elf, none of that," a familiar voice hissed in his ear. It was Paxcyn.


___________________________________________________________

~*PART THREE*~

Several other men were coming out of the trees now and Legolas recognized Deollyn and a few of the others from the alley in Adirolf several nights past. The elf regarded them with surprise and dismay. It was one of the few times in his life that he had been taken completely by surprise and he could not imagine how in the world these humans had been able to sneak up on him without his noticing their approach. True, he had been high up in the tree and all but oblivious to what was happening at its base, since his attention was flung outward towards the path ahead, but still... And by what wizardry or ill chance had they been able to actually find he and Aragorn when they had been so careful? Something was wrong here. Very wrong, but Legolas was given no time to think about it.

"The tables are turned now aren't they?" Paxcyn observed somewhat darkly, still angry over the slip these two had given him upon their last encounter. "You're not going to waltz out of this so easy."

"What do you want with us?" Legolas demanded coldly, although he knew full well. "We have done you no wrong that I know of. Release me."

"Oh no. You've led us a merry chase, but it ends here," Deollyn cut into the conversation.

"We want what's ours and you have it," Paxcyn said with sharp-edged firmness, his breath hot against the side of his captive's face. "We know you have the map and we'll take it, or your life."

Legolas did not like the man's proximity to him and tried to turn away. In response, one of the men punched him in the stomach quite unexpectedly.

The prince doubled forward, jerking painfully against the knife at his throat.

Paxcyn yanked him upright again, this time twisting Legolas' arm behind his back as well. "Where is the map?"

Legolas did not reply. It did no good to deny their having it, and leading these men back to Aragorn was not an option. So he kept his peace and said nothing.

"What's the matter freak? Can't talk for yourself when your friend isn't around?" Deollyn sneered at Legolas' silence. Pulling his own knife he ran the edge lightly around the back of Legolas' left ear, pausing by the base of the graceful point that it tapered into, unique to elves.

"You know," he remarked to Paxcyn. "With a few changes he wouldn't look so different from us..." his thumb tightened on the top of Legolas' ear, pushing it back against the blade behind it.

Several of the men chuckled and a chill that he could not help ran up Legolas' spine. He twisted against the arms that held him, but he was pinned quite firmly and couldn't get anywhere near his weapons, or break the hold that trapped him.

"So tell me," Deollyn whispered with a twisted smile, his face a few inches from that of the prince. "Do elves bleed red? Let's find out."

His fingers tightened, and he meant to cut the tips off the elf's ears, but he never got the chance.

"Move one more inch and we'll see the color of *your* blood!" a hard, angry voice warned loudly and an arrow snapped into the tree by Deollyn's head. The men immediately turned towards where the arrow had come from. The sun had only just begun to rise and it was hard for their eyes to pierce the shadow of the trees in the direction from which the shot had originated.

This worked to Aragorn's advantage as he swiftly and quietly circled around, now that they were all looking one direction, and snuck up behind them. Before Paxcyn knew what hit him, Aragorn clubbed him with the handle of his sword, causing the big man to stumble forward and release his hold on Legolas.

The elf wasted no time in putting his newfound freedom to good use. Dodging those that would wish to retake him, he reached Aragorn's side swiftly.

By now Paxcyn had recovered and Deollyn and the others had swung around to face the new threat. They were quickly overcoming their surprise and deadly intent was in their eyes.

Neither the ranger nor the elf had any wish to linger any longer. Turning, the two friends darted away into the trees. Aragorn started to angle to the left, but Legolas stopped him, turning them onto a different course. "I saw the gates Strider, they're this way!" he explained briefly.

Aragorn had no breath to spare and simply nodded, following his friend's lead. Turning and darting between the trees, the young ranger glanced over his shoulder and saw that Paxcyn and his friends had produced horses from wherever they were hidden and were now riding down on them with alarmingly swiftly speed.

The forest aided them because it slowed the horses, who could not navigate the narrow zig-zags between the trees as easily as the two on foot could, and the swaying branches and thick trunks blocked any attempt at clear arrow shots. However, as they sped towards the end of the wood Legolas worried about the open plain he had seen beyond. The horses of their pursuers would eat that open distance up like wildfire. But there was nothing else for it.

"Quickly Aragorn!" Legolas ran ahead of the ranger, leaving the safety of the forests behind. He crossed the stream that fed the small lake in front the westernmost door of Moria and ran for the stone fortress. The great doors stood ajar and one would not have known from looking at them open, that they sealed without a trace when closed.

Aragorn fled from their pursuers, his progress only slightly slower than the elf's. It was all the advantage Paxcyn needed. He spurred his horse on, gaining the ranger as the man crossed the riverbed.

Paxcyn slipped his boot out of the stirrup and brought the metal rung down hard across the back of Aragorn's head as he passed the man, throwing him hard into the river.

Legolas turned when he heard his friend cry out. He saw Strider fall and try to rise. The ranger staggered, as the world spun around him and he dropped to his knees.

Deollyn sped out of the cover of the forest, following his captain. Seeing the downed man he aimed his steed for the ranger, jumping out of the saddle when he had reached the wounded man. Deollyn landed on Aragorn's back and pressed the ranger's face into the water, holding him down.

Strider thrashed wildly, trying to throw his attacker off, but the blow to his head left him near blacking out. His lungs screamed for air as he tried to push himself up beneath the strong arms that held him down. Blackness pulled at his consciousness and his fighting stilled as his body gave way and water filled his lungs.

Deollyn shoved the man down hard once more, slamming the ranger's face into the river rocks as he felt Aragorn go limp beneath him, a cruel smile decorated his face - for mere moments.

A projectile hit Deollyn squarely in the chest and he was surprised when he looked down to see an elven arrow protruding from his heart. He was dead before he fell back into the stream, the current gently tugging his body away from where the ranger's floated, face down and unmoving.

Drawn by the shouting and clamor close at hand, a short, stout dwarf with a red beard stepped out of the doorway to see what the commotion was. A small grouping of dwarves had gathered and were animatedly watching something on the opposite side of the small lake that pooled in front of Moria's back door. Rorin pushed his way past a few of them for a better view.

"Hey now, what is going on here?" The rotund dwarf squinted into the noonday sun and watched a lithe blonde figure run across the rocky plateau, shouting at men on horses. He was even more surprised to see the being stop and turn back towards the doorway, calling his own name. Frowning at the person, Rorin stepped farther away, walking slowly around the lake. Dawning recognition lit his face with shock and he turned to the dwarves behind him yelling, "Come on men! That there's Legolas the elf! He's in trouble!"

The dwarves rushed from the mine and spilled onto the plateau, their axes and swords at the ready.

Paxcyn heard the war shout and turned to see the smaller beings heading for he and his men. The horesmen had nearly encircled the elf and were trying to take the prince by force. However, with this new threat, Paxcyn knew they would be sorely outnumbered. Calling to his men he headed back into the woods, pointing the tip of his sword at the elf as a warning. Legolas however was too intent on getting to Strider and did not even note the intended threat.

Aragorn had not risen from where he had fallen and Paxcyn's raiders had delayed Legolas in coming to his aide. The prince heard the dwarves rushing up behind him, but paid them no heed. Stumbling into the waist-high water he quickly grasped Aragorn by his overcoat, turning the human onto his back, and drug him back to shore.

The ranger wasn't breathing as the elf dropped down next to him. Rorin ran up to Legolas and stared down at the human. It had been almost a year since he last saw the ranger and the elf, but now was not the time for surprise or greetings. Aragorn's face was pale and his lips were lightly tinged an alarming shade of blue.

"How long?" The dwarf knelt next to the prince and immediately began feeling for the ranger's pulse. "How long has he been with out air!?" He shouted again when Legolas did not answer him right away.

The elf was breathing hard and his fear choked off his words. "Minutes." He glanced at the dwarf, "Minutes only."

Blood ran across Aragorn's forehead where Deollyn had smashed his face down against the rocks. It pooled in the water that dripped from his hair. At least Aragorn was not just yet treading the misty halls of waiting, for dead men do not bleed, but he was out of time.

Rorin brushed the elf out of the way and stood over the still body of the human. He placed his hands atop one another, interlacing his fingers and forcefully pressed them against Aragorn's sternum. The man convulsed under the pressure with no results. Rorin repeated the move several more times before the ranger began to cough up water.

"On his side!" Rorin stepped away from the human and instructed the prince, "Turn him on his side, help him to breathe, quickly."

Legolas swiftly eased Aragorn over onto his side, holding the man in place. He gently brushed wayward strands of hair from the ranger's face as Aragorn coughed the water out of his lungs and took ragged, labored breaths, not quite conscious yet.

"That's it Strider, breathe." Legolas spoke quietly in elvish, rubbing the man's back while he calmed his body. A shaking wet hand gripped the elf's and Legolas eased the human onto his back, pulling the ranger against him and allowing Aragorn to rest in his arms.

"You scared me." Legolas whispered.

"I scared myself." Aragorn stuttered through the shivers that wracked his body.

Rorin dropped down in front of him and leaned in close to the man, "Welcome back Strider." He smiled broadly as the ranger looked up at him.

"Rorin." Aragorn smiled into the round face, "Good to see you." He clasped the dwarf's shoulder.

"What say you come inside and we have a look at those wounds of yours?" Rorin poked his finger ungently against the cut on Aragorn's head causing the man to wince and pull back.

He could feel Legolas' hand against the back of his head where Paxcyn had hit him with stirrup.

"Good Master dwarf! I'll thank you not to torment Strider anymore." The elf glowered at the smaller being as Aragorn flinched away from his touch. "The manners of dwarves leave a lot to be desired."

"As do the opinions of elves." Rorin stood and crossed his hands over his chest glaring back at the prince. "Say... weren't you dying when you left here last?" the dwarf crinkled his bushy eyebrows in recollection.

"Sorry to disappoint you," Legolas retorted dryly.

"Enough, you two." Aragorn pressed himself up, trying to gain his footing only to fall back against Legolas who had risen with him. "Let's just go inside shall we?" He glanced carefully over his shoulder into the woods looking for their attackers.

"Are they gone?" He questioned Legolas.

"For now." The elf followed his gaze over the heads of the dwarves that encircled them. Gently he led the human inside the walls of Moria.


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


Legolas elbowed the human seated next to him at the large round table. Balin was entertaining his men, regaling them with a tale of the old days. For the comfort of their guests, the dwarves had taken them to a guard tower some distance up the mountain, above and slightly to the east of the gates.

Legolas of course had never been fond of caves, but now Aragorn had discovered that he could not enter the deep, darkness of Moria, even lighted as it was by the presence of the dwarves, without an upwelling of dark and evil memories. The result of his last trip here had been anything but good, yet it was more than that that disturbed the ranger, although he did not know it. There was evil stirring again in Moria, if indeed it had ever really slept. Balin and his dwarves had claimed the vast realm as theirs, but the old terrors that held it were not about to let go so easily. Yet Aragorn and Legolas realized not what it was that they sensed, and thought only that the evil memory of their last trip made the mines an unwelcoming place.

At any rate, Balin had quickly seen their discomfort, especially Aragorn's since he was already ill and off his strength from his near death experience, and ordered that accommodations be made here in the upper guard house.

Balin was still talking. He had drifted away from tales of the elder days of Durin's folk and was in the middle of one of reliving one of his own adventures now. In truth, it was an interesting story, but Legolas was not paying a great deal of attention.

At his side, Aragorn's head was beginning to nod, unnoticed by the dwarves as Balin gave a greatly embellished account of how he and his companions had mistakenly camped in the doorway of a Goblin hole in the Misty Mountains many, many years ago.

"Stay awake Estel." The prince whispered in elvish.

Aragorn groaned softly and touched the back of his head. It was throbbing and he ached. He had declined the food that was brought to them as nausea had settled into his stomach after his wounds had been seen to. His head was swathed in a bandage that wrapped around it, binding up the cut to the front and a nasty gash in the back from Paxcyn's stirrup. Legolas had been incensed when he saw the ugly cut but there was nothing he could do save let the dwarf healers tend his friend.

Legolas pressed Aragorn's hand gently away from the bandage, answering his friend's soft moan, "The healers said you can't sleep for a bit."

"I don't care what they said." The human growled back at him. He was tired and he ached. He turned weary, dilated eyes on the elf.

Shaking his head in regret, the elf stared back at the man. The dilation in the ranger's eyes was receding, but slowly. He had been warned if he were allowed to sleep too soon, he could lapse into a coma from the head injuries he sustained and never wake again. There was no arguing with the man when he was tired and so the elf simply sighed and calmly replied, "Then stay awake for me. If I have to sit here and suffer one more tale of the old glory days of the dwarves then the least you can do is keep me company."

Aragorn laughed slightly and smiled, gingerly nodding his head.

"Here," Legolas pushed a mug of warm tea in front of the man, "drink it."

"No, I'm not hungry." Aragorn declined.

Legolas leaned over, never looking at the human, but pretending to pay attention to Balin he smiled slightly and whispered, "Drink and do not make me make a scene." This had become quite a running joke between them by now.

A small snicker accompanied the shove as the ranger pushed the elf away from him and grabbed the rough clay mug. The warmth felt good in his hands and as he passed the drink under his nose the smell seemed to calm the rolling in his stomach and he took a small sip.


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


He drummed his fingers in agitation on the overly ornate chair arm. Waiting was not one of his better attributes. He made a mental note to meditate on that later. He would need patience if his plans were to be seen through to their ends. Odd, but living in Middle Earth had not helped the impatience that clawed at his heart, or perhaps it was just the incompetence of the men in his employ. He had toyed with the idea of using orcs instead, although dimwitted at times, they were obedient to a flaw.

"My liege." A deep, rough voice interrupted Sauruman's thoughts and he turned to the door near his right, motioning to the human who stood on the threshold.

"What have you discovered?" The wizards voice was soft and seductive; his eyes seemed to pierce through the man who stepped warily before him.

"It is as you have said. The human and the elf are holed up with the dwarves in Moria. There is no way to take them while they stay there." The man raised dark eyes and glanced at the tall white haired sorcerer. He had heard tales of this one but had passed them off as myth when he had been approached by the Maiar for his services.

"Drelent, your kind tests my patience. I grow weary of waiting for the map. The ones I sent out before you have failed me repeatedly. I want you to take your men and bring back the map, or that elf and his companion, whichever you must. But I want that seeing stone and I will pay you well for your assistance. I care not what you do with Paxcyn and his men, they have not pleased me and they will be rewarded for their blunders." Sauruman leaned forward and glared at the human. He wondered what type of a man this one that stood before him was. Drelent was thin with a gaunt face. A scar marred his left cheek, running from the corner of his eye down his cheekbone. Grey tinged his dark hair and he stood easily in the presence of the wizard, his hand resting lightly on the pommel of his sword. Sauruman smiled slightly, the gaze one might give to a creature it has just purchased.

"Are you sure my lord?" Drelent shifted his weight; uncomfortable with the stare the wizard laid on him. It seemed to bore through to his heart. "I know of Paxcyn and he is good hunter, he never loses his prey and has never forfeited on a job."

Sauruman glanced behind the human, slowly focusing on the window in the anterior room. He sighed with feigned patience, "They are idiots. They have let the map slip through their fingers twice now. I wish for no more delays."

"May I ask how you know of this? It took my own man days to return information to me."

"I have my spies. They, unlike others who serve me, do not lie." Sauruman turned his attention back to the man. "Do you have a problem with obtaining the item?"

"No, my lord." Drelent frowned, thinking over the situation. "I'll need a few extra men though."

"Take all you want, make sure they can be trusted. Take orcs for all I care, simply bring me what is mine."

Drelent nodded hesitantly, the mention of orcs sending eerie shivers up his spine. "As you wish my lord." The man backed warily out of circular room.

Sauruman watched him leave, disdain marking his severe features. He had wondered often why men still existed. Someday, someone would have to do something about that mistake of nature. He smiled slightly, his lips turning up in a cruel sneer. Perhaps one day he would be that one. With that thought in his mind he descended from his seat and wandered to the back of the room, there was a pet project he needed to tend to. As he opened the secret door in the rotund room the high-pitched keening cry of orcs could just be heard. Pleased with his traitorous dealings, he descended the steps into the hidden bowels of Orthanc. Patience, yes he would need patience, but only for a little while longer, the door to the upper chambers swung silently shut.


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


Legolas sat perched in the open window of the guard tower, the map spread out in his lap. The moonlight spilling into the high window glowed and glinted on the moon runes etched into the paper. He had spent the better part of the night attempting to decipher the ancient language that the directions had been printed in with little results. It was neither elvish nor dwarvish, but a writing that was foreign to him. He let his eyes rest on the distant stars, his thought flung far ahead of them toward home.

Soft sounds drew his attention and he glanced back into the dimly lit room. Aragorn shifted where he lay on a pallet near the far wall, sleeping soundly. When he had finally been allowed to sleep the dwarves had left them and retired for the night, bringing in two sleeping beds and food and water for their guests. The guard tower was usually empty of such comforts, used mostly to watch over the gates of the mine in times of war.

Legolas glanced back out into the night, casting his eyes down to the forest that they had left only that morning. Barely visible under its darkened canopy across from the lake, the elf could just make out Paxcyn's camp, the fires of the human's site flickering through the branches of the obscuring trees. He sighed deeply. There was no way to exit without being seen. They would need to plan how and when to leave Moria in order to make the best escape. He turned weary eyes down to the paper once more. The gently glowing words seemed to blur together and he pressed the palms of his hands against his eyes, another sigh escaping his lips.

"Come and rest."

The softly spoken words startled the elf and he turned in the window to glance back at the ranger. Aragorn's dark silver eyes were watching him sleepily, lit by the moon's glow, shadowed by his unkempt hair.

"Why are you awake?" He whispered to the human as he jumped lightly down and approached the ranger's cot.

"Because I heard you sighing." Aragorn smiled softly. "Come take your ease my friend, morning will be here soon enough."

"Are you having trouble sleeping? Do you hurt?" Legolas crouched down next to the human's pallet as Aragorn raised himself up on his elbows. The elf gently brushed his hands against the bandage that encircled the man's head, tucking the edges of it back in on itself where it had come loose.

"No. I am fine." The ranger shook his head and glanced out the window, "It was good of Balin to put us up here for the night. I could not have slept inside Moria. I do not wish to enter there ever again." The shivers that coursed through his body had nothing to do with the chill in the air.

Legolas nodded in understanding, reaching out to touch the man on his shoulder, pulling the human's blanket up around him. "It is just as well. I have no desire to be inside another cave for a very long time. I don't care what they say, that is just a big hole in the ground, nothing more than a cave." The elf smiled as Aragorn laughed.

"Get some sleep Legolas. We'll leave tomorrow." The human laid his head back down on the small pillow he had been given and glanced up at his friend.

"That might not be so easy." Legolas pulled his cot closer so their heads would be nearer each other, making it easier to talk in the night. He lay down on the stretched skin and pulled his blanket about his shoulders, turning so that he faced Aragorn.

"Why?" The man asked quietly, suddenly worried.

"Paxcyn and his men are encamped in the woods below. They will note our leaving. They will be waiting." Legolas breathed in deeply, letting sleep steal over him slowly, "Worry not Strider, we will find some way to elude them." He glanced at the man and smiled, "Go back to sleep, you need the rest."

A soft snort answered him and he smiled as sleep stole over him, the soft sounds of Aragorn burrowing back under his blanket calming his heart. The morning would bring its own set of worries; it would do no good to trouble on them tonight.


___________________________________________________________

~*PART FOUR*~


Aragorn was woken by the soft sounds of movement in the turret where they slept. He rolled over on his cot and stared at the elf who was again busy unrolling the map and pouring over its contents.

The morning light streamed in through the window and the air held the slightest chill, threatening the onset of autumn.

"Still at that?" Strider sat up pulling the blanket around his shoulders as he did so to stave off the cool morning breeze.

"I slept." Legolas shot him a quick glance.

"Right." Aragorn stood and walked over to the wooden table the elf was seated at and leaned over his friend's shoulder. He pointed to a word above a strange insignia that marked their destination, the blanket slipping from his shoulder. "That word is Maiar." He moved around the table and sat on the stool opposite his friend, his eyes drifting out to the lake that fronted Moria's doorstep, pulling the blanket back around his shoulders once more.

Legolas was staring at him in surprise. "Are you sure?"

"Sure of what?" the human asked a trifle absently, his mind not on the conversation at all.

"Sure of the meaning of that word." Legolas leaned forward, "Aragorn this language isn't even elven, how do you know that word?"

"Oh that." Strider rubbed his eyes with his fists clearing the sleep out of them and yawned before answering, "I've seen that word in my father's library. He has a book with that same inscription on it. I asked him one time what it meant and he said it meant Maiar." The man was staring thoughtfully out the window again as he recalled the memories; he redirected his gaze slowly back to the elf. "Is that right? Did I get it right?"

Legolas shook his head, confused, "Strider, I don't know. Most of this is in a language I have never seen before." The elf glanced back down at the map.

"Well that's definitely the Gap of Rohan." Aragorn pressed his finger down on the page where the mountain range subsided into an easy pass.

"Yes and this inscription here is elvish." Legolas tipped the map back towards him, "It claims this is the seventh stone and that is was hidden for safe keeping." The elf ran his fingers lightly around the edges of the map, reading the words that decorated the margins of the page. "This, here, is gone and I cannot read it," he touched a tear in the old weathered paper, "However it seems that it was a warning, of what I know not. Although it claims that the stone is well guarded."

"I wish Gandalf were here or at least my father. I bet he would know." Aragorn rested his head in his hands and stared at Legolas.

The elf glanced up from the paper and smiled, "So do I. Perhaps Trelan and Raniean will reach Rivendell soon."

The ranger reached his fingers up and fiddled with the bandage that encircled his head, pulling at a piece of it that hung down near his eye.

Legolas leaned forward and brushed his hand away unwrapping the cloth and pulling the man towards him, inspecting the cuts he had sustained. They looked better in the morning light and were already well on the way to healing. The elf dropped the bandage into a pile on the table and sat back.

"How do you feel?" He quirked an eyebrow up at the human.

"Fine. You?" Aragorn answered offhandedly, picking an apple out of a small bowl that decorated the table and taking a bite out of it.

"Strider." Legolas stared hard at the human.

Aragorn dropped his hand down to the table and returned the hard glare repeating himself, "Fine. Why are we always having this conversation?"

Legolas was about to retort when a slight knock at their door interrupted him. Neither of them had time to answer before the door swept open and Ori stepped in followed quickly by Rill.

"We wanted to see how you were doing this morning." Ori answered the question on the faces of their guests before it could be asked.

"And if you needed anything." Rill put in quickly smiling at the two friends. "What have you there?" The inquisitive dwarf tried to get a look at the map that Legolas was carefully folding back up.

Aragorn smiled at the small dwarf, "It's just a map, to help us get back to Legolas' home."

Not quite satisfied with the answer the smaller being nodded slightly. "Will you be leaving today or will you be staying on?"

"Well that is part of our problem." Legolas answered standing from his seat and moving to the side of the guard tower window. He glanced down at the glade that edged the far side of the lake below, his eyes easily spying out Paxcyn's camp. "Those men who were chasing us yesterday are still out there."

Ori walked to the window and looked out, nodding slowly. "I suppose you'll need to sneak out then when they aren't watching."

"Exactly." Aragorn smiled up at Legolas, "You wouldn't have a secret way out of this place now would you?"

Rill and Ori exchanged glances. "Wouldn't know about one that you could use." Rill answered thinking through their options, "We'll put it to Balin. He'll come up with something right good."

"Need any more food?" Ori asked as the two headed back out.

"No, but thank you." Aragorn smiled as the dwarves left. When the door had shut he turned back to Legolas, "Curious, aren't they?"

"Insufferably." Legolas stuffed the map back into his quiver. "Unfortunately the fewer that know of our quest the better."

"Balin's no fool. He'll know we are up to something, especially with a pack of hunters on our heels."

"Perhaps, but I don't know how we'll get out of here without being seen." Legolas stepped away from the open window as Paxcyn stalked out into the glade followed by his men. They filled their flasks and slated their thirst as their leader scanned the front of Moria for any sign of the elf and his companion.

The sun was almost over the tops of the trees by now and the gates of Moria had been opened for the day. They were kept closed at night unless there were a special reason for them to be open. When sealed, one could not even tell where the huge arched doorway was.

Aragorn took another bite of his apple and offered one to Legolas that he had retrieved from their small supply, "There has to be a way. Balin will know."


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


"No. Absolutely no. I refuse to be bagged up and thrown out with the garbage!" Legolas was indignant and stepped lightly away from the dwarf that held out a large canvas bag towards him, encouraging the elf to step in. "Strider!" The prince brushed the smaller being away from him in agitation. Rullyra looked between the elf and the human, confused by the prince's unwillingness.

They stood inside the doorway of Moria before a small train of flat, square carts that were loaded with large canvass bags full of dirt and debris that had been mined from the depths of Moria. The excess rock was carted a good ways away and dumped in a natural quarry that the dwarves had found. In this way they were able to rid themselves of the overflow of dirt and debris and not harm the woods when they dumped the unwanted supply.

Balin had suggested that they be smuggled out with the convoy that was leaving that morning. He had already packed one of the bags full of supplies for their journey and it had been tossed onto the heap of sacks waiting to leave. Now the dwarves had brought out two of the huge bags and offered them to the friends as a means of escape, clearing a small space on one of the wagons where they could easily set the sacks down concealing them among the others headed for the land fill.

"No one will ever think that you are among the refuse. It is the safest way out of here for you, with men on your heels." Balin frowned at the reluctant elf. "Trust me, I know what I'm doing. Something like this has worked well enough for me before." He glanced at Legolas with an amused smile that neither the elf nor the ranger quite understood. "It's fooled even the elves, and that's saying something I think."

"And how is that?" Legolas raised an eyebrow in question, folding his arms.

"It's somewhat ironic I suppose..." Balin stroked his beard, obviously getting a certain amount of pleasure out of the idea of putting an elf through what he himself had had to endure because of them so many years ago. "You see, some time ago my friends and I were... detained by the Wood-Elves, when passing through Mirkwood," Balin explained, his gaze on Legolas sharpening somewhat, but only for a moment. Past was past and Balin was willing to leave it there. "We escaped by packing ourselves up in barrels..."

"And being rolled into the river to go to Lake Town!" Legolas finished for him, finally understanding a palace mystery that had puzzled the Wood-Elves for years. "*That's* how it was done."

Aragorn shivered slightly, remembering his and Legolas' own escape through the water-gate in the palace cellars not long before their last trip to Moria.

Balin grinned wryly. "It's nice to know we have been remembered."

Legolas was neither amused nor comforted by this information and it showed.

Balin quirked an eyebrow at him with a small grin. "But we waste time. Come now master elf, I assure you this will seem like luxury compared to my ride out of your esteemed halls."

"Absolutely not. I said stay away," Legolas glowered at Rullyra, who was once again trying to offer him the sack.

Aragorn stepped out of the circle of the bag that Rill held out for him. Speaking elvish the ranger walked over to the elf and gently pressed Rullyra away from the upset prince.

"We can't walk out the front doors my friend - you pointed that out yourself, and we can't go through the back, it would take us too far out of the way." Unspoken was the knowledge that they would both rather have taken their chances with Paxcyn than attempt the long, dark road under the mountain. "I know you don't like this but I know of no other way, do you?"

"I will not go bound up in a bag Estel." The elf's eyes were huge, "I do not trust them that much." He shot a dark look at the dwarves who were all watching them.

"You trust Paxcyn more?" Strider was becoming impatient and he fell back to speaking common; he was unsure how to reach his friend. He understood the elf's fears and hesitation, but he saw no other way out of their predicament. Balin's plan seemed to him the best one they were going to be able to come up with and he did not wish to linger here any longer than necessary.

Legolas turned away and stared at the far wall. "I will go out alone then, I will chance them finding me, but I will not go like this." He whispered softly, "I will not."

Strider sighed deeply and glanced at Balin.

"We could knock him out and then bag him." Rorin offered helpfully.

Strider grimaced at the retort, knowing the response it would gender. He quickly turned back to Legolas and stopped the elf short, placing his hand on the prince's chest, "Peace Legolas. Give me a minute to think." The elf backed down but if he could have pierced the dwarf through with his gaze alone, Rorin would be dead.

"Rorin, I have had enough of that mouth of yours. Out with you now while Strider and I figure this out, we need no more of your help in this matter I think." Balin turned a glowering stare on the smaller dwarf before glancing back sympathetically at the upset elf.

"I am truly sorry Legolas that we can offer you no better. There is no other way to leave Moria undetected on this side of the mountain. I can promise you that my men will take very good care of you." The lord of Moria shook his head in regret and approached the two. Rullyra nodded earnestly glancing up at the tall elf.

"What if we go together?" Aragorn glanced up at Legolas. The elf still would not meet his gaze.

The ranger turned a questioning glance on Balin.

Stroking his long beard in thought the dwarf kings eyes lighted up, "We might have a crate we could box you both up in, if that would work better."

"Legolas?" Strider tried to get the elf to look at him.

"I promise you, no harm will come to you. Why, Rill and I used to do this all the time for fun, when we were younger that is." Rullyra spoke softly, staring up at the elf trying to reassure the tense being.

Legolas sighed and glanced down at the dwarf staring openly up at him. His gaze softened and he raised his hand toward Strider when the ranger started to speak.

"For fun?" Legolas reiterated the statement, a small smile tugged at the corners of the elf's mouth. "Tied up in bags?"

A huge smile split the younger dwarf's face as he watched the prince intently, his eyes sparkling merrily. "Yes." He nodded and extended the edge of the bag to the elf once more. "It's only a two hour walk."

Aragorn grimaced again as he saw the elf's eyes grow huge, "Only?" Legolas repeated the word.

Rullyra realized he might have said the wrong thing and squinted his eyes shut, cringing slightly and trying to cover over what he had just said, "Well it doesn't seem that long though." He opened one eye and fixed it on the elf. "I promise to walk right beside the cart you're on and well make sure Strider is there right next to you too."

"Oh come on Legolas," The ranger taunted, a smile pulling at his lips, "It could be fun. A nice walk in the woods..."

"...tied in a sack like dwarven garbage." The elf finished the sentence, shaking his head in resignation, "Iluvitar save me. Why not? I have suffered more indignities while in your companionship young human than I have in all my life in Middle Earth!"

"Exactly, so what's one more?" Aragorn flashed a brilliant smile at the elf as he crouched down in the bag that Rill pulled up around him. The little dwarf handed him a flask of water and some dried meat.

"For your comfort." Rill smiled down at the ranger as he pulled the drawstring tightly around the neck of the sack.

Legolas watched uncomfortably. He stepped into the canvas ring that Rullyra held out for him and crouched down in the small confinement, breathing deeply to calm his heart. He held his bow in front of him and closed his eyes as the dwarf slipped the throat of the sack closed after handing him a small bag of provisions for the trip out to the waste site.

"Good luck on your journey, Strider." They heard Balin's voice booming in the small room as a dozen hands deftly loaded them onto a cart that was nearly full of sacks of dirt and rock. "May you find whatever it is you are searching for. Hopefully your foes will not catch up to you until well after you are away."

"Thank you for your kindnesses Lord Balin. They are much appreciated!" Strider called back to him as the train of carts rolled out of the gates and headed for the forests.

Paxcyn watched the convoy ramble slowly from the entrance of the mines. His keen eyes narrowed as he scrutinized every being that left the gateway.

"Vaeric, go scout out that party that's leaving the mine." Paxcyn turned back to his men and ordered the nearest one out, "Make sure them's all dwarves heading out. You understand me?"

Vaeric smiled wickedly at Paxcyn, "Very well." He grabbed the nearest horse, vaulting into the saddle and motioned with his head to the men closest to him, "Lets go talk to them dwarves shall we?"

Three of Paxcyn's men mounted up and wheeled their horses around following Vaeric out and heading across the stream to cut off the procession of dwarves and carts. Balin stood in the gateway of Moria, watching carefully, his eyes narrowed as he kept tabs on the proceedings from the darkness of the doorway. There was no need to go out and stop the humans from questioning his men, it would only look suspicious but he had no intentions of allowing them to harm his people either.

Rorin had re-entered the main room and stepped up next to his liege. "Shall we go out and help them?"

"No." Balin shook his head and watched as Gonas, the dwarf in charge of the convoy, spoke with the humans that blocked their path. "Not just yet. We don't want to arouse suspicion. Let Gonas handle it, he's got a cool head about him." The dwarf lord crossed his arms over his chest and sighed deeply.

"What have you there dwarf?" Vaeric questioned the small being who stood unmoving in front of his horse. He danced the creature closer to the dwarf in an attempt to intimidate him.

But Gonas didn't move, staring straight back at the human he answered casually, "Stone debris. Rocks, dirt and the like. Have you a need for some?"

Vaeric snorted in derision, "I have need of nothing from a dwarf." He nodded back to the men who accompanied him and ordered, "Check the sacks." Turning they spurred their horses back down the line of wagons, randomly piercing the sacks through with their swords. Each time the metal rang off of the stone or slipped through the dirt. Rill and Rullyra exchanged worried glances as Rullyra carefully laid his hand on the top of the sack that contained the hidden elf. Knowing the elf could hear very well he barely whispered, "Be still master elf, they will not find you."

Legolas closed his eyes and calmed his breathing. He could hear Paxcyn's men searching the bags, moving closer to the cart that he and Aragorn were hidden in. Aragorn barely moved, lowering his hand to cover the hilt of the dagger that was fixed in his boot. He held his breath and waited.

"There's nothing here Vaeric." One of the men called back to the tracker as he reached the cart the escapees were located on.

"I said check them. Now do it!" The order brokered no argument and the man turned back to the cart a dark scowl on his face. He shoved his blade deep into a sack on Aragorn's right, the jagged cut allowed the dirt to spill from the broken bag. His sword slipped through the canvas easily and barely pierced the next bag, the one that the ranger was in. Aragorn tried not to flinch from the tip of the blade as it came dangerously close to his ribs, closing his eyes tightly when the sword was withdrawn, barely breathing lest he give himself away.

"Its just dirt and rocks. The love of dwarves." He muttered as he idly jabbed the pointed tip of his sword into another bag, the rocks clanging dully against the metal. In disgust he moved on.

Rill closed his eyes and let his breath out slowly, glancing at Rullyra who looked as shaken as he felt.

Rorin tensed next to Balin, "My lord?"

"Easy. They haven't discovered our friends just yet."

"And if they do, they'll be dead!" The small dwarf bounced in agitation on the balls of his feet.

Balin ignored the warrior, his eyes fixed on the procession of wagons as the men turned and rode off, satisfied the human and the elf were not in the convoy and headed back for the cover of the trees. "There, you see?" The dwarf lord turned away from the door and walked back into the recesses of Moria trailing Rorin, "They will be fine. Rill and Rullyra will look after them."

Rullyra patted the sack that Legolas was concealed in, his hand gently tapping the top of the elf's head as he tried to reassure the prince. Leaning down he whispered to the bag, "There you see!? I told you, you'd be safe with me."

Inside his canvas bag the elf cringed at the pats the dwarf gave him and scowled darkly. "Just wait till we are out of this Strider." He growled in the grey tongue, "I will never let you forget this. Ever. Do you hear me?"

The ranger tried to stifle a laugh unsuccessfully.

"What was that?" Rill stepped close, thinking the two needed something.

"Nothing Rill." Aragorn called softly from his hiding place, "Legolas just said he was glad that you were here to protect us, that's all."

The elf kicked out at the human, eliciting another giggle from the ranger.

"Oh good! Any time." The dwarf grinned and elbowed Rullyra who returned the smile, unaware that their charge was anything but pleased at the moment. "If you need anything just say so, we're right here."

"Thanks Rill!" Strider answered, unable to stop smiling and very glad that he couldn't see Legolas' face at the moment, he was sure the elf was incredibly irritated. He reached out in the direction that the kick had originated from and patted the elf's boot only to earn himself another kick.

"Telcontar..." Legolas used an elvish form of his friend's moniker, showing just how annoyed he was. The growled tone of voice caused even the dwarves to laugh as they made their way deeper into the woods heading for the place where the dwarves deposited the unwanted refuse their digging drudged up.


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


"Legolas!" Aragorn quickly thanked their hosts again before dashing off after the elf who had all but abandoned him after they had assisted the dwarves with unloading their heavy burden of stone and earth, adding the new rock to the pile that filled the hollowed out bowl they stood on the edge of.

"I have to go." Strider flashed Gonas a mischievous smile, slinging their provisions onto his back and ran into the forest looking for Legolas.

"Legolas!" Aragorn slowed his headlong rush and glanced about, trying to locate his friend. There was no sign of the elf anywhere. "Legolas?" He turned about in a circle glancing through the trees around him. Rolling his eyes he stared at the canopy over his head and slapped his hands down against his overcoat in frustration.

"All right, I'm sorry." The human stopped and listened for a second before continuing with his apology, "I never should have made you go like that when you didn't want to." He turned to his left, no sign of the elf. "Look the dirt all brushes off..." He sighed deeply and muttered, "or washes off."

"Legolas!"

A soft thump behind the human startled him and he turned swiftly, stumbling backwards as Legolas stood slowly from the crouched position he had landed in. His eyes bored through the man and Aragorn for his part did not say a word.

Finally the prince dropped his stare, shaking his head.

"Legolas I..." the ranger's apology was stopped short as the elf lunged at the man, grabbing the human by his worn coat and jerking him closer.

Aragorn swallowed hard and tried to lean back away from his friend, his eyes wide.

"If you ever breathe a word of this to anyone, especially anyone I know, I swear by the Valar, Aragorn that you will live to regret it."

"I promise." The man whispered fiercely, his eyes darting to the top of the elf's head. His lips quirked in a barely restrained smile as he slowly reached up and carefully brushed rock dust from the prince's hair.

With a growl the elf pushed the human back. Aragorn stumbled and fell into the dense undergrowth laughing helplessly, "I am *so* sorry. I really am my friend. It's just that well...?" He raised his hands palm up and shrugged.

Legolas sighed deeply, his scowl slowly fading into the beginnings of a smile. Extending his hand to the human he started to laugh, "Oh please get up from there you look like a-" He never finished his sentence as the forest fell into silence and an odd rushing roar flooded the woods around them. The canopy of trees overhead exploded with a flock of black birds. Dropping to the forest floor he pushed the ranger under the short scrub brush that littered the ground and crouched under the minimal covering next to the man cautioning him to silence.

The birds screamed and wheeled on the air diving through the forests upper reaches to circle over the glade the two beings had occupied only moments before. Their coarse cries and whistles assaulted Aragorn's ears and he cringed under the scant covering they had hid under.

In moments the birds had retreated, their path out of the forests easily tracked by their screeching calls. They headed south, banking into the wind and were swiftly carried out of sight.

"What was that?" Aragorn whispered from his position behind Legolas.

The elf glanced back at the man as he edged out from the shrub, "I know not the origin of such a flock of birds, but it was evil Estel. No good can come of that. Even the forest shrank back when they flooded the air. Someone now knows of our whereabouts." He reached down and helped the human to his feet. "It is the question of *who* that worries me."

Aragorn gazed back the way they had come wondering if the dwarves were already away. "We best leave this place then, soon."

"Yes," Legolas was overly alert, listening to the sounds of the forest around them as the tiny whisperings of the woods began to edge back in again. "This way Strider." The elf whispered, tugging the ranger after him, as he lightly ran deeper into the woods.

They ran for the better part of the day, sticking to the forests that ran parallel to the Misty Mountain Range. Twice they had heard the sounds of the black winged spies circling overhead but the canopy of the trees had been too thick and they escaped discovery.