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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.

 

Chapter Text

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~*PART FIVE*~


Running his long slender fingers along the page edges of the book he read, Saruman sighed heavily. The large tome was boring and he glanced out the thin window that graced his study high in the mid-rooms of Orthanc. He idly flipped the book shut and stood to his feet making his way out into the lush gardens that grew inside of the perimeter of the high stone walls of Isengard, the fortress like stronghold that surrounded the tall elegant black spire that rose from its center, the only dwelling in the encampment.

A frown crossed his gaunt features as the wizard thought back to years not long since when he had thoroughly enjoyed walking through the trees and garden paths that surrounded his dwelling. The rich plant life no longer gave him such pleasures and his mind roved to darker thoughts. He was a being of great patience, but he knew his time was coming, it was coming soon when he would no longer serve humankind or the creatures that roamed Middle Earth. The time was coming when they would serve him, a slight grim smile decorated his countenance and he stopped in the middle of the path, his sharp ears picking up the faint sounds of a flock of crows heading in from the west. The thin smile broadened as he looked overhead, "So my friends you have returned. What word have you of that which I seek?"

Saruman stretched his hand out and held it slightly up, the overlarge sleeve of his robe sliding back down his arm. A sleek black crow spiraled down from the flock that swirled overhead screeching and calling one to another and speaking as one to the Maiar.

"And the elf and the human have escaped Moria and Paxcyn isn't even close to their whereabouts? Why am I not surprised? Perhaps it is time they had a bit of assistance. I think I'll send a troop of orcs to point him in the right direction. That ought to encourage that fool to take me more seriously. I have grown weary of men. Soon their time will run out and I will suffer their company no more." Saruman glanced out over the tops of the surrounding trees his gaze thrown far into the future. The crows had begun to settle in the sheltered canopies of Isengard.

The bird that had lighted on his arm cocked its head slightly, one dark beady eye watching the wizard. "Very well. It is that fool Drelent's turn. Let's us hope for his sake he is as smart as he thinks he is." The white haired man looked at the crow perched on his tunic sleeve. "You know the one of whom I speak? The man with the scar," He drew a line with one bony finger down the left side of his face.

The bird croaked at him, hopping closer to the wizard's face.

"Find him, tell him that the elf and the human are heading towards him. Make sure he knows what direction they are coming from, it is important to me." He eyed the bird carefully. "Do you understand?"

The crow stood tall and loosed a high pitched screech that sent its companions exploding into the air around them. Ruffling its dark feathers the bird launched itself into the sky and headed back out west the direction it had come from followed by the cloud of black birds that followed it.


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


Aragorn dropped easily over the edge of the craggy stone ledge onto the plateau below and Legolas followed. The ground they had been traversing for the past several leagues was broken and rough, but they still managed to keep up a good pace. Keeping to the wild areas and staying away from any frequented paths or roads to avoid being seen, they hoped to evade Paxcyn and his men. Other than animal tracks, the two had seen no signs of any other living being having been in these parts in a very long time.

"I don't suppose anyone's come this way in many, many years," Aragorn commented as the two friends scrambled over another rocky ridge, battling their way through a choking tangle of barbs and bracken. In places the grass was chest high and razor-edged so that it scratched and tore at the two as they passed, and again, in places there was nothing but loose, pointed rocks which made footing dangerous and walking a tedious chore. The wilds could be quite inhospitable when they wanted to be.

"Frankly that does not surprise me," Legolas commented wryly, sparing a glance around them. "But you are right. My people are fading away and no longer wander the wide world as they once did, while the lives and memory of men are short and many things are swiftly forgotten..." the slightly wistful tone in his voice turned back to amusement once more as he watched Aragorn try to disentangle himself from a prickly bush the ranger had tried to push through and instead become ensnared in. "But I suppose that occasionally some things are better left forgotten. Are you quite all right?"

"Just - fine," Aragorn pulled the arm of his overcoat free from the sticky, piercing barbs of the sprawling, mammoth weed. Unfortunately all that meant was that now the hem of his cloak was tangled up in it instead. Bending down, he untangled that only to have it snag all over his sleeve again. When he tried to stand it caught his hair. The young ranger was quickly becoming frustrated and his friend's laughter did not help matters.

He shot the elf his best "this is NOT funny" glare, but since he was still mostly tangled up with the sticky, pricker vines all that did was make Legolas laugh harder.

"Of course I don't know... I think it is worth coming all the way out here to see this..." Legolas grinned devilishly.

Aragorn would have done something to the prince for that, but the vines still held him and the harder he tried to get out the more stuck he seemed to become. "Very funny," he said in a tone that suggested it was not at all. "Are you going to stand there and laugh all day or are you going to help me get out of here before Paxcyn and his crew find the Palantir and waltz off into the sunset?"

Legolas really did try to stop laughing, but the resulting smirk was just as bad. "But you're doing such a good job on your own," he said as he moved towards the ranger, trying to be careful to not get snagged himself. "Besides, without the map no one but us knows where the stone is."

"Well he sure seemed to be able to find us pretty well. Hurry up, I think this plant is trying to eat me," Aragorn grumped, although he was not quite as irritated as he acted.

"Patience, patience..." Legolas' nimble fingers moved quickly, trying to help extract his friend. "Stop moving, you're making it worse."

Aragorn rolled his eyes and sighed, trying to stand still. That worked for about five seconds. Then he started trying to disentangle himself again, but whenever he moved it seemed that five new vines stuck to him.

"I said hold still," Legolas shook his head, shooting his friend an impatient look. "When one is stuck in a carnivorous plant I would think they would wish to do all in their power to aide those trying to get them out..."

"WHAT?!! What do you mean carnivorous? Legolas!" Aragorn's eyes were so huge Legolas couldn't help laughing again. The elf rocked back on his heels, almost unable to breathe for a moment.

Aragorn glared at his friend accusingly. "You made that up, there's no such thing as a carnivorous plant this big."

"Strider, all I said was *if* one was... You're the one talking about it eating you." Legolas' impish grin told the truth. It had simply been too good an opportunity to pass up. Besides, the prince still had that whole Moria thing to pay Aragorn back for.

"Legolas you are so lucky I am stuck in this thing..." Aragorn growled, although his lips were beginning to curl into a smile without his leave; his friend's mirth was infectious.

"Hm... well maybe I should leave you there then..." Legolas pondered for a moment, ducking his friend's swing. "All right, all right, there, you're free!" Legolas pried the last barbs off the ranger's cloak.

"Now we can..." Legolas stopped as he noticed that several of the vines had caught about his boots and snagged at his leggings unbeknownst to him while he was freeing his friend. He started to pull them off, but had about as much luck as Aragorn had been having.

Aragorn, now free, was dusting burrs off his cloak as he turned and saw his friend's predicament. The look of puzzled vexation on the elf's face was very satisfying.

Legolas was surprised, he did not usually have problems like this with nature. The twisting mess of gooey-sticky prickers seemed especially fond of the prince's long hair and caught and tangled mercilessly.

"You know... you're right..." Aragorn was grinning like a Cheshire cat. "Come to think of it that IS a rather funny sight..."

"Strider. Shut up." Legolas glared at his human friend. "This is *your* fault. Now help me out and if you say another word I swear I will shoot you."

Aragorn laughed, shaking his head. "Can't take as good as you give eh? All right, I won't let the carnivorous plant get you..." he stepped forward.

Suddenly a vine shot out and twisted around his ankle. Both of the friends jerked in shock and Aragorn tried to jump backwards. The vine however held tight and began winding rapidly up the ranger's leg, jerking him off his feet and pulling him towards the center of the mass, while the ones tangled about Legolas tightened down, catching his wrists and ankles like snaking ropes. With a zing of panic, Legolas realized that he couldn't move as he struggled against the suddenly prehensile vines.

Humor changed to alarm very quickly. Aragorn drew his sword, hacking at the creepers around his legs, scrambling backward as more flung outward to grab him. It hadn't been his imagination then, the plant really had been trying to hold onto him before!

"Aragorn!" Legolas' call for help was choked and urgent. The vines had wrapped around the captive elf's chest and looped around his neck. Now they were drawing tight and trying to strangle him.

Surging forward quickly Aragorn chopped and hacked at the deadly weed, trying to cut away the vines holding the prince.

A waving sea of tossing, groping green tentacles curled quickly out towards the ranger, trying to ensnare him once more as well.

Legolas couldn't breathe. He struggled with the plant and managed to wrench one hand free, but the thick vines around his neck continued to tighten crushingly and black spots danced in his vision.

Aragorn reached Legolas and grabbed the coils of vegetation around the prince's neck. It was hard to cut them without cutting Legolas, but somehow the ranger managed, dragging his friend backward out of the plant's reach.

The elf gasped for air as the pressure was released, but there was no time yet for relief. The angry vines shot out and wound around Aragorn's sword arm, trying to wrench his blade from him and draw him back in.

Grabbing his friend around the waist to hold him back, Legolas slashed the vines with one of his knives.

The two friends scrambled back quickly, trying to get as far away as they could. Whether the vines decided they were too much trouble, or because they got out of its reach, they would never know, but after a few moments the vines followed them no more and they made their escape quickly down the rocky slope.

After putting a safe distance between themselves and the thing that had attacked them, the two friends stopped to catch their breath and collect their thoughts.

Legolas rubbed his neck, his breathing slowly returning to normal.

Aragorn was staring back up the hill with a wary gaze, still breathing hard. "What *was* that... *thing*?"

"Apparently it *was* a carnivorous plant..." the elf shook his head, who would have thought that his jest would turn out to be true?

Aragorn looked at his friend with a wry gleam that Legolas recognized well. A smile was beginning to replace the alarm in his young eyes. "Legolas, what *is* it with us? Even the shrubbery wants to turn us into a snack!"

Legolas rolled his eyes and did not bother responding. "Oh Strider, only you..."

"Only I what? You were stuck in there too!" Aragorn protested as they resumed walking.

"Only you could find humor in these kinds of situations!" Legolas returned, although his smile gave away that Aragorn was *not* the only one.

"Well I don't care," Aragorn shrugged it off with a laugh. "I am *never* going to be able to look at a weed the same way again."


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


It was nearly dusk and Drelent sat near the sparking fire watching the men he had recruited to help him retrieve the map Saruman sought. By all rights they looked the part of merely a hunting team out scouting the region for game. It was the cover they were using as they passed from Isengard and headed north, the Misty Mountains towering over them on their right as they made their way towards Moria in an attempt to find the two companions that carried the map.

Four men accompanied Drelent, his long time associate Gyn was egging on a rather rough game of target practice. The older tracker was in his late sixties and his love of ale had given him a rather rounded look about his girth and he continually engaged those around him in amusing small talk. His appearance however belied what Drelent considered to be one of the sharpest wits he had met not to mention that the old hunter was an expert with the crossbow and always hit his target. He had not seen another man possess such accuracy and the two had become fast friends, accompanying one another on many hunts and excursions. He smiled ruefully as Gyn taunted the younger hunters who were trying hit a small target he had carved into the trunk of a tree a good hundred yards away with throwing knives.

The younger men in his employ were new to Drelent. Gyn had recommended the brothers Rhyddry and Selvic. The two hailed from East Emnet, their accents giving them easily away. It seemed the older hunter had found them in a small town on one of his escapades and had been rather impressed with their developing skills in tracking and hunting.

However the dark haired youth that comprised the fifth member of their party was something much different. Drelent watched as he stepped up and tossed a heavy double-bladed knife with deadly accuracy at the tree. That one worried the tracker. His background was a mystery and he would not speak of it. Neither Drelent nor Gyn could place his accent and no one in the town Drelent had first met him in had even known who he was. But the hunter had quickly discovered that the boy had a love for killing and it did not seem to matter to him what his prey was, he excelled at dispatching it with swiftness and precision. It was his coldness as a killer that had convinced Drelent to seek him out for this particular job; he had the feeling he was going to need someone like that before this was all over.

Drelent hid a sneer as Gyn tormented the dark haired hunter.

"You call that a hit?" The rounded older man rocked back laughing as Romyr turned towards him, a dark glare on his face.

"If you think you can do better old man, go right ahead."

Drelent feigned innocence as Gyn glanced back him raising one eyebrow slightly at the implied dare. Returning his gaze to the angry youth his smiled turned feral and he answered softly, "In my sleep young one, in my sleep."

He hadn't moved the fallen log he sat on. His crossbow lay in his lap notched as always, ever ready. Romyr stalked back towards the older hunter, ready for a fight when Gyn released the catch on his weapon. The bolt sang through the air, barely brushing the sleeve of Romyr's tunic as it flew by, slamming itself directly into the center of the carved out target.

Rhyddry whistled softly as he quickly ran to the tree to inspect the bolts placement. "Mighty pretty Gyn." He called back as his brother joined him snickering softly,

"Messed up that fancy blade handle of yours Romyr." Sedric laughed.

Romyr turned on his bootheels and paced to the tree jerking his weapon free of the wood. Gyn's bolt had in fact scraped a deep line in the polished handle as it had buried itself in the target.

Whirling back towards the older hunter he held the knife up and threatened, "If you ever do that again…"

His warning was cut off as the woods around them erupted with the raucous calls of a hundred crows shrieking and crying at once, the sound of their wings beating the air was like the rush of a river and the younger hunter cringed involuntarily.

Drelent stood and moved to the center of the campsite making himself seen. He was fully aware that his employer often used odd means to communicate with those in his service and he had the feeling that Saruman was attempting to contact them.

A large crow dove through the canopy of the trees and swept the camp, espying it. He turned for another pass and lighted down on the rock that Drelent had occupied moments ago. The flock of birds circled just feet over their heads watching intently.

Out of the corner of his eye Drelent saw Romyr heft his knife, flipping the blade casually in his hand to a better throwing position, his sights on the bird that had entered the camp.

Preventing the young man from following through, the hunter turned towards him, and motioned with his hand palm out, "Stop! Don't. I want to know what it has to say."

Selvic traded confused glances with his brother. Drelent heard the young tracker question him, "See what it has to say? It's a crow right?"

The hunter chose to ignore his men and concentrated on the bird that hopped closer to him. When the creature saw that it had the man's attention it repeated in croaking harsh words the message Saruman had given it.

Upon completion of its speech it vaulted skyward and swept back towards the south heading away from the woods with the cloud of birds that accompanied it.

The occupants of the camp sat in silence after the crows had left, no one daring to speak. What they had just witnessed was not something common but rather an act of magic and they were unsure of how to proceed. The snap and crackle of the fire dominated the night sounds and after a few moments the soft singing of the nocturnal insects took up once more.

"That was a crow." Selvic repeated himself quietly again.

Drelent nodded his head. "Did you hear what it said? The man and the elf are heading our way. They have escaped Moria and Paxcyn's lost them." He sighed heavily as the implications weighed on him. He cast a dark glance at Gyn. The older tracker simply looked to the forest floor.

"Paxcyn's a good tracker Drelent." Gyn didn't like what his friend was implying.

"I know."

"So what is the problem?" Romyr seated himself on the ground near Gyn and gazed up at the older man.

"The problem is young hunter that our employer has ordered us to take care of Paxcyn if he couldn't come through."

"And he hasn't." Drelent finished Gyn's unspoken thoughts, "Damn I wish he had."

"Again I ask you what is the problem?" Romyr glanced at Drelent.

"We have to get rid of Paxcyn in order take over the job. He will never stand down and let us have at it. He will do all he can to thwart us and he will blow our cover. We need to gain that elf and human's confidence and we can't risk him ruining that. Saruman won't tolerate our failure."

"And *that* is a problem?"

"You are a cold hearted one aren't you?" Gyn glared at the dark haired youth. Shaking his head he eased up onto his feet slowly and walked around the fire away from Romyr, seating himself next to Drelent.

"Well, I can't do it." Drelent sighed. "I've known the man too long."

"*That* is why you hired me." Romyr spoke softly. "I know him not and I do not care about him. I will take him out. Tell me what he looks like."

Gyn turned towards his friend, the worry evident in the furtive glance. Drelent nodded slowly, the young hunter was right, this was exactly why he had hired him. "Fine. Then you'll have to take him out quickly and I want it to be merciful do you understand me?"

Romyr simply nodded his head a small smile creeping onto his face.

"Now, they have a head start on us. Saruman said our destination lay in the fiery plains below the peak of Methedras. We need to move out now. They'll be there a day or two ahead of us even if we leave right now."

"It's late Drelent." Gyn observed.

"Very well, everyone catch an hour or two of sleep. We'll head out before dawn. I have no intentions of disappointing Saruman. We get our hands on that map or the seeing stone which ever we can. He'd like both but if we can get the stone, I think we'll be alright." He glanced around the somber ring of men. "Everybody agreed?"

They nodded.

"When we have the information that we need from the elf and his friend we'll kill them," Drelent nodded his head at Romyr who smiled even broader, "that will be the job of you three. And then we'll retrieve the items. Until that time we are gamers out on long hunt. You will be civil," His gaze lighted on Romyr, "And you will be polite."

Again he waited until every head nodded in compliance, "Good, then either I or Gyn will do the talking. Now all of you bed down and rest. I'll wake you before dawn."

Drelent watched as the men turned in for the night. He remained seated on the rock long into the late watches, his eyes focused on the fire, his thoughts far flung to the task that awaited him. The world was no longer the safe place he once knew it as, no one could be trusted these days. Glancing down at Gyn he smiled as the man snored deep in slumber, well perhaps some he told himself. Within moments the heaviness of their job flooded back in and he sighed kicking a log back into the fire that had shifted out of the ring of rocks as the wood burned down. Dawn was not far off, closing his eyes for a moment he allowed himself to rest.


___________________________________________________________

~*PART SIX*~

Legolas studied the map intently, with Aragorn standing near and looking over his shoulder. "I think we are nearly there," the elf concluded, rolling the scroll up once more. "It should be a little to the-"

"Legolas," Aragorn stiffened. "There's something over there, through the trees," he hissed in his friend's ear.

Legolas froze and his hand went immediately over his shoulder for his bow. A moment later he saw it too, a dark shape hidden by the trees.

Made incredibly wary by their many misadventures to this point, the two friends split up and crept towards the unknown shape. As they got closer it took on the distinctive form of an orc, lurking behind the trees, as still as stone... but something wasn't right... Aragorn paused, squinting at it and trying to figure out what in the name of reason it was doing.

Legolas, across the glade suddenly rose to his feet and laughed. The orc did not move. Aragorn rose, confused and not sure what exactly they were seeing, but knowing that Legolas would not behave that way if there were danger... he hoped.

Moving closer Aragorn saw that what they had seen was in fact a very detailed and realistically carved life-sized statue of an orc, but the depiction of the foul beast seemed to be caught in a mockingly comical moment of terror for it was permanently frozen in ungainly flight.

Once he could see it for what it was, Aragorn couldn't help laughing either. "What in the name of reason is *this*? Who would make such a thing?" he chuckled as he and Legolas circled the base of it.

"The Drúedain if I am not mistaken," Legolas let his fingers drift over the ancient statue. "They were neither human, dwarf nor elf, but a kind all their own. Hatred between their people and the orcs was fierce. They crafted statues such as these to protect their lands and territories, for whatever they put into them the orcs feared and would not wantonly pass while their owners were alive. Some of their work was said to hold magic, although we are now far from what was once their most accustomed territory."

"I've never heard of them," Aragorn shook his head, then eyed his friend. "Or are you just making this up again?"

Legolas shot his friend an amused glance. "Nay Estel, the Drúedain were very real. They lived before my time though, in the days of my father and Lord Elrond, when the world was younger. It seems they have all but vanished now, yet some of their work still remains it seems."

Moving on once more the friends came to a long, rough plain crisscrossed with deep, jagged rifts that let down into steaming fissures that randomly released brief hisses of hot vapor up into the air.

"Pleasant sort of place," Aragorn muttered as they picked their way along and Legolas had to agree with him.

Ahead in the distance and growing nearer they could see what looked like the ruin of a vast structure. Neither of them had to ask if the other thought that was their goal. Out here in the middle of nowhere... what else could it be?

When they finally reached it they walked slowly around the exterior perimeter as far as they could.

It had once been a magnificent building, but what was left of it was slowly giving in to gravity and age. The roof had crumbled into its vast interior and its proud beams lay at odd angles on the remnants of the stone walls. The air was still and the field seemed smothered in an ancient quietness that robed the area.

Legolas walked lightly through the sparse grasses, running his fingers casually over what used to be ornate runes and pictograms carved into the stone itself.

"I have never heard of this place." He whispered quietly and yet his soft voice was easily carried to the ranger who was peeking into the interior of the building. "Even the style of the architecture is strange to me."

Aragorn disappeared from sight, stepping cautiously down into the sunken floor of the main hall. His boots sounded hollowly on the cracked marble flooring, the tiles had bent and warped beyond their limits as the building resettled. Here and there light streamed down from above illuminating the darkened recesses of the chamber, from cracks and crevices, unseen holes high up above. Dust filtered down, sparkling in the light.

"Aragorn?" Legolas quickly stepped to the sunken entrance and glanced about the interior, easily spotting the man as he cleared debris from a broken, dilapidated stone table that somehow still stood in the middle of the chamber.

"Legolas, over here." Aragorn called out quietly unwilling to disturb the heavy silence, "Bring the map." A notch in the failing structure above lighted the table well enough to read the all-but illegible writing.

The elf quietly padded up next to the human and retrieved the scroll, laying it out across the top of the stone. The writing was still puzzling but it matched the runes on the exterior of the building.

Aragorn leaned down and scrutinized the lay of the land on the parched paper. "This has got to be it" He traced his fingers down the edge of the Misty Mountains, tapping the building that was indicated, pressed up against the roots of the hills.

"But where in here?" Legolas glanced around them cautiously, his bow in hand. He was not thrilled to be inside the crumbling structure.

"Well," Aragorn turned and walked to a corner of the room, pulling a piece of fabric from under a pile of rocks, "Why don't we go explore!" He grabbed a stick from a heap of debris and wrapped the fabric around it. Crouching on the floor he removed a small flint rock and struck the blade of his elven hunting knife quickly against it. Sparks jumped from the edge of the weapon igniting the old fabric and setting it ablaze. Smiling to himself the ranger glanced at the back of the chamber. Two passages led off in opposite directions and the human headed towards the darkened hallway to their right.

"Strider!" Legolas called after the human. He knew the man did not have a clue as to where he was going and he was not eager to follow him into the unknown darkness.

"Come on Legolas, it's here somewhere." The ranger's voice floated softly back to the elf.

With a deep sigh the prince jogged after the human. It would be just like the man to pick the wrong corridor and then need help getting out of whatever mess he stumbled into. Legolas descended into the passageway after his friend. The light from Aragorn's torch could barely be seen as the human rounded a corner and moved down a set of steep stairs hewn from the mountain itself.

Legolas' eyes easily pierced the unnatural gloom as he followed his friend. He touched the man's shoulder lightly when he caught up with him. Strider glanced quickly over his shoulder. "Does that map say anything about *where* in this place the seeing stone might be?"

"If it does, I cannot read it." Legolas paused at the bottom of the steps, another sigh escaping his lips.

"What?" Aragorn, looked back from the passageway he had entered.

"It's just that... it's another cave." Legolas muttered, his eyes were huge in the dim light.

Aragorn walked back to the elf and grabbed his elbow, starting the prince walking, "It's not a cave" he tried to reassure Legolas.

The elf glared at the human incredulously, easily moving out of his friends grip and pushing the man slightly away from him, "Really? You're carrying torch. We are descending, it is dark, it is dank and it smells. It's a cave."

"It's a passageway." Aragorn corrected as he moved cautiously forward.

"In a cave." Legolas growled quietly.

"No, it's a hallway in a collapsed building." The ranger retorted absently as he brushed thick cobwebs from their path, stepping through the hole he had made in the silvery curtain.

"That's better?" Legolas asked sarcastically. He shuddered slightly as he stepped past the tatters of the thick web, remembering the last time they were forced to deal with spiders.

"Legolas!" Aragorn was trying his best to ignore the elf. His curiosity had gotten the best of him and he was eager to find the palantir. He had never seen one himself and he was thoroughly enjoying the hunt.

"It's a cave, I don't care what you say, it's a cave," Legolas muttered decidedly.

Aragorn stopped mid step, "It's a dead end." He held up the torch he carried, lighting the back of the tunnel. A slab-stone door stood closed in their pathway. Unused torches in wall mounted brackets lined the last ten feet of the walkway and he began to set them on fire with the one he held so they could better see.

The ranger moved to the back of the corridor once more and stepped up to the door, passing his torch across the front of the huge stone slab.

"There is writing around the door." His fingers traced the odd patterns on the edge of the rock entrance. "Wait, look at this!" Aragorn set his torch in an unused holder and peered at what seemed to be a handle inset into the wall to the right of the door. The handle looked to be nothing more than a metal bar held crosswise on a circle of stone. The whole mechanism was recessed into the stone. There were writings above and below the square that the handle was set into. "Legolas take a look at this."

But the elf hadn't heard him.

Legolas eyed the floor of the passageway suspiciously. The last ten feet of the corridor appeared to be stone tiles carved into the rock itself. Each one was set at an odd, irregular angle to the one next to it. When Aragorn had walked across them, his footsteps had rung oddly, almost sounding as though they were hollow. The elf crouched down near the ground and pressed his fingers into what appeared to be a very deep crack that ran the length of the hall, ending about a half a foot from the track the stone door was set in.

Pressing his ear to the ground, Legolas rapped his knuckles lightly against the stone. It sounded thick enough, but there was a gnawing unease in the back of his mind. He glanced at the writings on the door, his eyes landing lastly on Aragorn.

"What the heck?" Aragorn muttered. He reached into the alcove, grasped the handle and turned it right. Nothing happened. Quickly he reversed the motion, pushing it left and it gave way easily, sliding beneath his weight.

"Aragorn! NO!" Legolas jumped to his feet and rushed forward.

"Look its turning!" Aragorn glanced at his friend. The smile on his face faded as a loud, harsh sound assaulted their ears. He tried to pull his hand away from the nitch in the rock but two metal grates slammed together, trapping his wrist and pinning his arm in place. He cried out, startled by the trap as it sprung. In the middle of the grates, where they met, each had a semi-circle carved out of it. When they slammed shut the halves had created a perfect circle around Aragorn's wrist that he could not escape from.

"Legolas." The human pulled desperately at his arm, twisting and jerking against the newly formed bonds, trying to free himself. "Help me. Get me out of here. I'm stuck."

A deep rumble in the earth beneath them caused both human and elf to stop. Legolas glanced back down the passage they had come from as a keening howl pierced the eerie half gloom.

"Orcs!" Legolas whipped his bow off his back and notched it, moving to stand in the middle of the hall, blocking Aragorn from their advance. The prince wondered where they had come from, for he had seen no signs thus far that this structure was an orc haunt.

The screeching calls of the evil beasts set the human on edge. He was vulnerable, pinned as he was, and Legolas would need help. Who knew how many there were? Frantically he wrestled with his caught hand, trying everything to get the bars to release him. Blood from the injuries he was inflicting on himself glinted dully in the firelight.

He turned with his back to the wall his pinned arm across his chest as he clumsily drew his sword.

The odd grating rumble grew as the wave of orc bodies flooded the hall with darkness. They rushed headlong towards the elf and he in turn felled each one. Still they pressed in and he retreated slowly, diminishing their numbers even as they were replaced.

The ground shook under his feet and Legolas was thrown off balance. Aragorn stumbled, turning back to the rock face and shoving his sword in its scabbard once more as he braced himself against the wall.

Legolas fell forward, catching himself on one hand. The ground moved beneath him, the centuries-old dirt and sand that littered the floor rushed towards his fingers and fell through the crack beneath his supporting hand. In alarm he realized that the floor of the passage was splitting apart, somehow retracting into the walls on either side.

The slight inattention was not lost on his enemy and the elf found himself shoved to the ground by the bulk of an orc. He twisted underneath the foul beast and thrust the arrow in his hand through his attacker's heart, throwing the creature off of him even as more rushed in.

Leaping to his feet he unsheathed his elven blades and swung them in a wide arc, cleaving through the breastplate of another assailant. Spinning in a tight circle he plunged the blade into another orc's throat, and the creature fell with a strangled cry.

Aragorn watched in horror as the ground beneath his friend tore in half and disappeared. The elf staggered to the left as the floor slid out from under him. He turned away from the attacking horde that still rushed forward, oblivious to their impending doom and leapt for the small ledge near the stone door next to Aragorn.

The ranger reached out with his free left hand and grabbed the elf's tunic, holding his friend against the rock face as the ground beneath them rolled and bucked. The front wave of advancing orcs fell into the ever widening shaft. The sounds of their bodies reaching the bottom of the deep, gaping pit was never heard.

With a loud click the floor pressed seamlessly into the rock walls and the rumbling stopped. Aragorn glanced over his shoulder at the horde of orcs on the other side of the chasm. It was obvious there was no way the creatures could bridge the gap and they had no wish to fall into what seemed like a bottomless gorge. They slowly melted back into the surrounding darkness of the hallway and disappeared the way they had come.

Aragorn and Legolas were balanced on a ledge that was barely six inches deep. For the elf it wasn't a difficult thing to do, but the human was finding it hard to maintain his footing. His fear got the better of him as he looked down into the inky blackness of the gorge that fell away behind him and he desperately struggled against his bonds.

Legolas looked up from the chasm and noted his friend's distress. He easily stepped next to the ranger and tried to quiet him.

"Aragorn, be still. We'll get you out of there." He touched the man on the back trying to get the ranger's attention.

"I have to get out. They'll be back." He pulled fiercely against the metal prison. His heart was in his throat. He was trapped in the dark with orcs not far away... seeing them rush down the hallway at them like that... it had brought back memories of Moria all over again and all he knew was that he had to get free, now!

Legolas noted the blood on the sides of the grating. He needed to stop the man's frantic attempts. Carefully, he stepped around the ranger, straddling his friend and pressing the man forward, pinning him against the rock face. Giving Aragorn a few moments' sense of security.

"Estel." He placed his face next to the human's, resting his hands on the ranger's back. "Listen to me, you are only hurting yourself further. Relax, calm down now." The softly spoken elven words had the right affect and the human slumped forward. Resting his head against the stone wall, Aragorn nodded.

Legolas reached around the man and touched the grating, prying at it to see if it could be released. Aragorn didn't move or speak while he tried to open the metal doors.

"I have a thought." Legolas placed his hand gently on the man's back once more. "Can you still reach the handle?"

"Yes." Aragorn answered quietly. "Just."

"Try to turn it back the opposite way and see if it will move."

Aragorn did as he was told. Twisting his wrist painfully inside the metal prison until the handle reset with an odd thunk. The grating released and separated, sliding back into the walls of the small alcove.

Aragorn quickly pulled his hand out and stepped slightly aside from the nitch. Legolas lightly walked around the ranger and took the man's wounded hand in his own, looking it over and quickly pulling a length of cloth from the human's knapsack to wrap the wounds with.

"It does not feel broken." Legolas massaged the man's wrist for a moment before Strider wrapped his own fingers around his hand and more forcefully felt for broken bones.

"No, I think you are right." He glanced over at the elf, "Thank you Legolas."

With the handle reset, the floor began to slide back into place, rumbling and growling as the ancient, unused gears in the trap worked slowly. With the loud ring of stone against stone the ground sealed itself back together.

Legolas unslung his bow and stepped forward onto the resealed tiles, his eyes searching the darkness of the passageway ahead of him for any signs of the orcs that had fled it moments ago.

Aragorn stepped behind him. Testing his weight on the ground, he bounced slightly to see if the floor would give way beneath them.

Legolas noted the movement and turned towards his friend a slight grin on his face. "What are you doing?"

"Making sure it stays." Aragorn whispered back.

"And if it doesn't?"

"That's not funny." He glanced back down the hall listening intently. "Lets just get out of here before they return, shall we? I don't think we'll be able to get into that room from this way. Maybe there is another entrance." The ranger smiled at his friend and gingerly stepped around the elf, his sword drawn. He grabbed the last torch on the wall on their way out and silently walked back the way they had come, Legolas trailing him with his bow drawn.

They reached the top of the steps with no trace of the orcs that had attacked them. Aragorn looked back at Legolas, a frown on his face, "Why do you think the orcs didn't return?" He asked over his shoulder.

There was not the time for the elf to answer as Aragorn was pulled from the passageway and drug into the main chamber of the ancient ruins, the pommel of a sword impacting with the back of his head and driving him to the stone floor.

Legolas was caught totally by surprise. He heard Aragorn cry out and stepped forward only to have several sets of hands pull him from the darkened hallway and drag him into the dimly lighted inner chamber. The beam of a crossbow caught him along side the head and he stumbled off balance, dropping to one knee. A vicious kick to his stomach dropped the elf to the stone floor and a booted foot flipped him over onto his back and pressed down heavily against his chest before he could respond.

When he struggled against his attacker the bolt of a crossbow was shoved into his face and he heard a gruff voice growl, "Lay still or I'll put one through that head of yours. Understand me?"

Legolas glared at the man that held him pinned to the floor. He angrily shook the hair out of his eyes and stilled his movements. It was then that he heard the shuffling, grunting noises of the orcs and he shifted slightly, readjusting his vision to stare in horror at the evil horde of creatures that stood to the side of the main chamber, watching intently but passively, as he and Aragorn were subdued. Now he knew why they had had no more trouble from the foul beasts. He angrily glared back up into the face of Vaeric.

A soft groan, caught the elf's attention and he watched as Aragorn was roughly jerked upright, his arms pinned behind him by another of Paxcyn's men. His captor pulled a blade from his boot and held it tightly against Aragorn's throat, thoroughly enjoying himself.

Booted footsteps rang against the stone and the orcs shifted uneasily as Paxcyn stepped down into the hall and approached Legolas' prone form.

"Where is the map?" He was tired of chasing these two, tired of losing them and tired of having to report to an employer continually unhappy with him. He hated the orcs and had done everything he could to dissuade Saruman from sending them out in the first place, but they had shown up and now he had to work with them. In the end he supposed they served his purpose but he would be glad when this job was over. With a sigh he glanced at the ranger and his man that held him captive, "Don't make me repeat myself."

At Paxcyn's slight nod Aragorn was forced roughly to the ground, bent over his knees, his hands tied tightly at the small of his back. The man guarding him raised his sword ready to smash the pommel of it against the human's head again if the elf would not comply.

"I have it." Legolas spit the word at Paxcyn, unwilling to allow his friend to be injured any further.

"Good." Paxcyn stepped back a pace and motioned Vaeric off of the elf. "Bind him and make him show you where it is."

Legolas had no desire to be bound by these men. By whatever foul orders they were working with orcs and seeking a palantir, he was in no way going to allow them to take him captive. He began to wonder if they were more than just treasure hunters looking for a rich prize... the presence of the orcs seemed to bear that out. Sweeping his legs out he caught Vaeric and brought the man crashing to the ground.

Quickly springing up, the elf slipped a blade from its sheath on his back and knelt over the human, pressing the edge of his weapon against the man's throat, using the slight moment of surprise he had been given.

"Let the ranger go." He growled at the man who held Aragorn down.

Paxcyn sighed, rolling his eyes and shaking his head. He walked to the large stone table and leaned against it, placing his crossbow carefully on the top of it before bending down to look eye level at the elf.

"Listen. I don't care if you kill him." He glanced at the man guarding Aragorn, "I'll just have Dryxyn kill your friend and then I'll give you to the orcs *after* I get the map out of you." The man stood up and glanced at the foul creatures behind him before turning back to glance at Legolas, "Really, they won't care what shape you're in when I'm through with you. But I think you know that, don't you?"

Paxcyn leaned back against the table and crossed his arms over his chest, watching the elf with idle disinterest.

"Don't do it Legolas, they can't be allowed to have it." Aragorn called out in elvish, struggling against his captor. The man standing over him brought the pommel of his sword down against the ranger's skull, splitting open the freshly healed cut he had taken from Paxcyn's stirrup earlier.

Aragorn went limp beneath the heavy blow, slumping sideways before his aggressor grabbed a handful of his hair and pulled his head up. The ranger's eyes were half lidded, stunned by the painful stroke. He breathed raggedly and blood flowed easily from the head wound. He had been struck thus a few too many times recently and it was taking its toll.

"Be still Estel. Even if they have the map they will not get the stone." Legolas replied in the grey tongue, hiding their conversation.

"I grow tired of waiting." Paxcyn spoke quietly as he watched the two friends.

Legolas glanced quickly at the man, "If you allow your men to injure the ranger further, I will kill this one," he pressed the blade down harder against Vaeric's throat for emphasis, "destroy the map, and I couldn't care less if there is anything left of me to let the orcs play with. Do you understand me?" He glared at Paxcyn once more.

Paxcyn glanced at the black creatures behind him. He hated this sort of stuff. No money was worth working with orcs or elves. Both were simply impossible. It was supposed to have been a simple job. Inwardly he cursed Rigo. If only that drunken idiot hadn't run from them, no one else would have been involved. True, he honestly didn't care what happened to the ranger or his elf friend, but he could tell by the fair being's gaze that he wasn't kidding about destroying the map and killing Vaeric. Saruman had been very adamant about the retrieval of the map and he was afraid they would have little chance of retrieving the palantir without it.

"Fine. Dryxyn, back off." Paxcyn motioned his man away from the ranger who slowly slid onto his side, trying to bite back the bile that rose in his throat. The last hit to his head had made him nauseous but he was not willing to stop fighting.

"Legolas..." Aragorn started to protest but stopped as when the elf glanced at him - he had a plan, the man could see it in the deep blue eyes that watched him, begging him to trust him.

Legolas held the ranger's gaze as he set his elven blade on the ground and moved away from Vaeric.

Vaeric stood slowly to his feet, his face contorted in rage. When the elf looked to Paxcyn and inclined his head slightly in surrender, the angry man lashed out, punching Legolas in the side of the head and causing the prince to stumble and fall back to the ground.

Legolas wrapped his fingers around the handle of his discarded elven knife, but Paxcyn jumped forward, stepping on the flat of the blade effectively pinning the weapon to the floor.

"Ah ah." He glared at the elf, raising one eyebrow, "There'll be none of that."

Turning his attention to Vaeric he shoved the man hard, causing him to stumble back towards the entrance to the main chamber. "Damn it all Vaeric. I ought to just let the elf kill you for sport. Now go on get out of here. Help set up the camp outside."

Paxcyn turned back to Legolas and motioned him up, drawing his sword and indicating what he wanted with the tip of his blade.

"Now give us the map."

Legolas nodded and reached over his head to his quiver.

"Hold on there." Paxcyn stopped the elf. Pressing the point of the sword against the buckle on Legolas chest that held his quiver in place on his back. "Unbuckle it, take it off and hand it to me."

Aragorn moved slowly, the motion drawing Legolas' attention, as he painfully sat up and watched what was going on. He blinked blearily in the half-light.

Legolas easily slipped the quiver off his back and handed it to Paxcyn. The man pulled the map out quickly and glanced over the yellowed paper, making sure it was the real thing.

"Now sit down." He instructed. Legolas complied, seating himself next to Aragorn.

Dryxyn walked over to the seated elf and crouched in front of him, quickly tying the elf's hands together with a length of rope. He pulled the knots tightly and jumped to his feet well out of the nimble beings reach.

"Why don't you just kill them both and we'll be rid of them?" Dryxyn asked his chief.

Paxcyn turned a sneer on the smaller man, "Well Dryx, if it's true what them orcs say about this place being full of traps, I figure they'll make good bait. Better than getting ourselves dead for that stone when we have someone else that's expendable."

Soft snickers came from the far side of the room where the orcs still gathered.

"You think that's funny?" Paxcyn called out to the creatures. "When they're dead, you're next. So get this and hear it good. I'm leaving them in your guard tonight. You so much as look at them wrong and I'll put a bolt in you." He sheathed his sword and retrieved his strung crossbow. "And I don't care what your master says. I'll slay the whole horde of you if do anything to them or if they get away from you tonight. You understand me?" He glared at the creatures that shifted and dropped their gaze uneasy in his presence.

"We understand." One of them spoke up from the front of the group.

"Good." Paxcyn turned back to his two prisoners and leaned down close. "Don't think for a moment I won't feed your carcasses to those pit spawned monsters. You stay put, I might find you useful and prolong your life."

With that threat made, Paxcyn left the main chamber followed by his men. The orcs watched them go and slowly spilled into the room, rounding the table and glaring at the two captives.

"Behave." The one who had spoken moments ago growled at them.

"Why do we have to take orders from that human slug?!" one of his subordinates protested, looking at the prisoners with hungry eyes.

"Cause if you don't it'll be your head on the block and not his if Master hears about it!" the first one growled back. "So we take orders. For now." The creature laughed darkly and turned his evil gaze on the captives.

Legolas stared the dark creature down before turning to Aragorn. He grabbed the man's over coat in his bound hands and pulled them both back to rest against the thick stone cylinder that held the table aloft.

Aragorn rested his head slowly back against the stone and closed his eyes, "This was a really good idea."

Legolas knelt next to him and pressed the human's head forward. The ranger pulled his knees up to his chest and laid his head on them with a small sigh, his hands still bound painfully behind him.

Gently Legolas pushed the man's hair away from the newly opened wound, trying to get a better look at the cut.

"It doesn't look bad."

"It feels bad."

"I bet it does." Legolas pressed his fingers under the human's chin, forcing Aragorn to lift his head and gaze into the elf's blue eyes. "I don't think you have a concussion this time. Why don't you rest?"

"Right." Aragorn glanced around the room to where the orcs were settling in, making small fires in groups of two or three from the debris that littered the chamber. "I don't think so."

"Aragorn you need your strength. I think tomorrow may be difficult if what Paxcyn says is true about this building being set with traps." Legolas glanced out and let his eyes rest on the nearest fire, the jump and weave of the flame a hypnotic distraction to their predicament. "I'll wake you and you can take watch while I rest later."

With a nod the ranger laid his head back against the stone and closed his eyes, trying to relax. It was difficult with his hands tied painfully behind him and the soft sounds of the orcs were a constant reminder of the situation they found themselves in. A few moments later, he felt Legolas' fingers wrap in the sleeve of his overcoat, pulling him slowly closer until his head rested on the elf's shoulder.

"Now sleep." Legolas whispered softly in the grey tongue. Aragorn simply nodded against his friend and allowed himself to finally relax.


___________________________________________________________

~*PART SEVEN*~


Aragorn gently jostled his shoulder, the slight movement was meant to alert the elf that was sleeping with his head resting against the human for what slight comfort he could find. But it was unnecessary, Legolas was already fully awake, watching their guards, his keen eyes alert for chances to escape.

Paxcyn and his men entered the main hall. His lips pulled back in disgust as he walked through the refuse that littered the old marble floor, leftovers attesting to the orc's makeshift camp.

As he approached the two prisoners, the dark creatures that had kept watch over them all night pressed out of the way, melting in with the shadows that still marked the hall in the faint pre-dawn.

"Get up." Paxcyn kicked Aragorn's boot and stepped back as the ranger and the elf slowly made their way out from under the edge of the huge stone table. "I see you made it through the night in one piece." He glanced back at the orcs that shifted curiously in the wings of the main chamber.

Legolas grabbed Aragorn's arm and helped the man to his feet as their guard moved away from the table. Neither one of them answered their captor and he turned dull grey eyes back on his prisoners.

Motioning Dryxyn over, Paxcyn brushed past Aragorn, laying his crossbow on the table and spreading the map out once more on the top of the stone behind them.

Dryxyn, cautiously stepped forward and pulled a long, serrated knife from the sheath at his waist. Approaching Aragorn, he slowly moved the blade in a clockwise circle indicating he wanted the man to turn around. With a quick glance at Legolas, the ranger obeyed.

Blood rushed into his fingertips as the small man cut the binds on his wrists, letting the ropes fall to the floor. Aragorn quickly stepped away from Dryxyn, massaging his aching fingers and hands.

"Now him." The ranger motioned with his head to the elf who stood bound next to him.

"I don't think so." Paxcyn spoke calmly, not looking back at the two, his eyes intently roving the yellowed paper in front of him.

"You can't mean to keep him bound up the entire time?" Aragorn felt his anger rising.

"I can and I do." The older man finally turned and stared at the ranger. "You I can control easily." He glanced at the elf and looked him over, "Him, not so much. And I don't trust him." Paxcyn leaned against the table, half sitting on the edge of it, "Besides you're only getting a reprieve. When we move out you'll be bound just the same as he is. I just want your hands in front of you so I don't have to watch you every step of the way. You understand?"

Legolas glared at the man. Aragorn simply nodded once.

"Good." Paxcyn took a deep breath, the scowl vanishing from his face, "Cause we need to talk. I want to know everything you know about this place."

Aragorn looked at Legolas in confusion, but the elf was frowning as well. "Everything *we* know?" He questioned their captor.

"Do I need to repeat myself?"

Aragorn shrugged and answered, "We know nothing of this place. I have never heard that anywhere like this existed."

"And the markings on the building are not elvish if that is what you are thinking." Legolas added quietly.

"Damn, that's what I was afraid of." Paxcyn swore softly.

"Why?" Aragorn tipped his head slightly, eyeing the man curiously, "What have you heard?"

Paxcyn stared at the ranger for a few moments, obviously weighing the need to even explain himself to his prisoners; in the end his desire for more knowledge of the area won out and he told them what he knew, hoping it would trigger something and they would remember more, he had a feeling they would need all the information they could gather.

"Alright, this is what my employer told me," He began to give an account of what he had been told but Aragorn interrupted him.

"Who is your employer?"

The man scowled at the ranger, "Do you want to hear what I know about this place or shall we just go off down another tunnel where the floor might drop out on you again?"

"It is well. We would hear what you have to say." Legolas touched his friend's arm with his fingertips silencing the young human.

"Alright then," the frown slowly melted from the man's face as he recalled the conversation he had had with Saruman. The wizard had seemed forthright, but Paxcyn was still uneasy about being in the ancient building. "From what I was told this used to be some sort of a place of wisdom and knowledge."

Paxcyn stopped speaking and glared at the orcs, they were talking amongst themselves while the man was distracted. When they noted his attention they quieted, several of them crouching down, waiting the human out.

"Anyway," Paxcyn pushed off from the table and rounded the ancient stone top. He walked to the far side and leaned down upon it, resting his head in his hands and staring at the map as he spoke. He had no qualms about the position his prisoners were in and trusted his men to keep their eyes on them. "There was some catastrophe that brought the building down."

Paxcyn glanced around them at the dilapidated stone structure, "And some of the things kept in here were never removed. I don't know why. And my employer has a special interest in the one spoken of on this map." He flicked a corner of the torn paper in front of him, "This thing is the last link to prove the existence of this place."

Legolas spoke up, "If it is as you say, and this was such a place, then I fear we tread where even the Valar would not dare to go. Places of such knowledge are most often guarded by ancient powers that are best not woken. There are reasons why those who have gone before you, have not been successful in retrieving what you seek. We dare not hunt for this. We would do well to leave this place." He turned huge blue eyes on Aragorn, imploring the human to believe him.

The ranger started to speak, but was cut off as Paxcyn stood, shaking his head; a look of disgust distorted his weathered features.

"Right." Paxcyn spat at the elf, rolling his eyes, "Elves and their damned horror stories, just tales to scare people off, if you ask me." He motioned Vaeric forward. "If you can't tell me anything more helpful than that then I think it's we best go exploring. Time is short gentlemen, bind the ranger."

"Dryxyn, get the orcs on their feet. We're going in." He called to his men.

Vaeric approached Aragorn with a length of rope. The ranger automatically stepped away from the man.

Paxcyn cleared his throat and tapped his crossbow down on the tabletop. Aragorn glanced at him out of the corner of his eyes and the man picked the weapon up aiming it at the elf, quirking an eyebrow up as he silently questioned Strider. The ranger stopped moving and raised his hands before him, allowing Vaeric to bind them.

They chose to try entering the locked chamber using a different route, since the passage to the right had led to the dead end and there was obviously no way anyone wanted to try a repeat of the previous day. Two halls led from the main room that the men were assembled in and Paxcyn led them down the passage that fell away towards the left.

Unlike the tunnel they had been in yesterday, this one was dank and smelled of mold. The eerie dripping of unseen water echoed off the cold, dark walls. The floor beneath their feet was roughly hewn stone and in places the rock itself had buckled, causing irregular breaks in the flooring that tripped up the company. The passageway sloped gently downward at first, dropping into a steep shaft. Into the floor of the shaft shallow steps had been carved. The rock was deteriorating and the steps crumbled as the company picked their way carefully down.

Legolas was sure-footed in the darkness and Paxcyn shoved him out front, following him with a sputtering torch; the pool of light from the fire barely reached the steps that dropped away ahead of the elf.

No one spoke as they descended and the shuffling, murmur of the orcs in their midst echoed oddly off the broken walls of the passage.

Legolas' eyes were huge in the near pitch black of the hall and he swallowed hard against the fear and the dread that caught at him. This was no ordinary darkness. A flicker of evil touched his mind and he paused mid-step, catching his breath.

"What is it?" Paxcyn whispered, the sound of his voice loud in the deafening silence.

"I do not know." Legolas glanced around them trying to find the source of the growing dread, "We should leave."

"Get moving." The man growled, giving the elf a hard shove.

Unbalanced by the push, Legolas fell back a step. The old stone under his feet gave way and he lost his footing, tumbling down into the darkness. There was nothing he could catch hold of with his hands bound like they were and nothing to stop his fall.

"Legolas!" Aragorn shoved Vaeric out of the way and passed by Paxcyn, who raised his torch higher and slowly followed the two. The ranger heard the sound of his friend's body as it hit the base of the stairs some distance down. The darkness wrapped about the human, thick like a living thing, slowing his progress to the bottom.

Vaeric rushed forward to stop the ranger, but was halted by Paxcyn who pressed his arm out to the side holding the man back. "Let them go first. If there is anything down there let them find it before it finds us."

"Legolas?" Aragorn reached the last step and gingerly stepped down. A moan to his left alerted him to the elf's position and he knelt near the prince in the darkness. "Don't move. Are you all right?"

The sounds of the elf's quick, frightened breaths echoed off the walls and slender fingers grabbed the front of the ranger's shirt urgently. "I am fine." Legolas answered, pulling the human down close and speaking softly to him, "Something wakens Aragorn, I can feel it. We need to find a way out of here."

Before the human could question the elf further, the soft light of the torch touched the two and Aragorn could make out his friend in the dim lighting. A cut marred the fair being's forehead and his leggings were torn at the knees where he had taken the brunt of the fall. The prince's wrists ached terribly from trying unsuccessfully to stop himself, he feared they had been sprained by his attempts to slow his sudden descent. Being numb and bound as tightly as they were hadn't helped matters at all.

Aragorn drew his breath in with a soft hiss as he gently brushed Legolas' hair way from the cut on his head. "Is anything broken?"

"I think not." Legolas tried to stand, but Aragorn pressed him down.

"Just wait until they reach the bottom. Rest for a moment while you can." Aragorn glanced back up as Paxcyn descended the steps, followed by his men and the orcs. The dark creatures shifted nervously, their eyes darting far ahead, piercing the darkened passage.

"They feel it as I do." Legolas noted their uneasiness as he sat up slowly, finally having caught his breath.

"Can you walk?" Paxcyn towered over the two prisoners, glaring down at the elf.

Legolas nodded once and stood stiffly to his feet with help from Aragorn.

"Good. Then get going." Their captor motioned up the dark tunnel with his head.

Aragorn started into the passageway but was quickly pulled back by his friend. "No wait!" The elf was scanning the floor of the hall.

"What?" Paxcyn frowned at the prince, "You said you were fine."

Vaeric moved forward, "I'll get him going." He growled as Legolas knelt back down to the ground and carefully ran his fingers around the edges of the tiles paving the walkway.

"These are the same stones that lined the passage yesterday." Legolas glanced cautiously up the hall. Turning to Paxcyn he asked the man to lower the torch he held.

Paxcyn obliged the elf. Vaeric had stopped, watching as Aragorn knelt beside the prince to get a better look.

The firelight jumped and danced across the stone floor, throwing strange angled shadows about them. Throughout the hall, several tiles seemed covered in shadow, depressed into the floor a bit more than the others around them.

"Do you see it?" Legolas pointed them out to Aragorn. "They are different." He ran his fingers gingerly around a tile directly in front of them that sat a fraction of an inch lower than the ones that surrounded it.

"I see." Aragorn reached out his palms and laid them flat against the stone intending to press it down and find out what they were dealing with, but Legolas grabbed him, jerking him back.

"No!" The elf whispered fiercely, "Look at the walls." Legolas regained his feet once more, suppressing the moan that the ache in his knees gave him. Cautiously stepping a few feet into the hallway, careful to avoid the odd tiles, he approached the left wall. Holes more than an inch wide decorated the long passageway at random heights and intervals.

Without being asked, Paxcyn stepped carefully near the elf, making sure his feet only touched where the prince's had. He raised the torch to the height of the hole as they both tried to see into its depth. The sharp glint of metal flickered in the yellow light and the elf glanced back at the man who had drug him down here.

"The floor is a trap. We must walk only on the tiles that are not sunk in." Legolas informed Paxcyn.

The man nodded slowly and called back to the men and creatures behind him, telling them what they had found and to pay attention.

The walls were lined with sconces that still held torches. As they made their way slowly down the passage, Vaeric and Paxcyn cautiously lit each one, shedding more light on their path and making it easier to distinguish which tiles would trigger the trap that had been set.

A chill of darkness shot up Legolas' spine and he stopped dead in his tracks. A feral shadowy evil touched him, barely running its' fingers through his awareness. Something was waking, something knew that there were intruders and the fact delighted it.

The elf swallowed hard and backed up a step. Aragorn had noticed Legolas' reluctance to proceed and had stopped, turning back towards his friend as Paxcyn and Vaeric came up on either side of him.

"I cannot go any further, and you cannot ask me too." The elf glanced back at the orcs. They sensed something to, but it was familiar to them and they advanced past the prince making their way warily into the darkness.

"Don't play these games with me elf." Paxcyn spat at the prince and shoved him a step forward.

Legolas stumbled and quickly stepped back. Aragorn walked up beside his friend and touched the elf lightly, redirecting the prince's attention.

"What is it?"

"I do not know, but we have woken something. Something that should not have been roused. We must leave." Legolas' eyes were huge and frightened in the firelight; he implored the man to listen to him.

"Look, if Legolas says it's not safe, then it isn't. We need to leave." Aragorn glanced back at the orcs that continued to cautiously creep down the hallway.

Paxcyn was irritated, he wanted nothing more than to find this stone and leave, but a tiny voice in the back of his mind was warning him off. As much as he had no love for elves, he had heard the tales of how they could perceive things that humans could not. Before he could respond, Vaeric stepped forward and smashed the wooden pommel of his cross bow against the side of Legolas' head. The blow caused the elf to stagger sideways and Aragorn jumped forward quickly to stop him from over stepping onto a depressed tile.

"Paxcyn said move, do it now!" The man growled at the elf. He kicked out at the prince as Legolas tried to stand up, catching the fair being in the ribs and dropping him to the ground as the air was forced from his lungs. "Get up you lazy elf!"

Paxcyn himself walked down the corridor, the orcs had gone so far down the hallway that he could not see them in the dark. "Be careful damn it! All I need is you to step on a trigger stone and set this whole thing off." He peered into the darkness not caring if Vaeric killed the prisoners or even the possibility of the orcs getting themselves killed. He didn't want one of the oafs setting off the trap they were all precariously standing on however.

"Stop it!" Aragorn rushed Vaeric as the man turned to kick the downed elf again. The ranger brought his hands down hard between the man's shoulders, stunning him and stopping him from attacking the prince.

Vaeric turned on the ranger with barely concealed anger. He quickly drew a blade from his belt and approached Aragorn who was trying to step away from the angry man without touching down on one of the wrong tiles.

The knife sliced through the air near Aragorn's face as he ducked the blow, spinning quickly out of the way and dancing lightly over a depressed tile, barely missing stepping down it.

Paxcyn turned and walked back towards the scuffle. Dryxyn was watching in muted surprise from the back of the hall.

"Vaeric!"

But the man paid his captain no heed and rushed after the ranger.

Aragorn sidestepped another arcing swing as Vaeric caught up with him. He slammed his fists into the side of the man's head, stunning him and sending him staggering sideways. Taking advantage of the surprise of the moment he drove Vaeric against the wall, intending to knock him out, but the man was holding his knife in a defensive position. Unable to compensate for the driving blow of Aragorn's shoulder he slammed into the rock wall his hand pinned in front of him and the blade slipped into his abdomen. With a stifled cry he slumped to the ground in shock, curling into himself.

"Legolas run!" Aragorn turned back to the elf to see his friend slowly gain his feet once more, "GO!"

Paxcyn was running back up the passage now as quickly as he could without triggering the trap. "Dryxyn stop them!"

The small man stood in front of the steps they had descended and drew his knife but the elf was already pelting towards him, easily avoiding the darkened tiles on the floor. As Dryxyn brought the sword up, Legolas kicked out at the man's midsection, felling the human with the fierceness of his blow. He leapt over the downed guard and fled up the steps.

Paxcyn shouted back down the hallway to the orcs, the dark creatures materialized out of the inky blackness they had retreated into, "Bring them back here now!" He pointed down the way the prisoners were heading.

Aragorn was a good pace behind Legolas. It had taken him a moment to gain his bearings and map a safe path back to the stairway. He could hear the orcs running down the passage behind him. A spear thrown by one of his pursuers shot past his head, missing him by a hair breadth. They were gaining on him.

"Get out of the way!" He yelled at Dryxyn, motioning with his hands for the man to move and ready for him if he didn't.

Aragorn spied the very first tile that Legolas had noticed was different and sped towards it, a plan forming in his mind.

Dryxyn followed the ranger's gaze and noted the determined set of the man's jaw as he ran back towards his position.

"Paxcyn!" The small man screamed at his boss as he turned and raced up the stairs away from the hall.

Somehow Paxcyn understood. He was too far away from the steps to reach safety. Raising his torch he saw the tiles ended not a hundred yards ahead of him and raced for the opposite end of the tunnel.

Aragorn gained the edge of the hallway and purposefully stepped on the depressed tile. The floor moved beneath his foot as the tile slipped out from under him and he fell onto the stairs, barely catching himself with his bound hands.

The orcs were not as lucky. The sing of arrows filled the passage as crossbows hidden in the depths of the wall aimed and cocked for just such an occasion released their deadly volley, catching the foul beasts in a killing cross fire.

Bolts filled the air and Aragorn glanced back as he heard the orcs screaming, caught between the firing weapons, their bodies littering the hall behind him. Throwing himself forward, the ranger slipped on the crumbling steps and staggered up the ancient stairs.

Legolas gained the upper hall and raced toward the main chamber. He skidded to stop on the threshold of the room, as he took in the scene before him.

A small contingent of men filled the hall, scouring through the remnants of the orcs camp from the previous night. They stopped and stared, surprised by the elf who stood in the passageway.

A tall, dark haired man stepped forward and approached the bound prince, taking note of the elf's disheveled appearance and the ropes that tied his hands tightly together. "Do you need assistance?" He asked cautiously. His dark hair was shot through with streaks of grey and his eyes were deep brown like the forest floor. A scar decorated his thin face and he wore leather arm guards, a matching buckler covered his chest.

Legolas quickly glanced behind him as the cries of the orcs reached his ears and he stepped towards the man who addressed him.

"My friend and I have been taken captive and we are being used by a band of men and orcs to help them hunt for things in this building. Will you help us?" The elf did not reveal the full truth to the man, uncertain of who these newcomers were.

The man raised one eyebrow and stepped closer to the fair being. Unsheathing a short blade he cut the elf's bonds and glanced down the darkened passage. "We will help you. We were just passing by and saw the camp set up outside. We have heard tales of this region, it's not safe to be in here."

"That we know." Legolas agreed breathlessly. He turned swiftly as he heard footsteps pelting up the hallway behind them. Aragorn tumbled into the main hall, falling to his knees as he gained the safety of the large room.

He was breathing heavily and slowly looked up as Legolas knelt beside him. "Strider, are you all right?" The elf squeezed his shoulder sharply and the human glanced up and out into the room catching his breath as he stared at the five watching him intently.

"A ranger and an elf?" The man who had freed Legolas questioned the two. "Odd traveling companions I would think."

"Some of them..." Aragorn watched the men in front of him, cautiously wary of them as he tried to warn the other, "not all gone..."

"What?" Legolas glanced back down the hall and caught sight of a black tide rushing forward. Some of the orcs had actually survived the onslaught of the loosened crossbows and they heedlessly followed their prey into the main chamber, intent on recovering the two prisoners. "Yrch!" The elf pulled the human with him, jerking them out of the path of the creatures and pressing them against the wall beside the tunnel opening, shielding the man with his body.

The men in the main chamber had little time to react as the orcs spilled out into the hall. They unslung their bows and felled the beasts as they rushed towards them. In moments the creatures were dead.

"I thought you said there were men!" The dark haired man glanced at Legolas.

Paxcyn stepped out of the tunnel, followed by Dryxyn, his crossbow strung and ready. His eyes narrowed as he saw the man who stood in the center of the room. Angry recognition flashed through his eyes. And he started to speak when a bowman to the left of the leader of the small group fired a single bolt into the man's heart. Anything he would have said was silenced as he looked in shock at the shaft that protruded from his chest. Confusion crossed his weathered face as he locked eyes with the dark haired man and he shook his head not understanding the turn of events. His body dropped to the floor, his spirit gone before he fell.

Dryxyn laid his drawn sword on the ground and stepped away from Paxcyn's dead form. He was quickly taken into custody and bound. Two of the men escorted him outside.

"You didn't have to kill him." Aragorn watched the whole scene incredulously.

"Was he not the one that took you prisoner?" Dark brown eyes stared at the silver ones.

"Well yes but..." Aragorn glanced at Paxcyn, "Did you know him? He acted like he recognized you."

"Recognized that he was in trouble more likely. Never seen him before in my life. But he did have a weapon and my men thought him a threat or they would not have fired on him." The dark haired man walked over and held his knife out to Legolas, proffering him the pommel of the weapon. "My name is Drelent. My men and I live not far from here. We were just on our way into the woods to hunt. The store houses are getting empty and it looked like a good day for it when we passed by your campsite."

Legolas severed Aragorn's bonds and passed the knife back to the man, nodding his thanks curtly.

Aragorn hissed as the ropes fell away and he massaged his tender wrists. "Really? Didn't know anyone lived out this way." He pressed Drelent.

"Well the game has been poor this season near our village so we have been forced to go farther to seek food." He glanced around the inside of the building, "This really isn't a safe place to be, why don't you come outside? We've set up our camp on the plains, you're welcome to stay with us tonight if you like. I'd be very interested to hear how you got into this mess." Drelent glanced at the bodies of the orcs and the human, "And why a human was working with orcs." He kicked Paxcyn's body, turning the dead man over onto his back.

Legolas bent down and quickly removed the map from the man's inside pocket. "Something that he took from me." The elf explained as he stood and gazed back at the questioning look Drelent was giving him. He passed the map to Aragorn who pressed it inside his tunic, following their rescuer out of the collapsing building.

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~*PART EIGHT*~

Drelent's laughter carried through the camp. He glanced over the sparking fire that burned brightly in the center of the circle of men who lounged around its shallow stone wall, eating what small catch the hunters had scoured from the surrounding area. They had made their camp near the forests that bracketed the plain in front of the ancient building.

Night had rapidly drawn over the grassy meadow they had camped on, and Legolas and Aragorn had found themselves quickly enveloped by the men who had rescued them from Paxcyn and the orcs earlier in the day. They seemed a fairly inclusive group. Drelent had four men working with him, Gyn, Romyr, Rhyddry and Selvic. They all claimed to be from southern Rohan, but Aragorn was sure that their accents were wrong. When the ranger had questioned Drelent on the length of their search for game, seeing as how Methedras, the mountain they camped below was well over one hundred and fifty miles from their home, the hunter had merely shrugged it off and returned the question with one of his own. Aragorn filed away the information for later use. He liked Drelent, and Gyn his second in command had been a pleasant fellow as well. Portly and happy, Gyn was an excellent shot with a crossbow and had bagged nearly all the game they were now dining on.

The other three that comprised the small company had kept to themselves, keeping their conversations and contact with the elf and the ranger limited. Even now, Drelent had sent them into the forests on the edge of the plain in search of more wood after they had seen to Dryxyn, making sure the man was well tied up and had had food and water for the night.

Legolas had remained silent for the better part of the day. During a quiet moment when the two had been left alone, Aragorn had questioned his friend on his reticence. The elf had responded simply by saying that the men seemed all wrong to him and he was certain they were not who they said they were. He had watched them carefully throughout the day, his suspicions only deepening.

"So you say the floor fell beneath you when you turned the handle?" Drelent leaned forward, his tone incredulous as he listened to Strider recount their exploration of the building that sat quietly behind them, resting in the slight fog that hugged the ground near the base of the mountains.

"It did! Half the orcs fell in with it! And I couldn't get my hand freed. Legolas and I were stranded on one side with the orcs on the other!" Aragorn laughed now, but it hadn't been funny at the time and Legolas glanced at him out of the corner of his eyes, a smile pulling at his own lips.

"Now there is a situation that I would never wish to find myself in." Drelent elbowed the man next to him with a huge smile, "What say you Gyn?"

"I'd say that would be a mighty fine spot to find oneself in." Gyn tipped a mug of mead to his lips and took huge his gulp. In the seconds that his eyes were hidden from their guests he glanced at Drelent, his gaze questioning the man he called his boss. He grew weary of these two and wished to get on with business. Drelent smiled back and nodded almost imperceptibly, motioning ever so slightly with his eyes into the trees behind Aragorn and Legolas.

He had in fact sent the others out into the woods to circle behind the camp and wait. At a signal from Drelent the three hidden hunters had orders to kill the elf and the ranger, but Drelent wanted to learn everything he could from the two before he disposed of them. Saruman had told him in no uncertain terms that failure was unacceptable and that those who failed him paid for it, as Paxcyn had. Drelent had hated killing the man; he'd known Paxcyn for years, always as the competition. But Romyr had enjoyed it. He was a killer at heart and the one reason Drelent had hired the youth in the first place; he had no conscience at all.

"So tell me how far *have* you explored the ruins?" Drelent pushed his guests for more information.

Before Aragorn could respond Legolas gently brushed his fingers against the ranger's leg. His eyes were fixed on the men across the fire, not giving away the silent communication that passed between them.

Strider pretended to be caught off guard and asked Drelent to repeat the question, leaning forward and filling his mug with a second draught of mead. With the attention off himself and onto his actions, Strider glanced down at Legolas' hand resting near his thigh. The elf made a sharp cutting motion with his fingers before laying them back on the ground. If the ranger hadn't known what to look for he would have simply thought that the elf were shooing away a pesky night bug or a crawler, but the warning was taken to heart and when the human sat back once more he sipped his ale before answering.

Legolas had seen the slight nod that Drelent had given Gyn when the man had silently questioned his boss. He had followed the hunters almost imperceptible gaze out into the woods behind them when no one paying him any attention and had caught glimpses of the hunters hidden in the forests, the tiny glints of starlight on their arrow heads tipping off the keen sighted prince.

He realized that Drelent was using them for information and he had told Aragorn to stop telling the man anything with the simple warning he had given the ranger. He feared they had just stepped from one trap into another.

Aragorn's answer did not please their guest and Drelent's barely contained look of surprise and anger tipped him off.

"I mean surely you haven't come all this way simply for game? I see no provisions that would carry you this far on such a trip. So I ask you again my friend, why so interested in the ruins of an old building?" Aragorn smiled openly at Drelent, his questions easily deflecting the others.

"Tales." Gyn spoke up from where he sat, answering for Drelent. He stirred from his resting place against a boulder that poked from the broken ground and he shifted the logs in the fireplace with a long thick stick. "The townsfolk tell of tales from that place. Might be we could take our own back and add to the fire of the myth." He chuckled at himself, downing his second mug of ale.

"Yes, tell me of your home." Legolas questioned softly.

All eyes turned on him. Gyn glanced at Drelent, the tables had turned and the interrogators had suddenly become the interrogated. It was time to end the conversation.

Neither man answered the elf and the tension stretched over the camp imperceptibly.

Aragorn turned and glanced behind them into the forest. "I think Romyr and the others might need help collecting that wood. They've been gone an awfully long time." He barely caught the darker shape of a human pressing back against a tree; it was so fast he almost questioned whether he had seen anything or not.

"They'll be fine." Drelent glanced over the ranger's head and motioned towards the woods with his chin, "They'll be back any minute now."

Legolas' fingers closed about his bow that lay near his side. He and Aragorn had retrieved their weapons from Paxcyn's camp earlier that day and he tensed where he sat ready for any sudden movements.

In the darkness Romyr notched his bow and sighted in on the elf's head. He pulled the arrow back, realigning his mark. Rhyddry and Selvic followed his lead, readying their bows, and sighting in on their targets.

Romyr breathed in deeply and released his breath, his sharp gaze narrowing down to the point of his arrow resting just above Legolas fair head. His fingers began to relax, easing up on the bowstring, when a dark shape fell from the sky above the camp sweeping mere feet over the heads of the men seated there.

Drelent and Gyn ducked as the dark, swooping shape swept over their heads, a shrill, keening cry piercing the air, marking its arrival.

Legolas glanced at Aragorn, a huge smile on his face.

"Mithrandir, with help!" He whispered as he leapt to his feet drawing his bow up with him and running towards the dark figure that had landed just outside the light of the campfire.

"Friends of yours?" Drelent asked a bit darkly. He was irritated with the interruption.

"Yes." Aragorn smiled at the man, "We've been waiting on them." He slowly gained his feet and walked after the elf, who threw himself into the arms of the man that now stood next to the dark shape that had fallen from the sky - Gwaihir.

Drelent looked back into the woods, and quickly motioned his men back in. Their plans had been waylaid, it was time to regroup. Gyn glanced at his boss. But Drelent simply shook his head, "We still have a chance to retrieve the palantir, it'll just be a little more difficult now." He answered the man's unspoken question.

"Perhaps." Gyn watched as the large bird turned a piercing gaze towards the campfire, folding its huge wings along its back, "Or simply more challenging. Might be fun to bag me a great eagle now mighten it?" He fingered the wood of his crossbow idly as he stared back at the four.

Drelent laughed dryly and slapped the man on the back, "Gyn, my friend, I knew there was a reason I kept you around." He glanced into the night and watched as Romyr walked back to camp his face dark and angry, his arms loaded with wood they had *scavenged* from the forests.

"Sit." Drelent commanded the young man and his companions, "And smile Romyr. Don't worry you'll get another chance."

The youth dropped his load carelessly on the ground and slowly glanced at his employer, his irritation uncontained. When Drelent turned towards him to emphasize his instructions the younger hunter simply looked away, working on controlling his anger and seating himself crosslegged before the fire. He had very nearly blown their cover and released his arrow when Gwaihir had literally dropped into the camp.

"That's a great eagle." He whispered darkly at Drelent, "Do you have any idea..."

Gyn cut him off leaning forward, "That one is mine. You leave him to me and do what you have been told."

Romyr shook his dark unruly tresses out of his eyes and smiled back at the ruddy faced man, "You mind your own self, or you'll wake to find that I have slit your throat old man."

"Romyr!" Drelent glared at the youth, "Leave Gyn alone and Gyn don't you be pushing it. We're all a bit tense. We just have to keep this charade up until we get our hands on that damn palantir, seeing stone, whatever is, that rock inside that pile of debris. You all know what happens if we fail."

Gyn sat back and calmed himself. Romyr breathed in deeply and let his breath out slowly, his eyes flicking up as the elf and human walked back towards the campfire trailing an older man and the great eagle. "They come."

Drelent stood and smiled openly at the foursome, the dark frown that had decorated his face, completely erased from his countenance.

"Welcome!" He held out his hand to the wizard that walked next Legolas, "And what an entrance that was. Gave us quite a scare." He smiled at Aragorn, "Your friends didn't warn us you'd be dropping in." He laughed lightly at his own joke.

"Well met." Gandalf inclined his head slightly and wrapped his large hands around the hunters. "Yes, we were delayed a bit in coming, but Gwaihir's aid made up for time lost and we're here now." He leveled the man with an open stare.

Drelent flinched under the searching gaze, he felt as if the old timer could see right through him and he quickly dropped his eyes, covering his discomfort by gently kicking Gyn over to make room for the other. "Please sit. Join us, there is plenty of mead left and the night is still young."

"I thank you for your most generous offer," Gandalf smiled and cast his gaze at the ring of men, taking them each in quickly, "But I dare say we should set up a bit away from you. Gwaihir's presence tends to make the horses uneasy." The wizard motioned towards the line of beasts picketed close to the remnants of a rock wall within the light of the campfire. The animals pranced and shifted anxiously, pulling at their tethers.

"I see. You are correct." Drelent's smiled slipped slightly as his plans were disrupted once more. "Well if you should need anything throughout the night, let us know."

"Thank you we will." Aragorn placed his arm around Legolas' shoulder and turned the elf away following the wizard and the huge eagle back out onto the broken plains, near the edge of the meadow, where the fissures in the earth were not so deep.

Gwaihir joined the three beings as they searched out bramble from the shrubbery that dotted the landscape and scavenged the edges of the forests for bits and pieces of wood to make a fire with.

Gandalf struck the pile of wood with his staff and flames leapt from the interior of the small mound, sparking and leaping into the sky. They had set up camp in a shallowed-out bowl on the edge of the meadow. Two flat low rocks bracketed the campfire and Gandalf eased himself down onto the top of one of them, laying his staff across his bent knees.

Legolas slowly seated himself on the ground in front of the other and leaned wearily back against the cool stone.

"Here, let me see to that." Aragorn knelt by the elf and gently brushed away the stray strands of blonde hair that had become dried into the blood that still caked across the elf's brow.

"Aragorn don't fuss with it." Legolas tried to push the human away but he did ache and he felt dirty and tired, neither of which was a feeling he appreciated; in the end he gave up, rolling his eyes to glare at Gandalf as the wizard chuckled at the two of them.

"Let him have his way Legolas." The older man lit his long pipe and pulled a breath deep into his lungs savoring the sweet flavor. The bowl of the pipe lit hot red as the oxygen was drawn through it, lighting his smiling eyes with its faint glow. "You look like the wargs took you out to play with."

"Thank you Mithrandir." The elf muttered and winced as Aragorn checked out his battered knees. The gouges that the rough stones had scraped away there were more painful than his pride wanted to admit.

"Gandalf," Aragorn looked up at the wizard, "would you have water and bandages with you? Ours were taken and I could not find my pack. He has taken only scratches but some are deep and I would not see them become infected."

"And your new friends gave you none?" The old man stood slowly and walked back near the great eagle that had bedded down behind him, its head tucked back against its wing, its dark black eyes watching.

"Behind the rock Gandalf." The eagle answered the wizards searching gaze, his voice a soft deep trill.

"Ah yes, thank you dear friend." Gandalf retrieved his bag and produced the items Aragorn had requested, handing him a small sack of various herbs, should he desire to use them.

Legolas was watching the camp of the men, thinking over Gandalf's question. "No they did not," he answered quietly some moments later.

Aragorn and Gandalf both stopped and glanced at the elf when he spoke up.

"They did not give us water or bandages. In fact they only offered us meat and mead." He clarified his answer, his eyes had not left the far camp and he was frowning. "I do not trust them."

"And well you should not." Gandalf looked in the direction the elf was gazing and his face darkened. "They are not as they seem unless I completely miss my mark."

"That's what Legolas said." Aragorn quietly spoke as he walked back to the elf's side and dropped down next to him, spreading out the things he would need to clean his friend up.

Legolas focused on Aragorn, he smiled as his friend poured water into a small bowl and gently began to clean away the blood and the dirt that stained the elf's knees; it reminded the prince of being tended when he was a child, which was probably the last time he had had scraped knees like this. It really was nothing to fuss about, but he had learned a long time ago that Aragorn would have his way about this or there would be no peace until he did. The map slipped from its hiding place against the ranger's breast and Legolas reached out, snagging it with his long fingers.

"Give the map to Mithrandir. It will be safer that way." He held the paper out to his friend.

"Good idea!" Aragorn took the folded packet and walked back around the fire.

"Map?" Gandalf looked back at the two friends, his bushy white eyebrow arching as he questioned them, "Ah yes, your father told me something of it. It is why we made haste to find you. Now tell me, how is it you came to have it in your possession??"

"Well, we ran into a man in...," Aragorn started to explain.

"No he ran into us." Legolas corrected him with a smile.

"Actually," Aragorn stopped, turning to stare down at his friend, "he ran into *you*! I knew it was mistake to take you into Adirolf."

Gandalf interrupted them both with a choked laugh, "You took the prince into Adirolf?"

Aragorn nodded innocently.

"Have you not a wit about you! You are bolder I thought," the wizard shook his head.

"Or more naïve." Gwaihir added chuckling as he watched the young ranger, his eyes lighted by the fire's glow looked red in the dim light.

"We needed supplies." Aragorn tried to defend himself.

"He wanted a blanket." Legolas laughed.

"I am not going through this again!" Aragorn looked between the elf and the wizard. Gandalf was barely containing his laughter and Legolas had lost his constraint long ago. The smile on the elf's face banished the frown that decorated the human's and he simply shook his head and looked around the camp.

"Yes, well I am going to be needing another one too it seems."

At that confession even Gwaihir started laughing, "Come young human, you can sleep under my wing tonight, it will stave off the chill." The great eagle turned towards them and lifted his wing slightly.

"Oh go ahead and have your fun." Aragorn teased them, turning back to his friend he jabbed his finger at the seated elf, "I am never taking you there again! This whole thing is all your fault."

"My fault!"

"Oh give us the map and stop your nonsense." Gandalf laughed extending his hand towards the ranger.

Laughing as well, the human placed the paper in the wizard's up-turned palm and stepped behind him, glancing over his shoulder as Gandalf smoothed the paper open on his lap.

"Can you read it Mithrandir?" Legolas sat up a bit taller trying to see over the bright fire.

Gandalf did not answer right away, his brow furrowed as scanned the weathered document, "Where did you say you got this?" His voice was low and held a bit of awe as his fingers brushed the silvery words that lit up brilliantly in the moon's soft glow. Quietly he spoke a few of the sentences out loud, the language as beautiful and poetic as it was artistic.

Gwaihir loosed a soft trill and moved forward gazing at the sheet over the wizard's shoulder. He spoke softly in words that neither Aragorn nor Legolas recognized. The two younger beings glanced at each other in confusion.

"Where?" Gwaihir glanced at Legolas and questioned once more.

The elf quickly recounted their trip into the town of Adirolf and the subsequent deaths of the original map bearers. He told them how they had discovered the map a few days later and had fled to Moria after barely escaping Paxcyn and his men. Aragorn noted with a secretive smile that elf did not speak of the way they had left the dwarf's dwelling.

"We were followed by flocks of crebain Mithrandir. They seemed to find us every step of the way after we left Moria's walls." Legolas glanced at Aragorn before turning back to watch as Drelent and his men settled in for the night.

Gandalf nodded, listening intently, "Crebain you say? That is ill news." He too glanced back towards the others, his eyes finally resting on the collapsing hulk of the ruins.

"Can you read the words?" Aragorn asked the question again.

"Yes." Gandalf murmured his eyes dropping back down to the map once more, "Yes I can."

The human leaned over and pointed to one word, "That one I know." He smiled as Gandalf looked at him incredulously, "It's Maiar. What it means I know not. But my father told me that was what it was."

"Your father?" Gandalf looked at the man perplexed, thinking for a moment before his face brightened, "Ah yes! Your father does have some of the ancient manuscripts doesn't he? I had forgotten that." He replied cryptically as he gazed back at the building behind them. "Rescued a few, if am not mistaken."

Aragorn shrugged slightly, when the wizard said no more, and began to read the shimmering text. The human moved back around the fire and reseated himself next to Legolas gently bandaging the elf's head wound and wrapping his knees in soft cloth for the night.

The soft sounds of the night drifted into the camp. The fire popping and spitting from time to time as it hit pockets of sap, broke the stillness.

Finally Aragorn spoke again. He moved a bit away from Legolas stretching out on the ground between the elf and the wizard. "Gandalf," the ranger glanced over at the older man seated on the rock, "What is this place?"

"This place?" The wizard indicated the darkened building behind them, "Well, what have you heard?"

"Paxcyn said it was a place of knowledge and wisdom." Legolas answered softly.

Gwaihir edged forward and settled down, the rustling of his downy feathers quieting as they listened to the old tale. He tucked his head back along his wing, his bright eyes ever watchful in the dark. "Well Paxcyn was correct, this used to be a great repository of wisdom and knowledge. People like myself and the firstborns," Gandalf smiled at Legolas, "used to frequent it eons ago, in was what you would call the second age I believe. All those who sought wisdom and wanting to study what was long lost came to these halls and those who lived within them to learn. Much of the structure itself was built by the Drúedain and contains a kind of deadly skill that has been lost from the world since their disappearance."

The stars twinkled brightly in the heavens and Aragorn relaxed on the ground turning over onto his back, his pack bunched up under his head for a makeshift pillow. He traced the patterns of the bright pinpoints of light with his eyes as he listened to Gandalf's deep melodious voice. It felt safe somehow to be so near the wizard and he found himself finally calming down.

"Anyway," the wizard continued, smiling slightly to himself as he watched his companions begin to relax. "There was an earthquake at the end of the second age unlike anything that has happened before or since." Aragorn tipped his head around and met the older man's eyes at the mention of the natural disaster, his own experiences with one tumbling through his mind.

"The ground was ripped here and all was torn asunder." He waved his hand around the open plains, "This all used to be forests but when the earth shook, the ground split. That's why there are all those fissures out in the plains in front of this place. They never healed. The plants died off and the building was broken by the quake. The fumes, from the vents that pierced the earth, drove the people away."

"This building was deemed unable to save and so they only shored it up long enough to removed most of the artifacts and the libraries to safer locations." He glanced at the ruined hulk remembering it from its day of glory and smiled sadly.

"Obviously not everything though." Aragorn spoke up quietly. The tale of the ancient ruins captivated him.

"No, not all." Gandalf turned his attention to the young human who was watching him. "Some things were left. Some because they were too dangerous to move and some because the time was not right for them to be revealed yet and so they have waited for that day. Like a few other things we know of." He smiled and winked at the ranger, knowing that the young man had heard that same sentiment used to describe his own heritage.

"Of course that time has never quite come, though it is now near," the old wizard continued cryptically, "And in time the caretakers died and they never passed on the information of the items still contained in its depths as they were warned not to." Gandalf reverently fingered the yellowed paper in his lap, pulling a deep breath of sweet smoke into his lungs as he chewed on the end of his pipe, lost in thought. "As often happens, things that should have been remembered were forgotten, even to the wise. This map is the last link to prove the existence of this place which even the wise had almost forgotten."

Legolas gasped slightly as the information triggered his thoughts and Aragorn glanced up at the fair being as the elf looked back at the hall in awe, "This is Eowioriand?! But I was told it was only myth. The knowledge of this place and its people have fallen from existence."

"What did you call it?" Aragorn turned to his friend.

"It is known as Urithral, in the common tongue, Hidden City. Or Lost Knowledge in the words of my people." Legolas turned to his friend, "I have heard stories of Eowioriand, many were the wonders housed here." Huge blue eyes locked onto the ranger's in amazement, "And so then the stories of old *are* true. The treasures themselves are guarded by an ancient power. That is what I felt today when we were in the passageway, that was what upset the orcs."

Gandalf gazed hard at the elf. "You say you felt it?" His brow was furrowed at the mention of this new information.

"Yes, like an evil shadow in my mind. A dark dread that I could not shake." Legolas glanced back at the building that had only moments ago been bathed in the glory of the elder days but now a shadow crept over it and the elf shuddered. Turning back to Gandalf he all but whispered, "Do you know what lies there?"

Gwaihir shifted slightly his huge black eye turning to gaze on Gandalf. The wizard caught the simple gesture and answered simply, "Such things are best not discussed under the cover of night."

"Thank you." Aragorn muttered sarcastically around a yawn, "I really don't want to know. I would like to be able to sleep tonight."

Gandalf laughed lightly, pulling deeply on his pipe and blowing out a perfect smoke ring, "And well you shall young human. Tomorrow we will go back and retrieve the palantir and leave this place to its guardian."

"Well whatever it is, it lives in the left hand passage and the floor in the right hand passage is not at all what you think it is!" Aragorn grabbed the edge of his overcoat which he used for a blanket and rolled over onto his side facing the fire, glancing at Legolas with a lopsided smile, "We already tried to get in that way. The handle just makes the floor drop out underneath you."

Legolas looked over at Gandalf and nodded emphatically.

"Ah, is that so?" The old wizard smiled at the two younger beings. "Well tomorrow we'll give it another try and see if I just can't do something about that."

Aragorn laughed lightly, "As you wish Gandalf, as you wish." His eyes were heavy and it was becoming hard to keep them open.

A warm hand touched his shoulder and he closed his eyes, "Sleep now. Tomorrow you'll see." With a slight smile the ranger fell quickly asleep.

Gandalf glanced from the young human to his elven companion. The prince was watching the exterior of the building uneasily.

"Legolas, take your ease." He whispered quietly, his soft voice easily carrying across the fire to the anxious elf. "Gwaihir will stand watch. Besides, what lives there would not dare to step outside its dwelling place, we are safe here." He smiled as the elf turned back towards him, the stars reflected in the huge blue eyes. "It will be alright."

Legolas nodded slowly and settled to the ground with his back to the large rock he had only moments ago been sitting on. Hugging his bow tightly to his chest the elf allowed himself to rest and within moments Gandalf could tell that his half lidded gaze was merely deep slumber.

The wizard turned serious eyes on the eagle, "Be vigilant my friend."

"I would not dare to turn our backs on the enemy this night." Gwaihir spoke quietly, "There is more amiss here than meets the eye." The eagle looked towards the camp of the men a few yards away, "They are not who they present themselves to be."

Gandalf followed his gaze. "They smell wrong." The great eagle answered the unspoken question. The old wizard simply nodded and looked back to the darkened shell of the building before him. It would be wise to retrieve what they came for and leave quickly; Eowioriand was a place best left forgotten if Middle Earth would only let it remain so.

Chapter Text

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~*PART NINE*~

When Aragorn woke the sun was already up. He rolled over on his back with a sigh and glanced up...

...Into the face of Gwaihir. The large bird was seated near his head, staring down at the human with one large black eye. Aragorn flung his arm over one eye, shading his gaze from the sun and squinted at the eagle.

"Gwaihir?" he mumbled sleepily.

"Yes, ranger." The bird bent nearer, ruffling his feathers as he shifted position.

Aragorn glanced around them, trying to wake up, trying to understand where he was. "Where is everyone?"

The huge eagle looked across the plain to where the hunters were breaking camp. "Mithrandir and Legolas are speaking with the men."

With a moan the human rolled over and pushed himself into a sitting position. His head felt funny and when he reached up to touch his forehead, his fingers brushed against the soft touch of a bandage. Sometime during the night someone had seen to his own wounds, he frowned in confusion and drew in a deep breath trying to clear his mind.

When he glanced up once more, Legolas was walking back towards their camp. Gandalf stood in the center of the abandoned hunter's campsite watching the men amble off towards the woods.

Legolas seated himself one of the rocks near the remnants of their fire pit. He leaned down and smiled at the human who sat crosslegged on the ground, his ruffled hair sticking at odd angles from under the bandage that encircled his head.

Long graceful fingers reached out and gently snagged the circle of cloth, giving it a light pull, "Nice addition." He laughed as the man jerked away from his touch and frowned up at him.

"Where'd they go?' Aragorn motioned back to the empty plain, tilting his chin in the direction Drelent had left. "And who did this?" he touched the bandage that wrapped around his temples, moaning with the ache in his skull as he rested his head in one hand.

"They went on with their business," Gandalf's voice startled him and Aragorn looked up as the wizard seated himself on the rock opposite Legolas. "Hunting, or so they said, although I do not believe them. And as for your bandage young human *I* am the one responsible for that, show a bit more gratitude son of Elrond." The old man smiled down at the confused ranger.

Aragorn touched the back of his head where Dryxyn had cruelly re-opened his wound the day before. "Thank you Gandalf. I had forgotten about it." He fingered the bandage over the superficial cut.

Legolas stood and walked behind the human, brushing his fingers away and unwinding the strip. Pushing the rangers head down gently he inspected the cut, "I had forgotten all about it too. I'm sorry Aragorn."

The human shrugged, dropping his head down between his shoulders as Legolas cleaned the cut again. "You say Drelent said they were going hunting?" He addressed the question to Gandalf.

"That was what he said," The old wizard gazed off into the woods; ready to wait for a bit before they headed into the depths of Eowioriand, a nagging doubt eating at the back of his mind. It just felt wrong.

"You don't believe them?" Legolas glanced at the wizard through narrowed eyes as he reapplied Aragorn's bandage.

"Did you?" The elder being turned his gaze on the elf.

"No." Legolas stared into the woods, shaking his head. "I did not. I don't know what they want here but I fear it is again the same thing as we seek. It would seem that more than one person or group is interested in this place and what it holds."

Aragorn sighed. "A secret sleeps for thousands of years without a peek and suddenly every one and their cousin is out to get it. Our luck is really astounding, you know that?"

"Whoever they are and whatever their purpose, I fear they'll be back." Gandalf turned and stared at Gwaihir. The great eagle nodded slightly.

"I will see if I can track them. You go and retrieve the palantir and I will keep watch." The bird shook his head, spreading his wings and stretching to his full height, the early morning sun catching in his feathers and painting them with all the colors of the rainbow as the light rays bounced off the dark, iridescent quills.

The eagle leapt skyward, sweeping his great wings down and heading out over the forests to the north his keen eyes searching for any hints of Drelent's hunting party.


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


Gandalf watched the huge bird for a few moments before turning to his younger companions. "Shall we go retrieve that palantir?" His face wrinkled in a bright smile.

"The sooner the better I fear." Legolas glanced towards the ruins that they were now slowly walking towards, "I do not like being in the presence of what lives in those tunnels."

"What *is* down there Gandalf?" Aragorn glanced up as Gwaihir made a swooping pass over the plains. Last night he had been too tired for tales, but now he was curious as he remembered their previous conversation.

"In Eowioriand?" the wizard asked, as if further explanation were needed. Legolas smiled slightly at the ranger and shook his head; he had the very distinct feeling that the older man would never tell them plainly.

Gandalf stepped down into the main chamber of the sunken building and stopped a few paces in. Closing his eyes he concentrated deeply. Content with what he felt he nodded slightly and glanced over at Aragorn with a small smile, "You have nothing to worry about from that one, it sleeps again. As long as we stay to the right passage we will have no troubles I do believe."

Legolas chuckled lightly and the wizard looked at the elf from the corner of his eyes, trying hard to hide his smile. It was as the elf had thought. Gandalf seemed to prefer answering most questions in riddles that they would probably never understand. Aragorn shook his head. "I have should have known." He murmured, following the older being down the hallway they had tried the previous day.

"Such pleasant memories." Legolas muttered stepping lightly onto the tiled floor that appeared so deceptively stable.

"Want me to try the handle again?" Aragorn teased the elf, dancing quickly away from the fair being.

Legolas glared at the ranger as Gandalf turned to stare at the two youths watching the human tease the prince.

Aragorn held up his hands in surrender, laughing, "Right. I know, I know it's a cave!"

"I'm not going to argue with you." Legolas leveled him a dangerous stare that only caused the young man to laugh harder.

"I will never let you drag me in to another one ever! Do you hear me Estel?" Legolas stepped towards the ranger who jumped back nearer to Gandalf as though the older man would be any sort of protection from the elf.

"I'm sorry, I know it's not funny." Aragorn tried unsuccessfully to still his laughter. He turned as Gandalf interrupted them, his laughter joining the ranger's. The older man had approached the door's entry and was inspecting the writing etched into the stone as he listened to the youths behind him torment each other.

"I don't know how your fathers put up with you two. Ah here it is." The wizard reached out and took hold of the simple handle recessed inside the stone niche, pulling his overlarge sleeves out of the way as he grasped the lever.

"Uhm... I wouldn't do that if I were you." Aragorn glanced warily at Gandalf, unconsciously moving closer to the large stone door and making sure his feet were balanced on the slight edge.

Gandalf smiled with barely contained humor, "Trust me young human. *I* know what I am doing!" The wizard caught Legolas' eye and winked at the elf, who was watching his human friend with a small smile.

Griping the handle tightly, Gandalf spoke to door with a firm, loud voice. The words he uttered were an entirely different language and his companions listened with rapt attention to the melodious tone of the words.

As he spoke, he turned the handle clockwise and Aragorn found himself tensing as he watched the older man repeat the exact same move he had done earlier with such disastrous results.

Gandalf stepped away from the small recessed box and glanced at the large door.

Nothing happened. Nothing moved and no one made a sound as they waited.

Aragorn opened his eyes slowly. He had closed them tightly shut, anticipating the floor to open up, or the walls to crush in, or some other trap to spring upon them at any moment. Seconds ticked by quietly and he finally let his breath out when the wall behind his hand moved to the left. The ranger jumped back from the stone door in surprise as the entry slid silently open.

Legolas couldn't help laughing at the look on the human's face as the wall receded behind him. His outburst earned him a baleful glare from the ranger before the man turned his attention back to the wizard who had already stepped into the darkened room.

"Gandalf, what language was that you spoke? It was the same one you and Gwaihir used last night, was it not?"

"That it was." The older man replied absently. He lifted his hand to the top of his staff, placing an oddly shaped crystal onto the end of it. Blowing on the rock slightly, he passed his hand over it and it flared to life, glowing gently in the gloom of the antechamber. "It is the language of my people." He continued as he held the staff higher letting its light touch the far walls.

Aragorn stepped into the room and glanced about him. The chamber was round, its walls smooth and cut from the stone. The ranger continued questioning the Maiar, "Your people? I thought..." His voice dropped off in confusion and he did not finish his question.

"It is best not to think." Legolas brushed past him and walked towards the only the fixture in the circular chamber.

Ahead of them, mounted on a plain stone pedestal, sat the seeing stone. Inside the room, unlike the rest of the building, there was no writing on the walls. No decorations of any sort cluttered the chamber and the floor seemed shorn of a single slab of stone.

Legolas' comment provoked a laugh from Gandalf as he redirected his light in the direction that the elf was walking. "Ah, there it is," his soft voice echoing off the rounded walls of the vault. He stopped next to the prince and gazed at the darkened globe that sat in the very center of the base, the stone itself had been draped with a cloth, only its outline visible beneath the covering.

Aragorn had walked half away around the room, looking at the smooth walls of the chamber and trying to glimpse if it had ever been used as anything other than a crypt for the artifact his friends were looking at. He turned as Gandalf spoke and caught a glimpse of the palantir for the first time as the wizard pulled away the protective black cloth that covered it where it sat.

Dust from years of abandonment floated into the air catching the light of the older man's walking staff. The dark jewel like marble glittered dully in the dim glow. As he drew near Aragorn could see that the palanitr was in fact made of a single black stone, cut in the shape of a perfect globe. Its glassy curves revealed crystal striations that spiraled within its depths.

Its depths...

Aragorn stepped closer, resting one hand on the column that the palantir was seated on, mesmerized by the seeing stone, his eyes focused on the light that spun within it. Something inside the ranger sparked and he would swear later that the stone called his name. Reaching out with his other hand he tried to touch the glassy exterior but was stopped.

Gandalf swiftly leaned forward and grasped the man's wrist, smiling at the human as he did so. "Not yet young heir." He cautioned, gently pushing Aragorn back. The ranger blinked several times before he stepped back a pace.

Legolas stared incredulously at his friend, "What is with you? Must you touch everything? Honestly Estel, you're as bad as a child!"

"But... but it seemed right." Aragorn stared in confusion between his two friends, uncertain what had just happened.

Gandalf simply smiled at the uncertainty in the ranger and nodded; he knew the boy was only answering his calling but now was not yet the time. In truth, this stone really belonged to Aragorn, being as it was an ancient heirloom of the line of Kings. But that was a destiny that Aragorn had yet to fully accept. Seven stones there had been, but most were now lost to memory. The remaining stones that had gone missing through the ages had not all been accounted for and it was important that Aragorn's heritage not be made known to certain forces that were once again stirring in Middle Earth. It was most certainly not time for that. Shaking out a black velvet bag that he produced from inside his cloak, the old wizard acknowledged the human's perfectly legitimate response, "Perhaps, young one, but not quite yet I think. The time will come."

He dropped the bag over the stone, its edges easily slipping around the curved globe and concealing it from sight. "We know not where the others now lie nor who may be watching. Hand me your dagger." He extended his hand to the ranger. When Aragorn placed the blade in the wizards upturned palm, Gandalf eased the tip of the weapon under the stone, flipping it gently off its base and catching it in the soft bag. He quickly pulled the drawstring closed around the top of it, careful not to let his hands touch the palantir at all. The more caution the better as far as he was concerned, both because of the stone itself, and whatever spells or traps may have been laid to keep it safe.

"Come let us be gone now and quickly I think." Gandalf glanced around them cautiously as he led the two friends back towards the door. The wizard had just stepped over the threshold when an odd grating sound assaulted their ears. Aragorn glanced into the hallway only to see that the floor in front of them had once again begun to split in half.

Legolas, however, turned back towards the interior of the chamber they were leaving. The podium in the center was slowly descending into the floor.

"Mithrandir!" Gandalf looked over his shoulder and saw what Legolas was watching.

"The floor! We must go!" Aragorn grabbed the wizard by his sleeve and pushed the man forward, next to the wall as the ground receded below them into the sides of the tunnel, revealing the gaping maw that they had discovered the previous day.

Running after Gandalf, the ranger called back over his shoulder to his friend, "Legolas come quickly, while we can still cross!"

Legolas tore his eyes away from the room, the beams of the chamber had started to fall into the vault, Eowioriand was tearing itself apart, finishing the work that the earthquake had begun on it years ago. The elf lightly raced along the opposite side of the moving ground and jumped to the safety of the passageway that headed up to the main chamber. Dust fell down from the roof of the tunnel and cracks grew in the floor beneath his feet.

"Hurry!" The prince called to his friends, holding one hand out to steady them as they leapt off of the shifting plates, his other hand shielding his eyes as the tunnel shook itself down around them.

The elf pushed Gandalf ahead of him down the hallway and yelled at him to run as Aragorn lost his footing and teetered on the edge of the swiftly disappearing stone walk. It too began to crumble, worn and deteriorating from the years. He threw his arms out wildly, trying to maintain his balance, but the shifting of the earth tossed him forward and he fell just short of his friend's outstretched hands. His fingers barely grasped the ledge of stone that Legolas stood on and the elf quickly dropped to his knees, ignoring the pain the abrasive rock floor caused.

"Aragorn!" Grabbing the ranger's wrists he slowly strained to pull his friend up. There was no purchase for the human as he kicked his legs, trying to help push himself up. Twisting his hands in his friend's grip the ranger held on tightly as the elf levered him back onto solid ground.

There was no time to catch his breath as Legolas wrapped his long fingers in the man's overcoat and hauled him to his feet, shoving him down the collapsing hallway. They had little time left. Dust and rock choked the air and it was hard to breathe let alone see in the crumbling darkness.

Running out of the building as fast as he could, Gandalf glanced back into the main hall. There was no sign of his young friends and he staggered backwards as the earth lurched under his feet.

"Not yet!" He called out to the collapsing building, "You cannot go yet!" He commanded the rocks to hold their places; the infrastructure of the main room creaked and groaned as the ground beneath it twisted and churned, caught in the throes of death. By the power he had been given over the tangible things in Middle Earth, the wizard held the shuddering building up, hoping for a sight of the ranger and the prince, and hoping for it soon, because he knew he could not halt the unstoppable for very long. There was a strong magic about this place and it was more than just the ravages of earthquake or age that was making it come down upon itself now that its chief treasure had been removed.

"Kwara!" Gandalf commanded, throwing the force of his will against the ancient counterspell that wanted to wrench the building away from him. "Hold!" The struggle was intensely fierce and the crumbling stone shrieked in protest as Gandalf's will clashed with the unstoppable powers controlling Eowioriand's demise.

Aragorn stumbled into the main room. He caught himself as the floor slipped beneath him, jerked sideways.

Tortured beyond its limits, the marble buckled and tripped the nimble elf as well. Legolas fell to the floor with a cry.

The sound of his friend's distress stopped the ranger and he skidded on the stones, turning back towards the prince.

Legolas was painfully gaining his feet when he noticed the human had stopped. Not wanting his friend crushed in the building he motioned with his hand shouting at the man, "GO! Strider go!!"

When Aragorn saw that the prince was following him once more, he turned and pelted for the opening that was sinking slowly into the ground.

Gandalf caught sight of the ranger running towards him, in moments they would be free of the ruins and he could allow the building to settle back into the earth. The wizard's outflung hands trembled slightly at the strain of supporting the collapsing structure against its will, but he stood firm, his concentration completely focused on the task at hand, his whole being involved in the struggle. Aragorn and Legolas were almost in the clear...

With his attention so caught up in the struggle to save the two younger beings, Gandalf never sensed the person who approached him stealthily from behind. The rending of the stones blocked out all noise and he never heard Gwaihir's warning cry as Drelent raised his sword and brought its pommel down against the base of the old man's skull.

Gandalf stumbled forward. His grip on the failing building faltered and the ground shook with a horrendous roar, Eowioriand was attempting to bury the trespassers with it. Despite the danger, Gandalf dare not divide his attention. He had a choice to make; turn to face the new threat and protect himself, or save Aragorn and Legolas... the wizard did not even have to think before accepting the latter.

The opening shifted lower and Aragorn threw himself out of the disintegrating doorway, followed closely by Legolas. He watched in horror as Drelent loomed above Gandalf, and struck the wizard once more driving the old man to the ground. He fell and did not rise.

Aragorn screamed Gandalf's name, but the City of Knowledge was dying and the ground beneath their feet heaved and bucked as the ruins imploded upon themselves. An inhuman keening cry rent the air, causing the hair on Aragorn's neck to stand on end. He stared wide-eyed at the ruins, scrabbling backwards as dirt and debris was thrown into the air showering them with tiny bits of rocks. The sky was blocked from sight, shrouded in the clouds of dust that exploded upwards.

Drelent bent over and grabbed the palantir from Gandalf's limp fingers. Aragorn got his hands underneath him, pressing himself up off the ground. He saw Drelent lean over the wizard and reach for the velvet bag that had slipped from his hand. The ranger lunged at the hunter and knocked him away from the wizard, slamming his shoulder into the man's chest.

Drelent fell backwards, his fingers releasing the palantir.

Aragorn stumbled forward, closing over his hand around the top of the sack that contained the seeing stone. He stood to his feet and turned, looking behind him for Legolas. A stinging pain sliced through his upper arm, and he jerked away, wrapping his hand over the red mark that crossed his arm, blood oozing out between his fingers where an arrow had just grazed him. He looked back and saw Drelent re-notch his bow, aiming for the ranger again.

The ground heaved beneath their feet as Eowioriand settled behind them. In the shaking Aragorn lost his footing and fell to the ground; the arrow Drelent had shot at him went wild.

Thrown to the earth, Drelent staggered to his feet once more and lunged at the ranger, pulling his sword from its scabbard he drove it down through Aragorn's arm before the ranger could react, pinning to him the ground. The ranger cried out at the pain, trying to maintain his grip on the velvet bag he held. As the hunter leaned down to retrieve the seeing stone, Aragorn kicked out at the man, catching him in the stomach and forcing him backward.

As Drelent stumbled back, Aragorn turned, catching Legolas eye.

"Legolas!" He clumsily tossed the palantir to the elf, who was just gaining his feet. "Go!" The cloud of dust and debris from the demise of Eowioriand was beginning to settle on the plain, making it hard to see.

Legolas could hear Gwaihir's cry from somewhere above. Running out to the edge of the plain he scanned the sky for great eagle.

Gwaihir swooped low over the forests and approached the fissured, broken rock plateau that butted up against the plains. Legolas nimbly ran out onto the fractured shelf, easily avoiding the steaming breaks in the earth beneath him. The heat that issued from the cracks caused sweat to roll down his face. Concentrating on the eagle overhead Legolas did not notice the human that ran straight for him.

Romyr had caught sight of the elf. Frustrated at not being able to kill the prince earlier and seeing the bundle that he held against him, the young man ran out to intercept the palantir.

Legolas dropped the bag that held the seeing stone to his side, holding onto it by the drawstring, he began to spin it in ever tightening loops, raising it over his head and releasing it like a slingshot as Gwaihir swooped down towards him. The great eagle's claws latched onto the palantir and he shifted his trajectory, heading straight up.

Not all of Drelent's men had entered the plain. Gyn, hidden on the edge of the forest, astride a horse, tracked the eagle with his crossbow, a wicked smile on his rounded face. He closed one eye as he sighted in on his prey and loosed the bolt. His horse pranced back slightly at the sound of the sharp ricochet of the bowstring, but the smile on the little man's face widened as he heard the eagle's piercing cry of pain. The dark shape folded in on itself and dropped like a stone towards the earth.

The bolt sheared through Gwaihir's left wing bone and he screamed with the intensity wound, momentarily losing his grip on the bag that held the palantir. The seeing stone fell from the heights, bouncing once on the rocky plateau, it rolled to the edge of a deep fissure, teetering for seconds before it plummeted over the side.

"No!" Legolas watched as the great eagle spiraled down, trying to keep his wings open until he landed. He angled towards the grassy plains attempting to avoid the fissured earth.

Legolas started to run to his aide when Romyr hit him full force, knocking him down. The whole sequence of events had happened so fast that the elf was taken completely off guard.

The young human straddled the elf, pulling a long wicked blade from its sheath at his waist. "This time no one will come to help you." Romyr whispered at the elf as he forced the blade under the prince's chin, holding him down. Legolas had fallen backwards, pushed over the edge of one of the fissures that broke through the granite. The heat from the opening into the earth intensified as the ground belched forth a plume of superheated steam. The hot air seared the elf's shoulder and neck where he overhung the crevice, burning through his tunic. Legolas cried out with the pain turning his head at the last possible moment to save his face from being burned.

Seeing the pain that the magma-heated air created, Romyr tried to push the prince farther over the opening.

"Rhydrry! Selvic!" The young hunter called back to his companions, while he forced the elf back, "see if you can find the palantir!"

The two hunters ran forward, searching through the cracks in the earth for any sign of the seeing stone.

Legolas struggled against his captor, pulling his knees up underneath the young man. The steam beneath him intensified, the heat was building once more. With a surge of adrenaline brought on by sheer fear, the elf kicked his feet out, throwing Romyr over his head.

The hunter landed upright on the other side of the fissure and stood unsteadily to his feet, the heels of his boots slipping on the edge of one of the deep tears in the rock. His face was a grimace of hatred and he raised his knife, ready to throw it into the elf's heart as Legolas staggered away from him.

Romyr jerked bodily backwards as an arrow cleaved through his breastbone, embedding itself in his chest. Across the plains, Aragorn dropped his bow to his side, breathing heavily from exertion. He had barely been able to stop Drelent from killing him moments before by knocking the man out with his own crossbow and his arm was screaming at him. He watched as Romyr's body fell back into the fissure behind him. Legolas glanced towards the ranger and nodded, letting his friend know he was okay.

With a sigh Aragorn leaned over, resting his hands on his knees and trying to catch his breath. So exhausted was he that he was totally unprepared for the swift kick to his stomach that doubled him over in pain, dropping him to his knees. Drelent had recovered from the blow and attacked the ranger. Tired of being thwarted by the man, he grabbed a fist full of the human's hair and pulled the man's head back sharply, placing the edge of his sword under Aragorn's chin.

"Just give me a reason." The hunter growled at him, holding him there against his blade, blood dripped from the gash to his temple where Aragorn had hit him and breathing heavily. "Just give me a reason."


___________________________________________________________

~*PART TEN*~

Rhyddry threw himself down next to the gap in the earth he was looking into. He squinted through the steam, trying to hold his breath against the noxious fumes that flooded the air about the fissure. The wind blew gently over the granite field, blowing the vapor aside for a moment and the young hunter caught sight of the dark velvet bag seated on a ledge just below the lip of the chasm. Reaching down he quickly pulled the sack from the rift and shoved it inside his overcoat, rolling out of the way at the last possible moment as a plume of steam released itself into the air.

"Drelent!" Rhyddry called out across the expanse to his employer, "It's gone, its fallen into the rifts and is lost in the magma!" But even as he said the words, the hunter held up his shortsword and thrust it skyward, their unspoken signal that the palantir had in fact been retrieved.

Legolas turned and stared at the young hunter, at a loss. He staggered to the edge of the grassy plain and sank down onto the earth, holding his badly burned shoulder tightly with the fingers of his good hand.

Selvic raced to Rhyddry's side and the two fled back into the woods. In moments they re-entered the plains mounted on horses and leading Drelent's as they headed towards the man.

"Too bad, I guess we all loose." The hunter glared down at the ranger.

"Why?" Aragorn asked the man, swallowing carefully around the sword that was still under his chin.

"Why?" Drelent repeated the question, "Because someone else wanted it badly enough to have it destroyed if he couldn't own it for himself," he lied, and it gave him no small pleasure to see the sorrow that flickered through the dark silver eyes that watched him. In frustration he smashed his fist into the ranger's face, driving him to the ground. "Don't follow us. You'll only regret it." He spat at Aragorn as the man slumped to the earth with a moan.

Wiping the blood out of his eyes Drelent looked up and stepped out towards the two trackers that rode towards him grabbing the reigns of his mount as Rhyddry threw them at the hunter. He and Selvic kept riding, heading south for the gap of Rohan, towards their point of rendezvous as Drelent turned back towards the plains, searching for Gyn.

He caught sight of the man across the meadow, dismounting from his steed a few paces in front of the downed great eagle. The burly hunter unslung his crossbow and placed a bolt on the string, notching it back and setting the trigger. He walked slowly up to the wounded bird.

"We don't have time for this." Drelent muttered under his breath, "Gyn! Let's go!" He called to his friend.

But the old hunter wouldn't be dissuaded, "I'll be right along!" He called back to his employer, his eyes never leaving the steady gaze of the eagle's. "I'll be the first hunter to have a great eagle's head for a trophy, that I will." He smiled wickedly at the Maiar.

Gwaihir lay on his side, his broken wing angled sharply away from his body unable to rise because of the pain. He hissed at the man that approached him, panting with each breath he took as he tried to collect himself.

Gyn raised the crossbow and aimed it directly between Gwaihir's huge black eyes. The eagle blinked once, resignation written across his proud face. He jerked slightly as the man before him stopped, sucking in his breath suddenly; his eyes, gone wide with surprise, slowly glazed over and he fell to the ground, an elven arrow between his shoulders.

"Damn it!!" Drelent cursed as he watched the hunter fall. Without looking back he turned his horse tightly and spurred the beast off in the direction that the others had fled. They had what they had come for; there was nothing else that could be done.

Legolas dropped the bow to his side, his head falling forward as he closed his eyes, wincing from the pain the exertion had caused to his seared shoulder. Tears threatened to overspill his closed eyes and he swiped them away as he glanced back towards Aragorn.

The ranger had pressed himself slowly up from the earth where he lay. The meadow was silent once more. Dust still hung in the air but the gentle breezes that swept the plateau were slowly clearing even that away and if not for the bodies that were strewn upon the grassy shelf anyone happening by would never know the struggle that had just taken place.

Aragorn crawled over to where Gandalf lay; he didn't trust himself on his feet just yet as nausea threatened his awareness.

"Gandalf?" The man reached a shaky hand out towards the wizard hesitantly touching the older being's throat, feeling for any signs of life. Aragorn breathed a sigh of relief as Gandalf's pulse beat strongly beneath his fingers. He dropped his chin to his chest and let his head rest there, fighting back the tears as the adrenaline wore off and his body began to shake slightly from the shock of his own wounds and the realization both that they had failed and that they were somehow all still alive. For the moment at least the second emotion overwhelmed the first and the relief was almost painful.

"Aragorn?"

The ranger glanced up slowly at the sound of his name, his eyes locking onto the blue ones of the elf that stood over him.

Swallowing hard against the emotions that raged inside of him, Aragorn nodded finally finding his voice, he whispered, "He lives. He lives."

Legolas rested his hand against the back of the human's head and smiled down at his friend in relief. "It will be all right." He spoke reassuringly.

Aragorn noticed the way the elf hugged his right arm tightly against him. An ugly blistering welt ran up the side of the elf's neck and he winced as he drew in a deep breath.

"Legolas sit, before you fall!" Aragorn reached up towards his friend, with his good arm, "What happened to you?"

The elf glanced back towards the meadow and shook his head. He grasped the ranger's hand and hauled the man to his feet. "We must see to Gwaihir first, he has been wounded also."

Nodding numbly Aragorn walked after the elf to the middle of the field where the large bird lay.

Gwaihir was panting heavily, his eyes glazed over. He moved his head in the direction of the two companions as they made their way slowly towards him.

Legolas stepped in front of the eagle and took the bird's beak in his hands. He stepped underneath the great head and allowed the eagle to rest on his good shoulder, speaking softly in elvish to the wounded animal as Aragorn walked back towards the broken wing.

Aragorn gently wrapped his hands around the large bone in Gwaihir's wing and moved his fingers down the edge of the wing, feeling for fractures or breaks anywhere along the way. He brushed against the break and Gwaihir loosed a strangled cry.

"Easy, Gwaihir, easy. Aragorn is a skilled healer, like his father, let him have his way." Legolas' fingers brushed across the birds face, causing the eagle to blink rapidly, but he nodded in response.

The ranger gently pressed the feathers back to reveal the glint of white bone that had broken through the skin. Aragorn sucked his breath in quietly as he examined the compound fracture. He glanced at Legolas, shaking his head.

"What is it?" The elf watched the human worriedly.

"Just a moment." Aragorn called as he limped back to Gandalf's prone figure. Carefully turning the older man over, he shrugged out of his over coat and bunched it up under the wizard's head, trying to make him more comfortable as he quickly rifled through the pack that was still slung over the older man's shoulder. Aragorn dumped the contents of Gandalf's traveling bag on the ground spreading out the tiny satchels and envelopes of herbs and medicines. He grabbed two vials and lifted them towards the sky letting the light shine through their liquid contents. The one in his left hand was a slightly duller amber color than the one in his right and he chose that one, as he staggered to his feet and walked back to Legolas.

Standing near the elf he gazed seriously at the eagle, carefully explaining himself, "Gwaihir, your wing is broken and the bone has cut through your skin. I can set it, but I will need help." The ranger glanced at the elf, who quietly nodded in understanding, "The problem is..." Aragorn glanced down suddenly not at all sure of himself. He had three wounded friends, two of them he did not know the extent of their wounds yet and he had never worked with anyone other than humans or elves.

"You are a son of Elrond's and a friend of Gandalf, I trust you human." Gwaihir spoke softly watching the ranger closely. It was not the first time, Gwaihir had been injured by an arrow before. The first time Gandalf met him he had healed the great eagle from a similar wound, and that was the beginning of their long friendship.

Aragorn swallowed hard and nodded, trying to pull himself together; he had no time to fall apart now, too many people where depending on him. "I will need to put you out. The pain will be great. I can give you something for the pain now until we can get somewhere safer than here, but then, if you trust me, you must let me do this."

If the eagle could have smiled it would have. The man's hesitancy and youth touched his heart. "Of course I trust you. Let us get out of the elements and you may do what you need to."

"All right." Aragorn let his breath slowly and uncorked the small vile he held. He showed it to the eagle and allowed him to smell it before proceeding. "This will dull the pain so you can walk." He explained as he poured the liquid down the bird's throat. Gwaihir tipped his head back and allowed the medicine to slide down his throat. In moments the ache in his wing dulled to a constant throbbing and with help from the two friends he was able to awkwardly gain his feet. The eagle was ill accustomed to traveling by foot, but he knew he would manage somehow.

"What of Gandalf?" Gwaihir questioned as they walked towards the prone wizard. The older man had still not woken.

Aragorn knelt in the grass beside him and carefully looked at the split on the Maiar's temple. Gently he pushed the matted grey hair away from the ragged cut.

"I think he'll be alright." The ranger eased his hand under the man's head and felt the knot on the back of his skull. "I think he's just been hit awfully hard. Let's get him up and head towards the Gap of Rohan. We should be able to find some place along the way to rest for the evening. Anywhere, just so that we are as far away from Eowioriand as possible." He glanced over his shoulder at the rubble and stones that were all that was left of the ruins. Quickly ripping a strip of cloth from his tunic, the ranger bound the wound to his upper arm using his teeth to pull the knot tightly, staunching the flow of blood.

Retrieving Gandalf's walking stick, he passed it off to Gwaihir who held it gently in his beak, watching carefully as Legolas and Aragorn eased Gandalf up between the two of them and started slowly down the valley, following the base of the mountains.

They had not walked far when Legolas stumbled, nearly falling.

"Legolas, you are not well." Aragorn eased Gandalf down to the ground propping him against the remnants of a fallen log.

"I will be fine." The elf held his right shoulder tightly with his left hand, closing his eyes as the pain of the burn tightened through his back.

Aragorn walked behind his friend, trying to glimpse the wound that the prince had been nursing, unwilling to let the ranger see it for himself.

"Legolas!" Aragorn pressed the elf firmly but gently to the ground as he looked over the deep, ugly burn the elf had sustained. "How did this happen?"

"The fissures." Legolas moaned softly as the ranger gently moved the tatters of the singed tunic away from the elf's shoulder exposing his burned flesh. "Romyr pressed me over one of them and held me down when the steam rose." He stifled a small cry as Aragorn flushed the wound with what little water he still had in his flask.

"That's it." The ranger stood and walked in front of his friend, kneeling down eye level with the elf, "You three stay here. I'm going to go find a place for us to set up camp and rest. I'll search out fresh water - we'll need it. I will be back shortly."

"You'll need help!" The elf grabbed the human's tunic, pulling him back down as he tried to stand. "You are not well yourself."

Aragorn wrapped his hand around his friend's and smiled into the elf's upturned face. "I need you all to live." He gently loosened Legolas' fingers and gained his feet. "I won't be long."

Walking slowly away from the small group, Aragorn glanced at the sun, gauging the time he had left before it fled the sky. Without another word he headed off down the valley, quickly searching the base of the mountain for the perfect spot.

Not a half mile away from where he had left his friends, the ranger found a large, deep cavern that was hollowed into the side of the granite mountain. The hole in the wall of the hill was large enough to allow Gwaihir inside it and the ground was dry and clean. It was more of a hollow than a cave, although he smiled as he thought about how Legolas would envision it. The back of the cavern rounded off sealed in a dead end with no way out. It was perfect.

Aragorn quickly made a fire in the grotto to warm the dank hollow and covered the lower part of the entrance with tree branches and shrubbery to conceal it from any who might happen by. He stopped at a small stream on his way back and filled his and Legolas' flasks with the cool water. He would need as much as he could carry.


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


If the elf hadn't been in so much pain the glare he gave the ranger would have caused the man to start laughing.

Instead Aragorn just smiled softly at the prince and shrugged, "It was the best I could do Legolas. I *know* it's a cave, I'm sorry my friend." He apologized sincerely.

Gwaihir watched the elf curiously, tipping his head to the side as he listened to their conversation.

The prince sighed and glanced into the interior as Aragorn cleared the brush away. A fire sparked warmly in the deep hollowed out cavern and the ground was clean and bare. Legolas shifted Gandalf slightly in his arms, allowing the older man's head to rest against his shoulder as he supported the wizard's weight.

Gwaihir stepped lightly into the bright interior and lay down near the far wall, resting his head wearily on the cool stone floor.

Aragorn helped Legolas ease Gandalf down onto a bed of pines that he had collected. It bothered him greatly that the wizard had not woken yet. He pressed his friend down beside the unconscious man and handed him a flask and a roll of clean cloth.

"See to his wounds Legolas while I conceal our hiding place. I don't think Drelent will return now that the palantir is lost, but I do not wish to be found by anyone in the shape we are in." Aragorn whispered softly to his friend as he gazed down at the blue weary eyes that watched him.

The elf nodded and began to clean the blood from Gandalf's face, gently brushing away the long grey hair from the cut on his temple. The wizard moaned softly and tried to move away from the prince's careful ministrations. More than even physically, the wizard was mentally worn out from the struggle with the iron power that had been put into Eowioriand. There were still some things in the world older and more powerful than even the Istari. Quietly Legolas began to speak to the older man, shushing him and whispering kind words in the elven tongue.

Aragorn backtracked their path into the woods, covering their prints with a branch of pine needles that he used to brush the ground with. If anyone had thoughts to follow the small company or harm them they would be hard pressed to find the trail they had taken. When he reached the cavern he replaced all the brush in front of it, blocking it from predators or any who might happen by. When he was content with the way it looked from the outside, he dropped to his knees and crept underneath the foliage in a small space he had made for himself. Turning around once he was inside, he reached back out and pulled the branches down concealing the hole he had used.

Legolas smiled up at the ranger as he seated himself beside the elf.

"He woke up." The prince glanced down at the wizard who was sleeping soundly on the bed of pine. "He only sleeps now."

"Concussion?" Aragorn searched his friend's face.

"None!" Legolas allowed himself to relax, "Mithrandir will be fine."

Aragorn returned the smile, but quickly sobered when he glanced to the back of the cave, "We need to see to Gwaihir and I will need your help. Let me to see your wounds, before we do so."

Legolas brushed the man's hands gently away and stood slowly to his feet, "Let us see to our friends first and then you may see to my wounds."

"You stubborn elf." The ranger growled as he pushed himself off the floor and followed the prince to the bird's side.


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


The cavern was silent, as Aragorn gently washed Legolas back. Only the elf's labored breathing echoed through the chamber. Gwaihir was asleep in the back of the cave, his wing having been reset and the breaks in the skin and torn muscles expertly sewn up by the ranger. It would be hours before he awoke from the drug they had given him.

The ranger carefully cut the tunic off of his friend's body. He had forced the elf down on his stomach, laying his coat underneath the prince, as he inspected the red, weeping burn. He dipped his fingers into a soothing ointment and spread it gently over the burned area. Legolas tensed, sucking his breath in as the cool salve touched his hot, damaged skin.

Aragorn easily slipped into elvish, trying to distract his friend, "Why do you think they did it?"

"Did what?" Legolas ground out through gritted teeth. Slowly he relaxed under the ranger's gentle touch as the ointment deadened the pain and blocked the burn from the air.

Aragorn tipped the elf's head to the side exposing the burn that marred his neck. He carefully brushed Legolas' long blonde hair out of the way, pushing the tresses over the prince's left shoulder.

"I wonder why they would risk the palantir even to the point of letting it be destroyed." The human dipped his fingers in the cooling salve and spread it gently over the elf's neck.

Legolas closed his eyes, as the pain fled away and he sighed with the cool relief. Aragorn smiled softly. The elf was nearly asleep, the worry and stress of the day having taken its toll and the calming balm doing its job. Softly he answered before sleep claimed him, "I do not know Estel, but there must have been a reason." The elf's eyes slowly opened until they were half lidded, his pupils huge and dilated in the low light as he fell fast asleep. Aragorn touched his hand gently to the prince's forehead.

"Sleep my friend." He whispered in elvish.

Turning from the prince Aragorn pulled a small pot of water from the edge of the fire, it was finally boiling. He crushed a handful of dried plants and blowing on them gently sprinkled them into the water. The athelas touched the heated liquid releasing its poignant freshness throughout their shelter, its healthy essence inspiring healing and rest.

Smiling, he scooted back near Legolas' head and rested against the cool stone wall of the chamber. It was hard trying to stay awake, but he wanted to keep watch, in case he were needed. His hand moved to cover Legolas' left shoulder, touching the elf so he would know should the prince stir during the night. In moments the ranger was fast asleep.

He did not realize he had fallen asleep until he felt someone moving his wounded arm. With a start Aragorn jerked away from the touch, pressing back farther against the stone wall behind him. His eyes flew open and he stared into the smiling face of Gandalf. The wizard still sported the bandage that encircled his head but otherwise he looked just fine. He was kneeling on the floor in front of the ranger.

"Easy young one." Gandalf's voice was low and soft and he reached once more for Aragorn's arm unbinding the makeshift bandage the ranger had quickly applied earlier that day. "It appears you have seen to everyone but yourself." The wizard's smile was warm and open.

Aragorn glanced blearily at the cut that Gandalf uncovered. Drelent's blade had pierced his upper arm but not gone all the way through. The cut was dirty and deep and the older man gently cleaned it out, causing fresh blood to flow from it. The ranger winced and tensed slightly.

"What happened to the palantir?" Gandalf questioned the human, partly trying to take his mind off the wound.

Aragorn sucked his breath in quickly and held it before answering. "I threw it to Legolas. He gave it to Gwaihir, but Gyn shot him down and it rolled into one of the fissures. They could not find it. It was lost in the magma. I am sorry Gandalf."

The wizard wound a fresh, clean strip of cloth about the cut and held his hand over it tightly for several seconds, stopping the blood from flowing out of it so freely. "I am sorry to hear that. I had hoped we could recover it. There are so few of them left." His bright clear eyes stared straight at the dark silver ones that watched him.

"Why go to all the trouble just to have it be destroyed in the end?" Aragorn did not understand.

"To know that, we would have to know who had requested that it be retrieved." Gandalf's eyes took on a far off look, "Which there seems to be little chance of now. And it is very possible young one, that the seeing stone was not destroyed after all. Perhaps it was only for show that they said it was. Did you see it fall into the fissure?"

Aragorn shook his head slowly, "But Legolas said he did and Gwaihir confirmed it."

Gandalf watched the human for several moments before speaking again. When he did, he smiled, laying his hand on the young man's head, "Things are not always what they seem my friend."

Aragorn watched the older man sadly, things had gone so wrong and the stress of the day had finally caught up with him. "I can't believe we lost it after all that," he murmured.

Gandalf's hand tightened gently on the young ranger's arm. "It was not your fault Aragorn." In truth Gandalf took the blame for himself. "Rest young one. I'll keep watch tonight."

The ranger didn't answer just glanced to the far wall, too tired for words.

Gandalf noted the dark circles under the human's eyes and the weariness that had finally caught up with him. He placed one old weathered hand alongside the man's head, and with his other hand he gently pressed on the ranger shoulder, lowering him to the floor of the cave. "Sleep." The word carried more than just a suggestion and the human relaxed into the wizard's touch, asleep in moments.


___________________________________________________________

~*PART ELEVEN*~

Early morning light touched through the green curtain Aragorn had drug across the front of the cave they occupied slowly waking the sleeping travelers. Legolas wearily opened his eyes. He rarely overslept the dawn, but the athelas and the ointment had combined with the shock of his wounds to hold him in sleep until the day was well underway.

Aragorn slept near his head. The ranger's shoulder had been bandaged sometime during the night. Gwaihir was awake at the back of the cave watching them quietly, preening his feathers. He nodded slightly when the elf smiled at him.

With a start Legolas realized that Gandalf was not in the hollow and instantly became worried.

"It is well elf, Gandalf merely stepped out for a while. He will be back." Gwaihir spoke up softly when he noted the prince's distress.

The quiet talking stirred Aragorn and with a moan he turned over on his mat and fastened a glassy stare on Legolas. "What's wrong?" His voice was sleep-rough and his words slurred. It was obvious the ranger was not quite awake.

Legolas smiled softly at the human, "Nothing, lay back down and rest."

"What time is it?"

"It matters not. Rest."

"I have been all night long." The human murmured, trying stir his sleep weary mind.

"Aragorn," Legolas leaned down and stared in the bleary eyes of the man, "Don't trouble yourself. Sleep while you may."

Somewhere in his foggy consciousness the words made sense and the ranger lay back down, tucking his hands under his head, his eyes fixed on his friend before they heavily closed once more.

"I'll rest, but I'm not sleeping." He murmured softly.

Legolas laughed lightly, "Fine, rest then." He scooted near the fire fanning the dying embers and feeding the small flame until it jumped and sparked in the ring of rocks it had been constructed in.

Curious, Legolas stood from his seat and knelt down next to Gandalf's things searching through them carefully. Finding what he sought, he reverently spread out the map of Eowioriand on the cavern floor inspecting it by the light of the fire.

His small cry of surprise startled Aragorn who shot into a sitting position, eyes wide open, "What?! What is it?" He looked around the cave, his gaze lighting on the elf.

"It's gone." Legolas ran his fingers lightly over the yellowed map, "It's all gone."

Aragorn rose stiffly to his feet, holding his injured arm tightly to him, he walked near Legolas and dropped down heavily next to the elf. "What are you looking at?" The ranger asked leaning in towards the prince and blinking several times, trying to focus his eyes as he stared down at the paper that the elf held.

"Do you not recognize it? It is the map of Eowioriand."

"Legolas. There are no words on that map, only a drawing of the..." Aragorn stopped talking and leaned in closer until his shoulder touched that of the elf's. "You're right. The words, all of them, they are gone." His fingers traced the edges, searching for the moon runes that had always been faintly visible even in broad daylight. Nothing but the border and the depiction of the Misty Mountains remained. Eowioriand itself had been erased from the map as well as the cryptic words. "How is this?"

"I know not." Legolas shook his head slowly, "It is useless now."

"Maybe that was the intent." Aragorn continued when his friend glanced up at him, "Perhaps the seeing stone was the last relic that ancient building held. Or the last relic that its creators wanted found. When it was removed the building destroyed itself and the map was erased by the same magic. No one will ever find it now and it can rest in peace."

"Perhaps." Legolas glanced back at the paper. "I should have liked to look on the words one last time."

Aragorn touched the elf's shoulder sympathetically, sighing deeply as he glanced towards the entrance of the cave, his attention momentarily distracted.

"Are you all right?" Legolas questioned his friend.

A simple nod was his answer. "Aragorn..." The elf lowered his voice and laced the unspoken question with a threat.

"I should be asking you!" the human turned back to the prince and glowered at him. "You are the one with the more severe wound."

Legolas smiled and glanced back at the fire, "Well I am hungry." He finally admitted.

Aragorn glanced once more toward the opening of their concealed hiding place, a frown crossing his countenance. There, he had heard it again, someone was outside the cave.

"Someone comes." Gwaihir spoke his thoughts quietly.

The brush at the entrance rustled and parted near the floor allowing access into the interior. Legolas tensed and Aragorn unsheathed his boot knife, slowly.

The tip of a blue pointy hat poked through the greenery and a cheerful voice called out to the anxious occupants of the cave. "Anyone awake in here yet? Anyone hungry?"

Aragorn resheathed his blade and Legolas relaxed beside him much to the great eagle's amusement. He chuckled lightly standing to his full height and stretching his long neck.

"You were almost prey yourself Istari." He spoke, eyeing the wizard as he stood up and walked toward the fire.

"Oh, was I now?" He eyed the two younger beings seated on the floor with great amusement as Aragorn cast his gaze back down into the fire his face reddening slightly.

Legolas easily changed the subject, noting that the older man carried bulging sacks in his hands, "What have you there Mithrandir?"

"I should ask you the same thing?" Gandalf smiled as he sat down next to the elf and touch the map with a finger.

Aragorn snickered lightly as Legolas stammered hurriedly trying to offer an acceptable explanation for why he had rummaged through the wizard's things.

"Never mind you, it is the bane of youth to be curious." He nodded and narrowed his eyes, "Yes youth." He repeated when Legolas frowned at him. "Now, what so interested you that you dug that map out of my things?"

Legolas pushed the paper towards the other, "The words Mithrandir, they are gone."

Gandalf leaned over and frowned at the document. What Legolas had said was true. "So they are. Their fate must have been linked to Eowioriand itself. It's shame actually I had wanted to study it further."

"I just wanted to see them again." Legolas explained softly, "They were beautiful."

"Yes." Gandalf pursed his lips deep in thought, "Well I shall show it to the head of my order, it may be that he can understand the magic behind it."

Neither of the companions even questioned the older being on the statement, if the wizard chose to explain himself he would... in time.

Aragorn leaned around Legolas and spied the bags that Gandalf had set down on the floor. "What are in the sacks?" He questioned lightly, hoping the answer would be food.

"See... curiosity and youthfulness, they go hand in hand." He raised his eyebrows, smiling as he teased the elf next to him. "They are full of food and supplies young ranger, if you must know."

"And where did you acquire them if I may ask?" Legolas took the sack that the older man passed to him, easily prying open the knot that held it shut. Fruit and nuts spilled out of the top of it and further investigation reveal a loaf of heavy bread wrapped in a cloth and a bag of dried venison.

Gandalf emptied the sack he held; it contained a flask of water, herbs and clean cloth for bandages. "I happened upon a nomadic caravan traveling from the Dunlands to Southern Rohan, they intend to winter there. They called themselves the Nomayai." He answered quietly preoccupied with the items in the bag. "They have offered to give us transportation to Isengard if we would like. It would be wise I think to accept their generous suggestion. If we try to make it on our own, it will take us weeks in our present condition. We can get further aide in Isengard for our wounds, Saruman, the head of my order, lives there; we would be welcome." He glanced to the far side of the fire, his eyes lighting on the great eagle. "If we travel with the Nomayai we will be there in half that time. They are camped out in the woods a few hours away awaiting our answer."

Legolas and Aragorn exchanged glances, the last time they had trusted strangers they had been deceived and both highly doubted that the old wizard had just *stumbled* on the travelers.

As though knowing their reservations Gandalf continued, "They are more than eager to help, they have been told we travel with a great eagle and they wish to honor him. It seems their people were aided some years back by one of your kind Gwaihir and they have kindly emptied a cart to carry you and our young friends here." The wizard smiled softly, "I do believe they can be trusted. They sent these provisions as proof of their intentions."

"Our other option is not favorable." Legolas commented quietly. He passed an apple to Aragorn and tore off a bit of bread for himself before handing the loaf to the ranger. The human simply nodded as he took a bite out of the fruit.

Once they had all agreed to travel with the wanderers Gandalf forced them to eat and see to each other's wounds before they headed out to meet up with the caravan. He looked over Aragorn's handiwork of binding up Gwaihir's broken wing while the human fussed over the elf.

"Stop moving it will be less painful." Aragorn pulled his hands away from Legolas' back as the elf hissed and jerked away from his touch.

"Stop making it hurt so much and I will stop moving away from you." Legolas glared at the ranger. He held his long hair in one fist away from the burned area on his neck as the man gingerly spread the soothing ointment over the healing wounds.

"Well it looks much better." Aragorn muttered ignoring his friend's complaint and spreading a thin layer of cloth over the burn. With the skin once more covered from exposure to the air, the elf breathed in deeply and sighed as he shrugged carefully back into his tunic.

"Feel better?" Aragorn questioned, easing Legolas outer shirt over the bandage he had just placed on the elf's back. He was rewarded with a nod and a soft smile before being forced to sit while the prince changed the soiled dressing on his arm.

Gandalf resisted the ranger's attempts to have a look at the cut the wizard had sustained, simply stating that he was feeling fine and lightly brushing aside their worries over him.

It took them very little time to break down their impromptu campsite and head out to rendezvous with the Nomayai. True to their word they had taken one of their supply carts and emptied it of its load, laying canvas sheets and blankets in the bottom of the wooden vehicle. The horses that pulled it had been blindfolded to keep them from getting skitterish in the presence of the great eagle. They neighed and pranced uneasily as the bird drew near, his musky scent triggering their fear.

Aragorn and Legolas were treated as royalty, being companions of the great eagle. It seemed that Gwaihir's ancestors had indeed saved the Nomayar's relatives from a vicious warg attack and they had considered themselves indebted to the great eagles ever since.

As soon as their new traveling companions were bedded down the nomads headed out. The caravan that traversed the wildlands stretched out far behind them. Bright streamers and flags blowing gently in the breeze, decorated the ragtag carts and wagons that served as home to migrants. The humans wintered in southern Rohan, trading the furs and dried meat and trinkets they had made and acquired throughout their summers in the west Dunland. Several communities were dependant on the nomad's existence in their regions during their seasons of occupation. Aragorn had tried to count the numbers of people they traveled with but he gave up after totaling a hundred and fifty three. It was hard to tell if he had over counted or not. The nomads shifted back and forth all day long from the front of the train to the back, talking laughing, enjoying one another's company and always there was a steady stream of people checking in on their guests. They were a happy carefree bunch and Aragorn found himself enjoy them immensely. The clothing they wore was loose and colorful but heavy tunics and overcoats the color of the woods around them covered most of the individuals.

They kept up a furious pace, checking on their charges often for comfort or necessities, rarely stopping to break camp and choosing instead, for the most part to eat while they traveled. The ride was easy, if the terrain was a bit rough and the four made fast friend of their hosts. In between greetings, Aragorn slept fitfully, his arm pained him and kept him awake often. Legolas fared no better, his burns, though healing quickly allowed him little rest. Gwaihir simply suffered silently. Of Gandalf they saw little on their travels. The old wizard melted into his surroundings and visited each and every Nomayar. Aragorn could hear his booming laughter from time to time over the sounds of conversation and the creaking of the wooden wheels.

Four nights later they arrived outside the circle of Isengard. The sun was barely touching the edges of the southernmost Misty Mountains when the nomadic company parted, they had a good months journey ahead of them and would not be dissuaded to stop for the night, they intended to make southern Rohan by winterfall.

Aragorn stopped on the path that led up to Isengard. He glanced up at the tall impervious looking walls that made up the outer court surrounding Orthanc.

"You sure this is the right place?" He questioned. Legolas grabbed his coat sleeve and drug him through the gateway. Once inside his questions subsided as he took in the lush gardens and verdant plant life that decorated the interior shell. It was beautiful and peaceful inside. He walked slowly beside Legolas. The small party of travelers had increasingly slowed their gait as they drew nearer to their destination. Orthanc towered over the gardens, its spire cresting hundreds of feet above the top of the tallest tree in the court yard. The building itself, if it could be called such, had been constructed of black marble, its patterns and lines heavy and bespeaking of an age long lost.

"Its rather..." Aragorn glanced up to the top of the spire, the outlines of birds made tiny by the great distance, slowly circled the four tall spokes that rose majestically from its crown, "...creepy." He finished his thought, turning to Legolas and glancing at his friend.

"Aragorn." The elf hushed the human fiercely, "Gandalf's superior lives here."

"Well if the inside looks anything like the outside, I for one do not want to spend the night here. It's not very a friendly looking place." Aragorn shook his head. Something about the dwelling made him shiver and he assumed it was the draconian architecture.

"Oh but you would sleep in a cave!" Legolas raised an eyebrow.

"Any day, anytime over this!" The human raised his hand palm up and motioned at the building.

The tall doors to the entrance swept open as they approached the high staircase that led to them and a thin elegantly dressed man descended to meet them.

"Behave." The elf whispered to his companion.

Gandalf simply smiled at the two, removing his hat and bowing formally to the leader of the Istari. Legolas and Aragorn followed his example; Gwaihir merely nodded to the white haired, bearded man.

"Gandalf, what is it that brings you to Orthanc? And pray tell what happened to you and your companions." Saruman's gaze swept lightly over them all resting on the crude splint that braced the great eagle's wing. His words echoed concern and care but in his heart he was agitated and displeased to have to deal with such an interruption as the four before him presented.

Drelent and two of his trackers had returned yesterday with the seeing stone, much to Saruman's delight. In fact the hunter and his companions were still within Isengard itself making use of the servants quarters located just below ground level. He had warned them not to allow themselves to be seen, telling them only that he had guest on the way for the wizard had seen Gandalf and his friends as they entered Isengard from his window high up in Orthanc. He had quickly thrown a square of black velvet over the palantir and locked up the room that held the seeing stone, hoping it would be unnecessary to be near his study until after his unwanted company had left.

"Saruman." Gandalf spoke the Maiar's name reverently. "How are you my friend? My companions and I were overtaken by thieves I am afraid, and were hoping to find shelter with your until we are healed."

"Were you injured yourself?" The Istari's eyes narrowed as he walked forward, noting for the first time the bandage that still encircled the wizard's head.

"It is nothing really. Merely a bump on the head, however my companions fared worse, I fear and Gwaihir has a broken wing that needs further tending." Gandalf motioned to the three who accompanied him.

Aragorn found himself dropping his gaze as Saruman's glance fell on him. Something stirred in him, something inside withdrew from the wizard before him, but he attributed his hesitancy to his weariness and the Istari's high position in his order. He glanced quickly at the elf next to him but Legolas was watching Saruman openly. His people had long ago learned to trust the Maiar that had been sent to Middle Earth and so he was not as uneasy in the older being's presence as his younger friend.

"I see." Saruman schooled his features, hiding his displeasure as his thoughts raced ahead of him. So the small traveling company before him had met with a band of thieves. He wondered in irritation if those thieves resembled the men he had in his employ, the ones even now using his servant's quarters. The arrival of Gandalf was too much to be mere coincidence. He would have liked nothing better than to turn them all away, but now was not the time; he must retain his façade of civility for the present.

"Of course you are all welcome here. Orthanc is at your disposal. Come, you be must weary and in need of food." He stepped aside and held his hand out towards the open doors behind him, encouraging them to enter.

Gwaihir stepped back a pace and glanced around the gardens, his soft deep voice interrupting as Gandalf mounted the steps, "I would take my leave of you here and make my bed in the court yard if you would not be offended Saruman. I wish to sleep underneath the stars tonight."

Aragorn turned back to the great eagle, glancing at the wizards quickly to see their reaction.

"Of course my friend," Gandalf walked back down to the bird and stared into the dark bright eyes. "Surely staying inside is not comfortable for you. You will be safe here, will he not?" The last question was directed at Saruman. Gandalf's gaze was open and kind but Aragorn noticed the slight frown that crossed the head Istari's face briefly before he smiled slightly and nodded.

"Of course Gwaihir, make yourself at home. I will send out a healer to care for your wounds and to bring you food before you bed down for the evening." The thin smile barely concealed Saruman's displeasure. It was his home, not Gandalf's. He turned and preceded the travelers into the tall building.

"Legolas?" Aragorn pressed closely to his friend as they followed their host into the dark interior, "I do not care for this place or this wizard. I don't think we are truly welcome."

"Strider you worry too much. Come you will see it is alright." The elf slid his arm around the ranger's shoulder and pushed the human in before him.


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


Aragorn stood in the room he had been escorted into. He turned swiftly as the attendant scurried out, intending to stop the servant and request a chamber not quite so...

"Dark." The ranger looked about the room and commented to himself, "Everything is dark. Who decorated this place?" He let his eyes follow the black marble walls of the bedchamber up to the high vaulted ceiling. The room itself echoed the architecture of the exterior of the building, heavy, brooding, ancient. The human shivered slightly, the chills running up his spine having nothing to do with the slight cool breeze that filtered in the thin tall window that stood open on the other side of the room.

The candles that Saruman's servant had lit cast eerie deep shadows in the oddly shaped room. Snatching a pillow off the bed and pulling the blanket from underneath the top sheet he walked back into the hallway and ran smack into Legolas.

"Strider what you are doing?" The elf whispered. He tried to stifle the smile that crept over his face as he saw the pillow and blanket the human clutched.

Aragorn frowned at the prince, glancing back into his room suspiciously before answering, "I am not sleeping in there. It reminds me of Moria. I was coming..." He stopped speaking realizing how silly it sounded now that he was actually speaking out loud what he had thought in his heart.

"Yes?" Legolas egged him on.

"Well, I was coming to stay in your room." He blurted out quickly, frowning at the amusement on his friend's face. "I didn't want to stay in there." He motioned with his head back the way he had come.

Legolas laughed slightly and steered his friend back into the room he had just left. He quietly closed the door behind them and locked it before turning back to the man who stood in the middle of the huge chamber still holding the pillow and blanket, a confused look on his face. "Strider put those down." He laughed as the human threw the blanket and pillow back on the bed and continued speaking to the ranger, "I was just on my way to *your* room. Mine doesn't even have a window." The elf walked to the tall window and leaned on the open frame staring up at the stars with a sigh. "Besides," his voice was muted by the shutters and Aragorn walked up behind him, pressing the elf over and gazing out on the courtyards below, "Besides, you are right. This place is dark my friend and I had no wish to stay in that room on my own either."

Aragorn chuckled beside the elf, allowing himself to relax now that he was in safe company. "Told you it was worse than a cave." He murmured softly, leaning down on the window frame and letting his head rest in his hands he turned to look at his friend. "You think we are safe here?"

Legolas raised his eyebrows and turned towards the human, "This building is inhabited by Saruman, he is an Istari Strider."

Aragorn stared at his friend his expression unchanged and repeated himself, "And you think we are safe here?"

With a laugh the elf pushed the man away from him, "Yes Strider, we'll be fine. If you do not trust Saruman..."

"Which I don't." The ranger interrupted the elf's statement, muttering under his breath as he walked back to the bedside and dropped the extra pillow and blanket on the floor next to the bed.

"...Then you can at least trust Mithrandir, he would not bring us somewhere where we were in danger," Legolas reasoned with his friend.

Aragorn's head popped up from the side of the bed where he had knelt on the floor spreading the blanket out on the ground, "You think not?"

"You are impossible." The elf rounded the bed to see that the ranger had bedded down on the floor for the night. "What are you doing?"

"Making my bed." The human stared up at the elf incredulously as though the answer were obvious. "I am not sleeping on that." He pointed to the mattresses.

"You'd rather sleep on the floor near the wall?"

"Yes, as a matter of fact I would. Then anyone who comes in has to deal with you first!"

"Strider!" Legolas burst out laughing at the man's logic but a soft rapping on the door interrupted him.

Aragorn leapt to his feet and watched as Legolas threw the lock and cracked the door open.

"Yes?"

"I have brought the healers to tend your wounds." The servant that had led Aragorn to his room stood just outside leaning inquisitively around the elf and peering inside.

Legolas glanced back questioningly at his friend who stepped out of the servant's line of sight furiously shaking his head. Trying hard to stifle a laugh the elf turned back to the servant and answered politely, "I thank you for your hospitality but we are fine."

With a hesitant nod the servant accepted the refusal and backed slowly away, "My name is Teonvan. If either of you should need anything please simply call, I will hear you." The small human smiled slightly and walked away.

"Now see, *that* is creepy. Don't tell me you don't think so too." Aragorn walked up behind Legolas and peered out the door down the darkened hallway after the servant. The black marble walls glittered in the dim light of the glowglobes set in niches at intervals down its length. "Creepy." He repeated himself.

Legolas could contain his laughter no longer and pushed the human away from him, "Strider go rest. I must add 'overly paranoid' to the list of unpleasant attributes that you humans acquire when you are excessively tired. No harm will come to us, I promise you."

The ranger glanced from the now closed door to his friend and finally smiled back. "Fine, but not till I see to those burns you have."

Legolas backed away from the man, "Oh no. *You* first. I'll have a look at that arm and then you can have your way. Every time you take the bandages off it hurts my friend and it makes me rather ill tempered, I don't trust myself to not return the discomfort." He laughed lightly. "Now sit and off with that tunic, while I fetch a clean bandage for you."

Aragorn sat on the edge of the bed unbuttoning his shirt and shrugging easily out of the tunic. The room did not seem so dark and foreboding anymore and he actually began to relax as Legolas knelt in front of him and unwound the dressing on his cut, chatting at the human softly in elvish while he did so.


___________________________________________________________

~*PART TWELVE*~

"As I said, it's just a small bump on the head." Gandalf commented as Saruman passed him a glass of dark wine, commenting curiously about his injuries. The old, grey haired wizard nodded his thanks and explained further. The head of all Istari had brought him to a private study chamber high up in the spire of Orthanc and the two talked openly of all that had transpired. "We were taken by surprise by a group of men intent on plundering one of the ancient sites, Eowioriand, by all rights. I have the map that proved it right here."

He fidgeted in the pocket of his inner robe and produced the now worthless document. "The words have all but faded from the parchment I am afraid. I was rather hoping to bring it to you, it was written in Maia." He raised his eyebrows as he passed the yellowed paper to Saruman.

The white haired wizard concealed his emotions well, distracting his guest by casually turning the map so it faced him and pretended to glance over the now nearly erased picture. So Gandalf and his friends had indeed been the ones that Drelent had stolen the seeing stone from and the thieves that the wizard had been so vague about had been the very men that he had employed, his lips thinned as a frown crossed his face, quite a different tale than the human had told him.

Mistaking Saruman's dark gaze, Gandalf spoke up quietly, "The words and the exact location of the ruins have faded. Eowioriand itself is no more. The building tore apart when the seeing stone was removed."

"And of the palantir? Surely these men were not able to take it from you?" Saruman raised his gaze casually and fixed a strange stare on the other.

Gandalf lowered his eyes and sighed. He hated having to pass on the news that the ancient artifact had been destroyed. "Yes." He stated simply, softly admitting his blunder before explaining, "They were able to take it from me I am afraid."

"And how was that accomplished? You are an Istari." Saruman leaned forward. He found he was enjoying the interrogation and Gandalf's misery far too much; he hid the smiled that touched the corners of his lips.

Gandalf glanced back and sighed once more, readying himself for the telling. "Eowioriand was falling and the human and the elf had not yet escaped it. One of the thieves took me by surprise while I supported the building long enough for the others to get out safely. He hit me over the head, and I dropped the palantir."

"And then he took it?"

"I was told there was quite a scuffle for it and it was in that fight that Gwaihir was wounded. He dropped the palantir from no small height and it fell into one of the fissure that scar the plain in front of Methedras. They all claim the stone fell in but the thieves went seeking it anyway. My companions do not believe it was recovered but I can't help but think that perhaps it was. However its whereabouts are a mystery to me now. I am truly sorry."

"If you had let the building simply collapse we would have the seeing stone." Saruman chided the one in front of him, his eyes hard. His anger was no longer simply directed at his unwanted guests. It irritated him immensely that he had been lied to by Drelent, told that the recovery of the palantir had been a simple thing. He had not informed the Istari that they had attacked two Maia in the process. His ire with men rose another notch.

"You would have me forfeit the lives of two living beings for a palantir?" Gandalf was incredulous.

"What are two mortals next to the pricelessness of a seeing stone? Your love for the creatures of Middle Earth is your downfall."

"One of those beings is a firstborn!"

"Who are also susceptible to death."

"We were sent here for them."

"We were sent here to rule over them. They are not wise enough and lack the intelligence and strength to do so on their own." The white haired wizard leaned across the table.

"Only a servant may rule, Saruman. Even you are aware of this fact." Gandalf pierced his friend with a hard stare.

"And because of your actions we have now lost another of the palantiri."

"We do not know that for certain." Gandalf answered softly, deep disappointment with himself showing on every line of his face for his apparent failure.

Saruman smiled inwardly, when the time was right he would let the other know that he did in fact possess the ancients gift to men, but for now... A dark satisfaction touched his heart, for now it would be his own secret. He had plans for it. It would extend his reach and his wisdom in ways that he could only begin to imagine. His thoughts raced forward to the fool of a human he had hired. He had plans for that one too.

Returning his concentration to the wizard seated across from him he feigned compassion. "Well you did your best. I suppose you can't be faulted for that. Why don't you take your rest for the evening? I'll have Teovan take you to your room."

Gandalf stood with a slight nod, "Thank you Saruman."

"Would you like me to send a healer in to check on you?" He offered magnanimously.

"That won't be necessary but thank you for your thoughtfulness." The grey haired wizard smiled softly turning to follow the manservant that had appeared at the door. He knew that he and Saruman might never see eye to eye on everything. The white wizard had too much pride and placed too little importance on the servant-hood aspect of their mission. But every piece of a puzzle had its part to play and it was not Gandalf's place to judge that of his superior. The wisdom of the Valar had placed them in the rankings they were in and that was not something to be taken lightly.

Teovan led Gandalf into the hall, but returned to his master's study when Saruman called him back. He asked the wizard to give him a moment to attend to his liege before they left and stepped into the room alone.

"Yes my lord?"

Saruman glanced up at his attendant, his gaze dark and smoldering, "Send for that fool Drelent and his young trackers, have them brought to me at once in my lower study."

Teovan turned to leave but was stopped once more as the Istari spoke up quietly, "And tell my pet Skarmazh to bring himself and a few of his guards to my study room in the rotunda. I will have need of their presence."

The servant bowed quickly and hurried out the door escorting the grey haired wizard to a room near where he had placed the ranger and the elf. He shivered involuntarily at the thought of having to retrieve the orcs that resided in the bowels of Orthanc. He did not understand why his master suffered their presence there but he was loath to ask. Indeed he was afraid of the answer he would receive and so he simply obeyed.


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


Gandalf rapped softly on the door that Teovan had indicated was where the elf and the ranger were staying. He smiled to himself, thinking of the two, knowing neither one of them had wanted to stay in Orthanc. He needed to check in on them before he retired for the night.

The door in front of him cracked open slightly and Aragorn peered out at him.

"Strider who is it?" Gandalf could hear Legolas call softly to his friend.

"Gandalf?" Aragorn glanced down the hallway looking about the older man, noting he was alone.

"You expected someone else?" The wizard raised a bushy eyebrow and leaned in towards the human.

With a small laugh Aragorn opened the door wide and allowed the wizard in.

Legolas raised himself up on his arms as the older man entered. He was laying stomach down on the bed, his shirt draped over the foot of the mattresses as Aragorn worked the healing ointment into the burns that still decorated his back.

"Mithrandir! Come in, Strider was just finishing." The elf glowered at the human as he walked back to the bedside and pressed his friend down flat.

"I was not. Now move that hair of yours away from your neck so I can see to the wound and stop arguing with me." Strider flashed a smile at the wizard as he seated himself in a high back wingchair situation near the dead hearth that decorated the wall.

"Nice of them to give us wood for fire don't you think." The ranger grumbled as he noted the empty fireplace once again.

"Don't start that." Legolas mumbled into the sheets, moving his hair gently away from the red welts that decorated his neck. He relaxed fully into the soft mattress beneath him and sighed heavily as Aragorn gently spread the thick ointment across the burns, his fingers light and barely brushing the elf's skin.

"Better this time?" He asked.

"Much." Came the muffled reply.

Aragorn turned his attention back to Gandalf as he unwound a section of bandage, "So what brings you to our room tonight or did you not want to sleep in these chambers alone either?"

Legolas chuckled beneath his light touch as the ranger carefully bound the light fabric around the elf's neck, once again giving him temporary relief from the biting sting that accompanied the burns.

Gandalf sighed and let his gaze fall to the plush carpet, "Saruman was displeased that I lost the seeing stone." It was hardly an unusual thing for his superior to be displeased with him actually, for they rarely ended up on the same side of any issue anymore, but more than anything, Gandalf was displeased with himself.

Legolas turned over on his side and watched the wizard, his expression sympathetic.

"But you yourself said that it may truly not be lost." Aragorn repeated his words softly.

"It still remains that the stone was lost to us at this time. I know not where it is. His disappointment was obvious and who could blame him." Gandalf easily met the gaze of the two younger beings. He had the feeling that he was missing something somewhere... something very important to do with that stone, or the situation surrounding it perhaps... but what it was he did not know. This disturbed him greatly.

"It was not your fault Mithrandir, you can not take that guilt on your own. We were unprepared for Drelent's attack and Eowioriand itself did us no favors that day. Even Gwaihir couldn't keep the palantir in his grasp." Legolas offered gently. "If it still exists, it will turn up again."

"That is what I am afraid of," the wizard muttered, "Let us hope that those who hold it do not use it for ill. It is still a dangerous tool in the wrong hands." Gandalf worried, more to himself than the others.

"Legolas and I are discussing leaving Orthanc tomorrow, the prince needs to return home quickly now. Would you care to join us?" Aragorn asked lightly trying to change the subject to more cheerful topics. He looked forward to escaping the dark spire and their equal mysterious host.

"Tomorrow?" Gandalf repeated, "Do you think that wise?" His gaze lighted on the elf who was having a hard time remaining awake.

Aragorn looked behind him to Legolas, smiling wickedly at the elf, "Tired are we?" he taunted.

With a snort of disgust the prince shoved his friend hard and slowly sat up next to the ranger, swinging his legs off the side of the bed.

"I really do need to return home with all speed Mithrandir. My father summoned me for the Yen and I have yet to make it back, he will be livid." The elf explained.

Gandalf laughed lightly nodding in agreement, "Knowing your father you are in for quite a lecture young one. Not to worry the next Yen is only around the corner."

Legolas laughed at the wizard's unique concept of time, "Perhaps I will tell him you said that."

"You leave me out of it!" Gandalf threatened, his expression turned serious, "Now listen both of you. I don't care how much you dislike Orthanc, you need to take your rest here until you, Prince Legolas, are fully healed. Those burns are nothing to be made lightly of. Saruman will not mind you staying on for a bit. Stay till you are well."

Legolas glanced sidelong at the human seated next to him.

Aragorn slowly turned to meet the questioning gaze, noting the barely concealed humor in his friend's eyes, "Then you had better heal quickly." He chided his friend, "And I am going to ask for wood. That fireplace, empty and dark like that is..." He stared dismally into the empty hearth.

"I know, I know!" Legolas burst out laughing, "It's creepy." He finished the sentence for his friend.

"Well it is! And the sooner we are off the better. I'd rather endure your father's wrath than stay here." A smile replaced the frown on the humans face.

"Easy for you to say!" Legolas shot back with a wry moan, laughing despite his words. "He's not *your* father and *you* aren't the one his wrath is going to be aimed at!"

The mirth of the elf was contagious and soon all three of them were laughing.


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


Down in the lower rooms of Orthanc, Saruman paced impatiently. A knock on the door to his study alerted him to the human's presence and he ordered the man to enter.

Drelent walked cautiously into the interior of the chamber.

"Teonvan said you wanted to see me?" He questioned uneasily, "We were just readying to leave."

"Where are the two young trackers that accompanied you here?" Saruman's voice was low and deadly and he turned his back on the man walking into an adjoining antechamber and forcing the man to follow him.

"I sent them on ahead. They left just after nightfall. They were unseen." Drelent stopped on the threshold of the round room that Saruman had entered. Something inside him told him his welcome in Orthanc had just run out but he did not know how to end the conversation gracefully. "If you don't need me I'll be leaving also."

"Don't need you?" Saruman turned towards the man, "Strange choice of words wouldn't you say?"

Drelent didn't answer and so the wizard continued, "I needed you to complete the job."

"I did!" The man defended himself. He did not like the wizard's tone, nor where this seemed to be going.

"I needed you to complete the job efficiently as you were instructed to." The Istari was pleased to see the tracker flinch as he stepped back towards the man. "Tell me again about how you obtained the seeing stone." Saruman paced to the center of the room where a podium stood, a circular object rested upon it underneath a velvet square of black cloth. He reached out his hand and let it hang mere inches above the covered globe. "How?" He repeated himself.

The man behind him glanced about them warily, something had gone wrong or his employer wouldn't be so upset. "I told you how we retrieved it. We took from a small group of people who were pilfering the site. What else is there to tell?"

"And did you come across an old man, with grey hair, perhaps in the company of a great eagle? Or did such a striking thing somehow slip your memory?"

Drelent nodded cautiously, "There was an old man with an elf and a..." His answer was cut off as Saruman stalked back towards him.

"That *old man* is a member of my order. An Istari! Did you know that? Did it never occur to you *why* a great eagle would allow another being to ride it?" He turned away from the human in disgust, "Fool. Would that you were as efficient as your lies."

"We did nothing wrong. We completed the job and brought you the seeing stone. The old man... the other Istari, he has no clue that you possess the seeing stone, no one does! There is nothing to tie us together. There are no loose ends." Drelent tried to defend himself and his men, he was becoming agitated with the wizard and turned on his heels meaning to leave the others presence.

"Really?"

Something in Saruman's soft question stopped the tracker and he turned back.

"No loose ends? So tell me then, why did my orcs have to take care of Paxcyn's men who survived Eowioriand? Why did your men not take care of them like you were instructed?" He smiled cruelly as Drelent's mouth fell open wordlessly. "Oh yes that sorry excuse for a hunter, Dryxyn I believe was his name? He and the others you released were taken care of by my servants."

"How did you...?" Drelent never finished the question as the dark shapes of orcs filed in behind Saruman.

"This is Skarmazh. He never fails me. He always completes whatever I send him to do." Saruman held his staff up and pointed it at the entrance behind Drelent. The double doors swept swiftly in, shutting off the human's only way of escape. Orcs stood in the opposite three entrances - Drelent was trapped. "Now Skarmazh, will finish the job you were sent to complete."

The orc stepped forward, dark glee lighting his evil eyes. "Come my pretty, we have plenty of things to show you below." He croaked in a rasping rough voice as the orcs swarmed the man. His cries were cut off in the dark tide and the high pitched cackle of the orcs followed his screams for mercy down into the bowels of Orthanc.

Saruman turned and walked back toward the palantir, unaffected by the humans' pleadings. In moments the door to the secret chambers of Orthanc closed and silence descended again. He smiled as he removed the black cloth and stared into the depths of the dark orb, reaching his hand back towards it once more.


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


In their bedroom high in the spire, Aragorn jerked awake. He was certain he had heard orcs. His eyes were huge as he glanced around the dimly lit room. Pressing himself up from his resting place on the floor he looked over the bed and the still form of Legolas. The door to their chamber was closed tightly and no one but them occupied the room. Still...

"Legolas?"

The elf murmured softly in his sleep, reaching out blindly with one hand for the ranger on the floor next to him. His fingers tangled in Aragorn's hair and he let his hand rest on the human's head, "Go back to sleep Strider. We are fine."

The ranger glanced up at the barely awake elf, frowning at the incoherent response, "I thought I heard orcs."

"You didn't." Legolas scooted to the edge of the mattress and looked down at his friend. "It was your imagination my friend." Bleary eyes locked onto his. "Go back to sleep."

"But I was sure..." He stopped as the elf sat up in bed throwing the sheets off and knelt down next to him.

Tossing a pillow on the floor the elf collapsed on his stomach barely awake, "There, better?" He murmured.

Aragorn snickered and shook his head as Legolas groped for the sheets trying to pull them down on top of him for warmth. The ranger reached over his friend and drug the coverings down from the bed, tucking them around the body of the sleeping elf.

With a sigh he lay down next to Legolas and listened far into the night, the sound of the prince's deep breathing finally lulling him to sleep. Perhaps Legolas had been right, maybe he was just imagining it, they were after all in the home of an Istari and why would an Istari associate with orcs? 'One wouldn't', the rational voice in his mind whispered.

With a small smile he pulled his blanket up tightly around his shoulders and fell to sleep. Still, he thought before the peace of sleep claimed him, it wouldn't be soon enough before they left this place; he missed the open aired house of his father and at the moment he even missed the forests of Mirkwood. It would be good to be home again. Images of Elrond and his brothers chased through his dreams as he slept next to his friend.

Soon they would leave this place and return Legolas to Mirkwood. Then everything would settle down and they'd have a chance to rest a while...

If fate has a face, then surely somewhere she was smiling, thinking how very little the two friends knew of what yet lay ahead of them.

For now however, all was well and it was enough for them simply to rest and regain their strength, they would need it. But that again is another story.


The End