Piercing pale rays of sunlight broke through the trees here and there at sporadic intervals. The sun was warm when it touched the skin of the two travelers, but the air was chill and the signs that fall was fast fading towards winter were appearing everywhere.
Fat grey squirrels, their cheeks bulging with last minute provisions to stockpile for the winter ahead stopped only for a moment on their way to gaze down at the two companions. The pair could not have been more different in some ways. One golden-haired, slender and dressed in soft tones of green and brown that fitted him well, the other with shorter hair bordering on the shade of night, wiry, but more sturdily built than his elven companion. The ranger’s dark, well-worn over-coat obscured whatever else he was wearing underneath. But the easy talk and comfortable silences that flowed between them belied whatever differences the eye took in for the human and the elf seemed to be as close as brothers.
Unconsciously, Aragorn rubbed his arms, pulling his hands up inside the sleeves of his tunic and overcoat for some added warmth. Their breath fogged and hung on the crisp air and the dense canopy of foliage above them kept out the warming rays of the sun. The weather had been taking a decidedly nippy turn the past few days and Aragorn was feeling it, even if Legolas was not. They had expected to reach Mirkwood much sooner in the year than they were now arriving and Aragorn had not come prepared for a winter journey. However, the little side-track they had taken to Eowioriand and the events surrounding their failed attempt to retrieve the Palantir housed there had changed their plans quite a bit.
“Winter’s coming early this year,” Aragorn remarked. All the signs he saw foretold that it would also be an unusually harsh one.
Legolas glanced sympathetically at his friend. The cold did not bite him and he barely registered the change at all, but he could tell that his human friend was beginning to feel the creeping frost of the winter that was nearly upon them. “We should make my father’s halls by nightfall Strider,” he encouraged the young ranger with a slight smile. “If nothing *else* befalls us first that is,” he couldn’t help adding.
Aragorn laughed. “It will be remarkable if something does *not*. Truly, your father will think we kidnapped you I shouldn’t wonder!”
It had been more than a fortnight since they left Isengard and parted from Gandalf and Gwaihir. By now autumn had all but fled away before them.
Legolas chuckled. “Or that I ran away more likely. He summoned me when it was yet summer and winter is all but upon us ere I return... I fear he shall not find my entrance timely,” the prince shook his head. He was jesting, but Aragorn knew him well enough to know that there was a serious undertone to his statement. Whether he wanted to admit it or not, the elf prince was not looking forward to his father’s reaction to his tardy arrival.
Aragorn squeezed his friend’s arm, catching Legolas’ eyes and giving him an encouraging smile. “He’ll understand Legolas, it’s not your fault.”
Legolas smiled softly and shook his head. Aragorn would probably never understand how things were between the prince and his father. Sometimes Legolas did not understand himself. There was love, oh yes there was fierce love between them... but so often the details seemed to get in the way and make simple matters complicated.
“Do not be surprised if he does not see it that way; my father is not your father Estel. Thranduil is a king and he has the right to expect obedience from his subjects, including me; and when that does not happen... it’s not something to be taken very lightly. But fear not, everything will be all right,” Legolas smiled quickly when he saw the concerned look growing on his friend’s face. He didn’t want Aragorn to make more out of this than there was, that wasn’t what he had intended. Indeed, he had not intended to speak of it at all, but the closeness that had grown between he and the ranger often led the prince to say things to Aragorn that he would not have mentioned to anyone else. “I may be hearing about it for the next fifty years, but it will be all right,” he added with a rueful grin that made Aragorn chuckle.
“Don’t worry, if it’s any consolation I am certain to have the same thing happen to me if the snows fall early and close the high pass back to Rivendell too soon. Elladan will never forgive me if I don’t come back and they don’t know why,” Aragorn quirked his head to the side in amusement. “Of course, he’d be even angrier if I tried to make it through the pass in the snow... *and* I’d get one of those lectures from father, you know the one...”
Legolas’ grin widened knowingly. “Oh yes, the ‘what were you thinking, you could have gotten killed, do you think you are indestructible and do you ever stop to consider of the consequences before you act?’ one, is that it?” the prince spoke as someone with much personal experience.
Aragorn laughed. “Yes, that’s the one. See? Our fathers are more alike than you think! Family...” he shook his head.
“Unique, isn’t it?” Legolas enjoyed the joking. It was odd actually, how much he and Aragorn seemed to have in common sometimes, considering that they were so different.
“I see lights through the trees,” Aragorn stopped suddenly and pointed. “I didn’t think we that close yet.”
“We’re not,” Legolas shook his head, glancing the way that Aragorn indicated. “That’s some of my people making merry, a hunting party it looks like,” he added, although Aragorn could see nothing but lights from here. “Let us see what news they have.”
They turned aside towards the lights in the trees and Aragorn walked somewhat swiftly because the thought of being near a fire was a welcome one. As they drew closer they could see that the light of the fire seemed to illumine a perfect circle around the wood-elves in the middle of its glow, one that did not move or extend any light further than their immediate area. It was odd really, but Aragorn had been in the middle of such fires here before as Legolas’ guest so he did not think much of it. He outdistanced the prince slightly in his haste, but before he could enter the circle of lights Legolas called his name and caught up with him quickly, holding the ranger back.
Aragorn looked at the prince, puzzled, but Legolas just smiled and shook his head. “It is not wise to walk into the middle of a wood-elves party unless they know you or you are one of their kind. You would not be harmed, but I have no wish to have to wait around for you to wake up from the enchanted slumber that would come upon you.”
Aragorn blinked and nodded. “Oh.” It seemed there was always something new to learn about elves, even when you lived with them your whole life. And the Mirkwood elves by and large seemed to be quite a bit different than the ones he had grown up around any way. He sighed slightly. “And I suppose one of these days I may be able to actually go somewhere and do something without nearly making an idiot of myself and sticking my foot in it completely.”
“Perhaps someday,” Legolas replied with a devilish grin that earned him a light punch in the shoulder from his friend.
They stepped into the circle of lights beyond the trees, Legolas in the lead. The low buzz of the wood-elves’ conversation stopped as they all looked up. It was a small group, only half a dozen at most, and although they were eating and drinking a fine fare, the group seemed decidedly subdued and Legolas picked up on it at once.
“Your highness,” the hunters rose. “You’re back!” They were sincerely glad to see him, but several of the elves glanced at one another as they rose. Legolas could not read what was behind that look, but whatever it was bothered him.
“Please, join us,” the elves offered quickly as Aragorn moved over to stand near the fire, rubbing his hands together over its warmth.
Hot spiced wine was poured for the two newcomers who both accepted it gratefully as they settled down around the fire. The road had been long and hard and their journey wearisome.
“Well it seems that the quality of our wine has not diminished during my absence,” Legolas smiled after he had drunk. The wood-elves were all very fond of wine, and although they made none of their own, the stock they kept on hand was better than that kept anywhere else in Middle Earth. “What news is there since I last walked beneath these trees Umdanuë?” he addressed the elf sitting next to him. “How was the yèn festival?”
“It was well.” the elf called Umdanuë answered slowly. “...your highness, have you met with your father?”
Legolas did not like the timber of that question. “No, I have not yet been home. Why?”
“No, I meant, met with him on the road. He left to look for you some days ago,” Umdanuë informed.
“Left?” Legolas rose quickly to his feet. “Why would he leave? I sent Raniean with the news that we would be delayed...” It didn’t make sense.
“I don’t know about that, but I know he’s gone... I had hoped he’d be with you,” Umdanuë shook his head.
Aragorn and Legolas exchanged looks. What did this mean? Could Raniean have not arrived? And if so what had befallen him?
“Who is in charge during my father’s absence?” Legolas inquired. “Lord Celemir?” Usually the succession would have gone to himself and if he were not present then either to Raniean, as captain of the largest segment of Mirkwood’s warriors, or Celemir, Thranduil’s most trusted advisor and member of the court.
Umdanuë did not speak.
“Nay, not Celemir,” one of the other elves said reluctantly, obviously reticent and somewhat confused. “He appointed a different regent...”
“Who?” Legolas was getting tired of having to drag every scrap of information from these elves.
“Your highness, you had better get home,” Umdanuë said quietly, his gaze locking with Legolas’. “I don’t pretend to understand your father’s actions, however I will not speak against them either. But I think you need to be home.”
A chill that had nothing to do with the weather ran up Legolas’ spine.
“What do you mean?” Aragorn inquired, almost as disturbed as Legolas, but the elves did not want to answer and Legolas was already on his feet.
“Strider I must make haste,” Legolas said, his face showing his concern. He would not waste any more time here, obviously something was wrong and it was wrong at the palace. Therefore that was where he needed to be, and swiftly.
Aragorn rose quickly to his feet. “I’m with you, let’s go.”
Legolas’ gait was swift and Aragorn matched it. “What do you think all that was about?” the ranger asked once they had left the other elves far behind.
“I don’t know and I’m almost afraid to guess,” Legolas shook his head in dark frustration. “Raniean should have been back already... and why would father leave to search for me himself? Always before he has sent our guard or some of our warriors... it does not make sense, neither does the ill ease I felt in Umdanuë and his companions. They are afraid... but of what?”
Aragorn didn’t try to answer because he knew that of course, his friend did not expect him to do so, but he agreed that these events were disturbing.
When they finally came in sight of the palace it was a momentary relief. Everything looked deceptively normal and if there was ought amiss inside, it was not readily apparent to the eye or the senses.
Legolas paused only a moment before the huge, magically sealed gates that guarded the entrance to his home, holding his hand up quickly and bidding them open. “Edro!”
At his command the gates swung open and the two friends hurried inside. At the entrance to the palace itself however, they were stopped by several guards who crossed their spears across the doorway to bar their path. Legolas did not recognize any of them, which was odd because he thought he knew all the palace staff and guards to some degree.
“Halt, you may not enter without permission. Who are you and what is your business?” one of the guards inquired.
Legolas looked from one elf to the next incredulously, to see if they were joking. They were not. “I am Prince Legolas and I will thank you to get out of my way so I may enter my home,” he said somewhat tartly. “Who are you? I don’t recall seeing any of you around here before.”
The guards exchanged looks quickly. “Wait here,” they told the prince and the ranger while one of them hurried inside, leaving the other two at their posts by the door.
Legolas had no intention of waiting there or anywhere else, but when he tried to move forward the guards once again blocked his path. “We said wait here,” they repeated darkly.
“I heard you,” Legolas was quickly losing his patience. He did not understand what was going on and it was starting to frighten him, which was a feeling he did not like. “But you have not told me who you are or why I should listen to you. I would advise that you let me pass or you may not like the consequences.”
“Legolas, for shame... you’re too old to be losing your temper,” a voice from behind the guards interrupted. A tall elf with a golden circlet upon his brow came into view and motioned to the guards who quickly pulled back to let him out into the courtyard. The elf was fair-haired, but the gold of his locks was many shades darker than Legolas’, bordering on a somewhat ruddy light brown. Yet Aragorn found that there was something uncannily familiar in the lines of his face... although he had certainly never seen this elf before.
The moment he heard the voice, Legolas froze and Aragorn thought he almost visibly saw the color drain out of his friend’s face before the prince pulled his composure back into place once more.
The strange elf looked lordly enough and smiled at the two friends, but the smile was edged with flint and did not seem to reach his eyes.
Legolas regarded the newcomer with a mixture of shock and displeasure. “Doriflen. I thought you were dead.” The prince’s voice was carefully flat.
The elder elf laughed lightly, but Aragorn did not like whatever was dancing behind his eyes. “My brother seems to have been remiss in your training since I left young prince, he should have taught you better manners. Come nephew, have you no greeting for your uncle?”
Aragorn looked in bewilderment between the two elves. He had not known that Thranduil and Legolas had any other family still living, although he realized that that was the familiarity of features he had felt when he first saw the elf, for Doriflen held a certain resemblance to Thranduil and Legolas that clearly marked them out as related. Yet there was obviously something wrong here, because Legolas did not seem at all pleased to see his uncle. In fact, if anything, Aragorn thought that he sensed his friend was alarmed and trying hard to hide it.
“What are you doing here?” Legolas did not respond to his uncle’s display of familial warmth. His voice remained guarded and his eyes suspicious. “Where is my father?”
Doriflen laughed again. There was something in his tone that was just... wrong. Aragorn couldn’t place it, but it was beginning to make him extremely uncomfortable.
“Dear Legolas, always so serious!” Doriflen gave the younger elf a friendly little shake, but Legolas pulled away quickly, almost flinching at the elder elf’s touch. Doriflen gave a show of looking hurt as he turned away. “Ah well. It must be the strain of your journeys. Come, come in and take your ease. You and your friend surely must be hungry and thirsty and tired, come, come!”
“Doriflen, *where* is my father?” Legolas demanded again, his voice icy and edged with concern.
The elder elf rolled his eyes. “Well don’t stand there looking as if I had done something to him! Honestly nephew, where *are* your manners? Living with coarse company has obviously made you uncommonly rude.” He glanced at Aragorn when he said this and his meaning was entirely clear.
“Your father’s gone away for a while. I do believe he went to look for you. He was very worried,” Doriflen shrugged carelessly. “I’m watching over things while he’s away, since he had no son to leave in charge,” the statement was pointed and meant to bite.
“Well I’m back now,” Legolas said flatly, trying to resist feeling the stab of his uncle’s barb. “But why would he go looking for me? I sent a messenger some time ago with the news that I had been detained, but was on my way home. And where did you come from?”
Doriflen’s eyes widened innocently. “No such messenger ever arrived to my knowledge. As for me, I have been dwelling on the other side of the grey mountains, near Carn Dûmo and Forodwaith with my faithful companions here,” he nodded at the grim looking armed guards who surrounded Legolas and Aragorn. “I decided it had been far too long since I paid my dear brother a visit.” There was a hint of a malicious gleam in his eyes when he said that that made a chill run up Aragorn’s spine.
“You were banished from here Doriflen,” Legolas caught and held his uncle’s eyes.
Doriflen’s smile frosted a little harder, but he remained pleasant. “So were you as I understand it, nephew.” The smile became a smirk. “Must run in the family, hm?”
Legolas’ jaw muscles tightened, but he refused to respond to his uncle’s taunts.
“But as you must know, my little brother revoked those laws to bring you home. They no longer stand and I may come and go as I please, here or anywhere else. Now, are you going to stand out there all day with this silly interrogation? Or are you going to come in and be welcomed home?”
Reluctantly, Legolas finally allowed he and Aragorn to be escorted into the palace. “We have had a long journey, Strider and I wish to wash up a bit. May we go?” the prince glanced coldly at the guards who were flanking them on every side in a not very unobtrusive manner.
“But of course!” Doriflen gestured his men away. “You may do as you wish nephew, this is your house and you are not a prisoner here!”
“I wish I believed that.” Legolas nodded once and turned on his heel, walking away with Aragorn following closely behind. The young ranger looked over his shoulder and saw that Doriflen’s gaze was following them. A cold, dead glare. The Dùnadan shivered. He did not like this at all.
Once they were safely inside Legolas’ quarters the prince shut and bolted the door, turning both catches.
“Legolas what in the name of mercy was all that about? Who *is* that elf?” Aragorn wanted to know. “Is he really your uncle?”
“Yes,” Legolas sighed slightly. “Unfortunately, he is. Older brother of Thranduil, firstborn of my grandfather Orophir, and exiled from Mirkwood and the elven world these past two millennia.”
“Exiled, you mean...”
“Yes, like we were, although for a different reason. Banished and forbidden any elven refuge... until now. I had not realized when my father and yours struck down that law... that it would free Doriflen as well, but of course, laws must apply the same to everyone. I doubt father considered it much either. We all thought he was dead.” Legolas explained, obviously greatly troubled by these events.
“But why was he exiled?” Aragorn wanted to know the full story.
“You recall that I said he is my father’s *older* brother?” Legolas wished to sum the tale up as simply as he could. “Normally the eldest son would be heir to the throne, but from his youth, Doriflen had an... unstable personality,” Legolas tried to put it somewhat delicately. “Sometimes he seemed perfectly normal, and then others... he could be very cruel and very twisted. Orophir, my father’s father, was very concerned about his eldest son. He tried to find a cure for whatever ailed him, but it was to no avail. Orophir began to realize that should anything happen to him, he could not leave his people to the mercy of Doriflen’s changing moods and unstable disposition. So he by-passed tradition and handed the title of heir-apparent on to my father. Of course, this put Doriflen in a rage, but there was nothing he could do. He and his friends and followers left Mirkwood altogether, vowing revenge. This was shortly before the end of the last age, so I tell you as it has been told to me, I was not yet present to witness these things.
Then came the Last Great Alliance of Men and Elves. Orophir and a grievous number of Mirkwood’s best fell in that battle. My father came home as King of a badly damaged realm. It was then that Doriflen came back. My father tried his best to make peace between them, for a time he even lived in the palace with us...” Legolas closed his eyes for a moment before continuing. “But it was no use. He stirred up the people, faulting my father and departed grandfather for leading them to ruin in the battle, pressing his own claim as eldest and, he thought, rightful heir to the throne. Quietly at first, but then more and more openly. The people began to divide and civil war was eminent. My father tried to reason with his brother, but Doriflen would be content with nothing short of the throne and that my father could not give him. Eventually it did come to war. A brutal, terrible thing that lasted many years. Some of my earliest childhood memories are of watching war parties ride out the gates... many never returned.” Legolas’ voice was soft. “It was not a safe world to live in, or grow up in.” Indeed, it was that fact that had made Thranduil so incredibly angry at his young son for running away during the yèn festival that first time, so many, many years ago. Legolas had not bothered trying to explain that to Maraen when he told her about the incident some time ago, but his father had been terrified at the thought that his brother might have gotten his hands on his son. Unfortunately, through no fault of Legolas’, Thranduil’s worst fears had indeed been realized not long after.
“It was a war that not even children escaped,” Legolas continued his story with a far away look in his eyes. “Eventually my father started to gain the upper hand as Doriflen’s unstable tendencies began to make some of his followers desert him and see him for what he truly was. As a last resort, Doriflen... kidnapped me to use against my father. I was still a young elf at that time. He threatened to kill me if my father did not hand over the throne. He very nearly carried out his threat, but my father found out where he was hiding me and there ended up being a large battle. Doriflen was captured and his forces surrendered.
“Although he had more than earned death by his actions, my father could not bring himself to order the execution of his own brother, for they had been very close once. Besides, the kingdom was still in an unstable state, and there were those who yet had serious doubts about Thranduil’s right to be king. Killing Doriflen would only make him a bloody usurper in their eyes. There had already been so much damage and so much war, my father merely wanted it to stop. Mirkwood needed peace desperately and he knew better than to give those who would like to keep the war going a martyr to rally around. So instead he exiled Doriflen and his followers in disgrace, using the ancient law to ban them from all elven lands on middle earth. In doing so he hoped to nullify the threat that letting his brother go free posed. Doriflen and his people left and we saw no more of them. Mirkwood recovered and eventually the entire conflict was all but forgotten as the people found what a just and wise king my father was. Many, many years ago we received news that Doriflen and his men were killed in a conflict with some of the wildmen, but obviously, that was not so. Understand you now Aragorn, why his reappearance causes me such concern?” Legolas finished quietly.
Aragorn nodded, understanding completely. Legolas’ obvious alarm over his father’s well-being upon finding Doriflen occupying the palace made frightening sense as well. “Then what you mean is we’ve fallen into the hands of a madman who has reason to hate your father and yourself and yet has somehow managed to set himself up in the palace, playing regent, with the apparent cooperation of the people,” Aragorn summed their situation up with raised brows.
Legolas nodded, rubbing his temples. “That’s about the shape of it. However, I do not understand yet how this has come to be. Or where my father truly is, although I fear the answer to the last,” deep worry plagued the elf’s silver-blue eyes.
Aragorn squeezed his friend’s shoulder. “Well then these are the things we need to find out.”
Aragorn paced in small circles inside the prince’s chamber waiting for Legolas to return. He had hated the idea of his friend going out into the palace without him but the elf’s argument had outweighed his fears. Legolas could more easily and quickly make his way unseen through the interior of his house than his human companion. And so the prince had charged the ranger with staying inside the room with both bolts locked and not opening the door to anyone but himself.
Aragorn glanced back out toward the balcony marking off the sun’s descent in the sky; he would give Legolas only a few more minutes and then he would go looking for him himself. The ranger did not trust the elf’s uncle and was eager to learn what had become of Thranduil in their absence.
A soft rapping at the door caused the man to jump and he quickly ran back to the heavy wooden entrance; pressing his ear against it he barely heard Legolas whisper, “Strider, it is I. Open the door!”
Aragorn quickly threw the bolts on the door, pulling it open. Legolas squeezed in before he had the door half way open and immediately shut it behind him, relocking it. The elf crept to the balcony opening and pulled the thick curtains across its expanse, shutting out the afternoon light and casting the room into semi-darkness, causing Aragorn to falter for a moment before his eyes readjusted to the lack of light.
“What’s going on Legolas? What did you find?”
Legolas grabbed his friend and walked him away from the door, towards the bedchamber, and pushed his friend down in a chair opposite the bed. He seated himself across from the human and leaned forward, his face marred with lines of worry.
“Legolas? What is it?”
“It is what I did not find that worries me.” He whispered, glancing back to the large door. “Aragorn my father’s servants are nowhere to be found. Elrynd has not been seen in weeks. The elves I did find were either guards that I have no recollection of ever seeing before or newly placed servants that are frightened out of their wits. Few would even speak with me. None did I recognize as having served in the palace before. I do not know what evil is afoot but I know that my uncle has done something terrible. There is no thinking that my father would leave and take his entire staff with him to look for me! I am ages old, he has done nothing like that since...” Legolas stopped thoughts of the past chasing fears of the present round his heart and mind.
Aragorn leaned forward and touched his friend, “We will find them. They must be here somewhere. Someone must know something. Did you look everywhere?”
Legolas swallowed hard dropping his gaze to the thick carpet beneath his feet, “There is one place that I have not yet looked.”
“Then let us start there, perhaps we will find the answers we seek.”
“It is in the dungeons.” Legolas glanced back up at his friend.
Aragorn sat back slightly as the implications of what his friend spoke of slowly filtered into his mind. “Well then if that is so let us start there. Someone knows.”
“Yes and that someone is right now poisoning the minds of my people.” Legolas said with bitter frustration.
“All the more reason for us to be about this quickly,” Aragorn replied.
Legolas met the serious gaze of his friend with a sad smile, the ranger’s enthusiasm to always take his friend’s side and ever be of help warmed his heart. “Strider listen to me, this is no game. I am certain that my uncle will kill us if he finds us snooping around. I fear he may have already done so to my father.” Legolas’ words were soft and he swallowed hard as he spoke around his emotions, “His one aim in life has always been to sit on the throne of Mirkwood and now that that goal is within his grasp once again, it will be of no consequence if he must shed more blood to do so. He has no qualms about killing and he will kill you as easily as he will kill me simply because you side with me and not him. Do you understand? He is capable of no small cruelty, he enjoys the pain of others and I would not see you fall into his hands.” Legolas spoke from hard-learned personal experience.
A huge smile split the human’s face and he was shaking his head as his friend spoke so seriously. Leaning forward once again the man locked eyes with the elf and answered him softly, “I would think after all this time that you of all people would realize that your troubles are mine and that there is no way you can make me leave if I do not wish to, which I don’t. I am your friend and I will help see to it that the throne is restored to you *and* your father who I have no doubt is alive somewhere if he is anything like his son.” The ranger’s eyes sparkled brightly in the dim light, “Now, which way did you say the dungeons were? I am afraid I have forgotten since the last time I was in your home.”
Legolas laughed softly and shook his head, “Strider what will I do with you?”
“I suggest taking me with you, because I am *not* sitting in this room waiting for you to come back for one minute longer!”
Legolas stood to his feet and held his hand down to the human pulling the man up next to him, “Very well my friend. Let us hope that secrecy is on our side long enough to uncover what evil my uncle has done in my absence.”
The elf quietly walked back to the door, the ranger following him stealthily. Unbolting the heavy locks upon the door Legolas peered out into the hall. With the slightest movement of his hand he directed the human to follow him as they made their way down to the lower recesses of the palace.
Aragorn felt a startling sense of dèja-vu as he and Legolas slid silently down the lush, stately palace hallways that now seemed charged with an air of unknown danger. The last time they had been forced to sneak through Legolas’ home Aragorn had been accused of murder... but although everything had worked out well in the end, the young ranger did not care to remember that particular time just at the moment, the present seemed to hold enough mystery and danger all of its own.
If Legolas recalled that previous adventure as they stalked quietly towards the prisons near the cellars, he gave no sign. His mind was too consumed with trying to find his father to give thought to much else. Although on the outside it seemed that everything was normal, he knew it was a façade, he could feel it, something was deadly wrong here and somehow his uncle was behind it.
They encountered no resistance and indeed, no sign of life at all, which should have comforted them, but did not. To Legolas the palace seemed altogether too quiet and empty, like a tomb.
Silently, Legolas led Aragorn around the turn where the passage leading to the dungeons branched off from the main corridor, which continued on towards the cellars. A soft sound behind them made the elf jerk and whirl around, hand going automatically over his shoulder for his weapon. Grabbing the intruder he pinned the elf up against the wall with a knife to his throat faster than you could blink.
The prince stopped when he found himself staring into a startled elven face that he knew well.
“Galion,” Legolas sighed as he backed off and re-sheathed his weapon, not having realized he was so on edge. “You surprised me.”
The butler allowed himself to breathe again as Legolas released him. Older than Legolas, the elf had served the prince’s father for many, many millennia. “So I see,” he rubbed his throat slightly and smiled for a moment, but his face was troubled and it was not because of Legolas’ actions.
“Your highness, I’m so glad you’re here, what is going on?” the butler shook his head, obviously disturbed.
“I wish I knew Galion,” Legolas shook his head, glancing back at Aragorn. “I was hoping you could tell me, you’re the first friendly face I’ve seen since I returned home.”
“Aye, it’s a bad business,” Galion responded grimly. “The King going off and leaving us like this, and everyone else seeming to disappear shortly thereafter... I haven’t seen half of my helpers in days, the cellars are in terrible repair, I can’t see to all the barrels and everything down there by myself... and Tarius... he’s not come down to join me for a drop and a tale in over a week!”
“That is unusual,” Legolas could not help smiling slightly. Tarius, the head jailer, and Galion were fast friends and it was no secret that they frequently enjoyed ‘taste testing’ the wine that came to be stored in the cellars. Yet it was not surprising news that Tarius was absent from his post. If what Legolas suspected were true, Doriflen would have had to replace all the jailers. He did not like the fact that they seemed to have simply disappeared though. Those were disturbing tidings.
“Galion, when did my Uncle come back? What happened?” Legolas needed answers and he trusted the butler to tell him truthfully.
“Several weeks ago, brought a whole passel of his people with him. Said that his long exile had given him time to think and come to his senses, said he wanted to make amends with your father for all that had happened. The King accepted him as a guest, which is more than I might have done...” Galion said softly, glancing around somewhat nervously to see that he was not overheard. “Then... then I don’t understand what happened at all. King Thranduil seemed right wary of him at first, but a few days later what does he do, but up and take off looking for you and leave the Kingdom in Doriflen’s care while he’s gone. A ‘symbol of trust’ they says. I won’t speak ill of your father’s wisdom your highness, but I’m not comfortable with this at all and I don’t mind saying so either.”
Legolas nodded slowly, it was much like he had expected, and feared. “Did you see my father do all this Galion?” he asked gravely.
“Nay, not I, but I’m not often at court you understand,” Galion shook his head. “But he has the King’s seal right enough and everyone saw the search party leave.”
“Listen carefully now Galion,” Legolas glanced around cautiously. It was apparent that Galion had told all he knew and now the prince wanted to move on quickly. “Something ill is in the wind and I fear things may sour swiftly. Be careful. Stay clear of Doriflen, keep your people away from him as much as you can without seeming to do so. I am not at all convinced that he has any legal reason to be acting as regent.”
Galion’s eyes widened in alarm at the prince’s warning. “I knew something was not right about all this! I knew it! What can I do?”
Legolas squeezed the butler’s shoulder. “Be wary, be watchful and don’t believe that anything is as it seems. Be cautious, but ready. Ready to act if you are called upon. You will know when the time comes whatever it is you need to do. Now go, you must not be seen talking with me or you may fall under suspicion.”
Galion nodded in understanding. He lingered a moment longer, before accepting the duty Legolas had placed on him and hurrying back down the passage, towards his station in the cellars.
While the two elves were talking, Aragorn had ventured down the hall a little and now Legolas quickly caught up with him.
Elves treated their prisoners well as a rule, and the dungeons were not foul, nor horrible places, but they were grim and dark and the fear of what they may find there made both friends tense.
The first row of cells turned off to their right, while a second branched off at an angle to their left. Legolas paused, a deep frown on his face.
“What’s wrong?” Aragorn asked, whispering without realizing it.
“There’s no guard,” Legolas looked around suspiciously. “There ought to be a guard here on watch.”
“Well it makes our job easier this way. Perhaps Doriflen doesn’t have the manpower to keep all the guard stations operational since it seems so many of your people have gone missing?” the young ranger hazarded a guess, but he had to agree with Legolas, it felt wrong.
“Perhaps... but it’s almost too easy. I don’t like it...” the elf shook his head, hesitating in indecision.
“What do you think we should do?” Aragorn looked around them, searching for any sign that things were not as they appeared, but all looked in order to his untrained eye.
“We must go on. We have got to find an answer to this puzzle, no matter how dangerous,” Legolas concluded at last, and they chose to begin with the right hand passage.
Each thick, wooden door had a closed window set in the middle of it to allow those on the outside to look in and pass food and drink to the prisoners, as well as a small, barred peep-hole near the top of the door that admitted some light and enabled one to look in without being seen in return by the occupants of the cell. Walking silently between the double row of cells the two friends split up, Legolas taking one side and Aragorn taking the other. They used the small, unobtrusive peek-holes to peer inside each small prison in turn. Legolas suggested they do this because he did not want anyone who might be in here to accidentally give away his and Strider’s presence, and it was well, for if once the occupants of the cells knew that their prince was down there, the clamor would have been loud indeed.
Normally the dungeons stood all but empty and unused, for crime was not a common thing among the elves and since Mirkwood had fallen into darkness there were very few intruders who ventured here from the outside world to worry about. Yet such was not the case now and Legolas’ heart twisted at what he saw.
Each cell, every single one, was filled to capacity, over capacity actually, and the conditions were appalling. Legolas recognized almost all the faces he saw through the narrow, slatted bars. Friends, warriors, nobles, palace workers... it was an eclectic mix that was thrown together down here. Tarius was among those Legolas spotted, and doubtless, this was where all of the people who had disappeared recently must reside. The prince felt guilty at looking in on their sorrow and captivity without even letting them know he was there, but he knew that he dare not risk discovery yet. This was obviously something that Doriflen wanted to remain a secret and he and Aragorn were treading on dangerous ground now.
They reached the end of the tunnel and took the turn off back towards the left-hand one, searching it as well, but to no avail. Amid the many faces that they saw who should not have been there, the Elvenking was not one of them.
Aragorn looked slightly awed and somewhat ill when they were done. It was a travesty to see all these merry and noble elves locked up and kept in darkness like this, in such crowded and inhumane circumstances.
“We’ve got to get them out...” he whispered softly to Legolas.
The prince nodded, touched that his friend had obviously been as affected as he was by the sight. “We will, but we need keys and we need a plan. And we have got to find my father. Come, there is one more place to look.” Legolas led Aragorn swiftly down the passage towards the cellars once more, taking a small, ill-lighted turnoff that the ranger had almost not realized was there.
“There is an especially deep, dark cell down here, reserved for the most troublesome of prisoners. It is highly likely that that is where Doriflen would have put my father,” the elf explained quietly as they made their way to the cell door at the end of the hall.
The door was different than the others and had no peep-hole in the top, so Legolas lifted up the larger food grate at the bottom of the door, peering inside into the gloom. He did not find his father there. But who he did find, he would never have expected.
Unlike the others, this cell held only one prisoner. Indeed, it was so tiny it hardly could have fitted anymore. The way the cell was built, the actual floor of it was five or six feet lower than the floor of the passage, and a sharply slanting stone slope ran up to the door. The fair-haired elf sitting against the wall in the small, flat area at the bottom of the slope looked up when the grate was opened.
“Ran?” Legolas whispered softly in shock, not wanting to believe what he saw. A short chain connected heavy manacles around Raniean’s wrists and similar bonds with slightly longer chains about his ankles kept him shackled to the wall behind him.
Raniean’s head snapped all the way up at the sound of his friend’s voice and there was a soft rattle of irons as he pulled himself as far up the slope as his fetters allowed.
The elf warrior in the cell stopped with his face a few inches from the grate, when the chains about his ankles pulled tight. Legolas and Aragorn both had to resist the urge to wince. Raniean was shirtless, and even in the dim light it was painfully obvious that he had been scourged, and badly so.
“Ran...” Legolas breathed in horror. “Ran what happened? How...”
“Legolas get out of here, now!” Raniean interrupted his friend urgently, gripping the bars. “You are not safe. Your uncle-”
“I know about my uncle,” Legolas said darkly. “But I don’t understand what has happened or how. Raniean, you must help us, what is Doriflen up to, why did he do this to you?” The prince’s eyes blazed at the sight of his friend’s pain.
“Us... Strider is with you?” Raniean tried to peer around Legolas to see the ranger.
“I’m here Raniean,” Aragorn dropped down into a crouch next to the prince so Raniean could see him.
“It is well,” Raniean said softly. “And Trelan? Is he safe?”
“He’s not with us, I did not see him in the other cells, more than likely he is not yet returned. Detouring back to Rivendell must have lengthened his trip,” Legolas assured quickly. “But what of you? Ran, please... I need to know what happened.” The prince realized that his friend seemed to actually be avoiding the subject slightly.
Raniean dropped his gaze. “After we left you and Strider outside Adirolf, Trelan and I headed back towards Rivendell, as we said we would. We split company before we reached it, he continuing on to deliver your message to Lord Elrond, and I turning homeward to deliver it to the King. I came as swiftly as I could, but encountered several delays and only returned five or six days ago. I should have known something was amiss right away, but I was disturbed that I had been delayed so long and wanted to get your message to your father as quickly as possible. The servant outside the throne room said the king couldn’t see me at the moment, but he’d take him the message...” Raniean swallowed hard before continuing, his gaze fixed on his hands, refusing to look up at his friend’s face.
“So I told him,” the warrior’s voice was quiet and filled with shame. “Then Doriflen came out of the throne room... And I knew something was wrong, but it was too late, he had heard me talking about you. He wanted to know more, more about you and your friends, who did you trust? He wanted me to lead my men to follow him because apparently not all of them trusted him and his regency... but I wouldn’t. He pressed very hard, but I wouldn’t do it and I swear your highness, I swear I told him nothing more...” Raniean’s throat squeezed off as he shook his head slowly, begging the prince’s forgiveness. “I did not mean to betray you to him Legolas,” the other elf’s voice was soft and sorrowful. “I swear I did not.”
Legolas’ eyes stung and he quickly reached through the bars, wrapping his hands around his friend’s forearms and giving him a comforting squeeze. “You didn’t Ran, I would have bumbled in here, same as you, whether he knew I was coming or not,” the prince assured quietly, gently touching the other elf’s flushed cheek, his voice asking Raniean to meet his eyes. Raniean did, reluctantly.
“You did well, and we’re going to get you out of here,” Legolas assured; he had no idea how, but somehow they would. He had known Raniean since childhood, for as long as he could remember, and it burned him to see his good friend hurting so much, locked up in the dungeons of the prince’s own home.
Legolas was thinking fast, but it wasn’t getting him anywhere. “We need those keys!” he swore in frustration, once again irked that they had no idea where Doriflen had disposed of them.
“Maybe, maybe not,” Aragorn was apprising the lock. “I think I could get in if we had a pin or something like it...”
“You know how to pick locks?” Legolas raised his eyebrows as his friend nodded. “And dare I ask which of your brothers taught you *that* useful little skill?” he could not resist a slight smile as he quickly searched his clothing to see if he had such an item. Aragorn was always full of surprises.
“Actually, it was my father, but don’t tell anyone,” Aragorn grinned.
“Lord Elrond?” Raniean’s incredulous voice from inside the cell made them both chuckle.
“He said you never knew when it might come in handy,” the young ranger shrugged.
“Obviously he was right...” suddenly Legolas stopped dead still, listening.
“Legolas, someone’s coming!” Raniean said suddenly in a hushed whisper, his sharp elven ears picking up the same sound as Legolas had. The prince and the ranger were in a dead-end passageway here; it was not a good place to be trapped. “You’ve got to go, now!”
Aragorn was already alert and on his feet, straining to hear what the two elves had. Legolas half-rose, but hesitated, hating to leave his friend down here a moment longer. He gave Raniean’s hand one last, firm squeeze. “I promise we’ll be back and get you out of here Ran, you have my word!”
“I know, I know you will, just hurry! Go!” Raniean urged them, returning his friend’s squeeze before releasing the prince’s hand and urging them on.
Aragorn and Legolas fled silently up the passage. The way seemed clear when they peered out, but both of them could feel that something was wrong as they crept stealthily forward. That notion was confirmed when they turned the corner into the main prison and nearly walked smack into Doriflen and half a dozen of his guards.
“Hello Legolas, fancy running into you here.” Was it Aragorn’s imagination, or did Doriflen’s mocking smile hold a bit more ice and steel than it had earlier?
The two friends pulled up short. Aragorn glanced over at Legolas, but the elf prince’s face was a façade of calm.
“Indeed?” the elf prince replied with calculated carelessness. “The last I recall I was perfectly free to wander where I wished in my own home.” He was going to play Doriflen’s cordial game for as long as he could and as far as it would get them.
Unfortunately, Doriflen was not in the mood to play anymore, not when he did not have to do so. His smile would have frozen the sun. “But you should be more careful young prince, the dungeons are a dangerous place... people get hurt down here.”
Aragorn was suddenly aware that another platoon of Doriflen’s elves had come up behind them and felt a ring of alarm building inside him. He and Legolas exchanged a glance; they were trapped here, between the two groups and every instinct in them was screaming for them to run... yet there was nowhere to go.
“Your concern is touching,” Legolas’ voice was as frosty as a February morning. “We’ll be leaving then.”
Doriflen laughed, but made no move to get out of the way, in fact the guards moved in closer, until they were almost touching the two beings caught between them. Aragorn smelt an acrid, distinctive odor that he recognized at once and tensed.
“You’re a very good actor nephew, but the human reeks of fear. And you know what? He’s the smart one.” Doriflen gave an almost imperceptible nod and the guards behind Aragorn and Legolas grabbed for them suddenly, attempting to press thick, drugged cloths over the friends’ faces, that was what Aragorn had smelled.
The two friends were ready for the attack, but in such close quarters and against these numbers that helped them little. If their enemies had been orcs, or men, or dwarves... but these were elves and even Legolas had very little advantage over them in speed or cunning. The struggle was fierce, but short.
Aragorn thrashed and gagged as he was thrown back against the wall and held there, a strong hand against his throat nearly cut off his airway as another struggled to get the cloth over his face. The elves were far stronger than he and he couldn’t move at all inside their iron grip; it was a frightening, suffocating feeling.
A sharp blow caught Legolas in the stomach as half a dozen hands struggled to pull him down. The prince landed hard on his knees and was struck again to keep him there; the sheer press of bodies kept him from rising. From the corner of his eye Legolas saw Aragorn drop senseless to the ground as his captors released him.
The rough, stinking cloth was shoved against the elf prince’s mouth and nose. Legolas struggled and squirmed, gagging on the stench of the drug, twisting his head around violently and attempting to escape. He could hold his breath a long time and had no intention of inhaling the fumes if he could help it.
The other elves swore as they tried to hold him down. Twisting their hands in his hair and attempting to hold his head still, one of them kicked him viciously in the ribs, forcing the prince’s breath to leave his body in a rush. Inhaling was automatic and with a thrill of horror, Legolas felt the acrid rush of the drug entering his lungs and a moment later the world went black.