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Betrayal

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- Betrayal-

 

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~*PART ONE*~

 

 

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.”

 

 

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~*PART TWO*~

 

 

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.

Chapter Text

When Legolas opened his eyes his head was pounding and he could still taste the lingering bitterness of the drug in the back of his throat.

 

The first thing he noticed was that he was alone in a room he did not recognize and that neither Aragorn, nor Doriflen where anywhere to be seen. The second thing he realized, was that he was kneeling between two waist-high posts, held up by short chains that connected his wrists to a ring in the top of each post. He had been stripped to the waist and no longer had any of his weapons. None of this boded any good at all.

 

He tested the strength of the chains and the fit of the manacles about his wrists. Unfortunately both were more than adequate for their job. Resigning himself for the moment, the prince turned his attention to the room around him. It was puzzling because he did not believe his uncle could have taken him out of the palace without attracting attention, and yet he knew every inch of his home, or so he had thought, and this room was not familiar, not even as part of the dungeons.

 

He did not have long to wait or wonder, for a few moments later the door opened and the person Legolas wished to see least in the world entered.

 

Legolas glared at his uncle as several guards filed in after him. “Where am I?”

 

He didn’t actually expect an answer, so he was surprised when the older elf replied. “Someplace no one will ever look for you,” Doriflen smirked. “Out there, just down the passage outside that door,” he motioned back the way he had come, “are the storage halls and access tunnels for the lower palace... but no one knows about this place, or the passages beyond. Nor will anyone ever find you. They won’t even be able to hear you scream.”

 

Legolas’ gaze was hard and he tried not to let Doriflen see his apprehension, or the cold shiver that ran up his spine at those words. It was not the first time he had heard them from the older elf, and the last time was a nightmare to recall.

 

“Are you surprised nephew?” Doriflen walked slowly around Legolas, regarding the chains that held the younger elf on his knees between the two posts with satisfaction.

 

“No,” Legolas shook his head with icy dignity, despite his position. “It was only a matter of time before you started showing your true colors. You’re a cruel tyrant Doriflen, that much I learned about you when I was young. It’s amazing anyone could be near you and not know that.” Legolas glanced around at Doriflen’s guards when he said that.

 

Doriflen leaned quite close to the younger elf and grinned at him. “But they do know it,” he whispered with a pleased, malicious tone in his voice. “That is why they do not dare to do other than I say. Believe me, 2,000 years is a long time to make a people understand what it means to get on my bad side.”

 

Doriflen laughed. It was a very unpleasant sound. “You on the other hand, dear nephew, have not yet begun to understand what it means. Something I intend to remedy.”

 

One of the soldiers brought in a bundle and Doriflen took it from him, unrolling the contents on the table in the corner. Legolas could not see what it was from his position, but Doriflen’s voice behind him kept him aware of the elder elf’s position.

 

“Do you like to play games Legolas?” Doriflen asked as he gathered up a handful of thin, pointed spokes from the pile that was contained inside the bundle, walking around and letting his chained nephew see them. Half a finger in length, sharp as a needle and about four times as thick, the tiny spikes were a puzzling thing, but Legolas didn’t have to wonder too long what they were for.

 

Doriflen circled around behind the prince once more and Legolas resisted the urge to flinch when he felt the sharp jab of pain that accompanied Doriflen pressing one of the spikes into the soft flesh of his back. Doriflen repeated the procedure until he had used up his handful. It was painful, but not nearly intolerably so, and Legolas just set his jaw, staring stonily ahead.

 

“You know I’ve spent some time creating these toys just right,” Doriflen continued to talk pleasantly as he worked, obviously enjoying what he was doing. “Not too bad right now, are they? No, I didn’t think so. But...” Doriflen grabbed Legolas’ chin from behind and twisted his nephew’s neck up and around until Legolas was looking at him over his shoulder.

 

“But each of these little spikes have been treated with a special mix I created. Very ingenious little potion. Doesn’t do a thing... until it gets near fire.”

 

With that, Doriflen released Legolas’ head and rose. Taking one of the candles from the stand behind them, Doriflen held the flame uncomfortably close to Legolas’ cheek and the younger elf turned away from the heat, much to his tormentor’s twisted amusement.

 

Carefully and deliberately, Doriflen set fire to one of wooden spikes sticking into Legolas’ back. It burned unusually slow and hot as the fire worked its way down towards his flesh. The instant the hot flame touched the elf a surprisingly unbelievable wave of pain radiated out from it. Suddenly it didn’t seem small and localized at all, but felt as if someone were holding a heated iron across the prince’s shoulders.

 

Legolas drew his breath in sharply and clenched his fists, making the chains binding him clank dully as he shifted against the sudden onslaught to his senses. It seemed impossible for so tiny of a thing to hurt so incredibly much.

 

“Surprising, isn’t it?” Doriflen smirked, far too pleased with himself. “I worked a long time to get this just right.” He lighted another spoke and contentedly watched Legolas squirm as it burned down.

 

“Poor little Legolas,” Doriflen mocked. “Poor little pampered prince. Leading the good life while your dear uncle was stuck out in the cold in some forsaken wasteland that couldn’t even support a crop of grass!”

 

Doriflen was moving methodically now, lighting a new spoke as soon as the last one had burned down, giving Legolas no break, no respite from the searing pain working at him.

 

Legolas closed his eyes tightly shut and tried to focus on breathing deeply and tuning out the pain and his uncle’s taunting words. But it was becoming more and more difficult as each torturous moment ate away at his strength and tolerance a little further.

 

“But all that’s changing now, isn’t it?” Doriflen’s voice had begun to acquire a slightly crazed, excited tone. “I’ve come back into what was rightfully mine and you, dear nephew, have many long and difficult lessons to learn. For I will teach you to know pain as I have known it, to know fear the likes of which you have never felt and to endure things a hundred times harder than you can bear.”

 

With these words, Doriflen lit all the remaining spikes at the same time, rocking back on his heels and watching smugly as Legolas’ body tightened and jerked when the flames reached him.

 

The elf prince’s breathing sped up until he was nearly hyperventilating and he rocked back and forth in his bonds as the searing waves of pain raced over him again and again, as if someone had pressed his back into a bed of hot coals and just kept turning up the heat.

 

Doriflen laughed as he watched Legolas clench his lips tightly and squirm under the pain he was inflicting upon the younger elf. “You might as well go ahead and scream boy. You will sooner or later. Your father did.”

 

Legolas’ eyes sprung open quickly and he fixed a burning glare on the elf torturing him. “What did you do to my father?!” he demanded through his teeth, hissing sharply as another two burning spokes reached his flesh, adding to what was already becoming nearly unbearable agony.

 

Doriflen just smiled infuriatingly and went back for another handful of spikes. “What I’m doing to you. And worse. Like I shall do to you,” he said almost carelessly. “Nothing he didn’t have coming for everything he did to me. And your pain, my dear prince, is just beginning.”

 

The mad elf twirled one of the insidious little spikes between his fingers. “Now... shall we do it again?”

 

 

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

 

 

Legolas leaned forward, letting the chains on his wrists support his trembling body. He jerked and hissed as Doriflen pulled the charred spikes roughly and methodically from his back with a small, pliers-like tool. Five times Doriflen had applied and removed his insidious little creations, and Legolas’ body had long ago kicked into pain-overdrive. His back shrieked helpless waves of burning pain at him even when no one was touching him now.

 

Doriflen finished his task, but didn’t go back for another set of his toys this time, he was tiring of this game and wanted to move on to something new.

 

“But this isn’t very much fun alone... Wait here nephew and I’ll go find a playmate for you,” Doriflen said, running his fingernails cruelly across Legolas’ hurting shoulders on his way out. The elf prince was almost in too much pain to notice, but Doriflen did not go out the way he had come in, rather he exited through another door in the opposite corner of the room.

 

Legolas snatched the moments alone to try to re-gather his strength, but there wasn’t much left to find. Letting his head sink down to his chest he drew in the deep, sobbing breaths that he had avoided when Doriflen was present, because his air intake wobbled and hitched when he inhaled deeply and he wouldn’t let Doriflen see that weakness in him. He had held his own thus far and denied Doriflen the pleasure of hearing him cry out, but he knew it was only a matter of time if things continued like they were.

 

A few moments later Doriflen re-entered with a smug grin and Legolas’ heart sank as he realized the meaning of his uncle’s words to him a few moments ago.

 

“I brought you a friend Legolas, now we can have twice as much fun,” the elf said as his men followed him, dragging a resisting Aragorn between them.

 

“Leave him alone Doriflen,” Legolas demanded, desperately trying to keep the pain tremor out of his voice. “You have no quarrel with him, he has done you no wrong.”

 

Doriflen smiled cruelly as his men shoved Aragorn to his knees opposite the prince. “But he’s your friend Legolas. And that makes him my enemy. Besides, humans are so *fun* to play with. So much less resilient than our kind.”

 

As if to try to prove his words one of the guards kicked Aragorn in the ribs, doubling him over. A second guard twisted the young ranger’s arm sharply behind his back, pushing Aragorn down until his face nearly touched the floor, stopping just short of dislocating the shoulder. The first guard grabbed a set of manacles out of the corner, but did not try to put them on the prisoner. Instead he held both ends in his hand so that the long chain was doubled up and dangled from his fist.

 

Aragorn had his face pressed barely half an inch above the cold stone floor, bent double over his own knees. His dark, unruly hair had tumbled forward around his face, further obscuring his view and he couldn’t see what was going on, but Legolas knew what the guard was up to the moment before it happened.

 

“No!” the prince twisted his already sore wrists harder inside their restraints as the guard brought the looped end of the chain down sharply across his friend’s shoulders. The force of the blow slammed the young ranger’s face down against the floor, causing Aragorn’s nose to start bleeding.

 

Unprepared for the blow he couldn’t see coming, Aragorn gave a half-checked cry of surprise that he choked off quickly, swallowing the pain and holding his breath as a second blow from the chain slammed into his throbbing shoulders and smashed his head down against the floor a second time.

 

“Stop it!” Legolas’ face was fierce and stony as he glared up at his uncle. He knew this was probably exactly the kind of reaction that Doriflen wanted out of him, but could not stand by and watch them hurt Aragorn like this merely because the ranger was his friend.

 

“Stop this Doriflen! What does it serve you to do this to him?” Legolas’ eyes burned as the guard chain-lashed Aragorn again. Aragorn groaned softly, biting his tongue hard to keep from crying out.

 

“Your grievance is with me and my house uncle, why should this one suffer for things that happened long before he was born?!” Legolas’ anger mounted and mingled with anguish as another blow elicited another soft hiss of pain from his friend.

 

Doriflen laughed, but raised his hand, signaling the guard to halt a moment. Really it was only because he didn’t know just how much the human could take, and didn’t want the young ranger passing out until he’d served his purpose.

 

“What’s the matter nephew? Don’t you know what it means to be royalty? Haven’t they taught you how you sometimes have to sacrifice others to save yourself because, after all, you are so much more important than they,” Doriflen sneered. “So he suffers instead of you for a while, until you recover. And you can’t do anything but watch. Not a fun feeling being this helpless, is it? Well get used to it!”

 

Doriflen back-handed Legolas sharply, then walked back over in front of Aragorn who was still pressed close to the floor, shuddering slightly as he drew in painful breaths.

 

“You choose nephew, what should I start on with him?” Doriflen grinned evilly at Legolas, giving Aragorn a small kick in the shoulder as if the ranger were a dog he was going to enjoy tormenting. “The needles? Or maybe a few more rounds with the chain, he does seem to be enjoying that, doesn’t he?” Doriflen kicked Aragorn again, less gently this time.

 

“Or maybe,” a cruel idea flickered into Doriflen’s eyes. “Maybe you’d rather watch me take him apart slowly. Yes... yes I think I’d like that.”

 

At a signal from their master, the guards flipped Aragorn onto his back and yanked his arm out to the side, pinning the young ranger down firmly.

 

Doriflen pulled his sword and let the tip rest against Aragorn’s palm. The elder elf looked to Legolas with a malicious grin. “Maybe start with the fingers and work my way up...” he demonstrated what he meant, lightly running the razor edge of his blade first across Aragorn’s fingers, then his wrist and then further up the Dùnadan’s arm, drawing imaginary lines. “And then start on the other side... He won’t live long, but it will be plenty long enough for his screams to become forever burned into your memory.” Doriflen spoke as one familiar with what he described.

 

Aragorn couldn’t help going slightly wide-eyed, so he clenched his eyelids tightly shut instead, icy fear gripping his heart in its clammy fist. It was not a way he would have chosen to die.

 

Horror clutched at Legolas’ heart. “Leave him be Doriflen!” he demanded desperately, hating his helplessness.

 

“You forget dear prince, you are not in a position to be giving orders,” Doriflen purred wickedly. “Try asking nicely. Try pleading for his life and maybe I’ll think about it.”

 

“Please Doriflen, let him go, please! I’ll beg you if that’s what you want to hear, but let Strider go!” Legolas ruthlessly shoved his pride aside. He hated having to play Doriflen’s twisted games, but if Aragorn’s life were the stakes, then he would play them. His own life he would gamble with, but not his friend’s.

 

Doriflen smiled. He liked the power the young human gave him over his nephew. Legolas obviously cared very much for this half-grown upstart, although the elder elf couldn’t imagine why.

 

“Hmm... no.” Doriflen pretended to consider it and then shook his head, turning back to Aragorn and lifting his sword.

 

“Coward!” Legolas’ wrists were beginning to bleed from pulling against the cuffs that trapped them. “Are you so afraid that you aren’t strong enough to break me yourself, that you settle on tormenting children to make yourself feel powerful?” Legolas spat the words at his uncle with the full force of his rage behind them.

 

Legolas was no fool. He knew exactly how his uncle would react to such an affront. He was counting on it.

 

Aragorn’s eyes popped open and he turned his head, looking at Legolas in surprise and fear as Doriflen turned away from the young ranger and stalked back in front of his nephew.

 

“You’ll never break me uncle. Never. And you know it,” Legolas threw the bold words up in Doriflen’s face. “You couldn’t when I was a child and you can’t now, because I’m stronger than you are. Just like father was. You lost Mirkwood because you were insane and weak and you still are!”

 

Legolas’ heart was pounding wildly in his chest, and his throat had gone so dry it was hard to get the words out, but he didn’t let Doriflen see that. He knew his uncle would make him pay dearly for those words, but that was the point. If he made Doriflen angry enough, the wicked elf would forget Strider and turn his attention back on Legolas. He didn’t have to pretend any of his scorn or contempt though, that was very real.

 

Aragorn, still pinned on the floor, couldn’t believe his friend was being so foolish. Didn’t Legolas realize what his uncle would do to him for being so brash?!

 

Doriflen scowled darkly at Legolas. He slapped the younger elf roughly, his face twisted with rage. He hit his nephew again and again until blood ran down the corner of Legolas’ mouth and chin. Twisting his hand in Legolas’ hair, he jerked the prince’s head up, placing his own only a few inches away. “You’ll pay for that Legolas,” he threatened. “Your father should have taught you some respect, as well as some sense. But never mind, I’ll teach both to you now and it’s a lesson you won’t soon forget!”

 

Grabbing the looped chain from the guard still standing over Aragorn, Doriflen walked behind his nephew.

 

Aragorn saw the fear on Legolas’ face that his friend was trying to hide, but he saw something else momentarily flash through his friend’s eyes. Success? But what... Suddenly Aragorn understood and he felt immediately ill. Legolas had done that for him.

 

“Legolas!” Aragorn shook his head. “Don’t-” a sharp kick from one of the guards stole his breath and choked off his sentence.

 

“Shut up Strider!” Legolas snapped, fear and pain making him sharp. The last thing he wanted was for his uncle to think of making him pay by turning his attention back to the ranger. Legolas wanted Doriflen to forget Aragorn all together.

 

Aragorn did not seem ready to accept that sacrifice on his behalf, but Legolas’ eyes met and held his for a moment and the fierce warning in the elf’s gaze actually backed the ranger down a little as he realized that anything he said would probably just land Legolas and he in more pain at this point.

 

Doriflen brought the chain down across his nephew’s shoulders with the full force of his rage behind it. Legolas gasped between grit teeth as the punishing metal links dug into his already abused back. A second blow fell lower, curling partway around his ribs, and a third followed quickly in nearly the same place. Legolas’ bare skin caught between the thick links when they twisted on impact, causing the chain to brutally pinch and bruise the prince wherever it made contact.

 

Legolas sagged forward against his bonds as his uncle’s rage fell full upon him, working him without mercy. His breath started coming in ragged sobs that he couldn’t control as the pain overwhelmed him.

 

Aragorn had been allowed back up to his knees, but the guards held him firmly back against the wall, forcing him to watch helplessly as Doriflen visited his brutal rage upon Legolas. Tears stung the young Dùnadan’s eyes and he struggled with his captors despite the many cuffs and blows it earned him.

 

In places the force of the beating and the repetitious blows broke Legolas’ skin, causing blood to trickle down his back. When Legolas couldn’t take the pain in silence anymore he cried out, but only softly, and he begrudged his uncle every single sound that was torn from his trembling lips.

 

At first Legolas had been aware of Aragorn’s emotional anguish in the corner of the room, but his world quickly funneled down into one long tunnel of pain that kept growing narrower and narrower until it seemed to be blocking out all the light around him. Legolas’ head fell forward as consciousness slid away from him and his senses fled into the release of temporary oblivion.

 

When Doriflen noticed the change he stopped, dragging Legolas’ head up by a handful of his long, tangled golden tresses and gazing dispassionately into the pale young face. “I told you nephew,” he whispered. “My lessons are not easy to learn.”

 

Doriflen turned his grey blue eyes on Strider and smiled slightly. “Next?” He questioned softly.

 

Aragorn eyes were fixed on Legolas, looking for hints that the elf was only unconscious and not dead. He knew full well a beating like that would more than likely have killed a human. It would be a wonder if the prince had no broken ribs from the force with which his uncle had lashed him.

 

When Doriflen spoke to him the ranger barely glanced up. As angry as he was, he feared more what the insane elf might do to the prince if he challenged him.

 

Doriflen shrugged and moved away from Legolas, rounding the poles that supported the elf’s weight, he slowly stalked towards the ranger.

 

“I have no fondness for rangers, or any human for that matter.” Doriflen played with the chains in his hands, idly running his forefinger down the metal length and smearing the blood that stained them around their circular links.

 

One of Aragorn’s guards grabbed the man by his hair and jerked his head back, holding him still while Doriflen stepped in front of him, blocking the ranger’s view of his friend.

 

The insane elf touched his bloodied finger to the human’s cheek and drew a line on the man’s face with Legolas’ blood.

 

It took every ounce of strength Aragorn had to submit to the elf’s touch. He did not even try to constrain the anger in his eyes.

 

The human’s frustration humored the elf and he stepped away quickly allowing the ranger full view of the prince.

 

“Pretty don’t you think?” Doriflen swept his hand back and indicated Legolas as though he had done something worth applauding. He turned back to the man and tipped his head slightly in thought, tapping his lips idly with his finger. “You know I was going to practice on you next but...” Doriflen glanced back at Legolas, “Somehow I just don’t think it would be any fun with out my nephew here to enjoy it.”

 

Aragorn couldn’t help flinching as the elf stepped quickly closer to him, “I think I’ll just wait and save that for later.” A malevolent grin spread across the fair being’s face as he stared down into the dark eyes of the human.

 

“Tie him to the post Legolas is chained to. Make sure he is able to get a good look at my handiwork.” Doriflen ordered the guard on Aragorn’s right. “It’ll give you a small idea of what I have in store for you when I come back.” The elf lord smiled at the ranger before leaving the room without a backward glance.

 

Aragorn was pulled up to a standing position and drug to Legolas’ side. The guard on his left kicked the human’s feet out from under him and pushed him roughly against the post, holding him against the wood as the other guard tied his hands to the ring Legolas was manacled to.

 

They had just finished securing the ranger when Doriflen stormed back into the room.

 

“My lord?” the two guards bowed, slightly confused.

 

“I was thinking.” Doriflen glared at Aragorn, “I don’t imagine you’ll stay put and wait for me will you? You’ll probably make a very resistant captive and it wouldn’t please me if you escaped before I was able to spend some more time with you.” The elf walked back towards the door and stopped, swiveling on his heels he smiled gleefully at the human, “I have an idea!”

 

Doriflen stepped towards the guard nearest the ranger and pulled the elf’s sword from its sheath. Without hesitation he drove the point of the blade deep into the man’s thigh, dragging it down through the muscle just enough to create a jagged tear.

 

Aragorn cried out and arched back against the pain, struggling with his bonds, trying to escape, but it was useless. Doriflen waited until the ranger had stilled himself, his head falling against the wooden post, before he removed the sword from the human’s leg. Aragorn tried unsuccessfully to stifle a moan, he was panting heavily to keep from passing out.

 

“There that’s much better.” Doriflen crouched down next to the man and looked into the pain-filled eyes. A smile widened once more on his cruel face, “Much better indeed.”

 

This time when he left, Doriflen’s guards followed him out, leaving the two prisoners alone.

 

 

___________________________________________________________

 

~*PART FOUR*~

 

 

Aragorn concentrated on breathing, trying to shut out the pain. He needed to get loose and get them out of here. Doriflen was right about one thing; he had no intention of waiting for that madman to return.

 

“Legolas?” Aragorn twisted in his bonds and kneeled next to the post, carefully easing his wounded leg out from under him. He leaned forward to try to catch a of glimpse of the elf’s face but the prince’s hair had fallen over his shoulders, concealing his features where he hung. “Legolas! Come on, wake up.” The ranger glanced at the elf’s back and drew his breath in in a sharp hiss. Legolas’ back was welted and bruised. Burns marks lacerated his skin in odd patterns. “Damn, what did he *do* to you?”

 

His binds weren’t as tight as they should have been and the human began to work the rope back and forth against itself, straining at the knots until they began to ease up. He ignored the ache in his wrists as the rough hemp dug into his skin. Grabbing one of the loops with his teeth he pulled the knot slowly apart. Within moments his hands were free and he rubbed them gently, trying to ease the pain his escape had caused.

 

Silently he moved in front of Legolas and awkwardly crouched down near the elf. Slowly easing his hands up the sides of the elf’s face he tipped the prince’s head back, brushing the long strands of hair easily out of the way.

 

“I have to get you out of here.” He whispered to his unconscious friend.

 

He had no weapons and none had been left in the room. Legolas, unlike himself, had been staked between the two poles and secured with manacles that were attached to the wood. Frantically he searched the ground for something, anything to help him free the elf. His fingers closed about a small thin tine. Doriflen had dropped one of the tiny torture devices earlier and hadn’t noticed its absence. The spoke’s needle-tipped point was perfect for picking the locks on the manacles.

 

Limping back to the post, Aragorn attacked the locks desperately. The small spine was perfect and Legolas’ right wrist fell free of its bondage. The elf crashed to the ground, suspended by his left arm only.

 

Aragorn quickly moved around the prince and picked him up off the floor. Gently, the ranger rested the elf’s head on his shoulder, pulling his friend against him, trying to ease the pressure to his still manacled wrist. Aragorn carefully brushed away the blonde stands of hair that fell into his eyes so he could concentrate more easily on the lock. He could feel Legolas’ light, shallow breathing as he held the unconscious elf, and he hoped that his friend would be all right. The seconds dragged by as the ranger fought with the cuff, it seemed like it took forever for the lock to release its hold on Legolas. Limply, the prince leaned into the human as Aragorn compensated for the extra weight, pulling them both unsteadily into a standing position.

 

Bending down, Aragorn tucked his head against Legolas’ side and shifted the elf onto his shoulder, holding the prince’s legs as he stiffly stood from the crouched position. His wounded leg buckled under him, threatening to collapse and send them both back to the floor but the ranger quickly shifted his weight and was able to maintain his balance. He limped towards the opening of the room and peeked around the corner, glancing both ways.

 

No one was around and no sounds echoed through the passage. Carefully and quietly he edged out into the hallway and moved back up towards what he hoped was Thranduil’s main palace and somewhere familiar where he could hide. He needed to find a place out of the way, someplace safe so he could see to Legolas’ wounds and his own.

 

He walked uneasily up the tunnel and through a doorway that looked as if it had been recently made in the wall that he walked through. Rubble and stones littered the floor as he moved through the opening but he didn’t take the time to ponder what it meant. Moving into a passageway that he recognized from previous visits he passed a storage room, marking the door in his mind and continued on. Testing the doorways along the way the ranger kept searching for any place where they would be unnoticed. Legolas’ weight under normal circumstances would be a small thing to deal with, but with the wound to his thigh, Aragorn was almost out of strength to continue their flight. He grimaced in frustration, realizing that was exactly what Doriflen had in mind – to cripple him.

 

He pressed in a door on his left, the dark room was barely lit but for a tiny shaft that cut through the rock to the surface. The sounds of water dripping somewhere in the recesses sounded oddly in his ears and the room was filled with a moldy scent. There was no telling how long the chamber had been left unattended, unopened, overlooked. Crates lined the walls and stacked in rows into the interior of the room. It was perfect. They could hide behind the boxes and never be seen.

 

Glancing back down the hall to see if their escape had been noticed Aragorn edged into the room and quietly shut the door behind him, throwing the bolt in place. He squeezed between the boxes and pressed for the back of the spacious closet. Water dripped down the wall of the limestone, ponding in a small pool before leaking out a crack in the floor. It was here near the back wall that he finally dropped painfully to his knees and lowered Legolas gently to the floor, careful not to let the prince fall on his wounded back. He propped the elf against a nearby stack of boxes and quickly shrugged out of his overcoat, laying the long leather jacket on the floor before easing Legolas stomach down onto the worn coat. He gently pulled the elf’s arms out from under him, trying his best to make the prince more comfortable.

 

It was cool in the chamber. Aragorn rose unsteadily to his feet, stepping towards the crates hoping that there would be something useful in them. The first carton produced nothing he could use and he dug into the next one. There were furs stuffed into the wooden box and below them was a bolt of fine cotton spun for dressmaking – it would do. He pulled the furs out and stacked them near Legolas’ head, dragging the cotton down with him as he re-seated himself next to the unconscious elf. His fingers shook slightly as he brushed locks of stray hair away from Legolas’ face.

 

“Legolas?” Aragorn bent close to the elf and stared at the pale face. The prince did not move. He placed his hand gently between the elf’s bare shoulders, careful of the red welts that decorated his back, “Don’t worry, you’ll be fine now. I just have to get you cleaned up.” He quickly began tearing the cotton into strips. Dipping one length into the pooling water behind him, he cleaned the ugly burn marks on his friend’s back, gently removing the ash and soot left by the burning tines.

 

His own leg had begun to throb unmercifully and he grabbed a length of the fabric and wrapped it tightly around his thigh, stopping the blood flow and closing off the wound. With that taken care of Aragorn turned his attention back to Legolas. The elf was breathing more easily now and the ranger began to carefully clean the deep, bruising welts that crossed his back and wrapped around his ribs. He hissed in sympathy as a soft moan escaped the prince. “I’m sorry Legolas. Shhh...I’ll be more careful.” He quieted the elf, gently laying his hand on Legolas’ head and speaking softly.

 

When the elf’s wounds had been seen to, Aragorn bound the worst of them with strips of cloth and laid a barrier of the fabric over the prince’s back before piling the furs on top of his friend to keep him warm. He sat for moments in the dark silence, closing his eyes and just allowing the stress of the whole day to roll off of him. He hadn’t realized that Doriflen was quite as mad as he was. The elf truly was insane. Pushing himself stiffly to his feet he limped to the door and cracked the entry slightly open. He needed to find some clothing for Legolas and some food for both of them. It wouldn’t be much longer before Doriflen’s men found that they had escaped and came looking for them.

 

There were no sounds in the long passage and he crept out of his hiding place, stealing back down to the storeroom he remembered passing earlier. Aragorn was relieved when the door opened with no resistance. He pressed inside and quickly rifled through the provisions stacked there. Dried venison was stuffed into his pocket and he grabbed a small stack of newly prepared tunics on his way back out. He moved quickly towards the room where he had left Legolas, surprised and grateful that their absence had gone unnoticed thus far.

 

Stealing back into the forgotten storage room that served as their hiding place, Aragorn quietly shut and locked the door behind him, sliding the bolt into place so the door could not be opened from the outside.

 

He was taken off guard as someone lunged at him from behind. His attacker grabbed his head, one hand under his chin forcing the ranger’s head painfully to the side, a slight twist emphasized his captor’s seriousness and he groaned softly against the abuse.

 

“Where have you taken him?” A dangerously low voice whispered in his ear.

 

“Legolas?” Aragorn glanced out of the corner of his eyes trying to get a look at the person behind him.

 

“Aragorn?” The elf let up his strangle-hold on the human and staggered back.

 

Turning quickly the ranger saw the way prince stumbled and he dropped the tunics, catching his friend before he fell. “What are you doing?”

 

“I didn’t know who you were.” Legolas grabbed onto the human, allowing the man to steer him to the back of the storeroom, “How did we get here? Where are we?”

 

“Calm down.” The ranger gently seated his friend on the pile of discarded furs and gingerly knelt in front of him, careful of his own wounds. He took the elf’s face in his hands and held him still, “We are safe for now. We are not far from where Doriflen kept us, but they will not suspect we are here. I got us free and found some food and extra clothing.”

 

Legolas eyes were huge in the semi-darkness as he listened to his friend. He wrapped his slender fingers around the man’s forearms, concerned about what may have happened after he passed out. “Did he hurt you? Did he torture you?”

 

“I am fine.” Aragorn smiled at the worried elf, “I got a little scratch that is all.” He glanced down at his leg, a crimson stain had spread across the lightly colored fabric that he had bound the wound with and he grimaced slightly.

 

Legolas followed his glance and started, “That is no scratch Strider!”

 

“Hey!” The human whispered fiercely at the elf redirecting his attention, “It’s fine.” He emphasized his words slowly and nodded his head at the prince. “You are the one I am worried about.” He carefully pulled the elf forward, allowing his friend to lean against him as he inspected the wounds on the elf’s back once more. “What did he do to you Legolas?”

 

The prince closed his eyes tightly shut and shook his head, moving away from the ranger. Tears spilled over the brims of his eyelids and he pressed his fists hard against his eyes trying to shut out the emotions, trying to suppress the images and the pain. He felt like an idiot for being this weak, but no longer seemed able to control himself. Memories from his childhood mingled with the present and made everything harder.

 

“No. It’s all right.” Aragorn pulled the elf against him and held him there until he stilled.

 

“It’s not all right.” Legolas didn’t move, he just relaxed against his friend. “He said he did the same thing to my father only...” the elf’s words choked in a sob and he stopped speaking. Aragorn shut his eyes tightly trying to control his hatred for the elf that had done these things. Legolas continued softly, “He said he did the same thing to my father only worse.” The words were barely a whisper.

 

“Legolas I am so sorry.” Aragorn tried to comfort the prince, “We’ll find your father I promise and together we’ll take back the throne. He won’t hurt any of you again.”

 

There was no response from the prince and Aragorn gently pushed him back to stare into the glazed silvery blue eyes. “Hey, you with me?”

 

Legolas nodded slightly and met his friend’s gaze. When he smiled Aragorn pulled him back towards him, resting his forehead lightly against the elf’s as he spoke, “I brought food and clothing. Let’s rest up here for a bit and then we can go find your father. Sound good?”

 

The elf nodded against him and finally returned the smile.

 

Aragorn stood to his feet to retrieve the bundle of tunics he had dropped, when the door was roughly jerked against its bolt from the outside. He crouched back down next to Legolas and peered around the crates. The sounds of conversation could just barely be heard beyond the heavy door.

 

“It’s locked.”

 

“Break it in then!” Doriflen’s angry voice could be heard yelling above that of his men.

 

“Begging your pardon my lord but that door is always locked. A cave-in caused by an earth shake sealed it off, the room hasn’t been accessible in years.”

 

Legolas stared at Aragorn in surprise. The voice of the elf that had just spoken belonged to Brenyf, captain of Raniean’s guard. He had just lied to Doriflen; the two escapees held their breath hoping it would work.

 

It was quiet for several moments out in the corridor, “Very well move on. But find them or it will be you I put in those stocks!” Doriflen screamed at the guards as they moved off down the hall. He slammed his fist hard against the locked door before stalking away.

 

Aragorn let his breath out in a rush as the hall outside quieted once more. He glanced at Legolas as the elf sat back down, closing his eyes and breathing heavily. It had been very close but Brenyf had just bought them a few extra hours.

 

Shakily, Aragorn stood once more to his feet and retrieved the tunics he had dropped near the door. He pulled out the venison and handed a few strips to the prince as he reseated himself, unwading the clothing and looking it over.

 

He passed a dark green under-tunic and a darker brown over-shirt to the prince, “These look to be your size.”

 

Legolas took the proffered shirts and laid them in his lap, tearing off a bite of venison.

 

“You are shivering.” The elf observed.

 

“No. I think that last encounter just shook me up a bit.”

 

“No, you are shivering.” Legolas laughed lightly at the rangers denial and pulled a fur out from under him where he sat, passing it to the human.

 

Gratefully Aragorn wrapped the fur around his shoulder and nodded, rolling his eyes, “Fine, I was shivering.”

 

“I know these things.” Legolas took another bite of the jerky.

 

“Oh yeah, you know everything.”

 

They both laughed lightly, the tension easing as their safety, momentary though it was, settled in.

 

“Well there are some things I don’t know.” Legolas responded softly. His eyes drifted down to the fur beneath him as his thoughts drifted to his father once more.

 

“Why don’t you get some rest?” Aragorn reached out and touched the prince’s shoulder gently, “Get into that clothing and rest a bit. I’ll stay up and watch.”

 

“No, Strider we need to press on, who knows what that madman is doing or has done to my father, we need to find him.”

 

Aragorn held the elf’s gaze unwaveringly, “I agree, but not with Doriflen’s men hunting us. We are safe now,” He kept talking as Legolas tried to interrupt, “your father would want you to stay that way and besides,” he smiled wickedly at his friend, “I am not carrying you another step of the way!”

 

Legolas laughed and shook his head, stiffly shrugging into the tunics Aragorn had brought him. “Very well. You have a point.”

 

The ranger leaned carefully back against the stone wall, as his friend gingerly laid down on the furs, easing onto his stomach with a soft groan. The man draped a thick fur across the elf’s shoulders, “Sleep Legolas, I’ll wake you.”

 

With a slight nod the elf fell fast asleep, the stress from his wounds and the abuse to his body overriding his desire to begin the search for his father. Strider was right, it would do no good to be recaptured, Doriflen would not allow them a second chance at life.

 

 

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

 

 

“Show me where it was that Doriflen kept us.” Legolas glanced back at Aragorn as the man quietly closed the door of the storage room behind them. They had sheltered in the forgotten closet for a few hours while the prince regained some of his strength, but he had grown anxious to find his father and they had heard no sounds in the hallway for quite some time. Thinking the passage safe, they set out to find Lord Thranduil.

 

“I am *not* going back there.” Aragorn whispered fiercely, glancing over his shoulder as they stalked cautiously back into the bowels of the palace.

 

He bumped into Legolas who had stopped and was glaring at the human. “Strider, that room that my uncle had us in...” he thought through all his long years in the palace halls, shaking his head softly, “I have never been there before and yet Doriflen claimed we were just beyond the storage rooms. There is nothing beyond the storage rooms, they are a dead end.”

 

“They aren’t a dead end any more.” Aragorn edged around the elf and took point, leading them towards the storage area. “You'll hate it in there.” The ranger glanced back at the elf with a cryptic smile on his face.

 

“What does that mean?”

 

“Well for a race that hates caves you sure have carved out a series of tunnels that resembles them quite well.” Aragorn turned left at fork in the hallway and stepped cautiously back into the room with the broken wall.

 

“Strider!” Legolas glanced at the high, airy shafts that decorated the tunnels they walked in, lighting the large passages and causing the white stone walls to seem more spacious than they were. “This is my home. How can you possibly compare the palace to a cave?!”

 

Turning back towards the prince, Aragorn stopped him. “You haven’t seen it down there, I have. Whatever that section of the palace is, it’s not like here.” He waved his hand above them indicating the air and light vents. “It’s...it’s evil Legolas, it’s dark.” He was frowning as he thought about the tunnels he had passed through on his way out of the lower dungeons. Casting his eyes to the back of the storage room they stood in he quietly continued, “Come on, you'll see.”

 

Stepping around the supplies that commandeered most of the space in the small room Aragorn pressed towards the back wall. He picked his way around the rocks and debris that littered the back half of the room; the huge break in the wall, obscured from view by the crates and boxes, loomed darkly in front of them.

 

Legolas stopped walking and carefully looked over the ragged hole that had been made in what he had always been certain was nothing more than a dead end. He fingered the jagged edges of the makeshift door that had been broken into the wall. The soft rock that had concealed the passage easily crumbled in his hands, nothing more than a well concealed patch. The floor beneath his feet was littered with rocks and rubble and he looked about him in confusion.

 

“What is this place?” He turned huge, confused eyes on the man that stood quietly off to the side, listening for any sounds of approach.

 

“I don’t know.” Aragorn shook his head. If Legolas did not recognize it, then certainly the human had no idea.

 

Anger flared through the prince igniting his resolve with hot flame. “We have to find my father. Doriflen must have known about these tunnels all along. There is no telling what else he has done to the Kingdom.”

 

“Legolas...” Aragorn’s arm on the elf’s sleeve caused the prince to glance back at the human, “it truly is more like a cave than your home.” He tried to warn his friend.

 

With a slight nod the elf stepped into the passageway behind the storage room. Indeed the ranger had been correct. Here the air and light vents were few and far in between. The air was old and held a slightly stale scent to it that he had not noticed when he had been with Doriflen. The walls and floor were rougher, they did not resemble the smooth, fair quality of workmanship that the elves were famous for and Legolas found himself halting quickly after he walked only a short way. It was true, the very place felt as though a great evil had been worked here, whether recent or simply a remnant of another age, the elf could not tell.

 

“You are right Strider.” Legolas glanced about them in the dank passage, “It is more like a cave, like the passages in Eowioriand. But... but I have never heard of this place. Why would it not...” His words were cut short as Aragorn grabbed him, shushing him quickly and dragged him farther into the strange tunnel.

 

He pressed himself into a deep recess, pulling Legolas back with him and turned his back to the hallway, hoping his dark overcoat would blend in with the blackness around them. “Someone approaches.” The ranger whispered quietly into the elf’s ear.

 

Legolas listened, throwing his awareness out into the hall behind them. Sounds of hurried footsteps reverberated on the rocky floor and voices floated to them.

 

“I don’t care what you heard, the king and his son are not returning. Doriflen is your master now. You would do well to obey him.” A harsh voice warned.

 

“I will never call him lord.” Another answered in an icy, clipped tone.

 

“Listen to him,” a voice that held ages of weariness interrupted the conversation, “It is not wise to cross Doriflen. You will not survive it. Just do as he says and ask no questions. Come on now all of you. Let's collect those supplies Lord Doriflen asked for and leave this place. I do not like the way it feels here.”

 

Their voices grew distant as they passed on through another adjacent tunnel oblivious to the presence of the escaped prisoners.

 

Aragorn let out a deep sigh of relief - it had been so close.

 

“Did you hear what they said?” Legolas stared down the passageway.

 

“I did. But it’s a lie.” The ranger tangled his fingers in the sleeve of the prince’s tunic and pulled him in the opposite direction. “Come on, I’ll show you that room.”

 

 

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

 

 

Legolas stared hard at the two pillars that decorated the now empty chamber. Dried blood on the ground had stained the roughed rock a dark ominous color. He swallowed hard, knowing the black drops that stained the floor had come from him. He couldn’t repress the shiver that overtook him as he thought back on his time here.

 

“Let us be gone from this place. It is not good to be here.” Aragorn stood near the rear exit. He glanced back in at his friend, following the elf’s gaze to the reminders of his torment. “Look there is another entire section of passages that lead off from this one. Let us try some of them. It may be that we will find your father there.”

 

Legolas nodded absently, the whole turn of events was almost more than he could handle. His father had been taken hostage by his uncle, an elf known for his cruelty, and was being held somewhere in a labyrinth of tunnels that the prince had never even known existed. Everything was wrong and he had no idea if he would ever be able to right it again.

 

“Legolas?”

 

The elf turned to follow but was stopped as a dark figure filled the doorway behind him. Legolas swiveled on his boot heels in time to see the captain of Doriflen’s guard step into the room, surprise was written on the guard’s face as he took in Mirkwood’s prince unbound and ready to flee. “Stop!” He yelled at them before leaning back into the hallway and calling for help.

 

Legolas fled out the back door, grabbing Aragorn and pushing the human in front of him. “We have been found!” He explained as he pelted up the passage, adrenaline lacing like fire in his veins. He had no wish to be caught by that madman who called himself his relative.

 

The ranger ran behind him, slowed by the injury to his leg. Spurred by the sounds of their pursuers he did not relent to the deep ache the wound caused him as he followed the prince through the unfamiliar halls, weaving in and out of different rooms, both large and small. The interconnecting tangle of passages confused the human but he would rather be lost in the bowels of Mirkwood’s palace than be caught by their tormenter.

 

Aragorn raced down the darkened tunnel Legolas had turned into, the injury to his leg was causing him to move more slowly and stiffly now. He grew frustrated with himself as the elf rounded a corner out of sight ahead of him.

 

“Legolas wait up!” the ranger called down the hallway.

 

The prince skidded to a stop and ran back towards his friends, “Strider, are you are all right?”

 

“Yes.” The human had stopped and was standing in the middle of the hall. He bent over and gripped his thigh hard above his knee trying to still the pain, “It just aches. I can’t keep up.”

 

“Alright, slower then, but we must leave this area.” The elf cast his eyes behind the man and listened intently down the tunnel, “We are not safe here. Doriflen’s men are still near.” Legolas stepped forward, intending to help Aragorn, allowing the human to lean on him, but a low grinding noise stopped him as the shriek of metal on rock filled the shaft and an iron gate fell between them, its pointed tips driving hard into the stone floor.

 

Legolas barely had time to move out of the way before the grate clanged down against the stone, separating him from the human.

 

Aragorn lunged forward, grabbing the steel bars with his hands. He pressed his body against the gate and tried to move the obstruction up. Legolas threw himself against the metal bars on his side and added his strength, but the steel door didn’t budge.

 

The sounds of feet running in the hallway behind Aragorn echoed along the stone shaft. The ranger glanced behind him, there was no way out. Legolas reached frantically through the bars, grabbing the human’s tunic.

 

“Aragorn!”

 

Panic swept through his heart as Strider turned back to the elf. He pulled away from his friend’s grip and shoved the prince backwards away from the gate, “Go!”

 

When Legolas didn’t move the man grabbed the bars and pressed his face closely against them, whispering fiercely at the elf, “Go Legolas! Get out of here. They can’t get you again.” Aragorn knew that Legolas was the one Doriflen really wanted, and the young ranger couldn’t stand the thought of having to watch Doriflen get another chance to visit his cruelty upon the prince.

 

“I can’t leave you.” Legolas shook his head vigorously, desperately searching for some way that they could both get out of this together. He couldn’t let Aragorn be retaken! Who knew what twisted things his uncle would find to do to the ranger? For no other reason than because he was Legolas’ friend! Anguish squeezed the elf’s heart tight as he tugged desperately at the bars separating them. It was to no avail.

 

“You can’t stay. Quickly, before they find us.” Aragorn’s eyes were huge as he begged his friend; he fought the fear that pounded at his heart with every beat. His captors were almost upon them. “Please go.”

 

Legolas stepped forward, pressing his forehead against the steel bars, barely touching Aragorn’s. He wrapped his hands behind the ranger’s head and held the man against him for a second, closing his eyes as he fought the despair in his heart. He couldn’t believe this. Not again. Not again! It reminded him of Moria all over... his friend was trapped and he had no choice but to abandon him to what he knew was going to be a cruel fate. The prince had sworn he’d never be in this position again, he had sworn it! Legolas felt helpless, anguished frustration sting his eyes.

 

Aragorn’s hands gripped his forearms tightly, “Go! Please Legolas.” He whispered once more.

 

“I’ll be back my friend.” The elf’s voice was strained. “I promise.”

 

Aragorn nodded against him, closing his eyes as Doriflen’s men rounded the bend in the passage behind him, “Just make it soon.” His voice trembled as he pushed himself away from Legolas and spun around, pressing his back against the metal door. If they wanted him, they would have to take him, he wouldn’t go willingly. He heard Legolas pelt up the passageway as the warriors fanned out in front of him. One of them leaned around to catch a glimpse of the elf prince as he passed out of sight.

 

“You’ll come along with us now.” Amon, the captain of the guard threatened.

 

“I don’t think so.” Aragorn’s voice was hard and dangerous as he viciously quashed the fear racing around inside him.

 

The commander of the elves laughed slightly, “Oh really? You want it to be rough then? Lord Doriflen is waiting for you. He won’t tolerate your tardiness.”

 

“Lord Doriflen can sleep in Gorgoroth for all I care. I am not going with you.” The ranger stepped into a defensive posture and balanced his weight, ignoring the pain that shot up his leg; he had no intentions of making his recapture easy on the elves at all.

 

 

___________________________________________________________

 

~*PART FIVE*~

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Are you listening?
Sing it back...
I'm still running away.
I won't play your hide and seek game.

What a dizzy dance...

What a dizzy dance...

--“Sweetness”
Jimmy Eat World

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

 

Legolas stopped a fair piece up the tunnel, just beyond the bend and listened. He needed to know where they would take Aragorn. He hated to leave his friend behind to his uncle’s warriors, but the human had been right, they had had no choice. Leaning back against the cool, stone wall he listened. Because once again, that was all he could do.

 

He closed his eyes tightly shut as the sounds of the scuffle echoed down the hall to him. The ranger was not going easily. Legolas banged his head softly back against the rock behind him, the elves would just treat the human worse if he fought them, but he knew that under the same circumstances he would not go willing either.

 

Shouts rang down the hall and he heard Aragorn cry out, followed by the sound of a body dropping hard to the floor.

 

“Pick him up and bring him back. Make sure he can’t get away this time.” The words of the captain floated to the elven ears.

 

“Oh Strider.” Legolas eased down to the floor and brought his knees up to his chest, “I’m sorry.” The sound of the iron gate being slowly raised alerted the prince that he had better be on the move again, and quickly, if he hoped to keep his promise to his friend.

 

~*~

 

Aragorn woke to find two large elves quickly binding his hands together in front of him with rope. He had put up quite a struggle, injuring one of their party and taking another elf out completely before they had overwhelmed him. He kicked out at one of the warriors before him and was rewarded by a swift punch to his head from the other, causing sparks to dance before his eyes; an odd ringing echoed in his ears.

 

“Damn human.” The elf finished securing his wrists and kicked the ranger hard in the side. A sickening pain shot through Aragorn’s awareness, clearing his mind momentarily as he painfully curled into a ball, trying to protect himself.

 

“Don’t kill him Nynd. If you do Doriflen will have *you* hanging in that room of his.” Amon spoke harshly to the elf. He leaned down and grabbed Aragorn by the hair, jerking the human’s head back so the dark, pain filled eyes were forced to focus on him. “Don’t worry about your friend. As soon as we deliver you, we’ll go find him.” The elf grinned wickedly at the man, letting go of his head with a hard shove.

 

Aragorn’s head banged down against the stone floor, the rough rock cutting deeply into his temple. He winced, unable to stifle the small cry the injury incurred.

 

“Get him up.” Amon growled and turned, pushing through his men back towards the room where Doriflen waited for them.

 

The human was drug roughly to a standing position and hauled back down the passage. Unable to get his feet underneath him, his wounded leg twisted and he cried out under the rough treatment. His escorts merely laughed and turned into a small room, dragging their prisoner in with them.

 

Doriflen stood in the center of the room, looking down into a gaping pit with a satisfied smile on his face. He glanced up casually as his men entered, hauling the ranger with them. His glee turned wicked and he motioned above their heads to a wooden bar suspended over the pit.

 

Two elves stripped the ranger to his waist, cutting his tunic from his body and hefted the human up so his feet were not touching the ground as Amon threaded a rope over the bar and started to loop it through Aragorn’s bonds.

 

One look into the hole below him and the ranger panicked. He lashed out with his feet, catching Amon in the chest and pushing the elf back against the far wall. The two elves holding the struggling human fought to maintain control of the man without falling into the pit themselves.

 

The ranger’s frantic struggle was stilled as the crack of a whip split the air. The fiery pain of a thin leather thong raced between Aragorn’s shoulder blades and he arched against his captors, crying out at the intensity of the touch.

 

Amon stood from the side of the room and slowly approached the prisoner, anger flashing in his blue eyes.

 

“Now behave yourself and let Amon finish, then you and I will have some time together - alone.” Doriflen laughed softly where he stood behind Aragorn. “Won’t that be fun now?” He spoke quietly as the warrior finished tying the ranger off to the bar. He jerked the ropes taut, eliciting a soft groan from the man.

 

“Let him go.” Amon growled at the elves holding the ranger.

 

Aragorn shut his eyes tightly shut and moaned as he was dropped, his weight catching on his wrists and lancing pain between his shoulders, tightening in a breath-stealing bind around his chest.

 

A sharp blow to his midsection caused what little air was in his lungs to expel. He tried curling into himself unsuccessfully, trying to ease the pain from the blow and allow his diaphragm to breathe in.

 

“Now Amon,” Doriflen chastised the elf lightly, “that wasn’t very nice.”

 

“Sorry my lord.” The elf laughed cruelly. “If you need any help with this whelp, please let us know.” He motioned with his head to the entryway of the room and he and his men left.

 

“Now where were we?” Doriflen turned his attention back to the ranger, his grey eyes lighting on the man’s. The twisted glee in their depths scared Aragorn more than anything he had endured so far.

 

 

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

 

 

The human hung limply from his bonds. Red stripes decorated his back and arms, his clothing was shredded from the repeatedly searing kiss of the leather thongs.

 

Aragorn had stopped struggling long ago. He concentrated only on breathing as the tip of the whip bit across his thigh. A small whimper escaped his lips but he did not open his eyes this time. Consciousness was threatening to leave him.

 

“Legolas.” He whispered his friend’s name in a fevered semi-aware state. He had slipped into speaking elvish as the struggle to remain awake gripped his mind, “Legolas where are you?”

 

Doriflen slapped the handle of the whip against his leg as he walked around the ranger, “Your little friend isn’t here right now. Not just yet anyway. Are you still listening to me?” He asked, cracking the pommel of the whip hard against Aragorn’s split temple as the human allowed his head to fall forward. The cruelty was rewarded with a soft moan but the ranger did not fight him or look up.

 

“Well I think our little session is over.” Doriflen had grown bored, he easily grew bored and his mind raced ahead to finding Legolas. He had quite a treat in store for the elf prince. The smile that spread across his face banished all thought of the ranger that hung suspended before him. “I need to go spend some quality time with my nephew. I have something rather delightful in mind for him.” He refocused on Aragorn, “But don’t worry I’ll come back and we can pick up where we left off.” The insane elf’s laughter echoed off the rounded walls of the room, entering into Aragorn’s darkness and it seemed as though the pit beneath him swallowed him whole as he finally fell into unconsciousness.

 

 

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

 

 

Legolas whirled around, his hands clenched tightly into fists since he had no other weapon... but there was no one there. He let his breath out slowly and told himself he had to stop being so jumpy. Thus far he had evaded the search parties looking for him, but he was no closer to finding out where his friend had been taken. His every step was hampered and his every move anticipated before he got there like some sort of dizzy, off-kilter dance. It was maddening. Now he seemed to find himself alone in the strange, unknown passages, but the silence was almost more oppressive then when he had been able to hear his pursuers.

 

The prince’s keen eyes tried to pierce the darkness around him as he hesitated in an arched doorway, considering the path before him. A series of archways dotted the hall, but there were no turn offs. The air was getting warmer and denser, so he thought he must be descending deeper into the earth, although the floor did not slant. Unfortunately, even Legolas could not see very far in the thick semi-gloom that seemed to cling to the passages like fog. His own home had been turned into a weapon to ensnare him and it made the prince more than furious.

 

Suddenly the chains that held up the gate set into the archway above his head gave with a clanging groan and the sharp, spiked iron rods rushed down at him. The elf barely had time to jump forward. The next instant he saw the gate set into the second archway, directly in front of him, crashing down as well. Not willing to become trapped between the two like a rat in a cage for Doriflen’s amusement, Legolas sprung forward, throwing himself to the ground and rolling under the second gate before it slammed down into its groove, only seconds after he cleared it.

 

Springing to his feet easily once more, Legolas glanced back at the spear-pointed gates that could have killed him. With a shiver he realized that Doriflen knew exactly where he was. His uncle was playing with him. He was forcing Legolas to go where he wanted him and there didn’t seem to be much the prince could do about it, except to not go anywhere.

 

“I’m not going to play your game anymore Doriflen, do you hear me?” Legolas shouted at the cold, empty walls, feeling sure that somehow his uncle could hear him. “Come down here and face me or let us go! I will play your twisted games no longer!”

 

Before Legolas could draw another breath, the floor beneath his feet disappeared without warning as a trapdoor he had not realized was there, fell away, sending him tumbling downwards. The prince tried to catch himself, but the pit he found himself falling into was too large and the sides too far away for him to reach in time.

 

For a few moments the stomach-stealing jolt of dropping into nothingness took part of Legolas’ breath away as he fell straight down into empty darkness. Seconds later he hit something slippery and slanted. The elf banged down into it sharply, slithered a ways, rolled, and banged into it again, but it did not seem to slow his decent. Rather, it seemed that he had fallen into a huge slide that twisted and curved downward at a sharp angle. Legolas pressed his hands against the sides of the narrowing passage he found himself shooting down, but only managed to slow himself a little. The friction tore at his hands and made them burn. Above him the trapdoor slammed shut once more, locking with a bang and plunging his rapid descent into utter darkness.

 

Moments later he spilled out the bottom of the drop and free fell the last part of the way, landing in a less than orderly fashion, although he got back on his feet quickly enough. Straightening his tunic and holding his sore hands, Legolas found that he was still in the dark, in yet another area of tunnel work that was totally unfamiliar to him.

 

Legolas set his jaw. Obviously, not moving wasn’t going to do the trick either, Doriflen seemed to know his home even better than he did and had everything planned out far too well for the prince’s liking.

 

Legolas walked cautiously through the dark, feeling the tunnel walls with his hands. The rock was rough here, not at all like the tunnels that he was used to, or even the unfamiliar ones that he had been in earlier, and a strange smell clung close to the sides as though the very air had been burnt here at one time. The elf's feet crunched on the gravely floor and he bent to touch it, wondering curiously what it was made of. The ground was rough, hard and uneven as he brushed his fingers lightly across it. His hand touched a wall immediately in front of him. The obstruction startled him. He thought for sure he had been deposited in another one of the underground tunnels, but this passage, if passage it was, turned into a dead end. Feeling his way along the length of the wall he followed the roughed stone in a complete circle. He was not in a hall at all, but a large, circular chamber of some sort. His fingers bumped the rim of a metal grate that sealed over a hole in the thick wall. The metal was hot to the touch and he jerked his hand back from it. He was walled in and the only way out seemed to be hanging many feet above his head. However, he doubted that even the way he came in would work as an exit, since the trapdoor was most likely not intended to open from the inside.

 

A gnawing anxiety began to eat at the back of his mind; he should know this place. Something about it struck a chord in his memory... but what? Bending down again to the ground he kicked at an uneven spot, loosening the dirt, and grabbed the rock, bringing it close to his face to smell it. The realization of where he was hit him full force, the fear of it dropping like lead into his stomach. He breathed in deeply, testing the air; it was acrid, old and the stench of fire still lingered. Frantically he searched for the chute he had dropped out of, trapdoor or no trapdoor - he was in a thermal vent.

 

The Forest River wasn’t the only thing that flowed beneath their feet here. Thranduil's palace had been built into a hill that was situated over a catacomb of thermal pools. The pools were naturally occurring vents in the earth’s crust that allowed magma to spill to the surface in tiny, controlled amounts. They were deep beneath the earth and had long ago been safely capped off by nature and the ingenuity of the elves. However instead of sealing them over, the original builders had decided to utilize the natural heat that constantly rose from the pools. They had built grates over the magma fissures that could be rolled back to allow the magma to seep into repositories located deep, deep within the bowels of the palace during the long winter months. When the rooms were partially full, vents above the liquid earth allowed the heat to be drawn up into the castle. At times the magma rooms were also used as waste receptacles, to burn unwanted or hard to dispose of rubbish. Legolas was shocked to realize that that was exactly what he had fallen down, some sort of trash disposal. Waste sent down the chutes was immediately destroyed when it touched the fiery pit. Every so often teams were sent down to break the cooled magma up and carry it out. The dense black material was put to many uses by the elves. There was a crawlway that led to these vents from the main halls, near the cellar, but in all his years Legolas, partly because of his aversion to tight, dark places, had never been to the magma repositories, and he had no desire to be here now. He needed to find the chute he had fallen from and try to get out and he needed to do so now.

 

Fear shot through him as a low groaning rumble filled the room. Warm, yellow light spilled in, followed by a wave of intense heat. The elf turned to the far wall - the magma grate was ponderously rolling away, allowing the slow moving, liquefied rock to enter the hollow that he was trapped in.

 

Legolas pressed himself against the wall behind him and tried to calm his breathing, he needed to think clearly if he was going to get out of here alive.

 

Sweat beaded on his brow as the room instantly heated to well beyond comfortable and was edging towards intolerable. In minutes he would loose consciousness as the oxygen was heated beyond what his body could endure. As the lava rolled slowly in, gaining speed as the grate opened more fully, Legolas was able to see his surroundings clearly, lit as they were by the fire that poured in behind him. He turned and glanced above his head. The edge of the chute, set into the wall, was directly above him, he could just barely grip it with his fingers if he stood on the tips of his toes.

 

The fire hissed and spit behind him. He didn’t dare look back for fear of how close the lava was to his position. Hooking his fingers on the edge of the smooth chute he pushed off the ground and vaulted up, pressing his feet against the roughened walls of the magma container. He barely held his grip as the lava washed against the wall beneath him, throwing small particles of heated liquid rock up the side of the cavern.

 

Slowly the elf walked his feet up the uneven wall, careful of every inch he moved - one misstep would be all it took and he would be unable to escape. He could feel the sweat roll down his back between his shoulder blades, pooling at the base of his spine above his belt, stinging his injuries viciously. He tried to blow the hair that matted against his face away from getting into his eyes.

 

Within seconds he pulled his upper body into the chute and braced his feet against the sides of the sharply slanting circular tunnel, standing to a crouched position with his palms pressed flat against the interior rock. The chute was incredibly slick and it was a struggle to remain where he was. Climbing up would be even more difficult, besides the fact that it was an almost certain dead end.

 

Legolas eased one hand to his face and brushed the stray locks out of his eyes. He glanced overhead and noted the vent grate in the ceiling of the chamber, directly above the pit. The magma continued to rise. In most cases only a small amount was allowed in and then the grate was closed off. By the time the slow moving metal door had fallen back into place enough lava would have filled the pit to come just to the edge of the waste chute, any higher the magma would plug up the chute and it to would have to be cleaned out. But the grate wasn’t closing and the superheated liquid climbed ever higher. Legolas had no doubt that his uncle intended to fill the pit and kill him here.

 

He had one chance to survive and only one shot at it. Crouching down on the edge of the chute he centered his thoughts on his objective and balanced himself, trying to block out the sounds of the rising lava.

 

Legolas pushed off from the waste cute and jumped for the vent grating. His fingers locked around the metal, hooking through the holes in the screen that covered the vent. The metal was hot to the touch and burned the soft skin on his hands. He hissed in pain as he forced his fingers to tighten on the grate. With his right hand he leaned out to the side of the metal plate and quickly unlatched the catch, his fingers clumsily pulling the pin from the bolted locking mechanism. The door of the vent fell open inward, dropping Legolas dangerously close to the lava that was quickly approaching. His shoulder wrenched as he caught his weight on the fingers of his left hand that still held tightly onto the grating and he cried out with the pain.

 

Glancing down at his feet he could see the magma mere inches below his boots. Using what strength he had left, the elf prince climbed hand over hand up the scorching metal grate and pressed himself inside the tight thermal vent. It was hard to breathe in the small vertical shaft and the thermal winds that blew past him made him sweat, causing his singed palms to be slippery as he pressed them hard against the sides of the tight chute and climbed slowly up. His back ached where it had been bruised and burned as he pressed against the rough stone chimney.

 

For a few moments he had to battle back a swirl of suffocating panic as he remembered why he hated tiny enclosed places. The feeling of being trapped was overwhelming. But he knew that somewhere above, the vent had to open out into the palace... or at least so he hoped, and he clung to that.

 

The magma hissed and spit below him barely, touching the opening of the thermal vent. The magma gate must have finally been closed for it rose no more, as though unwilling to chase him into the tiny crawl space.

 

Light from the fiery rocks below him lit the shaft as he pushed slowly upward and he could see a vent that intersected his shaft, heading off to the left. It was only a few feet above his head, he could make it, he had to. He pushed himself harder. The promise of freedom from the thermal vent made him move too quickly and he lost his balance, sliding backwards down the hole before bracing himself once more and stopping his decent. It would be a long time before the magma at the base of the chute became cold enough to be stepped on. The hardening black surface he could see below him now was merely a deception, being less than an inch thick. However, as it cooled the light in the shaft dimmed and Legolas began to panic anew. If there was anything worse than being stuck in this miserable, suffocating little place, it was being stuck there in the dark.

 

He rested his head against the wall in front of him and breathed slowly, only allowing the hot air in as he needed to. The burning oxygen scorched his lungs and the gases put off by the cooling magma choked him. He had nearly reached the end of his strength and he still had not made it to the intersecting vent overhead. Forcing himself to concentrate, the prince inched slowly upwards, keeping his hands and feet tightly braced and in contact with the rock face at all times. Aragorn and his father were depending on him, he needed to get safely out or they were all dead.

 

It seemed like he had been climbing forever when the fingers of his left hand brushed the metal grate of the adjoining passage. Undoing the latch somewhat shakily, he steadied himself for a second then pushed off of the wall behind him, his upper body forcing the grating open and falling into the smooth tunnel in front of him. Legolas pulled his legs into the shaft as he crawled forward and laid down on the stone. It was cooler in here and he let himself relax. His hands ached and throbbed with the burns they had sustained and his whole body was screaming at him from the slow crawl up the thermal vent. He licked his dry lips and wished he had brought a flask with him, although he was sure the waterskin would have never made it this far.

 

Pulling himself deeper into the small shaft he was relieved when it widened out and dead-ended into one of the strange, secret tunnels that burrowed into the hill below the palace. Pushing the gate open he tumbled out onto the smooth rock floor and leaned back against the cool wall, breathing in deeply. The air here was fresh and cooler than the air in the vents had been. Closing his eyes he allowed his body to simply relax. He doubted anyone would think him still alive at this point.

 

As he sat there he began to listen to the sounds around him, trying to see if he could tell where he was. A soft moan caught his attention and he quieted his breathing, listening carefully. The sounds of a conversation could just barely be heard, although he couldn’t make out the words. Standing shakily to his feet he walked quietly down the hall to the source of the sound.

 

The sharp crack of a whip caused him to jump and he recognized the strangled cry of pain that the instrument elicited. He had found Aragorn.

 

Doriflen's voice floated to him through the hall and he crept closer, rounding a bend in the tunnel and approaching a room with no door.

 

“I’m back. Did you miss me?” The elf laughed at himself. “It’s good to see you awake again, ready to resume our talk? Oh and your little friend the prince won’t be here to help you this time, although he gave it a good try.” His sentence was punctuated by another whip crack and another small whimper. “He's up to his pretty little head in hot water.” Doriflen laughed at his own joke, “Or should I say hot lava?”

 

Aragorn glared at the insane elf. There was no use talking back, he had learned that lesson well enough. The thought of Legolas dying at the hands of the traitor that stood before him swept an uncontrollable rage through the human and he closed his eyes tightly against the thought, willing himself to hear no more. It couldn’t be true. It couldn’t... yet his hurting body had a hard time holding on to that hope.

 

“Oh it’s true all right,” Doriflen said as if able to read his prisoner’s thoughts. “Maybe when and if there’s enough of him to chip out, I’ll let you see the proof... but then again, I don’t think you’re going to live that long.”

 

The young ranger closed his eyes, too weary and hurting to battle against the hopelessness of the insane elf’s words.

 

Doriflen watched his prisoner carefully. The man hung, suspended by his wrists over a deep pit that had been filled with spears standing on end, and rooted into the very rock below with their sharp tips waiting to end the ranger’s life. The elf had found this pit many years ago. It had once been used as a storeroom but he had secretly improved upon it, using it for far more evil purposes, unbeknownst to his father or his family. The pit itself was only four feet across, allowing easy access to anything that was suspended over it. Doriflen could walk right up to his prisoner and touch him, he had designed it that way, however the edges of it were ringed with razor sharp blades that had been embedded in the rock walls, ensuring that anyone who fell through the small hole would not be able to stop his descent. He had hoped it was still here when he returned and had wanted to try it out on the man. It was fun toying with the human, even without his nephew here to watch. He wasn’t nearly as resilient as an elf and it was easier to torment him with words than it had been with his own brother, or Legolas. He flicked the whip in his hands casually and it wrapped around the man’s legs before he pulled it back, ripping through the human’s leggings and leaving a red, burning welt in its place. The ranger jerked and hissed with the pain.

 

“Pay attention now.” The elf smiled wickedly as the ranger opened his eyes, straining to breathe, “This is important.” The former royal outcast walked slowly around the man, striking him again with the whip to emphasize his words.

 

Pure rage swept through Legolas as he peered into the room. Aragorn trembled slightly, his body obviously sliding into shock from the abuse he had suffered. His wrists were bloodied from where the ropes bound his hands, holding him in place above the open pit. It was apparent to the elf that the man had taken a beating before being strung up. His lip was split and blood crusted the side of his face. Red welts striped his back, arms and legs where the whip had bit into him.

 

Aragorn let his head fall forward, he had enough. Let Doriflen kill him, he would play along no more. If Legolas was dead and Thranduil beyond reach as his captor claimed then it was no use fighting, even if he escaped he wouldn’t make it out of this palace, or Mirkwood, alive. The whip bit into his back, twisting him around slightly. But he made no sound this time.

 

Doriflen was once more growing tired of his play toy. It was time to move onto something else, something more fun. A wicked smile played across his thin lips. He reached out and caught the ranger’s arm pulling the man close to him. Aragorn cried out as his wrists were twisted hard in their bonds.

 

“I grow bored with you. Which is too bad for you.” Doriflen pressed the whip handle against Aragorn's cheek. He rubbed the hard leather into the cut on the human’s temple and dragged the blood down the side of his face. “It’s time to say goodbye, but it has been fun. I think I’ll go pay my brother a visit. You know, you and my nephew were never very close to finding him. He’s down in a secret dungeon, one only he and I know of.” The insane elf gloated, enjoying his own cleverness and rejoicing in anything that caused despair in his victim. “We found it when we were children, when we were still a family.” He bit the word out angrily, “Down behind the storehouses at the bottom of the hill just above the river and through the hidden opening. It doesn’t matter if you know now, because you’re too late. Legolas is already dead and you’ll never live to tell anyone of it. So you can die, with the knowledge that you failed, utterly.” Doriflen smiled at the man. Aragorn flinched away from the insane being, but there was nowhere he could go. The outcast elf lord let go of the ranger, giving him a slight push so that he spun helplessly. As he walked towards the door, Doriflen flicked out a small blade and cut part way through the rope that held Aragorn suspended. The entwined threads began to split under the man’s weight and the ranger looked above his head in fear as the tethers that held him started to unravel.

 

Doriflen looped the whip in a tight bundle and hung it on the wall next to a ring of spare keys that he kept handy in the room should something happen to the ones that were secreted away in an inner pocket of his tunic.

 

He stopped and turned back towards the ranger, smiling in satisfaction as the rope steadily unwound.

 

“Say hello to Legolas for me, will you?” Doriflen called out as he exited the room.

 

Legolas ran back to the bend in the tunnel and flattened out against the wall, hoping that his uncle would not pass this way, but head out in the opposite direction. The noise of running feet sounded down the corridor and the elf prince listened intently as his uncle was stopped and redirected.

 

“My lord you are needed above.” One of Doriflen's warriors had been sent to fetch him.

 

The elf stood just before the bend in the hall, indecision gripped him, “Is it important?” He snapped.

 

“Yes my lord. There has been a small uprising and we were forced to put it down.”

 

Doriflen stared down the darkened hallway to his right in indecision. “Very well. I had wanted to go check on my nephew to see... to see how he was holding up. But I am sure he's not going anywhere.” The elf laughed cruelly and followed the warrior back the way he had come.

 

 

___________________________________________________________

 

~*PART SIX*~

 

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Are you listening?
Sing it back.
String from your tether unwinds
Up and outward to bind.
I was spinning free...

I was spinning free...

--“Sweetness”
Jimmy Eat World

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

 

Legolas waited until the sound of their steps had receded beyond hearing and ran back to the room where Aragorn hung. He had no weapons on him and he noted the way that the rope was near breaking. The human hadn’t acknowledged his presence at all; he faced towards the back wall, his head hung down between his shoulders, the ache in them too intense to fight. He was breathing slowly, trying to still the pain that lanced through his body.

 

Indeed, Aragorn had given up. He didn’t watch the rope as it unwound. His heart was saddened by the news of Legolas’ death. He wanted to believe the elf was just lying, but Doriflen was more than simply insane, he was insane and he was smart, too smart. The royalty couldn’t be allowed to live. He would have toyed with them as he had with Aragorn and then he would have killed them too, just like he promised.

 

The last piece of the rope slowly unwound and Aragorn closed his eyes, holding his breath as he felt himself fall.

 

But the spear tips never touched him and it was with great surprise that he felt strong hands grab him from behind and pull him away from the edge of the opening.

 

Legolas had watched the rope quickly untwist itself. He had little time before the ranger fell to his death. Bracing his feet on the sides of the opening Legolas timed his rescue and pulled Aragorn to safety as the last of the ropes separated, releasing their prisoner into the elf's waiting grasp.

 

He pulled the human tightly against him and stepped away from the gaping maw in the floor of the room. Aragorn twisted in his grip, trying to see what was going on and slightly afraid that Doriflen had returned and decided he had more games to play with him.

 

He heard Legolas voice whisper in his ear as the elf dragged him back from the pit, “Strider? Strider?”

 

Legolas gently lowered his friend to the ground and crouched in front of the human.

 

“Legolas?” Aragorn asked in confusion. The elf carefully pressed his fingers against the man’s bruised lips, cautioning him to silence when he looked into the confused, pain filled eyes.

 

“Strider you do live! Yes it is I.” The prince glanced furtively out into the hallway as he gently held the man’s face. “I need to find something to cut the ropes with.” Releasing his friend the elf crept back to the edge of the pit and glanced in. He could see the spear tips glinting in the soft light of the glowglobes pressed into the walls. Carefully leaning down into the hole he grasped one of the poles and with some difficulty snapped the head off the shaft. The rough wood bit into his burned hands as it broke and he cried out softly in spite of himself.

 

“Legolas?” Aragorn whispered, “Legolas are you alright? He told me you were dead. He said he...” the ranger stopped talking as the elf crept back to his side.

 

Moving quickly, Legolas slipped the sharp blade between the man's hands and slit the ropes, carefully pulling the bindings away from his injured wrists, wincing with the pain he knew he was causing. “I’m sorry. I have to get these off of you.”

 

“He said you were dead.” Aragorn whispered brokenly, ignoring the pain in his wrists, he trembled slightly as he watched his friend. His body was still in shock.

 

Legolas pulled his outer tunic off and ripped it into strips, binding the human’s torn hands gently. “I am not. You cannot believe anything he says. Although I do have to admit that he did try very hard.” Legolas answered sarcastically, busying himself with tending his friend.

 

Aragorn noted the way Legolas was shaking slightly and caught the elf’s hands in his own and turned them palm up. “You're hurt.” He looked at the blistering burns on the elf's hands, “These are bad Legolas. You need to get them taken care of.”

 

The elf gently disengaged his hands from the human and continued to bind up Aragorn's wrists. “I am not as bad as you are right now. Now be still and let me have a look at you.” When he was through he carefully rested the man back against the wall and pressed his hands against the human’s ribs, trying to determine just how badly beaten his friend had been. He was afraid that they would have little time and that Doriflen would return at any moment. The elf had been entirely too eager to see how his handiwork had taken effect on his prisoners to stay away long. The seriousness of their situation caused Legolas to move quickly.

 

“Were you beaten as well?” Legolas asked softly, wanting to know what other injuries they had to contend with.

 

Aragorn groaned and doubled over as the elf touched his ribs. “Yes.” He ground out through the pain.

 

Legolas took the man’s face in his hands and tipped his head up, inspecting the cut to his brow and the bruising on his lips. “I'm sorry Aragorn. I’m so sorry. I wish I could have been here sooner. I was trying to find where they had taken you when I was trapped.”

 

The man nodded slightly, his eyes pressed tightly shut as he dealt with the pain that radiated through him.

 

“Relax and breathe slowly, the pain will decrease.” Legolas instructed him softly. He touched Aragorn’s temple gently, probing to see if the human had any fractures or breaks in the bone near his eye.

 

Aragorn pressed himself back and wrapped his hands around Legolas’ forearms, repeating himself quietly, “He said you were dead.”

 

The elf met the sad, weary gaze of his friend and smiled softly, pulling the human into his arms and holding him for a heartbeat. “No, I am not dead Strider. I am just fine.”

 

“You are not fine.” The man mumbled against him.

 

Legolas laughed lightly, “Well I look a far sight better than you.” He pushed the man gently back and held him by the shoulders as Aragorn quickly swiped away the tears in his eyes.

 

“I know where your father is.” The ranger spoke softly, smiling slightly around his split lip as he began to come back to himself a little more, “We need to go release him and take back your kingdom.” The fear was beginning to wear off and reality set back in. His body ached fiercely but in his heart he was ready to end Doriflen's tyranny once and for all.

 

“Then what do you say we go do just that? I have had enough of being the hunted one.” Legolas smiled back into the dark eyes that watched him, glad to see his friend grabbing back on to reality once more.

 

“Here, these might be useful too,” Aragorn limped to the doorway, pulling down the large spare ring of keys he had noticed earlier and tossing them to Legolas.

 

Legolas nodded. “Let’s go.”

 

 

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

 

 

“Try that one,” Legolas pointed impatiently as Aragorn flipped through the keys on the ring, trying different ones into the lock in front of them. They had come across an inordinate amount of locked doors, and although they all gave way sooner or later, finding the right key was becoming an irritating and time consuming task. It had fallen to Aragorn when Legolas’ hurting hands and fingers had proved to only slow the job.

 

“I already did, just give me a minute,” the ranger muttered as he shuffled through the keys as swiftly as he could, trying to ignore the impatient elf behind him. As usual, the last key tried was the one that turned the lock and the door in front of them pushed open quietly on its hinges, for that at least, Aragorn was glad. He and Legolas were both as tense as bowstrings. The hidden dungeon Doriflen had described was not nearly so easy to locate in the maze of twisting tunnels and hidden chambers as one might have thought, they had taken several wrong turns and were only partially sure that they were on the right track once more.

 

Legolas chaffed at the delay. He was beginning to think that he had never known his home quite as well as he had thought. The vast, hidden labyrinth down here was mind-boggling; that it had been kept secret for so long was even more amazing. Any other time it would have made the elf curious, but right now it only irritated the desperate nagging in his heart that hated any further hindrance to reaching his father. If Doriflen had decided to end his game and kill both his nephew and Aragorn, as he obviously had meant to do... did that mean the same was true of Thranduil? Would Doriflen want to have him killed as well? And if they didn’t get there in time... The prince bit his lips together tightly.

 

Aragorn passed the keys back to the prince so he could use one hand to steady himself against the wall as he walked, stealing a sideways glance at his friend as they slid silently down the new hallway that opened out before them. Legolas was very obviously on edge. Every moment that went by seemed to be wearing heavily upon him. Secretly, the ranger wondered what would happen if... if for some reason they should find King Thranduil too late. The human frowned and pushed the thought away. He did not want to see what that would do to his friend; he did not want to even imagine it.

 

The short, dark passage that they were in opened out into a medium sized room that let into another, smaller room beyond, but it was this room that held the friends’ attention, because here at last they found what they had been seeking... and dreading.

 

Hanging limply against the far wall, a tall, noble-looking, golden-haired elf dangled from a set of chains about his wrists. The manacles fastened to the wall above the elf’s head, barely letting his feet touch the floor. The King had been stripped to the waist and dried blood covered the side of his mouth and chin. Thranduil’s head hung forward, unconscious.

 

“Father!” Legolas cried, rushing forward, every fiber of his being crying out in sorrow and horror at the sight before him. They had only made it halfway across the room however, when the horrible sound of the door to the passage behind them being opened came to their ears.

 

Footfalls and the echo of Doriflen’s voice, speaking to his guards, immediately told the friends that they were in trouble. Again.

 

Grabbing Legolas by the arm, Aragorn started to drag the prince into the next room with him, but Legolas resisted, struggling against the ranger’s desperate attempts to hide them, unwilling to abandon his father.

 

“Legolas, come on!” Aragorn risked a hissed whisper, his eyes large. He did NOT want to get caught again. That would do no one any good.

 

“I can’t leave him...” the elf’s eyes were torn as he looked at his father’s helpless form.

 

“You can’t help him if you get killed! I promise we’ll return Legolas, I promise!” Aragorn hissed back. They dared speak no more as the footsteps drew closer, but the ranger’s eyes pleaded with the elf to heed reason and come with him before it was too late.

 

Against the wishes of his heart, Legolas gave in and let Aragorn drag him into the adjoining chamber at the last possible moment, before Doriflen and his guards entered the room.

 

The second room was a dead end, and the two friends could do nothing but press themselves against the wall of the small enclave and hope that no one would bother with the tiny, empty chamber.

 

Fortunately for them, no one did, not for the moment at least.

 

“What? Not awake yet?” Doriflen’s cruel voice carried clearly to the ears of the two friends hiding in the next room, followed by a sharp thwack of flesh striking flesh.

 

Next to Aragorn, Legolas tensed, balling his hands into fists despite the pain that it caused.

 

“Wake him up!” the command was sharp and Doriflen’s men had obviously obeyed somehow because several moments later a soft, low moan made Legolas draw his breath in sharply.

 

“Greetings brother,” Doriflen sneered. “Did you miss me?” The two friends could hear the twisted smile in his voice. “Sorry I’ve neglected you for so long, but I’ve been having quite a lot of fun with your dear son and his tag-along.”

 

Thranduil stiffened, but his face remained hard and stony. “Legolas is not here. You lie Doriflen, you always lie.” His voice was rough with thirst and pain, but still proud and firm. It broke Legolas’ heart.

 

Aragorn shot a glance at his friend, but Legolas’ eyes were closed tightly, his head pressed back against the wall behind him. His father’s words echoed painfully through his head. *”Legolas is not here...”*

 

“Not this time,” the elder elf gloated; pulling from his robes one of the long, ivory handled hunting knives he had taken from his nephew earlier. He twirled the blade lightly between his fingers, knowing Thranduil would recognize it. “You see, he returned, he and his little ranger friend. A bit too late to help you though I fear. He’s still a pretty boy brother,” Doriflen’s voice was oily, taunting. “But stronger than the last time I saw him... it takes so much longer to make him scream now than it did when he was young.”

 

The words had the desired effect and the clank of chains from the next room told them that Thranduil had yanked against the manacles holding him captive.

 

Legolas’ chest tightened until he thought it would crack his ribs. He had seen Doriflen play this game on his father before, when he was a boy. He hated that he was once again being used against the ones he loved, as an instrument of hurt.

 

“Keep your hands off him Doriflen!” The king remembered all too well the beaten, frightened, bloodied child he had finally recovered from his brother’s clutches so many years ago. Legolas had almost died. “If you hurt him I swear I’ll-”

 

“Oh please, you’ll what?” Doriflen mocked his brother’s helplessness. “Besides it’s a little late for that... the boy’s dead.” He laughed at his brother’s stricken face. “Oh yes, quite dead in fact. It’s his own fault, he wouldn’t stay put, so I had to take care of him. Roasted alive in one of the magma-vents... you remember those, don’t you brother? I would have done the same to you years ago, if father hadn’t pulled you out and spoiled everything... but no one was there to stop me this time, unfortunately for you.”

 

Thranduil’s voice was thick and trembled with rage and heartache. “I’ll kill you Doriflen! I swear I’ll kill you for this!”

 

A sharp snap, all too easily recognized as a whip, cut the air, eliciting a soft, stifled moan from the captive king.

 

Aragorn tensed and closed his eyes at the sound, his own recent injuries still incredibly raw and painful. Movement by his side made him open them again quickly, just in time to reach out and grab Legolas as the prince tried to push past him.

 

Aragorn shook his head in alarm, grappling with Legolas to keep him from going out there right now. Both of them were weary and in large amounts of pain. Neither of them was in any kind of shape to attempt taking on Doriflen and his guards in an enclosed area when more warriors were only a call away.

 

Legolas’ face was painted with rage and pain and he struggled with Aragorn as they heard the whip snap again, and again. The elf wasn’t thinking, but he didn’t want to, he just wanted to stop what was happening in the other room. He desired nothing more than to throttle Doriflen and let his father know that he was not dead!

 

Aragorn winced at the stress the silent scuffle placed on his many injuries, but he would not let go, grabbing Legolas by the shoulders, and forcing his friend back against the wall. Legolas hissed softly in pain as his wounded back made contact with the stones, which gave Aragorn the upper hand for a moment.

 

‘I’m so sorry Legolas’ Aragorn apologized mentally for causing his friend more pain, but the prince was not thinking straight and was going to get them all killed if he wasn’t restrained from acting on his heart instead of with his head. It was a good thing the occupants of the other chamber were too focused with their own affairs to notice the soft sounds of the scuffle in the far room.

 

Using Legolas’ moment of distraction to slide his fist up against the underside of the prince’s jaw, the ranger let it rest lightly against the pressure spot that both of them knew would make Legolas pass out for a minute or so if he applied any amount of force. “Please don’t make me do it!” Aragorn mouthed silently, hating having to add to his friend’s trauma like this when Legolas was obviously already very upset and hurting.

 

Legolas stilled under his friend’s grip, not wishing to fight Aragorn, and knowing that the human was right... but that didn’t help the pain that was tearing his heart out in time with the rhythm of the whip in the next room. His hands gripped the ranger’s arms tightly as he tried to calm down.

 

The prince’s eyes flashed, but the anger was for Doriflen, not Aragorn. “And what if it was *your* father in the next room Estel?” he whispered, the words barely audible, save for the fact that their faces were only inches away from one another.

 

Aragorn closed his eyes for a moment. If that were Elrond in the next room... he had to be honest with himself; he probably wouldn’t have waited even this long. He probably would never have left that chamber in the first place, no matter who tried to drag him out...

 

“Then I would already be out there and probably already be dead,” Aragorn whispered back. It was almost more lip-reading than speaking between them, for the fear of discovery kept them both virtually silent. “So I need you to be stronger and wiser than I would be, and I think you are Legolas.”

 

Legolas released his grip on the ranger, lifting his hands slightly in a gesture of acceptance and Aragorn let him go. Turning, Legolas, gripped the rough wall until his burned hands screamed, pressing his forehead against the cool stones and trying to block out the sounds from the next room.

 

Gently, Aragorn laid one hand on Legolas’ arm, standing near his friend and letting his forehead lightly touch the elf’s temple, listening to the prince’s gulped, hurried breathing. He didn’t say anything, there wasn’t anything to say, but he wanted Legolas to know he was there.

 

Suddenly the sounds stopped.

Chapter Text

~*PART SEVEN*~

 

 

“You won’t get out of this that easy,” Doriflen’s voice was sharp. “Wake him up again!” But before his guards had a chance to obey, they heard the outer door open and shut hurriedly, and the sound of running feet as someone entered the room.

 

“My lord, my lord!” the messenger was out of breath and the tone of his voice held more than a little fear.

“What? What is it?” Doriflen snapped, not liking to be interrupted.

 

“M-my lord,” the unfortunate elf stammered, obviously fearing the other’s anger. “The human... he’s not in the pit. And we cannot be sure, but the prince seems to have escaped the funnel vents as well-”

 

A harsh sound indicated that Doriflen had struck the messenger to the ground. Being the bearer of ill tidings was dangerous around Doriflen, all of his followers knew that.

 

Doriflen swore angrily. “You *think*?! Is everyone here an idiot?! Come, I will see for myself and if someone has bungled my plans then they will pay most dearly!” The elves left the room swiftly and when the door finally clicked shut behind them, both Aragorn and Legolas breathed a quiet sigh of relief.

 

The door had barely finished closing before Legolas was already making his way back into the room where his father was. Aragorn followed as quickly as he could. His leg was stiffening up significantly in protest for everything he was doing to it.

 

“You know, I feel sorry for his followers, he treats them almost as bad as he treats us... I don’t know why they stay with him,” the ranger winced as he leaned against the wall for a moment, watching Legolas smooth the hair back from Thranduil’s clammy forehead. The king had been turned around to face the wall and ugly welts had been added to his previous injuries.

 

“Because they know nothing else,” Legolas said sadly as he tried the keys in his father’s manacles, one at a time. “I see very few of the older generation that left with him among them now. What he has done to them I know not and I shudder to think, but all that follow him now are near my age or younger. Some would barely have been into their maturity when they left everything and threw their lot in with him, lured by fair words and promises... and many must have left with their families or fathers when they were mere children, or been born in exile... and now somehow their elders are gone and Doriflen is all they have to hold to. And knowing him, the worst part, I believe, is that that is probably all deliberate,” Legolas’ voice was grieved and angry.

 

Aragorn shook his head, unable to imagine such a twisted mind that would dispose of the elder generation so that the youth had no one else to follow.

 

Legolas fumbled with the keys slightly, frustrated by his lack of success and the clumsiness of his injured hands. He dropped the key ring by accident and swore softly as he stooped to retrieve it. They had to get out of here quickly, as soon as Doriflen had confirmed that he and Aragorn weren’t dead, this would be the first place he would look for them.

 

Aragorn picked the keys up first. “Here, let me.”

 

Legolas shook his head. “It’s no good, I’ve tried them all, none of them work!”

 

Aragorn quickly pulled the long tine he had used to pick the locks on Legolas’ manacles earlier from one of his pants pockets. Legolas’ eyes narrowed when he saw it, but he understood what Aragorn meant to do and nodded. “Hurry, I fear we don’t have long before they come back.”

 

“Thanks... nothing like a little pressure to make things easier...” Aragorn said with a wry smile as he tackled the locks.

 

Legolas grinned and rolled his eyes, but was too worried to joke back.

 

The manacles were high off the ground and at a difficult angle to reach. Aragorn winced as he stretched up on his toes to reach them, sucking his lower lip in concentration and trying to keep from trembling under the strain, since that only made his job harder.

 

Finally, after what seemed a small eternity, the locks holding the King’s wrists released with a satisfying click and Legolas caught his father as he fell, gently easing the elder elf down and letting him rest propped against the wall for a moment while the prince quickly examined his father’s injuries.

 

On the whole, Thranduil actually seemed to be in mildly better shape than either Legolas or Aragorn, but Legolas could see by the marks on his body that Doriflen had treated him most cruelly. The young elf gently touched his father’s back, underneath the most recent welts, he could see that it was marred as his own was from the insidious use of Doriflen’s favorite little torture devices. From the way it looked, Doriflen had been using them and other such things on his brother for days, maybe even weeks. It made the prince’s blood boil and a sick feeling turn in his stomach.

 

For a moment Legolas had to close his eyes and swallow hard to dismiss the raw lump in his throat as he imagined his father chained up down here for days and days, enduring Doriflen’s torture and insane whims. Legolas clutched the elder elf to him tightly, guilt ripping his heart out. He should have been here... he should have stopped this!!

 

“I’m so sorry father,” Legolas whispered, his voice somewhat husky as Aragorn helped him gather the king up in his arms and rise to his feet. “I’m so sorry.”

 

Aragorn touched his friend’s arm gently. The pain in the younger elf’s eyes made his heart ache, and he wanted to tell Legolas that none of this was his fault, but now was not the time nor the place. They were in grave danger of discovery here and had to get out as soon as possible.

 

Legolas, still weakened from his own injuries, staggered slightly under his father’s weight and had to lean against the wall before continuing. Quietly, Aragorn helped take as much of the load as he could and together they moved out. With Aragorn limping and Legolas struggling for breath around his bruised and perhaps broken ribs, they made a pretty sorry sight.

 

When they finally found another nice, forgotten room in a musty, hardly used side-passage and locked themselves in, Aragorn actually had to laugh as he helped ease the unconscious king to the floor.

 

Legolas looked at the human and blinked, as if trying to figure out what about any of this could be at all humorous.

 

“I’m sorry,” Aragorn apologized, sinking down to the floor wearily and stretching his throbbing leg out in front of him. Even sitting hurt, but at least it was a different kind of hurt than standing. The ranger winced and sucked his breath in as the welts on his legs touched the ground. But he chuckled again when he opened his eyes and saw Legolas’ bruised face staring quizzically at him.

 

“I was just thinking,” Aragorn ran his hand through his hair. “That it’s a good thing my father can’t see us now. Or my brothers for that matter. They’d have my hide for getting this beat up...” he shook his head with a smile.

 

Legolas just stared at the human as if Aragorn were crazy, which was a possibility he seriously considered sometimes... but he smiled as well, for a few moments at least. “Well if you don’t tell them I won’t.”

 

“Agreed,” Aragorn nodded, sliding over to sit nearer to Legolas and Thranduil. His eyes turned serious again. “How is he?”

 

Legolas sighed, gently rolling his father onto his stomach so he could tend his injuries. “Not good.”

 

Aragorn helped Legolas and together they cleaned and dressed the king’s wounds, something both of them had had a lot of practice at recently.

 

When they were done Legolas took Thranduil’s head and shoulders in his lap. He could not lean against the wall because his own back was hurting him far too much now, so he let himself slump forward slightly, cradling the unconscious older elf close and rocking back and forth, as much to deal with his own pain as to comfort his father.

 

“This is all wrong. It should never have been allowed to happen. I should have been here,” Legolas whispered quietly, to no one in particular.

 

“And done what Legolas? Get taken just like your father did? It wouldn’t have changed things,” Aragorn shook his head, not wanting Legolas taking blame that wasn’t his. “This isn’t your fault.”

 

“Don’t you understand? Doriflen wouldn’t even have been able to show his face here if father hadn’t overturned that law – for me! Besides, I could have done something... if father had had someone to stand by him this wouldn’t have happened!” Legolas was angry, but only with himself.

 

“He’s the King and you don’t think he had people to stand by him? From the state of the dungeons I’d say a lot of people tried, like Raniean did. You saw where it got them. What makes you think you would have been any different?”

 

Legolas looked away. “Because I’m his son. It would have been different.”

 

Aragorn sighed. How could he argue with guilt that didn’t want to listen to reason? “Legolas, listen to me, this is *not* your fault, remember what you told me? When my father was injured and I was sure I was to blame?” the ranger tried to reason with his friend.

 

Legolas did not lift his eyes from where they rested on his father’s still form. “That was different. Elrond chose to push you out from under that falling arch, there was nothing you could have done to stop him. But my father summoned me... even commanded me to return. He *wanted* me here... and I didn’t come. I wasn’t here when he needed me, and I was upset with him for calling me home like a child...” the elf’s voice cracked and he stopped, unable to go on. Letting his head drop down over his father’s, he battled the tears that wanted to fall as his golden hair brushed the pale, bruised face of his father and his king.

 

Aragorn shook his head, regarding his friend with compassion as he realized that there was probably nothing he could say to make the elf think any different. “Oh Legolas...”

 

Thranduil stirred in Legolas’ arms and the prince quickly straightened up, nearly holding his breath. Slowly, the elder elf’s eyes opened, bleary and unfocused. When he saw the fuzzy outline of the face above him he blinked several times, trying to make sense of the image and his current position.

 

“L-Legolas?” he reached up to touch his son’s face lightly, to assure himself it was real and he was not dreaming.

 

“Yes father, it’s me,” Legolas said softly, trying to keep from choking as he trapped his father’s hand gently against his cheek with trembling fingers. “I’m here, I’m here now, it’s all right. Doriflen lied. He lied...”

 

“Oh Legolas, I thought I lost you...” Thranduil exhaled as if he had been holding his breath since he had heard of his son’s supposed death. “I thought he took you away from me and I wasn’t there to stop it.”

 

“Nay, nay, it was not so...” Legolas shook his head, tears sparkling in his clear blue eyes. “I-I’m sorry father... I should have been here. I did not mean to delay, I promise it was not by choice or wanton disobedience...”

 

“Shh...” Thranduil touched his son’s lips softly. “Let us not speak of it now. My brother’s actions are not your fault... If any one is to blame it is me for allowing this to happen. I knew in my heart when he came here that he was up to no good... but I had hoped... had wanted to believe that he could have changed.” The king sighed. “But we have not time for blame laying I think,” the elder elf tried to sit up. “Doriflen must be stopped before he does more harm-” the words ended in a sharp hiss of pain as his body protested the motion.

 

Legolas quickly tightened his arms, gently pulling his father back down and pressing one hand against the other elf’s chest in a gesture for him to remain still. “We will, but you must gather a little more of your strength first father, you are not well.”

 

“No, I suppose not,” the king blinked several times.

 

“Here, I’m sure he could use some,” Aragorn handed Legolas the water skin they had raided from a storeroom earlier.

 

Thranduil gave the human a small, wry smile. “An internal dispute in Mirkwood concerns you little Ranger, so why did I know you were going to be here as well?”

 

“Because Legolas and I always end up wherever trouble is?” Aragorn shrugged with a half-grin, repeating what his brothers kept telling him. “But I would hardly say this wasn’t my concern. Anything that affects Legolas, affects me,” he finished on a more sincere note.

 

Legolas laughed softly at the first part and Thranduil smiled again. “My son’s trust of you seems to have been well-founded. You have proved a loyal friend I think. You must forgive me if I seemed to have thought otherwise in the past.”

 

Legolas watched them both closely. That was a huge admission for his father to make, for the king did not easily admit to being wrong about anything.

 

Aragorn just shook his head to show there was no need, not sure what to say.

 

Legolas noted that his friend was at an uncomfortable loss for words, so he intervened. “Are you going to drink, or talk?” he asked his father with gentle amusement, indicating the water skin that he was still holding for the elder elf.

 

“Drink,” Thranduil returned his look, putting his hand over his son’s and tipping the skin. He pushed it away slightly when he was done, but did not release Legolas’ hand. Gently, but firmly he pulled his son’s fingers away from the flask, revealing the nasty, broken blisters spreading up and outward across his palms. The king frowned when Legolas winced slightly and pulled away.

 

“Doriflen *tried* to trap me in one of the magma-vents,” Legolas answered the questioning look in his father’s concerned eyes. “But I’m all right.”

 

“I doubt that,” Thranduil murmured, remembering Doriflen’s words to him earlier. He sat up, slowly this time, his eyes traveling piercingly between the friends. Aragorn was still shirtless and now that the King’s vision was clearing and his mind with it, he could see that the ranger had been severely beaten. Bloodstained strips of cloth wrapped around his wrists and left thigh. He could see the pain in the ranger’s eyes, even though Aragorn was dealing with it well.

 

Pain was also evident in Legolas’ eyes, although he was trying harder to hide it than Aragorn was. The long sleeved under-tunic Legolas wore hid most of his injuries, but Thranduil could see the bruised face and split lip, and the uncharacteristic stoop of usually proud shoulders.

 

“I don’t think either of you are anywhere near all right. Legolas, take off your shirt, let me see.” It was not a request.

 

“Father-” Legolas tried to put him off.

 

“I said off. Now.” Thranduil’s voice was stern with concern. He knew his son well, and Legolas was famous for making light of his injuries. Once, as a young elf, Legolas had broken three of his fingers and told no one, insisting he was fine. It was Trelan who had finally gone to Legolas’ mother with the concern that the injury was slowing the prince up in his bow-work and wasn’t healing as it should have if it had only been a minor sprain. That had been many hundreds of years ago, but Thranduil was not going to let Legolas pull anything like that ever again.

 

“Yes sir,” Legolas sighed slightly as he obeyed, wincing as he pulled the shirt off over his head.

 

Thranduil’s face hardened when he saw the badly bruised and torn flesh across his son’s back, recognizing the small burn marks for what they were. “You call this all right Legolas?” he asked softly, gently touching one of the ugly blue-black bruises wrapping around the younger elf’s ribs.

 

Legolas inhaled sharply and pulled away, sliding his tunic back on as soon as his father allowed him to do so. “Aragorn’s hurts are worse. And you father, have you fared any better?”

 

“I suppose not,” Thranduil shook his head, closing his eyes and taking several deep breaths.

 

Aragorn remained quietly aside, not wishing to intrude and letting Legolas and Thranduil speak without interruption. He was good at blending into the background and wanted the father and son to have the time they needed after what had happened. But when Thranduil and Legolas turned their eyes on him at nearly the same moment, he shifted forward again, indicating he was ready for whatever needed doing.

 

“We must act, and swiftly,” Thranduil pulled himself to his feet, rising slowly. “We haven’t much time. Doriflen wants the people to believe in him, but he can’t fool them forever, and when he can’t fool them anymore, he will simply crush them. He must be stopped!”

 

Legolas also rose and helped Aragorn up.

 

“There are store rooms, not far from here, we passed them on the way down,” Aragorn said as he gained his feet. “We should be able to find supplies and fresh clothing there.”

 

Thranduil nodded. “It is well thought.” He glanced around them as they ventured cautiously out into the hall. “It’s been a long time since I wandered any of these halls, but if I am not mistaken this way shall also lead us to a back door to the armory. It would be folly to resist Doriflen unarmed. Legolas,” Thranduil turned to his son. “What is the state of the kingdom? What of our warriors?” He looked apprehensive of the answer.

 

“The situation is less than optimal, but it could be worse,” Legolas filled his father in quickly as they slid silently down the passage, on the alert for any sign of trouble. Aragorn brought up the rear more slowly, walking behind the two elves, ever watchful.

 

“Unfortunately it could also be better. Raniean is imprisoned in the dungeons near the cellars, along with many of his men and almost all of the court who opposed Doriflen. The rest are too frightened to resist when they know not what exactly is true and what is not. I fear that Doriflen counts many of our warriors among his ranks now, although I do not believe that they trust him, and would choose you if the two stood side by side. The people know naught of what is going on, Doriflen has them entirely deceived and too afraid to question, but unrest is growing strong and the secret will not long keep now that we are freed.”

 

Thranduil nodded as they entered the storerooms. “Then now is when we must act.”

 

After the store rooms, their next stop was the armory. They had only just chosen the weapons they desired when footsteps on the stairs sent them hurrying back into the passage from which they had come. The passage door was disguised to look like a weapons rack and Legolas and Aragorn quickly pulled it shut after them, not a moment too soon.

 

Several guards entered the armory and looked quickly about. “There’s no one here,” one elf called back up to their captain at the top of the stairs. Aragorn and Legolas recognized the voice as belonging to one of Doriflen’s men.

 

“Well post a guard and the rest of you follow me! They’re here somewhere,” the other responded.

 

The three in the passageway exchanged looks and slid quietly away.

 

“They know we’ve escaped,” Aragorn whispered, once they were out of earshot.

 

“We’ve got to get to the dungeons and free Raniean and his men,” Legolas hoped that Doriflen had not already done away with the warriors.

 

“All the main passages will be watched, but we may be able to get through these back tunnels faster than they can search them, if my memory does not fail us,” Thranduil led them back into the secret passages, walking swiftly.

 

“Father?” Legolas queried in a whisper as they hurried along. “You knew these tunnels were here?” He did not understand why he had never been told, why no one seemed to know.

 

Thranduil sighed slightly in the murky gloom. “Yes, Legolas, I did. They were an ancient defense system, conceived in theory to correct the short comings of the great underground realms such as Menegroth and Nargothrond, so that if invaders should ever take the palace, the inhabitants would not only not be trapped, but resistance could be mounted from the inside. Of course they were kept secret or they would have been useless. Only my father, my brother and I knew of them...” they turned a corner and branched into a side passage, their footfalls making hardly any sound. A torch in the darkness ahead caused them freeze and duck into another turn off, flattening themselves against the wall as a silent, swift-moving patrol swept by.

 

Aragorn held his breath, but he still could not hear the passing of the elven warriors. They were too light and quiet. It was unnerving.

 

When the coast was clear they slipped out again and continued on their way in silence for several moments.

 

“Did you not think I could be trusted to keep such a secret?” Legolas asked quietly, trying not to sound hurt. The fear of uncertain trust between father and son was old and rooted in previous history with Doriflen’s lies. Legolas had thought it all long healed, but now he wondered.

 

“Nay! It was not that Legolas, you must not think so,” Thranduil shook his head quickly, knowing what his son was thinking. “My father and I did not know it, but Doriflen had long made these secret ways his own privet haunt, for we alone knew of them and Orophir and I had very little call to venture into them at all. Unbeknownst to us Doriflen brought unfortunate animals and eventually people into those hidden tunnels, where he had set up hideous torments for them, contrived by his twisted mind. When the war came between us after our father’s death, my brother tried to use the tunnels against me. He was driven out, but it was then I discovered what he had been doing down here. I caused the passages to be sealed off and those who knew were sworn to secrecy. Such evil had been committed here; I could not stand that they should be open to the palace any longer. Besides, with Doriflen turned against me, they were no longer a secret defense. You were a child then Legolas, there was much I did not tell you, not for lack of trust, but because of your tender years. These passages have been sealed and forgotten for many ages... but my brother has obviously reopened them.” Thranduil was evidently very troubled by the memories.

 

Legolas touched his father’s arm softly, realizing that there was undoubtedly more to everything that had happened way back then than his childish memories could comprehend. “Well now let’s see if we can’t turn them against him instead.”

 

Another hidden door let out into a small room not far from the cellars. Quickly turning up the passage, they hurried towards the dungeons. Now was the most perilous time for them. Even armed, the threesome was in critically poor shape; battle was not a very positive option at this point, so they had to put their hope in stealth.

 

Raniean’s deep, solitary cell was first. Aragorn remained in the mouth of the passage to stand guard while Legolas and his father made their way quickly back towards the large wooden door at the end of the hall.

 

“Raniean?” Legolas called softly as Thranduil tried several different keys in the lock. “Ran?” Apprehension gripped his heart when he heard no answer.

 

The door swept open inwards and Legolas stepped in quickly, almost stumbling because of the sharp incline and his own unsteadiness. Thranduil caught his son’s arm, gently helping him regain his balance.

 

To Legolas’ great relief, Raniean was still there, and no worse off than he had been before. The warrior jumped to his feet, chains rattling and clanking, when he saw who the two people were that entered.

 

“Legolas! Your majesty!”

 

Legolas took the keys from his father, who remained to guard the doorway while the prince descended and quickly began unlocking Raniean’s fetters, hating to see his friend chained up like an animal for even one more moment than was necessary.

 

Raniean’s worried gaze swept his friend’s bruised face. “You didn’t come back... I was worried for you Legolas.”

 

“I’m sorry,” Legolas freed the elf’s ankles and moved up to his wrists. “I wanted to return sooner, but I was... detained.”

 

Raniean had only to take one look at his friend, even cleaned up and dressed in fresh clothing as he was, to know exactly what kind of detention that had been. “Then I failed you again, haven’t I?” he said quietly.

 

Legolas stopped, holding Raniean’s freed wrist in his hands. “Ran, this wasn’t your fault any more than it was when we were young,” he whispered back. “Now come my friend, we have a job to do! I need your help.”

 

Raniean nodded quickly as the last manacle fell away and the two elves swiftly made their way up into the passage by the King.

 

“Your Majesty, I cannot tell you how good it is to see you once more,” Raniean said with genuine relief and a somewhat stiff bow when they reached the spot where Thranduil stood waiting for them. Like Legolas, he too had secretly feared that Doriflen had done away with the King.

 

“Well met Raniean, we will have great need of you and your men up the hall. It is time we take back what is ours.” Thranduil touched the young warrior’s arm gently. His eyes darkened when he saw what his brother had caused to be done to the loyal, younger elf, but he said naught of it. He hated to imagine what else he would find had happened these past days. Doriflen had much to answer for.

 

“Most gladly your highness!” Raniean nodded with grim enthusiasm as they gained the mouth of the passage where Aragorn waited for them.

 

Just as they entered the main holding area, disaster struck.

 

Seemingly out of nowhere, Amon, Nynd and eight or nine more of Doriflen’s elves appeared in the passage ahead of them. It was hard to tell just how many blocked their escape in the cramped tunnel. The guards were caught by surprise, but took the situation in quickly and drew their weapons with elven swiftness.

 

Legolas, Aragorn and Thranduil drew their own weapons just as fast. Raniean was not armed, but he glared defiantly at the other elves, ready for whatever happened. For a few moments the two opposing sides remained thus; eyeing one another.

 

“Get out of our way,” Thranduil commanded them, his eyes flashing. “Stand aside and you have my pardon. Hinder me and be considered traitors one and all and suffer the consequences.”

 

Amon laughed at the bold words in the face of their superior numbers and strength. “Do you have any idea what Doriflen would do to us if you escaped again? I think those are mighty strong words for someone in your position. I have a better idea. Surrender your weapons and maybe we won’t kill you.” It would please Doriflen to retake the prisoners alive, but if he had to, Amon was ready to kill them all, he would not face his liege’s wrath.

 

Aragorn glanced at Legolas. None of them were in peak form and they were clearly outnumbered. Yet surrender was not an option; it would mean death just as surely as fighting would and a horrible one at that. This silent knowledge passed between the two friends as they tensed for action. It was doubtful that all of them would make it out of this alive. But some of them had to or Doriflen would win and all would be lost.

 

“He would treat you worse than us, am I not correct? Why would you willingly serve a lord like that? You deserve better than him,” Thranduil stalled slightly, also aware of their desperate situation. “Not even the basest criminal is treated with as much disdain and injustice in our realm as I have seen him regularly employ with his most trusted followers.”

 

“So you say,” one of the young elves behind Amon and Nynd shook his head, and no one missed the slightly hopeless tone of his voice. “But all leaders promise much but deliver only lies.”

 

“Shut up!” Nynd snapped at his underling. “You four stand down now or forfeit your lives.”

 

“Do you really believe that?” Thranduil shook his head, ignoring Nynd and addressing the other elf’s statement. “You have been much mistreated I think. I would that you would give me a chance to prove that I am different from my brother.”

 

“That’s it, you had your chance,” Amon glared at the Elvenking, not liking the effect this brief conversation was having on his troops. It was no secret that many of their own had been questioning Doriflen’s leadership of late, now that they had returned. Alone in their own camps, cut off from all others of their kind, they had known nothing but their insane leader and his ways, but here in Mirkwood, back among other elves who had other ways of doing things and lives that most of the exiles could only begin to dream of... loyalties were beginning to sit uneasily.

 

Greed, cruelty, power and fear were the qualities that Doriflen had counted on to control his people, and at the same time marked as dangers as well. Yet light, warmth, kindness and a sense of home after thousands of years of lonely wandering were the enemies he had not taken into account.

 

Amon, Nynd and the handful of others who Doriflen had corrupted to nearly his own level of depravity, had found themselves working double-time to keep their forces united and they were not about to let anyone start thinking too much.

 

“Take them! If they resist, kill them!” Amon ordered and his men surged ahead obediently.

 

Legolas moved forward to meet their rush, placing himself between them and his father. As if working in one mind, Aragorn moved to cover the prince’s back. Thranduil raised his sword and Raniean tensed for action. All of them knew this would not go well.

 

 

___________________________________________________________

 

~*PART EIGHT*~

 

 

Without warning a volley of arrows came from *behind* the small group, driving into the floor of the tunnel. Faster than they could comprehend what had happened, more elves materialized out of the passage behind the King’s party, but these newcomers had their weapons pointed at Doriflen’s troops, not the escaped prisoners.

 

The now outnumbered usurpers halted, confused by this turn of events and unsure.

 

Legolas looked down as a familiar presence fell in beside him. He smiled, relieved and surprised.

 

“Lay down your arms! Let the true King of Mirkwood pass! Or suffer the consequences!” Trelan ordered fiercely. The elves behind him shifted their weapons slightly, emphasizing his words.

 

With the tables now turned, the outnumbered guards began to comply.

 

“Traitors!” Amon hissed at them. “Stand and fight!”

 

But the elves weren’t listening. They did not have a cause they were willing to die for. Not anymore.

 

Nynd and Amon sprang forward alone. Their attack was intended for Thranduil, but they never reached the king. The elven warriors Trelan had brought with him stopped them before they reached their goal. There was a swift, lethal struggle, and the two traitors were dead before anyone had realized what happened.

 

“No wait!...” Legolas started to say, but it was too late. He sighed, turning his eyes away in sorrow at the loss of elven life, no matter how twisted. He didn’t want bloodshed if it could be avoided. Elves had not killed elves in countless centuries and for it to start again now, in his home...

 

The rest of Amon and Nynd’s troop gave up without any struggle and the warriors took them into custody.

 

Legolas was just staring at the bodies on the floor, a sad, distant look in his eyes.

 

“Legolas? Legolas?” Aragorn shook his friend slightly, a worried expression on his face.

 

“I knew them,” Legolas turned his gaze on Aragorn and it was full of sorrow. “I knew them before he took them away and twisted them...” Legolas closed his eyes. No need to specify that Doriflen was the ‘he’ of whom the prince spoke. “He tried to twist me that way once... it was horrible... I cannot imagine what living with him for thousands of years would do to one...”

 

Thranduil overheard the soft words and touched his son’s shoulder gently. Legolas started, not having meant for his father to hear him.

 

“They were corrupted by him I fear, Doriflen planted his own evil in their souls. But it is not so with all of them...” the king looked at the frightened, young faces of the troops his men had just taken into custody.

 

“No more blood is to be shed unless there is no other option,” the Elvenking’s last statement was spoken louder and directed to his warriors. The elves nodded. They did not wish to have to kill either.

 

Legolas and Aragorn turned to find Trelan, wanting to know how he came to be there, but the shorter elf had moved away and was talking softly to Raniean.

 

The little elf’s eyes were burning hotly and he touched his friend’s back gently. “Who did this to you Ran? I’ll kill them!”

 

Raniean smiled somewhat ruefully. “That has already been taken care of I think,” he said, his eyes glancing towards where Amon and Nynd’s bodies were being taken away. “But I’m all right, really. It is the prince and the king who concern me.”

 

Trelan looked up quickly at Legolas, Aragorn and Thranduil as they approached. He had not noticed before for they covered it well, but it was now obvious that none of his friends were in very good shape.

 

“Na vedui Trelan, mae govannen; Hail and well met,” Thranduil greeted the small warrior. “And what brings you to our aide just in at the right moment?”

 

“And couldn’t you have made it little sooner?” Legolas put in with a teasing smile.

 

Trelan pointedly ignored his friend and spoke to the King. “I returned yesterday. Everything seemed in turmoil. The people are much confused and distressed. They don’t know what is going on in here, and seem to think that you are away your Majesty... but there are nasty rumors going around that something more ill is afoot. Yet Doriflen has set his pervasive lies in action once more. He’s blaming you for what has become of Mirkwood these past years; saying things would have gone better if he’d been here instead. I fear the people don’t know who and what to believe. I came to the palace to find out what was going on, but Galion caught me first. He told me what you told him Legolas, and that neither you nor Strider had been seen or heard from since. We both deemed that the time had indeed come to act. We were on our way to search the dungeons with as many of our faithful as have managed to escape Doriflen’s scourge thus far and that’s when we found you,” the elf explained quickly and concisely.

 

“And we’re very glad you did,” Aragorn said with a grin, unconsciously leaning against the wall a little. His leg was still giving him a lot of trouble.

 

Legolas gave the keys to his friends and Raniean and Trelan quickly set to work freeing the prisoners in the dungeons, most of whom were also their comrades and fellow warriors. Amid the joy of being freed and ready for action once more, it was saddening to see how many faces were not there. Doriflen had not dealt lightly with those that refused to follow him.

 

“Your – uhm, your Majesty?” one of the captured elves spoke up hesitantly as they were placed into the now empty cells and Thranduil turned towards him. The rank mark placed this youth as being a lieutenant, ranking above the others here, although he had obviously been under Amon and Nynd.

 

“Doriflen is holding a huge meeting in the main hall. Most of the people are there. He intends to tell them that you and your son have been killed in a tragic accident abroad and he is assuming the throne. The doors of the hall are locked and barred with guards all around...” the young elf hesitated as if ashamed of what he was saying. “Any who refuse to accept him as Lord will be killed.” That stroke had obviously almost been too much for even Doriflen’s followers to swallow.

 

Legolas’ face paled. “We must get up there now, we must stop this!” The people would never stand for this, but somehow in his twisted mind, Doriflen thought he could make them, and whether or not he could, carnage and bloodshed would be the result if they could not act in time.

 

“Indeed,” Thranduil nodded. “I thank you for the news,” he added to the elf as the warriors prepared to close the cell door between them.

 

“I-if I have pleased you my lord, a request, please, one only,” the young elf stammered slightly. “When our time comes, my men and I, be swift.”

 

Thranduil turned back once more with a somewhat perplexed look. He glanced at Legolas but his son didn’t understand either. Yet the fear in the young warrior’s eyes was very clear. It crossed the King’s mind that this lad was probably quite a bit younger even than Legolas; barely into adulthood.

 

“W-we know the rules, we do not expect mercy and we are not afraid to die...” the young elf said quickly when it was clear the King did not follow him. The quaver in his voice belied that last statement however. “But-but I would that death come quickly, for my men at least, if not for me.”

 

Legolas blinked and looked away. The rules... Doriflen had always been big on whatever he considered to be the rules. He pitied the young lieutenant. He pitied anyone caught under his uncle’s ruthless thumb. He remembered only too well what it had felt like.

 

The King actually felt his heart go out to the boy, but it was Legolas who spoke first.

 

“You surrendered willingly into our custody; we have no intention of executing any of you. That is not the way things work here,” the prince shook his head.

 

Thranduil inclined his head in concurrence. “I told you before, I am not my brother and I think you will find my hand much gentler than his. Be of good hope. Freedom is coming for everyone, if they choose it.”

 

The young lieutenant smiled gratefully, stunned speechless at this unexpected and undeserved grace as the cell door was shut and locked.

 

Their ranks swelled by the many, many elves released from their cells, the group made its way towards the main hall, making a detour by the armory once more to outfit the rest of their party. Surprisingly, there were no guards posted there anymore... all of them having been called away to control the great gathering Doriflen was conducting in the upper halls. The elves’ pace increased.

 

Aragorn lagged slightly, but with so many others about he didn’t think anyone would notice. However, he was wrong.

 

“Aragorn?” Legolas’ voice was soft, but it still startled the human. “Are you all right?”

 

Aragorn grinned ruefully “Not really, how about you?”

 

Legolas gave a small chuckle. “I suppose we have both been better. But... Strider... truly, I would not think less of you if you stayed behind. My father was right, this is not your fight, though I treasure the fact that you have stood by me in it. However, I would not see you further hurt because of this.”

 

Aragorn just shook his head, his smile turning somewhat roguish. “Haven’t you learned yet that you can’t get rid of me that easy?”

 

“All right,” Legolas grinned as they swiftened their pace to catch back up with Raniean, Trelan and his father. “But if you get yourself killed I am NOT going to be the one to tell your brothers!”

 

As they approached the main hall, they could hear Doriflen’s voice, his rambling speech to the converged throng of elves in the great room echoing through the tunnels as they drew near. Thranduil’s face was set, his eyes hard as he walked swiftly towards the meeting chamber. The elven warriors and the ranger ran to keep pace with the elf Lord as he determinedly approached the hall.

 

“So my dear elven brothers it is with deep regret that I inform you of the loss of Thranduil and his beloved son.” Doriflen’s sorrowful speech had almost ended by the time they reached the huge carved doors. The inside of the entry was guarded by a mixture of the insane elf’s brigade and part of Raniean’s own troop. Legolas doubted that they had been informed of the violent suppression tactics that Doriflen’s men had been commanded to perform. He was sure they never would have gone along with this if they had.

 

At the sight of their commander and their lord, a collective intake of breath swept through the ranks of Raniean’s men and they dropped quickly to one knee. One of his captains came forward, nodding to each in turn, “Raniean, my Lord.” The elf fell to his knees before the royals, disbelief, joy and fear warring on his face. “We were told you were dead. We have searched for you everywhere. When we would not follow Doriflen’s leadership he had some of our men flogged, some beheaded. We had no choice.” The captain dropped his eyes, obviously feeling like a traitor.

 

Thranduil’s gaze softened as he looked on the warrior and he nodded slightly to Raniean.

 

“Rise Brenyf. It is well. We know well what Doriflen has been up to.” Raniean leveled a pointed glare at the closed door between them and the one of whom he spoke. “Usurping and attempted murder! Trelan and I have returned and Thranduil and his son are back. Help us reclaim the throne.” As the warriors rose and nodded pledging their allegiance. Trelan stepped forward.

 

“And as for you, those who have come here serving that madman, you have two choices...” The smaller elf’s threat was cut off as Thranduil stepped around the warrior, approaching Doriflen’s guard.

 

“He is right, you will have two choices and you will make them now. You may suffer with your master or you will fall in with these men and serve me. Either way the choice is yours. You are free from your exile but you will not be tolerated in this house unless you know your place.” The Kings eyes were mere slits as his hard gaze fell on each of the outcast elves. “CHOOSE!” He thundered at them. Those closest to him flinched but one by one they fell to their knees and surrendered their weapons. The moment the true king walked past these doors they knew the game would be up, for the people would never follow Doriflen over Thranduil if given the choice. They themselves had followed Doriflen for years, but those years had begun to disillusion them about him. Now that they were actually free once more, they were not about to follow him into ruin again. They had had enough.

 

“Fall in behind us then.” Legolas ordered, bidding them rise.

 

The sound of Doriflen’s platitudes and placating false comforts filtered through the heavy doors. “We will rebuild our kingdom. We will take back what is ours. I promise you a future...”

 

His words were choked off as Trelan and Raniean forced the doors open and allowed Thranduil and Legolas entry into the hall.

 

The elves attending the council jumped to their feet with gasps and quiet talking as the royalty walked down the long corridor between their seated subjects. A few shouted at Doriflen, accusing him of lying.

 

When he reached the foot of the steps leading to the throne, Thranduil held his hands up and the hall immediately quieted. Legolas’ eyes were riveted on his estranged Uncle. His gaze was hard and cold and his lips formed a thin line on his fair face, his rage was barely concealed under the civility that was required and expected of one in his position.

 

Aragorn stood just behind the King and his son. He glanced back at Raniean and Trelan and motioned with his head to the far side of the great meeting place where several more of Doriflen’s men had stood and were gathering themselves together. Trelan notched his bow and sent two arrows flying across the room to bury their heads in the wall behind the conspirators. Doriflen’s men stopped and glanced at the elven warriors.

 

“You will desist immediately.” Raniean ordered them. Addressing the crowd he raised his voice, “The king is not dead and the one who claims he is is a traitor! All who follow Lord Thranduil and serve him will come to me now. This deceptive charade is over!”

 

The contest of wills had not ceased at the front of the hall.

 

Doriflen smiled softly as dropped back onto the seat of the throne behind him. He spoke quietly so that only those directly in front of him could hear his voice, “You think you have won? You cannot banish me brother and I know you will never kill me; you don’t have it in you. My men may claim for the moment that they will follow you and your pitiful alliance. But in the end they are loyal to me, unless you want to kill them all and just prove what kind of a monster you are.” He toyed with the carved arm of the throne, running his fingers idly over the marble pattern, relaxing further into the large stately chair. “The throne is mine now, as it always should have been.”

 

The hall was filled with noise as Thranduil’s warriors stood from their seats and gathered behind Raniean and Trelan. The small warrior still held his bow at the ready, another arrow notched. The room was filled with tension.

 

Doriflen rose in one smooth motion and walked to the edge of the step that the throne sat upon. “Good people of Mirkwood.” He called out into the hall, his voice quieting the murmurs of the elves. “It grieves me to address you as such. I should be addressing the people of Greenwood the Great! But alas it is not so because of this one and his son.” The insane elf spat the word at Legolas intending it to be a slur. Aragorn tensed beside the elf and the prince calmly reached out bracing the human back.

 

“Peace Strider, this is not your fight.” He whispered to his friend.

 

The human stepped back but did not relax the hand that gripped the pommel of his sword.

 

“Must I remind you again that it is directly because of this one that you have allowed to rule you that your fair woods are overrun by spiders, and worse yet that portions of them have fallen to darkness and shadow? How many of your very own were taken the last time these two, the very ones who are to protect you, allowed the spiders free access to you and your children? To your husbands and your daughters? And do you think they’ll not do it again? Their own lives they value above yours or have you been blinded by their lies and their promises?” He glanced quickly at the king, a wicked smile on his face as the murmuring in the hall began to grow again.

 

“Enough of this!” Aragorn pushed Legolas aside and leapt onto the marble stairs, his rage uncontained.

 

“If you want lies you are being hand fed them right now!” He glanced over the heads of Legolas and Thranduil.

 

“Aragorn!” Legolas tried to get his friend’s attention but the human would not look at him.

 

“Who was it that made the steppes free for you to roam in? Why are your forests now clear of the dwarves that trapped your bounty and wounded your hunters? Why is Tairach dead and buried and her spawn chased back to Dol Guldor? Who is responsible for this? Are your memories so short that you have already forgotten why countless of you stand alive and are not still waiting for the spiders to end your sorry existence?” His gaze was full of anger and fire as he looked up on the gathered elves. “And did you not wonder where your King and his son were? Had it ever occurred to you in the slightest that they were being held captive beneath your very sight, imprisoned in their own castle!? Who of you came to look for them? Who of you questioned? And what happened to those who did? Why are they not among you now?”

 

The elves began to talk and agree amongst themselves. The ranger was making sense. No one had really challenged the imposter and the ones who had were conveniently sent out of the area on errands from which they never returned or so everyone was told.

 

Doriflen’s face was a mask of rage. He had hated that ranger since he had laid eyes on him. Jumping lightly down the flight of stairs he backhanded the human, catching the man beneath his jaw and snapping his head back with a vicious cuff. The blow threw Aragorn to floor of the hall and he lay where he landed unmoving for a few seconds until the room stopped spinning. His injuries screamed. Of course Doriflen had known just where and how to hit him to inflict the most amount of pain, since Doriflen was the one who had given him those injuries in the first place.

 

“STRIDER!” Legolas jumped forward and knelt by his friend’s side.

 

Thranduil had had enough. He turned his back on his brother and addressed the crowd. “You may choose whom you wish to serve. The choice is yours.” His hard eyes lighted upon his own warriors at the back of the hall. He wanted them very aware and on guard. Raniean nodded in understanding and nudged Trelan who brought his bow around and sighted the tip of his arrow just above Doriflen’s heart.

 

“This kingdom is under my rule once more. All who entered this realm with the intent of taking it by force under the guise of the false claims of Doriflen may suffer his fate or may align themselves with my house. That choice is being offered now and now only. Any who hesitate will not be shown mercy.” The sounds of bows being notched throughout the room silenced all talk as Thranduil’s warriors took charge of the hall.

 

A soft snicker made the king turn quickly back to gaze on his brother. “And just what will you do, little brother?”

 

Legolas stood from Aragorn’s side as the human gained his feet.

 

“I should think that time spent down in our dungeon my *brother* would do you some good. It might be nice for you to revisit some of our old haunts, wouldn’t you say?” The king’s words were dark and hard and he let them hang in the air between them for the span of a few seconds not backing down to the evil glare that masked Doriflen’s face.

 

Without another word, Thranduil turned back to the hall. “This council is adjourned. Your rightful King is back. Arrest this one immediately and take him to the lowest dungeon in chains. He will live out the remainder of his immortal years there and so will anyone else who challenges me or supports him.”

 

The king’s high guard stepped forward and swarmed up the aisle.

 

In retrospect no one could really say how it all happened, the sequence of events moved so quickly that it was difficult to tell. Thranduil, with Legolas at his side, proceeded to walk to the outer doors of the hall, intending to head home.

 

Doriflen saw his demise as the elves in the hall stood one by one, in groups of ten or twenty and turned their backs on him. His own contingents, faced with the prospect of an immortal life in chains and darkness or the grace of service to another king set their weapons down and allowed themselves to be taken into custody. The power of the ruling family was uncontestable and with Thranduil alive and back, Doriflen had no hope of overthrowing his kingdom. Madness and rage flashed in his dark eyes. He rushed down the steps, pulling an elven blade from the back of his belt and threw the knife at the form of the retreating King.

 

Raniean shouted at Aragorn when he saw the elf rush forward, descending from the platform. The ranger turned, swiveling to look behind them as the deranged brother drew the hidden knife.

 

Trelan instinctively pulled the arrow back against the drawstring of his bow and released the projectile.

 

Aragorn threw himself at the royals, knocking Legolas into Thranduil and dragging them both down beneath his weight, his hands protectively covering Legolas’ head as he held them down, shielding them.

 

Trelan’s arrow flew over their heads and drove straight into Doriflen’s heart. His blade clattered to the floor a few feet in front of where Thranduil lay on the thick carpet. Aragorn glanced behind them, wide-eyed as he watched the King’s brother fall silently to the ground, a look of surprise forever etched onto his face as his life fled him.

 

The room was completely silent as Thranduil pushed himself up onto his hands and looked back at his brother. When the guards rushed forward to help him to his feet the hall erupted in noise and motion.

 

Trelan dropped his bow and gasped as he watched Doriflen fall dead, his eyes huge as he realized what he had done. His reaction had been automatic and he had fired without thinking. Insane as he may have been, Doriflen was still Thranduil’s brother and the elf had just killed him. Raniean picked up Trelan’s bow and pulled the smaller elf back against himself and out of the way as the hall began to quickly empty of the elves.

 

Aragorn moved aside and allowed Legolas to stand. He helped the prince to his feet, careful of his injured hands. “Are you alright?” He questioned softly as Thranduil walked back past them and approached his brother.

 

Legolas only nodded as they followed the king with their eyes. Thranduil knelt beside the body of his brother and gazed into the unseeing, empty stare of the last member of his father’s family. He gently laid his hand on the dead elf’s face and carefully closed Doriflen’s eyelids. “Now may you have peace.” He whispered.

 

Sound erupted from the back of the hall as Trelan broke free from Raniean and raced to the front of the room. Legolas caught the elf as he tried to pass them and held the smaller being still.

 

“I’m sorry my lord, it was an instinctive response. I only meant to wound him, not kill him.” Trelan shook his head, still somewhat stunned and begging Legolas to believe him. “Please my lord...”

 

Raniean followed quickly and quieted his friend as Legolas released him.

 

Thranduil walked back to the small group of warriors that had congregated around the elves. Trelan looked to the floor, afraid to meet the gaze of his liege, he swallowed hard as the King stopped in front of them.

 

Aragorn glanced at Legolas who returned the questioning gaze.

 

“Trelan,” The King’s voice was soft so only those near could hear his words, “What you did is what I expected you to do.” The younger elf looked up into the piercing blue eyes that gazed down at him, “It is what you were supposed to do. You are a warrior and your duty is to protect the King and the Kingdom. Today you have done both and for that I thank you.” When the elf bowed low to him in gratitude Thranduil continued, “I am well pleased with you Trelan, son of Telrayn. You have my gratitude.”

 

Raniean clasped the smaller warrior on the back and smiled at Legolas. The prince returned the gaze with his own brilliant smile as he sighed.

 

Aragorn looked about the hall and wrinkled his nose. “Doriflen’s taste in decorations leaves a lot to be desired.” He noted the dark tapestries that hung on the walls and the blackened drapes that were swaged over the frame of every door. “It needs a good cleaning out. I hate to think of what he did to the palace rooms.” He muttered absently to himself.

 

The sarcastic comments were rewarded with the warm laughter of the King and his son. Legolas draped his good arm around the ranger’s shoulders and steered him to the door, “Why don’t we go find out?”

 

Thranduil gestured to several of Raniean’s men and motioned to the front of the hall, “See to Doriflen and dispose of his body. Have the servants clean this place up tomorrow.”

 

The warriors nodded and moved back towards the dead elf. Raniean watched them for a minute and steered Trelan out the door behind Thranduil and Legolas.

 

Aragorn glanced back at the small elf and smiled, “Not a bad shot for a Silvan elf.” He teased, trying to lighten the mood. Raniean and the warriors that had remained near the King broke out laughing as the guards opened the doors and let the small group of elves out into the waning light of evening. A chill was just settling into the air and the warnings of snow hinted on the breeze that blew stiffly down the mountains.

 

“What shall we do with the traitor’s guards my lord?” Raniean questioned bringing up the awkward subject. The outcast elves had been rounded up and were being held inside the courtyard by a contingent of Thranduil’s warriors. The King glanced over at the elves. Not a one of them looked up or met the piercing gaze. The fear of whatever lay ahead radiated from them. They had been exiled with an insane leader who ruled them with a cruel hand and now they were at the mercy of a King that they had only heard horrific tales about, their future was no more certain now than it had been before.

 

Thranduil thought on the situation for a moment. No one spoke, no one moved. A small voice floated across the courtyard carried on the evening breeze, “Isn’t that Garilien, your son?”

 

The King turned towards the soft conversation and watched as an older elf approached the group of outcasts.

 

“Garilien?” The elf in question didn’t move or acknowledge the name. “Gareilen, my boy is that you?” The warrior glanced up quickly and gazed into the older eyes of the elf.

 

“I know what to do with them father.” Legolas whispered to Thranduil, “May I?”

 

The King nodded and smiled as he crossed his arms and watched his son. Legolas glanced at Trelan and Raniean and nodded at the elves. The prince tugged on Aragorn’s sleeve and bid him follow him also.

 

The four of them approached the prisoners. Gently Legolas moved the older elf aside and glared at the one he had been talking to. Aragorn stepped next to the prince, curious.

 

“Are you Garilien?” Legolas addressed the elf.

 

“You best speak up when you are asked a question.” Aragorn threatened when the outcast did not reply.

 

The elf glanced at Legolas, “I am the one he says I am. He is my father.” The imprisoned warrior looked over at the elder elf and swallowed hard, trying to keep his emotions at bay.

 

Legolas nodded slightly and followed his gaze. He smiled softly at the elf that stood just behind them; tears stained the elder’s face as he watched his son, his son whom he had not seen for hundreds upon hundreds of years.

 

“You are free from your exile.” The prince turned back towards the prisoners. “How many of you have family that may still live under Mirkwood’s trees?”

 

Many were the hands that slipped carefully up. A few did not.

 

“I’d like those that don’t have family if you would allow me my lord.” Raniean stepped up near Legolas on his left. “My company was harder hit than some of the others, nearly decimated by Doriflen, we could use the extra men.”

 

Legolas nodded, “Can you handle them? Can you put them down if you have to?” He spoke quietly but loud enough so the prisoners could hear.

 

“Yes my lord, it will not be a problem.” He looked over the outcast, “Whom of you have no family left in Mirkwood?”

 

Seven elves shuffled to the front of the group. “Unbind them.” Raniean ordered the guards. “You belong to me now. I am your family. And my men are your family. If you chose not to join me, I will take you to the edge of Mirkwood and throw you out myself. If you want to you can make a good life here. I know you have heard stories of your people that are untrue. Trelan and I are here to teach what is true. Will you have us?”

 

One by one the orphaned warriors consented and Trelan and Raneian walked them slowly back to the barracks where the warriors trained and spent a lot of their off time together. “You’ll like it here.” They heard Trelan talking as he walked alongside the others, “It’s nothing like what you’ve heard.”

 

“As for the rest of you,” Legolas addressed the remaining captive elves. “We will find your families for you and you will be returned home to them. You will have responsibilities and you will be held accountable. You have been lied to and have been living a lie. Its time you learned the truth. Your families know and they will help you to find it again.” He stepped forward and took the proffered knife from the closest guard quickly severing Garilein’s bonds. “Go home. Learn what it is you have lost that you may find it once again.”

 

The elf nodded slightly to his new lord and walked hesitantly over to his father. The older elf grabbed his son and pulled the errant child into his arms. “How I missed Gari.” He whispered in the elf’s ear, “It’s so good to have you home son.” He draped his arm around the younger elf and pulled him tightly to his side as they walked out of the courtyard. Garilien glanced over his shoulder and smiled slightly at Legolas, his tears unhidden as he mouthed a silent thank you.

 

“Nice going.” Aragorn leaned towards the prince as he watched the small family turn out of sight.

 

“Find their families.” Legolas turned back to the guards and instructed them, “Bring the elves up from the dungeons below as well and see that they are all returned to someone or give them over to Raniean for training.” He turned and walked away from the group of prisoners and glanced up at his own father. Thranduil had watched the whole proceedings with a smile on his face.

 

“Well done my son. I hope they can all return to a full life.” He stepped down next to the two friends as they approached him and turned them towards the palace. “Meanwhile, you and I have a lot to talk about Legolas. I expect a very good tale out of you over what exactly caused the errant Prince of Mirkwood to miss the yén festival *this* time.”

 

Legolas stiffened slightly and flushed a little. “Yes...” he nodded slowly, glancing sideways at Aragorn. “A tale it is indeed... and more than one. But... Father? I really am sorry... about everything.”

 

Thranduil shook his head with a smile. “I’m not angry Legolas, at this moment I don’t think I could be angry about anything,” he chuckled. “Besides,” he raised an eyebrow with a rare, teasing glint in his gaze. “If I were going to disown you for it I would have done it the first dozen times...”

 

Legolas smiled, enjoying his father’s good mood. “You exaggerate father, I haven’t even lived long enough to see a dozen of them yet!” he protested good-naturedly.

 

“Yes, and the way you behave sometimes *young* one I wonder if you will ever live to see that many,” Thranduil chided with a smile.

 

Aragorn could not help chuckling because he had heard *that* often enough at home from his father and brothers.

 

Thranduil wrapped his arm gently around his son’s shoulders and gave him a light squeeze. “So, shall we go see how much cleaning needs to be done to our apartments? I fear my late brother’s preferences in décor always left a lot to be desired.”

 

Aragorn started to laugh, “Well my lord, if it’s anything like what he did to your hall, then you will have your work cut out for you.”

 

“Don’t you mean *we’ll* have our work cut out for *us*?” Legolas stopped walking and stared hard at his friend. He drew in a deep breath and let it out, his breath frosted heavily on the evening air as the sun dipped below the trees, “Do you know what that means?” He smiled wickedly at the ranger.

 

“I am afraid to ask.”

 

“That means the snow is coming and the pass back to Rivendell will be closed for sometime.” Legolas laughed lightly at his friend’s surprised look, “I think you will be staying here and helping *us* clean up after Doriflen after all.”

 

“Not to mention the fact that you look like I sent you out to battle and you lost.” Thranduil spoke up. “There is no way I am returning you to your father looking as you do or in the shape you are in. I will send him word that you will be wintering with us.”

 

“What? I’m fine.” The ranger lied to the king, trying to hide his limp as they walked slowly across the courtyard.

 

Legolas reached out and gently tapped the ranger on the side of his ribs causing the human to groan and pull away.

 

“Fine?” Thranduil raised one eyebrow and walked into the palace in front of them, “You’re as bad as Legolas! Do you know the penalty for lying to the king?” He called back with amusement.

 

Aragorn rolled his eyes, “It can't be any worse than it is at home.”

 

“You’d be surprised.” Thranduil smiled warmly at him as the ranger walked past, accompanying Legolas slowly to the upper rooms. “I will send the healers up to see to you both shortly.”

 

“Come on Strider, before you really get yourself into trouble.” The prince slowly mounted the steps, careful of his own injuries. “Let's go see what that guest room of yours looks like.”

 

“All I want is there to be a bed in it.” The ranger mumbled as he returned the king’s smile and mounted the steps behind his friend.

 

“I only hope my bed is still there too.” Legolas commented dryly, “It will be really nice not to have to sleep on the ground for a change.”

 

A small smile crept onto Thranduil’s lips as he listened to the youths talk back and forth. He turned back towards the entry and looked out across the courtyard over the tops of the trees to the stars that barely twinkled through the growing clouds.

 

A small group of relatives had accumulated in the outer courtyard, eager to find their lost sons. He called a servant to him and requested that extra lights and warm drink be brought out to the families that were reuniting with their loved ones. Mirkwood may not have been what she once was, but at least she was at peace once again and all her children had come home.

 

THE END