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Priceless Treasure

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-Priceless Treasure-

 

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~*PROLOGUE*~

 

Grey rain slated down Aragorn’s face, making his dark tresses cling to his brow.

Choose.

But he could not choose. How could anyone make the choice being set before him? It was impossible. It would break a heart of stone, and right now, Aragorn was very aware that his heart was made of anything but.

Legolas’ blood covered his hands and ran down to mingle with the mud by his boots as he clung to the elf, willing the life to stay in his friend’s body. He was the King of Gondor and Arnor, but he could not command Legolas’ heart to keep beating, nor bind his spirit to this world if it should choose to set flight.

"Stay with me Legolas," he whispered softly in elvish. "Don’t leave me like this my friend."

Beside him, Aragorn’s young son Eldarion struggled against the bonds that held him, the bonds that Aragorn was now helpless to remove. The boy’s quick breathing around the gag in his mouth clouded on the chilly air as Aragorn met his son’s eyes, wishing he had something to give young man besides the burning knowledge of how very much his father loved him.

"So which will it be?" the voice of the man who had orchestrated this whole nightmare grated on Aragorn’s nerves, making him want more than anything to spring up and choke the life out of his sneering adversary... but any such move would forfeit all their lives.

"Your life is full of choices isn’t it? You’re *Highness*," the title was a slur. "So choose now or they both die."

The rain pelted as fast as Aragorn’s spinning thoughts. This didn’t seem real. He couldn’t be here, this couldn’t be happening. None of this was supposed to happen like this. It had all started out so normally, a simple trip, a simple task, that’s all it had been, all it was supposed to be.

The King’s mind slipped back to that first day on the plains of the gap of Rohan. It all seemed like a dream now, like another lifetime ago that he had watched as the soldiers were setting up camp and dusk was falling over the area...

 

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~*PART ONE*~

 

~*~

...One Week Ago...

~*~

The ancient circle of Isengard had been broken years ago, although desolation had been replaced by flourishing plant life and trees once more, for the Ents had done much to repair the land. However, the area immediately surrounding the tower of Orthanc and in fact the tower itself was still in a state of semi-disrepair, which the dozen or so years that had passed since its last occupancy had hardly improved upon.

Two figures were sitting by the fire in the middle of camp, one older and one younger. The youth was probably no more than twelve or thirteen, but the elder was harder to place, seeming at once to be a man in the prime years of his life, and yet bearing an age greater than was usual for the span granted to mortal men. Both humans had thin silver circlets upon their forehead and bore a striking resemblance to one another, although there was a distinctly fair cast to the younger boy’s face and something somewhat whimsical about him that almost, *almost* reminded one of an elf. As indeed it should since his mother was an elf and his father one of the last true Númenorians left in Middle-Earth.

Aragorn and his son Eldarion sat in comfortable silence, watching the flames dance as they waited for the scouting parties to come back and declare whether the area was secure or not, although there was little doubt that it would be.

Aragorn, or King Elessar as he was now more commonly known, had spent the last fifteen years re-ordering the scattered and often crumbling realms that he was now responsible for. Restoring Isengard had been high on his priority list for some time, and although some of the work had already begun, this was the first time he had been able to make the journey here himself, which he had wanted to do for many reasons. But those could wait for the moment.

Arwen remained in Minas Tirith with Eldarion’s little sister, but Aragorn had wanted his son to accompany him this time; indeed, it was the boy’s first real foray away from the White City for any great length of time, and Aragorn felt the young prince was ready for that.

Aragorn seemed to sense something and rose to his feet, causing Eldarion to glance questioningly up at him, for he had heard nothing, and neither had the soldiers nearby or they would have said something. Nevertheless, a few moments later Legolas Greenleaf walked silently into plain sight and smiled at the disconcerted guards before passing them completely by and heading for the fire where his old friend awaited his report.

Eldarion did not understand how his father could hear the elf prince coming, he certainly hadn’t been able to do so.

"The eastern reaches are clear," Legolas reported, having completed his scouting mission. "Is Gimli back yet?" he asked, taking a seat near the fire.

"Not yet, but-" Aragorn started to answer before he was cut short.

"Yes, he is, and the western reaches are also clear," Gimli reported, appearing with slightly less stealth than his elven friend. "I think I saw those other two scouts approaching from the north and south, I’ll go see what word they have, but I think there is naught to trouble us out here now."

Balancing cross-legged upon the rounded log as the dwarf stumped away, Legolas smiled meaningfully at his human friend. "I see you have ordered camp to be struck *around* the tower, Telcontar." It would never fail to amuse Legolas that Aragorn had actually chosen to take the high elvish form of his old Strider nickname as the name for his royal house.

Aragorn nodded, not really grasping the reason for the elf’s mischievous smile. "Yes, of course."

Legolas chuckled. "Don’t tell me someone is still afraid to sleep in that tower?" he queried remembering events many years past.

Aragorn actually colored slightly as his friend reminded him of that long ago time when they had been Saruman’s unintentional guests, long before anyone knew what treachery was stewing in Isengard. Before he could answer his friend Eldarion shivered dramatically, looking up at the black spire. Even now that there was no evil in residence there its severe architecture was less than welcoming.

"I don’t see how anyone could! It’s so... creepy!" the boy shook his head.

Legolas laughed so hard he nearly fell off the log he was sitting on. "Oh Strider he is most assuredly your son!" the elf managed to get out around his merriment.

Aragorn chuckled lightly, wrapping his arm around Eldarion’s shoulders and smiling at the boy’s perplexed face. "He’s not laughing at you Eldarion," the King assured. "It’s... it’s a long story." Leaning close he whispered in his son’s ear. "And between you and I, I agree with you, I still think it’s creepy!"

Of course Legolas overheard them and his grin only widened, if that were possible.

"And what has set the elf off this time? As if he needed an excuse for excessive mirth..." Gimli dropped down on the log next to Legolas, looking as if he were considering giving the laughing elf a push to see if he really would fall off his perch. Legolas recognized the look in his short friend’s eye and quickly put his feet back down on the ground.

"It doesn’t figure," Gimli shook his head, speaking to Aragorn and glancing at Legolas. "I keep waiting for a little sense to rub off on him, and it never does..."

"Rub off from whom master Gimli?" Legolas arched his eyebrows sharply. "Certainly not you!"

"At least I don’t find the need to laugh at the drop of a hat or break into song just because the sun is shining..." Gimli grinned.

"Thank heaven for that!" Legolas rolled his eyes, smirking at Aragorn. "If you’ve ever heard dwarves sing *or* laugh you’ll know why..."

Gimli shoved Legolas. Legolas dodged and smirked tauntingly.

Aragorn and Eldarion laughed as they watched the friends bicker. The talking and joking went on long into the night as songs were sung and tales told. Eldarion’s eyelids became heavy and before long he was sleeping quietly against his father’s leg. Aragorn looked down and smiled. "I think it’s time for bed," he said softly.

Legolas and Gimli smiled.

"I think you’re right," Legolas whispered, touching the child’s hair gently. Eldarion’s dark, wavy locks hung in his eyes, framing the soft-edge face that was only just beginning to lose its boyish roundness. He had Aragorn’s looks, but his mother’s eyes and chin.

"He is very like you Aragorn, you and Arwen both. You have a treasure here my friend." Legolas watched the child stir slightly, many memories running through his heart. Memories of Eldarion as a wee child, and of Aragorn as a young man, for the two were very alike.

"I know," Aragorn nodded softly, favoring his son with a proud, gentle look. "But come, it is late and tomorrow we have much to do."

 

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

 

"Uncle Legolas and Uncle Gimli are going with you!" Eldarion protested. The lad had quite an odd extended family although he thought nothing about it. His father was human, his mother an elf, he had two ‘real uncles’ who were half-elves, and considered themselves to be the brothers of both his mother *and* his father, and a score of ‘adopted’ uncles including another elf, a dwarf and several hobbits, who when they were around, often acted more like his playmates than uncles and continually got him into mischief.

Aragorn shook his head. "And you will too, but not this time. It’s for your own safety Eldarion, I explained that all ready."

"But-"

"No, no buts," the King shook his head firmly. "You heard me the first time and that’s all there is to it, all right?"

"Yes father," Eldarion nodded finally, although he was not at all pleased at being left behind.

"All right then, I promise we’ll take you in there as soon as I know it’s safe," Aragorn tipped his son’s chin up on the crook of his finger and managed to coax a brief smile from the boy.

The king turned and made his way to where Legolas was waiting for him at the base of the long staircase that led up into the tower of Orthanc.

"You mean for the boy to not accompany us into the tower," it wasn’t a question but a statement, Legolas could already tell from the displeased look on Eldarion’s face what had passed between the father and son.

"Not today. Not the first time. This tower has been closed off for some time; no one has been in it since Saruman left. There is no telling what we may encounter in there and it could be that there are things a young boy should not see," Aragorn explained himself to his friend.

"I understand well enough, but I’m not so sure that he does," Legolas nodded his head towards the young human prince.

Aragorn sighed. "I explained it to him, but he thinks he is old enough and ready enough to handle anything..." the king shook his head ruefully.

Legolas stroked his chin in mock-thoughtfulness. "Now why does that seem familiar? Who else have I known like that...?"

Aragorn elbowed Legolas in the ribs. "Enough, I get your point. Well Eldarion will just have to survive somehow, like I did," he grinned slightly. "Where is Gimli?"

"I think he has despaired of our companionship and gone on ahead with several of the guards," Legolas replied with a short laugh.

"Well then we had better catch up," Aragorn said as they made their way up the long stairs towards the door of the tower. "Else he shall claim to be faster than you and then I shall have my ears wearied to no end by the two of you bickering over the unending elves-versus-dwarves debate that you never seem to tire of."

Legolas grinned and sprinted ahead of Aragorn, stopping at the top of the stairs to hold the open door for his friend. "Well I’m faster than you anyway."

Aragorn rolled his eyes and mock-bowed to the elf as he entered. "That is one I will let you claim this time my friend, for the years are not as kind to humans as they are to elves."

Legolas looked away for a moment and did not speak. Aragorn wondered if he had said something wrong. He laid a soft hand on the prince’s arm. "Legolas?"

Legolas lifted his head and smiled quickly at the concerned look on his friend’s face. "You will never be old to me Estel," he whispered softly, laying his hand on his friend’s chest. "Your body may change, but your heart does not, and that is what I see."

Aragorn smiled and gave the elf’s hand a quick squeeze.

"Which is well..." Legolas continued, the mischievous fire sparking behind his eyes once more. "Because you still act like a child sometimes..." The elf danced away before his friend could swat him for that.

"What do you mean child?!" Aragorn shook his head with disbelief. "I’m already older than most mortals ever get! Will you and my brothers *never* allow me to grow up?"

"And now you sound like Eldarion again!" Legolas laughed. "Say what you like but I’m not the one who insisted on camping *outside* the tower..."

"Don’t start that again..." Aragorn warned wryly.

"Are you two going to talk all day and leave me to do all the work?" Gimli leaned over a railing above them and called down.

"Coming, coming," Legolas and Aragorn made their way out of the empty entry hall and into the passages beyond. "Don’t you know it’s not becoming to chide a king?" Aragorn called up to the impatient dwarf.

"You’re a king, he’s a prince, what’s the difference when you both move as fast as hobbits on a holiday?" the dwarf shot back, his heavy footsteps clattering above them. "The stonework here is incredible! Legolas you must come see this archway!"

Legolas looked at Aragorn and rolled his eyes fondly. "Oh joy. I must go and look."

Aragorn chuckled. "Only a dwarf would find this place enthralling."

"Well you said it, I didn’t," Legolas grinned wickedly before sprinting up the stairs to join his short friend and politely admire whatever feat of stonework had so impressed his dwarven friend. It was only fair, Gimli did put up very well with the prince’s love of trees, and for his part the elf was willing to accept Gimli’s love of cleverly done stonework. They were friends, and one made many concessions for friendship.

It took a long time to go over the tower from top to bottom and there was a great deal that had to be purged and destroyed, as well as a number of truly remarkable discoveries, the most notable of which occurred in what must have been Saruman’s study and main chamber, a large, sprawling set of rooms containing many, many niches, drawers, chambers and cubby-holes.

"Look here," Legolas said as he opened the lid on a rather large casket that had been buried under a stack of yellowed parchments and some other rickrack.

Aragorn raised his eyebrows, and Gimli gave a low whistle as the lid was raised to reveal a stash of dazzling gems and some rather exquisite pieces of ancient craftsmanship.

Gimli reverently lifted a magnificently wrought necklace with the emblem of a charging horse frozen in its centerpiece.

"These must be worth a pretty price to someone, else I’m no craftsman!" the dwarf remarked. "I wonder where Saruman got all these things?"

Aragorn shook his head as he looked through the treasure. "If I am not much mistaken many of these are heirlooms of the house of Eorl, no doubt filched from Edoras by Wormtongue and brought hither some years ago. Eomér shall be glad to have them returned I am certain."

"These are not of Rohan make," Legolas shook his head as he raised up another piece, a brooch shaped like two great trees with their branches intertwined. "This is elvish work and very old. And these items here... these are caëbin tokens, such as the men of old used to burry in the treasure houses of the dead."

"I found more like it in the next chamber," Aragorn agreed. "As well as artifacts that could possibly have even been taken from barrow mounds. It seems that Saruman in his degradation became not a dragon, but a jackdaw, a grave robber," the King of Gondor shook his head somberly. It was sad how low someone once so wise had fallen, as well as being a somber reminder to all what an unquenchable desire for power could do to anyone.

"There is something odd over here..." Gimli’s voice brought the two friends’ attention to the back of the chamber, they had not realized he had moved away.

"What is it?" Legolas asked, walking over and kneeling beside his friend, trying to see what the dwarf was peering at so intently. To him it looked like nothing but a blank stone wall.

Gimli tapped the stones with his axe handle, slowly moving to the right and downward. Suddenly they all heard the difference in the echo when the sturdy axe handle thumped against what seemed to be the same stones, but could not have been from the sound they made. "Hello, there’s some kind of hidden panel here unless I’m much mistaken..." the dwarf murmured, probing the stones carefully with his calloused but experienced fingers.

Even Legolas’ elven eyes could detect no flaw in the stonework. This was one area where the elf had to truly admire his friend’s skill, although he would never let the dwarf know it. "Well, what is it?"

"A little patience master elf if that’s not asking too much..." Gimli murmured the friendly barb distractedly, his attention on the puzzle in front of him.

Aragorn knelt on the other side as they watched the dwarf work.

"There... now it’s coming!" Gimli said with satisfaction after several long minutes of work. Aragorn could not determine what exactly the dwarf had done, but whatever it was had worked because a large section of the wall under his hands slid soundlessly away, revealing a tall steel cabinet behind it, about as high as a man stood and obviously intended to be very secret.

"Gimli, can you open it?" Aragorn asked as they rose to their feet and looked the new door over.

"Can I open it..." Gimli grinned, cracking his thick knuckles loudly and obviously enjoying the attention. "Of course I can."

"Yes, but this year or next?" Legolas jibed with playful glibness.

Gimli scowled at him. "I’ll make you eat those words elf."

Legolas’ eyebrows shot up. "Oh? And how-"

"ENOUGH!" Aragorn stopped them, having to keep himself from laughing. "I realize that both of you have naturally longer life spans than mine, but if it wouldn’t inconvenience you too much, I, for one, would like to see what’s in there sometime BEFORE I have grandchildren."

"All right, all right, no need to fuss..." Gimli mumbled, going to work on the small door with surprising quickness. "Has he always been this impatient?" he asked Legolas with an infuriatingly impish sidelong look as he worked. He knew that Legolas and Aragorn had known each other for a long time.

"Oh he used to be even worse. You should see him when he’s tired; positively unlivable. It’s a human thing," the elf assured, earning him a baleful glare from the King of Gondor.

It took Gimli a few minutes longer than he would have boasted about to get the cabinet open, but in the end he did. For a moment the friends were surprised because it was all but empty.

"More than likely this cupboard was waiting and ready to receive the Ring as soon as Saruman could get his hands on it," Aragorn said quietly and all three friends shivered inadvertently as a momentary hush fell over them... thinking of what might have been... of what very nearly *had* been.

"Well it’s not completely empty," Legolas pointed out as he reached up upon a high shelf and withdrew the hiding place’s only occupant: a small chest. It was not locked and clicked open easily enough. There were only two objects inside, but both of them were shocking.

Aragorn’s eyes widened as he looked upon them.

"What are they?" Legolas asked, not even sure if he should touch them, but certain from his friend’s look that the King recognized them both, if only from legend.

One of the two items was a small case of gold on a fine chain. It bore no letter or mark, but there was no doubt in Aragorn’s mind that it was the necklace in which Isildur had carried the One Ring when he rode out upon that ill-fated journey so many ages ago, and he told his friends so. The second item in the chest, and the one that drew the most attention, both confirmed this supposition and dazzled the small assembly with its beauty.

"The Elendilmir... The Star of Elendil," Aragorn said softly, unable to resist lifting the priceless treasure from its place. A glowing piece of elvish crystal, cut with a precision that could no longer be matched and set in a gleaming mithril circlet, the ancient heirloom of the Kings shimmered luminously in the torch-lit room. "This is a treasure beyond all value, and long mourned as lost forever. Passed down from Silmarien of old, it was taken by Elendil as a symbol of the North Kingdom and has forever been the only crown worn by the King of Arnor."

"I thought it familiar somehow..." Legolas mused, fascinated by the beautiful piece of ancient elven workmanship. "Have I not seen you wear such a thing quite often since coming to the throne of Gondor and Arnor Aragorn?"

Aragorn nodded slightly. "The Elendilmir was worn by Isildur on that last journey from Gondor to Rivendell... the one from which he never retuned. It is said that when he was forced to put the Ring on and flee he had to cover his head, for the Elendilmir flashed brightly in the night, defying even the invisibility of the One. When the Ring forsook him and left him to his doom in the Anduin, the Elendilmir was lost with him. The one that has been passed down to me was a copy made at Lord Elrond’s bidding by the smiths in Imladris for Isildur’s only remaining heir, Valandil, but it could never have the power and potency of the original one that had been lost."

"And now has been found again," Legolas murmured. "I wondered how came Saruman by it?"

"From what Gandalf told us long ago Saruman had long been searching the Anduin for any trace of the Ring, it must be that these were what he found instead," Aragorn Elessar laid the circlet reverently back in its case. "I must show this to Eldarion," his smile softened when he thought of his son. "Mayhap it will lessen his disappointment in not being able to be in here today."

"Well we have found a rare prize indeed to carry back to Gondor with us," Gimli shook his head as the case was reluctantly closed. "That was a marvelous fair piece of work, even if it was made by elves, I will grant you that."

Legolas and Aragorn both laughed.

"You are generous beyond words good dwarf," Legolas teased.

They were three days working over the whole tower and there would be much more restoration that would be needed before it could be returned to its former state of repair, but that was what Aragorn had brought along the teams of masons, gardeners and other craftsmen for. Because rebuilding and restoring had been a good part of what he had been doing since assuming the throne, King Elessar had become quite proficient in knowing what sort of people would be needed for tasks like this. Indeed, many of them had already begun their work.

Legolas and Gimli watched their progress with approval, both of them having had more than their share of experience in restoration over the past several years as well.

"So tell me Aragorn, did you tell them to try to do anything with the decorating to make it less... how did you put it... creepy?" Legolas teased his friend.

Aragorn shook his head wryly. "I fear the only way to do that would be to tear the whole place down and rebuild it. Besides, Gimli would find these people a kindred spirit. I think if I so much as suggested touching a stone of this place that was part of its original craftsmanship they would give me looks befitting an orc."

"I heard that," Gimli piped up from nearby, wiping his hands on his pants as he approached. "But tell me Aragorn, our work here is finished is it not? Now it is up to the restoration crews, although the gardeners have little enough to do since the Ents seem to have taken care of most of that already."

"Almost finished," Aragorn agreed. "We have one last piece of business to attend to. We need to return something that has had a long road." The former ranger glanced significantly at Legolas and the elf nodded. "Do you want me to fetch it?"

"No," Aragorn shook his head. "Have Eldarion bring it. I would wish him part of this."

Eldarion did as his father wished and the four of them climbed the stairs to the upper-chambers of the tower one more time. The very air inside of Orthanc seemed cleaner now, and in truth it was not nearly so dark nor frightening as it had once seemed at all.

When they finally reached the top, Eldarion handed the velvet bag he bore to his father. Aragorn reached inside and gently pulled a smooth, dark sphere from it. A palantir. The last one left that could still see anything as it had been intended. The palantir residing in Gondor had been put away from view since Denethor’s death as it no longer revealed ought but the end of the last man who held it; the one that Sauron had possessed was assumed to have been destroyed with him and the one at the havens had ever only looked out to sea. And so at long last the Orthanc stone was returned to its rightful place, and this time by its rightful owner. For the stone of old had belonged to this tower before it had been hidden away, only later to be recovered and brought here for more evil purposes.

As Aragorn set the last of the ancient seeing stones into the special pedestal waiting to receive it, he could not help glancing at Legolas and smiling. By now he had of course realized that this was the same palantir that he and the prince had gone through so much grief over many, many years before. It seemed like a kind of completion to at long last be able to do what they had wanted to do all along and finally place the stone in the setting it belonged, knowing that the ancient heirloom from over the sea was safe at last and no longer tainted by the designs of evil.

"Why do I feel there’s a tale in this that I don’t quite know the half of?" Gimli queried as they made their way back to the base of the tower.

"That my friend is very ancient history," Aragorn shook his head.

"It wasn’t *that* long ago," Legolas shook his head, amused by Aragorn’s perception of time.

"Did it involve you and Uncle Legolas?" Eldarion asked hopefully. "I like those stories, they’re usually funny. Uncle Elladan and Uncle Elrohir tell me a lot of them."

"I bet they do. Well, I could tell you quite a few about *them* as well..." Aragorn muttered.

Eldarion nodded with a grin. "As you have. Like the one you told me about Uncle Legolas and the-"

Aragorn coughed loudly and shook his head at the boy, shooting a quick glance at Legolas.

Eldarion took the point and shut up quickly.

Legolas raised his eyebrows with a wry smile. "Wait, wait, I want to hear this. Pray tell what stories has your illustrious father been telling about us and his misspent youth? Did he mention nearly getting himself eaten by a carnivorous plant? Or the time he decided *against* his father’s advice, to cross an orc-infested plain all by himself with nightfall approaching? No? How about his irrepressible habit of touching *everything* and nearly dropping us into a bottomless pit because of it? Or-"

"We get the point Legolas," Aragorn cut the elf of with a warning glare. "And wait a moment, I seem to remember having to cut *you* out of that plant..."

"Only because I was trying to help you," Legolas retorted with an ingratiating grin.

"Well if it’s stories you want to tell I can think of a few..." Aragorn threatened with an evil glint in his eyes. "I’m sure Gimli would love hearing about our exit from Moria the last time we had dealings with that seeing stone up there..."

"Strider you wouldn’t dare! You promised!" the elf accidentally reverted to his old nickname for his friend, although in truth he would probably never quite give that one up.

Aragorn laughed at the prince’s indignation.

"What? What?" Eldarion wanted to know. He was enjoying this whole situation quite a bit.

"Yes, I’d like to hear this as well, I knew not that our friend elf here had any previous experience with Moria!" Gimli was highly intrigued. Besides, anything that obviously embarrassed Legolas was of great interest to him.

Legolas glared daggers at Aragorn who was laughing heartily. "Oh yes, he certainly did, we both did... and let’s just say that at least one of our exits was not... in the normal fashion."

Legolas looked like he was about ready to clobber the human if he said another word but Aragorn just shook his head, holding his hands up helplessly towards the inquiring gazes of his son and the dwarf. "No, no, I did promise... but of course as soon as other people start telling stories my mind wanders and I forget what I should and shouldn’t say..." he grinned at Legolas, eyes dancing.

"Blackmail," Legolas muttered. "Pure and simple. I thought a King should be above that."

"And a Prince should be above telling tales to a boy about his own father," Aragorn retorted blithely.

Legolas brightened. "Then I shall simply let your brothers take over. I am sure they know enough stories about you to keep the lad entertained for years."

Aragorn moaned slightly and shook his head. "Don’t encourage them Legolas, they’re bad enough as it is."

"Now wait, I want to hear more about you and Moria Legolas, you never told me of this..." Gimli pressed the elf, not willing to let it go so easily.

Aragorn grabbed Eldarion’s shoulder and started walking the boy quickly away with him, making a hasty exit. "Come Eldarion, I think we need to start getting the men ready to leave, wouldn’t you agree?"

Eldarion was trying hard not to laugh. "Yes, definitely father," he nodded as they hurried away from the relentlessly curious dwarf and the increasingly peeved elf.

"STRIDER!" Aragorn had to cover his mouth to keep from laughing as Legolas called after him in frustration.

"Well I’m in trouble now," Aragorn murmured to his son with a smile, his hand resting on the lad’s shoulder as they walked. "You better help me watch my back, all right?"

"All right!" Eldarion agreed lightly. The boy hesitated a moment. "Ada?"

"Hm?"

"I... I like this," the young man gestured around them as if he could not quite find the words he was looking for.

Aragorn smiled. "I know you haven’t gotten out of the city much other than our hunts, that’s part of why I wanted you to come with us for this. I had a feeling it would agree with you."

"It does, and I do like being out here, but that wasn’t all I meant..." the young man looked down at his hands, suddenly shy. "Never mind."

Aragorn stopped and turned to completely face his son. "What? What is it Eldarion?"

"Nothing..." the boy evaded, somewhat embarrassed.

"No it’s not, now tell me. You know you can tell me anything Eldarion, or at least I hope you do," Aragorn assured.

"I... I like *you* father. I like the way you are when we’re out here, you’re so... open," the boy said for lack of a better word. Eldarion flushed, he wasn’t saying this well at all and he felt he probably shouldn’t have tried.

"You mean I’m not when we’re at home?" Aragorn asked softly, the question very serious to him. His family always came first in his heart, if that did not show in his actions, he wanted to know.

"No! That’s not what I meant," Eldarion shook his head quickly. Aragorn always made time for him and he knew he was well loved by both his parents, that wasn’t what he had intended. "You just seem so happy out here... I like it, that’s all I meant."

Aragorn smiled and squeezed his son’s shoulder, understanding what the youth was trying to say. "I fear you recognize the blood of a ranger in me my son," he smiled. "I love the White City, but some part of my heart shall always belong to the wilds and feel at home on the road."

"I wish I felt more at home out here," Eldarion admitted. "I fear sometimes that I shall never be anything but a soft princeling. You and Legolas and Gimli are so experienced and I feel so stupid sometimes, like I don’t know how to do anything right."

Aragorn chuckled slightly, remembering that feeling all too well. "You’re young Eldarion, don’t expect to be able to do everything that your uncles and I can do all at once. It takes years to learn. Give yourself time." He laughed. "You know I can’t believe I’m saying that to someone else..." he murmured, making Eldarion smile even if he didn’t know exactly what his father meant.

"Well my son," Aragorn clapped the lad on the shoulder once. "You can be glad of one thing at least... that you’re not growing up *completely* surrounded by elves. If you want to feel clumsy and inadequate, that is a great way to start. Now let’s go inform the men that we break camp tomorrow morning."

Eldarion smiled as he trailed his father. "So what do you think Uncle Legolas is going to do to you when he finally gets free of Uncle Gimli?"

"I shudder to think of it Eldarion, I shudder to think of it..." the king chuckled.

The sun was shinning brightly and laughter flowed easily. There was no shadow over any of them that day. No notion of what would come to pass barely a week later. No concept of how things could go so utterly, and terribly wrong.

 

___________________________________________________________

~*PART TWO*~

 

~*~

...One Week Later...

~*~

 

The cruel laughter of the man before him brought Aragorn back to the present, breaking through his thoughts of past events, dragging him back to the pain and anguish of this moment and of his breaking heart. And again he heard the question.

"Choose..."

...He couldn’t choose. He couldn’t. Had anyone ever been forced to make a crueler decision...?

Oh yes.

One had.

The memory came back to Aragorn in a rush, a day he had not thought of in many, many years. //"Oh father, I understand so much better now..."//

Their captor waved his bow impatiently. "Choose!"

How had they gotten here? What twisted trail had led to this point where Aragorn would be asked to cut some part of his own heart out to save another, all for the satisfaction of this sadistically vengeful man...?

The years washed away like the pouring rain, like Legolas’ blood, flowing over his hands, carried away by the streaming water and hurried along by its rush... washed away to a time when Aragorn was not a king, not a father, but only a young ranger spending the winter with his friend Prince Legolas under Mirkwood’s shadowy eaves...

 

~*~

...Roughly 80 in the past...

~*~

 

"You’ll never catch me!" Legolas called out, gaily taunting his human friend.

"Want to bet?" Aragorn, still some distance behind, shot back.

Legolas urged his horses faster. "Why? You don’t have anything left to lose!"

Almost a month had passed since Legolas’ traitorous, usurping uncle Doriflen had been ousted and life had returned to normal in Mirkwood... as normal as it ever was that is, when the prince and the young Dùnadan spent any appreciable amount of time together.

Winter was full upon them now and the air was bitingly cold, for this winter was proving to be much fiercer than was usual. However, the two friends barely noticed the frost in the air, because their heated race kept them both quite warm.

It had started out as fairly normal sport between Aragorn, Legolas and the prince’s two friends, Raniean and Trelan. They had made a scouting foray to the forest eaves to check on rumors of roving warg packs, driven down from the mountains by the extremely cold and violent weather and had ended up tracking the elusive threat out into the plains beyond until they were now in the shadow of the Misty Mountains.

In truth the foursome was merely glad for some diversion from the long, heavy winter days with little to do. The wargs they were hunting seemed to have entirely disappeared however, and at any rate, they were now so far away from Mirkwood that it was no longer a concern. The fresh snowfall today had been too tempting to resist, soon inciting an all-out snow battle between the four friends. Aragorn and Legolas could never agree later about who had started it, but everyone ended up involved.

When that had become too cold to continue, they had turned around and begun the long ride back to Mirkwood, but some choicely taunting comments from the elves about their higher endurance for cold and how they did not need saddles and reins like Aragorn did to ride had eventually escalated into a challenge of horsemanship. And it hadn’t stopped there.

So now Aragorn and Legolas were darting in and out between the trees and across the open plain, riding two horses each, standing crouched low with one foot on each horses’ back and trying to see who would fall off first.

Raniean and Trelan watched from the ground, since their horses were being used for the sport and it was not something they would have chosen to try at any rate.

Trelan cheered them on and Raniean told them to get off before they broke their necks, but Legolas and Aragorn paid very little attention to either of them.

Legolas rode with no reins as he was accustomed to, even for this, and his elven balance was an asset, but Aragorn was a comparable rider and was holding his own against the prince as they sped out across the open field, lagging only slightly behind the elf.

"You want me to rub your face in the snow again?" Aragorn replied to Legolas’ earlier taunt. He stayed low, handling the reins with the delicate precision needed to keep the two horses under him running in tandem like this. It had taken some doing to fashion a second bridle for him to use, since they had only the one on his horse, but in the end it had been accomplished. The ranger was slowly gaining on his friend, but not quickly enough if he wanted to win the race.

"I’d like to see you try!" Legolas easily maneuvered his galloping horses through a sharp turn, avoiding a fallen log in their path, and rising up slightly so that he was standing straighter on their backs, enjoying the thrill and novelty of the game and the feel of the brisk wind whipping by him. He was, in fact, having a grand time simply forgetting that he was a prince, and ignoring the thought of what exactly his father would say if news of this got back to him. Being around Aragorn had that effect on him, as if the young ranger’s youth and impulsiveness were contagious.

For a moment it seemed as if Aragorn were not going to make the turn, then, suddenly, he urged both horses straight on into a leaping jump *over* the log in his path.

Remarkably, he actually managed to stay on their back when they landed, although his balance was badly shaken. Not detouring had given him the lead and he crossed the agreed-upon ‘finish line’ moments before Legolas with a loud, exhilarated whoop.

A few paces later his balance finally failed and he tumbled off, hitting the ground on his shoulder and rolling over several times in the snow before he came to a stop.

Legolas jumped down quickly as Raniean and Trelan ran over, yet when Aragorn came up, he was covered in snow, but laughing hard. "I won! Now what do you say Legolas? Hm?"

"That you are insane Strider," Legolas cuffed his friend lightly on the shoulder. "*Jumping* them? What were you thinking?!"

Aragorn just grinned. One of his irritating grins. "I won didn’t I? It worked."

Legolas rolled his eyes. "Is that your answer for everything, no matter how foolhardy? You’re lucky to be alive."

"You’re *BOTH* lucky to be alive!" Raniean interrupted them before they could get into any more trouble. "If you want to kill yourselves, go ahead, but Legolas, please, do it sometime when Trelan and I will *not* have to be the ones to tell your father."

All four of them laughed.

Trelan stepped forward, intending to help Aragorn up from the thick snowdrift he had fallen into. When he stood the white powder buried him half way up his legs while his elven companions walked easily atop the soft carpet of snow.

As the elf leaned down, offering his hand to the human, an arrow cut the space between the two of them, catching Trelan in the left shoulder and throwing him backwards into the drift behind him. Aragorn lunged for the smaller elf, surprise marking his features as Trelan attempted to stand only to fall unconscious into the snow, his eyes rolling back into his head.

"Trelan!" The human surged forward as Raniean crouched next to his fallen friend, barely ducking a second arrow intended for him.

Everything happened so fast that Aragorn never even saw the horseman that burst from the foliage behind him. The man rode down on Legolasb who turned at the last possible moment, responding to Raniean’s horrified warning. As soon as the first arrow flew, the prince immediately headed back to where they left their weapons when they had begun the race; he had nearly reached their small cache of bows and arrows, but it was not in time.

Raniean’s voice rang clear in the small dell and the prince turned as the man who had entered the glen came even with the elf, riding straight for him. Quickly slipping his foot from the stirrup the hunter brought the metal bar down, catching Legolas behind his jaw, unintentionally striking the elf’s pressure point. Adding to the injury, the man kicked his foot out, catching the falling prince across the cheek. The impact spun Legolas around and dropped him unconscious into the snow. The prince did not rise.

Aragorn turned at Raniean’s shout and ran towards the spot where his friend had fallen and lay sprawled in the snow, senseless and unmoving. The ranger watched as the intruder whipped his horse around in a tight turn and headed straight for the two of them that remained standing.

Trying to dodge the horse and its rider, Aragorn threw himself out of the stallion’s path, the snow making his efforts to reach Legolas clumsy and slow.

They could see nothing of their mysterious attacker save that he was clothed all in brown fur and leather, but at the moment that was hardly a priority.

The unknown rider strung another arrow and sighted in on Raniean. The tall elf warrior stopped and crouched into a defensive position, his eyes riveted on the man that bore down him. Faster than the hunter could register the elf flicked a blade from a hidden sheath inside his boot and deftly threw it at the approaching human. Sheer luck aided the horseman as he veered accidentally out of the projectile’s path, the blade of the knife barely slicing through the left sleeve of his heavy leather coat.

"Ran!! Stay down!" Aragorn had reached their cache of weapons and was checking Legolas’ pulse. Content that the elf was only unconscious and not dead, he strung an arrow and sighted in on the man that had attacked them.

The hunter however had had enough of the small skirmish he had entered. It had taken him months of tracking and waiting just to find an opportunity to get these ones alone with no guards and no witnesses. He would have preferred taking his prey out one on one so that no one was left to oppose him, but that had proved impossible. Winter was deep upon them and he had already wasted too much time. It was act now or wait until spring and he had taken long enough to complete this contract already, his employer was getting impatient; if he did not collect soon he may lose his chance to do so all together. Stringing an arrow on his bow, its tip dripping with a black sticky substance, he aimed for the ranger that stood from the fallen prince’s side. Before Aragorn could release his weapon, the hunter had targeted him.

The impact of the bolt into his shoulder threw Aragorn into the snow next to Legolas. He could hear Raniean yelling his name as he struggled to his feet. His head spun and the wound from the arrow felt like it was on fire. Sound seemed to warp in his ears and fade altogether as he locked eyes with Raniean. The elf was running towards him shouting, but it was as if he were far away down a black tunnel that was getting longer with every heartbeat. His heart...he fumbled, touching the shaft that protruded from his shoulder, the beat of his heart was fast and loud in his ears. A black shape burst on his narrowing vision and someone grabbed him, jerking him up hard just as he fell into the darkness.

Raniean ran swiftly across the top of the snow. He watched as Aragorn rose shakily to his feet, the shaft of an arrow protruding from his shoulder. The human started to collapse, his eyes rolling back into his head, much like Trelan’s had, as the unknown hunter reached the ranger’s side. Grabbing the ranger’s overcoat he pulled the young man up onto his horse, laying Aragorn across the saddle in front of him.

The hunter rounded his mount on the remaining elf. With one hand he held Aragorn in place, with his other he drew a long wicked blade and pointed it at the elf.

"Don’t make me hurt this one." The hunter growled, sliding his knife under Aragorn’s chin "And don’t force me to take you down like your friends. You have two here that need your help. I don’t want none of you, I have no quarrel with your kind. Look to your wounded. Don’t make it harder and don’t follow me, you won't like what happens to you or your friend here if you do." Kicking the underbelly of his mount he backed his horse slowly to the edge of the meadow before turning and galloping off into the forest.

Raniean stood rooted in place for a heartbeat. He couldn’t just let the man take off with Aragorn as his prisoner, but Trelan had not recovered and he could hear the prince moaning softly as consciousness returned. The ranger was his friend, but the prince was his charge and his liege, his duty was to the royalty first and all else secondly. With a sick desperate feeling gnawing in the pit of his stomach, he tore his gaze from the place where the hunter had left with his friend and ran to the prince’s aid.

"Legolas?" Kneeling in the snow next to the prince, Raniean helped the elf ease into a sitting position, gently turning Legolas’ head so he could see the welting bruise that covered the side of his face. "Are you all right?" He stood to his feet and drew the prince up with him, "You took a nasty hit, easy now." Raniean steadied Legolas as the prince shook off the last effects from being stunned.

With a frown Legolas leaned against his friend, looking around them in confusion. "Strider?"

Raniean sighed deeply, unwilling to meet the prince’s gaze. His hesitancy spiked fear through Legolas, its iron grip on his heart bringing him fully alert, "Raniean. Where is Strider?"

Shaking his head slowly, the elf’s answer was quiet, "I lost him. Those arrows used against us must have been tainted to evoke the reaction they did. The intruder shot Strider with the same poison that he drugged Trelan with. I could not reach him fast enough and he took Strider away with him." Raniean glanced behind them and pointed towards the tracks that led off into the wooded area that surrounded the open glade, "They left through there, heading for the mountains. I am sorry my prince."

Legolas gripped the soldier’s shoulder tightly and gently shook him, redirecting Raniean’s gaze, "It’s not your fault. It happened so fast... none of us where prepared. Did he say why? What he wanted or who he was?" He rubbed his jaw absently, his gaze falling to Trelan who still lay in the snow. The slight rise and fall of the elf’s chest was all that gave way that he lived.

"No my lord," Raniean shook his head. "He only said that he had no quarrel with us, but that he would kill Strider or injure me or the two of you if I attempted to stop him." Legolas nodded, turning Raniean back towards their friend as the warrior explained how the strange attacker had taken Aragorn.

Gently the two elves knelt in the snow next to their fallen friend. Legolas checked the small elf’s vitals while Raniean ripped the hem off his under-tunic and wrapped it around the base of the arrow, stanching the light bleeding. They would need more time and a safer location to remove the arrow, but for now this would have to do.

Together, they carefully lifted Trelan to his feet, holding him between them.

The horses had scattered in fright when all the commotion erupted, but they were slowly making their way warily back. Avornwen, Legolas’ horse, nudged her elf in the back with her soft, velvety muzzle; nickering softly in concern and anxiety, as if asking him what had happened. "Shh, lasto beth nîn Avornwen, dartho, dartho..." Legolas soothed the agitated mare and bade her be still.

"Raniean, take Trelan back to Lasgalen, to my father’s halls, he needs attention, and swiftly. We know not what manner of poison he has been given," Legolas said with deep concern as he helped Raniean mount their injured friend on the back of the prince’s steed. Trelan was still unconscious and slumped forward limply against the dapple grey’s neck, but the elvish horse adjusted gently for his weight, not about to let a rider fall. "Take Avornwen, she’s faster than your horse. The other horses will follow you." Legolas patted his mare’s neck, stepping back to allow Raniean to mount up behind Trelan.

Raniean hesitated however. "Wait," he caught the prince’s sleeve, seeking his eyes. "What are you going to do?" He had a sneaking feeling he knew the answer.

"I’m going after Strider," was Legolas’ predictable reply. Raniean was already shaking his head.

"Legolas you can’t go after them alone. Besides, they’re heading for the mountains. Wherever it is he’s headed, you don’t have the gear to make a trip like they’re making, we weren’t prepared for this. Come back with me, and I swear as soon as we have delivered Trelan into safe hands I will come with you."

"No, Ran, I have to go now," Legolas caught and held his friend’s eyes, willing the other elf to understand. "Do you smell that, do you feel it?" the prince gestured at the air around them. "A storm is coming. It will take us at least four or five days to get back to Lasgalen *if* we ride hard. And then just as many to get back here. By that time any tracks this mysterious rider has left will be impossible to follow and we will have no idea where Strider has been taken or why. If I do not act now, we will lose him." Legolas’ eyes were intense and decided; clearly stating that he did not intend allowing that to come to pass.

Raniean understood, but he did not like it one bit. "Legolas... I’m worried about losing *you*." He gently touched the bleeding cut across Legolas’ cheekbone where the mysterious rider had kicked the elf prince in the face. "You will do Strider no good if you’re dead. We have not seen a winter this bitter since the Fell Winter long ago; it is folly to go out into it improperly provisioned and alone. It would freeze even an elf up in the mountains now!"

"Which is why I do not take a horse," Legolas said calmly. "They will not survive the cold of the mountain heights for any long duration of time if my chase should take me that far."

Raniean’s grip on his friend’s arm tightened in frustration. He saw the prince’s point, but at the same time he knew that his friend often had a very low regard for his own safety. "Legolas..."

"Raniean, I will be all right, I promise. With any luck I will catch them before they ever reach the mountains and be back with Aragorn almost before you know I’m gone. But I have to leave now. Take care of Trelan, he needs you, that wound is bad. Tell my father what has happened. Tell him..." Legolas let his breath out slowly. His father of course would take this news no better than Raniean. "Tell him not to worry."

Raniean rolled his eyes slightly. "As if that will help. Why am I always the one who has to tell your father? I swear one day he’s going to kill the messenger Legolas," the other elf shook his head, smiling around his worry, but his eyes were still serious.

"He will understand Ran, he’ll have to," Legolas squeezed his friend’s shoulder, willing the other elf to understand as well.

Raniean clasped Legolas’ shoulder tightly in return. "May the Valar protect you then my friend."

Legolas nodded. "Thank you."

Raniean pulled himself quickly up on Avornwen’s back, wrapping his arm around Trelan’s waist and pulling the smaller elf’s head back against his shoulder as he turned the horse towards the forest and rode off. As Legolas had said, the other horses followed Avornwen’s lead and galloped after the two elves.

Legolas watched them go for a moment before turning towards the plains once more and starting off at a run up the trail of the horse and rider who had taken his friend away. A lot of precious time had already been wasted and he did not know how far ahead of him the ones he sought had gotten.

 

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

 

The rider in brown kept his horse moving quickly all that day, glancing over his shoulder. Night was falling but he didn’t want to stop yet. He didn’t know whether any of the ranger’s companions would try to come after them or not, but he never took chances. Dyryn, son of Inamarth had not made his living as a bounty hunter for the past ten years by being careless. He knew that the snow made his an easy trail to follow and he intended to get up into the rocky country ahead before he felt safe enough to stop.

Stocky and not overly tall, the bounty hunter’s build spoke of his mixed human and dwarf ancestry. He was actually not more than a score of years older than his captive, but Dyryn had already earned himself a reputation for being utterly ruthless and effectively brutal.

He rested one hand on the back of the young man who laid draped face-down across his saddle in front of him while the other held his horse’s reigns. The drug on the arrows he had been using was called belithral, and Dyryn knew that the ranger was going to be out of it for some time now. Eventually he was going to have to get the arrow out of his captive’s shoulder, but it could wait. First he wanted to put some distance behind them.

The moon was full that night, reflecting off the white snow and giving enough light to keep traveling by for some time. Dyryn did not stop until he had made the beginning of the craggy mountain foothills. Here the snow was less even and patchy as rocks twisted and overhung one another.

Leading his horse through a series of twists and turns until he was satisfied that anyone trying to trail them would be hopelessly lost, the bounty hunter finally decided to make camp and allow his weary horse to rest. Pulling Aragorn off the animal’s back and letting the young man fall to the ground, Dyryn tied the ranger’s hands tightly behind him, just to be cautious. Then he set about making camp and starting a small fire.

Aragorn felt cold. That’s all he was really aware of. Slowly he was coming back to himself... but when he opened his eyes it was more like a dream than waking. He couldn’t move. It wasn’t that he was bound, although he was, but he simply couldn’t move a muscle. Anywhere. He was still breathing, but other than that, the only motion he seemed to be able to control was the opening and closing of his eyes, and that only barely. His shoulder hurt. Hurt badly. For a few minutes he couldn’t figure out why. Then he remembered what had happened... the man on the horse, being shot... his mind jerked to awareness even if his body would not.

Where was he? Light snow was falling on him, landing on his face before it melted as he looked up into the frosty night sky. The stars seemed to be dancing... now they weren’t stars at all but dragons, chasing one another around and devouring each other up. The odd hallucinations danced before his eyes, and Aragorn blinked several times, trying to separate reality from delusion.

After everything else was taken care of, Dyryn knelt by Aragorn’s side, a hunting knife in his hand. He started slightly when he saw Aragorn’s open eyes fix on him. The young man should have been out cold for a lot longer than this. The ranger was a strong one to be progressing this fast, he was going to have to keep that in mind and he was going to have to watch him carefully.

"Well then..." the bounty hunter muttered, half to himself, half to his prisoner. "Awake already are we? But not moving yet? No, no I didn’t think so. That won’t come back for a while yet, neither will speech, which is just as well because I’ve got to get his arrow out of you and I don’t fancy any struggling or screaming."

Laying aside his knife for the moment, Dyryn gripped the arrow shaft protruding from Aragorn’s shoulder. "Too bad it doesn’t dull your senses any," he remarked before jerking upward on the arrow, attempting to wrench it out of the wound.

If Aragorn could have cried out, he would have. Agonizing pain shot through his injured shoulder as his captor tried to work the arrow backwards out of his flesh. Unfortunately the shaft of the arrow snapped first.

Dyryn threw the broken end aside with disgust. "’fraid that would happen," he muttered, picking up his knife once more. "Now I’ll have to do it the hard way. After all, can’t have you dying on me too soon."

Aragorn closed his eyes, his breath coming in ragged gasps. There was nothing else he could do. He felt the knife cut into him, working down to get the arrow head out, felt the white-hot pain slicing through his awareness, but he couldn’t react, he couldn’t even tense. The utter helplessness somehow made it hurt even worse.

When Dyryn had finally retrieved the arrowhead and bound up the wound, he was surprised to find that Aragorn was still conscious, although the human desperately wished he wasn’t. Dyryn eyed the captive as he cleaned the young ranger’s blood from his knife.

"Well you’re a hard case if I ever saw one. Next thing I know you’ll be trying to get up on me. Can’t have that..." Dyryn shook his head. "Maybe we’ll just have to have another little dose of belithral before bed," he chuckled darkly, knowing well the disturbing hallucinogenic properties of the drug. "To give you... sweet dreams."

 

___________________________________________________________

~*PART THREE*~

 

Legolas ran lightly across the top of the snow under the glittering mid-day sun. He had not stopped to rest last night and felt sure that he was gaining on the mysterious stranger who had taken Aragorn. The ground began to slope sharply upwards and he realized that he was already well into the foothills of the Misty Mountains. The man on horseback had tried to cover his tracks, but Legolas could see right through that and was not deceived.

He had already found where the ones he pursued had made camp last night and was now pressing forward, hoping to catch up very soon.

 

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

 

Dyryn had slowed his pace a little today, confident now that he was not being followed. Aragorn was draped over the front of his horse again, his hands bound behind him this time. The young ranger drifted in and out of awareness, but at the moment he was unconscious once more. Dyryn had no intention of carting him all the way across the mountains like this, but keeping him at least mildly drugged was not a bad idea. He feared that this one would be a handful if he ever got his full strength together. Evening was waning towards night once more and the mountains now rose under and around them in earnest.

Topping a small, narrow ridge, Dyryn happened to look over his shoulder. His eyes narrowing, he turned further back in the saddle, to see if his vision were playing tricks on him in the fading light. It was not.

Down below, a figure was coming this way, and it looked like the being was following Dyryn’s tracks.

The bounty hunter swore silently. He thought he had been careful, but the truth was, he had never dealt with elves in any great extent before. Casting his gaze forward as he urged his horse on he spied a long rope bridge that spanned a deep chasm in the rock face. He had been this way before, although he had not intended to have to take it now, with a horse and an unconscious prisoner, but he had a plan.

For a brief moment, Legolas saw the outline of a horse and rider up on the top of the ridge before they quickly disappeared. Pushing himself faster, the elf hurried up the side of the steep incline, his light, quick feet leaving barely any impression on the top of the snow.

When he made the lip of the rise, he saw Dyryn below on foot, leading his horse across a narrow, swaying rope bridge that connected this plateau with the next. It was extremely dangerous taking a horse across a bridge of this kind and someone had to be willing to take a lot of risks to do so. Across the horse’ back, another form was draped. And it was that form that the elf was concerned about.

Dyryn had to half coax, half beat his horse to get it to try the bridge, but it followed him in the end, and by the time he saw the elf come into view, he was already three quarters of the way across.

Legolas scrambled down the slippery, snow-slick escarpment that led to the bridge, trying to get there before the others made it across. Although it was old, the swaying pathway was sturdy enough. However, he had no doubts that the man ahead of him intended to cut the opposite end of the bridge once he was safely on the other side. There was no other reason to justify the risk the man was taking. There was also no way Legolas could jump a chasm this wide and finding another way around would take days.

The only thing that kept the elf from shooting the bounty hunter where he stood was the fact that the horse would probably panic if its master were killed, and in their current position, that would lead both the horse and Aragorn’s to their deaths.

Dyryn looked over his shoulder and swore. The elf had gained the bridge. He was going to have to change tactics again. Pulling his knife he yanked Aragorn’s limp head up by the hair, placing the blade against his throat.

"All right don’t move another step if you want him alive," he shouted, turning back towards Legolas and letting the elf see what he meant.

Legolas, already in the middle of the bridge, froze, glaring at the man, his fingers resting on the strings of the drawn bow in his hand. He could kill Dyryn, but that would still be putting Aragorn’s life in grave danger, and Dyryn knew it.

"Go ahead and shoot me if you want to risk it, but even if you’re faster than me, you know the slightest start is going to cause this brute to panic full out and I think you can imagine what a bucking horse would do here..." Dyryn warned the elf, slowly backing up as he spoke and pulling his skittish, nickering mount with him, his knife never leaving Aragorn’s throat.

Legolas stood still, following the man with his burning gaze. Dyryn was unfortunately right; he wouldn’t risk Aragorn’s life that way.

"Who are you? What do you want?" the elf demanded, his entire body tense, looking for an opportunity to act as Dyryn backed off the bridge and onto solid ground once more, dragging the horse with him. Aragorn’s head bobbed limply on the edge of the knife, his dark hair hanging about his face, flecked with snow.

"I don’t see as how that’s any of your business," Dyryn called back. "I won’t even ask the same of you... although I usually like to know a body’s name before I kill them, but with you, I’ll make an exception!"

With these words the horse’ feet cleared the last few inches of the bridge and with amazing quickness Dyryn dropped the knife from Aragorn’s throat, flashing down to slash one of the thick, supporting cables that held up the sides of the swinging overpass.

The bridge jerked crazily and Legolas slid sideways, his boots slipping and skidding on the snow-covered wood slats beneath his feet. There was no time to run. The prince was in the direct center of the bridge; there was no way he could make the safety of either side in time.

Therefore, Legolas did not waste precious seconds trying. Grabbing the thick cord that had been the right-hand railing, now made slack and useless by Dyryn’s actions, the elf twisted the wide rope around his right arm and wrist, grabbing it tightly with both hands as Dyryn severed the other railing support cable. The bridge jerked as the straining ropes snapped, flipping the floor of the bridge on its side.

Legolas fell to his knees and slid sideways across the tilting boards, unable to stop himself. His weight pulled the straining row of wood-slats over even further, tipping the scales and causing what was left of the groaning bridge to flip completely upside down. Legolas felt free air open out beneath him and registered a jolt of panic, even as his grip on the dangling railing tightened firmly.

Finishing what he started, Dyryn severed the last two cables that still fastened the floor of the ruined bridge.

With a sickening, stomach-turning jolt, Legolas felt himself free-falling with the now useless tangle of rope and wood as it plummeted downward into the gorge. The ropes around his arm jerked tight, keeping him bound up with the bridge as it rushed down and to the side, swinging like a giant pendulum towards the other cliff wall to which it was still fastened.

Legolas gave a soft, stifled cry when the ropes pulled tight; the shock of the jolt nearly yanking his shoulder out of its socket as his full weight hung from one arm. The rock face of the far cliff was rushing up to meet him and there was nothing he could do about the impending impact.

The force with which he slammed into the jagged stone wall stole the elf prince’s breath and for a few moments the world was painted in shades of hazy yellow and black as his lungs fought to expand again and his body screamed at him as though he had been punched by a stone giant.

He started to slip, but quickly caught himself, gripping the ropes still wrapped around his arm tightly and bracing his feet against the sheer wall in front of him, attempting to get some purchase.

Untwisting his arm from the ropes and grabbing the wooden slats that had once been the floor of the bridge, Legolas used them like a ladder, beginning to climb up the long, long distance to the top of the cliff from which he had come moments before. Suddenly he felt a shiver run through the boards under his hands. Put under too much stress at an angle they were not meant to support, the ropes still fastened to the rocks above were fraying on the sharp edge of the cliff and slowly beginning to unwind. Every time the elf prince moved, the cables scraped back and forth across the razor rocks, further severing the bridge’s tenuous hold.

Legolas stopped moving and held perfectly still; hugging the bridge as it swayed gently in the wind which whipped through the narrow gorge. Even that much motion made him slip a little further down as the groaning ropes continued to stretch perilously.

The prince quickly realized he’d never be able to reach the top before the straining cables gave way. Looking down he saw the snow-clad bottom of the ravine many, many feet below. It was nearly as far away as the top of the cliff, but having to choose one or the other, it was a better risk to try putting himself as close as possible to the ground before the bridge came down completely.

Changing his course of direction, the elf started climbing down as fast as he could, the bridge shuddering and jerking ominously under his hands. He was still dangerously high up when the straining cables finally gave way. Once again Legolas found himself free-falling through the frosty air. No matter how many times something like that may happen, one can never be completely prepared for it. The deep, deep snowdrifts at the base of the ravine cushioned the force of his landing somewhat, but only a little.

Legolas did not remember the actual moment of impact, but only the sensation of opening his eyes a few minutes later and wondering if his body even remembered how to breathe. It was the second time he had had the wind knocked out of him in the past few moments, but this time it seemed as if he were physically incapable of inhaling. It was an odd, surreal feeling. He wasn’t breathing, but his body was not afraid; it simply seemed as if time had stopped, like a river frozen in the midst of its course. Snow had fallen down over him, and its icy stillness was almost absolute. The odd, over-quietness that snow produces by soaking up and dampening the other sounds around added to the disconcerting effect.

How long that moment lasted he would never know, but reality came rushing back with a jolt as his lungs expanded spasmodically. He found himself gulping in air as feeling came flooding back to his body. He instantly wished it had not.

Stifling a moan, the elf slowly pulled himself upright and onto his hands and knees, half-crawling, half-digging his way out of the loose snow-mound he had fallen into. If there was some part of his body that didn’t ache, he did not know what it was. It was truly a miracle that nothing had been broken, or at least, he didn’t think anything had been. However, wrapping his throbbing right arm around his midsection as he shook the snow out of his clothes and hair, he decided that he had most definitely sprained his arm and bruised at least a few ribs.

Taking a deep breath to clear his head, Legolas looked up at the crooked ribbon of sky that marked the top of the canyon, far overhead. He truly was lucky to be alive, but it was going to take him at least two or three days to make it out of this ravine and back up there. The elf held his frustration only barely in check. That was precious time he could ill afford to lose.

Dark shapes moving against the snow made the elf prince turn quickly to the right. Lurking in the shadows of the far wall, two or three dozen sets of glowing eyes regarded the stranger who had fallen into their den.

Legolas tensed, his good left hand going immediately over his shoulder, reaching for his quiver, only to realize that he had lost his bow when the bridge was cut, and most of his arrows in the fall. Fortunately, his knives were still in their sheaths, and he grabbed one of those instead as the burning eyes stalked closer, circling him. White fangs glistened in the shadows as the beasts came closer.

The prince’s eyes narrowed as he gripped his weapon with his uninjured arm. Just what he did not need. Wolves.

 

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

 

Aragorn shivered uncontrollably, but at least it meant he could move again. The belithral was slowly wearing off, leaving him weak and dizzy as it reluctantly eased up on its hold.

Laying on his side by the fire, hands still bound, Aragorn forced his hazy mind to work, attempting to find any opportunity to escape. None presented itself.

"Rest up while you can," Dyryn kicked him lightly as he walked by. "I’m not going to wear out a good horse carrying us both like this. Tomorrow you start pulling your own weight, got it?" He was relieved to have lost the elf earlier that evening. Now that that threat was gone, they could afford to move a little slower and not place so much stress on his mount.

"Who are you?" Aragorn was blinking hard just to keep his eyes focused. "What do you want with me?"

Dyryn ignored him completely and only the lonely howl of the wind gave any reply.

"Where are we going?" Aragorn tried again, although darkness was already pulling at his senses again.

"Over the mountains," Dyryn replied, looking ahead into the swiftening swirl of falling snow.

For a few moments, Aragorn’s mind registered what a dangerous idea that was at this time of year and in this weather, but protesting would have done no good, and he was too weary anyway. The blowing wind gently lifted his consciousness and swirled it away with the eddying flurries.

Somewhere far in the distance. A wolf howled.

 

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

 

Legolas’ breath was coming quick and fast, frosting in the dark, biting air. Run. Fight. Run. Fight. The past few hours had been nothing but a struggle to survive. The wolves knew this canyon better than he did; this was their home. Every turn he took to get away from them, only brought him up against impossible rock walls or more wolves.

If he had had his bow, this would have been significantly less of a problem. However, the fact was that with only his knives, he could not get rid of any of the wolves attacking him unless they actually got close enough to reach, and by the time they were that close, he was in trouble.

The elf was wearying. His right arm was clumsy and useless and his hurting body was betraying him. Although he was leaving a trail of dead wolf bodies in his wake, it seemed that two new ones appeared to replace every one that was fallen. He had to get out of here.

Turning a corner, Legolas found himself trapped in a narrow box canyon, the walls slanting steeply upward. The wolves were right on his heels. One snapped at his ankles, trying to trip him, trying to bring him down. Legolas spun to the opposite side, kicking the brute hard and making it fall back with a howl.

Suddenly an unexpected weight made him lurch sideways as pain blossomed across his unprotected right shoulder. Jerking and whipping himself around much faster than his injured body liked, Legolas threw off the beast that had jumped down on him from the rocks above, wincing as its teeth were ripped out of his shoulder. In one swift move he pinned the creature to the wall with his blade.

The elf staggered almost drunkenly as he pulled his knife free. Warm blood was running down his arm and his body was screaming at him that he was very nearly spent.

The wolves, frenzied by the scent of fresh blood, pressed their attack closer. Legolas retreated as far as he could, putting his back against the wall, but he knew he could not hold this position forever. Already another wolf was attempting to climb the narrow ledges in the cliff face on the right, wanting to drop down on him from above as the other one had.

Legolas steeled his jaw against his own weakness. If the wolves could make it up there... he risked another glance at the wall behind him. It slanted up sharply, but was not entirely perpendicular. There were handholds, however slight they may seem... it was his only chance.

With no other choice, Legolas sprang upward, grabbing a handful of rock and earth, clinging tightly to the face of the steep incline and scrabbling even higher towards the top of the ravine. The wolves howled in rage, leaping up to snap at his boots. One caught the leather around his ankle, trying to jerk the elf back down.

Legolas grimaced as the vicious tug yanked him backward, straining his injured arm and making his hold on the slippery stones slide sharply.

Kicking out and down as hard as he could with his other leg, Legolas caught the beast in the eyes, knocking him back to the ground.

Forcing his bleeding, burning shoulder to work much harder and faster than it wanted to, the prince scrabbled up higher, out of the reach of the wolves below before allowing himself to rest for a moment once more.

This cliff was too steep for the wolves to climb, although they tried the walls nearby in a futile attempt to reach their fleeing prey.

Legolas looked up. The rock face he was climbing disappeared from sight in the darkness above. Closing his eyes he hugged the cliff, trying to gather his depleted strength. His right shoulder was sending him urgent warnings that it was not going to support him much longer, and his right hand was trembling, but the only choice he had was to keep going up. Gritting his jaw and pushing himself on, Legolas kept climbing; seeking out the shallow, slippery notches that barely supported even his light weight.

The long climb was a nightmare. When Legolas finally dragged himself up over the lip of the rise he just lay still on his back in the snow for a few minutes, breathing deep and looking up at the stars visible through the mouth of the canyon. Although it felt like he had been climbing for hours, he had in fact only worked his way up to another level of the gorge he had had fallen into.

Slowly rolling onto his side and sitting up, Legolas held his bleeding shoulder tightly. It was stinging fiercely and the pain was making him woozy. Struggling to his feet he took refuge in a small knoll nearby. Blood continued to seep between his fingers as he sank down with his back against the wall.

More gracefully than one would have thought possible for working one-handed, Legolas managed to clean and bind the wound, using the remainder of the bandage to hold the injured limb against his chest in a makeshift sling. His arm was not dislocated, he would have recognized that feeling, but the strained tendons and torn muscles burned almost as badly as the wolf bite. He was going to have to rest for a little to give his body a chance to start recovering before he could move on. The prince was spent; he could go no further tonight. In the morning, he would start finding a way out of the gorge.

Pulling his knees up to his chest and curling lightly over his injured arm and ribs with his back still against the wall, Legolas let himself drift off into a light, healing sleep. Keeping his slumber shallow enough that he would have plenty of advance warning should anything else decide to go wrong this night.

 

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

 

"All right, rise and shine," Dyryn said with malicious over-cheerfulness. Dragging Aragorn to his feet and removing the ropes that bound his ankles, but leaving the ones that tightly held his hands bound in front of him.

Aragorn steeled his jaw and resisted the urge to throw up. He felt as if he had the world’s worst hangover and his head was three times too large for his body. He was alert and aware all the same however, and as the bounty hunter turned to pick up another length of rope to connect the ranger’s bound wrists to the saddle of his horse he made a critical mistake. He turned his back on Aragorn.

Bringing his fists down hard between Dyryn’s shoulder blades, Aragorn knocked the man to his knees, attempting to grab the knife from the bounty hunter’s belt.

Dyryn reacted with speed that unfortunately did him credit. Grabbing Aragorn’s ankle, he yanked the young man’s feet out from under him. The two of them tussled in the snow and Dyryn attempted to pin the younger man underneath him. Aragorn smashed his fists into the side of the bounty hunter’s head, backpedaling swiftly in the snow and scooting on his back, attempting to work around the fact that his hands were still bound. His movements were slowed by the lingering affects of the drugs he had been given and his heart pounded unnaturally fast at the exertion, doing nothing to aide his lightheadedness.

Pulling his knife, Dyryn slashed at the ranger, driving him further back in the snow and making his movements more urgent. Aragorn dodged the sweeping thrusts, scooting on his elbows and trying to shake his assailant off, but with his hands tied tightly together like they were and Dyryn giving him no time to do anything but dodge, he could not get up and so his options were limited.

Dyryn purposefully punched the young man right over his arrow wound, making Aragorn’s world reel with pain. It was only a momentary distraction, but unfortunately it was enough. The bounty hunter got his knife up against the side of Aragorn’s neck, pressing down sharply.

"Quit it now kid! You’re worth more to me alive than dead, but you’re still worth something dead, so don’t push your luck!" he threatened harshly.

Reluctantly, Aragorn stopped struggling. Frustration welled inside him and he silently vowed this was a temporary defeat only. Dyryn saw that resolve in his eyes and scowled deeply.

A sharp blow across the face caught Aragorn by surprise, knocking his head back into the snow and making him taste blood. A second, vicious blow split the ranger’s lip. Aragorn tried to twist away from the unexpected abuse, but Dyryn knelt on his bound arms, sitting on him and pinning the ranger down as he hit him a few more times for good measure, pounding him until Aragorn stopped resisting. His head felt like it was spinning and he was seeing double.

"I see you’re going to be a trouble-maker," the bounty hunter growled, wiping his own bleeding mouth, his eyes burning with anger at the trouble his captive had given him. "I guess maybe I will give you a little something to keep you sedated after all."

Anchoring the ranger’s bound wrists firmly with one hand Dyryn used the other to push Aragorn’s sleeve up his arm. Without moving his weight off of the ranger’s chest, the bounty hunter cut a small line in the crook of Aragorn’s elbow, administering the belithral to the wound on the end of a wadded rag. He only gave a little this time however, because he still wanted Aragorn to be able to move, he just intended to take a little of the fight out of him, not incapacitate the ranger as he had in the past.

The drug was no less fast-acting than ever and Aragorn could actually feel it racing through his system. It turned his stomach and sped up his heart as he felt his limbs become leaden. He closed his eyes against the odd, disturbing things that it made him see. Ogres and fairies and strange, commonplace things that just made no sense.

Dyryn dragged Aragorn to his feet and pulled him back towards camp. Tightly tying a second length of rope around those that already bound the young ranger’s wrists; Dyryn finished fastening the other end to the saddle of his horse.

Aragorn was struggling just to breathe and stay on his feet, swaying unsteadily.

Dyryn looked back over his shoulder with a cruel smile. "Don’t worry kid, when I’m through with you, you won’t have enough energy left to cry, let alone try anything like that again," he promised.

 

___________________________________________________________

~*PART FOUR*~

 

"Keep up damn it!" Dyryn snapped harshly, giving the rope tied to his saddle horn a hard pull. Thus far he had made more than good on his threat to keep Aragorn too run-out to think of anything but trying to put one foot in front of the other. And sometimes even that seemed too hard.

Aragorn stumbled forward through the snow, falling to his knees in the chilly drift when the bounty hunter’s vicious tug jerked on the already taught line between his bound wrists and the horse. The chafing of the rope and Dyryn’s constant abuse over the course of the past three days had rubbed the young ranger’s wrists raw.

Aragorn’s pants and boots were already soaked through from the snow which had melted against his body heat and then refrozen in the biting air, making his legs and feet so painfully numb he could barely even feel them anymore.

Dyryn kicked his horse in the sides, spurring the beast forward at a quick trot and dragging the hapless young man behind him through the snow until Aragorn managed to get his feet under him again and stagger along on his own once more.

The young ranger’s whole body felt sluggish and moving was tremendously difficult. The drug Dyryn was keeping him on made every movement require an extreme act of will. Sometimes even breathing seemed hard.

Aragorn fell again, snow filling his eyes and mouth as he scrambled up knowing Dyryn would not wait nor slow his pace for the struggling captive. The young ranger spit the biting frost out of his mouth, his teeth chattering. The snow was stained crimson. His split lip from days ago was still bleeding. It should have closed up and healed already, but the cold was slowing his body’s healing abilities and the belithral was somehow thinning his blood and preventing the clotting that should normally occur. The cold ice that he could not wipe away from his eyes and face burned his exposed skin like fire. It was ironic how cold could burn like this.

Aragorn’s world was one long, unending frozen hell as he stumbled along after Dyryn’s horse as best he could. He couldn’t see right anymore and the drugs were slowly robbing him of the ability to even think straight. Whiteness, that’s all there was, miles and miles of unending white humps and dips. White, cold and wind. The wind had quickly become the young human’s worst enemy. It never seemed to let up, always blowing in his face until he was not only frozen but burned by the wind and his eyes stung mercilessly.

That night they struck camp in a narrow gully that was mostly sheltered from the worst of the wind, although the cold was only getting worse as night approached. Aragorn sank to the ground in exhaustion when they stopped.

Dyryn untied the younger man from his lead-line to the horse, and grabbing Aragorn’s still-bound wrists, he dragged the ranger roughly over to the high stone wall that shielded one side of their campsite. Aragorn struggled with him, attempting to fight back, attempting to break free, but he was too exhausted, and the drug in his system still too potent to render his efforts useful. Honestly, he wasn’t even sure why he tried, except that to give up would mean a kind of submission that he was not ready to give.

Dyryn swore at him and backhanded the young man sharply across the face, throwing him against the rough stone wall. Dully, Aragorn wondered if that’s why his lip was still bleeding, because Dyryn kept hitting him.

Pressing his captive’s back against the cold cliff face and yanking the Dùnadan’s arms above his head, Dyryn securely tied Aragorn’s hands around one of the thick, curling roots that held the rock face together.

"That ought to hold you," the bounty hunter gave the bloodstained ropes one last, vicious tug, eliciting a grimace of pain from his captive. Leaving Aragorn there, Dyryn moved off to build a fire.

The warmth was welcome, and Aragorn pulled against the binds that held him, trying to get a bit closer to the circle of warmth emanating off the flames. His body was frozen through and his teeth chattering without his consent. Every fiber of his being ached with the extreme cold that permeated it.

Dyryn ate his supper, but did not offer any to his captive. At this point however, Aragorn was too sick to his stomach from the drugs in his system to eat anyway. All he wanted was warmth. He still wore the clothes he had been in when he was taken, but they were stiff now with snow and ice from having to forge or be dragged through the deep snow up here in the mountains.

The ranger watched his captor with dark, burning eyes. "Why?" he wanted to know, his voice hoarse from the cold. "Why are you doing this? Where are we going? Who *are* you?" He could understand no reason for this man he didn’t know to be treating him in this manner. And where was the logic behind attempting the High Pass over the Misty Mountains in the dead of the worst winter these parts had seen in the young Dùnadan’s lifetime? He wanted to understand why he was being made to suffer like this and by whom.

At first Aragorn thought the man would ignore him again, but this time Dyryn shrugged, and raised an eyebrow. "Dyryn. And this is nothing personal kid. I do what I get paid to do. You’ve got a rather large price on your head and I mean to collect on it. You’re not an easy person to find I hope you realize. It’s taken me this long just to figure out where you got to. You don’t think I’d try this trek through hell if I could afford to wait for better weather do you?" the man laughed without mirth. "But it’ll all be worth it when we get there... for me anyway. I don’t think he’s got any good plans for you." The half-dwarf’s grin turned cruel again as he fingered a thin leather wallet in his inner pocket. He had in fact gotten quite a nice up-front advance to work with, but that would be nothing compared to the payoff when he delivered. But time was running short. It had taken much longer to hunt the ranger down than he had thought and getting to him when he was actually vulnerable enough to capture had been even harder.

Aragorn blinked in shock. Who could have put a bounty on him large enough to warrant all this trouble? Why? "W-what? Who?"

"Someone who says you owe them a debt payable in blood," Dyryn rather enjoyed taunting his captive like this. "Who thinks you deserve... how did he put it...? ‘A death worthy of a thousand screams’. Kind of poetic don’t you think?"

Aragorn recognized that phrase. He could still hear it being screamed at him over and over as Elladan and Elrohir hurried him away from the distraught man kneeling on the ground... Closing his eyes he let his head fall back against the wall behind him.

"Mannyn," he whispered. He should have known... yet he had nearly forgotten all about it. It seemed so long ago after everything that had happened since. "I didn’t mean for what happened to happen like it did," he said softly, although he doubted that Dyryn cared. He was right.

"That’s none of my nevermind," the bounty hunter shrugged. "All I’m interested in is delivering you and getting my pay. But I’ll tell you one thing, if the price he’s willing to pay to get his hands on you is any indication, I’d say that you’re in for an interesting time when you get there."

Aragorn didn’t reply. Knowing now who wanted him and why did not really make him feel any better at all. He let his head hang forward, shivering in the cold, cold air. It was ironic, because if he was being taken to Mannyn, then they would be passing quite near Rivendell, and yet unless something changed, no one might ever know what had happened to him.

He felt very alone as the freezing night settled down upon him once more. Was anyone even looking for him? And if they were, would they ever find him?

 

~*~

Like swirling snow the years blow away towards the future...

...80 years later –

Following the return of the Palantir to Orthanc...

~*~

 

It had taken the king and his companions well into a fortnight to uncover all the treasures that Orthanc held in its depth and to clean out the tower of the residual evil that hadn’t quite left. When they had completed their tasks the dark spire was airy and its foreboding presence had been wiped away. The orc pits below had been forever sealed over with Gimli’s expert help and the ground had been restored, bereft of the dark scarring it had withstood under Saruman’s occupation.

Aragorn had ordered that their camp be stricken and moved out to the plains beyond Isengard. Removing to a plateau that sat on the edge of a cliff they had stationed their sleeping pallets and tents for the evening.

Woods bracketed their left and raced up to the edge of the cliff reaching out over it. To their right the plains dropped gracefully out of sight, painted with the cooling tones of the setting sun. The meadow was cut through by a small winding steam that led back into the darkening woods.

"We brought no wood with us from Isengard and the sun dips low in the sky, it will be cool tonight." Jonath approached his king, "The men have already scouted the surrounding areas. There is plenty of wood on the forest floor and the land about us is safe. Shall I send the men out to retrieve enough wood for the firepits?"

Aragorn stood from where he sat perched on a fallen log quietly teaching Eldarion about fletching arrows. Before he could respond, the dark haired boy at his side jumped up and answered excitedly, "Yes, let us go! I would see the land! There is a stream nearby through the forest."

"Eldarion," the king smiled down at the over-eagerness he recognized in his son, "Jonath was speaking to me. The men will go out and return with wood you will stay here and finish with your lessons." Turning to the captain of his guard, Aragorn smiled ruefully, "Yes Jonath, please send the men out, we will need fires tonight to keep us warm."

He glanced back at the disappointed look that Eldarion quickly turned to the ground beneath his feet.

Gimli sat nearby on an old stump, contentedly smoking his pipe. "I’ll take the boy out to fetch firewood if you like." He spoke up from his perch motioning at the disappointed child with his pipe. "It’d be good to stretch these legs of mine. Sitting tires me." He grumped loudly, easing into a standing position.

"Really?" Eldarion turned hopeful, begging eyes on his father, "May I? Please Ada? I’ll be fine with Uncle Gimli."

"Aye, that he will." The dwarf boasted as Aragorn eyed the smaller being with a glower.

"And your lessons? What of them? What will you do when you need to fletch your own arrows?" Aragorn laid a hard stare on the youth.

With an impish smile Eldarion glanced over at Legolas who was sharpening the edge of one of his hunting knives near their sleeping mats. The elf’s sharp ears caught the answer and he stopped what he was doing, glancing at the small group that was watching him intently.

"Do not drag me into your plea bargains with your father!" The elf pointed the tip of his blade at the boy, "I have enough trouble all on my own with that one."

Aragorn laughed lightly before staring back down at the boy near his side.

"Please?" Eldarion was tired of sitting and lessons, he wanted to be out and about.

"You say your men scouted the area? And we are safe?" The king glanced sidelong at Jonath who only nodded in answer. With a deep sigh he turned his attention back to his son who had already anticipated his answer and ran over to stand next to Gimli, excitedly telling the dwarf about the stream he had found earlier.

"Very well, very well lad." Gimli, pressed his hands palm out towards the boy, waving off his excitement, "The sun is still a fair ways into the sky, it won't drop for a bit. If you father says ‘yes’ we’ll go." With a stubborn smile the small being placed his hands on his hips and stared up at Aragorn, "What say you, father?"

Rolling his eyes and admitting his defeat, the king threw his hands in the air and shook his head. "If we are safe I see no harm in it. But stay near the stream’s edge and do not venture far into the forest. At least if we have to we can track you there."

"Bah," The dwarf waved him off, "We’ll be fine." He hefted his axe up onto his shoulder and winked at Legolas who was watching the whole exchange with barely contained mirth, "No one will mess with this dwarf!" That said he draped his arm over the boy’s shoulder and steered them both out of camp, asking where it was that Eldarion had seen this stream of his.

Jonath looked at the king, raising one eyebrow in question.

"No, let them go." Aragorn glanced from his captain to Legolas, "He’s safe with Gimli. But you," and he turned and pointed at the elf, "I had better not catch you ever helping him to cheat with his lessons!"

Legolas feigned innocence, placing his hand dramatically over his heart as though he could not believe he had been accused of such a thing.

"Right." The king turned away from him and proceeded to send the soldiers out to scour the area for wood. He doubted that wood-collecting was going to end up very high on the list of things that Gimli and his son were up to if Eldarion had any say in the matter. Walking calmly over to where Legolas sat, he dropped down next to the elf on his sleeping pallet.

"He’s growing up quickly."

"They always do." Legolas answered softly, letting his gaze momentarily linger on his old friend. He quietly went back to his work as Aragorn watched the dwarf and the human child leave the plains following winding stream through the forest.

~*~

This was perfect. A silent, hidden figure watched intently as the dwarf and the boy walked downstream towards his trap. He had anticipated the soldiers setting up camp here; the meadow was the perfect spot for such a large contingent of people. A dark, wicked smile crept onto the man’s face and if anyone had been able to see his countenance beneath the hood he constantly wore, they would have shuddered at the sight.

Honestly, he had wanted the elf or the one they called their king, but this was even better, for the elf and his human companion were ever surrounded by an entourage of guards or soldiers, always someone to get in the way. And truly he had no idea how he would be able to subdue the elf; that had been hard enough when he was a young man. He was getting on in years now and hunting wasn’t as easy as it used to be. But this...

A soft croak of a laugh escaped his lips, causing the two men who were with him to glance his way questioningly.

...this was even better. This would work. In fact...

He grabbed the man nearest him, and whispering instructions quickly into the younger hunter’s ear, he shoved him back towards their hidden camp, back towards the glen he had discovered earlier. A plan formed in his mind in a matter of seconds and he motioned with his hand to the other that attended him. It was time, their long waited trap was ready to be sprung and it would be even easier than he had hoped.

The dark hooded shadow moved silently off to his left, as his companion splashed quickly across the stream, on the far side of a bend in the river, hidden from the sight of their prey.

Now...all they had to do was wait and let the fools come to them.

~*~

Eldarion bent and picked up a smooth round stone from the edge of the stream. Stepping lightly forward he launched the rock at the rippled surface of the river, bouncing the stone across its glittering surface twice before it sank into the small waves it had created.

"You know the last time anyone threw rocks into the water, your father was there cautioning them on how unwise it was to do so." Gimli glanced out of the corner of his eyes at the boy who had picked up another rock and was preparing to skip it also. "It’s not wise to wake what lives under the water." The dwarf spoke softly, his voice held a slightly mocking undertone as though the very stream itself could hear him. He bent and picked up another good-sized piece of wood for the fires tonight, placing it precariously on top of the small load he carried. He had attached his double headed axe to his belt to free his hands up, convinced they were safe so near to camp.

With a laugh Eldarion dropped the stone and stacked another dead branch in his uncle’s arms. "Oh yes, he told me that one. Watchers in the deep!" The youth crouched and glanced around them acting skitterish and wary before laughing out loud once more.

"You would do well to listen to your father!" Gimli warned although his laughter gave him away, "I was there you know, in fact..."

The dwarf’s words were cut off as movement caught his attention. He had continued walking up the river as Eldarion stooped to fetch another rock. "What now?" He questioned as an arrow flew past him, barely missing him, its tip embedded into the trunk of a tree on his left. At his distraction a figure darted out from the forest and quickly grabbed the young prince around the waist before he had time to stand up. "Eldarion!"

A gnarled, weathered hand, twisted and unusually mal-formed, wrapped around Eldarion’s mouth, restricting him from crying out in alarm as another arm snaked quickly around his waist, pinning his right arm to his side.

Gimli started forward but was stopped as the man whirled around to face him.

"I don’t think so." The kidnapper was clothed in a hooded cloak that concealed his face, but it was the weapon he brandished that stopped the dwarf’s heart. The man held a knife in the hand that he was using to hold the boy still and he turned the blade inward so that it pressed underneath the young man’s ribs. "Wouldn’t want me to gut him in front of you now would you?" Their attacker’s voice was rough and held the slightest bit of an accent. Gimli was certain he recognized the lilt.

Eldarion’s eyes went wide and he stopped struggling as he felt the blade tip bite into his flesh.

The Dwarf dropped his stack of wood, his gloved hands drifting towards the weapon at his side.

"I wouldn’t," the man holding Eldarion warned. Glancing quickly behind the dwarf the man motioned with his chin up the river, "You have other things to be worried about rock lover."

A rending, tearing sound assaulted his ears and Gimli turned quickly pulling his axe up ready to face what enemy was bearing down on him. The light had all but faded from the sky by now and he realized with a start it was darker than he would have liked. Stepping forward his right boot toe caught under the lip of a rock whose base was firmly submerged in the wet dirt at the streams edge. Unable to free his shoe without taking too much attention away from the unknown threat, he glanced wildly around him; the sound of something approaching through the air grew.

From out of the dim haze of the growing night a large thick cylinder bore down on the dwarf, catching him across the chest and throwing him hard to the ground, rolling him off his balance and smacking forcefully into his chin before continuing its arc through the night sky. Gimli’s axe was wrenched from his hand and his head impacted the rocky floor of the streambed. Before he passed out a cry of pain broke from the dwarf’s lips as his foot, still caught beneath the rock twisted hard. The force of the blow snapped him back so viciously that his right leg snapped under the stress created by his boot being trapped.

Eldarion tried to scream Gimli’s name in horror, but the hand over his mouth did not let him. The man that held the young prince tightly to him laughed wickedly. His gaze moved away from the downed body as the thick timber they had used to incapacitate the dwarf swung back into view once more.

"Nice trap don’t you think?" He turned the prince’s head sharply, forcing the boy to look in the direction he wanted him to. "Amazing what you can learn over years of hunting people, hmm?"

Earlier, anticipating their prey, they had cut down a large tree with a good thick trunk. Suspending the barrel of the tree over the river by tying it off in the massive branches of the woods that lined the stream they had pulled it back and up until it hung suspended horizontally over the water feet above the head of anyone who should happen by. Held in place by ropes, they had waited until Gimli and Eldarion had reached the right spot and then at the perfect moment had released the tension on the lines that kept it aloft. It swung free now over the prone body of the dwarf, its arc lessening with each pass.

Fear spiked through Eldarion. Surely no one had been able to hear Gimli’s cry. He wasn’t even sure how far from camp they were, he had not been keeping track. The young prince struggled desperately against the man who held him and had almost gotten loose of the hunter’s constricting arms when the tip of an arrow dug into the underside of his chin.

"Calm down kid. You’ll live longer."

The prince glanced up into the dark eyes of a man who was as tall as his father but not as old as the king. The hunter tapped the edge of the crossbow bolt against the boy’s throat as the man who held him slipped a gag over his head preventing him from crying out. He tried to turn away as they silenced him but the sharp arrow bit into his skin and he stopped thrashing.

"Better do as Kolir says," the first man, still holding Eldarion, rasped wickedly as they pulled the gag tight, nearly making the boy choke. "He gets nasty when people give him trouble."

With the boy unable to speak, the hooded hunter swiftly tied the prince’s hands together in front of him with a thick corded rope. Looping another rope around those he tied the boy off to himself, cording the length around his left hand. He grabbed Eldarion’s right hand wrenching it painfully palm up and drew the edge of his knife deeply and deliberately into the soft flesh. Red blood welled instantly around the edges of the steel, pooling in the young man’s hand.

Eldarion cried out, but with the gag in his mouth the sound was more of a muted, strangled cry. He tried to pull away, his knees buckling slightly underneath him, but the man that had caught him would not let him go. Instead he cruelly forced Eldarion’s wounded hand into a tight fist. The blood dripped between the prince’s fingers as his own fingernails were pressed into the knife wound.

A soft groan escaped Eldarion’s lips much to his captor’s amusement. A rasping, mirthless laugh came from beneath the dark hood as the man lead the boy away into the woods, his companion bringing up the rear should anyone follow or should the prince try to escape.

Eldarion tried to turn, attempting to see Gimli through the growing gloom, he wasn’t even sure the dwarf was still alive and he feared that no one would find him in time to help them. Surely his father would come looking for them when they didn’t return. Uncle Gimli just had to be alive; he tried to convince himself... he couldn’t stand to think otherwise. The tall hunter who walked behind him shoved him forward roughly.

"Just walk."

As they headed farther from camp Eldarion’s panic grew. At one point he had attempted to break free of the man that led him away from the stream and towards the edge of the plateau. His failed escape earned him a swift, vicious blow to the head. The wooden pommel of the crossbow smacked the young boy forcefully, causing spots to dance in front of his eyes. He found himself complying with his kidnappers’ demands to stave off further abuse and followed the men on unsteady feet.

Once they had descended to the foot of the wide ravine that ran the length of the plateau, his captor turned and once more forcibly made the boy tighten his wounded hand into a fist. Eldarion winced and held back a moan of pain. Fresh blood spilled down from the wound and the man took the boy’s bound wrist, purposefully shaking the red liquid down upon the ground.

"They’ll see that plain as day." The tall, quiet man behind them growled.

His hooded companion glanced up at him; he smiled in the dark knowing no one could see his countenance, "I am hoping that they do." He smirked before walking off and jerking the boy after him.

Behind Eldarion, Kolir pressed the crossbow into the youth’s back and shoved him on with a cruel laugh as they walked through the darkened forest away from the soldier’s encampment. He was surprised; they had actually gotten away with it. They had actually managed to capture the King’s son. Perhaps his employer truly was the famed hunter he claimed to be. For the money they were being paid to help with this, Kolir supposed that the old hunter could be anyone he wanted to be, but still, when it came to royal kidnappings... it was be comforting to know that an incredibly clever mind was at work. Just how clever this plan was going to prove yet remained to be seen, but if today was any indication... well, tomorrow would tell. Tomorrow would tell.

 

___________________________________________________________

~*PART FIVE*~

 

Aragorn glanced back towards the woods once more. Night would soon be upon them and still Eldarion and Gimli had not returned. His movements slowed as his worry mounted. Surely they should have returned by now. He stilled his hands altogether, dropping his sword down lightly into his lap, the burnishing cloth all but forgotten.

"You think they should have returned by now?" Legolas’ quiet voice broke through his thoughts.

Jumping slightly and turning back towards the elf, Aragorn glanced behind his friend, noting the brightly burning fires that dotted the camp. He nodded slowly. "I do."

Legolas’ soft laughter caught his attention and he glared at the elf.

"You." The woodland prince answered the unspoken question, "You make me laugh. You are every bit like your father. I have seen that very scowl on his face when he worried over you."

"Legolas." The word came out as a growl but the man laughed. He looked once more to the wooded stream.

"That’s it, let's go see what keeps that dwarf from returning your son in a timely manner. Your worry is driving me to distraction." Legolas sheathed his own blades and started walking towards the edge of the woods.

"My lord?" Jonath’s voice cut through their escape and Aragorn flinched visibly before turning back towards camp. The former ranger wondered if he were ever going to get used to having people follow him around like this. He would have thought that he should have grown accustomed to it by now, but the truth was he had not.

"We are going to go see what has become of Gimli and my son. They have not yet returned from gathering wood along the streams edge." The king explained quickly. In truth he welcomed his guard at this point, although he often found Jonath’s protectiveness suffocating. The sun had fled the sky and night had thrown her cloak upon the earth robing it in darkness.

Without a second thought, Jonath stood from the ring of men seated not far from their king, grabbing a flaming branch from the fire in front of him, he passed it to another soldier. In moments he had mustered a small contingent armed with swords and torches that surrounded the king and the elf and fanned out on either side of stream’s bed, walking down its length and looking for the two lost members of their party.

The further they got from camp the more serious they all became and the more their worry mounted. Gimli should have brought Eldarion back long ago. It was dark now, there was no justifiable reason for them to be out this late unless they were lost or... or worse.

Legolas saw him first. A small cry of dismay escaped his lips as he spied Gimli’s fallen form. He ran quickly, outdistancing his companions, his eyes easily adjusted to the darkness. He braced his hand on the beam that swung lightly over the dwarf’s fallen body. He had heard of traps like this but only when used on prey you wished to injure or kill. Dropping lightly down beside the dwarf he tried to rouse his friend. "Gimli? Gimli!"

"Jonath!" Aragorn called to his guard, "Over here quickly!" The soldiers on the far side of the river plowed through the water, lending their light to that of the ones who had gathered round the injured dwarf.

Dropping down next to Legolas, Aragorn grabbed the torch that was offered to him by the nearest soldier and swept its light across the small, prone body. Lightly touching the elf’s arm, the king stopped his friend from his frantic attempts to revive the dwarf.

"He lives." The elf whispered with a sigh of relief, cradling the dwarf’s head gently in his lap and smoothing the short being’s wiry hair away from his face.

"Legolas." Aragorn held the torch above Gimli’s broken leg, his boot toe was still wedged at an odd angle beneath the rock that had tripped him up. "His leg is broken. Do not wake him, it would be best if we set it before he is conscious."

"Who would do this?" Legolas shook his head, anger welling inside him at the injuries his dwarven friend had taken.

Aragorn stood swiftly to his feet, frantically looking around them, "Where is Eldarion?" He scanned the edges of the forest trying to find tracks that led away from the stream but the soldiers that surrounded them had walked on top of the fresh prints adding their own to the jumbled mix of signals and obscuring Eldarion’s tracks.

Aragorn pushed the men away with swift hurried motions, brushing the light of his torch across the soft sand that formed the river’s edge. In the darkness it was difficult to see which tracks were new and if any were old or child sized.

"I cannot find his tracks!" Aragorn turned swiftly to his captain, "Jonath, have the men fan out, he must be here somewhere."

With a quick nod the captain of the guard began sending his men into the surrounding forests to look for any signs. Swallowing his fears, Aragorn stepped back to Gimli’s side and crouched down opposite Legolas.

The elf’s eyes were wide and dark in the low light. Two soldiers had stayed with the king and his friends and lent the dim glow of their torches so they could see.

Gently Aragorn ran his fingers down Gimli’s leg below his knee, probing the break carefully and finding exactly where it was. Dislodging the rock that had trapped the dwarf he unlaced the heavy leather boot and, pulling it slowly, off laid it aside. Indicating where he wanted Legolas’ hands near the dwarf’s knees Aragorn took the thick short leg and gripped it tightly, glad that Gimli was still unconscious.

"On three." He watched Legolas closely as he counted down. At three, he pulled the dwarf’s leg down and to the right, feeling the edges of the bones work back into place. He grimaced as Gimli tightened involuntarily, the pain searing through and bringing him back to consciousness.

Legolas leaned down on the dwarf and kept him from shifting out of their grip and unintentionally re-injuring himself. "Easy Gimli, it is all right, it is Aragorn and I. Your leg is broken, be still."

The dwarf groaned and laid his head back against the elf’s shoulder with a sigh, trying to keep from moaning.

Aragorn motioned the soldier nearest them and sent him to find some small sturdy branches to use as splints. He crept near the dwarf’s head and leaned over the bearded, wrinkled face. With a small smile he spoke softly gazing down into the dark eyes that watched him steadily, "Well Master Dwarf, you’ll live."

The words had the desired effect and Aragorn laughed as Gimli chuckled ruefully, "Is that your expert opinion?" the dwarf queried.

Legolas easily bound the wood that the soldier returned with, binding it to the sides of the dwarf’s leg to keep it from moving. He knelt behind Gimli and smiled down into the rotund face, "No more walks in the evening alone for you." He taunted the smaller being.

"Hmm..." Gimli glared and him, "And I suppose you would have fared better than I?" He was still groggy and having a hard time remembering exactly why he was on the ground and ached so much.

"I would not have been nearly decapitated by a hunter’s trap."

Aragorn interrupted the conversation; laying his hand gently over the dwarf’s heart, he asked the question that he had held back until now, "Gimli where is Eldarion? He never returned to camp. There is no sign of him. What happened?"

Frowning deeply Gimli searched his memory, it was hazy at best, everything fogged by the ache in his leg and his body. "We were walking..."

His voice trailed off as he thought through the evening’s events. Aragorn waited patiently, hurrying the dwarf would do neither of them any good, but his heart was anxious and he feared the words he would hear.

"...there was another. No..." Gimli scrunched up his face and glanced towards the forest, pointing at a spot high on a tree, "it was an arrow. Someone shot at us! From across the river." His memories tumbled back as quickly as his words spilled out. "They missed. But just as I turned a cloaked figure darted out from the trees on this side of the river and grabbed Eldarion. They covered his mouth so he couldn’t call for help and threatened to kill him if I pursued them. Then he laughed at me and the next thing I know something hit me from out of nowhere." He leaned up slightly looking at his injured leg and the rock just beyond his foot. "My boot was stuck by a rock and I couldn’t move in time." The shame accompanying his failure was written across the dwarf’s downcast eyes. Legolas gave his friend’s shoulder a little squeeze. No one faulted Gimli. None of them had expected this.

Aragorn was on his feet before Gimli finished describing their ordeal. Accompanied by a guard they searched the trees closest to where the dwarf had been standing. True to his word, Aragorn found the blackened shaft of a crossbow bolt buried in the trunk of a large tree. Placing his hand against the rough wood he pulled the arrow out. A sticky black substance oozed off the tip stringing between the removed arrow and the tree.

The soldier who had accompanied the king reached out to touch the black gooey strand, his face scrunched up in disgust. Aragorn grabbed the man by the wrist and moved him slightly away, the fear inside him mounting by the seconds. He knew this substance, this poison. Its faint but distinctive odor was forever indelibly scared into his memory. Even many years later his body had a distinct, fear reaction the scent of the drug. His mind screamed at him to run, get away, but rational thought countered his panic. It couldn’t be. The one who used this was dead. He knew he was dead, Legolas saw him die.

Standing perfectly still, lost in fearful memories, he didn’t notice when Legolas walked quietly up behind him and gently laid his hand on the human’s shoulder.

"Aragorn?"

Unable to respond the man simply handed him the bolt and turned away staring up the darkened river.

Frowning slightly in confusion Legolas took the weapon and inspected the head, rolling the substance between his fingers and touching them lightly to his nose. With a jerk of his head the elf pulled away and knelt wiping his fingers off on the wet grass at the base of the trees. It couldn’t be. The smell triggered horrible memories. Only once in their life had the friends ever encountered the use of this particular drug before.

"It can’t be him."

Aragorn turned towards the sound of his friend, his gaze haunted, his face ashen. "No one else save Mannyn and Dyryn possessed belithral, they were the only ones who knew what it was made of." He barely registered that Jonath had returned with the men, he knew that Eldarion would not be with them.

The sounds of running feet pounded up the stream bed behind them and the bobbing of an approaching torch could be seen in the dark.

"My lord!" The soldier’s voice cried out as he saw the others standing in a small group, "My lord, there was an intruder in camp!"

The guard reached their position and rested his hands on his knees breathlessly. Jonath had relieved the runner of his torch and touched the man’s back as he gathered his strength. "Syrvin, tell us plainly, what happened."

With a nod of understanding the man took a deep breath and straightened up. "There was an intruder in camp. He fired a single arrow." The guard hesitantly met the eyes of his king, "There was a note impaled on it."

"What did it say?" Aragorn edged forward, "Did you bring it?"

"No my lord, but..." The man glanced worriedly between his captain and his king, "They said it was for the king and sent me straight away. That’s all I know."

Aragorn glanced over the heads of his men. Legolas stood from Gimli’s side, having heard the entire conversation, he knew his friend well enough to know that the human would want to leave for the campsite now and he nodded in understanding as their eyes met. Quickly the elf dropped back next to the dwarf, "Jonath and his men will take you back to camp."

"What is happening?" Gimli demanded.

"I have not the time to tell you now, I must go with Aragorn." The elf’s eyes apologized wordlessly before he rose to his feet again.

Nodding curtly the dwarf allowed his friend to leave, the elf chased after the king who had already sped off towards their campsite, knowing that Legolas would easily catch up to him.

The elf knew what was in the king’s heart, he knew the fear of what the drug that was on that arrow and the ones who used it had done to his friend. The way that Gimli had described Eldarion’s capture was eerily similar to what had happened to Aragorn on that snow-clad day so many years ago... and this mystery was no less perplexing then that had been.

Legolas could only hope that the results would not be as disastrous this time as he sped silently through the trees after his friend. The elf prince could still remember those frozen days on the mountain, hearing nothing but the lonely sound of the wind hour after hour as he strained desperately for any sound that might tell him that Aragorn was near, that he was even alive, that the elf was nearing his goal...

 

~*~

...80 years in the past...

~*~

 

Icy cold wind whipped around Legolas’ face, snatching his breath away and stinging his eyes as he knelt on the snow by the deep-cut tracks that he was following. By the time he had finally escaped the gorge the distance between he and the two he pursued had become discouragingly large. Yet the deep mountain snows held tracks well, and it had soon become apparent that Aragorn and his captor were going over the high pass. It was an area that Legolas was familiar with, and this helped him. Especially since frequent storms were constantly wiping out the tracks that he sought to follow and causing him no end of difficulty.

Right now the trail was clear and well defined, even though it was at least two or three days old and covered with several inches of new snowfall, but if the wind kept up like this and brought with it another storm as it was threatening to do, that would not be true for long.

The elf let his breath out slowly and chattered slightly as he drew it back in. That irritated him. He should not be cold. Cold was a foreign feeling to him and not one that an elf should have to be dealing with.

It was now almost two weeks since his unfortunate incident with the wolves, and the prince’s shoulder wound had finally closed, but the ache remained a constant presence. Just as Raniean had warned, the weather up here in the heights was unremittingly bitter, and although elves were not usually affected by the elements, the prince’s weakened state and the absolute sub-arctic severity of these climes was making even Legolas feel the bite of the winter chill.

Legolas couldn’t imagine how Aragorn was surviving up here, or his captor for that matter. That thought made the elf moved faster. He did not like the picture that the trail he was following painted. One man was obviously on a horse, and one man on foot, and it wasn’t too hard to guess who the one on foot was. At points it looked more like Aragorn had been dragged along the trail and through the sometimes waist-deep snow instead of walking at all.

Something stained the white snow, catching Legolas’ attention and the elf stooped to see what it was. A dark look adorned the prince’s countenance when he realized that it was blood. Aragorn’s blood. And it wasn’t just in this one place. The trail continued to be dotted with periodic bloodstains and scuffmarks of someone being dragged for quite a long while. Legolas felt his ire burning so hot that it ought to have melted the snow under him and he momentarily forgot he was cold at all.

Something out of place in the landscape ahead caught the elf’s keen eye and he hurried up the trail towards it. A large, dark shape was partially hidden under recent snowfall and for a few seconds Legolas' heart jumped up into his throat when he realized that that was hair curling limply out of the snow.

Upon reaching the spot, Legolas sighed and closed his eyes, relief washing over him. It was not a human body in the snow, but rather that of a horse. Undoubtedly the horse that he had been trailing to this point if he read the signs correctly. Apparently the poor beast had simply at last dropped dead from the utter cold.

Legolas touched the still body gently and whispered a few quiet words in elvish. It was just as he had feared. No horse would survive this entire journey. The horse’s owner should have known better. Perhaps he had and he simply hadn’t cared. That kind of attitude made Legolas fear for his friend’s safety, because if this man treated his horse with such little care... how would he treat his prisoner?

The elf’s attention was drawn back to the snow once more. He could see how the horse had fallen... and then... then there was some kind of scuffle. Legolas squinted hard at the snow, wishing he had the skill of the rangers to read the slightest smudge and know what it meant, but he did not. However, he guessed that Aragorn had probably tried to get free when the horse died and his captor was distracted... The elf pressed his lips into a tight line. It didn’t look as if he had succeeded.

The trail led off again ahead, and now it looked like two men walking... but one of them fell repeatedly.

The elf was about to move on again, when another dark object hidden in the white snow caught his attention. It was pressed into one of the scuffle marks and hidden in the drift, probably having been lost during the fight.

Pulling it out of the snow, Legolas found that it was small leather wallet. It was fairly new, but showed slight signs of wear. One side of the wallet had a small flourish engraved into the dark leather. Sliding his hand inside and pulling the contents out, Legolas raised his eyebrows in surprise. The wallet was full of money. The prince studied the small three-pronged swirl etched in the leather once more before tucking it into his own pocket. The design was unfamiliar and meant nothing to him. Obviously, however, this was not something that had been intended to be left behind. Swiftly picking up the retreating tracks, he followed the men deeper into the wooded hills. Now that both captor and prisoner were on foot he had a greater chance of catching up to them.

 

 

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

~~~~~~~~

Roaming through this darkness, I'm alive but I'm alone

And part of me is fighting this,

But part of me is gone.

--Three Doors Down

~~~~~~~~

 

Aragorn moaned softly, pulling away from Dyryn’s anger, but he couldn’t escape, even if his mind had been clear enough to do so.

Dyryn kicked the young man again and again, taking his anger and frustration out on his helpless prisoner, swearing angrily. "Have you got any idea how much money was in there?" he raged, giving the ranger another sharp kick in the ribs.

Aragorn gasped painfully and curled in on himself. He was so cold. So cold. The abuse hurt worse because every fiber in his being was tensed and frozen. Yet his icy body was covered in cold sweat, a result of the drugs in his system.

Over the weeks they had been together, Aragorn’s body had slowly built up a tolerance to the low-level doses of belithral that the bounty hunter was keeping him on. Dyryn’s answer to that had been to up the dosage. And up it again. And again... until Aragorn had nearly lethal amounts of the drug in his system now. If he had not been brought up slowly to this point, the large amounts of belithral that Dyryn regularly fed him would have killed him. As it was, it had plunged Aragorn into a nearly constant delirium until it was becoming impossible to tell dream from reality. He rarely slept anymore, unless he was unconscious, because his dreams had all become nightmares, ones that continued on when he awoke.

Dyryn was furious. He blamed Aragorn for the loss of his money. Dragging the young ranger partially up, out of the snow, Dyryn shook him, hard, swearing at him. "You have given me nothing but trouble!"

Aragorn wriggled weakly in his grasp, his glazed, widely dilated eyes flashing with un-subdued fire. "L-let me go..."

"Damn you! Any normal person should be too gone to even *think* by now. What does it take to break you?!" Yanking the ranger’s sleeve up Dyryn pulled out his knife.

Aragorn knew the only reason Dyryn did that was to give him more belithral. He had already had his daily dose this morning... any more would be a severe overdose. He struggled with the man, trying to pull his arm away, but his shaky attempts barely even registered to Dyryn who held him still and angrily administered the drug.

Aragorn moaned sharply as the toxin raced through his system. It no longer rendered him unconscious, even in large doses, because his body had adapted to accommodate its presence. The world whirled crazily in front of Aragorn’s eyes as reality faded away into a drugged haze of hallucinations and nightmares.

"No, no..." Aragorn trembled violently as Dyryn let him sink back into the snow, his breathing coming painfully fast and sharp as his heart sped up even faster. The frozen air made his lungs ache.

Strange images danced before his eyes, demented and twisted forms, more dark and terrible than the worst nightmare one could ever imagine. And then... then the real horror started.

"A-ada?" The image of Elrond wavered slightly, but it seemed absolute and real to Aragorn’s tormented mind. "Ada, help me..."

But the look in the illusion’s eyes was cold and hard.

"Father please..." Aragorn could not separate delusion from reality, as his deep childhood fears were resurrected from the darkness of his subconscious.

Dyryn glowered in irritation, still sizably upset with the young ranger. "Shut up!" he snapped, slapping Aragorn’s bruised face sharply.

Aragorn recoiled, laying still in the snow and staring up with frightened, hurting eyes, because in his mind, it was not Dyryn’s hand that had delivered the blow, but one far more dear to him and thusly far more painful.

A stunned tear rolled down the young man’s cheek, freezing before it got very far. Elrond had never struck him in anger in all his growing up years, never. "F-father?" The whisper was soft and broken.

But the phantom turned away from him. "You’re weak Estel." The voices in his delusion condemned him. "Weak and worthless! Reckless human child, can’t take care of yourself. Nothing but a burden. Weak, weak, weak..." The taunting condemnation of his own thoughts twisted through his nightmare, seeming to come instead from the spectral image of his elven father.

Aragorn’s heart twisted in anguish. "I’m sorry..." he whispered. "I’m sorry... no, please, don’t go, don’t leave me here alone!" he begged, but the image in his mind was not stirred.

The twisted phantom of the elven lord turned his back on the young man in the snow and vanished into the darkening night as the drugged hallucinations took another turn.

Desolate, and unaware that none of what he saw was genuine, Aragorn reeled from the perceived rejection. Again and again he called out for his elven father in desperate delirium as the nightmares washed over him in horrifying waves, crying out for him until the young ranger lost his voice and his pleas became a soft, anguished whisper, swept away on the wind.

But there was no answer, only the ever-increasing cold and the twisted phantasms of his own mind, leaving Aragorn alone and slowly freezing to death in the snow.

 

___________________________________________________________

~*PART SIX*~

 

~*~

...80 years later...

~*~

 

Aragorn entered camp at a run with Legolas on his heels. He slowed as he approached the tree his men indicated. He was out of breath but ignored his body’s responses. True to the runner’s word, a crossbow bolt held a parchment tightly to the trunk. Shakily pulling the thick paper off the bolt Aragorn walked a space away from the others, turning his back to them and held the note up to the firelight.

The scrawling black inked words caught in his mind and stopped his heart as he read them. With a small cry he dropped the paper and staggered past the fire pit.

"Aragorn!" Legolas followed his friend, snatching the letter from the ground where it lay. The king walked numbly to the edge of camp and stared unseeingly across the plains that fell away below their encampment.

Satisfied that the human had stopped, Legolas stepped near his friend and stood just behind him, his hand carefully touching the man’s broad back. He easily read the letter in the dark, his mouth dropping slightly open at the words written there;

"It’s been fun tracking you again after all these years. You are almost as impossible to find as you once were. However this time there is someone else with you - someone who will be even more fun than you to hold for bounty. I wonder how your son would like a taste of your old favorite drug? I wonder if he’ll scream at the hallucinations like his father did and cry until he cannot speak."

"It cannot be." Legolas spoke the words in disbelief once more. "I saw him die, I *saw* Dyryn die! He went over the edge of the cliff with the snow fall."

The helpless fear that had gripped Aragorn turned into a cold heated rage that seared through his mind and set his heart on fire. He shook his head slowly, fighting the anger that built inside of him.

Turning swiftly he grabbed the note out of the elf’s hand, his eyes hard and his voice a barely constrained whisper, "He is *not* dead." The king held the letter up between them and shook it slightly at the elf as proof, "He is not. And now..." he swallowed hard as he forced himself to say the words, "...now he has my son." Aragorn dropped his gaze and glanced back out into the night once more.

"Aragorn..." Legolas softly spoke his friend’s name. He did not know what to say, the horrible knowledge that the bounty hunter who had nearly killed them both so many years ago was still alive and hunting them was hard to grasp. In fact it seemed almost impossible, and yet there it was. A normal human of non-Numenorien descent would not even still be alive, but apparently Dyryn’s part-dwarvish ancestry had given him the longer life span of that people.

Aragorn crumpled the note in his hand, throwing the paper to the ground. Fierce, haunted eyes turned on Legolas and the barely controlled rage within them caused the prince to step back momentarily.

"We’ll find him." The elf whispered, holding the king’s gaze.

Aragorn did not answer. His thoughts were tumbling too fast for him to keep up with. "I will kill him." he heard the words as he spoke them and was surprised he had spoken them out loud. "If he does what he did to me to my son I will kill him!"

"Strider." Legolas spoke calmly; the fear in his own heart hammered in his chest but he needed to get through to his friend. He could see the barely controlled rage and knew that look from years ago – irrational determination. And yet who could fault him? His son had been taken from them and they had not been able to stop it. Legolas’ own tortured memories clouded his thoughts.

Aragorn stepped away and walked back to the edge of the cliff, staring out across the valley below them. "Where are you? If you hurt him so help me I will..."

"We’ll go after them at first light."

The man heard the words of his friend but rejected them, shaking his head. How could he wait? How could he just stand here?

"Aragorn, think. If this is Dryrn, you are the one he wants, he won’t hurt Eldarion unless you are there to be hurt by it as well. He needs the boy alive." Legolas gently laid his hand on the king’s shoulder, hoping he was right.

The men behind the elf were watching their King worriedly, ready to follow if need be.

Aragorn turned at the slight touch of his friend, whirling around and angrily brushing Legolas’ hand away from him.

"You have no idea!" He was nearly shouting now. His own fear had turned to anger and he vented it on the elf, "You don’t know what he’s capable of. I do!"

Legolas stared the man down and softly but forcefully answered him so that only Aragorn could hear, "I do know, I remember." His voice choked off with emotion, "I remember finding you in the snow half dead and ready to flee this world. I remember the fear you had of me, your father, your brothers. I remember holding you in my arms and fearing that every breath you took would be your last. Of all the people here Aragorn, I do know."

Aragorn’s gaze softened slightly and with it came the tears he had been holding back, "If he does that to Eldarion..." he could not finish the sentence, he could not bear the thought.

"Listen to me." Legolas stepped closer to the king and pulled the man towards him. "Now you listen." Aragorn tensed slightly at his touch, he needed to be strong, he wanted to be invulnerable but he knew at the moment he was neither. Legolas pulled him forward until their foreheads touched. Aragorn closed his eyes as tears tracked down his cheeks, his fists balled in the elf’s cloak as he held onto his friend.

Legolas watched the man, allowing the human to draw strength from him. His hands wrapped gently behind Strider’s head, holding the king against him. Aragorn may no longer have been the sometimes-inexperienced young man the elf prince had befriended so many years ago. He may be king now of the two largest realms in Middle Earth, with decades and decades of life, experience and wisdom behind him. But he was also a father, and his father’s heart was breaking with fear and worry, weighed down and mixed up with horrible, terrifying memories of the past.

"We will find him my friend." Legolas softly shook the man, wrapping his hands in the kings cloak, "We will find him and end this once and for all. I promise you that Elessar; I will die before I let any harm befall your son. You will see, it will be all right. But we must not go now."

Aragorn moved a pace back and slowly raised his head, questioning his friend wordlessly. In answer Legolas motioned back behind them. The man glanced over the elf’s shoulder and quickly took in his soldiers, his guard watching them closely. Jonath stepped nearer, having just reached the site with Gimli and his men. Aragorn’s gaze lighted quickly on the dwarf before returning to the others.

For all their loyalty none of them would have ever dared to approach the king in his present state of mind, the elf’s casual acceptance of the human and demeanor around their liege continually caught them off guard.

Realization dawned in Aragorn’s eyes as he took in the rather large contingent of men that had followed them to Orthanc and he knew at once that Legolas was right. It would be easier for he and the elf to go together alone. They could travel quickly and quietly, undetectable in the woods unlike the company of guards that attended the king. These were soldiers, not rangers and their strength was in fighting not stealth. All these men crashing through the forest, would warn a deaf rabbit that they were coming. Besides, many heavy feet often destroyed vital clues and evidence that the ground had to offer, as they had inadvertently done down by the spring where Gimli and Eldarion had been attacked.

Legolas was right. They needed to wait, the opportune time to leave would come and Strider was sure he knew just when that would be. His eyes met the blue ones locked onto his own. Legolas searched his friend’s face, taking note of the way the tension left the human’s body. Aragorn relaxed his grip on the elf’s cloak.

"You are right my friend." He spoke the words softly in elvish, "As always."

The old taunt elicited a small laugh from the elf who looked to the ground, shaking his head.

"*We* will go later." Aragorn finished his thought. Legolas snapped his gaze back up to the king’s and smiled knowingly, nodding his head imperceptibly.

"We will find him Strider." Legolas answered back, speaking elvish to conceal their conversation.

"Speak common if you’re going to have a conversation that can be overheard." Gimli’s booming voice carried to the two friends near the plateau’s edge. It had by now become a long-standing point of mock-contention between he and Legolas.

Legolas rolled his eyes and turned back towards the men gathered behind them, quietly watching the two friends. He glanced at the dwarf resting on the ground, his leg elevated. The smaller being’s face was scrunched into an irritated frown that caused the elf to smile and tilt his head to the side as he spoke, "My good master dwarf, if you would but learn the higher tongues as I have so often had the occasion to tell you, you would not suffer this problem. However I do believe that your problem stems from a case of acute hearing. My words were for the king alone."

The dwarf blushed a crimson red, trying to cover his outburst he muttered, "Elves."

"Dwarves." Legolas softly cursed back at him with a brilliant smile.

Aragorn’s hand fell lightly on the elf’s shoulder, "Thank you my friend." He whispered quietly into the prince’s ear as he stepped around Legolas and addressed his men.

"Legolas is correct. Night draws swiftly near and our pursuit would be hampered by the darkness. There are yet things abroad that we would do well not to encounter by night. We will leave at first light." He glanced back at his friend with a slight smile and stepped towards the midst of the grouping as the men began to settle in for the evening.

But Aragorn could find no rest. He forced himself to lay still, in one place as the camp quieted down and his guard finally dozed off, allowing sleep to steal away their over alertness. Jonath was a good captain of the guard but he had a penchant for always being on the king’s heels – in times of crisis Aragorn was glad for it, however when he needed to steal off on his own it could be a nuisance. Jonath had been worried about his liege ever since Eldarion’s kidnapping and he had set his bedroll down close to Aragorn, near his feet so he would be prepared at a moments notice should the king need him.

Legolas lay at Aragorn’s back. The human was certain that the elf did not sleep either. He repressed a sigh as his mind tore through memories of long ago. He pressed his eyes tightly shut as pictures of Eldarion’s smiling face surfaced only to be replaced by the leer of the bounty hunter that had taken the boy. He remembered the cold, the drug induced hallucinations and the soft words of Legolas’ song that had kept him alive. He remembered the torment of his captor, the terror and the abuse. Tears edged around his eyelids and he swiped at them, shaking his head at the fears and the pain that resurfaced. He thought the memories were long gone, the horror dealt with – he thought his tormentor was dead. He could not believe they were reliving this nightmare.

Glancing quietly skyward, the king sought out Eärendil, the bright star of the elves, its light a comfort in the darkness. The moon was full but storm clouds were converging to the north, threatening to blot out the lights of the night. A cool wind licked the glen where the warriors had bedded down; it would bring the storm in soon, sooner than Aragorn wanted it too. Silently the King beseeched Iluvatar in his heart.

He chanced a glance around the camp. The fire had long ago died out and the men slumbered, dead to the world under their blankets. No one moved, no one stirred. The night watchmen were at their stations on the far perimeters of the camp, their attention turned outward to the night, not inward to the camp itself. Aragorn slowly turned over to alert his friend that it was time to make good on that promise of his and head out to find Eldarion, but Legolas was gone.

Quietly, the king moved out from under his blanket, crouching warily in the minimal light. His eyes were not as keen as an elf’s and he was glad for the light of the moon. Shifting his gaze to the perimeter of the camp he tried to locate where his elven friend had gone to. Aragorn slowly moved to a standing position, his knees creaked as he stretched them out and he winced as Jonath moved slightly, rolling over in his sleep. Standing perfectly still until the guardsmen’s breathing evened out, a smile stole over the king’s lips. He suddenly felt like that twenty year old again, sneaking out of his father’s house and trying not to waken his brothers to his absence until it was too late. Memories of the late night escapes caused him to start laughing and it was all he could do to keep quiet. The seriousness of the situation was not lost on the man but perhaps it was in fact the weighty graveness that conflicted so heavily with his childhood memories that caused the king to find humor in his present predicament. Trying to still himself, Aragorn did not hear the intruder that crept stealthily up behind him.

A hand clamped over his mouth and he was jerked off his feet and drug backwards. Startled by the swift attack, he struggled to no avail as his assailant effectively pinned his arms to his sides and pulled the human more tightly against him, dragging the king away from the safety of his men.

Fear shivered up his spine at being trapped so easily and he wondered how Dyryn had managed to sneak up on him so quietly. Warm breath touch Aragorn’s cheek as his captor laid his head next to the king’s and the man flinched. Blonde strands of hair swept into the human’s eyes, caught on the winds and the soft voice in his ear spoke words in a language that few other men even knew.

"Strider, you nift. What did you think you were doing?" The elf chided him playfully, dragging him further back under the wooded forests where their conversation could not be heard, "Whatever did you find so funny that you almost blew your own escape? I cannot believe you!" Legolas laughed slightly as he felt the resistance leave his friend.

Releasing the human, the elf stepped back and stared hard at the man. "Well?"

"You scared the life out of me!" Aragorn pushed his friend away from him, breathing in deeply and letting the adrenaline flow out of his system. "Where were you?" He snatched the proffered bow from the elf’s hands and slung it over his back.

"Saving you from discovery!" Legolas answered quietly, motioning back to the open, he demanded an answer, "What was that?"

Aragorn couldn’t help the smile that broke across his face, "I remembered that time you wintered with us and you and I snuck out in the middle of the night to go hunt the white deer that were coming down out of the eastern mountains." Laughter overwhelmed him momentarily and Legolas stepped forward and pressed his hand across the man’s mouth silencing him.

The elf led them farther away from the camp and turned a glare on the king, his smile giving him away. Legolas was glad to see his friend smile. "Not so loud! We are still close."

"But it was so funny..." Aragorn glanced mischievously at his friend. For all his years the man in front of the elf looked just like the young human that he used to know. "When you tried to get down the steps and Elladan caught you I will never forget the look on your face!" He laughed at the elf. "That was just the best."

"Really? I am glad I can amuse you still, so many years in the future." Legolas shook his head as he watched the man, unable to control the smile that slipped onto his own face. "Well you should have seen *your* face when I lied and told your brother that I was merely saving you from sleep walking."

Aragorn choked on his laughter, keeping his amusement quiet. "And then my father came out. I swear he knew the truth. I barely made it back to my room without losing it!" The king smiled softly at his old friend, "We had good times did we not?" It helped, to remember those times, since the memories of that evil journey through the snow with Dyryn were so heavily plaguing his thoughts. It helped him keep a kind of balance.

"The best Strider." Legolas agreed, glancing at the dark night sky as shadows of clouds drifted across the moon. He began to lead his friend back down to the base of the cliff where he had back tracked Eldarion’s kidnapper to the edge of the plateau, long before Aragorn had risen. "And there will be many more I do believe. Not to mention the ones your son is going to give you, Iluvatar help us as that one grows up. He has far too much of you in him and not nearly enough of his mother."

Aragorn’s eyes dropped to the rocky ground as he followed the elf, descending the winding path, "Yes." His voice faltered slightly as he thought on his son. He could not believe the hand he had been dealt this afternoon and the grief, always present rushed back in.

Legolas noted the silence and felt the tension build once again. He turned and glanced back up at his friend, placing his hand on the king’s chest, momentarily stopping the human from continuing. When Aragorn met his gaze, he smiled sadly.

"Do not worry my friend. This man will not harm Eldarion. He is after you. And we will not allow him even that small victory."

Aragorn smiled softly and nodded his head.

Legolas began his descent again, quietly talking to the man, deftly changing the subject, "Besides I think you best start to worry about keeping that young man of yours a little more preoccupied with his training. I have seen the way the maidens look at him and so has he!" The elf laughed.

"I have not noticed that." Aragorn growled, "He’s too young."

"Hmm..." Legolas glanced quickly over his shoulder, dropping lightly down the last fifteen feet of the path and watching as his friend walked more slowly down the darkened trail. "He has that same look in his eyes that you did whenever Arwen happened by."

"What?!" Aragorn jumped down next to his friend. He glared at the elf in the darkness, "I never..."

"Oh yes you did." Legolas cut him off. "You were so blinded by her beauty that you were worthless until she walked out of sight. Why a horde of orcs could have swarmed through Rivendell and stripped the palace clean by the time your senses returned to you."

"Ah!" Aragorn brushed past the elf and walked to the edge of the shallow they were in, "You exaggerate."

"I think not." Legolas knelt in the wet grass and inspected the perimeter, keeping up the easy banter as his sharp eyes searched for the minute details they needed to tell them where Eldarion had been taken. "It’s the same look that son of yours gets in his eyes every time that blonde haired maiden you have working in your courts passes by." He chuckled softly.

"What!?" Aragorn stood from the far side of the glen, "Who?!"

"Oh I don’t know." Legolas smiled wickedly to himself, "You know all humans look alike." He passed off the joke lightly.

"Legolas you find out who she is and tell me, its important that I..." His fatherly ranting was cut off as the elf glanced swiftly over at him.

"Here!" Legolas whispered fiercely, standing from his crouched position. He raised the fingers of his right hand to his nose and smelled the wetness that he had collected on them with a growing fear, "This is where they stood, he was taken through here." The elf prince stepped aside as Aragorn quickly walked over to him. The man grabbed Legolas’ wrist and held the elf’s hand up to the dim moonlight, a dark residue stained the fair beings fingertips.

Aragorn frowned at the prince; worry replacing the easy banter of moments ago. "That’s blood Legolas."

"I know Strider." The elf whispered in the grey tongue, "He will be easier to track this way if nothing else. It could be that he was merely wounded as he struggled to escape his captor." The words sounded hallow even in Legolas’ own ears. He knew how this would hit his friend.

Aragorn felt as if the knife that had been thrust in his stomach the instant he learned Eldarion was gone was being twisted slowly. His fingers tightened almost painfully on Legolas’ wrist. "If he..."

"Don’t." The elf warned him harshly. "He will be fine and we will find him." Legolas assured him once more, gently prying Aragorn’s fingers from his wrist and pointing into the woods parallel to the cliff face they stood in front of. They had to keep believing that or Dyryn had already won half the battle. "They went that way. Let's go get him. Dyryn wants you; he won't have gone very far. He wants you to find him, it will make his job easier."

With a slight nod the human followed the elf through the woods deftly keeping pace with the nimble being that led him farther away from the safety of his guard and closer to finding his son.

 

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

 

Gimli watched in mild amusement as the camp of men was thrown into chaos by the knowledge that the king and the elf had left in the middle of the night sometime. He’d suspected what his friends were up to, but since he knew he would never be able to keep up with them in his current state he said nothing. He didn’t like being left behind, but he understood it, and being here to see the look on Jonath’s face had almost made up for it.

Dawn had barely touched the skies with its first hues of gold, when Aragorn and Legolas’ absence had been noticed.

Jonath stood now, in the center of the encampment near the king’s empty bedroll. He covered his face with his hand and shook his head in irritation. It never failed. Aragorn was the hardest person he had ever worked with as a royal guard. With a deep sigh he dropped his hand and glanced around him at the men trying with all their skills to find out in which direction the two friends had gone.

A small platoon of warriors raced back into the clearing.

"Draecyn," Jonath addressed the leader of the group, "tell me you found something. Tell me you found Aragorn, or Legolas or their tracks or anything. Just something Draecyn! Tell me something useful!"

The guardsman looked to the ground and grimaced, unable to meet his captain’s gaze.

"Oh damn it!" Jonath slapped his hand against his leg in frustration and turned to look out over the camp that was in the midst of breaking down. "Can't anyone find that Dùnadan?!"

"You really should be more respectful of your king." Gimli piped up from the rock that the warriors had placed him on. His leg was splinted and rested on a fallen log that had been drug over for his comfort.

"No one asked you dwarf." Jonath muttered in frustration.

"You think after all the other times you’ve lost him, you would learn to keep a better watch." Draecyn whispered fiercely at Jonath. This was not the first time. Lord Elessar had a distinctly independent streak and often did not feel the need to take his royal guard with him when he went off on his own.

Jonath turned on the warrior and glared at the man, "I have never been in the service of any man who could sneak away from my watch as this one does."

"When Aragorn doesn’t want to be found, you can't find him." Gimli commented casually, repeating the words he had heard Legolas say many times. He leaned back slightly and watched the guardsmen, lighting up his pipe and pulling the sweet flavor of the Shire weed deeply into his lungs.

"There has to be some way to know where they have gone!" Jonath stared out across the valley below them as though searching for the answer in the carpeting of the thick forest. "That man is going to be the death of me yet!"

A booming laugh echoed through the camp as Gimli rocked backwards. "If I had a flake of mithril for every time I have heard that uttered in my dealings with your king I would be a rich dwarf."

"Oh fine then." The humor was lost on the captain of the guard who turned weary eyes on his second in command, "Draecyn, keep looking will you?"

"It’s a might useless if you ask me." Gimli stared hard at the human.

"Once again, no one was asking you master dwarf." Jonath turned and addressed the smaller being, trying to be diplomatic in the stressful situation he had found himself in. Trying and failing.

He had lost his king again; a fact that was a standing joke among his men anyhow. Often Aragorn would slip away from his royal guard and walk the forests alone. A few times Jonath had even caught him hunting wargs on his own, or with Legolas. Jonath was a royal guard for a reason, not just in theory, something he often told the king. But his explanations fell on deaf ears. And the fact that his liege was adept at confounding him brought him no end of frustration.

"Well if someone were asking me," Gimli tipped the pipe in his hand towards the far thicket of trees. "I’d say they left through there."

"Would you now?" Jonath crossed his arms over his chest and looked between the dwarf and the stand of trees he had indicated. "And why exactly would you think that?"

"Well its simple if you give it a moment." Gimli smiled to himself. He loved to torment the guardsmen. He had gotten to know quite a few of them during their trip to Orthanc and for the most part they enjoyed his company too, displaying their fondness for the dwarf in a rather brusque, teasing fashion which Gimli returned in kind.

Cocking his head to the side and squinting one eye shut, Gimli glanced into the darkened overgrowth of the closely placed trees, "Because if I were an elf and I wanted to make a quick escape without all of you knowing it, I would head for somewhere dark and thick. It would hamper your tracking me. Now Aragorn there, he could follow that elf any where but you – not so." With a nod of his head the dwarf clamped his teeth around his pipe and drew in a deep breath.

Jonath glanced slowly at Draecyn, who shrugged and motioned a couple of warriors to investigate the edges of the strand that Gimli had indicated.

"Not to mention the fact that it’s the quickest way off this ledge. They’ll be tracking that boy of his and you found no trace of him up here. I’d wager whoever took the lad headed down off this plateau long before you found me." The dwarf darkened for a moment at the memory, before he shook it off and smiled at himself, looking out across the camp. The men had nearly packed it up by now and not a few of them were listening intently to the conversation taking place.

"Pray tell Master Gimli, why it is you think like an elf?" Jonath questioned as Draecyn’s men ran back, to the captain, confirming what the dwarf had said – Aragorn and Legolas had indeed left by that very route, faint impressions of the human’s footprints tracked back into the woods.

The dwarf shrugged his shoulders, "It was logic I tell you. Pure and simple." He emphasized each syllable with a shake of his pipe.

Jonath threw his hands in the air and turned back to the warriors. "Pack it up men, we need to head out now! Lord Aragorn and Legolas have..." He stopped to think for a moment, shaking his head in resignation, "Well they have quite a heads start on us and the situation they are walking into can't be a good one. Let's go find them and find the prince!"

A small laugh escaped Draecyn as he moved well out of Jonath’s reach. "Wait until Lady Arwen hears you lost the king again. You will never live this one down."

Jonath’s eyes darkened and glanced at his friend, "Draecyn, if anything happens to the king this time because I was inattentive..."

Gimli limped up to the two warriors, a crudely fashioned crutch under his right arm, "Here now." He spoke gruffly, pushing his way between the men and glaring up at Jonath as he shoved his pipe into his belt, "If Aragorn is hurt it will be on his head and not on yours. He knows exactly what he is doing. Besides, Legolas would never let anything touch that one. He’d take it himself before he’d let your king die." Gimli frowned partly to cover up the pain his leg was giving him and partly to cover over the ache in his heart for his fair friend that that thought caused. During their time together since the war of the Ring, the dwarf had had an opportunity to witness the elven prince’s sometimes total disregard for his own safety when it came to protecting a friend. Especially a dear friend like Aragorn or Gimli. "It’s Legolas you should be worried about. I rightly am."

Draecyn laid a hand on the small being’s shoulder, redirecting Gimli’s attention, "Don’t worry we’ll find them. And Iluvatar willing, they will all *three* of them be fine."

 

___________________________________________________________

~*PART SEVEN*~

 

~*~

...80 years before...

~*~

 

Legolas knelt silently in the snow-clad bushes; his light-colored cloak and jerkin helping him blend in with his surroundings. Ahead of him was a small spring, the center of which still flowed, unfrozen. He had intended to drink from it, but something put his senses on the alert and his keen eyes scanned the area, trying to determine if he were alone or not.

The Misty Mountains loomed large and snow-clad behind the prince. He had left the steepest terrain behind and was now in the sometimes rolling, sometimes jagged and craggy foothills of the range. Legolas had made this journey more than once in his life, for he was now not many days travel from Rivendell, but never had the way been so harsh and imposing. The worst was now behind him and that was a blessing. Unfortunately, the last blizzard had totally obliterated the trail he followed, although Legolas told himself it was only a matter of time until he picked it up again. He would *not* admit defeat when he was this close. Aragorn and his kidnapper could not be that far ahead now... not at the rate that Legolas had been driving himself.

The elf could not find the source of whatever he had sensed, so he slid silently out of the bushes and moved towards the stream. The water he carried with him kept freezing and had to be thawed out over a fire before it was useable. Legolas had not bothered to waste time on that for at least a day or so, but knew that he could push himself only so far without water.

Many animal tracks leading to and from the riverbank showed that the prince was not the only one who had found this river to be a source of much needed refreshment in a frozen wasteland.

It was doubtless a prime hunting spot, but Legolas did not have time for hunting, although he certainly could have stood some food. Raniean had not been exaggerating when he pointed out that Legolas was not prepared for a journey such as the one he had undertaken. What supplies he had had with him had run out over a week ago. Legolas had barely taken time from his quest to sleep, much less hunt. Truly, to a degree, his body did not need much... but he had extended himself beyond his reserves some time ago and although he hated to admit it, he really could have stood a good meal about now.

That was beside the point to the elf however, because his chief concern was the fact that at the moment, he had no idea where his friend and the man who had captured him had gone.

Legolas knelt lightly on the ice that was much too thin to have held the weight of anything but an elf. Cupping his hand, he drank from the clear stream, abating his thirst.

Suddenly he stopped, his senses going to full alert. There *was* someone nearby. He could hear them... but only just. Whoever it was was being extremely quiet.

Rising slowly to his feet, Legolas drew one of his knives and held it loosely at his side, keeping his motions small and unnoticeable. He was nearly fully recovered from his previous injuries and felt prepared to handle whatever was out there.

Behind him. The sense he was getting was coming from behind him.

The prince clenched his blade tightly in his fist, his jaw steeling. Whoever was back there was going to get a lot more than they bargained for if they tried anything.

Legolas was tired, hungry, frustrated and even a little cold; not to mention being worried half to death about Aragorn. He was in no state of mind to be trifled with and would need very little provocation at this point to take someone’s head off for them if they thought to waylay him.

The presence was close now. Legolas realized he could barely hear the other, but he could feel him. Turning swiftly the prince brought his weapon up in warning, spinning to see of what nature this new threat was. He was not prepared for what he found.

"Legolas?" The dark haired elf blinked once in surprise, backing up a step at the ferocity in Legolas’ glare. From behind it had been impossible to know who it was that knelt and drank from the stream, for the hood of the fur-lined jerkin Legolas was wearing under his cloak covered the prince’s golden hair.

"Elladan?" Legolas was no less surprised to see one of Elrond’s twin sons than Elladan was to see the prince. Legolas dropped his weapon back to his side, re-sheathing it. "What are you doing here?"

"Hunting. This bitter winter has made game difficult to find, even near Rivendell. This stream is a favorite watering spot for many creatures. Elrohir and I had hoped to bag a deer... we never expected to catch a prince instead." Elladan chuckled. "But I should be asking you that, this is after all a lot nearer to our home than yours. What on earth could have brought you over the mountains in this weather? Please don’t tell me Estel came with you, I should hope he at least had more sense than that." The dark-haired elf’s smile was light as he whistled through his fingers, signaling for his brother to come out of his hiding place upstream.

"Estel has been taken," Legolas said simply. He had not the energy nor inclination to try to be delicate about it.

"What do you mean *taken*?" Elladan demanded, his whole attitude changing abruptly. Elrohir arrived and looked questioningly between Legolas and his brother.

"Who took him, where?" Elladan fixed his gaze firmly on Legolas.

"I don’t know who," Legolas shook his head, rubbing his hand over his face. "As for where..." he gestured back at the mountain, letting them figure it out.

"Why?" Elrohir was still trying to get up to speed, but since no one there really knew what was going on yet he was not at a great disadvantage.

"I do not know," Legolas’ voice was tense. He was glad he had met up with Aragorn’s brothers, but they were looking to him for answers he did not have. "I do not understand all that has happened. I simply know that he was taken in the shadow of the eastern side of these mountains and I have not been able to catch up with them since. But it was a deliberate attempt and for whatever reason, the man who took him wants your brother very much."

The twins were trying to absorb all this information. Elladan frowned as Legolas touched his forehead again, rubbing his temples.

"Legolas, are you all right?"

"I’m fine," Legolas would never admit to otherwise. "I’m just worried, and frustrated and... and I’ve lost their trail," he confessed quietly, looking away. He was responsible. Estel’s safety had been in his charge and he had failed to keep him from harm.

"You followed them all the way across the mountains... but where is your gear?" Elrohir looked around. The Prince carried almost nothing with him.

"I did not have the luxury of choosing the hour, nor the manner of my departure," Legolas said somewhat testily. He didn’t mean to be irritable, but he did not know what he was going to do now and having to give that kind of news to Aragorn’s family was not pleasant. His own sense of failure was difficult to handle.

Elrohir gazed hard at the blonde elf, realizing what a good deal of the prince’s problem was. Elves drew strength from the living world around them, but in the mountains everything was frozen, cold and dead. With no supplies and no food, Legolas must surely be feeling the wear of the long journey. "Come, come back to our camp. You can tell us the full story over lunch and we can decide what to do next."

Legolas nodded. He hated delay, but right now he had no idea which direction to go anyway and perhaps the twins would be able to shed some light on this puzzle. And although he would never admit it, lunch didn’t sound too bad either.

Back at the twins’ base camp, the three elves talked while they ate, although only Legolas was really eating, Elladan and Elrohir were too concerned and intent on what the prince had to say to worry much about food. The more Legolas talked, the darker their countenances became. Anyone who dared harm their little brother was in serious danger.

Legolas had just gotten through recounting finding the dead horse and signs of a struggle. "Then I found a curious thing," he pulled the leather wallet from his pocket. "This. It was hidden in the snow and must have been lost in the struggle. It has a rather large sum of money inside."

Elladan took the wallet, looking inside and poking quickly and uninterestedly through the thin gold coins it held. They were of common make and told little about the bearer.

Elrohir, who had moved over so he could look over his brother’s shoulder, caught one end of the wallet and pulled it up a little. He gave a soft cry and turned the object all the way over, pointing and drawing his brother’s attention to the small flourish etched into the leather.

Elladan’s face paled a shade. "Oh Elbereth... we might have guessed."

"Guessed what? Elladan, might have guessed what?" Legolas’ full attention was taken and he edged nearer, trying to understand what they saw, but the small design still meant nothing to him.

"This is the crest of the house of Wealdholte," Elrohir explained slowly. "They live away to the south-east of Rivendell some distance and they were once a very influential human presence in these parts many, many years ago. Their house has dwindled and their line failed in these recent years however, although their wealth remains great."

"What does that have to do with Estel?" Legolas interjected when Elrohir paused, seeming lost in disturbing thoughts.

"All that was left of their house was an old man named Mannyn and his youngest son Mearces," Elladan picked up, his voice dark as he ran his thumb in thoughtful circles over the small design. "Mannyn’s older child died in infancy and his wife passed on giving birth to Mearces, so it was only the two of them left. Mearces was his father’s pride and joy, his whole world... unfortunately that led to an un-tempered arrogance in the young man. He thought he could do anything he wanted and his father bought him out of any trouble he got into. One night he got drunk in a local Inn and started harassing one of the young ladies that worked there. Aragorn was in the tavern and intervened on the girl’s behalf. This was only shortly after Estel returned with us from Mirkwood, following the lifting of the two of yours’ exile."

Legolas nodded, he was following so far. It was amazing how long ago the events of his and Aragorn’s forced exile and eventual return now seemed; if the current situation were not so serious, he would have laughed at himself, he was almost picking up Aragorn’s human conception of time.

Elladan was still talking. "When Mearces woke up and sobered up, he was incensed that someone who was, he felt, beneath him, had dared treat him like that. He sent ‘messengers’ to find Estel..."

"Thugs you mean," Elrohir muttered. "What they really wanted was to find him alone in a dark alley to deliver their ‘message’."

Elladan inclined his head in agreement. "They did not count on finding him in Rivendell. Much to their chagrin, all they could do was deliver Mearces’ challenge and demand for satisfaction. Now Mearces was at least six or seven years Estel’s senior and fancied himself quite a swordsman, but Aragorn knew that he was the more skilled of the two. Our brother didn’t want trouble and he didn’t want to harm the other young man over so trivial a matter, however, in the end Mearces left him no choice but to accept the challenge or be labeled a coward. The height of irony was that after the challenge was accepted, old man Mannyn tried to buy Aragorn off and bribe him to run, he never tried to discourage his son from the idea however. Of course Aragorn would never sell honor for money so the fight took place." Elladan sighed.

"Elrohir and I acted as Estel’s seconds and went with him to the location that Mearces had selected. In all honesty Legolas, Aragorn acted far more honorable about the whole situation than I might have when I was his age. He tried his best to disarm his opponent without seriously injuring him and took several nasty knocks himself because of it. But in the end Mearces moved the wrong way at the wrong time and ended up taking mortal injury. He died in his father’s arms. For this Estel was truly saddened, as were we all. Unfortunately Mannyn’s sorrow went swiftly to bloodthirsty rage. Of a truth Legolas, if Elrohir and I had not been there I do believe he would have had his son’s hired ruffians kill Aragorn where he stood."

Elrohir nodded, his face sorrowful as he remembered. "But wealthy and powerful as he was, Mannyn wanted no quarrel with Rivendell or the elves, so he was compelled to let Aragorn go. Yet he swore vengeance on him, saying that he would put a price on Estel’s head so high that he would have to be afraid of his own shadow."

"For the first several weeks we were all on guard and for a time Father kept Estel close to home, wary of Mannyn’s threatened retribution," Elladan easily picked up the thread once more. "Then Moranuen came back from Strayton half dead and we first found out about the trouble with Hebrilith. You know what happened after that..."

Legolas grimaced slightly at the memory. Yes, he knew what happened after that. He had been the next elf brought back to Rivendell beaten almost to the point of death because of the dark elf’s murderous forays among the local human population.

"All was quiet again for a time that summer that you spent with us, then there was the earthquake and the witch king and... well, to be honest I think we all forgot about it," Elrohir admitted. "When you and Estel left for Mirkwood, it was almost nothing more than a memory. I suppose we all more or less decided that Mannyn’s words were nothing more than meaningless threats spoken in a grief-stricken rage, since naught was heard on the matter since then..."

"Apparently we were wrong," Elladan’s eyes turned cloudy once more. "And Estel’s paying the price."

None of them liked the sound of that.

"We’ve got to get back to Rivendell and tell father. It’s a three or four hour ride to Mannyn’s house from home, but it’s at least triple that to make it home from here, if we ride hard," Elrohir rose swiftly to his feet, beginning to gather up their gear. His brother joined him.

Legolas rose, but seemed to be hesitating in indecision over something as the brothers quickly broke up camp.

"Are you coming Legolas?" Elladan called back over his shoulder as they un-picketed their horses.

Making up his mind, Legolas shook his head. "I’ll slow you down, you will go faster if one of your horses is not burdened with a double rider. Now that I know the direction they are heading, I... I want to see if I can pick up their trail again."

Elrohir looked a little worried. "Legolas... are you sure it wouldn’t be better for you to come with us? We have no way of knowing how far ahead of you they are, they may already be to their destination... and there are at least three different paths that they could have taken to get there, take the wrong one and you could miss them entirely."

Legolas looked out across the frozen terrain. He couldn’t explain it, but something in his heart was speaking to him... it was telling him that for whatever reason, he *needed* to stay on the trail he had followed to this point.

"My heart tells me they are out there yet. I know nothing about Mannyn, or the situation you have spoken of, I will be of little use to you there. Out here maybe I can still do some good. I’ve followed them this far... I just can’t give it up now." Legolas didn’t know how better to explain it, but in his heart, he held the silent fear that even if Mannyn’s house was indeed the intended destination, Aragorn might not make it that far, if the signs he had read in the snow before he lost the trail were any indication of his friend’s state of health.

Elladan eyed Legolas sharply for a moment. He could tell that the prince was not being entirely forthcoming with them about something.

He was right. Legolas had not shared with them the many indications he had found about how poorly their brother seemed to be doing. He had not mentioned the blood and other disturbing things he had read in the snow. It was enough to have told them that he suspected Estel was being kept subdued by drugs with a captor who could be utterly ruthless. The elven prince had not wished to further distress the twins without need.

After a moment Elladan shook his head. Whatever Legolas was hiding, he didn’t have time to push for it. Aragorn’s life could be hanging in the balance. "All right then, if they are heading for Mannyn’s house, of which I am certain, then they will have to either take the long pass to the right, down past the base of these trees and through the canyon, or the narrow way up that hill and around the cliff face, or they will have bypassed this valley entirely and gone around the other side of yonder gorge and be making their way down from there. If you find him Legolas, make with all speed for Rivendell. Even if we are not there Glorfindel, Moranuen and the others will protect he and you if there is any serious trouble. Be careful, we do not yet know what exactly we are dealing with."

Legolas nodded. "And if I find nothing I shall still make my way to Rivendell, praying heaven that you have been successful where I failed."

The twins nodded and quickly kicked their horses up to a fast gallop, disappearing down the hill in a matter of moments.

For a few seconds Legolas stood still, feeling the wind on his face and listening to the subtle sounds of the earth around him, trying to decide which way he should go. Finally he chose the path that bypassed this valley and sloped away to the southeast. It looked the easiest way to go if one was on foot and dealing with an unwilling companion.

He could only hope he had chosen wisely.

 

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

 

Lord Elrond’s gaze was hard and flinty; his hands were clenched tightly inside the black leather gloves that he wore.

Elrohir, riding on Elrond’s right side, momentarily reflected that he would not want to be anyone who crossed his father at the moment. Glancing across the neck of Elrond’s coal black steed at Elladan, riding on their father’s other side, Elrohir decided that the same was true of his brother.

Elrond had listened to his sons’ tale quietly and then ordered the horses made ready almost as soon as they had finished speaking. They needed to pay Mannyn a little visit, and the sooner the better.

The scent of snow was heavy in the air as the early afternoon sun shone down on the three travelers. Its rays gave light, but no warmth. Yet these were elves so it mattered little to them.

When they reached Mannyn’s house, they had to wait for someone to open the main estate gates. This was finally done by a little old man with a limp who seemed to think that visitors were an uncommon and somewhat frightening sight, especially if those visitors were elf lords. Mannyn did not receive many guests these days.

The three elves rode into the courtyard, the echoing of horse hooves on stone muffled by the snow that blanketed everything. The old hostler and gatekeeper left a single, uneven set of tracks in the untouched snow as he blustered about, trying to figure out how to take the elves’ horses as they dismounted, since the beautiful creatures had no bridles nor reins.

"Is Mannyn at home?" Elrond inquired, his voice echoing hollowly in the empty courtyard.

"Yessir, he’s here all right," the small man bobbed his head in a friendly, if somewhat nervous manner. "If you want to wait I can tell him you’re here Mr...?"

"That’s all right, we’ll announce ourselves," Elrond nodded briskly at the small man, brushing right by him and heading for the main house.

The hostler would never have dreamed of opposing anything the elf lord said, but he shook his head as he led the three horses, who he found followed him willingly enough now that they had been released by their masters, into the stables. Master Mannyn was a man who prized his solitude. He was not going to be pleased with his unexpected visitors.

Elrond knocked on the large door of the house. As they waited for it to be opened, Elladan scanned the area around them with a suspicious eye. "If he’s hurt Estel..." the young elf muttered under his breath.

Elrond touched his eldest’ arm lightly. "We don’t know that yet Elladan." He looked between his boys. "Let me do the talking, understood?"

The twins nodded.

A few moments later the door was opened by a round, pleasant faced, middle aged woman in an apron. She had flour on her hands as if she had been baking and was busy dusting it off on the apron around her middle. She looked a little surprised to see the three elves, but smiled warmly enough.

"Well hello gentlemen! What can I do for you?" she inquired, unconsciously straightening her tousled hair and rumpled clothes.

"We have come to speak to Lord Mannyn, will you please tell him that Lord Elrond of Rivendell and his sons are here?" Elrond introduced himself to the woman, whose eyes got a little rounder, if that were possible.

"Right this way my lords," the woman led them into a large room off of the main hallway. It was obviously an audience chamber of sorts, but it had not seen use in many years from the looks of it.

Large dust cloths were thrown over most of the furniture in the room and although it was obviously well kept up, a thin layer of dust had settled in the not-so-easy-to-reach places.

The woman flushed slightly at the state of the room and bustled about, yanking off dust covers until there had been a suitable number of chairs cleared. "Sorry, we’ve not had visitors in a while," she admitted what they could already guess, kicking the offending coverings into a bundled lump behind the door.

"You gentlemen just have a seat then, my name’s Dolmè. I’ll let Master Mannyn know you’ve come and put on some tea."

After Dolmè left, Elrond sat down, but Elladan and Elrohir paced until their father ordered them to sit. It seemed a very, very long while later that the door opened again, but it was not Mannyn, only Dolmè, now sans apron and rumples, and carrying a glistening silver platter heaped with fresh baked buns and a steaming pot of tea. There was no mistaking that she was a lot more nervous than she had been earlier.

She poured out the tea while chatting about the weather until Elrond caught her eyes. "Dolmè, we’re here to see Mannyn."

"Of course, of course you are," she nodded. "He- that is, the Master... he’s not in the best of health you know, and he’s, well... he’s not seeing anyone today," she finally got it out.

Elrond rose quietly, but there was irritation etched in the polite lines of his face. "Please tell Mannyn that my sons and I are waiting. We will not take much of his time, but it is vitally important and we *must* speak with him."

Dolmè nodded miserably. "Yes sirs, I’ll tell him."

Elrond watched her leave with sympathy. He didn’t want her job.

Nearly an hour later, Mannyn finally made an appearance. He was a gaunt, pale man, yet there was nothing at all about him that seemed frail in any way. Perhaps that was because of the hidden fire behind his dark, deeply circled eyes. Although the elves quite rightly suspected that his being ‘too ill to see them’ was simply a put-off, it was not a far stretch of the imagination to see that Mannyn truly did not look well.

"What are you doing here?" Mannyn’s voice was crisp and to the point. "Can’t you understand what it means when a man says he wants to be left alone?"

Elladan and Elrohir exchanged peeved looks at the human’s rudeness, but Elrond refused to be bated.

"We will not trouble you long," Elrond assured, gesturing for Mannyn to sit as if he were in his own house, rather than being the guest.

Mannyn glared at him, but did sit down.

Elrond sat across from the elderly human, watching Mannyn closely. His manner was politely diplomatic, but his eyes were piercing and searched the man before him for any trace of deception. "I will be brief and straight to the point," the elven lord kept Mannyn fixed in his gaze. "I want to know what is this that I hear about you putting a price on my son’s head?"

Mannyn’s scowl deepened. "I have no idea what you’re talking about. It seems to me that your sons are fine," he glanced between Elladan and Elrohir with a sneer. "Which is more than I can say for mine." The words were hard. Cold. Bitter. "Besides, what interest would I have in them? Is this all you have come here to trouble me with?" The old man started to rise, but was fixed in his place when Elrond pierced him with a glare.

"We are *not* finished Mannyn. I speak of the ranger, Strider, whom we call Estel, and you know that. I know that you blame him for the death of your son. I am sorry for your loss, as a father I can understand-"

"You don’t understand *anything*!" Mannyn spat, suddenly fierce. "How could you? No on has taken your sons away from you! No one has cut out that piece of your heart!"

"Not yet," Elrond replied, still maddeningly calm. "But it is against such an event that I have come here. Where is Estel? Who did you hire to find him? Whoever it was left this behind." Elrond brought out the wallet that Legolas had given to his sons.

Mannyn’s eyes remained hard and unchanged. "I do not know where the ranger is, nor do I care. I am not his keeper. Neither do I know how you have come by something from my house, unless I assume that your family are pickpockets as well as murderers. But I’ll tell you this *Lord* Elrond, if something were to befall him, I would dance on his grave!" Mannyn had worked himself up into quite frenzy. His words dissolved into a coughing fit.

Elrond’s brow crinkled, his ire was hot inside him but he did not let it rule him. He would not be drawn into a fruitless argument, nor a shouting match with the cantankerous old man. Instead he turned the conversation to a totally unexpected direction. "You are not well," he observed quietly.

An expression of severe disdain crossed Mannyn’s face. "So *now* you notice? Well talking to rude visitors who make baseless accusations has not significantly improved my cold any."

"You do not have a cold," Elrond shook his head, he was a healer, he knew these things. "Have you had anyone look at you?"

Mannyn just snorted in derision and stood. "I want your fake concern no more than your fake sympathy! I just want you gone. You think I have that ranger brat? Go ahead, search!" he flung his arms out, gesturing at the house around him. "Look to your heart’s content until you are satisfied he is not here, and then be gone and NEVER let me see you here again!"

Elrond rose gracefully, but his dignified features were set in stone. "If you say he is not here than I will believe he is not here, but mark my words Mannyn, wherever he is, if ill befalls him, I will hold you responsible."

With that, the elven lord turned on his heel and strode out of the room, his robes swirling behind him. Elladan and Elrohir had left somewhere early on in the conversation, although no one save Elrond had marked their passing. It was just as well; they would never have been able to keep silent. They now rejoined their father in the hall by the door.

"And what did you find?" Elrond asked softly as they fell into step with him. He already suspected their answer however.

"Estel is not here. Or if he is they have hidden him well. There seems to be no one here at all except for Mannyn, Dolmè and the little hostler. That seems to be the usual arrangement for them," Elrohir reported quietly.

Dolmè saw them off in very apologetic tones, more so when they opened the front door and found that while they were inside another blizzard had kicked up in full earnestness.

"Oh my land, you can’t go out in that!" Dolmè shook her head in dismay.

"Dolmè! Make sure those meddlesome elves are on their way or I’ll have your head!" Mannyn’s voice shouted up from the back rooms.

"Oh dear," Dolmè shook her head again, obviously flustered. "I’m so sorry... I..."

Elrond laid his hand gently on her shoulder. "It’s all right. We will be fine, but... Dolmè... if you see a young man brought here, dark hair, silver eyes..." his voice trailed off.

"I’ll let you know if I can," Dolmè whispered softly. "If the master is up to some kind of vendetta, I’ll not be part of it."

"Thank you Dolmè," Elrond squeezed her arm lightly before pulling his hood up and stepping outside.

The wind howled loudly and snow was blowing everywhere. It was not a storm the elves would have chosen to travel in, but they had obviously worn out their welcome here and there was nothing for it but to attempt the long ride back to Rivendell.

"I do not think you overlooked him," Elrond inclined his head a little against the wind, picking up the thread of his previous conversation with his sons. "When we arrived the snow was deep and old, but there were no tracks save our own in the courtyard. No one has been here before us. Besides, Mannyn was too confident. He would not have offered to let us search if he were hiding Estel here."

"But we *know* he’s behind this," Elladan shook his head.

Elrond nodded slowly. "Yes, I am certain of that... but if Estel is not here then there is little we can do about it yet."

They paused in the courtyard, considering the wild storm raging about them.

Elrohir’s soft voice spoke what they were all thinking. "If Estel isn’t here... then that means he’s still out there, somewhere. In *this*."

A silent shiver that had nothing to do with the cold around them ran through the three elves’ hearts.