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The Stars of Harad

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-The Stars of Harad-

By: Cassia and Siobhan

"I have crossed many mountains and many rivers, and trodden many plains, even into the far countries of Rhûn and Harad where the stars are strange."
– Aragorn, "The Fellowship of the Ring"


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~*PART ONE*~

 

 

Elrond looked his adopted son over with a smile, his gaze wandering to Elladan and Elrohir before coming back to light on his youngest.

"Well, I see that you’re none of you maimed, injured or on death’s doorstep... so what did you do this time?"

Elladan laughed. "Father! If we bring Estel back injured, you’re upset with us, if we bring him back *un-injured* you think we’ve been up to mischief!"

"Only because I know my sons," Elrond shook his head. "All of them," his eyes twinkled as he smiled at Estel again. "So Estel, what happened? I know better than to try to get the truth out of these two..."

Predictably the twins protested loudly until Elrond waved them off with a smile. They all knew he was making light with them. It seemed that the elven lord was in a particularly good mood and all three of his sons enjoyed his levity.

Aragorn reported on the success of their mission to drive out a horde of goblins that had been waylaying travelers along the high pass these past months, with much help and interruption by his brothers.

Elrond nodded when they were finished, obviously pleased with his sons’ actions and success. "The day grows old. Wash up, rest, take your ease. There will be a feast tonight, we have a special guest who arrived while you were away."

His eyes twinkled as he looked at his twins and they got hopeful expressions on their faces, appearing to guess who he was talking about.

Aragorn was completely lost in this exchange, since it seemed to be referencing some previous knowledge that he did not have. "Who?"

"I’ll introduce you later Estel," Elrond waved him off for the moment. "First you had better go change, you’re not fit to meet anyone like that..."

The twins laughed, but Elrond fixed them with a wry glare. "That goes for all of you. Now go on, go!"

 

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

 

Aragorn intended to press his brothers about who their mystery guest was, but Elladan and Elrohir seemed to have completely disappeared by the time he had finished changing and the whole house was busy buzzing around and preparing for this evening, therefore he quickly made his way out into the gardens so as not to be underfoot.

The sun was setting slowly in the west and the night birds were taking up their evening song as Aragorn wondered alone through the woods near Imladris, softly joining the singing of the birds, for the evening was beautiful and his heart felt light.

"The leaves were long, the grass was green,

The hemlock-umbels tall and fair,

And in the glade a light was seen

Of stars in shadow shimmering.

Tinúviel was dancing there

To music of a pipe unseen,

And the light of stars was in her hair,

And in her raiment glimmering..."

The song was part of the ancient lay of Lúthien, who was also known as Tinúviel, and told the story of the love that the daughter of the great elf king Thingol had shared with a mortal man named Beren when the world was yet young. Beren and Lúthien were actually ancient grandsires of both Aragorn and Elrond, although of course Elrond’s longevity made him a closer relation. The song was beautiful and seemed to fit the quiet mood of the evening.

There was no rustle, no soft murmur of feet upon grass, however faint, to alert the young ranger to the presence of another, but as Aragorn rounded the base of a huge oak he pulled up short and fell silent. For directly ahead of him he saw what at first he took to be a vision, for it seemed to have sprung directly out of the song he was singing. In the fading light an elf maiden walked silently on a greensward among the white stems of the birch trees. The dimming light caught in her dark hair and remained there. She shimmered faintly in the growing dusk as if illuminated with her own light.

For a moment, Aragorn was too surprised to speak, thinking that he had wandered into a dream and fearful lest he shatter it and it flee. If the maiden sensed his presence, she did not give any sign; indeed, she seemed engrossed in her own thoughts and silent conversation with the trees and the earth around her. She continued on her way and Aragorn feared that this dream was going to vanish into the mists of evening and he would never see it again. That thought ached strangely.

"Tinúviel, Tinúviel!" he called out, even as Beren had done in Elder Days long ago. He could think of nothing else to say, for he felt certain that he was seeing a vision of Lúthien Tinúviel, the most beautiful woman ever to dwell in the vale of Middle Earth.

The maiden stopped and turned, her deep eyes finding his and a smile touching her lips as she took in the young stranger. She had never seen him before, but there was something about him that gave her pause; a stature of inner greatness that the youth himself had yet to fully realize. And something else...

"Who are you? And why do you call me by that name?" she asked with a widening smile as the young man hesitantly approached.

"Because I believed you to indeed be Lúthien Tinúviel, of whom I was singing. But if you are not she, then you walk in her likeness," Aragorn somehow managed to be at least half-way eloquent despite the fact that he was staring at the maid as if he would be content to do so forever and forget that the rest of the world existed.

"So many have said," the woman answered seriously. The young man’s obvious enchantment was amusing... but when she looked in his eyes... when she looked in his eyes something in her heart stirred in a way it never had before. "Yet her name is not mine. Though maybe my doom will be not unlike hers," she murmured, for the lady had in part her father’s gift of foresight and at that moment her future which had once seemed so certain to her, suddenly became clouded and no longer clear. "But who are you?" she repeated her earlier question.

"Estel I was called," Aragorn finally got himself together enough to answer. "But I am Aragorn, son of Arathorn, Isildur’s heir, Lord of the Dúnedain." Yet he felt that all titles paled when compared with the quiet loveliness before him.

The maid laughed lightly. "Then we are akin from afar. For I am Arwen, daughter of Elrond, also named Undómiel. I have heard of you from my father, and just recently from my brothers. They speak highly of you Estel."

Aragorn blinked several times, trying to absorb that information. A daughter? Elrond had a daughter? He had not known that. He had thought that Elladan and Elrohir were his adopted father’s only children.

Of course! It struck him like a thunderbolt. This must be the special arrival they had all been talking about... and what his brothers must have been busy with earlier. Yet he still didn’t understand...

"Often it is seen, that in dangerous days men hide their chief treasure. Yet I marvel at Elrond and your brothers; for though I have dwelt in this house from childhood, I have heard no word of you, as you seem to have of me. How comes it that we have never met before? Surely your father has not kept you locked away behind sealed doors?" Aragorn chuckled at the thought, but the question still puzzled him. He thought he had known everything about his family, but this was an utter shock.

"No," Arwen shook her head. Her laugh was silvery as she gazed up at the Mountains in the east. "I have dwelt for a time in the land of my mother’s kin, in Lothlórien. I have only just returned to visit my father again. It is many years since I walked in Imladris." In truth, Arwen spent a great deal of her time with her grandparents since her mother passed over the sea and was not often home, though the love between herself and her family was great. "I think they realized this oversight when I returned and rather intended for me to be a surprise," Arwen admitted with a faint smile. "My brothers said they were waiting for the feast to tell you, I do believe they had some sort of joke planned."

Aragorn chuckled. "It sounds like them."

They walked together in silence for a time and the cool night breezes blew around them. Aragorn was trying to process everything he had just learned... and he was trying to decide how old the beautiful maiden at his side truly was. He knew how it was with elven age, but... but she looked no older than he was now and it was hard to think of her as any other way. However the wisdom and depth of her eyes belied her features, as was often the case with elves.

As if sensing his thoughts, Arwen glanced over at him with a barely suppressed grin. "Don’t be surprised. The children of Elrond have the life of the Eldar, even as it is with my brothers. I am their younger sister, but not by what you would consider to be a great score of years."

Aragorn dropped his head, embarrassed. "Was I that easy to read?"

"Yes," Arwen smiled at him with a merry glitter of amusement.

"Wonderful," the young ranger muttered to himself, feeling something like an idiot, although he wasn’t even sure why. "My bro-" he stopped himself, realizing that they were her brothers as well and not wishing to seem presumptuous of her family. "Elladan and Elrohir are always telling me I ask stupid questions. Now I don’t even have to bother asking them to sound like a complete fool."

Arwen laughed, which she seemed to do quite easily. It was a beautiful sound to the young ranger. "You mustn’t pay too much attention to my brothers, they think they know everything." She touched the side of his face gently, tipping his head up again.

Aragorn nearly started at her touch and both of them felt an almost electric charge pass between them. For an instant Aragorn placed his hand over hers, gently holding it there for a moment before both of them quickly dropped contact and looked away, continuing walking as if nothing had happened.

"They are always trying to outdo one another and everyone else," Arwen picked up the thread of her previous subject with some difficulty. "Father said it’s because they are twins, but I think it’s just *them*. By the Valar, they nearly drove my father and mother insane when we were young," she shook her head at the remembered antics from happier, more innocent times, carefully neglecting her own involvement in the mischief. "And poor Celboril, trying to keep the house safe from the three of us..." She and her brothers had many, many fond memories together.

"That, I can believe," Aragorn couldn’t help returning her smile. "And to think they blame all their trouble on me now..."

"When they haven’t set themselves up as your personal body guards, whether you like it or not..." Arwen returned with a knowing smile.

Aragorn looked up. "How did you know?"

"They’re *my* older brothers, remember? Who do you think they mothered before you came along?" Arwen shook her head. "Well, I’ll have you know that I can out-ride, out-shoot, and out-fight the both of them," she said with a wicked grin.

Aragorn couldn’t help laughing. "*That* would be a sight worth seeing!"

Arwen smiled daintily. "Pure survival tactics I assure you."

"Knowing your brothers, I believe it," Aragorn was watching her again. He couldn’t help it; it seemed that his heart would break if he had to stop looking at her. "Please don’t stop," he said after a few moments of silence. "I would hear more about you, and your brothers, your life... if you are willing," he added somewhat hesitantly. In truth he could listen to her talk about the hibernation habits of wargs and be enraptured.

"You want blackmail material on my brothers," she guessed with a conspiratorial smile. "Well, since I am certain that they take advantage of your youth and race every time they get the chance, I suppose that wouldn’t be a very unfair advantage... But what of you Estel? I have heard naught of you until I returned but a few days ago. My father has told me some, and my brothers spoke of your latest adventure when we were together earlier, but there is much I would know about you as well. I would learn more of the one they have come to consider so dear."

Night had completely fallen now, but neither of them noticed it. They had eyes only for one another, and the faint glow that accompanied Arwen Evenstar as she walked reached out to encompass the young human at her side. Together they wandered through the trees, lost in talk, in the night, in each other.

Eventually they came to an open glade and lay down on the cool green grass, gazing up at the stars and speaking of the stories behind the constellations, although it seemed to Aragorn that the heavens held less beauty than that which was at his side.

The hour grew even later.

"We should go back," Arwen murmured after a while, rolling onto her side and looking at the young ranger across from her, who was already leaning on his elbow, watching her as his fingers idly toyed with a strand of grass.

"Mm hmm," Aragorn nodded without making any move to rise.

Arwen didn’t move either. "We’ll miss dinner..." there was very little real concern in her voice.

"Mm hmm," Aragorn agreed again without any action to support it.

She smiled at him and rolled onto her back again, face towards the glimmering heavens above. "Well that’s all right, I can blame it on you."

Aragorn chuckled. "You *are* related to Elladan and Elrohir."

Arwen laughed softly, pointing up at the sky. "Do you see those stars there? To the right of the Hunter and the Standing Bears? When I was a little girl I thought it was sad that they had no story, so mother took Elrohir and I out here one night..." she drifted off into another story, another memory and Aragorn listened and watched. Enjoying the moment, the moonlight and the musical sound of her voice.

They talked a long time and the night grew old ere they finally made their way back. The feast went on until nearly morning, with many people constantly coming and going, and the two of them were not unduly missed, although Elladan and Elrohir made a good show of being disappointed that their surprise had been spoiled. No one made any special note of the evening’s events, but both the elf maiden and the ranger knew that this evening was the beginning of something that neither of them could foresee aright. Arwen was yet undecided on what it all meant, for her heart told her one path, but her head led her to another and she was torn, but Aragorn’s doom was sealed, for from that moment on he loved Arwen Undómiel, daughter of Elrond, and knew he would for the rest of his life.

 

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

 

Two months had never passed so quickly. Rivendell seemed to come alive in a new and different way when Arwen was there. The lines of care eased from Elrond’s face and Elladan and Elrohir positively glowed when their little sister was around. There were many feasts and festivities and the whole vale seemed to become a merrier, brighter place for a time. No one seemed to take any special note of how much time Aragorn and Arwen started spending together, and if they did, they missed the significance of it. The fact was that they were seldom apart, for often times Arwen accompanied the ranger and her brothers even when they went on hunts, with only mild and mostly playful looks of disapproval from her father who had given up trying to discourage her from imitating her brothers years ago. Evenstar was every bit a lady, and her mother and grandmother’s influence was clear, but she was also her father’s daughter and not about to be outdone by her older brothers in anything if she could help it.

Much to his amusement, Aragorn did get to see Arwen make good her boast to best her brothers, especially when it came to riding, where she routinely beat them all.

"I swear sister," Elrohir laughed as they reined their steeds in after one such race. "What *have* they been teaching you in Lórien? I doubt very much that grandmother rides like that!"

Arwen just laughed, earning her a playful swat from Elladan, which she easily ducked.

Aragorn enjoyed watching the whole family together, it was a beautiful thing. Yet the more he saw, the more his heart became troubled. For he was beginning to understand that for he and Arwen to ever be able to realize the love that was growing between them would mean an unimaginable sacrifice on the part of Arwen and her family... his family. What would his brothers... no, her brothers, think of him if they knew what he was feeling? What would Elrond think? That last was an almost terrifying thought because he had seen how deeply Elrond loved his little girl.

He knew the stories, he knew the great trials and troubles that had come upon Beren and Lúthien and even Idril and Tuor, the only other instances of human and elf intermarriage. He knew what the elf women in question had to sacrifice for the mortals they loved.

Would his family hate him for what he felt? Would it change everything between them forever? How could it not? Aragorn’s heart was torn and these were questions he did not know how to answer, so he put them aside for the time and simply enjoyed the beautiful days while they lasted.

"It’s a pity Mora couldn’t come with us today," Arwen remarked as they turned towards home. "At least *he* could always give me *something* of a challenge, unlike some others I could mention..." she shot her brothers a devilish look, including Aragorn in the warmly taunting gaze.

"Ah, but I don’t think he ever forgave you for not marrying him," Elladan shook his head with a smile. It wasn’t true, because Moranuen had long ago gotten over that disappointment, but it was something of a long-standing joke between the siblings because of the circumstances surrounding the entire affair.

"Mora asked you to marry him?" Aragorn blurted in surprise.

Arwen rolled her eyes. "We were children Estel. You know how children are... you kiss a scraped knee and say something nice when other people are making fun of them and they think they’re in love with you."

Elrohir laughed. "And he was positively insufferable about it for years too, followed you around like a puppy dog until he got over it. But of a truth sister, who could look at you and not love you? Right Estel?"

The question was lightly meant, with no deeper meaning intended, but Aragorn felt himself start to flush deeply. He glanced at Arwen which only made the problem worse. "I – uh, yes, right."

He and Arwen both looked away and everything became very quiet for a few moments.

Elrohir blinked and exchanged a puzzled glance with his twin who shrugged and raised his eyebrows. "Was it something I said?"

"Race you back to the house!" Arwen changed the subject abruptly, spurring her stead to a quick gallop. "Last one there has to explain to Celboril why we don’t have any game, *again*!"

The others raced after her with cries of "no fair!" and the subject was forgotten. For the moment.

Not many days later, Arwen announced her intention to return to Lórien once again. Elladan and Elrohir protested bitterly and begged her to stay longer, but her mind was made up and she told them they should come and stay with her there for a while sometime. Elrond did not stand in her way, for he seemed to understand that since her mother’s passing, Rivendell no longer entirely felt like home for his daughter and he wanted her wherever it was that she felt happy.

Aragorn felt like someone was cutting half of his heart out. Worse was the growing suspicion he had that it was because of him that she had cut her stay so short. The situation between them was growing... extremely complicated. Arwen had as much as told him that they needed some time to consider what was happening between them very carefully. She felt as if they were hiding their feelings from her family, which did not sit well with her, but then, she was not yet sure of what exactly her feelings where. Or if she was, then she did not yet wish to admit them, even to herself, and especially not to Aragorn. The ranger was so young and trusting and, she knew, so madly in love with her. Fate seemed cruel sometimes, and the last thing she wanted to do was give him false hope of any kind, because she would not see him hurt like that, because... because she loved him?

That couldn’t be possible. She was thousands of years old, how could her heart take such an abrupt turn in the space of a mere few weeks? It seemed ridiculous.

Space. They definitely needed space.

"Arwen?" Aragorn’s voice made her look over her shoulder as she secured the packs on the back of her horse. The young ranger made his way around the feed bales to the back of the stable where she was preparing to leave. Most of the rest of the company who was riding back to Lothlórien with her was already assembled in the courtyard and waiting for her. "I have to know. Are you angry with me? Do you wish we’d never met?" he asked quietly, unable to bear the silent questions of his own mind any longer.

Arwen did not look up for a few moments, tightening her mare’s girth and checking the pack straps a second time.

"Arwen, please..." Aragorn laid a hesitant hand on her shoulder, begging her to look at him.

Arwen looked up and Aragorn was surprised to see tears shining in the depths of her eyes. "How could I ever be angry with you Estel? Or regret a moment of our time together? My brothers love you, my father loves you, is it any wonder that I..." she stopped short of saying the words, but looked down, gripping the side of the saddle in front of her tightly.

"Then you do..."

She put her hand up quickly, touching his lips for silence. "I don’t know Estel. I don’t know anything anymore. I don’t want to hurt you. Please, let’s leave it at that, for now." Her eyes pleaded with him to not ask more of her than she was yet ready to give.

Aragorn nodded slowly, trying with all his might to not feel hurt and failing miserably. "For now," he agreed softly, catching the hand that was against his lips and kissing her fingers gently.

Arwen closed her eyes and when she opened them again Aragorn’s face was very close to hers, watching her with those huge, silver eyes of his... she leaned forward slightly and for the briefest of moments their lips brushed, before she quickly turned her head aside and gave him a very sisterly, yet tender kiss on the cheek.

"Goodbye Estel," she whispered.

Swinging up onto her steed before she could have time to rethink herself, Arwen headed quickly out to the courtyard.

Aragorn just stood there for several moments, feeling more empty than he knew how to deal with.

"What was that all about Estel?" Elrohir’s voice made Aragorn whirl around. He found the twins standing a few feet behind him, next to the feed bales and felt himself flushing hotly.

"E-Elrohir! I – nothing! I mean... how long have you been there?" Aragorn winced as soon as he said it, realizing how awful that sounded.

"Long enough," Elladan cocked his head to the side, his eyes clouded with confusion. "Estel... I don’t understand what I just saw, so please explain this to me. You just kissed my sister, and it’s nothing?"

"No, but... we didn’t exactly..." Aragorn ran his hand through his hair. This was awkward beyond belief. How did he manage to get himself into these situations?

"Estel..." Elladan’s voice was gentle, but searching. "There’s more than we’ve seen going on here, isn’t there?"

Aragorn sighed deeply, opting for complete honesty with his brothers. "I love her," he whispered.

"We all love her Estel, there’s nothing wrong with that," Elrohir shook his head, he didn’t quite get it.

"No," Aragorn didn’t know any other way to say this. "I mean I’m *in* love with her."

"You have been all along, haven’t you?" Elladan shook his head, not knowing how he could have missed this.

"Yes," the human acknowledged quietly. "Since the first time I met her."

"And you didn’t tell us? You thought you had to hide from us Estel? Don’t you trust us anymore? Or is everything changing between us that fast?" Elladan’s tone was hurt. More so because he realized it wasn’t just Aragorn, but also Arwen who had left them completely out of this startling development. This whole situation was a total surprise for him and he had no idea how to react. His little sister and his little brother... it wasn’t possible. The elder twin’s heart ached. If only Estel were an elf... then he could rejoice for them as he wanted to... but Aragorn wasn’t an elf. As much as the twins loved him, he was still a man. Where would this lead? Arwen couldn’t fall in love with a man, knowing what that meant, could she? Elladan feared that Estel was going to end up terribly hurt and he hated to see that happen.

"But... but she’s your *sister* Estel," Elrohir shook his head again with a puzzled, frankly disbelieving expression. He just couldn’t quite wrap his mind around it.

Aragorn shifted uncomfortably. The same thought had occurred to him, but the fact was that they were not related by blood, they had not grown up together and he definitely did not feel for her only as a sister. "Well, not really..."

"Not really, as in, you don’t really consider us your brothers anymore?" Elladan’s voice held an edge of hurt that made it a trifle sharper than he would have chosen. He had no intention of being sharp with his younger brother, but the idea that Aragorn was rejecting them hurt.

"No!" Aragorn shook his head quickly. "It’s not like that at all! It’s just... I just – I mean..." the young human dropped his head into his hands, trailing off miserably. He had no idea what to tell them. It wasn’t as if he had *planned* any of this!

Aragorn didn’t know what to say, his heart was hurting and he feared he was losing more than the woman he loved, he was losing the family he loved, and depended on. Unable to bear his brother’s surprised looks any longer, he shouldered by them and ran out of the stables, quickly disappearing into the trees beyond.

Elrohir was still confused and in shock, he looked to his brother. "Elladan... I don’t understand what’s happening... what are we going to do?"

"I don’t understand either," Elladan shook his head. "But we’re going to go see Arwen off. Then we’re going to find Estel. And then... I have no idea Elrohir. I have no idea."

Aragorn watched Arwen leave from the trees, but did not go down to see her off. He did not return home that evening, although his brothers looked for him, they could not find him. When he finally did return the next day a strained silence hung over them that they did not seem able to break. It was just as Aragorn had feared. Already it had started and he was beginning to feel like a stranger in his own home.

A few days later Elrond called Aragorn into his study. Aragorn entered and sat down when bid to do so, wondering what his father wanted, for Elrond seemed grave and his face was lined with care. "Aragorn, son of Arathorn, listen to me," Elrond started, his voice serious and somewhat sorrowful.

Aragorn tensed. Elrond rarely called him by his full right name unless he was in trouble, or the elf lord was incredibly serious about something.

Elrond seemed to sense the human’s apprehension and softened his tone somewhat. "Estel... you know I love you. You are a man in your own right now by the standards of your race, and I cannot tell you what to do and what not to do. But I would that you hear me on this. A great doom awaits you, either to rise above the height of all your fathers since the days of Elendil, or to fall into darkness with all that is left of your kin. It is not for naught that I named you Estel when you were brought here, but many years of trial lie before you. They will be hard and long I think, and so I say to you, you shall neither have a wife, nor bind any woman to you in troth, until your time comes and you are found worthy of it."

Aragorn tensed in earnest this time and he thought his heart had stopped beating.

Elrond knew.

He had known this moment had to come... but he had dreaded it. His father’s love and approval was so vitally important to him, it had been his whole life... but if Elrond felt he had to chose between the flesh of his flesh and his adopted child... Aragorn swallowed hard. Wishing for the fifteenth billion time that things had not turned out the way they did. He would never ever regret meeting Arwen, nor falling in love with her... yet he cursed himself for being human, for loving everything and everyone in the elven world and being unable to truly be part of it.

"M-my brothers have spoken to you?" the young ranger’s voice cracked slightly.

Elrond sighed, but favored the young man across from him with a small, sad smile. "No indeed, although I suspected they knew something. They have been all together too quiet since their sister’s departure. No, Aragorn, your own eyes have betrayed you. For I see many things and sometimes can read the hearts of men. But I do not speak of Arwen alone. You shall be betrothed to no man’s child as yet. You are young Estel, adult though you be, and through many sorrows I fear your path shall take you... but as for Arwen the Fair, Lady of Imladris and of Lórien, Evenstar of her people... she is of a lineage greater than yours, and she has lived in the world already so long that to her you are but a yearling shoot beside a young birch of many summers," Elrond shook his head, there simply was no easy way to say this and he had never expected to have to attempt to do so.

"I mean you no shame my son when I say that she is too far above you. And so, I think, it may seem to her as well." Elrond looked away. He said ‘I think’ because he could not be sure. He wished he could be sure, he wished he could think that Estel’s was simply the infatuation of youth that he would get over in time, as others had... but when he looked into the boy’s eyes he saw something deeper than that. However, the truly frightening thing was what he had seen in his daughter’s eyes before she left. He had not spoken with her because he had not been sure at that time... but what he had seen in Aragorn confirmed it for him and now he was left to wonder exactly where Arwen stood.

The elf lord sighed. "Even if it were not so, and her heart turned towards you, I should still be grieved because of the doom that is laid on us... understand you Aragorn, that if she loved you the way you love her, then she would be forced to chose between the destiny of her kind and the destiny of yours? That she would have to renounce everything she is?"

Elrond had gone through that before. He had lost his brother that way. His twin.

Aragorn looked down at his hands. "I understand, that I have turned my eyes to a treasure no less dear than the treasure of Thingol that Beren once desired," he said quietly, his heart sinking. "Bitter are the choices that come to us in such times."

"My son..." Elrond said quietly, wishing with all his heart that things could be different than the way that they were. "There will be no choice before my beloved Arwen, unless you Aragorn, come between us and bring one of us, either you or me, to a bitter parting beyond the end of the world. You do not know yet what you desire of me." Elrond had to look away lest Aragorn see the tears in his eyes. The elf lord wondered sometimes if he had lived too long. Long enough to slowly lose almost everyone he cared about. At least he could hope to see his dear wife again someday, and perhaps his parents... but there were others like his brother whom the human fate had stolen from him... he did not want his daughter to make the same choice as his twin had. Yet neither did he wish Aragorn the pain he knew the young man was in... Elrond sighed. Sometimes even the wise did not understand why there had to be so many hard choices and so much pain in the world.

Someday everything would work out, better than either of them could have imagined, but for right now the present was a painful mass of questions.

Aragorn could not bring himself to meet his father’s eyes. His whole world was coming down around his shoulders and it seemed that he was both hurting and alienating everyone he loved. He said nothing because he couldn’t think of anything to be said. Elrond had told him once that nothing he did could make the elf lord love him less... but Aragorn was certain that not even Elrond had considered this possibility, and he was no longer sure.

Elrond sighed. "The years will bring what they will Estel. We will speak no more of this until many more have passed. The days darken, and much evil is to come."

"Yes," Aragorn nodded as he rose, not sure if he could even call the elven lord father any more, or if he had managed to forfeit that right, along with whatever place of belonging he had once held here.

Elrond watched the young man leave and then dropped his head down into his hands as soon as the door closed behind the young ranger.

"Give me wisdom..." he murmured in quiet anguish. "I fear I am losing them both."

 

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

~~~~~~~~

I feel like you don’t want me around.

I guess I’ll pack all my things,

I guess I’ll see you around,

It’s all been bottled up until now

As I walk out your door,

All I can hear is the sound

Of always, always, always, always...

--Saliva

~~~~~~~~

 

"Estel where are you going?" Elladan caught up with the young ranger outside the courtyard. Aragorn was packed and mounted on his horse, heading out of Rivendell.

"Out," Aragorn said simply. "I received word from some of the other Dúnedain that cannot wait."

Elladan eyed his younger brother suspiciously. "Does father know?"

"Yes," Aragorn nodded, averting his gaze. He had informed the elven lord, but he had not asked his permission nor his blessing, and not waited to find out if he would get either. He had to get out of here. He could not live one more minute in a place that held memories of warmth and a sense of love, with the harsh reality of feeling like he did not belong there. He did not blame either his father or his brothers, he knew this was all his fault. He had managed to mess everything up, as usual... but he couldn’t stay. He wished he could just forget everything. Forget this situation, forget who he was... forget all the pain. His heart was going to break. He felt like he had at last truly lost everything. And some how... he had known all his life that he would.

"Wait a minute and Elrohir and I will go with you," Elladan saw the look in his little brother’s eyes and put his hand on the ranger’s leg, willing him to stay. Elrohir nodded his agreement as he came on the scene.

"I don’t need you to protect me," Aragorn shook his head. Then he realized how that sounded when Elladan backed off, his face registering hurt. The young man sighed. "I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it like that... I need to be on my own for a while, all right?"

They had joked about such things often enough, but the elven twins could tell that Aragorn was very definitely not joking this time.

"All right Estel," they backed off, allowing him to pass. "Go safely brother, I would hate to have to go looking for you."

"I don’t know when I’ll be back," Aragorn stared somewhere between his horses ears. "It may be a while. A long while. I may have to go south for a time. Don’t worry about me, all right? And tell father..." his voice choked. He wanted to leave before he went to pieces. He had to get out of here *now*! "Never mind," he whispered. "I have to go." He spurred his horse and rode quickly through the gates, leaving the twins staring after him, wondering what had happened to their family.

"Fare you well brother," Elrohir whispered quietly as Aragorn disappeared from sight. "May the Valar watch over you since we cannot."

 

 

___________________________________________________________

~*PART TWO*~

 

~~~~~~~~

I know you’ve heard the story

But they all sound too good to be true...

You’ve heard about a place called home

But there doesn’t seem to be one for you.

So one more night you cry yourself to sleep

And drift off to a distant dream...

--Steven Curtis Chapman

~~~~~~~~

 

Aragorn stared up at the stars, his eyes automatically seeking out the familiarly bright radiance of Eärendil as he had ever since he was a small boy camping with his brothers, but he wasn’t really seeing anything other than his own troubled thoughts.

He had a two day ride ahead of him before he should meet up with Halbarad and several of the other Rangers he had come to know these past years. The news Halbarad had sent to him was indeed cause for concern. The Rangers of the South had come across some troubling communications that boded of ill and mysterious things happening somewhere out beyond Wilderland and had come to them for assistance... Aragorn sighed and pressed his balled fists into his tired eyes. He was trying to keep his mind on thoughts of the future because the past was painful, but at this moment the future seemed even more hallow.

There was an empty ache in his heart that was new to him. He knew that part of it had been left by Arwen, because some part of him would never seem whole again without her, but the other part... the part that was dangerously close to bringing childish tears to his eyes... that was because of the way he had left his father’s house. No, he corrected himself with a stab of pain, Lord Elrond’s house.

Rivendell would always hold his heart, but he feared it could never be his home again. He rubbed his fingers absently, he had grown accustomed to the feel of a ring on his hand, but he had left the ring of Barahir behind. If he had no place in Rivendell, among what he considered his family, then he certainly wanted nothing to do with his human heritage. It was a power and responsibility he had never wanted in the first place.

Dully, he wondered if he’d always known something like this was going to happen. After all, despite the fact that Elrond and his sons had never been anything but caring with him, for as long as he could remember the ranger had always harbored the secret fear that some flaw or lacking in himself would push them away. He could still vividly remember the way his subconscious mind had tormented him with that fear a year or so ago when the bounty hunter Dyryn had him heavily drugged and in a state of near perpetual hallucination.

And now here he was. All those fears realized. He had perhaps managed to find the only thing that could truly cut him off from his adopted family. Aragorn pressed his eyes tightly shut, blocking out the stars, not wanting to be comforted by their beauty when he could find no such peace inside himself. His world had turned upside down and he couldn’t even wish it were not so, as confusing as that was. He could never regret meeting Arwen, nor think to attempt denying what he felt for her, yet with every breath, as long as he lived, he would regret causing the hurt on his brother’s faces that he had seen before he rode away, the pain etched into his father’s wise features... regret everything he had lost when he left Rivendell this morning. For he was under no illusions. When he road out those gates today he had closed a chapter of his life behind him.

Aragorn rolled over onto his side and buried his face against his arms, trying desperately to hold his emotions in check. He was a man, not a boy, and did not wish to be so weak as he felt... but once again the young Dùnadan was reminded that he would never be as strong as he wished. Silent silver tears streaked down the human’s face in the starlight, and Aragorn was glad he was alone, and there was no one there to see.

Eventually the Dùnadan drifted off sleep as the moon road slowly overhead.

 

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

~~~~~~~~

And somewhere while you’re sleeping

Someone else is dreaming too,

And counting down the days until

They hold you close and say:

I love you...

--Steven Curtis Chapman

~~~~~~~~

Elrond stood on the starlit balcony, lightly leaning against the cool railing as the stillness of nighttime in Rivendell surrounded him. Imladris was sleeping, but the elf lord was not. Nor was he likely to this night. His heart was heavy and troubled. In his hand he held a small silver circle. It was the ring of Barahir. Aragorn had left it on the nightstand by his bed and Elrond had found it there not long ago. Up to this point, the young man had worn it constantly since Elrond passed it on to him and the elf lord knew it had not been left behind by accident.

Elrond’s love for Estel had not changed because of the young man’s feelings for his daughter. It was pointless to worry over much about that yet, because Arwen was very clearly making no choices or promises at this time, whatever she felt for the Dùnadan, it could very well be that all this would come to naught... or then again it might not. But that was not what sat heavy on the elf lord’s mind tonight. No, right now the grief that pulled at him was for Estel. He knew his youngest son’s heart must be breaking and there was nothing he could do about it. That was the hardest thing for him to accept.

He wished he had stopped the young ranger before he left, wished he had tried to tell him... tell him what? Elrond sighed and leaned a little harder against the railing. He didn’t know what, but something. However Aragorn had not been ready to listen. He had all but physically pushed the elf lord away from him. He had been holding them all at arm’s length since Arwen left and that made the elf’s father’s heart ache.

"What have I done wrong Estel?" he whispered quietly to the silence of the night, slowly turning the ring hand over and over between his fingers. "What have I not done to prove that I love you? That you don’t believe me the many times I’ve told you that I would never, *could* never cast you aside? And if you haven’t heard it before, what could I have said now that would be any different?"

The steady hum of the crickets provided him no answer.

"Father?" the soft voice behind him made Elrond jerk slightly. It spoke volumes of his disturbed state of mind that he had not even heard his sons approach.

"Elladan, Elrohir, I thought you went to bed hours ago," Elrond turned to face the twins, his eyes traveling searchingly over their attire. They were not in their sleep clothes, nor even their evening attire. The two younger elves were in their traveling clothes with their cloaks already fastened about their shoulders.

"We couldn’t sleep," Elrohir said quietly. "Apparently you couldn’t either."

"No," Elrond looked out at the stars again, folding his arms and leaning forward against the railing with a sigh. The weariness of his many long millennia of life seemed to hang heavily upon the elf lord’s shoulders this evening. "There is no rest for me tonight."

There were several long moments of silence.

"You cannot go after him," Elrond quietly broke the silence without turning around.

"But..." Elladan started to protest, although he knew in his heart that his father was right.

"Elladan, he doesn’t *want* you with him," Elrond turned to face his children, sorrow in the depths of his eyes.

"He wishes to be alone or he would have taken you with him when he left." The elf lord held up his hand to ward off further argument. "And you cannot follow him in secret. He will know you are there, and I fear he will only resent it. Elladan, Elrohir... Estel is a man now. I have told you that before. As hard as it is, we need to respect him enough to give him however much time and space he needs... when he is ready, he will come back to us." Elrond closed his eyes for a moment because even as he said it he felt a strange, vague feeling of dread deep in the pit of his stomach, whispering to him that he was never going to see his youngest son again, but that was an impossible thought. Estel just needed some time alone to sort his thoughts out. He would be back in a few months at most... there was no reason for him to not be.

The twins did not look happy, but they heeded their father’s words. "We feared as much," Elladan sighed slightly. "But I do not like how he left... I fear for his safety in the state of mind he is in."

"Really we-we just wanted to talk to him... but we’ve tried that already. He’s not listening. It’s as if he doesn’t want to hear us," Elrohir admitted.

"What Estel is going through is not easy," Elrond touched his son’s arm gently. "Nothing in his life will ever be easy I fear. I do not think he intends to reject you my sons, but he is troubled and more than anything fears our rejection I think."

"Doesn’t he know how stupid that is?" Elladan shook his head. "How could we ever reject him? He’s part of our family! We *raised* him! Doesn’t he know we love him?"

Elrond turned away from his son’s searching eyes. He wished he had all the answers but he didn’t. "He has always been afraid of this Elladan. You remember what happened when he was a child and fell out of the tree. Running off in to the woods thinking we didn’t really want him..." the elf lord closed his eyes. Things had been so simple then. They could go searching and find Estel, wrap him up in their love and bring him home... but it was not so simple now, for Estel was no longer a child and had to make his own choices. "All we can do is offer my sons. It is up to him to realize it in his own heart and accept it. Give him some time. He will."

The twins nodded slowly. "Then we will not go after Estel, but there is no rest for us either," Elladan shook his head. "Elrohir and I have been meaning to ride over the mountains and settle up with the Beornings. We promised them some of the things that are hard to come by out where they live in exchange for their assistance the last time we were out there. We would not want them to think we have forgotten."

Elrond raised his eyebrows. "And for this you need to leave right now? In the middle of the night?"

Elladan shrugged. "It’s better than sitting around here not sleeping and worrying about Estel."

Elrond looked skeptically between his sons. Elrohir just shrugged. He’d go along with his brother, although he didn’t understand either. At length the elf lord sighed. "Very well then, go, but be careful my sons."

"We will father," they nodded.

"Before you go," Elrond held his hand out and dropped the ring of Barahir into Elrohir’s palm. "Please put this back on your brother’s dresser to wait for him."

The twins looked down at the ring, taking in the significance of its having been left behind. Elrohir closed his fingers over it tightly and they turned to leave.

"Elrohir, Elladan..." Elrond’s didn’t say anymore, he didn’t have to.

"Don’t worry father, we aren’t going to try to find Estel," Elrohir shook his head as they turned back in the doorway before going on once more. He shot his brother a covertly questioning glance as they left their father’s chambers. "We aren’t, are we?" he whispered.

"No," Elladan shook his head. "I think father’s right about that. But we’re not going to let Estel go off and get himself into whatever mess you know he’s going to get into all alone either. He isn’t thinking straight and I worry about him. If he doesn’t want us around, we’ll have to find someone else."

Elrohir’s eyes narrowed slightly as he understood what his brother intended to do. It was a good idea, and probably the best thing that the brothers could try to do for Aragorn since they were incapable of taking action themselves. "To Mirkwood then?"

"Exactly," Elladan nodded. "But we will stop by the Beornings on the way, as quickly as possible... what are you doing?"

Elrohir had paused to slide the ring of Barahir into the deep inner pocket of his tunic.

"You think we should take that with us?" Elladan raised his eyebrows.

Elrohir nodded slowly. "I think Estel is going to need it."

~*~

Elrond watched his sons ride off into the night from his place on the balcony. He would have wagered anything that visiting the Beornings was not their whole purpose and he had a sneaking suspicion what that purpose was and what other realms, besides that of the Beornings, lay on the other side of the Misty Mountains... but he was not going to stand in their way. Like Estel, they too were grown and he trusted their judgment, as well as their love for their brother.

"Oh Estel, don’t let the hurt in your heart lead you into danger, come back to us safely. Come back to us," he whispered to the silent ears of the night.

 

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

 

Aragorn reined in his horse and dismounted. The sun had risen several hours ago and painted the world in its warm glow. To the untrained or casual eye, the glade he stopped in appeared to be completely deserted, however, the young Dùnadan knew better.

Cupping his hand against one side of his mouth to create the right echo, Aragorn imitated the call of a morning swallow. Three long notes and two short. It was the signal that all was clear, and a password of sorts.

Several moments later the cloaked and hooded forms of five or six men seemed to materialize out of the shadows of the trees around Aragorn. The rangers moved almost as quietly as elves, almost. Most of these men were older than Aragorn in varying degrees, except for one who was still in his teens.

"Hail and well met Aragorn, we have been expecting you," one of the taller men said as he and the others pushed back their hoods. Halbarad was only Aragorn’s senior by a small score of years and the two had known one another a long time. In fact, Aragorn recognized all of those present save one elderly man who stood near to Halbarad.

The rangers were grim folk some said, but that was only because they tended to be guarded and serious with those they did not know. So it was no shock to any there when the man who had spoken cracked a large grin at the newly arrived young ranger. "But you must have ridden the wind because we did not imagine you would be able to come so soon."

Aragorn smiled back, albeit somewhat less brightly. "Hello Halbarad. I left as soon as your message came."

"Alone this time?" the elder ranger grinned a trifle teasingly, glancing over Aragorn’s shoulder to see if the young ranger’s adopted elven brothers had followed him again. The Dunèdain often joked that Elladan and Elrohir were attempting to become rangers themselves, because they worked together so often.

Aragorn didn’t smile this time and Halbarad immediately realized that for some unknown reason he had just brought up a painful subject.

"Yes, I am alone," Aragorn said with a quiet, clipped tone that seemed to make it mean more than just an answer to Halbarad’s question. "You said that you intercepted a suspicious letter?"

The elder ranger pressed Aragorn no further on that subject but got quickly down to business. "Yes Aragorn, we did. Laener?" Halbarad called on the other ranger to continue.

The man whom Aragorn did not recognize stepped forward slightly. Laener was older again than both Halbarad and Aragorn, his weathered face speaking of a long life in the wilds. He pulled a rolled parchment from an inner pocket of his tunic. "I am Laener, ranger of the south. Many weeks ago, another ranger, Nevon, and I were in Rohan. We intercepted and questioned a stranger in West Emnet, below the Wold. He had an ill look about him and was causing trouble and bloodshed. In his possessions was this, a letter. What manner of man wrote it, and who it was intended for we know not, but you can see for yourself why it causes concern."

Aragorn took the letter and scanned it quickly. Heavy parchment, meant to survive a long journey. The letters were written by a bold, but rough hand. In the lower corner a half-broken circle of wax held a curious signet whose design could not properly be seen since half of it was missing.

"You must be patient my Lord, these things take time. The beasts are hard to tame, let alone work with, and new armies are not created overnight. I assure you that we are on the cusp of success. The project has not failed by any means; it is merely taking more time than we might have wished. Harad is no small distance away, but I assure you, I will arrive soon for the rest of the supplies and we will be able talk more fully at that time. I prevail upon you to withhold all judgments on this issue until then.

--Seobryn"

"Do you know who this Seobryn is or what they might be referring to?" Aragorn queried as he re-rolled the troubling parchment. Talk about armies and some connection between the distant land of Harad and someone powerful, possibly in the area of Rohan, was highly disturbing.

"No," Laener shook his head. "But I can assure you the matter is serious. Nevon was killed when a group of orcs attacked us, their objective seemed to be the letter."

Aragorn whistled softly. If this wasn’t disturbing enough, just throw in the fact that orcs were involved into the mix. Something was gravely wrong.

"There are very few of us in the south now and most do not walk the plains of Rohan. The rangers of Gondor and Ithilien are wholly taken up with their own concerns at the moment and could not give us council or aide in this situation. So I came hither seeking help in this matter," Laener summarized the situation for Aragorn and the other rangers. Only Halbarad, to whom Laener had come first, had heard the story before.

"What say you Aragorn? Ought we assist our kinsmen of the south in this?" Halbarad turned questioning eyes on Aragorn. He knew very well what the answer would be, but for some time now he had been gently pulling back from the leadership role that had passed to his uncle and then to himself after the death of Arathorn and the disappearance of his only heir. Chieftain of the Dùnadan was Aragorn’s rightful title, and Halbarad was slowly helping the young ranger settle into that position.

Aragorn nodded once, knowing there was no doubt in anyone’s mind, but understanding that Halbarad wanted him to make the decision. "Of course, we must. Whatever this riddle, it needs unraveling."

"Good then, come," Halbarad bid them all. "We have much to discuss and plans to make."

 

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

 

Evening fell, calling out the stars one by one. Aragorn slowly sharpened the edge of one of his daggers against a whetstone in his hand, a distant look on his face as he stared into the fire.

Talk and decision making had not taken long. It was clear what had to be done. The Dunèdain had dwindled in numbers over the years until there were very few now to shoulder the responsibilities that they took on. It had been decided that one of their number would return with Laener to the south and attempt to find this Seobryn person, who must certainly be coming to that area soon, as his letter indicated. The other rangers must stay to deal with the threats and duties of their own lands, but they would do their part on this end, using their many connections to attempt to narrow down a list of possible suspects who could have been the intended recipient of that letter. The usage of the term ‘my lord’ seemed to indicate someone of importance, and they intended to begin fishing around for suspicious activity by anyone with any kind of wealth or political pull.

Halbarad sat down next to Aragorn, shaking him out of his thoughts. "You’re far away Aragorn, where are you?"

Rangers were not infrequent guests in Lord Elrond’s house, for even before Aragorn’s birth, Elladan and Elrohir had often ridden with their distant human kinsman. Especially after what had happened to the twins’ mother, when they had started hunting all orcs in deadly earnest. Because of this, Aragorn had known Halbarad since before either of them knew who Aragorn really was.

Aragorn shrugged unconvincingly. "Just thinking about the journey and what we’ll do when we get there... there’s a lot to plan."

Halbarad nodded slowly, although he’d bet that that was not the whole of what his younger friend and leader had been thinking about. It was clear that a shadow hung over Aragorn that he had not seen before.

"Do you want me to send word to Lord Elrond that you-" Halbarad started, but was cut off by a quick shake of the other’s head.

"No," Aragorn said quickly, a little too quickly. "Thank you, but that’s not necessary."

Halbarad wasn’t sure what to make of that. He knew how close Aragorn was with his adopted family, and how protective the twins could be of the one they claimed as their younger brother. "You’ll be gone a long time Aragorn. If they have no word, they’ll worry about you," he said softly.

"No, they won’t." There was a tone of despondent finality hidden beneath his words. "Trust me."

"Aragorn..." the other ranger hesitated. "Are you sure it’s a good idea, your going south with Laener? You don’t have to take it on yourself, any of the others would be just as willing to go, myself included."

Aragorn looked up sharply. "You mean you do not think I can handle it? That someone else would be better suited?" Feelings of his own inadequacy in so many realms made his voice harsher than he intended.

"That’s not what I said," Halbarad countered. "I don’t doubt your abilities Aragorn, but I am unsure of your motives for leaving." He sighed. "We’ve known each other a long time, Aragorn, these are my people too. If there is trouble that might affect the mission, I think I deserve to know. What are you running from?"

Aragorn clenched the whetstone tightly in his hand. He couldn’t believe he was letting himself be that easy to read and he did not want to share the messy details of his personal problems with anyone else; even his best human friend. "The mission is safe, you needn’t worry. My life is my problem. I made my decision, I’m going." He was tired of being questioned by his own thoughts, and now by Halbarad... he wanted the other ranger to leave him alone.

Halbarad’s brows furrowed, the young Dùnadan was not acting like himself. "Aragorn, I’m not sure this is the best thing..."

"What?" Aragorn snapped slightly, the strain in his heart spilling into the current situation although it had nothing to do with the other rangers. "You prod me to make the choices, you want me to lead, and when I do you resent it?"

Halbarad flinched slightly, he hadn’t meant to sound like he was questioning Aragorn’s leadership, but he was worried about the young man’s state of mind.

Aragorn stopped himself. He wasn’t angry at Halbarad. He was still angry at himself and it was coming out in undesired ways. The young ranger let his head drop into his hand as he sighed. He was not dealing with his feelings well at all and he knew it.

There was a long silence.

"Aragorn, I-"

Aragorn raised his hand and cut the other man off. "No, Halbarad... I’m sorry. I didn’t mean what I said just now; I had no call to be tense with you. Please forget it."

The other man nodded slowly. "I just want to help."

"I know," Aragorn smiled for Halbarad’s sake. "And I appreciate it. But... the best thing you can do for me is understand that I just need to do what I need to do." Aragorn knew that no matter how the other ranger wanted to, no one could help him. Nothing could fix what had happened or put the shattered pieces of his life back together. He wanted to go with Laener; he wanted to go as far away from here as he possibly could. Most of all he wanted to be busy, to have a purpose, a job to do.

"All right Aragorn," Halbarad touched the younger man’s shoulder gently as he rose. "I trust you. Laener said he’d be ready to leave by sunrise tomorrow. May you find this Seobryn character and get to the bottom of the mystery. We will do our best to find who the letter was intended for and what land they call home. I will pray the Valar watch over you both on your journey... be careful Aragorn, something in my heart misgives me about this whole situation, I fear there is deeper evil afoot here than we yet realize."

Aragorn smiled and clasped Halbarad’s hand against his shoulder for a moment. "Thank you Halbarad. I will be careful and will return as soon as I may."

 

___________________________________________________________

~*PART THREE*~

 

Persistent knocking roused the wood-elves posted as door-wardens just inside King Thranduil’s magic gates. The moon was high overhead and it was deep in the late watches of the night; no one could imagine who would be seeking entrance at this hour, especially since the Elvenking’s palace did not receive many visitors and no one in their right mind traveled at night in Mirkwood.

"Daro!" the sharp, elvish command from inside the gates halted the pounding. "Halt! Who comes thus by cover of dark to Lord Thranduil’s halls? Declare yourself and your business!" the senior warden demanded warily, pulling back and peering through a small slit in the gate, the only part of the huge doors that they could control at the moment.

Two dark-haired elves stood on the other side of the gates, and the guard blinked to be sure that he was not seeing double or being tricked by the dimness of the night. No, the two elves were twins. Elven twins were rare.

"Elladan a Elrohir, Elrondionnath peredhel o Imladris!" a fair voice on the other side of the gate answered back in elvish, declaring the pair to be Elladan and Elrohir, sons of Elrond half-elven, of Rivendell. "We have come a long way and must speak to Prince Legolas."

The warden’s attitude changed when he heard who was there. Elladan and Elrohir were known here, by name at least if nothing else, and of course everyone recognized the name of Lord Elrond.

"Wait here please, we have to unseal the gates," the door-ward instructed the twins before turning quickly to one of his underlings. "Go get the prince." After it was sealed up for the night, only a member of the royal house could unlock the gates again, which was usually done in the morning, after which the other, lesser passwords entrusted to the nobles and servants would work once more.

Even if the twins had not said that talking to Legolas was their intention, he was still the one who would have been sent for, because to the guards, if they had to wake one of their Lords in the middle of the night, Legolas was the obvious choice. He was easier to approach than his father.

The two brothers shifted somewhat impatiently. "Wait here... as if we had a choice..." Elladan mumbled, sizing up the imposing gates with a glance. The twins had ridden hard and slept little to accomplish their journey as swiftly as possible.

"I told you we should have waited until daylight," Elrohir shook his head. "Now they have to wake everybody up."

Elladan ignored his brother.

Legolas hurried down the stairs, into the courtyard, still tying the sash of the long, pale silver robe he had thrown on over his sleep clothes when the servants had woken him.

The stone pathway was cold under his bare feet and helped to wake the prince up a little more as he made his way towards the gate. Legolas did not usually have a hard time coming to full alertness swiftly, but he had recently returned from a rather exhausting border skirmish with some orcs. Then there had been meetings and councils and reports... the truth was he had only lain down to rest for the first time in almost a week not more than an hour before.

"Edro annon o adarnín, leithianín garlch." Raising one hand, Legolas spoke the opening words in a voice that was a lot sleepier than he would have liked to admit. Anyone could say the words, but the gate would only respond to them if said by Thranduil or Legolas.

As the gates slid slowly and silently open, Legolas hugged his arms to his chest and tried not to yawn, which was futile. His hair was ruffled from sleep and completely free of the braids or clasps that he usually wore. The loose strands created a wispy halo around his head that glowed faintly when backlit by the full moon.

Rubbing one hand over his face, Legolas tried to remember who the servant that woke him had said was here. He really hadn’t heard the first part of the soft explanation, it had taken him long enough to figure out the getting out of bed and unsealing the gate part. Some days, or right now, some nights, it just did not pay to be royalty.

Whatever he expected to find, it was not the two figures that entered as soon as the gates had opened enough to allow their passage.

"Elrohir, Elladan?" Legolas blinked in surprise, trying to tell them apart (a difficult task on good days) and then deciding that his brain was too sluggish and it didn’t matter anyway. His greeting was warm, if somewhat slow. He clasped their forearms in turn. "Welcome! What brings you two here?" he was nice enough to not add "especially at this hour of the night?"

A moment later, a concerned look crossed the prince’s face. "There’s nothing wrong is there, you’re not hurt, not in danger?"

"No, no," Elladan quickly shook his head. "We’re fine, there’s no danger. I’m sorry to wake you, I suppose maybe we should have waited until morning." He avoided Elrohir’s good-natured "I-told-you-so" look.

Legolas waved the apology off, half-hiding another yawn behind his hand. "Nonsense, you know you are welcome here by sun or moon. I wouldn’t want you to have to spend any more nights in the woods than you have to at any rate. They are not always a friendly place these days. Come, why don’t we go inside?"

Legolas turned and took a few steps forward before one of the guards coughed discretely to catch his attention. "M’Lord, that’s the garden path."

"Right, right," Legolas nodded quickly, flushing slightly at having turned down the wrong walkway and turning swiftly onto the right one. He was too tired to really be embarrassed though. "Of course. Sorry."

Elladan and Elrohir exchanged amused grins. They had never seen Legolas quite so sleepy and it was very humorous to say the least.

A sudden thought struck Legolas and he had to turn around yet again. Putting his hand back up in the direction of the gates and mumbling some rapid words that the twins couldn’t really catch, the prince commanded the gates to seal themselves again. "Father would have my hide if I left them unlocked again," he murmured with a chuckle. "I have to apologize; you’ll find me a much better host in the morning. It’s... it’s been a long fortnight. Say... where is Estel? Is he with you?" the prince’s face brightened at the thought. He had not seen his friend in some time.

"No, no he’s not," Elrohir said quietly, and the abjectly downcast tone of voice was unmistakable. "That’s... that’s sort of what we have come to see you about," he admitted as Legolas led them into the palace and down the halls leading to the prince’s rooms. They all walked quietly so as not to wake anyone else needlessly.

Legolas froze and turned to face them, his eyes searching theirs in the dim light as his mind slowly shook out the cobwebs and weariness turned into alarm. "Why? What’s wrong? Is he missing?"

"Not exactly missing..." Elladan shook his head. "It’s a long story Legolas, I think we’d better wait until morning, as you said."

Legolas opened the door to his chambers and let them in, but he was having none of it. "Oh no. You think I could rest after hearing that? Come, sit, I’ll have some of the servants bring us something to drink. And you can tell me what’s wrong with Aragorn that could bring the two of you this far and make you travel by night in Mirkwood."

Hot drinks were brought and once they were all comfortably seated around a small table by a freshly stoked fire in Legolas’ chambers the prince turned expectant eyes on his two visitors.

"I don’t know where to start..." Elladan gazed over the top of his mug, realizing that he hadn’t thought of what exactly he was going to say to Legolas when they got here, so intent had they been on making the journey.

"Considering I’m a little foggy right now, the beginning would be a good place," Legolas smiled wryly. "Where’s Estel? Why are you worried about him? I can tell you are."

"Well that wouldn’t be the beginning," Elrohir shook his head. "You see, it all really started when Arwen came home."

Legolas nodded although he didn’t understand. "Has she been away long? I did not see her when I stayed with you, I assumed she was still in Lórien."

"She was, and she is again, she practically lives with Grandmother these days," Elladan admitted. "Which is for the best I think, the world is changing too much, she is safer in Lothlórien."

"If I remember her aright... she would not think she needed to be kept safe," Legolas chuckled. "But what does this have to do with Aragorn?"

"We’re getting to that," Elladan assured. "You see, Estel didn’t know we had a sister, he’d never met Arwen before... now I wish to goodness that she had been around when he was small."

"But maybe it wouldn’t have made a difference, we don’t know..." Elrohir put in, quietly continuing his brother’s thought as they often did for one another.

"It seems that some things are just meant to be sometimes, even if we don’t understand them," Elladan agreed, finishing the thought off.

Legolas rubbed his temples. "Elladan, is it me, or are you two not making sense?"

"Aragorn fell in love with Arwen," Elrohir finally just said it straight out. "And she has feelings for him too, although not yet the same as he does... but my heart misgives me that she is only fighting the inevitable."

Legolas blinked several times. "Wait, wait, I think I must be more tired than I know. I thought I just heard you say that Aragorn... and Arwen..." the serious, nodding faces of the twins made his voice trail off.

"What did your father say?" he asked quietly. Somehow this wasn’t too surprising for him. It was a shock, yes, but knowing Aragorn... somehow it was not so hard to imagine that the young ranger would fall in love with an elf, or the most beautiful elf on Middle Earth for that matter.

"I don’t know exactly, we weren’t there. He talked to Estel... and Estel left nearly the next day. The rangers sent for him, something to do with Rohan and the south. He left and wouldn’t let us go with him. He’s been out on his own with them before... I *do* know that he’s an adult, and it’s not that I don’t think he can handle himself Legolas, no matter what Estel thinks I think," Elladan shook his head sadly. "But... the way he left..."

"It was like he was saying goodbye," Elrohir picked up the explanation. "Like he didn’t want us as his family anymore... or else thought that we didn’t want him. He was not in an emotionally stable state of mind and we fear that if something should happen... he would not be able to handle it as well as he might otherwise. Legolas... I’m not sure he even means to come back. The look in his eyes when he left, it frightened me. It was as if he had given up everything he had to live for, as if he had no hope." That was the true fear that weighed most heavily on both of the brother’s minds.

"But both Estel and father have forbidden us from going after him... it would only make the situation worse," Elladan shook his head in frustration. "Estel doesn’t want us around and Father doesn’t even know we’re here," he added quietly.

Legolas’ face had creased in concern and his eyes reflected sorrow over the pain he saw in the twins, and that he knew Aragorn must be feeling. He knew even better than Aragorn’s brothers how much the young human’s secret fears that he truly belonged nowhere, that those he loved would one day reject him had plagued the ranger’s life since childhood. This situation must surely have convinced Aragorn that he was right and the heartache would be unbearable. The twins were correct, wherever he was, Aragorn was in no state of mind to be facing danger alone. Even if he were not in danger... he obviously needed someone to talk to; someone who was not involved in the situation.

"Then someone else has to go," Legolas said with conviction.

"Aragorn trusts you Legolas, you’re the only person we know who he’ll let close to him now that he’s shut us out. Someone needs to talk to him... and we cannot. I know it’s a lot to ask, maybe we shouldn’t even have come, but if you would think about it, we..."

"Think?" the elf prince looked incredulous as he rose swiftly from his chair. "What is there to think about? Of course I’m going." If all they said was true, which Legolas did not doubt, then Aragorn would very much need a friend right now.

"Do you know where exactly he was heading?" Pulling an empty satchel from a cupboard, Legolas tossed it on his bed, crossing over to his dresser.

"Not precisely," Elrohir shook his head. "He spoke of the south, and we overheard the message that was delivered to him from the rangers, he didn’t know it but we did. There was some mention of West Emnet, down near the Gap of Rohan. At least, that’s where the problem they were discussing seemed to come from. If he was actually going to go there is uncertain, but he told us he may be gone for a long time, so I think it likely. We rode with haste, but it is now more than a fortnight since he left, so he is probably well on his way by now."

Legolas was busy pulling things out of drawers. He had barely unpacked from his last foray, there wasn’t much he had to get together to be ready to leave again... except that his pack was being particularly stubborn about opening. "I’ll leave at light first..." Legolas caught himself messing up his words and carefully switched them around again. "I mean first light."

Elladan and Elrohir smiled. "Thank you Legolas, we knew we could count on you. Estel loves you like a brother you know... and, and after everything you and he, and we have been through, I begin to understand the feeling." Elladan said quietly, but with heart-felt sincerity. "However..." he could not wipe the grin from his face no matter how hard he tried. "I think it would be best if you got a little rest first, dear friend," he remarked with considerable restraint as he carefully turned Legolas’ pack upside right so that the prince was no longer trying to open the immovable bottom seam.

Legolas chuckled at himself after he realized what he had done. "Yes, I think maybe for once you are actually right."

"Wait, what do you *mean* ‘for once’?" Elladan’s tone rose with gentle mock-indignation. "Maybe that’s why Estel likes you so much, you’re as bad as he is."

Legolas was too tired to retort, so he just shook his head with a smile. "Out. Now. I hate to admit it but I am weary beyond what an elf should be and I’m going to sleep where I stand pretty soon. You may use my guest chambers. Tomorrow I’ll set about finding that wayward brother of yours and try to talk some sense into him."

The brothers acquiesced and moved towards the doorway to the adjacent rooms. They paused in the archway and turned back to see that Legolas had already fallen asleep, lying on top of his quilts, with miscellaneous items still strewn all over the other half of the bed.

Sharing a gentle smile, the twins pulled an extra blanket from the tangle of supplies dumped on the bed and covered the sleeping prince. Obviously, Legolas had not been joking when he told them it had been a rough fortnight for him. And yet he was already ready to jump up and take off again if it meant helping the man he had named Strider. Yes, they understood why Aragorn liked this elf so much.

"Do you really think he would have just taken off and tried to leave tonight if we hadn’t stopped him?" Elrohir remarked with a grin as they availed themselves of Legolas’ guest chambers.

"Probably," Elladan shook his head as he blew out the candles. "And he most likely would have fallen asleep on the way to the door. I told you, he’s too much like Estel in some ways," he chuckled. "Ready to up and leave at a moment’s notice in the dead of the night..."

"Elladan?"

"Yes?"

"Isn’t that what we did?"

"Shut up and go to sleep Elrohir."

Silent laughter whispered quietly in the darkened rooms.

 

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

 

Saruman had seen the men approaching his tower when they were still a few miles away. By the time they reached his dwelling the Maiar was standing on the tall black stone steps that led into Orthanc.

A rough, weathered man on a horse skidded to a stop on the gravely dirt path that led to the dark tall spire. Quickly dismounting, he bowed slightly in deference and approached the entry.

"What have you brought Seobryn?" The wizard’s voice was deep and calm but the tone brokered no hesitation.

Glancing into the frowning face of the sorcerer, Seobryn fought to keep his emotions from showing. He hated dealing with the wizard. Saruman was difficult, intolerant and demanding and every time he graced the human with his glance, Seobryn was sure the white being could see straight through him.

"Well?" Saruman hated repeating himself. He watched idly as the two men that Seobryn had brought with him into Isengard dismounted and held the horses still while their employer discussed business.

Saruman had not invited them in nor even asked them to ascend the stairs, so Seobryn was forced to look up at the wizard and give his recount.

"The breeding goes well. But it goes very slowly, my lord." The trader tried not to wince when the frown on the wizard’s face deepened and he continued quickly, nervously twisting the thick sealing ring on his left forefinger. "Of the wargs you sent down, only a few have survived. They do not do well in the southern reaches they were not bred for the temperatures or the lack of humidity. The survivors are sluggish and temperamental. They despise the taergs and do not cooperate."

"Did you expect that they would?" Saruman descended several steps causing the human to back up. "I did not send them down there for you to make them comfortable, I sent them down to aid in the crossbreeding. I want that new creature."

Swallowing hard, Seobryn mustered his courage and stepped forward locking eyes with the wizard, "My lord will be pleased to know that we do have one that appears to be a successful cross between the taergs and the wargs. It is young still and we do not wish to remove it from the climate but if it pleases you I will see it brought back with us on our return trip."

The wizard’s ire seemed to abate somewhat as he pondered the man’s words. "A successfully bred creature?"

"Yes my lord." Seobryn was slightly puzzled. Hadn’t the wizard received his letter? It seemed not. If he ever saw that fool he’d sent with it again he’d wring his neck. The idiot orcs with him must have been no better.

Nodding slowly a thin cold smile stretched the Istari’s lips and he descended the steps gaining the man’s side.

Seobryn held his ground and waited, watching as the wizard removed a canvas bag and a sealed letter from an inner pocket in the folds of his clothing. He handed them both to the trader.

"Give these to your employer," he hefted the pouch in his hand slightly as he gave it over. "Tell him this will help take some of the stubbornness out of those problematic creatures. Once they taste this they will be much more compliant. I will not have that be another excuse for slow or shoddy work, you understand?"

Fighting the urge to shy from the wicked smile that touched Saruman’s lips, Seobryn accepted the bag, tucking it into his tunic and nodding.

"Time runs short as does my patience. When next you come I expect to see this proof of your success, if not, I will not be pleased. I expect you to give Rhuddryn a full accounting of our meeting, as well as the letter, he should know of my displeasure." Saruman’s gazed bored through the trader until the man dropped his glance, nodding obediently. His admonishment delivered, the wizard’s tone changed abruptly. "Have you and your men received the parts and supplies that my servants brought to you?"

"Yes Lord Saruman. Your men met us at the gate and I have sent the rest of my men back to camp with your generous provisions. The warg parts will be very useful."

Soundlessly the wizard turned and mounted the steps, their conversation over.

With a sigh Seobryn turned and walked back to the horses. Two of his men, Malk and Chadoc had already mounted their steeds and Chadoc urged his horse forward, meeting his employer halfway, the reins of Seobryn’s stallion in his hands. He held the horse steady as the trader gained his seat.

Silence hung between the three humans as they turned to make their way back out of Orthanc, the unnatural quiet spooking the horses, which shied beneath their owners.

"Let’s go." Seobryn whispered gruffly to his men, the sooner they were away the better he would feel about that whole transaction. He couldn’t shake the feeling that they were on dangerously thin ice with the wizard.

"It’s not too late to back out of this." Chadoc spoke quietly leaning towards Seobryn, as they slowly cantered out. He hated their recent dealings.

The older trader stared at him for a few moments considering the suggestion, but Rhuddryn’s pay was better than decent and he enjoyed living in the south as opposed to the colder, wetter regions of Middle Earth. Enduring the wizard’s ire was worth it so far.

"It’ll be fine Chadoc. Let's just go." He started to spur his horse forward when a dark voice stopped him floating over the gardens of Isengard.

"Failure is not an option."

The sound of the words sent a shiver up Seobryn’s spine and he whirled around in his saddle but there was no sign of the white wizard anywhere, only the foreboding façade of Orthanc silently watching them.

Spurring his horse into a gallop the trader headed for the gates of Isengard, he wanted to get away from the one who seemed to know his every thought. He needed to be far away from this place.

High up in his tower Saruman watched the fleeing humans. He glanced idly back into the interior of his study. A small hunched over orc waited patiently for him.

"How did it go my lord?" the dark creature questioned.

Walking back into the chamber the Istari seated himself at his desk before turning his attention to the foul servant. "They are humans Skarmazh, how do you *think* it went?"

The orc snickered softly before resuming to attend to his masters needs.

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

 

Legolas was not exactly able to leave at first light as he had intended, because he had neglected to remember the fact that of course, his father would want to know all about where he was going and what he was doing. At first, the prince was somewhat leery about the King’s reaction to this, since he had not always approved of Legolas’ friendship with Aragorn, but that had softened considerably since the human had helped them win the kingdom back from Thranduil’s deranged brother several years ago, so Legolas hoped this would not be as difficult as it once would have been.

Thranduil eyed his son closely.

"Legolas... when you hardly knew him, you went into exile to save his life, you disappear with him for years at a time, you left Mirkwood alone in the dead of the worst winter in recent memory to track him across the mountains, *without* a word I might add, and proceeded to be gone all winter yet again..." Thranduil shook his head at his son, yet Legolas was relieved to see at least a faint glint of humor behind his father’s stern face.

"Now you barely come back alive from fighting orcs and the next day intend to leave again for... how long Legolas?"

Legolas met his gaze without wavering. "I don’t know. It may be a very long time father. I’m sorry to leave for such a length, but the orcs are gone, for now at least. The borders are secured, Raniean and Trelan are more than capable of holding them in my absence... this is something I have to do. He’s my friend. I would have your blessing on it father, but will go without if I must."

Thranduil’s face softened and he sighed. "Of course you have it Legolas. I would be a fool indeed to have not learned how useless it is to try to change your mind when it is made up, especially where that Dùnadan is concerned." The king smiled, laying his hand on his son’s shoulder. "Go, find your friend, do whatever it is you need to do. My heart and my prayers go with you."

Legolas smiled warmly and clasped his father’s arm. "Thank you father."

~*~

Legolas was busy placing the last of his gear across the back of his horse when the twins found him. They were both dressed, packed and ready to leave once more as well, for they had to return home with all haste if they hoped to keep their doings to themselves. If Legolas had been going to Rivendell, their paths would have lain together, but Legolas had decided instead to head straight for the grasslands of Rohan, since it seemed probable that that was where Aragorn had most likely ended up.

"How did it go with your father?" Elrohir asked after a moment. Once, when they were all much younger, necessity had caused the twins to spend a summer in Mirkwood. They had learned very quickly that Thranduil was not Elrond and they could not get away with half the stunts they pulled at home. The twins hoped that this situation had not inadvertently caused any difficulty between Legolas and Thranduil, the last thing they wanted was to spread the family trouble around.

"Surprisingly well," Legolas admitted with a half-grin, knowing there was a time when his father would have flat-out forbidden him from such a quest, especially since it concerned humans and Noldorian elves. "Since the day he first came here your brother has been changing minds, and hearts."

Legolas paused when he saw the shadow of hurt that chased itself across the brothers’ faces when they thought of Estel. "I’m sorry," he apologized softly.

"Don’t be, it’s true," Elladan shook his head, his emotions near the surface, but well restrained. "Estel has always been like that. So giving, so trusting... it opens hearts, as well as getting him into every scrape conceivable. Maybe if we’d been a little more open, when he tried to share his heart with us, he’d have known that we..." the elf did not finish. He had already said more than he intended to.

Elrohir looked away. Something silver glistened behind his long black lashes and he blinked several times, pretending to have gotten something in his eye.

Legolas’ heart ached. He had always admired and even slightly envied the relationships shared by the twins, their father and their human brother. It was so close, so comfortable, so warm and loving. To see it being pulled apart like this... it was nothing less than painful.

"Estel will be all right," Legolas said quietly. "I’ve watched your family; I’ve seen it under the best of times and the worst of times. What you have together," he gently touched Elladan’s chest, above his heart. "Is strong. Nothing can break it forever. Despite how it must feel, I *know* that Estel loves you both very much, and in his heart, he knows you love him too. I will speak with him, and Valar willing, when his task is complete, I will bring him home safely to you."

Elladan and Elrohir couldn’t speak at the moment, but they both hugged Legolas tightly. The blonde elf was no longer thrown off by the emotional contact and hugged them back. He had learned already that Aragorn’s family was much more affectionately demonstrative than his own, and he had come to appreciate that.

"It seems as if you’re always doing that Legolas, I don’t know whether to thank you, or apologize, but bring yourself back safely too while you’re at it," Elladan chuckled hoarsely, his voice slightly choked at the old joke. "We’ll have enough explaining to do to father by that point."

"Here," Elrohir pressed a small silver circle into Legolas’ palm. "For Estel, when you find him. May it help him remember that his life is neither empty, nor meaningless, and there are those who love him dearly."

Legolas nodded, carefully tucking the ring of Barahir into one of the safest, inmost pockets of his tunic. "All will be well, I promise you."

Leaping lightly up onto his horse, Legolas said his last farewells. All was in order and he was ready to leave. He had already handed over the border patrols he had been commanding to Raniean and Trelan, who wished their friend well in his quest. They would have gone with him if they could, but they knew they were needed here. The orcs on their boundaries had been quelled, but not defeated, and Legolas could not have left in good conscience if he did not know that he was leaving his home in the most capable of hands.

Waving farewell to Elladan and Elrohir, Legolas urged his mount out of the courtyard. He had no way of knowing what the future held for either he or Aragorn, or how very different it would be from anything he expected that morning when he rode out of the gates and left his home behind him.

 

___________________________________________________________

~*PART FOUR*~

 

 

Aragorn peered through the canopy of green leaves in front of his face without moving. Crouched on the low limb of a large oak tree and hidden by its foliage he held perfectly still. It was a trick Legolas had taught him and it worked well. People rarely looked *up* to see if they were being followed or watched.

Somewhere in the underbrush off to the far right, Laener was equally well hidden.

The small group of men that the two rangers were observing was totally unaware of their silent presence; had been for weeks. By now Aragorn and Laener knew the name and appearance of every man in the troop, and the traders did not even know they were there.

Aragorn and Laener had made good time on their journey down to West Emnet, but had nearly missed the people they sought all together anyway. It was only Aragorn’s keen observation skills that matched up the odd sealing ring on the hand of this band’s lead man to the impression on the broken seal on the letter they had intercepted when they crossed paths with these traders in the small town of Ihel, now many leagues behind them. From a distance of course, the young ranger hadn’t been able to be entirely sure. He’d needed a closer look.

If he had not been intent on being completely still and silent, Aragorn would have rubbed his jaw ruefully.

He had pretended to be drunk in order to get a closer look at the ring without seeming suspicious. He got a closer look all right, as well as a complimentary sample of the other man’s knuckles when the one who they now knew was Seobryn, punched the supposed ‘drunk’ in the face. The incident had also earned Aragorn a night’s stay in the town’s lock-up for being drunk and disorderly. Laener thought he was crazy, but the young ranger considered it all worthwhile, because they could now be certain that they had found the men they sought. Even Laener had to agree with him there.

All that was a long way behind them now. Seobryn and his men had passed from the grasslands of Rohan into Anórien, following the old trade routes along the base of the White Mountains. All the while Aragorn and Laener followed the group, silent and undetected. The rangers had concluded with some frustration that they had come upon these men too late to discover who they had been meeting with, since the course they were taking suggested that the group was on the return leg of its journey, if they were in fact from somewhere in Harad as the letter they had found seemed to indicate.

The sun was setting and a couple of biting insects buzzed around Aragorn’s exposed neck and face, but he didn’t dare swat them, he was too close to their quarry to risk detection. The air was hot and perspiration made the young ranger’s hair cling to the sides of his face. It was the heat of summer down here in the southlands and already much warmer than the balmy northlands ever got. It was in fact so warm that Aragorn had been forced to stop wearing his leather-overcoat. Most of their gear the rangers carried with them, even when spying, but for tonight’s watch Aragorn had left his coat behind at his and Laener’s campsite, because the tree-scaling involved made any unnecessary baggage a liability. He would retrieve it before they moved out again.

Four days ago, they had circumvented Minas Tirith and crossed the Great River to link up with the caravan route known as the Harad Road. There was now no doubt that Seobryn and his party were heading to Harad. This was both a good and a bad thing for the rangers who followed them. It was good because it meant that Aragorn and Laener had a chance of following them to wherever they were going and hopefully finding out what was going on, but it was bad because the further and further south they got, the harder it would be to send back word of what they found.

So it was that the rangers had decided that they needed to risk getting a little closer to their quarry. Thus far they had mainly followed at a distance, so as to keep out of sight more easily. But tonight they stationed themselves dangerously close to the traders’ camp, hoping to overhear some of their talk. If they could find something out now, before they were too deep into the south, then one of them could bring word back to the other rangers while the second continued to follow. It was a risky gambit, but the two rangers felt they had little choice.

Aragorn had volunteered to take the most dangerous position, almost directly over the traders’ heads, leaving Laener to watch the flank.

From where he perched, hidden in the trees, Aragorn could hear most of what was being said in the camp below. So far none of it had been particularly useful. Just when he was beginning to think this was all in vain, he heard Seobryn talking to a man named Chadoc, who appeared to be something of a second-in-command.

"I will just be glad when this whole thing is over," Chadoc was saying. He was a gloomy man who was fond of pointing out the downside of things, often times to his employer’s great irritation.

"You weren’t complaining the last time you spent your pay," Seobryn shook his head. "And the big payoff doesn’t come until we finish this off."

"*If* we can finish it off. Seobryn, you *know* that things aren’t going as well as you made them out to be back north. There will be trouble if this falls through. Big trouble."

"You worry too much Chadoc! You’re supposed to leave that to me," the head trader scowled. "Think of what we’re creating. Think of the possibilities. After all, once we have success, we don’t have to sell all to one place, no matter who commissioned them. Have you any idea how many buyers there would be for a creature that could survive either north or south, that combines the silent ferociousness of the taergs coupled with the cunning and controllability of the wargs? With creatures like that at their command anybody could be a king, right? Once we’ve bred our new species, the money won’t stop rolling in!"

"You’re talking double-dealing," Chadoc raised one eyebrow. "You know the boss wants them all for himself. He’s got plans."

Seobryn snorted. "What do I care for his plans? I’ve talked to Rhuddryn, he’s in on it if we are and this far south, who can touch us anyway? Besides, what he doesn’t know won’t hurt him."

Chadoc nodded slowly. He had to admit he liked the idea of crossing the white wizard if he had the chance to do so safely.

Aragorn listened with keen interest. Some of what they spoke was a mystery to him. He did not know what taergs were, but if they were mentioned in the same sentence with wargs, then they had to be deadly. Was this it then? Was that the secret these men carried, the new army they were creating? Some kind of horrible new breed of warg, ferocious enough to suppress and oppress entire regions? It was a frightening thought, and a terrible danger if they succeeded.

The young ranger tensed, anxious now to be able to get out of here and share what he had heard with Laener. However, he knew that he could not relinquish his position until everyone was asleep and whoever was on watch that night moved away to the perimeter of the camp. He was too close to dare risk moving until then.

Time crept on, and Aragorn stoically ignored how badly his legs were cramping or how uncomfortable his position was. Night had fallen and the murmur of the camp below was dying down. Chadoc was standing the first watch and he knelt to light a long-burning torch from the dying embers of the fire before moving off to his post. Soon Aragorn would be able to...

An ear-splitting, heart-stopping howl rent the quiet curtain of the night and Aragorn could not help jerking, his eyes quickly scanning the darkness outside the camp, seeking what had made such a sound.

Everyone below him did the same thing as men bolted upright in their bedrolls and stumbled to their feet, looking to Chadoc who was already making his way off to the right, towards the source of the sound, torch in hand and sword drawn. A second man with a bow strung and ready was not far behind. Whatever that was had been much too close for comfort.

The howl came again, only it was more of a growl this time, like the cry of a pouncing animal. The snarl turned inexplicably into a yelp of pain before it fell silent.

"Chadoc! What is it, what do you see?" Seobryn was on his feet now, lighting a torch of his own.

Chadoc cursed in surprise. "A wolf, but its dead, someone... hey! Someone’s out here! There! He’s running!"

Seobryn looked truly alarmed. "WHAT? What do you mean someone’s out there? Get him!"

Chaos erupted. Somewhere out in the dark the hiss of arrows being released whistled sharply on the night air, but it did not sound as if they had struck anything. Chadoc’s bobbing torch got rapidly farther away.

Aragorn closed his eyes and swore silently. Laener. The wolf must have gone after Laener and in having to defend himself the ranger was forced to give away his presence. This was not good and Aragorn tensed, wondering what he should do now. A moment later that decision was made for him.

At the mention of wolves and intruders everyone in the camp started lighting torches. Huge bats, which had come to rest quietly in the overhanging branches of the trees around the camp as darkness fell, fluttered free of their perches in large groups as the sudden flare of torchlight illuminated their gathering spot, angering and driving them away by its brilliance.

Several flew into Aragorn in their blind haste, their large, heavy bodies and the surprise of their impact nearly knocking him off balance. The young ranger grabbed the branch next to him to keep from slipping and falling as the bats picked themselves up and flew off with the others.

The men in the camp ducked and called out in surprise as the large, black, leathery-bodied creatures swept screaming over their heads and into the night. Unfortunately, this caused the men to look up into the trees.

Seobryn’s eyes locked onto Aragorn. The young ranger had not yet had time to pull back into the deeper cover of the branches after his close encounter.

Aragorn knew his cover was blown the instant he saw the trader’s gaze fall on him, even before Seobryn had a chance to open his mouth.

Jumping down from the tree quicker than most would have thought possible, Aragorn landed on top of Seobryn, knocking the air out of him, before dashing quickly by the startled, confused men who could not figure out where in the world he had come from.

Seobryn struggled to his knees, roughly gasping to get his breath back. "DON’T JUST STAND THERE!! Get them or I’ll have your hides!! NOW!" he shouted angrily at his men, who were already rushing to obey.

Aragorn fled towards the cover of darkness outside camp, moving as fast as his legs would carry him. Bursting out of the trees almost before he realized he had reached their end, he found himself in the large, empty plain beyond. Dry, knee-high, withered grass whipped at his boots as he ran. An arrow whistled by his head, stirring his hair, another hissed past his hand and he started zigzagging as he ran, making himself a harder target for the men who were close on his heels.

One of the pursuers tripped on a hidden hillock and fell, his torch rolling from his hand and instantly setting the dry grass aflame. The predominately westerly wind fanned the flames, spreading them quickly in the direction that the men had been running.

Getting the same idea at the once, several of the other men fanned, out, using their torches to light the grass, turning night into near mid-day radiance.

Ahead in the distance, Chadoc and the men, chasing Laener saw the glow and realized what was happening. Quickly, they circled around to the flank, setting the grasslands ablaze behind them, creating a second sweeping curtain of flame to trap their quarry like hunters lying a snare.

Aragorn choked on the billowing smoke that stung his eyes and burned his lungs. The flames raced after him faster than was possible for his human pursuers, who followed the burned-out path that the blaze left behind. Although the grass burned hot, it burned fast, leaving only dead char in its wake.

The young ranger could feel the heat growing nearer behind him, and up ahead, saw a second curtain of flame rising up to obscure the stars. The flames drove him further and further to his right, just as his pursuers knew it would. The light of the fire was making him an easy target and the arrows that sought him kept coming closer and closer.

Reaching a section of overgrowth covering the top of a steep ravine Aragorn ducked under the foliage and scrambled down the incline. He hoped to get to lower ground, where the sinking haze of smoke from the wildfire, drawn down to the earth by the oppressively thick air, would mask his presence at least a little. The scramble ended up becoming more of a tumble and at the bottom he nearly ran into someone. The young ranger scrambled back, going for his weapon, but a moment later his stinging, watering eyes made out who it was.

"Strider, this way, we’ve got to get upwind," Laener grabbed the younger man’s arm as the two of them scrambled through the little brush-choked ravine. The flames had followed them down and were now lapping along the walls of the shallow indent.

Aragorn coughed hard, pressing his nose and mouth against his sleeve as he stumbled along, trying to breathe around the smoke. "Laener, I heard them, I know what’s going on," he choked out around his own inability to breathe properly. In case only one of them made it out of this, it was important that both of them knew. "They’re cross-breeding wargs with some other creature, trying to create some kind of super-monster army. We have to tell the others!"

Laener nodded, his own shirt pulled up to cover his nose and mouth. "Listen to me Strider, I don’t know if we’ll both get out of this, but one of us has to, all right? If one of us has the chance, we have to go for it, no matter what; this news is too big to risk losing."

Aragorn nodded his agreement; he had already been thinking the same thing. Word of this had to get out. The alternative was too horrible to think about.

The wind pushed the fire through the ravine quicker than anyone would have guessed, overtaking the two men. The brush had caught fire as well as the grass and dead vines and small branches fell flaming from above the rangers as they battled their way through the overpowering curtain of flames.

Aragorn yanked Laener out of the way as a large heap of burning brush toppled down from the ravine wall, scattering fire and sparks everywhere. The air was too thick with smoke to breathe now, and the two rangers had to stay low, nearly crawling in order to not suffocate on the fumes. The end was in sight as the billowing inferno around them opened out into the deceitfully tranquil beauty of the star-clad night ahead. But the mouth of the gully was overhung by thick, interlacing vines that the fire had already reached. The blazing stalks groaned and creaked, ready to come crashing down, fatally trapping the two rangers.

Rising to their feet and rushing forward at the last possible moment, Aragorn and Laener burst out of the gully just as the curtain of fire fell behind them with a crackling rush and roar.

The small ravine emptied out into another flat plain which dropped down towards a swiftly flowing river, but Aragorn only had a moment to take in the lay of the land before Laener was pushing him to the ground urgently. For a moment the younger man didn’t understand, then he felt the hot pain against his back and shoulder.

Part of Aragorn’s tunic had caught fire in that last narrow brush and the elder ranger quickly helped smother the flames with his hands as Aragorn rolled to put them out. As soon as that was taken care of, the two men were on their feet again. They had totally lost track of where their pursuers were, but they could not be far away, and perhaps just as deadly, the fire had rapidly spread out of the small rift and was right on the rangers’ heels again as they made swiftly for the river. If they could get across, then hopefully both the fire and their pursers would be behind them.

The river was swift, but not deep. The cool water was welcomingly refreshing as they plunged into the current, quickly struggling to the other side.

Laener was the stronger swimmer, and made it first. Aragorn got caught in a small jetty that carried him a little further downstream before he was able to finally make shore. When he pulled himself up onto the bank on his hands and knees he looked around for his companion... and found instead the pointed head of an arrow staring him in the face.

Before he could even blink, strong hands closed around his arms as his hands were jerked behind his back.

Looking up, he saw Chadoc and the other men who had been chasing them standing all around, weapons drawn. Laener they held between them, his hands bound behind him and a gag in his mouth. Their torches had been put out; giving their quarry no warning of their presence until it was too late.

Trapped with the enemy in front of them and both the river and the fire still blazing on the opposite shore, behind them, the two rangers had no way out.

Aragorn let his breath out slowly as his hands were tightly bound behind his back and the realization of what had happened sunk in, forming like a ball of heavy ice in his stomach.

Laener’s gag was removed and he was shoved to his knees on the riverbank beside Aragorn as they were both searched for hidden weapons.

Chadoc eyed the two dripping prisoners. He smiled, obviously very pleased with himself. "First rule of a prize-hunter, if there’s fire, your quarry will flee to the nearest water. Now, do you two want to tell me who you are and what you were doing snooping around our camp?"

Predictably, there was no answer.

"Look at this," one of the men who had just confiscated their weapons pointed to the elvish lettering on the blade of Aragorn’s dagger. "Elvish weapons and a nose for trouble... sounds like rangers too me."

Chadoc was squinting hard at Aragorn. "Aren’t you the one who caused all the trouble back in Ihel?" Aragorn didn’t answer, but he didn’t have to. "You are, aren’t you?" the man straightened up again with an emotionless chuckle. "I don’t know what you two are up to, but you’d better reconsider this silent attitude of yours before we get back to camp, it won’t serve you at all, I promise you that," he said with a wicked gleam in his eye.

Aragorn steeled his jaw as they were dragged back to their feet once more. They had failed. And now who knew what price they, and the rest of the world was going to pay?

 

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

 

Elrond heard the great wooden doors of the house open and close. He knew by the sound of the careful closure that the ones who had just entered were trying to keep their presence quiet, but the whispered conversation and the light footfalls told him what he needed to know. Standing from his desk, he laid down his pen and quietly walked into the main hall.

Elladan and Elrohir were softly conversing with one another.

"And if he asks?" Elrohir whispered, his face mere inches from his twin.

"Then you’ll let me do the talking." Elladan glanced furtively about them, hoping they were alone.

"Oh right," Elrohir argued back quietly, "the last time that happened..."

"The last time that happened you had taken your brother out for target practice, and he was the target you were practicing with. Just what are you two talking about?" Elrond’s deep voice cut through the whispered conversation. He barely repressed his smile as he took in the guilty looks that quickly passed across his son’s faces before being replaced by innocent stares.

Neither of the twins spoke, their conspiracy having been interrupted before they could agree. Elrond shook his head and motioned them in.

"Elladan, did you meet up with the Beornings?" When the eldest twin nodded slightly he continued playing out his hand, "And how are they faring? Did they send any word back?"

His tongue loosened by what he perceived to be a reprieve in his father’s original line of questioning, Elladan relaxed and answered, "Yes we did meet with them and they are doing well. They send their regards and a request for more of the lathril herb. It seems they have had an outbreak of the stomach sickness again and have found that the lathril helps to ease it."

"They also sent a fairly large supply of their honey-cakes back for Celboril." Elrohir smiled widely at the announcement.

The Beornings were famous for their honey-cakes and Elrond knew how much the twins enjoyed them. He could not contain his smile at the pleasure that was easily read on their faces. "Then we will send lathril to them immediately."

"We can go back with it father, if you like." Elladan volunteered.

"No my son, I’ll send Moranuen. My heart would have here you for a bit." His smile turned sad and he quickly changed the subject. "And did you experience trouble along the way?" He asked, resuming his previous line of questioning; he had yet to find an answer to his query.

"No father." Elladan replied innocently, for it was the truth. Their travel had been easy and swift.

"And did you stay on with Beaoma?" Elrond knew that his sons frequented the master baker’s home often when with the Beornings. They enjoyed the cantankerous older man and he in turn took pleasure in their lightheartedness feeding them all the honey-cakes they could eat when under his roof.

"No, we just dropped off what they asked for." Elrohir replied, his face blank of all expression.

Elrond smiled wickedly as Elladan winced and looked down to the floor, he knew his twin had just given them away.

The two young elves shifted nervously under the piercing stare of their father. With a snort of disgust Elladan cuffed Elrohir upside the head, "I told you to let me do the talking."

"I blew it didn’t I?" The youngest twin looked petulantly between his brother and father.

"Yes, nice going." Elladan growled.

"No, you did not." Elrond quietly corrected his son, "I already knew."

"HOW?" The twins were shocked by their father’s admission. They had thought they had they had covered all their excuses and their journey had taken less than a month which was unusual for the long trip over the mountains that separated them from Mirkwood.

"Your length of travel for one thing, albeit it swift, it was no turn around from the Beornings. Barahir is missing for another." Elrond laid out all the reasons behind his assumption, "Your acts of innocence, which were pathetic attempts to hide your guilt. And..." He stopped, his gaze softening as he glanced between his sons, "And I know the both of you very well. Your love for Estel and the fact that you both assume the role of the older brother would not allow you to leave him to himself for any moment of time under the given circumstances. He forbade you to follow him, you have never been successful at tracking him since he turned sixteen when he does not want you to, and I also told you to let him go. However, Legolas was not forbidden and he among all of us can track that young human no matter how Estel does not wish to be found as he has proved before. I knew the night you left, that you were going to his estate."

Elladan dropped his gaze, knowing he could not lie to the older elf, "I’m sorry father. It’s just that I couldn’t..."

Elrond held up his hand, forestalling any arguments or apologies. "Do not apologize. I had secretly hoped you would do just as you have. Although Estel is now an adult." The elf lord laughed as the twins began to protest, quieting them with his voice as he continued, "Yes, he is my sons and he must be treated as such. In human years he is very much an adult. However the way he left breaks my heart and I wish for his return every night. What happened between us, as a family, is not irreparable. Merely a misunderstanding, and yet Estel’s heart is broken as well I fear."

With a soft sigh Elrond stopped speaking and walked towards the large picture window that comprised nearly half the far wall, hands clasped behind back. When he spoke again his voice was soft, "Who can blame him? Among our peoples your sister is the most beautiful of them all. It just never crossed my mind that he would fall in love with her. Perhaps if they had grown up together like the three of you..."

A small laugh, escaped Elrohir’s lips, "Nay father, I think not even that would have prevented this. For it is not all Estel’s fault."

Elrond whirled on the twins. "She talked to you?"

"No." Elladan answered him, "She did not have to."

"You can see it in her eyes, in the way she looked at him..." Elrohir finished his brother’s thought, and in turn was interrupted by his twin who completed the sentence.

"...when she left." Elladan nodded, "It was obvious."

"Yes" Elrohir agreed, glancing between his brother and father.

"I thought as much." Elrond mused quietly, turning back to gaze out into the night with a deep heavy sigh. Still... Arwen was young. Sometimes these things were passing fancies. She might well forget all about it eventually. However he doubted that Estel would, and that was the painful part.

"Father, don’t worry. Legolas left ahead of us. He said he would speak with him... He will find Estel and they will both be home before you know it."

"I hope that it is as you speak." Elrond’s gaze and thoughts were far away, focused on a boy who would be a man and the predicament that fate had laid in their laps, "but I fear it may not be that easy."

Celboril had quietly entered the main room and stood off to the side, waiting for a chance to speak. He had almost decided to leave the small family to itself and come back for them later when the lull in conversation and the awkwardness of the moment lent him the opportunity he needed. "My lord?" he spoke softly, gaining the elves attention, "Your pardon my lord, but dinner is ready if you are." He left the invitation open.

"I am not hungry." Elrond stated simply, turned back to the window.

"We’ll be right there." Elladan smiled at the housekeeper and nodded, releasing the elf from the room.

Elrohir walked up behind the older elf and gently touched the Elrond’s back, "Father?"

A simple nod answered the unspoken request. "You will both be staying on for a while will you not?"

The twins look at each other in surprise. Thoughts of leaving hadn’t actually crossed their minds and they wondered at the odd request.

"Yes of course." Elladan replied somewhat hesitantly.

"Good." Elrond glanced at each a small smile tugging at his lips. "Let us go see what Celboril has prepared then shall we?"

Elladan watched as his brother and father left the hall before him. Glancing back out the darkened window he whispered. "Find him Legolas, and be swift." Turning on his heels he quietly followed the others out to dinning hall.

 

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

 

Chadoc led the men back to camp. They had had to wait until the wildfire they had kindled had burned itself out, but that hadn’t taken long. The grassfire was quick and hot, but had not spread to the trees and burned itself out fully in less than an hour. A little ways upstream, the riverbed was shallow enough to allow chest-high wading and the small group made its way back across the recently scorched landscape.

Only two or three men had remained behind with the traders’ gear, but upwind and far back in the trees as the location was, there had been no danger of the fire posing any threat to the campsite.

Seobryn stood from their own small fire where he was crouched stoking the flames as if half the meadow had not just been blazed away hardly less than an hour before. He glared at the two rangers bound in the midst of his men, his eyes mere slits as he appraised the intruders.

"Were there only two?" He glanced slowly at Chadoc. The hunter nodded quietly, eyeing the silent rangers.

"They aren’t talking." Chadoc cast his gaze back to the two prisoners. "But I know they overheard us. They were sure in a big hurry to get out of here."

Seobryn nodded pushing one of the men guarding Aragorn away from the ranger. "What did you hear?"

The young dark haired man before him remained silent, casting his gaze out across the ravine. Inside Aragorn was trembling, working hard to control his breathing and steel his face from the apprehension that gripped his heart. It would do no good for these men to think they had the upper hand, he would never tell them what he knew, he couldn’t. One of them had to make it out of this alive and tell the others.

"If you talk now it will go easier on you later." Seobryn’s rough voice grated in his ears.

Beside him Laener stiffened. The older ranger stared straight at the warg breeder, his eyes matching the coldness of the other.

"I suppose you know nothing either?" Seobryn growled glancing up at the tall man. "Of course not." Shaking his head in disgust the trader turned and walked away talking as he paced back through the camp. "Well that’s all right because there are ways to make you talk." He stopped and glanced over his shoulder, "Shall I show you them?"

Snapping his fingers Seobryn motioned to the tree he stopped in front of, "Bring me the tall one."

Chadoc grabbed Laener, shoving the ranger forward towards where his boss stood waiting.

Fear spiked through Aragorn. He couldn’t watch while they tormented Laener for information, he knew the ranger would never give up what he had overheard. He had to do something and do it now. The guards near him were lax watching what was taking place across the campfire.

The camp was in disarray, a small table stood near his left, it was covered in an odd assortment of objects including a burlap pouch and a small wood saw, propped blade up. Seeing his opportunity to escape and knowing that they had precious little time, Aragorn slammed his shoulder into the guard on his left pushing the man off balance and driving him to the ground. Gaining the makeshift tableside he raked his bound hands across the serrated blade and broke the ropes from around his wrists.

Balancing against the tabletop Aragorn kicked out at the guard, rushing him from behind. He caught the man in the chest, knocking the wind out of him and pressing him back. Rounding quickly on the surprised guard he smashed his fist into the side of the man’s head, driving him to the forest floor. Kicking the man over on his back he swiftly drew the hunter’s sword and turned to face the rush of Seobryn’s men.

They had left Laener at their employer’s demand and raced to contain the loosened prisoner.

"Get him now!" Seobryn shouted over the chaos.

"Laener go!" Aragorn caught the blade of one of the trader’s on the edge of his sword, twisting inward towards the man and punching him with his free hand before the hunter could respond.

Laener threw his arms up over his head and jerked his hands hard, breaking free the barely formed knots that held him bound. He ran for the line of picketed horses, intending to lose his pursuers. He hated to leave the younger ranger behind, but one of them had to make it out alive, the information they possessed was too vital and he was not about to waste the opportunity that Aragorn had presented them with.

"Damn it!" Seobryn turned swiftly on his heels seeing the other ranger run off towards their horses. "Stop him!"

One of the hunters heading towards Aragorn paused mid-step. Unslinging his bow he notched an arrow and sighted in on the retreating form. Before Seobryn could stop him the projectile was flying through the air. It slammed into Laener’s back shoving him forward and off balance. The picketed horses balked as the ranger stumbled towards them, shying away from the quick fumbling movements of the wounded man. Overcome by the pain and dizzy from being unable to draw breath Laener tumbled to his knees close to the embankment they were camped on.

As if in slow motion Aragorn saw the ranger fall over the side of the short cliff, the sounds of his own voice screaming Laener’s name fell oddly in his ears as he tried to press forward to help his friend.

Chadoc reached the fighting ranger’s side, realizing he had no weapons he grabbed the first thing his fist closed about: a rough cloth bag that Seobryn had brought with them from their last stop and was now sitting on the corner of the makeshift table. He hefted the weighted sack and threw it into the distracted man’s face in an attempt to stop him.

Aragorn was aware of the fact that Seobryn was yelling at his own men but his vision was suddenly clouded and a choking dust filled his nostrils as the burlap bag smacked him squarely in the face, its contents exploding out of it upon impact and sending him reeling. The images before him distorted as though rippled on the very air that was burning in his throat and lungs.

Taking advantage of the ranger’s confused state Chadoc grabbed a thick limb from the woodpile near the fire and smashed the timber against the side of Aragorn’s head. The wood impacted the ranger’s head with an odd sickening crack and Aragorn crumpled to the ground, blood welling from a deep gash that cut across his left temple. He lay on his side, his eyes half opened and his pupils swiftly dilating; his vision fixed across the camp to the far side where Laener had been.

"What were you thinking?!" Seobryn yelled at Chadoc shaking the now empty burlap sack in front of the man’s eyes. He waved his hand before his face in irritation, brushing specks of the dust that had exploded from the small bag out of the air in front of him. "Do you have any idea what this was?"

Chadoc opened his mouth but was quickly silenced as Seobryn stepped dangerously closer to him, "Now we’ll never know will we? This was for Rhuddryn from that sorcerer. Have you any idea how hard this will be to explain?" He threw the burlap against the chest of the other hunter and turned back to glare down at the ranger on the ground. Aiming a hard kick at Aragorn’s midsection he stormed across the camp yelling instructions to his men.

"Go get that other one and bring him back up here if he’s still alive, this one is no use to us now." He cursed quietly to himself as he threw the flap to his tent back, wondering darkly if the day could get any worse.

Pain exploded inside Aragorn’s head, images swam in front of his eyes and he drifted in and out of consciousness. A sharp constant ringing in his ears pounded in rhythm to the deep throbbing ache in his temple. He did not know what it was he had ingested but it was wreaking havoc with his mind. His breathing came in ragged gasps as he tried to still his convulsing diaphragm, trying to deal with the blow Seobryn had dealt him. He thought his mind deceived him and he blinked wondering why Laener was back in camp once more.

Consciousness taunted him as he fought with himself to remain awake and to try to escape, he needed to help Laener and make Seobryn stop, but his body had long ago failed to respond to him and he lay trapped within himself, his own blood clouding his vision and coloring the scenes before him as his wounded mind tried to deal with what he perceived. And what he perceived was a nightmare.

Sound came and went and he was never sure if it was him who was moaning or someone else. Seobryn’s voice echoed in his ears sharp and angry and he allowed it to be blocked out by the incessant roaring that fired through his awareness.

The last thing he was aware of consciously was seeing Seobryn’s men lift Laener’s lifeless body and throw it back over the embankment that he had fallen from earlier. Tears tracked unnoticed down Aragorn’s bruised face. It is over then, the thoughts whispered to him...it is over. His will to fight failed him at last and his mind withdrew from all the pain and all the hurt and all the ache and sorrow, finding refuge in the darkness in the nothingness that waited to enfold him.

...it was over...

 

___________________________________________________________

~*PART FIVE*~

 

~~~~~~~~

Somewhere there’s speaking,

It’s already coming in

Oh, and it’s rising at the back of your mind.

You never could get it

Unless you were fed it

Now you’re here and you don’t know why.

--Vertical Horizon

~~~~~~~~

 

Slowly, slowly... like bubbles trapped beneath the surface of a darkened pond but still fighting their way towards the light, consciousness was returning. And with it, pain. So much pain.

Aragorn moaned softly and tried to put his hand to his head, but his hands wouldn’t move. This wasn’t too surprising considering they were both bound quite securely in front of him, but the ranger was too far out of it to understand that, all he knew was he couldn’t move. It could have been his own body failing to respond for all he knew.

His head was on fire, sheer, throbbing pain worse than anything he had ever experienced before. Hazy, unsteady images flashed through his mind, parading across the insides of his closed eyelids, seeming to take up physical space where there was none, like ghosts... horrible phantasms; too nightmarish for words.

Questions, questions... they wouldn’t stop, they wouldn’t stop... but he had to close his mind to them, he could tell them nothing, nothing! He just wanted it to stop...

Blood. There was blood everywhere. Laener was screaming. Dear heaven Aragorn had never felt so helpless... the young ranger stirred restlessly, tossing his head against the pain, both physical and mental. Aragorn’s foggy, reeling, swollen mind, still under the influence of whatever had been in the broken pouch, recoiled at the pain and horror of the memories, fleeing back into the past, seeking escape... but here too there was pain. His father’s face, his brothers’ looks, the unshed tears sparkling in Arwen’s eyes... his home was not his home. Aragorn moaned again as his injured mind pulled away from all the hurt that threatened to overwhelm him. It was too much, the pain was too great, he couldn’t handle it in this state so his mind pulled up its barriers, blocking out the pain and everything that caused it, shutting down the memories that hurt so badly, locking away that which was too painful for it to handle... fleeing into the comfortable darkness of forgetfulness. It was easy enough to do since his last overriding thought had been to hide everything he knew from those who sought that information from him.

"Is he coming around?" a voice asked, it seemed loud and unclear in Aragorn’s ringing ears. The young Dùnadan flinched away from the sound.

"I think so," someone else answered.

Aragorn blinked several times, but that didn’t clear his vision at all, the only things he could see were shapes and colors and light that seemed much, much too bright. A man was leaning over him and he guessed another was nearby, but he couldn’t see them. He couldn’t even really see the one above him. "W-who are you?" the young man’s voice slurred so badly it could barely be understood. "Where am I?"

"Don’t you remember?" the voice asked with a smirk that almost seemed frightening, but if he was supposed to be afraid, Aragorn couldn’t remember why. And yet he was afraid for some reason. He shifted slightly, again trying to move only to find that he was still unable to do so.

"No," Aragorn murmured, his confused face darkening in alarm as he sought for the information in his mind and did not find it... and in fact, found nothing at all. It was like opening a door and expecting to find a room full of people beyond, only to discover instead a vast, empty darkness. "No, I don’t..." his head was still pounding and his mind not completely there, but his alarm and panic went up several notches. "I don’t... I don’t remember anything! Who are you? W-where am I? W-who am I?"

The young ranger searched desperately for any sign, any clear recollection in the vague, empty sea of nothingness confronting his mind. He pressed his eyes shut again. Darkness, darkness was familiar... he tried to grab the recollection, capture the fleeting thought that danced teasingly on the edge of his consciousness... Instantly a horrible flash of searing pain shot through his mind and he cried out, his body physically jerking as if he had been struck, but no one had touched him. However the fire in his mind did not relent until he stopped trying to think and let the grey nothingness of his empty memories soothingly smother the unbearable pain that accompanied any attempt to circumvent the mental block that had cut him off from his own memories. As he let go of the struggle to remember, consciousness fled with it and the young man passed out again.

Seobryn knelt by the Dùnadan, a puzzled expression on his face as he ran his thumb along Aragorn’s split temple. Could the ranger really have lost his memory? He had heard of such things happening sometimes as the result of a severe blow to the head, but had seen many, many such injuries without ever coming across this result. He wondered if it had anything to do with the ranger having gotten a face-full of the magician’s unknown powder before he was injured.

Seobryn rolled thoughtfully back on his heels. Perhaps there was some kind of magic that he did not understand at work here, or perhaps it simply was one of those fluke happenings he had heard tell of... but whatever the cause, if this young man really had lost his memory then it presented him with a unique opportunity that he rather fancied.

Chadoc kicked Aragorn’s unconscious form lightly. "I think he must have lost his mind. We’ll get no more useful answers out of this one. These rangers are a queerly stubborn breed. I still can’t believe that other one never talked. It’s almost not human. Still, no real harm has been done, no one will ever know what they were unfortunate enough to find out. I suppose we should just kill this one too and be done with it, an easy death this time perhaps?"

"No," Seobryn shook his head. "We’ll wait. I want to see if he really has lost his mind or just his memory. If the later is true, then he’s no threat to us."

"But he’s no good to us either," Chadoc objected mildly.

"Maybe, maybe not..." Seobryn grinned as he pushed the ranger’s damp, tangled locks off his forehead. They would have to get him out of his singed, torn clothing. "But we might have a little fun... it’s not every day a man gets to give someone a whole new identity. I think there are ways he could be made useful to us. And if not, we can always kill him later. Now help me get him out of these things, if he really has lost his memory we don’t need anything bringing it back."

When they had removed Aragorn’s outer clothing Seobryn stood. Holding the singed tunic, he walked outside the tent to the firepit and tossed the shirt into the flames, sparks leapt skyward as the cloth was quickly consumed. "That’ll make sure he is never found." Without looking back, he stalked towards his tent, thoughts of his new prize crowding his mind.

 

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

 

The next time Aragorn awoke the pain was little better than the last, but his vision and his mind were somewhat clearer. He was also aware of the dull ache of the mild burn across his back that he had been in too much pain to notice before. He blinked up at the dark, animal-hide ceiling of the tent over his head and lifted one hand clumsily to his hurting head. He could move his hands this time.

He tried to figure out how he had gotten to where he was and what had happened, but beyond some blurry recollections of having briefly awoken who knew how long ago, his mind was still a disturbing blank. A quick stab of pain that nearly made him sick to his stomach was enough to convince the injured human that trying very hard to remember was not worth the effort at this point.

"You awake?" a voice that seemed vaguely familiar speaking near him made Aragorn start and look quickly in the direction from which the words had come. That was a mistake, for the quick motion of turning his head and eyes made his stomach lurch and the world spin dizzily out of control.

Aragorn moaned softly and covered his eyes with his hand, trying to bring his perceived equilibrium back to an at least somewhat stable position. "What happened? Where am I?" Aragorn felt like he’d asked those questions before, but the memories were extremely hazy at best, yet they were the clearest things he had as any indication of his missing past.

"You’re safe now Adrar, you’re back in my tent. Don’t you remember what happened?" Seobryn cocked an eyebrow at the ranger as if he truly were surprised.

"No," Aragorn ran his hand down his face, hesitantly opening his eyes once more. The face of the man who was now crouching beside him was familiar somehow, but... the young man winced and grit his teeth as the hot tendrils of pain in his mind severed the train of that thought, leaving him to wonder where it had been going with no hope of an answer. "No I don’t. Who are you?"

Seobryn did a passable job of looking surprised and almost hurt. He was enjoying this game. "You don’t remember me Adrar?"

Aragorn could only respond to the negative once more. "No... Adrar... is that my name?" he asked somewhat hesitantly. It was a horribly vulnerable feeling, not even knowing one’s own name.

"Of course it is," Seobryn laughed easily. "You really have taken quite a bad knock. There was a fight with some bandits who raided the camp two or three days ago... you do remember the fight don’t you? When you got hit on the head?" the older man was doing more than playing now, he wanted to be sure that the ranger’s condition was not temporary, or something that could be reversed if Aragorn thought about it for a while.

Aragorn tried to remember, tried hard, but there was nothing there and he began to feel dizzy again the more he tried. "I’m sorry, I don’t..."

"Seobryn," the other responded when he saw the Dùnadan searching for his name. "But you can call me Master, as you always have... but I guess you don’t remember that either? Nothing of the last eight years you have been with me? Nothing of your owners before that? We’re in South Ithilien, past Minas Tirith, west of Mordor, heading into South Gondor and going to Harad... does any of this sound familiar to you? Try Adrar, try hard. Don’t you remember? Don’t you remember anything?" the older man pushed, endeavoring to prod any memories that might be there, while at the same time planting his own version of Aragorn’s history into the Dùnadan’s hurting mind.

Aragorn did try, attempting to snag the vague wisps and illusions that danced somewhere just beyond the empty space in his mind. It hurt, it hurt horribly, but he pushed himself into the pain, trying to get through it... "I-I remember your voice... and darkness... and..." the young human cried out and clutched his head, tears of pain wetting his dark lashes as he rolled onto his side, pressing his fists into his eyes as the unbearable agony he had just brought upon himself tore his consciousness apart and felt as if it left his mind in bleeding shreds.

"T-there’s nothing there, I-I c-can’t... I’m sorry, I can’t, it hurts, it hurts too much, I can’t remember!" Aragorn half murmured, half cried, trembling from pain, fear and frustration. "It hurts when I try... and there’s nothing there. Nothing."

Seobryn patted his shoulder. "Then don’t try anymore. What’s done is done. Maybe your memory will come back with time, but if it hurts don’t force it. There’s nothing much about your life worth trying to remember anyway. You’re a slave Adrar, my slave. I bought you from an auctioneer eight years ago. A few days ago our camp was attacked and you were injured. That’s really all there is to tell. Go on and rest, regain your strength. We’ve got a long road ahead of us." Seobryn gave him one more pat before rising and going back about his business, leaving the confused young man he had just lied to to ponder his new-found ‘identity’.

Aragorn rolled onto his back again and covered his face with his hand. His whole body hurt. He didn’t know what had happened to him, but the results were miserable. He had no reason to disbelieve the things that Seobryn had told him, but it disturbed him greatly that he could remember none of it on his own. It was terribly uncomfortable and disconcerting for everything to be so totally unknown.

Seobryn glanced back at Aragorn as he sharpened his hunting knives in the doorway of the tent. The young man had swallowed his lie without a second’s hesitation. Aragorn would accept whatever he chose to tell him as truth. This was going to be interesting. And more than a little fun.

 

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

 

Legolas stood next to his horse, patting the dappled grey’s gracefully arching neck as she drank carefully from a shallow pool. The elf had been riding hard and covered a good amount of distance. Together the horse and rider stood on the plains of Parth Celebrant and Legolas scanned the area with his keen gaze while Avornwen took refreshment. Behind them, in the distance, the great river Anduin lay like a curling silver ribbon across the landscape and ahead the smaller River Limlight snaked across their path, marking the north-most border of Rohan.

At first, Legolas had been riding mostly on faith, only recently had he been able to detect any signs at all of his friend’s passing. Finding one man who did not want to be found in the vastness of Middle Earth was hard enough, if that man was a ranger it was nearly impossible. Yet Legolas had not spent as much time as he had with Aragorn and not learned the young human’s ways. He knew the kinds of places Aragorn would seek shelter in; he knew the sorts of towns he would frequent. He knew the ranger trails in these lands that were known to none save the rangers who used them.

Thus it was that a few days ago Legolas had finally come upon what looked to be traces of a camp in the woods. Warg tracks traced over the human tracks, although it did not look as if there had been a battle. Rather, the wargs had come after... when Legolas found the recently concocted makeshift flet in the trees above the tracks, he knew he was on the right trail. The way the small platform in the tree had been quickly and easily pulled together for a safe night’s stay high above the heads of the forest predators was an elf trick, one that Legolas was fond of and had taught Aragorn. From the tracks it was obvious that two men, and no elves, had been here, so one of the men must have been Aragorn.

Heartened that he was indeed heading the right way, Legolas continued to find such tracks and trails as he could, heading south towards Rohan. Now he had nearly made his goal. It seemed highly probably that Aragorn had indeed been making for the area of West Emnet, as the twins had said, and Legolas only hoped that the ranger would still be there when he got there. He would hate to have made this whole journey only to find that the Dùnadan had already headed back north.

He smiled, shaking his head at the thought. "It seems I am always chasing you around lately my friend. At least it’s not snowing this time... but it’s still a long way for a conversation mellon-nín. If I get there to find you’ve already doubled back on me, you had better hope I *don’t* find you," he murmured in jest to himself. Patting his horse again, who had finished her drink, he easily swung up on her back and urged her onward once more.

 

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

 

Aragorn swung the heavy pack off of weary shoulders and let it drop to the ground. He ached everywhere. His head still hurt him but his master had deemed he was more than ready to be traveling and putting in a full day’s work for several days now.

They were heading further and further south and some part of Aragorn kept hoping that it was only a matter of time until he saw something familiar, some place he recognized... but this land was wholly strange to him and none of it brought anything back. As the days slid by he had no choice but to accept these people and this life as the one that must be his. It was not an easy existence, but he had no comparisons to make that judgment, so he simply accepted and tried to make the best of the hand dealt him.

After they set up camp for the evening, Seobryn sent Aragorn out to fetch firewood.

Chadoc watched the ranger leave with a cautious eye. "Do you think it’s wise, how much freedom you’re giving him? Shouldn’t he be guarded a little closer?"

Seobryn shook his head. "He won’t run. We’re all he knows and all he has. Where would he go?"

Aragorn returned a few minutes later with an arm load of scrub wood. One of Seobryn’s men casually stuck his foot out in the young man’s path, tripping Aragorn and making him drop the firewood. "Hey careful stupid, pick it up," the other man laughed.

Aragorn took a deep breath and slowly stooped and began gathering the scattered wood up once more. This amused the other fellow and he aimed an off-handed blow for the side of the young ranger’s head. Aragorn saw the blow coming with his periphery vision and before it even became a conscious thought his body reacted to the threat with reflexes the young man didn’t know he had.

Dropping into a lower crouch and spinning on his boot heels, Aragorn dodged the blow and kicked the other man’s feet out from under him in one fluid and totally unexpected motion.

"Adrar!" his master’s harsh voice made Aragorn freeze. The ranger blinked several times and stood slowly to his feet. He didn’t really understand what had just happened. He hadn’t intended to react that way... and from the way Seobryn was glaring at him he guessed this was probably a bad thing.

Seobryn stalked over and slapped the young slave sharply across the face. "What was that?" he demanded harshly. "What do you think you were doing?"

Aragorn didn’t know how to answer. He hadn’t thought, he had just acted on an impulse he couldn’t explain. "I-I don’t know. It just happened..." he said quietly, the anger in Seobryn’s eyes making his stomach knot coldly.

"So you’re an idiot as well as rebellious?" Seobryn snapped. "I swear I don’t know what’s wrong with you Adrar, I think you must have lost your brain along with your memory. I guess I have to teach you again why you never, *ever* strike out against or resist the will of one of your betters."

"I’m sorry," Aragorn murmured. He didn’t like the sound of this at all.

"Not half so sorry as you’re going to be," the elder trader assured coldly. "An untamed slave is a useless one. Take off your shirt and kneel Adrar, now!"

Something in Aragorn protested. This felt wrong, it didn’t feel right submitting to anyone like this... but as far as he knew he had no choice other than to obey his Master. Slowly he did as he was told although everything in him wanted to resist. That didn’t make sense however and he knew it would only get him in more trouble.

Seobryn unfastened one of the thick leather straps that held the supplies fastened to the pack mules during the day and came back, wrapping one end of the strap firmly around his fist and letting the other end dangle free.

There was no preamble, no warning before he brought the strap down sharply across Aragorn’s shoulders.

Aragorn jerked slightly and rested his hands on his knees so that the blows didn’t push him forward. He gripped his knees tightly, trying to breathe deep as Seobryn struck him again and again. The strap didn’t do any real damage, but it hurt badly.

The young ranger closed his eyes. Bright, unreal light flashed across the inside of his eyelids. In the lingering trails of light the impression of a small room flashed through his mind and the sneering face of someone with dark blonde hair. The being wore a golden circlet over pointed ears and was holding a whip. The phantom opened his mouth to speak but the searing flash of pain in Aragorn’s head ripped the scene away. Seobryn caught the young man with a vicious strike below his shoulder blades at the same moment.

Aragorn cried out softly at the dizzying mix of pain and fell forward, catching himself with his hands on the ground.

Seobryn did not let up, intent on making this lesson stick.

Dully, Aragorn wondered who the other person he had seen in his head was. He felt like they had beaten him too... perhaps they were a past master? Or maybe just meaningless images like the disjointed figures who often paraded across his dreams at night. He didn’t know and didn’t need the extra pain of trying to figure it out right now. He wanted Seobryn to stop, he wanted this to be over, his back was on fire and his head was throbbing again.

Seobryn finally stopped when the welts he was raising started to bleed, leaving Aragorn kneeling in the dust and sobbing for breath. Crouching down next to his slave, Seobryn took one of the young man’s sore shoulders un-gently in his hand and turned Aragorn towards him, forcing the pain-glazed eyes to focus on his.

"Now you’re going to remember this, right Adrar? Because if I have to remind you again it’s going to be much, much worse. You understand?"

"Y-yes, Master," Aragorn nodded, trembling slightly from the pain. He would do just about anything to avoid a repeat of this. He was hurting and humiliated and dropped his gaze to the earth.

Seobryn grabbed his chin and forced his eyes back up. "Good, because I don’t need you causing trouble just because you’ve become some kind of half-wit, all right? You pull more stupid stunts like that and I’ll sell you so fast it’ll make your head spin. And you wouldn’t like that Adrar, trust me, there’s a lot worse masters out there than I am and the world is not kind to the slow-witted."

Aragorn nodded again. "I won’t cause any more trouble," he said softly. He may have been miserable here, but the known terror was at least preferable to the unknown terror.

"All right then," Seobryn nodded, glancing at the young man’s back. The open welts would quickly become infected in this climate unless they were treated. "Stay here," he ordered Aragorn while he rose and retrieved a handful of salt from the provision packs. Salt was a preservative for food, but he knew that it also helped keep wounds clean and close them quickly. It stung like wildfire too, but of course he didn’t really care about that.

Aragorn stiffened and stifled a sharp moan as Seobryn worked the salt swiftly and roughly into the bleeding lacerations across his back.

"Hold still Adrar," the trader admonished, grabbing his slave’s shoulder and pulling the young man back towards him. "This is for your own good."

The salt stung horribly when it was applied, but the worst thing was that it didn’t stop stinging, it stayed in the wounds and continued to burn even when Seobryn had finished. Aragorn grit his teeth against the pain.

Seobryn finished up and wiped his hands clean, rising once more and giving Aragorn a nudge with his foot. "Now get this wood picked up and the fire going. You’re holding up dinner."

Aragorn nodded and rose shakily. His knees felt somewhat weak and his head was spinning, but he did as he was told. He had no other option.

 

 

___________________________________________________________

~*PART SIX*~

 

 

Two days ago they had crossed into property owned by someone that Aragorn's master knew and their long journey seemed to be drawing to an end. The compound the man lived on was a great sprawling expansive of wide open flat land, sparsely populated by large trees whose canopies provided the only shade in the hot arid days and from which they gathered bark and broken tree limbs to light their fires at night. For the small group was now deep into that little known part of Middle Earth known as Far Harad.

Master Seobryn had told him they would reach the main house tomorrow and the young ranger’s thoughts were filled with questions about who they would see and what would happen there. The indifference and lethargy of the men traveling with Seobryn had been dropped as an air of readiness and anticipation charged the small traveling party.

Aragorn watched the men around the fire that he had come to associate as being his people and smiled as they laughed at some joke or sarcastic comment that Chadoc had spoken. An aching lonely feeling tugging at his heart broke anew through his thoughts. He often felt a deep sadness, like the touches of a distant memory trying to surface and on clear nights like tonight he would search the sky wondering what he was truly looking for.

"Adrar!" His master’s voice broke through his mental wanderings and he glanced quickly back to camp, making his way towards the fire with the armload full of wood he had scavenged by the light of the full white moon.

Chadoc's dark eyes followed his employer’s new slave and his brows furrowed in thought. Leaning over towards Seobryn, he caught the man's attention and diverted him away from the talk of the others.

"What is it Chadoc?"

"You new pet." The hunter glanced up as Aragorn set the wood down and quietly withdrew to begin cleaning the pots and utensils that had been used in the evening’s meal.

"What of it?" Seobryn smiled a small lopsided grin as he watched the ranger clean up after them, "I have already told you not to worry about him."

"It’s not that. If we were simply going back to base camp it wouldn’t be a problem but we are headed to the warg pens. His memory hasn’t returned because there has been nothing familiar nor anything from his past to surface it, but if he and that other ranger really did over hear as much as I fear they did, then when we reach the breeding center it is very likely that he will remember and you will have to kill him. Besides, it’s just not smart to take someone we can’t trust around things that shouldn’t be talked about if you get my meaning."

Seobryn glanced back at the young man again. He had no love for rangers, in fact he despised them as outcasts and trouble makers but over the long trek back to southern Harad he had enjoyed having his own personal slave. Aragorn, unaware of the scrutiny, worked over the pans, diligently cleaning them. The approval of the men who ‘owned’ him was important to him.

"Adrar." Seobryn’s rough, quiet voice carried easily to the young man and he glanced up quickly, his bright silver dark eyes locked onto the one he believed owned him.

Seobryn watched Aragorn for a few moments. No, he wasn’t ready yet to get rid of his new acquisition. It had brought him great pleasure to recreate the young man’s past and present life and the sense of power over another was something he relished, a flaw in his own character.

When his master nodded slowly, Aragorn smiled slightly and went back to his tasks. Chadoc watched the whole exchange and shook his head darkly.

"You are enjoying keeping that ranger like a pet too much."

Seobryn turned swiftly, startling the other hunter and grabbed the man by his tunic pulling him close and whispering fiercely, "What I do with him is none of your business."

With a strong shove Chadoc pushed his employer away, not backing down to the man he continued, their quiet conversation covered over by their drunken companions’ loud talking and laughter. "It concerns me when it puts our contract in jeopardy. If he remembers who he is, you will never be able to control him or out live his wrath. From what we saw that night in camp he is twice the fighter you are and you know it." He whispered darkly. "We should have killed him back north and been done with him. I don’t think you could kill him now if you had to."

"That’s where you’d be wrong then." Seobryn smiled coldly at the man next to him, the slight turn of his thin lips caused Chadoc to move back imperceptibly. Something about the man’s intensity frightened him. "I could feed that whelp to the taergs in a heartbeat, but I am not going to because I don’t want to." His words were quiet and he matched Chadoc’s fierceness punctuating each syllable slowly to get his point across.

Chadoc sat back and appraised the grizzled trader. "So then what *are* you going to do with him?"

The dark eyes that held Chadoc’s glanced out into the night sweeping across the moonlit plains, not noticing the beauty of the cooling night but thinking far ahead of them.

The silence between the two was broken when Seobryn glanced back towards Aragorn as the young man stood and began to store the provisions away for the night. Looping a thick cord of rope into one of the closest branches of the tree they had camped beneath, the young man hefted the packs that held their food high into the canopy of the outstretched branches away from the wandering scents of any large predators that might be attracted to them.

Nodding slowly, Seobryn turned to the man on his right and finally answered him. "I’m going to leave him with Rhuddryn while we are in the compound. He makes a good slave and Rhuddryn can put him to work with the others until we head out again."

"What makes you think Rhuddryn will take him?"

The dead serious stare that Seobryn laid on Chadoc caused the man to flinch slightly, reminding him yet again that he did not want to get on the old traders bad side, "Because he owes me that’s why." Without another word Seobryn stood and order his men to bed down for the night, tomorrow they would make the main house and he wasn’t about to go traipsing in there dragging a bunch of half drunk trackers with him.

Aragorn quickly moved to set up Seobryn’s bed and stepped out of the way as the hunter approached him.

"Good job tonight Adrar. Now get some sleep." His master mumbled as he dropped down onto the readied pallet and fell into a light sleep.

Aragorn sat for sometime behind his master, thinking through the day and the ache in his own heart. He reached out for the memories that seemed to always be just out of grasp and touched them slightly pulling back when the pain shut him out of his own thoughts once more. For some reason a deep dread had settled in his heart as he had watched his master talking with Chadoc at the campfire. He knew the other hunter did not like him, but he did not know why and the unknown prospect of his future frightened him, frightened him a lot if he were honest, especially at night when the dreams haunted him and his own heart cried for what was lost. With a sigh he lay down behind his master and tried to get comfortable on the thin blanket he had been given. Tomorrow would come as it may and he would face it then.

Traveling during the day was uncomfortable in the southern reaches, but by the time the sun was setting once more they had reached the main house of Rhuddryn’s compound and the cool light breezes of evening where just beginning to stir across the grassy plains bringing with them the rich scents of pasture lands and evening fires cooking. Aragorn smiled as he took in the sight of the large house seated in the midst of a grove of manga trees awash in the glow of the setting sun. The last rays of light painted the white washed house in warm golds and reds.

Seobryn called a halt and the men dropped wearily to the ground on the outskirts of the trees that bracketed the large home. Aragorn went about seeing to the animals, unstrapping their heavy packs and fetching them water from the supplies. He jumped slightly as his master laid a large hand on his shoulder and turned him around.

"You come with me." Seobryn instructed the ranger as they walked away from the makeshift camp.

Aragorn glanced back quickly and noted that Chadoc stood watching them walk away his arms crossed across his chest, shaking his head slowly. For a brief moment their eyes locked before Aragorn obediently dropped his gaze as Seobryn had instructed him to. It had been another lesson that he had learned the hard way and he never forgot what he was taught. He never made Seobryn repeat a punishment on him if he could help it.

Within moments they had reached the front door to the mansion and were allowed into the palatial entry way. A dark skinned man led them through the ornately decorated hallways and knocked softly on a huge wooden door. When a muffled voice called to them, the servant let them into the study and stepped away, melting into the background quietly and disappearing before Aragorn could see where he had gone.

Aragorn stood by as Seobryn spoke with the man who sat behind the large desk in the opulent study. His owner had addressed the other as Rhuddryn. The ranger kept his eyes down as he had been instructed and wondered idly where they were. Surely he should remember something of this place if he had been here before. The quiet conversation between the two men in the room could not be overheard by the young ranger but he could tell that his master was adamantly arguing about something with the well dressed man behind the desk. Finally after a few moments of silent thought the tall dark haired man that was speaking with his master stood and called calmly for the captain of his guard with a sigh.

Aragorn attempted to step aside so the guard and his men could pass by and enter but instead they surrounded him, taking him roughly by the arms and dragging him farther into the room. Unsure of what was happening the ranger looked to Seobryn.

"Master?"

Seobryn smirked as he held Rhuddryn’s gaze, "I told you. He remembers nothing."

Rhuddryn nodded, not at all comfortable with the situation, but he had been backed into a corner and there was nothing else to do but take on the ranger, Seobryn was adamant on this and crossing his business associate would only cause bad blood between them. He himself was in favor of killing the young man, but then perhaps it would be worse if they did and word ever got back... however unlikely that was. This had already gone too far for Rhuddryn’s liking, but perhaps the work alone would take the ranger’s demise for them.

He turned, addressing his guards, "Take him out to Cabed’s clan. Leave him with them. He can work the oliphaunt fields with the others."

"Wait..." Fear spiked sharply through Aragorn and he struggled slightly with the men that tried to remove him from the room, "Wait! Master, what I have done?" He remembered very well Seobryn’s constant threat to sell him if he didn’t behave.

"Nothing Adrar. I have simply given you to Rhuddryn. He is your owner for now. I’ll come back for you later." Seobryn laughed at the confusion in the ranger’s eyes.

Rhuddryn watched as they dragged the slave out of his house; he inclined his head slightly as Aragorn’s frightened gaze landed on him. "Adrar? Very funny Seobryn." Rhuddryn turned humorless eyes on his colleague. "Now down to business I need to know how our benefactor took the news that his pet project is failing."

Seobryn nodded and sobered immediately seating himself opposite the desk in a plush chair. They had a lot to discuss.

Aragorn did not try to speak to the guards as they walked him out of the house and to the back of the property. He couldn’t help the fear that chased through his heart, turning his stomach inside out. The people here were not like any he had ever seen, tall, dark skinned and muscular. They spoke a language amongst themselves that he did not understand. Surely these were not his people, he would remember if they were.

The guards that flanked him stopped outside a large tented building. The canvas sides of the structure were held down about a bamboo frame by ropes that had been staked into the hard, dry dirt. The top of the tent was vented in a circular pattern, allowing smoke to escape easily into the night.

The captain of the guard grabbed the cloth flap that covered the entry into the building and tossed it back against the canvas side. Stepping in he pulled Aragorn after him and shoved the ranger forward, giving him a good smack on the head as he did so. The sounds of laughter and talking inside the room stopped suddenly as the foreigner was pushed into their midst.

The young man stumbled and fell hard to the ground, his dark hair obscuring his features and for the moment he was afraid to look up at all.

"Master Rhuddryn said he’s yours. Put him to use if you can, if not feed him to the taergs." The captain laughed as Aragorn glanced back quickly at him. The guard stepped out into the night and pulled the flap down on the tent. Slowly Aragorn looked around at the people who stared back at him. He swallowed hard, seeing no friendly or familiar faces in the small gathering.

The occupants of the sleeping room began to whisper amongst themselves in the same language Aragorn had heard earlier, but none of it made any sense to him. A large older man with a dark mahogany complexion and strong build spoke up on his right and the ranger flinched and turned quickly towards him. The slave repeated himself slower and softer when he noted the fear and confusion in the man that had just been thrown into his tent.

A woman to the left of the man cuffed the dark skinned elder gently and leaned towards Aragorn, speaking softly. The ranger shook his head, "I’m sorry I don’t understand." He whispered back.

"Adrar." A younger slave spoke up nodding at the stranger.

"Yes." Aragorn touched his chest nodding slowly, "I am Adrar." At his admission the people pressed around him erupted in laughter, which only confused him more. Slowly he sat up and shifted closer to the side of the tent trying to draw away from the slaves. He was frightened, and he realized that he was alone. He had no idea why Seobryn had sold him or given him away and he was half afraid it was because he could remember nothing. Perhaps his old master was right and he was simply slow witted and of no value anymore.

The older slave that addressed him first quieted the room and slowly stood from his seat. He stepped around the others seated near the fire and approached his new charge crouching down in front of the dark haired, fair skinned stranger.

Pointing to himself he spoke slowly, "Cabed. My name is Cabed."

"You speak the common tongue?" Aragorn questioned haltingly, his voice barely a whisper.

"Yes, the masters will not learn our language so we are taught theirs from childhood. We speak the northerners tongue, and that of the Haradrim."

"Haradrim?" The ranger repeated the strange word. Somehow he knew he should know it but the memory eluded him as did they all.

Cabed nodded his head. "That is what we are. This is my clan, most by birth some by adoption, some because they had no where else to go, like you." He laughed as he swept his hand behind him. "Where are you from Adrar?"

Aragorn opened his mouth to answer but did not speak, he didn’t know. He shook his head slowly glancing to the dirt floor beneath him.

The slave reached out and touched the barely visible scar on the man’s temple. When Aragorn flinched and moved away, Cabed changed tactics and simply pointed to the man’s bared arm and held his own forearm next to the ranger’s. "You are not from Harad." He smiled warmly at Aragorn as the man noted the very distinct color differences in their skin. The ranger’s skin was fair and white compared to the dark coppery tone of the other.

"No. I am not."

"That is why they call you Adrar. It means ‘white one’ in our language."

Aragorn smiled slightly as he caught the others gaze, "Oh, I see."

"You have no other name?"

"Not that I remember." The ranger touched his head gingerly where he had been wounded. "I was injured on our way here. My master said that I nearly died. I cannot remember anything anymore because of it. I do not know my name for myself, only that which I have been told."

"I see." Cabed’s eyes narrowed. He reached out fingering Aragorn’s dark unruly hair. The ranger did not move away this time but allowed the other to draw nearer. "I have only seen your likes when the northerners pass through. But it is no matter. You have been given to me; I am the elder under this tent. You are one of us now Adrar. We will teach you the ways of the Olybryn." The dark skinned man tapped his chest again indicating himself, "That is what we are. Olybryn, Oliphaunt shepherds. We have the honor of tending the master’s herds."

He could tell that the young man in front of him did not understand.

"In time you will know and you will work the herds side by side with us." He smiled gently at Aragorn.

"But now he needs fattening up." A female voice called to the two.

Cabed turned and frowned at the woman who had spoken before turning back to Aragorn, "That is Mambre, she is my wife. It is best to do what she says."

"Yes and I say he is too skinny." The woman shook her head in a motherly fashion.

"He has a lot to prove, let him sleep with the taergs tonight. If he is still there in the morning we can feed him then." The challenge came from an angry youth that sat opposite Mambre at the fire. He glared at Aragorn when the ranger glanced his way. The young slave was no older than the northerner but he was muscular and well built like his people. A life in the sun had tanned his already tawny skin darkly and his deep brown eyes were hard as they returned the stranger’s open stare.

"Behave Sircyn." A small female slave beside the angry youth cautioned, cuffing the boy upside the head slightly.

"Thank you Syna." Mambre glared over the sparking flames, "You listen to your sister and mind you manners. All slaves are our brother. It don’t matter none if they look like us or not. You should know that full well. If your father accepts Adrar then he is as good as your blood brother."

"I want another brother!" A small child jumped up from behind Mambre and leaned over her shoulder staring wide eyed at Aragorn.

The ranger had watched the whole discussion in silence. He couldn’t remember ever being in quite such a situation. A fact that didn’t surprise him much, he thought to himself sarcastically, since he couldn’t remember anything. However being adopted by this family, a family that was very different from himself in many respects, somehow felt right and he found himself smiling softly as they spoke and argued amongst themselves about him, mindful to speak common for his sake.

"I will work hard. I may not know much but I know I am capable of working hard and I will do anything you ask of me. I do not mind." He spoke up softly, desperately wanting to be accepted.

Cabed glanced back at him and smiled, "I believe you will at that. Fine then. It is my choice, and I take him as part of this clan. Adrar you are a member now of the Simbani clan. We will be your family and you will work with us."

Aragorn gripped Cabed’s upper arm with his hand and nodded in agreement.

"Then you must come and eat. You canna go out and work with the oliphaunts all skinny like you are. They will bowl you over." Mambre pushed aside the younger slaves seated around her, making room for Aragorn and served him up a bowl of the stew she was slowly stirring.

Sircyn frowned at their newest family member, he was not at all sure of this one and he spoke quietly to Cabed about it, covering their conversation in the Haradrim tongue as his father sat down next to him.

"He will be a danger to us father. He isn’t one of us, he’s one of *them*! How do we know he is not a plant from the master to watch us even in our own dwellings?"

"We don’t. But neither do we know that he is. So you will keep your eyes on him and make sure that he is not a danger. You must also make sure that comes to no harm until we can decide if he is truly who he says he and not a test from the master. Do you understand me Sircyn?" Cabed leaned back against his son watching Adrar from his seated position. The young white slave seemed to truly be lost. "It could be that the masters have abused this one and he cannot remember as he says. Give him a chance before you judge him."

Sircyn’s gaze softened slightly as he watched his youngest brother, Kidrin, crawl into the stranger’s lap asking a million questions and touching the pale skin of Adrar’s cheek. The new slave smiled and allowed the child to touch him and run his fingers through the ranger’s long dark tresses, a novelty among a race of people who kept their hair short or drawn up away from their necks in a thick braided pony tail as Sircyn wore his. The style was incorporated mostly for the heat of the days they endured in their work. Adrar would learn, Sircyn thought to himself, he would learn quickly or he would die as the others had.

Cabed knew the thoughts of his eldest son and the sorrow that chased fleetingly across the young man’s face. "He will need you to see to it that he does pass away like the others." This new slave was not the first to come to them in such a way, lost, alone, although he was the first who appeared to be a northerner himself. The others - some had lived some had died, but each one that was lost left an ache in the hearts of the clan that had accepted them. It was becoming increasingly hard to take on new members only to have them die or removed and sold by the master. It was hard to keep ones heart open in the situation Cabed and his family found themselves.

Sircyn nodded and stood from his seat moving away to bed down for the night. He had a lot to think through.

 

~*~

 

Soft sounds of distress woke Sircyn late in the night and he opened his eyes to find that his father had placed Adrar next to him. The slave lay with his face inches from Adrar’s. It was necessary in the small tent for the large clan to lay sleeping side by side as much for the warmth as for the human touch, to know that one wasn’t alone in a world where a slave was no more important than one of the master’s pet harpians. Life on the plains was short and often hard but knowing that one was not alone kept the heart from giving up. Cabed had placed Adrar between himself and Sircyn for just that reason and now the stranger was caught in the midst of a nightmare.

Unwilling to have the new slave wake up the whole tent, Sircyn shook Aragorn roughly to wake him. The ranger jerked awake, rocking back into Cabed and accidentally waking the older man. Tears rimmed his eyes and to Sircyn’s surprise they spilled over the edges. Aragorn sniffed quietly, trying to stop his ragged breathing, his bright silver eyes locked desperately onto the dark ones that watched him curiously.

The young, dark skinned slave removed his hand from Aragorn’s shoulder but the ranger caught his wrist and held it tightly. Sircyn didn’t move out of the desperate grip, not quite sure if the new slave was fully awake.

"Are you awake now? You will stir them all, what is wrong?" He asked softly. He did not notice that his father had woken, shifting silently to gaze over Aragorn’s shoulder and watch what was going on.

"Yes. I am awake." Aragorn whispered quietly. "I’m sorry, I was dreaming."

"About what?" Sircyn rested his arm back on the mat beneath him; Aragorn’s hand still locked about his wrist.

"I do not know but they were..." Aragorn stopped speaking, "They..." He closed his eyes tightly shut and shook his head, the images of his dream fading into the darkness of the reality around him, beyond his grasp of recall.

"They hurt you didn’t they?"

The ranger’s eyes flew open and he stared at the young man who had so openly opposed his entry into this new family.

"I think so." The answer was soft and uncertain, but laced with pain. Sometimes he saw horrible things in his dreams and it made him hurt.

"Where is your family?" Sircyn whispered.

"I do not know."

"Maybe the masters killed them. They often do. Was that what you remembered?" He pressed the new slave.

"I don’t know. I really don’t know anything. When I try it hurts very badly. It’s like everything is gone. I know you don’t believe me. But I tell you the truth." His eyes begged the young man to believe him. He needed all the friends he could get and something deep in his heart mourned the emptiness that he knew somewhere there were people to fill it, if only he could remember them.

Sircyn nodded slowly, gently removing Aragorn’s fingers from his wrist. With his freed hand he placed his palm against the ranger’s face causing the other to blink and close his eyes, "I do believe you Adrar, just sleep, you will need your strength for tomorrow."

The way the young slave had touched him seemed vaguely familiar to Aragorn and smiled underneath the gentle touch, nodding slightly, "Thank you." He whispered.

Sircyn just nodded as he gazed at the other, his glance caught on the sight of his father leaning over the new slave and smiling at his eldest son. With a rueful grin the youth shook his head at his elder and closed his eyes.

 

 

___________________________________________________________

~*PART SEVEN*~

 

~~~~~~~~
Whatever you do,

I’ll do it too.

Show me everything and tell me how.

It all means something...

And yet nothing to me.

--Phil Collins
~~~~~~~~

 

 

Gentle shaking stirred the young northerner and he opened his eyes slowly.

"Sircyn?"

"Yes." The Haradrim watched him carefully; unable to hide the slight smile as Aragorn gazed at him dully. "It is time to be up. We must eat and the guards will call us out soon. They escort us to the plains where the mûmakil live."

Aragorn glanced about him, taking in the quiet movements of the tent’s occupants as Mambre went about fixing a meager breakfast. If dawn had broken it had just done so for the interior of the sleeping room was still very dark.

"It’s dark out."

Sircyn laughed lightly when the new slave stated the obvious. "Yes, we get up everyday at this time. Come on up!" The strong young man hooked his hands under Aragorn’s shoulders and pushed the ranger into a sitting position.

With a deep sigh the ranger ran his fingers lightly through his hair and glanced about him. He wondered darkly what mûmaskil were and what type of creature they would have to be to be up so early.

Shortly after they had broken fast, Aragorn heard some of the guards that had brought him to Cabed the previous day walking among the family tents and rousing the slaves.

"How many families are there here?" Aragorn questioned Sircyn as he exited the sleeping room.

"There are twenty." The young dark skinned slave whispered, "Wait until we are out in the fields, it is not safe to speak here. And no matter what, keep your eyes down. Do not speak back to the guards, watch me." With those instructions he walked in front of Aragorn and he led him to stand in a large courtyard that functioned as a staging area.

Several wagons, called flats, rolled up and the slaves loaded onto them. They were drawn by huge beasts of burden that resembled cows only thicker through the chest and their horns spanned several feet on either side of their wide skulls. They ambled slowly off in the directions their drivers led them, bawling and lowing with deep throaty voices, their huge heads swaying from side to side as they shuffled away.

When the others had been taken away for the day only Cabed’s family remained. "Simbani, follow Talft and Lur they’ll be your guard today." The sentry giving out the orders commanded.

"Perfect." The young slave next to Aragorn whispered with disdain.

The ranger glanced cautiously at the Haradrim but he simply turned and walked behind Cabed as they were led around the side of the huge palatial mansion that Aragorn had been in yesterday. The man Seobryn had sold him to was standing on the ground floor veranda. He tipped head and nodded at the slaves as they walked by.

"Eyes down!" Sircyn whispered fiercely, falling into step next to the northerner, trying to block his master's view of the new slave. They were going to lose this one too if he didn’t start obeying.

Once out of sight of the house, the guard, who Sircyn had identified as Talft, dropped back behind the ranger and followed he and the young Haradrim.

"So the half wit is going to go out and work with the oliphaunts is he?" The story of Aragorn’s lost memory and supposedly diminished mental faculties had already made the rounds of the guardhouses.

"Do not answer." Sircyn whispered softly as he pretended to stumble, the motion placing him closer to Adrar.

Aragorn swallowed hard, barely nodding in response to Sircyn and walked on.

"He won't last a day with them. Even they are smarter than he is." Lur called back, picking up on his comrade’s cruel comments.

"You better watch out for those creatures there Adrar, they’ll eat you if you aren’t careful." Talft laughed.

It took all the courage Aragorn could muster to simply keep his eyes on the dusty path they walked and maintain pace with Sircyn. He no idea what to expect from his new work and the more they taunted the more fearful he became.

"We will be fine here." Cabed turned and called back to Talft as they reached a low wooden fence that stretched in either direction to his left and right as far as Aragorn could see.

With a laugh Talft gave the young northerner a good push and joined Lur near a small bench that had been set beneath two scrub brush trees that had long ago, been twisted together. Their trunks now thick and huge supported a wide canopy of leaves that would give good shade throughout the heat of the day. Sparing no attention to the slaves, the two guards went about seeing to their weapons, testing the fletching on their arrows and stringing the large recurve bows they carried slung on their backs.

"Ignore them, they are idiots." Sircyn spat quietly as he walked towards a gate set in the fence, springing the catch and allowing the family to move out onto the fields.

The sun was low on the horizon, a vast, flat expanse dotted with tiny clusters of scrub brush trees and short, hardy bushes that hugged the ground as though seeking any drop of water that the dew might leave behind. The light played across the short golden grass that covered the dusty ground, painting it in hues of gold and red as it streaked the sky with tints of crimson and purple.

Cabed glanced heavenward and breathed in deeply, facing the rising sun he closed his eyes and listened and felt. In moments he turned back to the small clan that stood behind him, "It will be a warm one today but not too bad." He smiled at the newest member of their family. "That is something for you to be thankful for."

The older man’s eyes glanced over the slim youth that stood next to Sircyn. His son had given the new slave clothing to wear that would be appropriate for working in the heat of Harad. Aragorn smiled slightly and glanced at himself. He wore loose fitting leggings that tied about his waist and a vest of the same light, cool fabric laced up the front of his chest. The clothing the Haradrim wore was softly colored and it moved easily in the slight breeze that swept across the dusty land. Sircyn had told him that the colors would not draw the sun to them and were cooler than the opulent clothing worn by the masters. He had rolled a strip of the light weight fabric and showing Aragorn how to wear the head band, he had carefully tied it off around the rangers temples, explaining that it kept the sweat and hair out of ones eyes when they needed their hands free.

Cabed turned to the women and children and sent them off to begin filling huge stone troughs with water. The channels made of rock lined the fence on the inside for a good twenty five feet in each direction. They were easily half the height of Aragorn.

"Cabed?"

The ranger’s soft call interrupted the elder as he started to head out into the field and he turned back with a smile raising one eyebrow in question, waiting while the younger slaves caught up to him.

"What are mûmakil? Oliphaunts? The guards said..."

"Talft and Lur were talking nonsense, trying to frighten him this morning." Sircyn walked up next to Aragorn and pointed off in the near distance. "Do you see those?"

"The grey hills?"

Sircyn laughed at the description of the great animals. "Well watch those hills."

He stepped next to Cabed and raised his hands, cupping them around his mouth he let a loud call, repeating it over and over. "Het! Het! Drey namba mûmaskil! Het! Het! Het!"

Before he had a chance to ask what Sircyn had said the grey hills moved and Aragorn stared in wide-eyed fascination as more than three dozen large animals began walking slowly in their direction.

It appeared to the ranger that there was more than one herd of the giant creatures. And they seemed to converge on the small grouping of waiting men. The animals were tall, their legs thick, round and stronger than any tree Aragorn had seen, supported large carriages draped with thick grey skin. Huge ears like graceful sails set out from the sides of their massive heads and framed small dark intelligent eyes. The mouth of the creature was obscured by a trunk, that served as the animal’s nose and a grasping appendage. Huge teeth, that Sircyn explained later where called tusks, jutted from their large mouths on either side of their head, arcing skyward. And their loud trumpeting startled the northerner who stepped back a pace as the oliphaunts approached.

"Do not be afraid of them." Cabed stopped Aragorn’s backward steps, "They can smell fear. Besides we have nothing to fear from them. They rely on us for their food, their water and their care. They are what the master has entrusted *us* with. You remember the slaves that left this morning on the wagons?" Cabed patiently explained the workings of the large compound they lived on as the animals slowly converged on them, "The others go to several different areas. Some work the manga tree groves to the south. Others keep the master’s house; some are taken to the fields where they harvest the hay and the fruits and vegetables that are grown there to the west. Still others are taken to the slat flats where they mine the salt. You don’t never want to work there Adrar. But we, we work with the oliphaunts."

He turned and held his hand palm up as a large mûmakil neared his position. The creature snuffled his fingers gently with the end of its trunk and trumpeted softly in recognition of the slave. The animal turned its attention to Aragorn, playfully burying its soft nose in the human’s hair and letting out a loud snort before it breathed in the man’s essence. The ranger cringed and jumped slightly, causing Sircyn to laugh.

Aragorn glanced at the young slave and was surprised to see that he was surrounded by the tall grey creatures who were examining him much the same way.

"They like to smell you, to see where you have been." Sircyn called over to his new friend, "But mostly they are looking for this!" The slave produced a round green fruit from a deep pocket in his legging and offered it the animal that stood next to him. The oliphaunt gently grasped the treasured food with its trunk and swung the fruit up into its mouth.

"Here try it!" Sircyn tossed Aragorn another fruit, garnering him the attention of the oliphaunts near him. Cautiously he held the sweet globe up and was pleasantly surprised when the animal gently plucked it from his hand.

"See." Cabed smiled at him, "You’ll be an old hand at it in no time." He started walking away, heading to their left towards a small rise in the land. To Aragorn’s amazement the oliphaunts followed as he grabbed the lower edge of one of the ears of the great creature standing next to him and gently tugged the animal along. As he walked he explained their duties. It seemed that every morning and evening while the earth was still at its coolest they led the animals to a nearby watering hole, where they were now heading. Once there the mûmakil enjoyed playing in the water, washing off the previous day’s dirt before a good long roll in the mud and dust when they were through with the water. The dirt was like a barrier against the parasites that plagued the large beasts. It fell to the Olybryn to care for the grooming needs of the Oliphaunts. There was special ointment for the soft skin near their eyes to protect them from flies and the irritation of the dry hot air. The great creatures loved to be groomed and when the watering and bathing was over they brushed the animals with tough broom like brushes as the creatures kneeled for them.

Aragorn laughed aloud as the oliphaunt he was grooming rolled over into the dirt to allow the human better access to his tall, broad back. The animal responded to the man’s laughter and trumpeted aloud. Cabed was surprised and not prepared for how quickly the northerner took to his new job. He watched in fascination as the young man worked with a particularly temperamental male oliphaunt, stretching out carefully across the animal’s neck where it lay, speaking softly to it as he scratched the underside of its belly. Once the initial shock and fear of the great creatures had worn off and the ranger had realized how easy tempered they were, a natural response from the animals when they were well cared for Sircyn had explained, Aragorn had felt at ease with the beasts. His soft voice and calm patience with them when they did not understand or simply did not want to obey engendered a fast trust with the creatures.

By mid-day the small troop of men and oliphaunts was heading back towards the low fields.

When the animals caught the sweet smell of the fresh water they broke into fast trot, calling out to the water-women and leaving the men behind to follow them in. Aragorn was startled by the swiftness of their departure and looked to Sircyn for an explanation.

"The mûmaskil have a better sense of smell than do we. They can scent the fresh water the women have poured for them in their drinking troughs." The young slave laughed as the ranger nodded slowly, Sircyn's answer made sense and reminded him of a memory, something about heightened senses and those who could sense things he could not but the thought passed swiftly as the Haradrim challenged him to a race back to the fence.

The rest of the day was spent feeding the large creatures who ate more than half their body weight in hay and feed, which the slaves brought out from low shed-like bins where the fodder was stored.

The heat from the sun, high in the cloudless sky, beat mercilessly down on the Olybryn who sought shade in the shadows of the oliphaunts. Aragorn was glad for the clothing, dirty as it had become throughout the day’s toil, and especially the headband Sircyn had fashioned for him; the rolled cloth kept the wayward strands of his shoulder length hair from obscuring his vision.

Aragorn had just walked back through the gate, a large pitchfork in his hand, intending to fetch more hay for the small grouping of oliphaunts he was caring for when Lur loomed in his way, blocking his path.

"Excuse me." Aragorn kept his eyes down and attempted to shift around the tall guard.

With a short step to his left Lur once more blocked the young slave’s way.

It was useless speaking or moving anymore and so the ranger simply stood where he was. He glanced out of the corner of his eye towards where Sircyn stood next to Cabed. The slaves watched intently, unsure of what would happen.

"So I see you've found your calling Adrar, shoveling hay for those dumb beasts. Nice going half-wit. You even smell like them." Lur gave the ranger a good shove.

Aragorn stepped back, catching himself. It was useless to challenge the guard, so the northerner simply turned and began walking back out into the fields, intending to fetch more fodder later.

Incensed Lur rushed him, following the ranger back through the gated fence, "You never walk away when I am talking to you!" Swinging the curve of his bow around the guard caught the slave in the middle of his back, driving him to the ground.

The pitchfork fell from Aragorn's grip and bounced away from him as he dropped heavily to the dirt floor, the wind was driven from him and his back screaming from the blow.

Lur stood over the fallen slave and gave him a swift kick. "That will teach you to ignore me."

Aragorn grunted as the guard kicked him fiercely. He pulled into himself, trying to protect himself from further abuse.

The trumpet of one of the oliphaunts startled Lur and he backed quickly out of the field as the animal left the feeding trough and ran towards the two men. The great creature’s feet pounded the earth. The shaking of the ground beneath him frightened Aragorn and he tucked his head against his chest, covering his face with his hands.

Lur stumbled backwards watching with glee, hoping the mûmakil would step on the downed slave. Talft ran to the fence, his eyes riveted to the form that lay on the ground.

Aragorn held his breath and was surprised when the thundering of the creature’s advance stopped. He heard Cabed yelling his name but was too frightened to respond. The animal shuffled softly closer to the prone slave, pushing against the human gently with it trunk. The quiet sounds of pleading that the oliphaunt made caused Aragorn to glance up into the bright small eyes that watched him. He recognized the beast as the male oliphaunt that Cabed had told him was cantankerous, the one he had spent so much time grooming earlier.

When the mûmakil saw the ranger glance at him, it stepped back and tried to pick the man up with its long trunk. Smiling slightly at the creature’s attention, Aragorn sat up carefully and patted the long nose, talking quietly to the oliphaunt as he slowly gained his feet, assisted by the awkward attempts of the beast to help him.

Sircyn glanced darkly at the dumbstruck guards and hurried to Adrar's side. He brushed the young northerner off as Aragorn leaned against the tall animal that had come to his rescue.

"Are you alright?"

Aragorn nodded and glanced up at the oliphaunt that stood next to him. "I think so." He breathed in deeply, his back aching with the movement. "This one came to my rescue." He patted the large grey beast that shifted slightly next to him.

Sircyn nodded and glanced back at Cabed who slowly walked towards them, shaking his head, a huge smile on his dark, weathered face.

"I have never seen that one react in that way to any of us." Cabed squinted and gazed up at the tall animal. "Them mûmaskil are known to be protective of their young, or their own, but you have surprised me Adrar. This one here is one of the orneriest oliphaunts I have seen." He thumped the underbelly of the large creature as he pressed the animal back towards the feeding troughs.

Aragorn bent over to retrieve his pitchfork and smiled at the elder. "Good thing he came over when he did. I think he scared Lur away."

Cabed glanced back at the two guards who had removed themselves from the immediate area, seeking shelter from the heat in the shade of the rest area near the trees. They glared back at the slaves, pretending to keep watch over the herds.

With the guards gone the slaves returned to their work and their charges, quietly talking amongst themselves as the day wore on.

The walk back from the oliphaunt fields was calm and cool. The sun had dropped a half an hour ago, draping the land in the dark of night and the journey home was peaceful. Bright, brilliant lights twinkled in the velvety expanse and Aragorn searched them intently, not quite knowing what he was looking for, only feeling a strange sense of longing deep in his soul that he could not explain. Whatever he was searching for, he did not find it.

Lur and Talft led the small group home, lighting their way by torchlight.

Aragorn was weary and bone tired. His back ached from the beating he had received from Lur but a smile spread across his dirty face. He had thoroughly enjoyed the day’s work as hard as it had been and he was growing to love his new family even more hour by hour. Something felt right here that had been missing when he was with Seobryn. He was accustomed to a sense of family, whether he realized it or not.

Aragorn jogged up next to the Simbani elder and touched the older man's arm, drawing his attention, "Cabed, why does the master keep the oliphaunts? What are the animals used for?" He suddenly realized that he did not know why they were caring for the beasts and was afraid to become attached to them.

Cabed glanced at him sideways before looking back to the ground, watching his steps carefully on the uneven, dark path. "The master has many uses for the mûmaskil. Most of the herd is kept for his own. They are used mostly for transportation of people or as pack animals around his lands. They are hard workers, like us. They can uproot trees and drag heavy burdens no other beast could attempt. These oliphaunts here are not usually bred for war. They are the smaller cousins of the creatures that the warlords like to use. They are more domesticated than their taller relatives, more useful on the farm lands than on the battlefields. The master keeps them for prestige, they are a symbol to others of his wealth. Some however he sells in the marketplace or trades for goods.

"The warring chieftains use the larger races of oliphaunts as beasts of war. They are treated unkindly and taught to be aggressive. Mostly those are the males; they are prized for their tusks. There are many who raise them solely for that purpose." Cabed looked at the young slave next to him, noting the frown that marred the northerner’s face and the distress in his eyes. "Don’t worry Adrar, for the most part the master doesn’t sell his mûmaskil and most of the warlords are only interested in the larger breeds. For as long as I have been here our oliphaunts have been used only on the farm lands to help out with the crops or when the master wants to decorate them and ride them into town, a half a day’s walk away." He smiled at the young man, clasping Aragorn's shoulder tightly in his hand; "You handled yourself very well this day. I am proud of you."

Aragorn smiled at the praise and dropped his eyes, "Thank you Cabed. It's good to be part of the family."

 

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

 

Legolas sighed without meaning to. The landscape spread out before him, grey and cheerless under the gathering clouds and darkening evening. The wet season was coming on in these lands south of Gondor.

When he had reached West Emnet his search met a dead end. For over a month he looked in vain for any trace of his friend and had nearly given up hope of success when he had heard a story about two strangers who had gotten into a disturbance over in Ihel. One of them had spent the night in jail over the altercation and both had left right after, seeming to follow the people that they had had a problem with. The one who had been locked up sounded to the prince too much like Aragorn for it to not have been.

From there, Legolas was able to pick up their trail again and his suspicions were confirmed, he was once more following the young ranger, but it seemed that the two Dunèdain had in turn been following some larger group... and they had not wished for their presence to be known. This concerned Legolas, because he knew that Aragorn must have been onto something, but the trail he followed was very old now and difficult to read. The elf was forced to spend entire days at a time searching only a very small area of land in order to pick up the tracks again after they had disappeared for a time, which they did frequently. It was very slow, very tedious work. If he had not had the feeling that wherever Aragorn was going, he might need help, the prince would have been tempted to give up the search as hopeless and wait to talk to Aragorn when the young ranger returned. But something inside the elf that he did not even understand pushed him to keep looking, to keep following, even though the days had now stretched into weeks and the weeks into months and the year was waning.

He had lost the trail above Gondor and wandered around for some time, eventually passing by Osgiliath on its western side, shunning the idea of getting too close to the imposing shadow of the Ephel Dúath, the mountains of shadow that ringed the dark, abandoned land of Mordor. Sauron had been defeated and driven out by the Last Alliance millennia ago, but no strict watch had been kept on his former abode and dark things had crept into that horrible place once again, Legolas could tell just by being near it.

He could also tell that Ithilien had once been a beautiful land, and earned the meaning of it’s name ‘land of the moon’, but it’s proximity to Mordor was causing it to fall into shadow and parts of it were already wholly desolate. It hurt his heart to see and he wished there was something he could do for the once fair land, but these thoughts were passing because he had other concerns on his mind at the moment as he made his way slowly through the long reaches of South Ithilien.

This entire venture seemed fraught with setbacks and Legolas’ latest bit of bad luck was that this entire area had been scorched by a wildfire some time ago. New plant growth had already grown up to begin covering that which was destroyed, but the fire had further complicated attempting to find any kind of signs or tracks. Back-tracking across the small river once more, away from the burned area, Legolas rubbed his eyes. It was getting dark, and even his keen gaze could not find tracks that were not there by moonlight. He would have to make a more thorough search of this area tomorrow. Right now he needed some place to camp.

Not far away a tangle of trees protected a small, circular clearing from both the strong evening winds, and the gaze of any unfriendly eyes.

A few charred logs inside a broken stone ring told that others had probably availed themselves of this cozy little spot to camp before. But the last time it was so used must have been some time ago, for there were no tracks on the ground and no traces of anything other than animals having passed this way in many weeks.

Legolas decided it was a safe place to stop for the night. He re-formed the scattered circle of stones and made a small fire of his own. As he poked the flames to life, the prince suddenly wondered why he did. He did not intend to cook anything and did not need the flames’ warmth nor their light to comfort him in the approaching darkness, he simply made the fire out of habit. But it was not a habit from his younger years; rather, it was a habit he realized he had gotten into since meeting Aragorn. If the prince stopped to think about it, there were a number of things he had become accustomed to doing when traveling solely for the sake of his human friend.

The elf prince stood. The sooner he found where his friend had gotten to, the better. But there was nothing more he could do this evening. A storm was threatening. He could smell it on the air and would be surprised if this area did not see rain before morning.

He almost wished he had not sent Avornwen back home so soon. Legolas had at last abandoned the idea of tracking Strider while on horseback a few days ago. It was easier to follow the difficult, broken trail of the rangers on foot. He was a good tracker, but not nearly so naturally gifted that way as his human friend had shown the signs of becoming. So many of the smaller important details that his surroundings had to offer were easily overlooked when mounted on a horse. So the elf had taken what provisions he could carry from the saddlebags and had instructed the animal to return with all haste to the palace, carrying a note to his father informing the king that he was well, and that he was almost positive he had picked up Aragorn’s trail. No need to alarm everyone by having a rider-less horse show up without explanation.

The elf only wished that the reality of the situation was as hopeful as his message had been. In truth, he was trying to find and follow a cold trail that seemed to have vanished. The approaching rainstorm would do nothing to aid him either.

Nearby, but out of the immediate circle of firelight, a previous storm had knocked down several tree-fronds. Legolas picked them up, meaning to use them in constructing a temporary shelter against the eminent rain, but when he moved the fronds, they uncovered the corner of something else half-hidden under a drift of fallen leaves. At first glance in the fading light it looked like a roll of moss or over-turned earth, but it was not quite right in shape or texture to be either.

Brushing away the leaves that obscured it from sight, Legolas stooped to inspect the lump more closely. As suspected, it did not turn out to be dirt or moss at all, but rumpled leather. A rumpled leather overcoat to be exact. The elf lifted garment, slowly turning it over in his hands and bringing it into the full light of the fire for a better look. It was rolled up carefully, as if someone had bundled it up and set it down and then simply never come back for it.

Dead leaves clung to the well-worn leather as Legolas shook it out, but although it had obviously been abandoned for some time, it was no worse for the wear. It had been made for someone of roughly Legolas’ height, but of sturdier build than the slender elf, undoubtedly a man and most likely a warrior because the leather was worn rough on the left side where it would have rubbed against the wearer’s scabbard.

The prince did not have to guess at all this however; he all ready knew, and a chill chased itself up his spine. He had seen this coat before, many times, had even worn it on one occasion. Although it had been left out in the elements for a long time, the elf’s sharp senses could still detect his friend’s scent faintly clinging to the inner folds of the garment. Legolas ran his long fingers gently over the careful stitches that seamed up a jagged rip in the coat’s hem. He remembered sitting across a fire very like this one and watching the young ranger mend the tear while they talked and laughed... This was Aragorn’s overcoat; there was no doubt about it. By luck or the design of providence, Legolas had stopped at a campsite that must have last been used by the young ranger and the other man he was traveling with. But how had the coat come to be left behind?

The question bothered Legolas. He may have occasionally chided the young human about being careless, but he knew that Aragorn would never have simply left his coat behind or forgotten about it; he was too attached to this bit of ratty, well-worn leather. Much to the elf’s relief there was no signs of blood, or tears in it that would have indicated that Aragorn had been injured when it was cast aside, but of course, that did not necessarily mean he had not been. Legolas supposed that it could have been lost, or left behind out of necessity... but something in his heart worried that the answer to this riddle was much darker than that.

Legolas brushed the dirt and leaves from the soft, supple leather with a gentle touch. Whatever else this find indicated, it was a sure sign that Aragorn had indeed been in these parts and Legolas was in fact on the right trail. However it must have been quite some time ago, and the absence of tracks and any other clues left the elf wondering where exactly he should go from here.

Thunder rumbled in the darkening sky and Legolas’ thoughts drifted back to the town he had seen in the distance earlier that day, it must be pretty close now. His limited knowledge of the area told him that it was probably Rinevat, a small trading city and smugglers haven. The elf had intended to avoid the town all together... but his latest discovery made him re-think that plan. If Aragorn had been through here, it was possible that someone there might remember him or have information that would be helpful in ascertaining his current location.

Legolas let out a quiet sigh. He did not want to enter the human town. Every experience he had ever had with large groups of humans or human cities had been bad. The first and only time he’d even been in one of these little rough-and-tumble, backwater trading towns was going to Adriolf with Aragorn a year or two ago... and that had not exactly gone off without a hitch.

If he were honest with himself, the prince realized that he did not want to go into a town like that without Aragorn at his side. It wasn’t that he was afraid, Legolas knew he could more than handle himself should there be trouble, but the elf knew too that he was out of his element when it came to this sort of information gathering; that had always been Aragorn’s specialty. He simply was not comfortable around large numbers of humans and trying to act like one of them was not going to be easy. Yet there was no way he could walk into that town as an elf. People almost always had an adverse reaction to finding out what he was and that would certainly kill any chance he had of discovering anything useful.

Legolas pushed his doubts and hesitancies aside. He had a job to do and those things would not help him. It now looked possible that some ill might have befallen his friend, more than just that of a familial misunderstanding, and if Aragorn’s safety might be on the line, Legolas was ready to do whatever it took to find the young ranger.

Pulling his long hair back in a ponytail, Legolas tore a strip from the hem of his blanket. Wrapping it tightly around his head in a half-headband, half-turban like manner he concealed the tops of his gracefully pointing ears in a way that he had seen Lord Elrond do many, many years ago. Gently picking up Aragorn’s cloak once more, he slid it on over his own travel clothes and pulled the hood up over his head. Quietly he wrapped his arms around his chest, holding the cloak tightly closed against him for a moment as if wishing to draw strength from the memory of his friend. Taking a deep breath, Legolas picked up his gear again, kicked out the fire, and started walking for Rinevat.