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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.

 

Chapter Text

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~*PART EIGHT*~

 

 

As Legolas approached the outskirts of the town the heavens broke open. What started as gentle rain quickly turned into a torrential downpour and the setting sun was hidden behind storm clouds. Pulling the hood low to protect his face, Legolas made his way through the muddy streets towards the nearest Inn.

Rinevat was not a pretty town, even when not masked by a thick curtain of rain. Nightfall and the storm had driven most people inside, but there were still a number of cloaked and hooded shapes hurrying about their business on the darkened streets. Rinevat was politely called a trading post town, but everyone knew it was a favorite gathering place for smugglers, slavers, bounty-hunters, flesh-peddlers and anyone else who had high ambitions and low morals.

The Drunken Goblin was the city’s largest Inn and public house, and also the scene for much of the doings that went on in Rinevat. Legolas had no way of knowing that, but Aragorn had taught him that when looking for anything in a human city, the seediest Inn or Pub was usually the best place to start. So it was that Legolas found himself pushing his way through the peeling red and gold painted doors of the Drunken Goblin and wondering at its name. You would never find an elf naming an establishment that they actually wanted people to visit anything so vulgar, but he had learned that humans had an odd sense of humor about the uncouth and right now that was the least of his worries.

The instant he entered the establishment and left the rain outside, the noise and the smell and the blast of sheer unfamiliarity hit the elf’s senses. Loud music was being played somewhere in the dimly lit, smoky room and people were shouting out orders, talking, laughing and arguing all at once. The cacophony of stench was just about as bad as that of sound. It seemed that everyone here was right at home and operating in surroundings that were comfortable and familiar to them. Everyone except the elf who was trying desperately to fight the urge to duck back out into the rain.

Legolas realized that he had frozen in the doorway and quickly forced himself to start moving again. Choosing a small, empty table in a quieter corner of the huge tavern he sat down and took another deep breath, only to nearly choke on the thick air of the place. Legolas grinned ironically to himself. This was pathetic and it was turning out to be much harder than he had thought. He had a lot more respect for the way Aragorn navigated these situations now.

One of the serving girls made her way over to him and Legolas wondered how she had even noticed in all this chaos that they had a new patron. But he supposed she was used to it.

"What’ll it be honey?" the woman asked in a hurry-up-I’m-busy kind of voice that clashed with her fake hospitality. Legolas tried to ignore the amount of clothing that the young lady wasn’t wearing. He was glad that his hood was still down over his face, he was probably flushing. Elf women *never* dressed like that.

"Give me a house brew," Legolas played it safe, not sure what else would be considered normal for a place like this.

The woman squinted slightly and did a double take, as if trying to see his face better, but then shrugged and nodded when the hood proved to utterly hamper her efforts. "All right, comin’ up."

Legolas pressed his lips into a tight line as she walked away, mentally kicking himself. He was going to have to do something about his voice. It was much lighter and more musical than was ordinary for a man.

His drink was brought to him several minutes later and he just nodded his thanks, which the woman barely stopped to notice. Wrapping his fingers around the large stein he sipped at the amber liquid, trying to calm the apprehension in his stomach. He had never felt quite this out of place before and wondered if this was what Aragorn had to deal with at times being a human around elves. He hoped his people had never made the young ranger this uncomfortable... but thinking back to Aragorn’s first visit to Mirkwood he supposed they had. He was glad that at least some things in the world had changed for the good and not only the ill these past few years.

Legolas’ grip on the mug tightened. He knew he could do this if he just stopped looking at everything that was unfamiliar and focused on his goal. He was letting this place toss him, he couldn’t do that. He had to remember everything he’d ever seen Aragorn do in this kind of situation and then just trust himself to figure it out from there. Forcing himself to relax a little he settled back in his seat and began watching the other patrons. The elf was a fairly good imitator and, if he watched long enough, he could pick up the gestures and mannerisms of the people around him.

Focusing on first one group, and then another, he slowly scrutinized each table in turn. Once he got used to the clamor and figured out how to tune it out, he was able to overhear much of what anyone was saying if he turned his attention towards them. This proved to be especially useful when about a half-hour later he heard someone at a table nearby mention the word ‘ranger’. Legolas’ ears instantly pricked up and he tried to hear more of the conversation.

A particularly loud conversation going on at a table between he and the party he was trying to listen to made hearing difficult, but he caught stray words like "leave him" and "later" and some names he didn’t recognize. They seemed to be laughing about something, but he couldn’t tell what.

His attention definitely captured, Legolas rose from his seat and made his way over to the crowded bar, taking his mug with him he leaned against the high wood counter with seeming carelessness in order to better overhear what the men who had his interest were saying. From under the shadow of his low hood, the elf took in the four men at the table. Grizzled and travel-worn, they looked like traders. Of what sort their merchandise or trade was, there was no telling. They acted with a callous air but the elf judged that underneath the rough-and-tumble exteriors were calculating minds that were sharper than they let on. One of them, the one with the heavy sealing ring on his left hand, was named Seobryn... he hadn’t been able to catch the others’ names yet.

He was however, able to catch the trail end of someone’s statement and the elf’s hands tightened around his mug, not sure how to take what he heard.

"...not every day you get to kill a ranger."

Several rough men had entered the Inn and were looking for a place at the crowded bar. There was none open and their gaze fell upon a slim figure leaning against a corner of the jammed counter. The stranger’s face was hidden by the hood he wore, and his back was turned almost fully to them, but the hands that wrapped around the mug he was holding were slim and un-callused, leaving the men to believe the stranger to be a youth not yet filled out with age.

Legolas was so intent on the men at the table that he did not notice the newcomers’ approach until one of them clamped a large hand on his shoulder and spun the elf around.

"Hey kid, go stand somewhere else and let some real men have the bar," the man laughed darkly, shoving the prince back a pace.

Several sets of eyes turned to look at the commotion, lazily interested in if anything would come of it.

Legolas bristled at the fellow’s rudeness. Of course the idea that he was young in comparison to these men was absurd, but he was just about used to humans making that mistaken assumption. His hood had slid back slightly and he went ahead and let it fall to his shoulders so he could fix the interlopers with his most withering glare and so they could see he was not nearly so youthful as they thought, even though he still appeared a young man in their eyes.

"When I see a real man I’ll consider it," the elf said with an icy bite, being sure to lower his voice this time so it did not get him any unwanted stares. "Go find your own place." He turned back to the bar, but never took his senses off the ruffians were still staring at him with rising ire. He doubted they were going to go away with out some persuasion.

He was right.

The fellow who had accosted Legolas before scowled deeply at the rebuff and lunged for the elf.

Legolas was ready for the move and sidestepped easily, catching the man with a quick, hard blow to the base of his skull. The man slumped to the ground immediately unconscious. The ruffian’s two companions did not take kindly to that and rushed the elf a moment later.

Legolas calmly dodged the onslaught of one and dropped his shoulder, ramming it into the stomach of the other, easily flipping the burly man over his back and sending him crashing over the bar. Recovering quickly, the first man to rush him tried to catch Legolas in a headlock, but the prince was simply too fast for him. Dipping out of his grasp faster than the man could comprehend, Legolas left the fellow grasping only air. By this time the second ruffian had pulled himself back over the bar and jumped off of it, tackling Legolas and knocking the elf to the ground beneath his weight.

Legolas recovered fast and got his legs between himself and the man on top of him, quickly flipping the fellow off and sending him flying directly into the table of the men Legolas had been eavesdropping on earlier, sending drinks clattering and sloshing in all directions.

The other man tried to punch the elf, but found his arm caught and twisted behind his back instead, and much to the burly man’s chagrin, he could not wrench free of his slender opponent’s iron grasp no matter how hard he tried. Dragging the man across the room, Legolas somewhat forcefully showed him the door. Returning to the man’s companion who was just getting up from his trip over the table Legolas slid one of the knives out of his quiver in a single motion, leveling it with the man’s throat, he jerked his head at the third man who was still unconscious by the bar. "Get him out of here and don’t bother me again," he commanded coldly. The intensity in the elf’s eyes told the man that he did not want to push this conflict, so he obeyed quickly, muttering dark threats under his breath.

Half the Inn was now staring openly at Legolas as he re-sheathed his blade and straightened his over-coat. The elf calmly leveled the gawkers with a steady, penetrating stare that seemed to say there was no more to see here and they’d better mind their own business if they knew what was good for them. Normalcy swiftly returned as everyone went back to whatever they had been doing before the ruckus. Legolas slapped a few coins down on the counter to pay for the bottles that had been broken when the man went over the bar before the Innkeeper even had a chance to complain and then made his way to where Seobryn and his companions were re-seating themselves after having jumped to their feet when they found their table suddenly decorated by a flying body.

"Sorry about that," the elf righted an overturned ale pint with carefully calculated carelessness. Actually he wasn’t sorry at all, because he now had a unique opportunity to interact with these men without appearing to be nosey. "I seemed to have misjudged the trajectory a little. I’ll pay for the lost drinks."

Chadoc glared at the elf slightly as he sopped spilt ale from the front of his shirt with a ragged handkerchief, but Seobryn laughed, due in no small part to his companion’s chagrin.

The trader clapped Legolas on the shoulder. "No harm done, I’d say that show was worth a few spilt ales, but come, won’t you join us for a round? I’d like to know how a young fellow like you learned to fight like that."

Legolas accepted the chair offered him as new drinks were brought. He shrugged. "You learn what you have to to survive." He decided not to correct these men about his age, he knew that to humans he looked no older than his early twenties and there was no use trying to explain that which could not be explained without revealing his true identity, which was out of the question. Besides, the younger they thought him, the less guarded they would be.

"Seobryn," the trader extended his hand in greeting, introducing himself and then his companions. "Malk, Vavon, and the," he chuckled "uh, soppy fellow is Chadoc."

Legolas accepted his hand. "Tyndel," he returned the greeting with an alias he chose on the spot. It was a humanized adaptation of an elvish nickname his mother had had for him when he was young, and simply meant ‘golden haired’.

"Well Tyndel, you sure can move when you want to," Seobryn took a long drag from his mug, he had already had quite a bit this evening and it made him pleasant and chatty. "You a hunter?" he eyed the bow and quiver on the elf’s back.

Legolas inclined his head slightly. "I hunt many things," he said cryptically, sipping at his own drink.

"Ah," Malk nodded knowingly. "A for-hire then?"

Legolas just shrugged in a non-committal manner as if he chose not to divulge any more details, since he wasn’t entirely sure what they were talking about. "What about you? Traders I’d guess."

"True enough," Seobryn nodded. "On the return stretch of a run. Heading down into southern Harad. And you?"

Legolas tipped his head a little to the side, considering his words. "Between jobs. Looking for someone who needs a quick hand or a fast bow."

Seobryn fell silent for a few moments, but seemed to be sizing Legolas up. "You interested in traveling at all?"

Legolas grinned somewhat ruefully. "I don’t wish to stay around here if that’s what you mean."

The men at the table chuckled. Conversation turned to other things and Legolas was glad for the attention to turn away from himself for a while. He didn’t talk much, but he was an appreciative listener, which the slightly inebriated men found more enjoyable at any rate, as they had many stories to tell.

The talk turned to hunting exploits and the men’s egos waxed large as their boasts grew bigger. Legolas mostly listened, but when called on had plenty of his own exploits to recount, and they were actually true.

"So, Tyndel, you’re a professional," Vavon turned to Legolas. "What would you say was the hardest thing you ever hunted?"

Legolas sipped thoughtfully at his drink, he was still on his first mug, but none of the other men, now several rounds in, had noticed. "A ranger," he said after a moment, dropping the word intentionally. It was also true, but he didn’t bother to mention that it had been part of a game, or that the ranger had been his friend.

Chuckles and murmurs rounded the table. "Unusual game, did you catch him?" Seobryn seemed particularly interested.

Legolas was silent again for a few moments. "They are not easy prey. I have yet to meet someone who could honestly claim to have succeeded," was his round-about answer. The truth was the game had come to a draw, but Legolas was directly angling this line of conversation, hoping to play on the men’s egos and find out what exactly their association with rangers was.

Seobryn shrugged, feeling very full of himself because of the elf’s words. "Aw, they’re not so tough. Got me two of them not so very long ago," he boasted with a smirk. "Very near here actually."

"Really?" Legolas arched an eyebrow, attempting to keep a cool, disinterested attitude. "I would be very interested in how that was accomplished. My experience with them leads me to believe they are very difficult folk."

"Oh they’re wily ones they are, some of the worst," with such an impressed audience, and the opportunity to gloat about success where someone else had failed, Seobryn was ready to work this into one of his best stories. "You gotta beat them up here," he tapped his finger against his temple. "You gotta out smart and out-maneuver ‘em."

Of course the real truth that any success they had had was mostly due to luck and superior numbers was not mentioned.

Legolas nodded as if impressed. "But I thought you were traders, what interested you in hunting rangers?"

"Well we wasn’t really interested in them..." Seobryn hedged slightly, not about to go too far down that road. He knew what could and couldn’t be talked about, even when bragging. "It was an... incidental pleasure you might say. They got too nosy and troublesome for their own good and we had to take care of them."

"May have caught ‘em all right but cracking ‘em was a different story..." Chadoc muttered, not at all fond of the way that Seobryn was taking full credit for something he had not played a major role in.

Seobryn elbowed him sharply. "It’s true they’re a little close if they don’t want to talk, but what do you expect? Them rangers, they’re like, part elf or some other fiendish critter. They ain’t hardly human boy," Seobryn shook his head sagely at Legolas. "I was surprised to see that they actually bleed red."

"Oh and we saw a lot of that," Vavon chuckled uncouthly.

"Not enough in my opinion," Chadoc muttered, shaking his head.

Legolas’ knuckles tightened around his mug and his chest burned, but with sheer willpower, he kept a calm, only half-interested look on his face. "Really? You killed them then?"

"Not quite," Seobryn wavered his hand from side to side. "One of ‘em died on account of being more stubborn than was good for him," he said somewhat darkly. "But the other..." the trader smiled to himself. "Well let’s just say he’s found a new vocation in life."

The other men at the table laughed, except for Chadoc, who was in a bad mood this evening. He scowled disapprovingly. "Still woulda been better to kill him," he mumbled. "Leaving him with Rhuddryn is more risky than it’s worth."

"Oh shut up Chadoc," Seobryn was tired of his companion’s constant harping on the subject. They had left the young ranger behind, still in Rhuddryn’s care, rather than risk bringing him north again where someone might recognize him, but after all this time Seobryn felt fairly certain that there was no danger of the young man’s memory ever coming back. "He’s mine and I’ll do with him what I like. Like that baby harpian we caught that one time, you remember that? Ever crossed a full grown harpian Tyndel? Let me tell you, they’re nasty! Well one day outside of Yuluk, we..."

Seobryn launched into another story and Legolas pretended to be listening, but his mind was still stuck and whirling on the information he had learned. Two rangers. Captured near here. Near where Aragorn’s coat had been mysteriously abandoned. One was dead; one was a captive somewhere, with some man named Rhuddryn. Was Aragorn one of the two? It seemed almost certain. But which one? The one who was alive and a prisoner, or the one who was dead? The thought made Legolas’ heart twist painfully in his chest.

He had to know. He had to find out where the ranger who was still alive was. He had to try to save him, whether he was Aragorn or... or not. The elf’s stomach knotted tightly, making him feel ill.

Somehow the elf managed to nod and laugh in the right places, managed to act like nothing was out of the ordinary although he remembered almost nothing of the conversation after that. A short while later Seobryn and his companions rose to take their leave.

"Hey Tyndel," Seobryn turned back after paying for their drinks. "I lost a couple of men coming up here. Wouldn’t mind having somebody fast on their feet around if we run into any more beasts or bandits. If you’re interested you can hook up with us for a while. Pay is fair and you said you wanted to get out of here..." Seobryn shrugged, leaving the offer open.

Legolas considered for a few moments, not having expected this turn of events. "I’ll think about it," he hesitated to commit until he had thought this through a little. His mind was still slightly fogged from the emotions he had been repressing since hearing of his friend’s possible fate and he didn’t want to decide anything on the spot.

Seobryn shrugged again. "Go ahead, but think fast, we’re pulling out in the morning. If you decide to come our camp is just outside town, to the east."

Legolas nodded.

The rain had stopped and Seobryn and his companions took their leave. Legolas left shortly thereafter. He had no desire to remain in the crowded, noisy bar now that he had achieved his objective. Nor did he wish to stay at the inn. He wasn’t sure exactly what he wished to do, but getting some fresh, quiet air, away from smoke, stench and chatter was a good start.

The rain had cleaned the air and left a fresh, crisp smell lingering in the night that helped to clear the elf’s head. The scent of rain was still heavy, and the dry reprieve was most likely a momentary one only. The sky was shrouded in clouds and the light of the moon was all but hidden. The streets were dark save for a handful of lanterns scattered here and there, hanging under the protected eves of a few buildings.

The darkness did not bother the elf, but he was distracted by his own thoughts and his senses were turned inward, not outward. He was trying to decide if he should accept Seobryn’s offer or not. It would not be easy, living with a group of men, traveling with them, working with them, and continuing to pass himself off as one of them. He knew there were a hundred little things that he probably couldn’t even begin to think of which could give him away if he were around them on a regular basis. Plus there was the added strain of knowing that these men might have killed his best friend, and had certainly harmed him at any rate.

However, if he did not go with them, he probably lost his best chance of ever finding Aragorn if the ranger was still alive. He had a name, but without a location, that did him little good. If he accepted Seobryn’s offer of a job, he had the chance to follow the only lead he had and possibly pick up more information. It was dangerous... but Legolas really could see no other option.

A sudden flutter of movement jerked the elf out of his thoughts and plunged him into full alert mode, but it was too late. His attention had been too far diverted and he had lost precious response time.

A hard blow across the back of his head threw the elf forward. Legolas barely caught himself, falling to his hands and knees on the muddy, rain-slicked street. The rough, wet stones tore his palms and his head buzzed painfully as the dark, slick cobbles wavered in front of his eyes. The strike had come dangerously close to knocking him unconscious and the prince’s body reeled, unresponsive to the jumbled commands his mind was screaming at it.

A heavy foot kicked him sharply in the ribs as the elf struggled to regain himself and make the world stop spinning. "We’ll teach you a thing or two about who to cross and who not to cross kid!" a rough voice growled as several sets of hands dragged the prince back to his feet.

A bright flash of lightening and a loud peal of thunder echoed overhead, momentarily adding to the confusion.

Through wavering vision Legolas recognized the three men he had tussled with in the bar earlier. They had brought some friends along with them apparently, for unless his eyes cheated him Legolas saw four other men present that he did not recognize.

A fist slammed into Legolas’ midsection, making him double over as two men twisted his arms tightly behind him. Fiery pain shot up the prince’s arm from his left wrist as the fellow holding him gave it a hard, awkward jerk, bending it back on itself at a dangerously awkward angle. If the man had been only a little stronger, he would have broken the wrist he twisted. A hard blow to the face cut the reeling elf’s lip and blood spilled down his chin.

A rustling patter followed by quickening drops of moisture, almost invisible in the dark, told that the rain had started up again.

Legolas grasped desperately at the edges of his awareness, trying to pull himself together, but the men were giving him no time to recover or react.

"Ooh, be careful, you’ll mess up his pretty-boy face!" one of the brutes sneered, purposefully punching Legolas in the face again. The blood that traced now from Legolas’ nose and mouth mingled with the quickening rain as one of his assailants hammered him in the ribs. The painful, biting hurt in his left wrist intensified as the man holding it twisted his elbow further back.

The elf prince doubled over, only kept on his feet by the men holding his arms. Legolas steeled his jaw as his senses and responses began to come back to him. This had gone quite far enough. The rain was making everything slick and slippery and Legolas waited for the right moment, taking a deep breath and keeping his head down as a rough hand grabbed the front of his overcoat, preparing to jerk him back up right again.

Moving faster than his assailants thought possible for an injured ‘young man’, Legolas brought his head up quickly, causing the back of his skull to connect solidly with the jaw of the man standing over him. Twisting hard first one way, and then the other, Legolas slid his arms away from his captors, the men’s fingers slipping and sliding without effect on the wet leather sleeves as they attempted to hang onto him.

Kicking out hard, Legolas’ foot caught someone in the knee. The man fell with a howl of pain and did not rise again. Several of the men pulled daggers or short swords from their belts; they wanted blood and intended to have it. Legolas drew his own knives, ignoring the fiery ache in his strained wrist as the rain intensified into another torrent, obscuring vision and making everything dangerously slick.

The men lunged him all at once and Legolas was hard pressed to keep up with them for several moments. He didn’t even have time for conscious thought, only movement as he twisted, turned, jabbed, sliced and kicked. The cobbles were slick with rain and mud and his boots slipped treacherously as he spun to fend off the man behind him, while trying to duck and evade the others coming at him from the side. Landing on one knee, he ducked under a swipe aimed for his neck, but could not avoid a thrust that cut through the right shoulder of his coat and tunic, drawing blood.

Pushing back the pain, Legolas rolled with the blow and dodged another, one of his blades finding home in the flesh of an attacker’s neck. Drawing his weapon clear again Legolas spun to face the next closest threat. The fight was much shorter than it felt, but most of it passed in a blur of rain, sharpened steel and blood. When Legolas finally realized that no one was attacking him anymore, six of the seven ruffians lay in the darkened street either dead or unconscious and one must have run away.

Legolas staggered slightly, the fierce ache of his injuries catching up with him all at once. Re-sheathing his knives somewhat clumsily, he hurried away. It would never do to get stuck here because of this. One man at least had escaped and that would only mean trouble for him he was certain, it was more than time to leave Rinevat far behind.

Once he had lost himself well in the back streets on the outskirts of town, the elf had to stop for a moment, leaning against a crumbling wet brick wall and holding his injured shoulder as he sought to bring his ragged breathing under control. He hadn’t noticed before, but his hood was down and the rain was pelting his already drenched hair and turban, making it cling to his face and running in rivulets down his collar, wetting the tunic underneath.

Turning his closed eyes towards the heavens, Legolas let the cool rain wash the blood from his face and sooth the fire of the bruises that would form there. His fingers knotted in the slick wet leather sleeve below the gash in his shoulder as his breathing slowly calmed and returned to normal.

This was exactly why he didn’t want to have to have more to do with men than he had to. Things always turned out badly; they were so unpredictable and easily run by pride, greed or just sheer malice. There was no need for the blood that had been spilt back there. There was no need for the violence that had been done. What was it all for? A place at the bar of some seedy inn on the backside of nowhere? Were six men really dead because of that? Some of them hadn’t even been involved in the initial conflict. It just did not make sense to Legolas’ mind. It was so wasteful, so crude.

How could he ever hope to pass himself off indefinitely as one of them? How could he play the part when he could not begin to fathom how their minds worked?

These were the questions that plagued his thoughts. This was the reason why Seobryn’s offer... why it... it... Legolas clenched his eyelids tightly against the patter of the rain, forcing himself to stop reasoning around the subject and be honest with himself about his hesitations. Why it frightened him.

Legolas let his breath out in a soft hiss through his teeth. He was a warrior, he was a prince, he was an elf! He was not afraid of anything... but he was afraid of this. Afraid that he would fail; fail Aragorn, fail the trust that Elladan and Elrohir had placed in him, fail Lord Elrond by not bringing his youngest son home to him, fail his own father by being too weak and frightened to even be worthy of being called his son.

"Did you ever feel this alone Aragorn?" he quietly asked his missing friend, taking comfort in momentarily pretending that they were together, as they had been on so many adventures in the past, and that he was not all alone in this place. "Like the fate of that which you held most dear hung on your shoulders and you weren’t sure you could handle it?"

Then Legolas laughed at his own question. Of course his friend would have known the feeling very well. After all, it was he, not Legolas upon whom it was foretold that the fate of the entire world of men would hang. It was no wonder the ranger wasn’t always sure he wanted that responsibility. The elf smiled slightly, despite his split lip.

"The further I walk in the world of men, the better I understand you mellon nín." He took another deep breath. "I will find you Aragorn," he promised the darkness. "If you still draw breath on this earth I will find you, wherever you are and whatever it takes. And if you have already passed beyond the Halls of Mandos, then I swear I will avenge you, or I will die in the quest." The invisible stars where his only witness, but the elf knew his oath would bind him to the destiny he had chosen and release him only in either success or death. He would have it no other way.

The rain did not slacken and his injuries still throbbed, but Legolas felt better. Indecision and hesitation were behind him. He could not fail because it was simply not an option. Therefore he was just going to have to forge ahead and trust that Ilúvatar would watch over those who willingly plunged in over their head for a good cause.

Legolas flipped his hood back up, over his head once more, although he was by now so wet it really didn’t matter. His wrist flared painfully at the simple motion and he knew he needed to rest for a little while and let his body start dealing with the hurts it had taken.

Taking such shelter as he could where several intersecting buildings created a bit of a wind and rain break, Legolas pulled Aragorn’s coat tightly around him and slowly slid himself into a half-sleep state to allow his body to start recovering. He had a long road ahead of him.

 

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

 

The rain had abated by morning and the sun rose in a nearly cloudless sky.

Rosy dawn was spreading slowly over the rain-slicked landscape as Legolas made his way out of town, heading east.

Seobryn’s men had just finished breaking up camp and were preparing to set out. The elder trader looked up when the elf arrived. He smiled. "Almost thought you were going to turn us down lad... what happened to you?"

Bruises had formed across Legolas’ mouth and right cheekbone. He had bound up his shoulder wound, but there was no hiding the torn coat or the bloodstain on the cloth beneath. Legolas had more hurts that were not readily apparent to the eye, but you would not have known it by watching him. He had learned a long time ago how to move so that no one could tell you were in pain. That was something his uncle had taught him... had quite literally beaten into him actually, but it had been useful at other times since.

Legolas shrugged, his movements weren’t hampered, although he certainly felt stiff. "The men in the bar could hold a very violent grudge apparently. They brought a few of their friends in on it with them. They thought they deserved to be paid back for their humiliation in blood."

Seobryn chuckled. "Well I guess they did! So what happened?"

Legolas lightly rubbed his mending split lip with his fingertips. "They’re dead," was all he said.

"All of them?" Seobryn’s eyebrows went up; he couldn’t quite let it go at that.

"Six out of seven," Legolas said with forced carelessness. "So, you said you were heading to Southern Harad... that’s quite a distance from here, isn’t it?"

Vavon laughed outright. "Let me guess, you want to be as far away from here by nightfall as possible?"

Legolas inclined his head slightly. "I don’t like trouble if it can be avoided. Do you still want me?" he leveled his gaze at Seobryn. He somehow got the feeling that far from changing the human’s mind, this exploit actually made him more desirable to the shady trader.

Seobryn just smiled. "I like what you’re made of kid. I think we’ll get on just fine. Chadoc, make room on one of the pack animals for Tyndel’s gear. Everyone, prepare to move out!"

Legolas secured his bedroll and small pack to the back of the mule he was directed toward. The sun had just finally broken the horizon when they started off, heading south with the rising sun on their left. Heading deep into a land that Legolas had never seen, with men that the elf did not trust to find a friend he was not sure was there...

The elf took a deep breath. He had a feeling he was delving into either one of the biggest adventures, or the biggest disasters, of his life.

 

 

___________________________________________________________

~*PART NINE*~

 

 

Legolas sat quietly on the edge of camp as the sun dipped towards the horizon, his quick fingers gliding swiftly over the familiar task of fletching the new arrows he’d made the previous evening. He didn’t really even have to look at what he was doing, after as many years as he had been making arrows his fingers knew the well-worn paths on their own.

He had been traveling with Seobryn’s group for the better part of five or six weeks. They had covered a lot of distance in that time. The kinder climes of Ithilien and Gondor had given way to the harsher and more unforgiving regions farther south. The people too, began to change.

Dark eyed Easterlings were a common sight in Near Harad; both the native peoples in their earth colored robes and the militia in their striking gold and red uniforms that covered all but their eyes. However the further south they traveled, the more these peoples gave way to the darker skinned natives of Far Harad who built few cities, but populated many tent and mud-hut villages.

Living and working on a daily basis with Seobryn and his men had been more than awkward for Legolas at first, but many small adjustments, including having to learn to sleep with his eyes closed and carry himself with a heavier, rougher manner than he was accustomed to, had served to keep the elf from discovery. He had settled more or less comfortably into his role by now, and his companions had learned that their latest member was not a big talker and preferred to keep to himself most of the time, which was no skin off their nose so long as he pulled his own weight, which he always did.

Legolas had carefully mended the tear in the shoulder of Aragorn’s overcoat, although he no longer wore it all the time for the simple reason that it was too hot down here to wear so much leather. Not that it bothered the elf, but it was another one of those things he’d had to do for appearances. He kept the garment safe however, rolled up with his gear, for he had every intention of someday being able to return it to its owner one day.

By now Legolas had found out that they were in fact heading towards the dwelling of the man they called Rhuddryn, the same one Seobryn had indicated that the ranger had been left with so the elf knew that his goal was growing close. Nibbling at the back of his mind was the horrible question of what exactly he was going to do if the ranger was not Aragorn, but Legolas did not let the doubts waste much of his time. It did no good to borrow trouble, he was just going to have to wait and see.

The subject of the two rangers had not come up often and Legolas hesitated to press it lest he arouse suspicion by his unusual curiosity. Thus far however, he had been able to gather the idea that Seobryn and his men had turned the ranger they captured into some kind of slave and left him with Rhuddryn to fulfill the same function. Sometimes they laughed as if the whole thing was some sort of big joke, but Legolas failed to find any humor in it whatsoever. Much less so when they carelessly referred to the ranger as Seobryn’s ‘pet’. Legolas feared what had been done to his friend... if it was his friend... the elf pushed the thought away. He’d told himself he wasn’t going to worry about that yet and it was a resolution he meant to keep.

Legolas was aware that someone was watching him, but didn’t look up, he knew it was Seobryn from the man’s step and the cadence of his breath.

Seobryn watched Legolas working the arrow fletchings with skilled fingers. He had to give the kid points for knowing his trade at least; the one he knew as Tyndel certainly could handle himself. He had proven that several times over the course of their long journey. The elf was too quiet for his tastes personally, but he’d rather have a silent man who was on the ball when needed than a loud-mouth who sloughed off when it came to action any day, so the trader did not regret his decision to hire Legolas on. Especially since the elf was largely to thank for foiling a warg attack that might otherwise have proved fatal to the whole party a week ago. That was the reason Legolas needed new arrows in the first place. He had lost quite a few that day.

Of course that didn’t mean that Seobryn necessarily trusted the ‘young man’ yet. He had told Tyndel nothing about their work with the crossbreeding, or what exactly their association with the place they were heading was, other than that Rhuddryn was an acquaintance and a client whom he traded for. Telling his newest employee too much was an unnecessary risk, and Seobryn didn’t believe in people knowing any more than they had to, especially if he didn’t know them very well, and even though Tyndel had spent the past weeks with them, he still felt as if he knew the youth very little.

Presently Seobryn dropped down to sit on the log next to Legolas and the elf looked up for a moment as was expected of him, before dropping his eyes back to his work. That was another thing he’d had to learn. Men were easily disconcerted if he knew who they were and where they were without looking at them. Legolas was using one of his knives to straighten a slight deviation in the arrow he was making and Seobryn watched the blade move with interest.

"You know, I’ve been meaning to ask you Tyndel, what the story behind those is," he nodded his head towards the ivory handled knife in the prince’s hand. "That odd scrawl on them, that’s elvish, ain’t it?" He wasn’t sure but he could have sworn he’d seen something like it before and had been told it was elvish.

Legolas considered the knife in his hands for a moment. He had already prepared an answer in case anyone asked about them, indeed, he had thought the question would come up a long time before this, but he had found that the men were not overly observant.

"It is," he nodded.

"Where’d you get a thing like that?" was the next predicable question.

"From an elf," was the truthful answer, but Legolas smiled somewhat wickedly when he said it and let the man’s mind make its own assumptions and leaps about what he meant.

Seobryn chuckled. "You’re a really tough character Tyndel. Elves, rangers... I begin to think I hired an assassin instead of a hunter."

Legolas just smiled thinly, one of those looks that neither acknowledged nor denied anything. Seobryn had become used to that from this one and just shook his head. He didn’t care if the boy wanted his past kept a secret, most men in this line of work did.

"We’re being followed you know," Legolas said after a few moments. He had been meaning to breach that subject to the group’s leader and now was as good a time as any.

Seobryn’s head snapped towards the elf and his attention was caught quickly. "What do you mean? By who?"

Legolas made mental note of the fact that Seobryn seemed awfully jumpy, as if he had reason to worry much about such things. The elf had long ago decided that these men were more than the simple traders they purported themselves to be, but just exactly what their true business was he could not yet begin to guess.

"Not who, what," Legolas corrected, his hands never stilling. "For the past two nights I have seen shadows in the trees or the tall grasses near camp. A pack of something large is trailing us, but they are neither wolves nor wargs."

Seobryn seemed to relax slightly, although still obviously concerned with the news. "No one else’s said anything," he silently noted the need for a lecture on his other men’s attentiveness. "But I’ll wager anything it’s a bunch of those blasted taergs that you’ve been seeing."

"Taergs?" Legolas raised an eyebrow as he repeated the strange word.

Seobryn nodded matter-of-factly, then read the question in the elf’s face. "You’ve never been this far south before, have you kid?"

Legolas shook his head. It was true; he had never been this far away from the lands he knew before. The hot and increasingly arid climate was unlike the places he was used to and even the stars were strange here, holding nothing familiar in their sparkling firmament.

"Didn’t think so. You don’t get wargs down here, or many wolves either, the weather’s wrong for them or something, but whatever the reason, they just don’t survive this far south," Seobryn explained. "Now taergs, they’re a different story. They’re like huge cats, big as a horse sometimes, with fangs as long as your hand. They can kill a man or beast with just one bite. I’ve seen it happen. Some breeds of them are only nocturnal, but the most dangerous kinds are day-hunters. Now they’re the opposite of wargs you see; you take them up north, away from their natural habitat, and they don’t make it very long. I’ve seen that happen too. They don’t actually hunt in packs so much, like wargs do, they’re more solo hunters, but sometimes you’ll get three or four working together.

"Watch out for them Tyndel, they’re ferocious when hunting, or when they think they’re being threatened. Not as aggressive or easy to provoke as wargs, not by a long shot, but nearly twice as dangerous if they go after you. They can move with absolutely no sound so you don’t even know they’re there until it’s too late. If there’s more than one of them trailing us it means one thing, drought in the higher regions has forced them down here into the valleys searching for food and they’re not too picky about what they get. We’ll have to double our watch."

Legolas nodded, absorbing all he could about this new threat and matching it up with the shapes and shadows he had been seeing. When in a new place like this it was best to know up front what he was dealing with. For a fleeting moment the elf thought it mildly surprising that Seobryn knew so much about taergs and wargs, or that he compared them so often just now, as if speaking of the pros and cons of each species. The trader didn’t seem the kind to pick up a lot of trivia that didn’t directly benefit him like that. But the thought did not appear to have any importance at the moment, so it slid away without much notice.

That night when he was on watch, Legolas saw the faintly glowing eyes in the darkness outside camp again, and this time he had a name to put with them. But the taergs kept their distance and gave no indication of being ready to make a move against the occupants of the camp and when morning came they had disappeared from sight once more, although Legolas was sure they were not far away. He would be watchful.

 

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

 

Two or three days after Legolas had first sighted the eyes in the night, they reached Rhuddryn’s estate. The previous evening the taergs had come closer than ever and Legolas had actually been able to see the markings on its face, but they had faded with the dawn once again. However, Legolas was uneasy. The other men seemed to consider the danger past now that they were entering familiar territory, but Legolas couldn’t shake the feeling that the beasts were not content to be silent shadows much longer.

Legolas looked around him as they walked. Although there were no fences or walls or clear demarcations, it was obvious that they were now on someone’s property rather than in the wilderness, because the trees were tended and evenly spaced, the flora and fauna was tamed and the evidence of human habitation was everywhere. Presently they did come upon a high, stone wall through which they passed into the inner grounds of the estate. The magnitude of the place was staggering. Even Legolas’ sharp eyes could not find the end of it. The fields and groves that confronted them seemed to go on forever in every direction, and here, there and everywhere Legolas could see the bustle of human activity, although from this distance he could not see what kind of work was being done.

Ahead of them, surrounded by some of the prettiest of the native manga groves, was a large house of almost palace-like proportions that Legolas rightly guessed must belong to the owner of this place, the man they called Rhuddryn. They did not proceed to the house, but set up camp in the shelter of the trees to the far right of the structure. Seobryn disappeared to talk to the master of the residence, but the rest of the men stayed in camp, content that their journey was over.

It was several hours before Seobryn showed up again. Another man was with him. From the way he carried himself, as if he were lord of everything he saw, Legolas guessed that this was Rhuddryn. The two men did not seem to be making for the camp, but rather strolling beneath the trees, enveloped in their own conversation. Legolas tried to hear them, but they were too far away. Suddenly a slave ran up to them and spoke quickly to Rhuddryn. From his manner, Legolas could tell the slave was greatly distressed or frightened about something.

While Rhuddryn dispensed orders to the slave and ran off in one direction, Seobryn quickly changed course and approached the camp. "Chadoc, Tyndel, Malk, Vavon, Teek, Zelbo," Seobryn quickly picked out his best warriors. "Get your weapons. Seems they’re having a little taerg problem."

As if to emphasize his words, a high-pitched woman’s scream echoed from not far away, followed by other shouts, screams and frantic yelling, most of which were uttered in a language Legolas did not recognize. However, the panic and pain in the voices was only too easy to read. The elf already had his bow in his hand and was running through the manga trees towards the source of the disturbance almost before the others had even started, although they were not far behind.

Legolas outdistanced Seobryn and his men without even trying and arrived first. Three large taergs were easily visible on the grassy plain near a portion of the stone wall that surrounded the grove. One stood over a dead mule, feeding from the carcass and fiercely protecting its kill. The other two were going after the desperately scattering slaves who had been busy about harvesting the ripe manga fruits from this grove. Before one even had time to wonder how the taergs got in, a fourth beast dropped easily from the limbs of a tree that grew outside the wall, but overhung into the manga grove. Obviously, the taergs were skilled climbers.

Rhuddryn had arrived as well, but he was alone, the men he had sent for not having arrived yet, so he remained on the safe side of the clearing, away from the fray, a deep frown on his face.

As Legolas brushed lightly by him the thought flashed through his mind that these were probably the same taergs that had been tailing them for the past several days, but that hardly mattered at the moment.

Stringing an arrow faster than sight, Legolas shot one of the taergs in the throat. The large beast growled and turned on the elf. It only took Legolas a moment to realize that he was going to have to be a lot more precise than that, since the taergs’ hides seemed difficult to pierce, and the creature was advancing on him, even though it had one of his arrows protruding from its neck.

Quickly aiming again, this time Legolas’ arrow caught the taerg in the eye and it fell dead on the spot.

Sighting in on a second taerg that had pounced on one of the fruit-pickers, about to deliver a killing blow, the elf felled the creature with one shot, now that he knew where to aim for the quickest kill.

Another scream rent the air. A woman was desperately trying to climb one of the manga trees to get away from the taerg that was going after her. It was a futile gesture; the great cats could climb better than humans could. Legolas sent an arrow deep between the creature’s shoulder blades, but although it slid down the tree a few feet, it did not give up on its cornered prey. They were hidden in the branches and Legolas could not get a clear shot.

Running across the field and letting lose another arrow if nothing more than to distract the great cat, Legolas sprung up into the tree, putting himself between the ravening beast and the terrified woman. White fangs greeted him, snarling and slashing with a speed and fluidity that was frightening. The creature’s huge claws grazed across the elf’s arm, scratching him, but doing no serious damage because the prince’s quick reflexes saved him. Pulling one of his knives, Legolas jammed it under the creature’s chin, forcing the blade up sharply, before quickly pulling back to slash the hairy neck. The taerg fell out of the tree almost without a sound. It was eerie how quiet these creatures could be, even in death. Legolas had never battled anything quite like them before and he saw that at least in this case, Seobryn’s account of them had not been exaggerated.

Dropping quickly out of the tree himself, Legolas looked up in time to see Seobryn and his men arrive, followed shortly by Rhuddryn’s guards. They were attacking the remaining taerg that had left the mule carcass in favor of confronting the newcomers.

Suddenly a heavy weight landed on the elf’s shoulders, knocking him to the ground before he knew what had hit him. Legolas rolled over only just in time to see the flash of glistening fangs before they would have closed around his throat in a killing snap. Jabbing the knife, still in his hand, up into the creature’s chest and heaving upward with all his strength, the elf dislodged the beast enough to allow him to roll away. He slid quickly under the taerg’s jaws, avoiding the creature’s claws. For a moment it rattled him badly that he had not been aware of the fifth creature’s presence, nor sensed its approach, but he allowed no time for shock, which was well because he had no extra time to spare. He was dealing with a new breed of threat here, one he’d not faced before, but he wasn’t about to let that shake him for long. His knife was still buried in the creature’s chest and it was howling madly in rage as it pounced at him. Rolling swiftly and springing to his feet, Legolas strung and shot an arrow in less time than it took to blink. It caught the creature right in the center of its open, snarling mouth. It fell dead at his feet, barely five inches away from him.

About the same time, Seobryn’s men and Rhuddryn’s guards finished off the other taerg. A hushed quiet fell over the grove.

Legolas took a deep, steadying breath to recover from that last little shock and then calmly pulled his knife out of the dead taerg, wiping the blood off on its tawny hide.

He felt a little sorry for the creatures, for although they were deadly hunters that could catch even an elf unaware, he did not feel malice or evil in them, as one did in wargs and other twisted beasts of darkness. No, these were just creatures hunting food. He felt no compunction about killing them to protect the lives of others, but that didn’t mean he did not regret that it had to be that way. He supposed that if one was not lower on the food chain than them, the taergs would be beautiful to watch in motion.

"Hey Tyndel, you all right?" Seobryn called as the others approached Legolas’ position. Legolas thrust his knife into its sheath on his back once more and offered the frightened slave woman, who was still cowering in the tree, a hand down. The woman seemed hesitant to accept it, but was shaking and crying too hard to do make it down on her own, so she finally gave in.

"I’m fine," Legolas called back, while checking to make sure that the same was true of the trembling fruit-picker. The woman leaned against his arm, holding onto his shoulder tightly for balance as she got over her fright at nearly being eaten. "Thank you," she whispered.

The others reached the spot. Seobryn was laughing. "You did it again Tyndel. You know, like I’ve told you before, you really didn’t have to try to handle it all by yourself. Do you have a death wish or something? You coulda waited for us."

"People would have died," Legolas tilted his head. "I’m fine."

"People?" Seobryn shrugged. "Just slaves. But hey, I don’t care, it’s your life," he shook his head with a bemused grin. Sometimes he thought Tyndel was a little odd and definitely too much of a risk taker, especially considering situations where there was nothing in it for him.

Rhuddryn’s guards arrived a moment later and the slave woman quickly backed away from Legolas, but not quick enough for the guards, who grabbed her by the wrist and yanked her away, slapping her and letting her fall to the ground.

Startled to no end by the abrupt treatment Legolas moved quickly in her defense, stepping between the guards and the woman before they could hurt her any further. "Why did you do that?"

The guard pulled up short, obviously surprised that one of Seobryn’s men was interfering. They usually never did. "They aren’t allowed to touch their betters without permission," the man explained, as if it were perfectly logical and common knowledge.

Inside Legolas rankled at the sheer disrespect and contempt for another living being that was being shown here, but he knew such feelings would serve no one so he held them inside and did not let them out, but neither did he move away from the slave woman. "She didn’t touch me, I touched her, I did not know. Don’t punish her for my mistake."

The guards shifted somewhat uneasily but shrugged. "All right then, you heard him, get out of here Myrta, get back to work." the guard brusquely ordered the woman, who scrambled quickly to obey. "This isn’t a holiday, come on, everyone back to work!" the guards started calling to the other slaves who were still standing around, staring at the dead taergs. The guards then moved off to organize a few groups of the workers to remove the bodies, leaving Legolas and Seobryn’s men alone with Rhuddryn, who had just made his way over.

Rhuddryn was watching Legolas. He had been there to see everything that had happened and although he was not about to admit his admiration out loud, he had never seen anyone take on and take out four taergs all by themselves. Nor had he ever seen such accuracy with a bow before. This new young man of Seobryn’s interested him greatly.

"You’re quite a sharpshooter..."

"Tyndel," Seobryn supplied for Legolas, glad to be able to brag on the abilities of his men. "Yes he is, now you see I wasn’t kidding you about how he handled that warg attack we ran into up north."

"Well you have my thanks Tyndel, I don’t like to have to replace slaves if I don’t have to. They’re expensive," Rhuddryn remarked casually.

Legolas just nodded with a slightly thin-lipped smile. "Always glad to help. But I have to wonder what brought the attack on," the elf shook his head. Now that he had time to think about it, it bothered him. "I’m almost certain these are the same taergs that have been hounding us for the past few days, but they seemed hesitant to attack... why would they chose to do so when it would be harder for them then it would have been in the wilds?"

Everyone shrugged somewhat uncomfortably and Legolas immediately realized that somehow he had hit on something that no one wanted to talk about.

"They’re just stupid brutes, what do they know? They got tired of waiting I guess," Seobryn muttered.

"More likely it’s that," Rhuddryn said after a moment, pointing to the large refuse pile that was stacked against the back wall a few lengths off. "Kitchen scraps are thrown there and the smell of the fresh blood and rotting flesh probably attracted them. I’ll have the slaves move it away from the wall. And they were supposed to have gotten rid of the trees along the outer fence yesterday, I will have to speak to my overseers about the lapse."

Legolas nodded. The explanation made sense, but he still felt like there had been a moment where the others were thinking something else, something they either didn’t want to tell him, or didn’t want to say out in the open. He wasn’t sure which. What it was however, he could not begin to guess.

"We’ve been having quite a problem with the taergs around here lately," Rhuddryn remarked as they moved away from the site of the near disaster, heading back towards the house and camp. "The dry weather here has brought them down in droves to the nearest water sources they can find, which, unfortunately are here on my estates. They have been bothering the herds especially, culling out the little oliphaunts and even the big ones occasionally. Done more damage to my Olybryn though actually, because the herders are easier to take down than the oliphaunts. Don’t suppose I could interest you in a job Tyndel? I pay very well."

Seobryn laughed and interjected, cutting off any response that Legolas might have made. "Oh no you don’t, I don’t try to steal your men from you Rhuddryn, and you don’t take mine from me. Besides, what would a kid like him do stuck around a place like this all the time? Youngsters want to see the world, not sit herd for a bunch of oliphaunts."

Rhuddryn didn’t really seem surprised or offended by Seobryn’s unwillingness to lose the young man, he would have been surprised if the trader hadn’t protested, but couldn’t resist making the offer. After all, if he could get one man to do the job of several, which Tyndel obviously could handle... then he would save a lot of money. It had been worth asking anyway, and, he noticed, Tyndel had not been the one who refused. They would just wait and see.

Legolas did not care too much for being spoken for, or for Seobryn acting like he owned him, but he wisely kept his mouth shut and just followed along as the conversation turned to other things.

 

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

 

Rhuddryn sat on the shady veranda of his big house, working at a desk that had been brought out for him, as he often did when the weather turned especially hot. One of his slaves stood unobtrusively behind him, fanning the landowner with a slow, steady rhythm.

Between his lips Rhuddryn held a smoldering migar, sucking slowly on the unlighted end of it as he worked. The milani leaves that were specially treated and rolled to create the migars were native to this part of Harad and becoming quite a popular cash crop. The landowner had almost invested in planting milani fields instead of getting into this whole breeding business with Seobryn, but the money had simply seemed too good too pass up. Now he was beginning to wish that he had gone with his first idea instead.

Rhuddryn smoked quietly for a few minutes, deep in thought. Things were not going well. He was very skilled breeder, as his excellent oliphaunt herds attested. However, it was not oliphaunts he was concerned about. The crossbreeding they were attempting out in the south hills was another matter all together, and it was either failing, or turning up very undesirable results.

And now this taerg problem. Somehow or another he knew it was related to what he was working on out in the far southern portion of his huge estate, as if the taergs were coming seeking those of theirs that he had been forced to continually capture and bring here in the course of the trial. The bottom line however, was that the taergs were costing him money. A lot of money, and if things fell through with his current contract, then he was going to be out a substantial amount, with no way to make up for it. The man grimaced in irritation, dropping the small stub that was left of his migar and rubbing it out under his heel with more vehemence than was necessary.

"Master?" A quiet voice made him look up to see the face of one of his house slaves. "Someone here to see you Master, one of Mister Seobryn’s men."

"Show him over," Rhuddryn could see from where he sat that the person in question was Seobryn’s latest acquisition. The one called Tyndel. Seobryn had been back for about two weeks, but he was getting ready to set out again, for supplies and news this time, and didn’t know how long before he’d return.

Work was getting very serious out in the south hills, and Seobryn had kept busy while he was there, although his men were not always with him. Just how busy the trader had been was evidenced by the fact that he had never taken time to reclaim his slave, Adrar, from Rhuddryn, but seemed content, for the time being at least, to leave the slave completely to the other’s care and ownership. That was not something which Rhuddryn minded greatly however, because Adrar had proved himself a very hard worker in the months he had been here, and got on well with the other Olybryn, especially the Simbani tribe which seemed to have more or less adopted him. Any slave which hadn’t cost him a penny to buy was a good one, and he was no longer seriously worried about the young man’s memory returning. It seemed that it was truly gone for good.

Rhuddryn was curious about why Tyndel wanted to see him. He had seen little of the fellow the past couple weeks. "Hello Tyndel, won’t you have a seat?" he offered when Legolas halted by his desk. Pulling another migar from his desk drawer, he proffered it in the prince’s direction, but Legolas declined. The land owner shrugged and took it himself, clipping off one of the twisted ends of the thin cylinder off with a small, silver cutter he pulled from his shirt pocket before lighting the freshly trimmed stub. "Can I help you?"

The elf accepted the chair and sat. "I think you can, if you were serious when you offered me a job before."

Rhuddryn sat back in his seat, steepling his fingers. This was interesting. "You want to leave Seobryn?"

"I want to know if you’ll make me a better offer," Legolas played his role calmly. He had spent his entire time here trying to search the grounds for any sign or mention of a ranger, or a northerner, since there weren’t many around here other than Rhuddryn and Seobryn and his men. But the estate was huge and he was getting nowhere. Now Seobryn was getting ready to leave and Legolas did not want to go. If he worked for Rhuddryn, he would have free access to the grounds without seeming snoopy or suspicious and he would be able to stay and continue his search.

"That depends on what you consider better..." Rhuddryn named a figure.

Legolas knew better than to accept the first offer, although he really couldn’t have cared less about the money.

After a small bit of haggling, Legolas accepted the terms, which pleased Rhuddryn to no end, because he honestly would have gone up more if seriously pressed, but was glad to get by for less.

"You know, Seobryn isn’t going to like this," Rhuddryn remarked, not really caring what the trader thought, after all, it wasn’t as if he were stealing his men, Tyndel had come to him.

Legolas just smiled somewhat darkly. "He doesn’t have to like it."

Rhuddryn chuckled. "I think we understand one another Tyndel. Welcome to my service."

 

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

 

Seobryn was not pleased at all, but he couldn’t change Legolas’ mind and he had no wish for bad blood with Rhuddryn, so in the end he grudgingly let the matter go and set off about his business, leaving and taking his other men with him. Legolas was glad to see them go; living with them this long had not been easy.

Now the elf was once again plunged into a situation that was totally new to him, but in the course of the past months he had become quite good at adapting to whatever the moment called for and he did not have any trouble settling into his new job.

Several of Rhuddryn’s head overseers showed him the lay of the estate, or at least, the parts of it that he was going to need to worry about. They explained where the taerg attacks happened most often, and told him the shifts of watch that he would be responsible for. The last item of business was giving him a quick tour of the Olybryn huts, where lived the slaves who tended and cared for the oliphaunts.

Since all the paid employees on the estate were above the slaves, Legolas was expected to be an overseer and guard for the slaves, as well as a marksman to guard the herds, Rhuddryn had explained that to him when he hired on. Legolas could not abide the practice of treating other sentient beings as if they were goods or beasts of burden, but he wisely kept his thoughts to himself and forced back the ire that rose in his throat every time the slaves were referred to or treated like mindless commodities.

Legolas was brought to the Olybryn huts in the early morning, when the slaves were being mustered out front for the day’s assignments. In the sea of chocolate skin, black hair and dark eyes that comprised both the slaves and the overseers, Legolas stood out very pronouncedly and when they thought no one was looking, the slaves’ eyes followed this newcomer curiously.

Legolas was in fact one of only a very small handful of northerners that Rhuddryn had in his direct employ.

A small child’s voice piped up from among the slaves as a little boy tugged on his mother’s skirt, pointing at Legolas. "Look mama, another adrar!"

"Hush Kidrin!" Mambre knelt quickly to silence the child before he got in trouble. Fortunately for them, none of the guards seemed to care about the little one’s outburst of curiosity. However, Legolas’ eyes were drawn to the scene, quickly sweeping over what was obviously a family. A mother, a father, children of varying ages... then his eyes caught and stopped.

Standing next to a tall young man who was probably an older brother of the child who had spoken, was another person who stood out of place amidst the gathering.

The young man upon whom his gaze fastened was tall and stood erect, although his eyes were fastened down on the dust at his feet in the expression that all the slaves wore. The slave’s skin was bronzed a deep tone from the harsh southern sun, but it was obvious at a glance that underneath the dark tan he was a northerner like Legolas, and not a Haradrim. The young man’s hair was wavy and dark, but the sun had lent red and gold highlights to it. Although the physical appearance was very different from the last image Legolas had in his mind, the elf didn’t even need a second look to tell him that his search had just ended.

A huge weight seemed to lift off his chest as he felt that for the first time since meeting Seobryn at the inn and finding out about the two rangers he could actually start breathing again. It was Aragorn. Aragorn was alive.

Aragorn’s eyes flicked up from the ground, as if he could feel the prince’s gaze upon him. For the briefest of moments their eyes met, then Aragorn quickly dropped his gaze back down before he got in trouble again.

There had been no visible sign of recognition in the young Dùnadan, but Legolas knew his friend had seen him. It was well thought of he realized, of course Aragorn wouldn’t want to give away to the guards buzzing all over that there was anything between he and Legolas.

The overseer next to the elf had been quickly filling him in on the day’s routine as they walked down the line of gathering slaves. The other guards were already busy about giving the slaves their work assignments for the day. The man stopped when he realized Legolas had stopped moving. "Something wrong?"

"No," Legolas quickly shook his head and caught up. "But I’m a little surprised. I thought all the slaves were more or less local."

The overseer just chuckled. "Oh you mean Adrar. Your previous boss brought him here a couple of months ago. Not quite right in the head that one. Now, over here’s where the supplies are kept for the..." the man moved on with his swift tour.

Legolas wondered about the guard’s comment, but did not take it too much to heart; these men always talked about the slaves as decidedly inferior. However, the sooner he could get a chance to catch Aragorn alone, when they could talk, the better.

 

___________________________________________________________

~*PART TEN*~

 

~~~~~~~~

Tell me what it’s like to be with you
Remind me of the things we use to do
And tell me that this time will never end
Tell me what it’s like, tell me again.

Every time you stay
It never feels quite the same
And every time you go
It hurts a way you'll never know

--Goldfinger

~~~~~~~~

 

Legolas looked around carefully, the delay chafing at him. He had had no opportunity to get close to Aragorn yesterday, but today he was guarding the herds in the north pasture, which happened to be the same place that the ranger was working. He wanted to go speak to his friend *right now*, but he did not wish to draw attention to the ranger or himself while the other overseers were around, so he kept to his own tasks and whittled distractedly at the new arrows he was fashioning. He had more than enough really, but the elf did not take kindly to sitting idly by, he needed to be doing something.

Finally the time came when the overseers were away in another part of the field and the slaves were more or less all occupied with their own tasks. Aragorn finished forking the last bales of dried grass off the back of the cart for the Oliphaunts in this herd to feed on and hopped down off the lowered gate of the wagon. Sircyn drove the cart away for another load while Aragorn retrieved two large buckets of ground-up feed and began walking back towards the feeding area with it.

Grabbing his chance, Legolas caught up with Aragorn and quickly pulled him behind the grain bins, where it would not be so easy to be seen. "Aragorn, quick, back here."

The young ranger seemed totally surprised and flinched at the unexpected move, half expecting to be struck for something as he stumbled around to see who had dragged him back here, nearly dropping the buckets.

"You’re brown as a nut my friend!" Legolas smiled at the ranger’s obvious surprise. A faint white scar stood out against the tanned skin on the human’s temple and the prince resisted the urge to feel angry at whatever had happened to his friend; he had found him, that’s what mattered. "I barely recognized you at first. But come, I think I know how we can get you out of here-"

Aragorn blinked several times and pulled back. He recognized the tall, golden haired man as the new overseer his master had employed, a sharpshooter, or so the other slaves said, but he didn’t understand what the man wanted with him. For a moment, and a moment only, something else about the fair being in front of him tugged at his mind, but the residue of the memory struck oddly and he felt the beginnings of a headache grip him almost immediately. Realizing with a start that he was staring at the other man, Aragorn dropped his gaze quickly. "Can I do something for you sir?" he asked quietly.

It was Legolas’ turn to blink. When Aragorn had not seemed to react to his presence the other day, Legolas had assumed that it was because of all the guards present... but he didn’t understand it now.

"Aragorn..." Legolas wasn’t sure what to say. ‘It’s me?’ Wasn’t that obvious? What was wrong?

"Adrar," Aragorn corrected quietly, thinking the overseer had his name wrong.

"What?" Legolas was really confused now.

"Adrar, that’s my name... but you may call me Aragorn if you wish," the human added quickly, not wishing to make the other man upset.

The elf prince was at a complete loss. "Estel... don’t you know me?" he took his friend by the shoulders, trying to get Aragorn to meet his eyes, disbelief running through him and turning his blood inexplicably cold. If his eyes did not tell him that this was his friend, he would think he indeed made some kind of mistake... but there was no mistake, save, it seemed, in the Dùnadan’s mind. Legolas was reminded horribly of the time when the bounty hunter Dyryn had overdosed his friend on a nasty drug called Belithral. Aragorn hadn’t known him at first then either... but this was different. Aragorn was not visibly injured, not in pain or under the influence of anything. He simply did not seem to have a clue what the elf was talking about.

"I – you – " Aragorn shifted uncomfortably. His headache was getting worse and he wanted the overseer to let him go back to work before he got into trouble. The other guards would beat him if they caught him idling and not doing his job. "Yes, I saw you yesterday, you work for my master. Is that all sir?" he backed away a little. He hated it when the guards played this game with him, acting like he should know things he didn’t. It frustrated him. He hated it.

Legolas felt a knife pass through his heart. Aragorn truly didn’t remember him! But how was that possible? He resisted the urge to shake the young human. "Estel what has happened to you?" he half implored, half demanded in shock, reaching out to touch the scar on his friend’s temple as fear grew inside him. "It’s me, Legolas!"

"Please, I don’t know what you’re talking about..." Aragorn shook his head. "I’m not Eztal or Aragorn or whoever you think I am... please don’t make fun of me. I need to return to work." In the beginning, he would have been curious at someone who claimed to know him, but the guard’s constant teasing had hardened him to it by now, besides, the longer he was around this man, the worse the pain in his head was becoming. He was nearly dizzy with it now and didn’t understand what kind of game the overseer was playing with him, or how he was making him hurt like this. It wouldn’t be the first time the guards had taunted him over his inability to remember his past, acting like there were things he should remember and didn’t. The overseers could be very cruel sometimes.

"Yes you are!" Legolas protested, a sick, sinking feeling making him almost ill. "You are Aragorn, son of Arathorn, you are Strider, Ranger of the North, you are Estel, adopted son of Lord Elrond, you are my friend!"

Aragorn gave a small cry and stumbled backward, dropping his buckets as his hands flew to his head and he fell to his knees. Bright flashes of pain pounded between his temples. The words hurt, they hurt... he didn’t understand why this was being done to him.

"Strider!" Legolas knelt quickly by his friend’s side, laying his hand gently on the young man’s back. The human was in pain, but he didn’t know why.

"Please..." Aragorn pulled away, turning hurting, frightened eyes up at the elf. He couldn’t distinguish the fact that it was his own mind, and not the other being, that was causing him this pain. "Please I haven’t done anything to you, I work hard, I don’t make trouble, don’t do this to me... I-I haven’t..."

"Is there a problem sir?" a respectful, yet obviously concerned voice interrupted them and Legolas jerked, looking up quickly to see a tall, dark skinned man standing close by, watching them with guarded, but worried eyes.

Legolas rose quickly and the older slave moved closer to Aragorn, dropping his hand down to touch the ranger’s hair gently as he looked at the spilled buckets and the young man’s trembling shoulders.

Cabed kept his eyes low and his tone neutral despite how his heart hurt at seeing Adrar like this. He knew the guards tormented the young man sometimes, but he hated to see it happen.

"Adrar’s still new sir, if you need something, I can help you." Actually Aragorn had been there for quite a long time already, but Cabed counted on the new overseer not knowing that.

Legolas shook his head slightly, still in shock. "No, no, I..." he wasn’t even sure what to say.

Cabed tensed slightly, mistaking the elf’s meaning. Unobtrusively, he moved so he was standing protectively in front of Aragorn, who was still kneeling on the ground, holding his head and rocking back and forth. "Please you sir, Adrar’s been hurt, some things aren’t all the way there in his mind," the elder slave touched his fingers to the side of his forehead to convey what he meant. "He’s trying very hard sir, please understand. If there’s a problem I’ll fix it. I’ll get this mess cleaned up and we won’t lose no time. Please don’t get him in no trouble, he’s a good worker, I apologize if he made you upset, I promise it will not happen again."

Legolas just shook his head numbly. The other man thought he needed to protect Aragorn from him. From HIM. The elf’s mind was reeling, but he managed to shake his head again. "No, he did nothing wrong. I don’t wish him any trouble..."

"Then we’ll be back to work right away," Cabed helped Aragorn quickly to his feet and led the young man away swiftly. "Thank you sir."

Cabed walked next to Aragorn, directing him over to a small bench that sat in the sparse shade of a scrub brush tree. The older slave motioned Sircyn to him and quietly told his son of the spilled feed buckets. Without another word the young slave nodded, and walked around to the back of the bins, followed by two others who had seen the need and gone to aid him. Kneeling in front of the younger man, the older Haradrim watched Adrar carefully as the ranger closed his eyes and focused on breathing. Slowly the pain in his head receded and he looked up into the worried eyes of his elder.

The warm touch of the man’s large hand on his knee settled Aragorn’s fears and he smiled softly at the Haradrim. "Thank you Cabed."

"Adrar, what happened back there? Did he hurt you?"

Aragorn shook his head, his eyes huge with confusion, "I don’t know Cabed. I don’t know." He glanced behind him to the tall grain bins, his voice low as he recounted what had occurred, "The master’s new sharpshooter dragged me behind the bins. He said he knew how to escape and he spoke like he knew me but..."

The ranger pressed his eyes tightly closed as the image of the fair-haired being reclining beside a clear blue lake flashed through his mind; the person was smiling and speaking to him as he laughed. Aragorn grimaced as a sharp spike of pain cut through his mind, renewing the ache that had started to go away.

"Slowly Adrar. Why were you on the ground, you were in pain?" Cabed did not like the idea that the guard had been speaking of such things to the young northerner. It was very likely that he was trying to set Aragorn up to get him in trouble. Attempting escape was a severe crime; it could get Adrar killed.

The young slave shook his head fiercely; trying to dispel the fragmented recollection as the shards of his memory painfully pierced through his consciousness. "I see his face in my mind, but I don’t remember him. It is like when I sleep. Sometimes when I close my eyes, I see so many faces... but I don’t know who they are. I don’t know if they are just phantoms that my mind creates, or if they have some substance somewhere. When I try to remember it hurts. It hurts badly and it feels like my mind is on fire." Aragorn glanced up into the dark eyes. "I’m sorry Cabed."

The dark skinned slave gently ran his fingers down the side of Adrar’s face, tracing the welted scar that ran the length of his temple. The old wound was healed and the scar was fading slowly but the deeper injury to the young man’s mind for whatever reason was not yet mended. Perhaps it never would be.

"Stay away from him Adrar, he will get you in trouble. But do not worry young one, in time your memory will return, if that is what you are experiencing and he is not merely telling you lies, like the others, which is what I suspect."

"And if it does not?" Aragorn questioned, his voice a mere whisper. "If my memory does not return, ever?"

"I’ve told you before. If it does not you have nothing to worry about, you have a family right here." Cabed thumped his own chest with his fist and smiled at the younger man. Sircyn rounded the grain bins and walked towards his father and his adopted brother.

"Now, are you able to finish the work?" Cabed stood to his feet as his son gained his side and passed him one of the buckets, once again full of feed.

Aragorn smiled at the two and nodded, taking the bucket from his elder. Even now the pain had receded and the memories had submerged once more into the darkness of his past recollection where they were no longer so sharp and intrusive. He ignored the slight ache that tinged his heart and cheerfully followed his family out towards the fields as Sircyn called the oliphaunts back to feed.

 

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

 

Legolas moved silently in the gathering dusk, not wishing to alert either the people in the tent or any of Rhuddryn’s other guards and employees of his presence. In the shadow of the falling darkness, the Simbani clan tent glowed faintly from the light of the fire within, the cheery yellow radiance wavering and flickering, casting vague shadows of the occupants upon the tent walls as they moved around the small enclosure. A thin tendril of smoke rose from the vent in the roof. Inside, the pleasant, rolling buzz of comfortable conversation rose and fell, dotted by occasional laughter.

The elf’s sharp ears heard Aragorn’s voice raised in an amused chuckle over something that had been said or done and a woman’s voice playfully scolding either the ranger, or the person who had spoken to him. Legolas settled down with his back against a tree about fifteen yards away from the tent, carefully hidden in the dense foliage so that he could not be seen. Folding his arms across the top of his knees as he drew his legs up to his chest, he watched the small, glowing tent silently.

He was glad that these people had adopted Aragorn; they obviously looked out for him and protected him as one of their own, which may have been the only reason the ranger had survived this long. He was glad that the young human was not alone, that he had people he could laugh with... The elf closed his eyes tightly for a moment as their encounter earlier in the day played back through his mind. His breath hitched in his throat for a moment before he caught himself and forced his body to calm. He was glad, but... he missed his friend. Missed him terribly.

He had gone through so much to find the young human and now...

The fear in Aragorn’s eyes when he looked at him this morning would not leave his mind and it hurt the elf. After everything they had been through and all they had been to each other, his friend did not know him. Worse, Aragorn believed that he was a slave and that that condition was somehow natural. The prince saw none of the fiery resistance he would have expected from the man he had once known. Aragorn’s submission and acceptance of the situation pained Legolas deeply, as did the unusual amount of fear he had seen behind his friend’s eyes.

"What did they do to you Estel?" Legolas’ whispered breath fogged on the normally hot air. As soon as the sun set the temperature dropped dramatically, creating nights that could potentially become quite chilly. "And how can I get you back?"

There was no answer but silence of course and Legolas let his chin drop down to rest on his arms. Aragorn could not seem to stand being around him, his very presence appeared to distress the ranger, so if this was as close as the elf could get for the moment, then here he would stay, and watch over his friend from a distance.

As much as he longed to simply grab his friend and drag him out of here, take him back to Rivendell maybe and see what Lord Elrond could do for him... he knew that was impossible. Rivendell was many long months of travel away from here. The way things stood now, Aragorn would never go with him willingly and he feared the emotional trauma he would cause by attempting to force the young human to do anything, especially since remembering seemed to physically hurt Aragorn. So Legolas would be patient and he would wait. Wait for whatever wounds still burned in the human’s mind to heal. He felt certain that Aragorn had not truly lost his past, but it was buried deep and the prince did not know what it would take to bring it back. Yet that didn’t matter... someday it would come back and he would be here when it did, he would wait; however long it took. If it took years, he would wait years.

Legolas buried his face against his sleeves. He wouldn’t give up on his friend, ever. Nor would he betray the weighty trust placed in his hands by Elladan and Elrohir. He would someday bring their brother back to them, or he would spend the rest of his life trying.

The occupants of the tent were settling down for sleep and a soft, melodious sound made Legolas look up again. Some of the slaves were singing, soft and low. It was a comforting, peaceful sound and it comforted the prince to think that somewhere in there Aragorn was falling asleep to the gentle tones of its rhythm.

"Sleep well Estel..." the elf murmured softly in the darkness. "Sleep well my friend. I miss you."

 

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

 

~~~~~~~~

Tell me what it’s like to be with you,
Remind me of the things we used to do
And tell me that this time will never end
Tell me what it’s like, tell me again.

Everything I fear
Shows itself every time you’re here.
And everything I know
Leaves with you every time that you go...

--Goldfinger

~~~~~~~~

 

Aragorn filled the watering buckets from the deep well and headed back out to the fields. It was nearing midday and Cabed had asked him to fetch them all something to drink.

"What you got there Adrar?" The sound of the guards taunting voice stopped the ranger in his tracks.

Fear filled his heart as he looked to the ground and answered softly, "I was sent to bring water back to the others. It is nearly mid-day." He silently cursed his carelessness at being caught alone and out of sight like this.

"That so?"

Aragorn glanced up quickly as Talft walked towards him, joining Lur who stood towering over the ranger. The tall, dark guard smirked as he saw the slight glance. He stepped nearer the cowering slave and gave the man a good shove. They harassed all the slaves, but the young northerner was their favorite to pick on. There was something uniquely vulnerable about him and they liked to see his fear of them. They had given him more than enough reason to have that fear.

"Please. I am on my way back out." Aragorn replied softly, moving around the Haradrim and walking slowly away from them, hoping that taunting was all they had in mind.

"Did I say you could leave?" Lur called out, his voice low and dangerous.

Aragorn swallowed hard and stopped. He closed his eyes, as he fought back the apprehension that pounded in his heart. Why couldn’t they just leave him alone? He did his job; he was a good worker. He flinched involuntarily as he heard the quiet snap of a whip being shaken out.

"Hey Adrar," Talft walked up behind the slave and placed his hand on the young man’s shoulder, "You don’t have to be in such a rush."

He couldn’t handle it any longer, the taunting, the abuse. Without thinking, Aragorn shrugged out from underneath Talft’s hand and proceeded to walk away. If he could get far enough away from the immediate grounds and out onto the field someone else would be able to see them. The guards weren’t *supposed* to be cruel to the slaves, but it happened anyway. He looked up, desperately searching for any sight of Cabed or Sircyn, but the slaves had followed the oliphaunts to the far side of the pastures.

The stinging bite of the whip wrapped around his ankle, cutting through the light cotton legging he wore. He cried out as the leather thong tightened and jerked backwards, pulling his foot out from under him and dropping him roughly to the ground. The buckets tipped and spilt their contents out, the water quickly soaked into the hard packed dirt. Aragorn winced. Why did everyone seem intent on making him drop whatever he was carrying? Why couldn’t they just leave him alone?!

Legolas stood in the shade of one the small brush-trees that dotted the plains. He leaned back against the skinny trunk, bracing himself with one foot on the rough wood. His keen eyes turned to the rolling hills that backed the oliphaunt pens. The morning had been uneventful and he was only halfheartedly watching for the wild taergs that plagued the compound, his mind wandering back to the previous day when the sound of a familiar cry assaulted his ears.

Pushing off from his resting-place he whirled back towards the slave quarters, his sharp eyes seeking out the source of the distress. "Aragorn?" He spotted Talft and Lur working over a slave that lay cringing on the ground. The whistle of Talft’s whip reached the sharp elven ears and without thinking Legolas ran towards his friend, shouting at the other guards.

Neither of the Haradrim heard the elf’s approach over the sounds of their own laughter and taunting. The whip cut the back of Aragorn’s shirt, drawing blood.

"Come on Adrar. Tell us where you’re from! You don’t even have half a brain. Why, the master keeps you around only for our entertainment." The tall guard brought the lash down hard intending to strike the young ranger again, but the lash never reached its mark.

Legolas stepped over the prone body of his friend and raised his forearm up, catching the whip on the leather vambrace he wore. The thong wrapped quickly around the hard leather and the elf grasped the end of it jerking the weapon out Talft’s hand.

"Leave him alone!" Legolas growled at the two men, backing them down slightly as he advanced on them.

"Hey, you have no authority over us!" Lur stepped towards the elf but quickly moved back as the prince glared at him, coiling the whip up in his hands and throwing into it the other guard’s face.

"And you have no reason to beat this one." Legolas continued to speak as he backed the two away from Aragorn, "How do you think your employer would like to hear that you slowed down the slaves today? Do you think that would please him at all? Now be off with you. Surely there is something else you can be doing besides tormenting the workers." His tone was low and dangerous and he didn’t back down when Talft pointed the handle of the whip menacingly at the elf.

When they finally turned and left Legolas quickly walked back to Aragorn’s side. The young human was trying to sit up, but his back was bleeding and the cut to his ankle was painful. The elf gently placed his hand between the man’s shoulder blades and softly spoke to the ranger.

"Do not rise just yet. Lie still and let me have a look at you."

At the sound of the words Aragorn gasped and turned towards Legolas, looking over his shoulder at the elf. But he did not see the sharpshooters face, he saw the face of an elf, an elf who was bending over him, his hair falling down about his shoulders, exposing his pointed ears and they were in a cave... a tunnel and the elf was speaking to him much the same way. The vision shifted so rapidly that the human cringed slightly, the same elf jumped in front of him as a swarm of black creatures rushed them, his own hand was trapped and he heard his voice calling out a name.

"Legolas!"

"Strider! You remember?" The elf leaned down close to the human, "Strider?"

The pictures faded as quickly as they had come and Aragorn found himself staring at his master’s new employee once more. The pounding in his head grew intolerable as he tried to hold onto the images that flashed through his mind.

"Aragorn?" Legolas whispered as he watched the human’s pained reaction to his nearness.

"It hurts." He touched his palms to the sides of his head, trying to push the pain of remembering away, "Make it stop." Images of other elves mirrored themselves on his tightly closed eyelids and a cascade of emotions tore at his heart.

"What!? Strider you must tell me what’s wrong." The elf was at a loss. His very presence seemed to pain the young man. Aragorn’s breath was coming in ragged gasps and he cried out through gritted teeth before collapsing into unconsciousness.

"No. NO!" Legolas felt for the human’s pulse it was there, strong and steady. He must have simply passed out. Quickly gathering the ranger in his arms the elf picked him up and walked back towards the sleeping tent that he had stood guard over last night.

He shouldered his way through the opening and laid the ranger gently down on the nearest blanket, turning him onto his stomach so he would not further aggravate his wounds. The odd sensation of being watched alerted the elf to the presence of another in the room and he glanced up quickly. A small child sat perfectly still in the far corner, watching them quietly. It was obvious by the crudely carved oliphaunt shaped toys that he held that he had been playing inside the safety of the tent.

Huge dark eyes watched the elf fearfully.

"Go get your father quickly." He instructed the boy.

The child hesitated for only seconds, his gaze falling to Aragorn before fleeing from the tent.

Legolas wasted no time. He knew he had mere minutes before Aragorn’s adopted family returned, and they would not react well to his presence here. Quickly he ripped a strip from his outer tunic and pouring water from his own flask tended the deep cuts on Aragorn’s ankle and his back, wrapping them in the soft, light cloth. He kneeled next to the man, his hand gently touching the ranger’s head.

"Estel wake up." He spoke in elvish quietly, "Come back my friend."

The world was hazing and his head still rang as the ranger fought the darkness that hedged his sight. He tried to turn towards the sound of the voice but was stopped by the elf as Legolas carefully pressed the human’s head back down onto the blanket beneath him, facing away from the prince.

"No, don’t look at me just yet. It seems to hurt you and I wish you no more pain, you have had enough." The elf’s voice broke and the human found it odd that the guard was upset. They usually never cared what the slaves were feeling, most didn’t seem to think they had feelings at all.

"Who are you, really?" Aragorn questioned. The marksmen did not act at all like any of the other guards. He was very strange. He wondered if maybe, just maybe he had known this person before... A sharp stab of pain that threatened to put him back out again made Aragorn pull back from that train of thought.

"Oh Strider." Legolas shut his eyes tightly closed, his hand gently touching the human’s head once more. "I hope you can remember."

"I want to." The human whispered softly.

"Then that is enough for now." Legolas glanced at the tent opening; "Your family is coming. Here, I have something for you, take it and maybe it will help you remember." The elf leaned over the human and pressed a tiny circle of cold metal into the man’s palm. Legolas closed the ranger’s hand into a fist, holding it there with his own for a moment. "I’ll bring you something later for the pain, after it is dark. I will leave it near the door. Let your elder know."

When Aragorn finally turned over, the elf was gone. He opened his hand and stared at the silver ring that sat there, a beautiful green jewel mounted between two serpents. The fair face of a dark haired man flashed in his mind and he quickly tightened his hand back around the ring as the memory shot a small spike of pain through his memory. The sharpshooter was right, whoever he was, the ring would help him to remember, but he wasn’t sure he could deal with the anguish of the memories and the ache in his body from the beating at the same time. As he relaxed back onto the floor he was surprised to find that the deepest pain that assaulted him was the ache that had started beating in his heart when the elf had tended him out on the grounds. Something was missing in his life and his heart knew what it was, he just couldn’t understand yet what it was saying.

The tent flap was jerked open and Cabed stumbled into the darkened interior followed by Sircyn.

"He was right there! I saw him!" Kidrin was pointing to where Aragorn lay, "It was the new one, the other adrar."

"All right, be still Kidrin." Cabed knelt down next to Aragorn. The young ranger painfully eased up into a sitting position, with the help of Sircyn.

"He did that to our Adrar!" Kidrin was pointing at Aragorn.

The young man smiled at the child and shook his head slowly, "No, the other adrar did not do this to me, he does not carry a whip." Aragorn glanced at Cabed; "It was Talft and Lur. I was clumsy and got caught by them when I was returning with the water. The sharpshooter stopped them and brought me here." The ranger hissed slightly with the renewed pain to his ankle, gently touching the bandage that the elf had placed there temporarily. "He said he would return tonight with something for the pain."

Cabed glanced at Sircyn who stood once more in the entryway keeping watch, a dark looked marred the young Haradrim’s face as he turned back to watch Adrar. He didn’t trust the masters or the overseers and did not like the attention that the northern sharpshooter was paying to his friend. It could be dangerous. "How did he know this was your tent?"

Aragorn glanced at his friend and shook his head, "I do not know. Perhaps he watched as we returned from the fields."

"You did not bring him here?" Cabed questioned as he rechecked the younger man’s wounds.

The ranger glanced down to the ground, his eyes lighting on his closed fist, fearful of opening it up, "No." He whispered, "He – I... I was unconscious."

"Adrar!" Sircyn stepped in and quickly knelt by the fair skinned slave, looking him over carefully, "What did he do to you?"

"Nothing." The questions were wearing on him. The answers were so far out of reach that he grew tired of grasping for them and the pain of the surfacing memories wore him out.

"You must tell us." Cabed softly touched the slave’s arm, fearing the worst. The guards could be very cruel and Tyndel had been exhibiting far too much interest in Adrar for their comfort.

"Cabed, I swear he did not hurt me. Not intentionally anyway. His voice and the things that he spoke, they reminded me of..." Aragorn stopped speaking and looked back down at his tightly clenched fist.

The elder followed his gaze and gently pried the ranger’s fingers open. Aragorn flinched and closed his eyes, turning away from the sight of the ring, but not before the face of another dark haired being flashed in his mind... or was it two? But no, they both had the same face... "What have you there Estel?" The being questioned as they both looked down at the ring. He swallowed hard against the nausea that threatened him and breathed deeply, calming the stirring in his heart. He realized that Cabed was speaking to him and he had not heard what the elder had said.

"I’m sorry what did you say?" He asked the other to repeat the question.

"Do you know what this is?" Cabed held the ring out to the ranger.

Aragorn snatched it quickly back from the elder and tightened his grip about it. It felt familiar in his hand but...he shook his head slowly. "I can see pieces of memories in my mind. But it hurts to remember, it hurts horribly, and that was why I passed out." The ranger sighed deeply and finally met the older man’s gaze, "That is the truth, I swear it to you."

The old Haradrim nodded his head, turning to look at his eldest son. "We must get back to the fields or we will be missed. We will talk more about this tonight."

Aragorn attempted to rise and follow them out but Cabed pressed him back down. "You stay here the remainder of the day. Tomorrow you will have to go but today you will stay off that foot, I cannot risk you near the oliphaunts with an open wound like that. It will become infected too easily."

"They’ll notice."

"They’ll not notice if it is as you have said. Lur and Talft are cruel but they are also cowards. They will not be near our fields again this day. Stay my son and rest."

Aragorn sank back down to the ground and dropped his gaze guiltily. It seemed he was always causing trouble lately.

"It will be well Adrar, you will see." Cabed stopped at the threshold and turned back towards the young slave.

With a small smiled Aragorn nodded his head, he hoped it would be. Gently fingering the ring, he tried it on several fingers on his right hand. It fit a couple of them but did not feel right. He tested the silver circle on the forefinger of his left hand. It slid easily over his knuckle and settled into place as though it had naturally fit there always. Turning his hand so that he could see the deep green jewel set in the middle of it, he gazed at the stone for a long moment. Was it really his? Before he realized what he was doing Aragorn found himself thinking about it and trying to recall exactly when and why he would have acquired such a piece of jewelry, surely slaves were never given treasures such as this.

Memories surfaced and assaulted his senses momentarily throwing him off. He heard a deep melodious voice speaking as if to him, "It is called the Ring of Barahir, for it was a gift to Barahir and his descendants in reward for the saving of Finrod Felagund’s life, many, many years before your father’s father was born." And saw himself hand the ring back to a person who looked just like Rhuddryn’s sharpshooter. The young faced northerner smiled warmly at him...

Aragorn gasped as much from the shock of the clear memories as from the pain it lanced through his temples. Bright sparks exploded on the edges of his vision as the memory was ripped from him by the ache in his head. He lowered his head into his hands, the cool metal of the ring touching gently against his throbbing temple. Excitement and fear warred in him. The sharpshooter was right. The ring was helping him to remember, but did he really want to know?

He had a life. He was Adrar, Master Seobryn’s personal slave. He was a member of the Simbani clan and he helped to shepherd the oliphaunts on Master Rhuddryn’s land. He had a family now, he wasn’t just a slave, he belonged and the work was good. The people he saw in his fragmented memories did not look him; they couldn’t be family members. He laughed softly at himself at the absurd thought, realizing he didn’t look like he was related to Cabed or Sircyn any more than the faces in his recollections...except maybe the older wise-eyed man with the long brown hair. But what if who he had been before was not someone he wanted to be? What if this was better?

What if it was not?

A tiny voice in the back of his mind kept questioning quietly. It all just felt wrong, how could it be right?

With a deep sigh, Aragorn removed the ring from his finger and pulled his sleeping pallet up from the floor, exposing the dirt ground beneath it. It would never do to have Talft or Lur catch him with the ring. They would only insist that he had stolen it and he would be punished and the ring taken from him. Quickly and quietly he dug a shallow hole in the dry ground and placed the ring into it, covering it with the displaced dirt. He would need a way to be able to find the ring later if he wished, something to remind him where he had hidden it. Sometimes their pallets were moved around as people came and went and it would do no good to hide the token only to be able to never retrieve it. He spied the small collection of rocks that Kidrin had been saving and selected a smooth oval stone. Pressing the rock into the ground above the place where he had buried the ring he laid his pallet back on top of it and eased down on his back.

He could feel the small rock jutting slightly out of the ground as it touched his spine near the base of his neck and he smiled softly to himself. Wondering what type of person he had truly been, before he fell into a light sleep.

 

 

___________________________________________________________

~*PART ELEVEN*~

 

 

The sun was midway through its circle in the sky. Hot, light breezes swept the low pasturelands, barely stirring the sturdy long wisps of grass that grew thickly over the low undulating hills, lining the fields where the oliphaunts walked idly back from their watering hole.

Bright inquisitive eyes watched their slow progress. Short pointed ears perked up, swiveling to catch the edges of conversations and the hyper-sensitive olfactory senses of the animal that crawled, hidden, in the long grasses smelled what it had been looking for – what it had been denied for so long.

The large creature was incredibly quiet for its great mass and incredibly intelligent. A fierce evilness clung to it. It had escaped from the compound just south of the mûmaskil’ favorite waterhole. It had waited until the creature that walked on two legs had opened its cage. It had waited and pretended to be sleeping. What they fed it, it was tired of, but the creature that brought its food had tasted good. That is before the others stopped him. But they hadn’t stopped him quickly enough, he had gotten a taste of human blood and he was craving more. Inbred in his twisted being was an insatiable desire for manflesh. He hated them. They tormented him. They never left him alone. Always poking, prodding. Everything they touched him with hurt. He hated them; it was good to be out. The grass brushed gently underneath his belly and the light winds fingered through the hair that covered his body. Yes it agreed with itself, this was good. It would never go back.

The animal looked nothing like the native taergs that populated the low lands. It was an entirely new creature and it was never intended that it should escape. This beast was the only successful creation of the crossbreeding between the wargs and the taergs that Seobryn had produced. The fact that it had escaped enraged him and he quickly sent his men out to recapture the animal. If large cat hadn’t killed its incompetent handler, Seobryn would have. He kicked the lock on the now empty cage and stalked after his men that had gone in search of the escapee. In all likelihood he feared they would never be able to recapture the creature. It had been bred to be silent, quick, powerful and intelligent, a killer...and unfortunately they had succeeded. If he could not take the creature back to Saruman as living proof that the crossbreeding was successful he was not sure that the white wizard would allow him to leave alive.

Legolas slowly walked the perimeter of the oliphaunt field, matching his gait to that of the Olybryn as they escorted the herds home for the evening. The routine had become very familiar by now as the days had slowly worn away into weeks and months. Legolas couldn’t help watching the young northerner in the midst of the Haradrim. He listened intently to their conversations, his sharp hearing hoping to catch some sense that the ranger’s memory was returning. He was pleased to see that Aragorn had joined the slaves, even though he limped slightly from the healing wound that Talft had dealt him the previous day.

Once or twice, Aragorn’s eyes even sought the elf out, although if he found that Legolas was looking at him he would quickly look away. It was a start anyway, and better than being totally avoided by his friend as had been going on for the past several fortnights since Legolas had taken this job.

Although the elf was concentrating on his friend, his awareness of their surroundings had not diminished and he stopped and turned quickly when he sensed something watching him.

Standing perfectly still the elf’s sharp eyes tracked the low hills. He listened to the stillness that surrounded him, only the sounds of the grasses weaving back and forth in response to the light breeze touched his hearing. But he was sure there was something out there.

A patch of grass moved oddly to his right and he focused on it, slowly bringing his bow up and notching an arrow against the taught string.

The altered taerg watched the elf intently. This being smelled wrong. It did not smell like the ones he was used to and something about it bothered the predator...even in the bright sunlight, the evil creature could see the light that encompassed Legolas and it hissed softly as it watched him.

The soft growling and hissing was not lost on the elf and he began to walk towards the small hillock where he had seen the odd movements. He made sure to keep himself between the Olybryn and whatever it was that was stalking them.

Cabed glanced up as Legolas walked slowly back on the trail they were using. He watched as the sharpshooter sighted in on something he could not see. Fearing that the taergs had returned he quietly began moving among his people, hurrying them towards the safety of the main house and away from what hunted them.

Aragorn turned and watched as the sharpshooter strung his bow and walked away from them. Something inside of him wanted to run after his master’s employee and give his aide. He faltered in his steps, considering the odd emotions he was feeling until Sircyn grabbed his arm and steered him back onto the path and away from the danger.

"I should..." The words died on Aragorn’s lips as he glanced at Sircyn.

"You should stay with the herd if you wish to keep your head." Sircyn finished his sentence for him, smiling. He nodded his head back towards where the elf stood, "He was hired to do that, you were not."

"Yes, you’re right." But still... Aragorn glanced back watching the lone figure, it felt wrong.

The two-legged creature was blocking its goal. The taerg that was no longer a taerg watched in agitation as the others walked away with the large gray animals. He was hungry, he hadn’t eaten. He didn’t want this one that stood in front of him, this one was wrong; it glowed. He wanted the others; they were easy to kill. The ones with the long sticks that had fired the biting things, they had not been as easy to kill and this one that blocked him held a long stick as well.

Legolas slowly headed towards the hillock, his every sense locked onto the place where the grass had moved oddly. What he saw when he came in sight of the large predator shocked him. This was no taerg as he had expected. He had become familiar with them in the past weeks as he had guarded the Olybryn. This thing that crouched low in the grass was something he had never seen. Bright intelligent eyes watched him carefully, but it was the evil malevolence that they held that bothered the elf. A thick shock of long hair crested its shoulders and fell down its back like a mane. Where a taerg had a long whip-like tail, this thing had a shorter, stunted tail that was covered in dark hair. It was difficult to see just what the animal’s body looked like as it crouched low in the grass.

Tensing the shaft of the arrow against his bowstring, Legolas widened his stance. It mattered not what type of creature he beheld, the animal’s intent was obvious, it would stalk and kill either the oliphaunts, or worse, the Olybryn and Legolas could not allow that.

With the smallest of movements the elf released the projectile, the arrow tip sighted in on the creature’s right eye. Whether the beast sensed his motion or just jerked to the left he would never know, but the elf’s arrow fell short of its target as the creature leapt out of the path of the weapon.

Never had he seen anything move quite so swiftly as the altered taerg did. The animal jumped to its left, avoiding his arrow and placing it closer to the elf, in Legolas’ full view. The creature was twice the size of a normal taerg. Its massive head was wider and broader than any of the predators he had seen. The rake of the creature’s body reminded the elf of a warg as it sat hunched on huge powerful back legs ready to spring. Mottled hair covered its haunches and its shoulders. Its long forelegs ended in wide paws that more resembled... Legolas was taken back momentarily as he realized that the animal before him resembled a warg in many ways.

The top incisors of the beasts teeth jutted down from under its upper lips and curved over the edges of it lower jaw. When it hissed at the elf, opening its wide mouth Legolas could see the rows of sharp teeth.

Of all the taergs the elf had encountered none had felt evil; they were simply killing to eat, it was survival. This creature that stood in front of him however, hated him and he could feel the loathing the animal held for him. This beast was intelligent, and it was thinking not just responding to his presence. ‘Like a warg’, Legolas’ mind was screaming at him. He had to admit there was an uncanny resemblance both to the wargs that he knew and the taergs he had encountered in this creature.

The animal jumped at him, snapping its huge jaws, testing the elf’s reflexes as the nimble being leapt aside. So this one would be harder to kill, the altered taerg surmised, snarling fiercely. It wanted the challenge. Its desire to simply satisfy its hunger had been overridden by the deep yearning to kill for sport that had been bred into it, a trait it shared with the wargs.

Legolas released a second volley of arrows as the creature rushed him. Ducking its head at the last possible moment, the crossbreed avoided the projectiles as they shot by his ear, imbedding themselves in the thick skin of his shoulder.

The small sticks that flew bit into his skin but barely penetrated. The bites that they left on his tough hide irritated him and he flattened his ears in a fierce snarl, ready to end this fight.

Cabed had sent Sircyn ahead to call for help for the sharpshooter they had left behind and Legolas could hear Talft and Lur running through the field behind him, calling out to him.

On the far side of the hillock Seobryn’s men heard the disturbance and quickly altered their course, heading towards the shouting, hoping to catch the newly bred creature and reclaim before it could get away or be discovered.

The cat-like predator leapt at the elf and Legolas dropped to the ground on his knee, quickly freeing one of his long elven knives he thrust the blade into the animal’s chest as it passed over his head; the weapon stuck fast in the thick hide caught between the animal’s ribs.

Piercing pain ripped through the beast’s awareness and it dropped to the ground heavily, panting. Its eyes narrowed as it stalked in a circle around the elf that had once again taken up his bow, restringing two arrows onto the thin string.

Talft and Lur skidded to a halt a few feet behind Legolas, staring at the animal that the elf was fighting with. The creature, distracted for a second by the threat of the two new men, roared in frustration, glaring at the Haradrim and shifting around Legolas to get a better a look at them.

The distraction, a second at the most, was all that Legolas required. He tracked the beast’s movements and when the animals gaze moved from him he released his weapon. One arrow pierced the creature through the roof of its mouth as it roared in anger; the other found its mark in the taerg’s known weak spot, its eye.

The predator dropped to the ground soundlessly. Legolas approached the strange animal, another arrow already fitted and ready if he needed it. He kicked the dead carcass and waited. This...taerg or whatever it was, had been very smart, he was taking no chances.

Seobryn had watched as his crossbred creation was shot and he glared in anger as Legolas mounted the small hillock. The hunter, still a ways away from where the altered taerg had fallen, stopped running and allowed his men to crest the hill before him. He sighed in frustration, Tyndel couldn’t be faulted, the animal had escaped and probably gone after the Olybryn. He should have known. Shaking his head in anger and disgust, he walked slowly up to next to Tyndel and looked down at the dead animal. All that work and for what? What would Saruman do now? This had been the only successfully crossbred creature they had; everything else had failed even their repeated attempts to duplicate the exact circumstances surrounding this ones success.

He kicked the animal in contempt.

Talft and Lur edged closer, glancing between Seobryn and the dead animal.

"What is that?" Legolas asked breathlessly. The animal had been harder to kill than a taerg and that was saying a lot.

"It’s a taerg." Talft answered quickly, too quickly.

Seobryn shot the guard a withering glance. He knew Tyndel would never fall for that, but now there was no choice but to play along.

The sharpshooter glanced up at the trader. "*That* thing is a taerg?" He asked, demanding another opinion.

"Yep." Seobryn knelt next to the creature and pulled the elf’s arrows from its body, handing them back to Tyndel as he stood up.

"I have never seen a taerg like this Seobryn." The elf accepted the arrows and bent down to retrieve his blade from the animal’s chest, wiping the blood off on the long grass before resheathing it.

"Tyndel," With a nod in the elf’s direction, the old trader’s gaze flicked up quickly and locked with Legolas’ before dropping back to the dead body. "You haven’t lived down here that long. There’s lots you ain’t seen, boy."

Legolas bristled at the curt response but the glare the trader laid on him told him he had stumbled onto more than he realized.

"When did you return south?" Legolas asked more calmly. "I don’t remember seeing you come through."

"We passed east of Rhuddryn’s. Had some business out that way to take care of. We’re camping to the south of here. Hunting’s good this time of year." Seobryn answered casually. His eyes narrowed and his tone darkened as he continued. "Besides I don’t have to check in with Rhuddryn, he doesn’t own me."

Talft pushed his way forward, trying to forestall the tension that was building. "Don’t worry about this Mister Seobryn, we’ll bury the carcass. No harm came, the herds are safe."

Seobryn brushed the man roughly aside, pushing the Haradrim away from the beast’s carcass. "My men will handle it. Go keep to the herds. Where there is one taerg there may be others. It wouldn’t do to have Rhuddryn’s oliphaunts attacked over something like this, now would it?" He pierced the guard with a steady glare.

Eager to be away, Lur gently grabbed Legolas’ elbow and drew the reluctant sharpshooter with them, nodding his head in agreement. "Good idea, we’ll be going now."

Talft jerked away from his friend and headed out towards the main house. Legolas allowed the Haradrim to lead him away but he gave the dead animal one last glance before he turned to leave. Something wasn’t right. Seobryn was highly irritated and there was more to that animal than met the eye. It was no taerg, Legolas was sure of that. They were lying, all of them. He had felt the taergs before, they were not evil nor did they think like this one had. This animal reminded him of the wargs that the orcs rode, terrorizing the low lands in the Riddermark of Rohan; intelligent, evil and bred for one purpose, killing. They did it well and they enjoyed it. This creature had enjoyed the challenge of hunting him. Legolas wasn’t completely sure he could have killed it, if Talft and Lur hadn’t distracted it.

He followed the Haradrim guards quietly back to the oliphaunt fields, his mind racing through the thoughts and questions that dogged him. Neither Talft nor Lur had been surprised to see Seobryn. But both of them had been terrified by the creature, they hadn’t drawn their weapons against it even before he had killed it. What stopped them? He had never seen them react that way with a taerg before.

It was obvious that Rhuddryn and Seobryn’s dealings were not purely that of a trader and a purchaser as they wished everyone to think; there was much more to this and he had no doubt that whatever it was Aragorn had found out and that was the reason behind the state he was in. He was sure that this had to do with that crossbreeding that he had overheard Seobryn and Chadoc talking about when they thought he wasn’t listening, speaking low at night over the fire when they had assumed that everyone was asleep. He hadn’t liked what he heard then; he liked it less even now. At the time he had thought they spoke in theory, or with as much truth as the other fanciful tales that they often concocted for one another, but now he wondered. He remembered how Seobryn had talked to him about the various traits of wargs and taergs as if comparing their strengths and weaknesses... suddenly this all seemed to be making sense... however, there were many pieces still missing.

He needed more information. Deciding he had nothing to lose he tried to engage Talft and Lur in conversation as they reached the fenced off area of the oliphaunt fields and headed for the gate, keeping a wide berth from the herd and their keepers.

"Have you ever seen a taerg like that before?" Legolas asked the two guards, his tone light and conversational.

Talft glanced back at the elf but did not speak. Lur would not meet his steady gaze.

"I see." He quietly answered himself.

"It is best not to ask Tyndel. You are a marksman, you protect the herds. That is what you did. Leave it at that." Talft stalked off, shoving the gate open hard so that it banged shut behind him loudly. Lur stood undecided for a moment glancing between his friend and the elf. With a shake of his head the tall dark skinned guard shrugged his shoulders and followed Talft back to report to Rhuddryn. He dreaded telling their employer; this would not go well.

 

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

 

Legolas stood outside Rhuddryn’s palatial house, the shadows of the large bola trees masking his hiding place. His experience with the mutated taerg today had left him with more questions than answers. The creature barely resembled one of the wild felines that constantly harassed the slaves but Talft and Lur were adamant that is was nothing more than a taerg. The elf was nearly certain that Seobryn must be involved in some kind of cross-breeding endeavor involving wargs and taergs, and that that was the mystery that had been hanging over this whole affair from the start.

Rhuddryn had to be a part of it somehow, perhaps providing the money and land to support Seobryn’s labor and dealing. Rhuddryn was an oliphaunt breeder after all; he would have the knowledge and resources needed. Wherever this was happening, it had to be close, possibly somewhere on Rhuddryn’s property... maybe the little-frequented southern hills? Legolas had never had cause to be out that way. But if so... why? Why would anyone create a beast whose sole purpose was to be a killing machine? It was a frightening thought and portended a greater underlying evil going on here than was yet understood. Legolas needed more information and the guards gave the sharpshooter a wide berth, hesitant to talk with the northerner. He would have to find what he sought himself by other methods.

Tonight was the perfect cover for Legolas to enter Rhuddryn’s home and look for more proof either of the man’s innocence or guilt, and hopefully, who else was involved. Rhuddryn was entertaining guests this evening and his home was filled with an assortment of people, both the dark skinned far Haradrim, the lighter, turbaned Near Haradrim and even a few Northerners. The guards were lax as visitors entered the home and walked the softly lit gardens that surrounded it. They had been told to be present but stay out of the way. Legolas stepped in quickly with a large group of guests who were animatedly talking amongst themselves, falling easily in step with the group as they entered the house. Once inside he slipped quietly away walking down a deserted hallway and seeking out Rhuddryn’s private study. From watching the man, he knew that Rhuddryn spent his mornings on the south side of the house where he could overlook the oliphaunt fields. It was there that Legolas headed first.

A cluster of visitors rounded a corner in the long hallway laughing and talking amongst themselves. Unable to hide or conceal himself the elf straightened his shoulders and walked past, inclining his head to the small group as they called out greetings to him, mistaking him for another of Rhuddryn’s acquaintances.

He tested a door to his left, finding it open he stepped quickly inside out of sight and breathed a sigh of relief; that had been close. He could not afford to get caught.

Looking around the darkened room the elf spied a sliding door set in the far wall. Soundlessly he walked across the polished wood floor and pressed his ear against the entry, listening to see if anyone were on the other side. Fingering the handle hesitantly Legolas slid the door open enough to squeeze through into the adjacent room, closing the panel behind him with a quiet click. It was easy for him to see in the darkened room that he had found Rhuddryn’s study. A large desk sat against the far wall; papers spilled haphazardly across its top. Maps were pinned behind the desk next to an extensive array of books set in shelves that wrapped two thirds of the room.

The elf stepped around the desk and carefully shuffled through the letters, and paperwork that Rhuddryn had abandoned there earlier. He stopped as his fingers lighted on a yellowed, tattered letter. The broken seal was red with an odd scrolling emblem on it, and Legolas could have sworn it was the letter he had gotten a glimpse of in Seobryn’s pocket once on their way down here. The trader had deflected any questions about it and hidden it quickly, but Legolas was almost positive it was one and the same.

Brushing the other papers aside the elf quickly scanned the contents of the letter. As he read a frown deepened on his face and a chill crept into his heart. It was as he feared. But the last paragraph more than any other filled him with grave dread. It read:

"I had expected your work to be farther along than it apparently is and am disappointed with your progress so far. It is necessary that my new army of half-breeds be ready, for time is running short and I have great need for them. It is not wise to fail me."

The letter was unsigned much to Legolas’ dismay. He had hoped to find out who was behind the crossbreeding. Whomever it was, had gotten impatient and the implied threat would make the breeders more careless as the pressure to create this new strain of wargs increased.

Voices in the hallway interrupted Legolas’ thoughts and he chided himself for not paying better attention. Quickly he stepped back around the desk and headed for the sliding wall, intending to make an escape as the sounds of footsteps stopped on the threshold of the room he was in.

"It’s just in here if you would but excuse for a moment I am sure I can find you a copy of it." Rhuddryn’s voice could be heard clearly as he opened the door to his study and stepped into the darkened room. He turned to light the glow globe on the stand next to the door when his eyes caught movement to his left and he saw a shadowed form slip through to the adjoining room.

"Stop! Guards!" Rhuddryn jumped back into the hallway and called down the passage running towards the second room.

Inside the adjoining room Legolas realized he was trapped. There was no way out except the door he had entered through or the sliding wall panel. Assuming the guards would converge on the room he was in he raced back to the sliding door and threw it open, sprinting through the now empty, but lit study.

The elf skidded into the hallway and caught sight of Rhuddryn entering the adjoining room with a contingent of guards. Without waiting to see if his escape route had been discovered he raced up the hallway in the opposite direction heading for the veranda and hoping to escape the house that way. Perhaps Rhuddryn hadn’t gotten a good look at him in the dark. Tearing around the last corner he let himself into the small serving room that butted up against the large patio and nearly ran into Talft who was just entering the house in response to Rhuddryn’s frantic calls for reinforcements.

Legolas was out of time. He could hear the guards in the hall behind him heading his way, calling for reinforcements. He stood staring at the guard for a half a second, undecided, before he rushed the large Haradrim and punched the man in the stomach, throwing his weight against the guard and shoving him out of the way. The doorway behind them filled with more of Rhuddryn’s men and Legolas leapt towards the veranda entry only to be stopped as Lur loomed in the small service door.

The fierce warrior drew his sword and thrust it at the escaping intruder blocking the elf’s escape route. Unwilling to be caught by these men, Legolas side-stepped the sweeping arc of the Haradrim blade and caught Lur under his chin in a forceful blow knocking the guard back out of his way.

Talft had recovered from the elf’s attack and watched as he deftly took out Lur. Legolas turned to escape as the Haradrim brought his fists down between the elf's shoulder blades slamming the sharpshooter down to the floor. The driving blow caught Legolas unprepared and he fell beneath Talft’s weight, his breath driven from. Five or six more guards reached them, raining punches, kicks and blows in a merciless effort to restrain their captive.

Legolas struggled with Lur and Talft as they and the others held him down, pinning his arms behind his back, but he couldn’t pull free. The remainder of the guard host finally caught up with them and Legolas was trapped.

Drug roughly to his feet the elf was escorted back down the hall to Rhuddryn’s study.

Rhuddryn paced back and forth in front of his desk, highly irritated that his well planned evening had been disrupted so. His dark thoughts were interrupted as Talft and Lur shoved the door open and dragged in the intruder. The northerner stopped his pacing and stared in silent disbelief as Tyndel was dragged across the large room and presented to him, his arms bound tightly behind his back.

"Tyndel?"

"We caught him trying to escape out the service room near the veranda. He almost got away." Lur explained when his employer graced the guards with a questioning glance. The Haradrim cuffed the back of his prisoner’s head forcing Legolas’ eyes down.

Rhuddryn’s voice was icy when he spoke again. "You were the one in my study this evening weren’t you?"

Legolas kept his gaze low, his lips forming a thin hard line across his face.

"Speak up when you are spoken to." Talft growled smacking Legolas roughly upside the head. This time however the blow knocked the elf’s turban from his head and his hair spilled down over his shoulder revealing his pointed ears.

Lur glanced over their captive in surprise, looking at the other guard to gauge his response to the newfound information. If it were possible they drew back a little.

When Talft started to speak Rhuddryn held up his hand and walked closer to his prisoner. Legolas’ eyes were riveted to the ornate throw rug at his feet, trying to control his fear and steel his face. He had been discovered in more way than one and he wasn’t sure where things would go from here.

"An elf." The man stated calmly. Reaching out his fingers he roughly tipped Legolas’ chin slightly to get a better look at his ears. Unwilling to be touched by this human, Legolas jerked his face out of the man’s grasp, earning him a swift backhanded slap.

The blow smarted and the elf licked the corner of his mouth where his lip had split on contact with one of Rhuddryn’s heavy rings. Slowly the prince turned back, focusing on Rhuddryn once more. Legolas watched as the slave owner walked around his desk and carefully looked over the contents on its top, fingering the papers idly. His hand stopped over the letter concerning the warg breeding which was conspicuously out of place and he quietly asked, "What did you see?"

Legolas did not answer.

Rhuddryn fingers grasped the edges of the letter and he crumpled it in his fist, glancing up darkly at the elf. "Were you reading this? Trying to get an edge on our successes? Who is your employer?" For a moment the thought that Seobryn was somehow trying to double-cross him flittered through the man’s mind, but no, he couldn’t believe that, the trader stood to lose just as much as he if there were any shenanigans at this stage of the game. "Answer me, who paid you to spy on my doings!"

Again there was no reply and a small thin merciless smile stretched across the man’s face as he shook his head slowly, another idea, a much more plausible one coming to him. "Hiring an elf... low even for him." He whispered to himself before glancing back again at Legolas.

"You’re another spy from Nasr, aren’t you? Aren’t you?!" Rhuddryn slapped Legolas sharply across the face once more.His benefactor was already unpleased with his lack of results, the last thing he needed was someone else trying to worm into his contract and put him out of the deal. The man was livid as he stalked back and forth, muttering angrily to himself.

"Only he would stoop to hiring an elf! So were you working for him all along, is that why you hooked up with Seobryn in the first place? Or did he buy you off after you came here? Oh! It doesn’t matter! He’s always trying to cut me out and get my contacts, well it’s not going to work this time, you hear me?" the man rounded on his prisoner again, fixing Legolas with a cold, harsh glare as he stood in front of the elf, the letter still gripped in his hand. He had lost business to his rival’s spies and plots before; he was not going to do so again. "Do you know what I did with his last spy? I sent him back to Nasr in a box. A very small box. He is NOT stealing any of my projects from me again, and you are never going to report back to him about my doings or my work," he promised darkly.

Legolas didn’t speak, there was nothing useful he could say; it would be pointless. He had no idea who Nasr was and it didn’t matter anyway, Rhuddryn’s mind was obviously already made up. The man would never believe the elf wasn’t the spy they thought he was, and if he tried to tell them, then they would want to know what he *was* doing here... and that would only put Aragorn in danger as well; there was no way Legolas was going to chance that. The elf held his breath slightly, wondering if these men intended to kill him. Sorrow flashed across the elf’s heart. Not for himself, but he knew that if he died no one would ever know what had befallen Aragorn and the young ranger would likely end up living the rest of his days as a forgotten, confused slave. That thought tore at him.

"Can we kill him?" Talft inquired with an unpleasant grin. He had hated Legolas for months now, ever since the elf had started intervening on the slaves’ behalf and would like nothing better than to be able to carry out his execution.

"No," Rhuddryn shook his head, somewhat distracted as if thinking hard. "Not yet. I keep killing his spies and he just sends more. Let’s let him just wonder about what’s happened to this one for a while."

"Then what are we going to do with him?" Lur kicked the prince dispassionately.

"Use him against Nasr if I ever get the chance," Rhuddryn stroked his chin, trying to think of a way to do that. No idea presented itself at the moment, but he’d hold onto the spy until one did. "For the moment... I want you to teach him the consequences of his actions. I’m sure you’ll enjoy that," the master’s look was slightly disdainful as he glanced between his two employees. These two had a blood lust that did not always please him, but if they took that energy out on the elf instead of the slaves for a while then that was fine with him.

"Punish him well and I don’t care what kind of shape you leave him in. Try not to kill him, but," he locked a hard gaze on Legolas again. "I won’t fault you if it happens. When you’re done put him in with the slaves, the Olybryn seem to handle incorporating newcomers more easily than some of the others. He can make himself useful in the fields or else I’ll find a less pleasant use for him. Go on, get him out of my sight!"

Talft and Lur dragged the bound elf out of the room. Keeping in mind how much trouble Legolas had been to capture in the first place, they kept their weapons on him the whole time and gave him no chance to try anything further.

They took Legolas out of the big house, pushing him roughly through the courtyard, down to the long, low-roofed structure adjacent to the guardhouse. The lower half of the walls were made of stone, the upper of wood and it reeked of fear and darkness. It was where misbehaving slaves were taken for punishment.

The two Haradrim shoved the elf roughly into the waiting gloom and the doors slammed shut behind them.

 

___________________________________________________________

~*PART TWELVE*~

 

~~~~~~~~~~

All this time I can’t believe I couldn't see,
Kept in the dark, but you were there in front of me.
I’ve been sleeping a thousand years it seems...
Got to open my eyes to everything.

Bring me back to life
I’ve been living a lie
There’s nothing inside
bring me back to life.

--Evanescence

~~~~~~~~~~

 

They were barely into the structure when one of his captors shoved Legolas hard, clubbing the elf between the shoulder blades and making him stumble. A quick kick took his legs out from under him causing Legolas to lurch forward. Unable to catch himself with his hands bound behind him he fell, whacking the side of his head hard against the rough edge of the stone wall and painfully scraping his temple and cheekbone. Bright flashes of light seared across his vision as he was dragged back to his knees. Before he could even clear his thoughts a fist caught him hard across the other side of his head, another catching his ribs as Talft and Lur took their employer's request to heart with cruel pleasure.

Legolas curled in on himself, trying to become as small a ball as possible. He kept his eyes on the floor, on the wall, anywhere but the men who were beating him. He had too many horrific memories that would never leave him; he didn’t want to add to them. He didn’t want to be seeing these men’s faces in his dreams for years to come. If he lived that long.

Talft and Lur took far too much pleasure in their task and worked the elf cruelly with their fists until the fair being passed out from the abuse.

Cold water slapping in his face and stinging the bleeding abrasions across his temple and cheekbone drew Legolas back from the grip of semi-consciousness. He moaned slightly before consciousness returned fully. He was still on the floor of the punishment hut, held on his knees by the guards’ hands on his arms.

"You’re not getting off that easy Tyndel," Lur hissed in his ear once he was sure that Legolas was again in the land of the waking.

The elf let his head fall forward. He ached fiercely and he had a sinking feeling that they weren’t going to be done with him for some time.

Legolas doubled forward with a soft hiss as Talft kicked him sharply in the stomach. Lur twisted his hand in the elf’s hair, tipping his head back so that he had to look into their faces as they beat him this time, unless he closed his eyes. But closing his eyes only seemed to make it hurt worse because then his body had no warning at all. At least if he saw what direction the blows were coming from it wasn’t so much of a shock.

The two guards seemed to know all the right places and right moves to cause the maximum amount of pain with the least amount of damage, they had had enough experience and practice, but damage was still happening anyway. Legolas knew what broken ribs felt like and the iron bands of pain that were wrapping around his chest told him that they were possibly the least of his worries.

A second time they beat him until his hurting body lost consciousness, only to be dragged back to a painful state of at least partial awareness so it could begin all over again. Legolas did not fully regain his senses this time and seemed trapped somewhere between semi-awareness and oblivion.

Lur slapped Legolas, trying to wake him all the way. Then, grinning with cruel amusement, he traced the line of Legolas’ bruised lower lip with his finger, catching the blood in the corner of the elf’s pretty mouth and dragging it across his lip. Legolas flinched and tried to pull back, obviously detesting the contact. Fleeting memories surfacing like cold nightmares were indistinguishable from reality and he could not stop the reaction.

Of course the two guards picked up on that and used it to torment him. Lur played his fingertips over Legolas’ swollen lips and in a circle around his mouth, because he could tell how much the elf hated that. Legolas struggled with his hazy mind and body, trying to pull away, but Talft stood behind him and rammed his knee into the elf’s back, holding him still. Icy panic ripped through the prince’s semi-conscious senses as Lur ran his hand slowly up the side of the prince’s face, touching Legolas’ ear and sliding back down his neck.

Legolas’ body had started shaking softly and his breathing was ragged and labored. "Saes..." the elf murmured, choking slightly on his own pain and fear as he was forced back to his senses and all the agony that came with them.

The guards didn’t know what the elvish word meant, but the way it was said was clear. Legolas wanted them to stop.

"Oh no, we’re not nearly done with you yet Tyndel," Talft smirked, pressing Legolas face down against the hardwood floor as Talft pulled the whip off his belt, shaking it out loudly so that the elf could hear him.

Legolas jerked when the harsh leather thongs snapped across his shoulders, leaving behind a stripe of fire. Another blow followed another until he was crying out softly under the rapid strokes, unable to help himself. It didn’t take long before he passed out once again, and this time he could not be roused.

"Rest while you can," Talft sneered. "We’ll be back."

 

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

 

When he woke, Legolas wished he had not. He found himself hanging by his wrists from the crossbeam that ran down the center of the hut he had been in earlier. His shirt was still missing and his body hurt fiercely. Early morning light streamed in faintly under the closed doorway on the right, meaning that he must have been out for the remainder of last night. No one else was around, but no matter how much he twisted and squirmed, he could not get out of the binds that held him and his hurting body was soon unable to try anymore.

Legolas drifted in and out of consciousness for the better part of the day. The sun traveled overhead, and then sank slowly down in the west. Blood loss, dehydration and pain made him dizzy and pulled him towards delirium. Were it not for previous experience on more than one occasion, Legolas would have thought it impossible to be in this much pain, but unfortunately the prince knew otherwise. And he also knew that no matter how bad it was, it could always get worse.

That was proved true when the door of the shed finally opened somewhere near sunset, letting Talft and Lur back into the room with him. Legolas closed his eyes and let his head hang forward again, but it was no good, they knew he was awake.

"Enjoying your stay Tyndel?" Lur mocked in an overly-cheerful voice. "I’m afraid you slid out on us a little prematurely last night." He had his whip in his hand, playing with the leather tongues where Legolas could see him. "But don’t worry, we’ll pick up where we left off..."

Biting back a hopeless moan, Legolas clenched his lips together and pressed his head against the side of his arms, preparing for what he knew he could not avoid as the guard moved around behind him, shaking the kinks out of the lash.

~*~

Many times that evening, Legolas cursed his own strength. Would that his body would simply give in and let unconsciousness claim him again... but he was too strong and his body too resilient to succumb easily. Even when he finally stopped responding to the bite of the guards’ lash, he was not fully gone, but lingering painfully on the brink, pain stealing his whole world and making him wish for anything that would make it stop, even death.

After a while, Lur touched Talft’s arm, pulling him back slightly and inclining his head at their limp prisoner. "If we want to try to keep him alive like the boss said I think we’d better stop."

Talft nodded and shrugged. He was getting tired anyway. "I’m not sure it isn’t too late for that," he murmured, roughly checking the elf’s erratic, faintly thrumming pulse. "Well I don’t want to have to bury him at any rate. Come on, help me cut him down and we’ll let the slaves bother with him. That way, if he dies, they can take care of it."

Lur nodded at the wisdom of the idea and cut the rope that connected Legolas’ bound wrists above his head, not bothering to remove the ropes still knotted about the new slave’s wrists themselves.

Legolas didn’t even have the strength to wince when the cut bonds dropped him roughly to the floor. He was only barely conscious of being dragged out into the fresh night air as he was carried across the compound.

~*~

The night was quiet and warm; Aragorn rested back against Cabed’s broad shoulders and sighed. Sircyn smiled at his friend, from where he lay mere inches from the ranger’s face. The small sleeping area had finally quieted and the slaves had fallen asleep pressed up against one another for warmth as much as for bodily contact. It was necessary to know you were not alone in this place and Aragorn had come to rely on that touch. The distant sounds of the oliphaunts in the fields drifted softly into the open aired tent.

"Long day." Sircyn commented quietly.

"Yes it was." Aragorn closed his eyes and smiled, "But it was a good day, we got a lot done."

Sircyn didn’t reply just nodded and allowed sleep to steal over him. The fire burned low in the center of the tented sleeping quarters, the only sounds that broke the stillness of the night was the soft breathing of the worn slaves.

Aragorn had nearly given in to sleep when the sounds of a scuffle outside the tent woke Cabed’s family and they started as the flap to their sleeping quarters was thrown back.

Two of Rhuddryn’s guards dragged a slave in, tossing the unfortunate into the middle of the small living area. The body tumbled across the floor, landing face down next to the nearly spent fire. Golden hair spilled around the being’s face, obscuring his features. It was the marksman Rhuddryn had hired several months ago to help with the Taerg attacks. He had been stripped to the waist and it was obvious from the bruises and lacerations that could be seen that he had been severely beaten. Roped loops were still bound tightly about his wrists but the twine binding them together had been cut. He dropped soundlessly to the ground and did not move from where he had fallen.

"He’s yours now." The guard on the left nodded at Cabed without further explanation. "If you can patch him up enough to be useful in the fields, fine, but the master doesn’t really care what you do with him. It’s not likely he’ll live through the night anyway." He smiled cruelly at the still form.

Aragorn sat up but Sircyn stopped him, laying his hand firmly on the ranger’s shoulder and shaking his head in warning. This marksman was the guard that had been harassing them whenever they were out with the oliphaunts, shadowing Adrar’s movements and trying to fill his friend’s head with lies. The Haradrim stood to his feet and stepped over the bodies of his family members who had pressed closely together, shying away from Rhuddryn’s guards and the newcomer that had been thrown into their midst.

"I’ll take care of him." Sircyn eyed the still form cautiously. Accepting another slave was one thing, accepting a guard was another. If the masters didn’t want this one any more, then they certainly didn’t.

"Caution my son." Cabed called out as he sat up next to Aragorn and watched anxiously.

The fair being, barely conscious, flinched as Sircyn bent over him and grabbed him by the arm; a small moan escaped Legolas lips at the rough treatment.

"Let us throw him outside, the Taergs can have him." Sircyn said.

"No! Wait." Aragorn was watching the elf cautiously, a deep frown marring his features; something tugged at his heart... or was it his mind?

"Adrar, this is the one that won’t leave you alone." Cabed gently touched Aragorn’s arm, redirecting his attention. "His very presence gives you much pain. Let Sircyn remove him. If he survives the night we can think about what to do with him later. Obviously the master no longer has use for him."

"Aragorn..." The soft word was whispered by the elf laying on the ground in the tent opening. It was obvious that the being was delirious for he was repeating the name over and over again, quietly calling out for someone while begging his tormenters not to hurt him anymore. "Please no... saes..." Legolas tried to move away as Aragorn stood to his feet and stepped over Cabed, despite the elder’s warnings, and crouched down near the elf’s head. He couldn’t stand seeing anyone suffer like this, even one of the guards... and despite how the things that the marksman said made him hurt, this one had never been overtly mean to he and his family in the way that the other guards were.

Legolas slipped in and out of elvish as the pain from his injuries overwhelmed him, his glazed eyes locked on the silver ones that stared down at him as he turned and looked up at Aragorn, "Strider, don’t let them hurt me anymore... make it stop." His hand slipped out from underneath him and he fell back to the earthen floor. His body was failing from the cruelly prolonged abuse and his strength was gone. The elf’s voice soft was like that of a small child pleading for someone to chase away the terrors of a darkened room. He couldn’t go on anymore alone, he needed his friend. But his friend didn’t remember him; his friend was afraid of him.

The young ranger’s heart seemed to break at the words and the pitifully pleading tone. Without conscious realization Aragorn responded to the elf in his native tongue, pressing the wounded body back down and holding the prince in place so he could not hurt himself any further, "No one will hurt you anymore, I promise you my friend." He touched the elf’s face gently, his fingers lightly brushing back the long strands of blonde hair that matted in the blood about his temple. The words felt right... felt like he’d said them before... but it seemed as if they came from someone other than himself. He didn’t know why he’d called the other being his friend, but when he spoke in that strangely beautiful tongue it just happened.

Cabed squatted down near the ranger and gazed at him intently, "Adrar, you speak his language?"

"I do. But I do not know how." Aragorn thought through the vague wisps of memory that snagged at his consciousness, vying for attention. Concentrating on the lost memories hurt and he pressed the palms of his hands against his eyes, trying to block the pain that thrummed in his head even as he grasped at the flitting thoughts that danced just outside his reach. Stars burst across his vision behind his closed lids and the pain was breath-taking, but he felt so close, so close... the young man pushed through the pain, looking, searching, refusing to let the fragile strands fall back into darkness again, even though the pain brought tears to his eyes.

"Aragorn?" Legolas touched the ranger’s hand, "Estel, remember... you’ve got to remember." The faintly desperate elven words finally broke through to the human’s blocked memory and Aragorn cried out softly as the recollection of his life flooded through his mind, cascading pictures and images faster than he could register; emotions swirling more rapidly than he could handle. It was as though a dam in his heart and mind had been broken and he could see the past once again, he knew he was, he remembered the elf who lay on the ground before him. Images of his brothers and father flashed through his mind followed swiftly by the spark of a memory – the sight of his friend, Legolas, hanging like a criminal, beaten like he was now, but then it had been in a glade surrounded by men, a man...Taradin, and the elf was calling the same name softly then as he was now. Suddenly Aragorn knew that name, his name, his real name...

"Aragorn?" Legolas whispered softly, lost in his pain and delirium.

"That’s it." Sircyn observed Aragorn’s pain, and, wishing to end it, immediately grabbed the elf, intending to drag him away from the northerner. The pull on his arms and shoulders lanced hot fiery agony through Legolas’ body and he cried out, unable to fight back.

The elf’s sharp cry brought Aragorn back to the present and he leapt at Sircyn with the fierce protectiveness of a taerg, bodily shoving the Haradrim away. "Leave him alone! You don’t understand."

The outburst surprised the slaves and they fell back slightly from the foreigner, watching cautiously as with the utmost tenderness Aragorn knelt next to the elf and laid his hand gently on the prince’s head, unwilling to cause his friend any more pain and unsure of the extent of his injuries.

Switching to elvish he softly spoke to Legolas, calming the elf with his words, the sounds of the soothing grey tongue.

"Legolas, it is all right I am here now." He smoothed the hair back away from the elf’s bruised face, "No one will hurt you. It is I, Estel." He leaned down and touched his forehead to Legolas’ temple as the prince weakly tried to turn towards him, clinging tentatively to awareness. The elf’s fingers brushed across the tops of the human’s and closed gently about Aragorn’s hand.

"I knew you would remember, given time." He whispered roughly. Legolas was finding it hard to stay conscious, he ached everywhere and the fear that his friend would abandon him had taken a terrible toll on him, even now he was half afraid he was dreaming... that he was still delirious and seeing only what he wished to see. Tears spilled over his cheeks and he smiled wearily at the man before the peace of relief claimed him and he passed into unconsciousness.

"Legolas!" Aragorn carefully turned the elf over onto his back, seeking out Cabed with his eyes. "Please help me. He is right, he is my friend. I-I remember now, it’s all coming back to me... I remember."

"Then what he says is true?" Sircyn asked quietly, kneeling next to the ranger once more. That made things a little different.

"Yes, all of it." Gently Aragorn pressed his hands across the elf’s ribs, feeling for broken bones. There was more than one. "What did they do to you Legolas? And who did this I will see they pay."

Cabed stepped around Sircyn and knelt on the other side of Legolas across from Aragorn, "In all likelihood, Rhuddryn has ordered this one to be punished for something." The dark skinned slave watched Aragorn carefully, "So you trust him?"

"With my life." The human glanced up, tears barely concealed in his eyes shown brightly in the soft light from the fire that Mambre had rekindled.

The elder Haradrim smiled sadly at the man he had taken in. There were so many questions that all of them wanted to ask, but for now Cabed knew it was not wise for Adrar’s health to press him to hard or too fast about his returning memory. The time for that would come, but not now. "Then let us see to it that he lives."

"Thank you." The ranger whispered.

Kidrin leaned around Mambre, finally having worked up the courage to scoot closer to the newcomer. His eyes widened in surprise and he pointed at the elf, "He is dead."

Aragorn glanced quickly down at Legolas his hand easing up to the elf’s throat and seeking out the steady pulse that belied what Kidrin assumed. With a sigh the ranger turned towards the small boy and smiled, "No. He merely sleeps Kidrin."

The child shook his head and leaned forward, "His eyes are open."

Aragorn suppressed a laugh as he looked between the slaves who had unconsciously drawn back closer to him.

"No, it’s all right." The ranger gently pulled Legolas into his lap and held the elf to him, "He is an elf, see?" Brushing back the prince’s disheveled hair he tipped the elf’s chin slightly, exposing the elegant pointed ears that marked elves uniquely. "Elves sleep with their eyes open." He turned a soft smile on the one he held, "Legolas is only sleeping. His injuries have caused him to pass out."

"Elves?" Kidrin pressed forward, reaching out to touch one of the prince’s ears. His people had never seen elves before, many had never even heard of them.

Mambre grabbed the inquisitive child and swatted at his outstretched hand, "Kidrin! Mind yourself," She scolded, pushing the boy towards the open flap, "Go quickly and fetch some water for your father and Adrar." She smiled apologetically at the ranger. "Forgive Kidrin, he has so many questions."

"It’s all right Mambre." Aragorn laughed lightly, "Legolas wouldn’t mind."

"An elf?" She seated herself next to Cabed and glanced at him with raised eyebrows, "Told you, did I not, that this one was different?" She chided her husband in their native tongue.

Cabed rolled his eyes, and snorted softly in return. Aragorn laughed at the two of them, his attention drawn quickly back to the elf as Legolas moaned softly and blinked several times.

"Easy. You are safe now." Aragorn whispered in elvish, leaning over, so that his dark hair fell about his face and shielded Legolas from the curious glances of the slaves about them for the moment.

"Strider?" The elf’s eyes were clearer and focused on the ranger, even though the human could see the pain reflected in their depths. He breathed in deeply and held the breath as his body reacted to the abuse he had sustained, tensing slightly in Aragorn’s grip.

"Yes, I am Strider." He smiled down into the blue eyes, claiming his newly remembered identity. "Kidrin has gone to fetch water. Hold on, all right?"

"Where...?"

"You are in Cabed’s tent tonight. We are safe here. He has taken me in as his own, if I protect you, they will protect you as well." Aragorn’s hand gently held the elf’s head against his chest as he spoke. He had only to barely whisper for the prince to hear him and he dared not speak louder, unwilling to cause the elf anymore discomfort. "I need you to rest, while I see to your wounds." The prince nodded slightly against him.

Memory slammed into Legolas’ consciousness and fear spiked through his heart at the information he had uncovered the previous day. "We must leave quickly. If you remember, then you are not safe here Aragorn!"

"You are not going anywhere my friend." Aragorn switched back to common and glanced at Cabed. "He is not well. May I borrow some of the herbs you have and some cloth?"

"Of course!" The elder waved off Sircyn, motioning his eldest son to fetch the items. "How is the young one, will he be all right?"

"Young?" Aragorn glanced back up at Cabed once more; fighting the smile that tugged at his lips as Legolas laughed softly at his friend’s reaction.

"Young?" The elf echoed his friend, shaking his head.

Cabed glanced between the two, confused. The elf that lay in his tent looked barely older than his own Sircyn.

"Cabed," Aragorn addressed his adopted family, "Legolas is older than I am."

"By a bit." The elf chimed in quietly, staring intently at the dark skinned human. He smiled softly at the man’s confusion. He doubted these people had any concept about his race save perhaps what they had heard of in legend.

"A bit?" The elder glanced at his wife, raising his eyebrows. She simply shrugged back in answer. "How much is a bit?" he continued, intrigued.

The conversation was interrupted as Kidrin ran back into the sleeping room, carrying a pot full of water. He stopped next to his father and handed the container down gently to the man. Leaning on his mother’s shoulders he pointed carefully at the elf, "Does he sleep?"

Legolas blinked and smiled at the child, who jumped quickly back behind Mambre, cautioning a one eyed glance around the woman’s shoulder.

With a laugh Aragorn gently took hold of Legolas’ hand as the elf drew in a quick breath, trying to fight the waves of pain that caught at him. "No, Legolas is awake." He glanced at the prince, "Legolas this is Kidrin. The woman he hides behind is Mambre, his mother and Cabed is his father. Legolas is from Mirkwood and his father is King of Mirkwood."

"It is good to meet you all." The prince winced and glanced up at his friend. "Estel..."

Mambre noted the elf’s distress and began to shoo away the others that had quietly gathered round, "Everyone back to sleep with you. Tomorrow is no holiday and the master will not be pleased if we cannot keep up with the herds. Go. Go!" She smiled sweetly at the young man and the elf, "You see to your friend. We will cover for you tomorrow."

Cabed nodded and passed the pot of water to Aragorn who nodded his thanks. With help from Sircyn he moved Legolas nearer the fire to the back of the tent and began to carefully clean his wounds, talking quietly in elvish to the prince the entire time.

"Why were you beaten?" Aragorn questioned softly as he cleaned the dried blood from the prince’s face. He crushed the herbs he had been given and mashed them into a poultice in his hand with a bit of the water, spreading it carefully into the wound.

"Do you remember how you ended up here?" Legolas grabbed his hand, stilling his friend’s movements. His voice was barely above a whisper and his words Elvish to hide their conversation.

The ranger sat back thinking a moment, not removing his hand from the grip of the other as the tried to recall. Slowly he nodded and glanced back down at the elf. "Seobryn. I overheard he and his men speaking of..." He closed his eyes tightly as remembrance came slowly, "...of breeding a beast that could survive either south or north; a creature that they could use for oppression and suppression in either lands of men. They wanted a mix of the silent ferociousness of the taergs coupled with the evil cunning and controllability of the wargs. I never uncovered the source of the request or who the animals were for. We were taken by surprise, Laener and I." His eyes widen and he drew his breath in sharply, "Laener is dead!"

"Yes I know." Legolas released the ranger’s hand and tried to shift into a sitting position; his back ached terribly. Aragorn quickly came to his aide and slipped his hands gently around the elf, helping him to sit up and allowing the prince to lean against him as he cleaned the red, welted stripes that decorated his back.

"I ran into Seobryn’s men on their way back from somewhere north of Gondor." Legolas continued, drawing his breath in quickly as Aragorn worked a particularly nasty gash. "It was how I came to know where you had been taken." He glanced back at Aragorn, his stare serious and hard, "Rhuddryn is involved in the warg breeding. He is the one who has Seobryn and his men working in the hills on the south side of his property. Who it is that wants the creatures I could not find out." He swallowed hard and glanced at the sleeping occupants in the tent, lowering his voice even more, "I uncovered letters in Rhuddryn’s study, from a benefactor who was unnamed that has been funding Rhuddryn and Seobryn to breed these foul beasts. Whatever their use it is an evil one and whoever has requested it, has no good intent. You were sold to Rhuddryn in order to make sure you would never remember and if you they know that you have, they will not hesitate kill you. I was caught in the study and could not escape, that was why I was beaten, they believe I was working for a competitor."

 

Aragorn nodded, shifting slightly around his friend so they faced one another he let his gaze fall to the dusty floor beneath him. So many thoughts chased through his mind and guilt edged them all.

"Strider?" Legolas noted the changed in the human’s emotions so clearly etched on his tanned face.

"It’s just that..." He shook his head, letting the words die.

"What?" Legolas reached out and gently touched his fingers to Aragorn’s chin, redirecting the man’s attention. "Tell me."

"If only I had listened to you before, if I had remembered sooner, none of this would have happened." His eyes lighted on the deep, dark bruises that covered the elf’s ribs. It was not the first time he had felt this way, nor the first time his friend had been cruelly beaten when he felt he could have or should have been able to prevent it. Some of the returning memories smote his heart and incriminated the human in his own mind. Now that he could remember, he didn’t understand how he couldn’t before. "I am so sorry my friend. This is my faul-"

"Strider," Legolas halted his friend when the silver eyes locked onto his own, "None of this was your fault, unless you intended to lose your memory? I know that you would not have allowed this if you had remembered sooner but your mind was not ready, nor was it was fully healed. Do not start feeling responsible for everything again... isn’t that one trait you could have lost permanently?" The elf’s teasing smile relieved some of the anguish in the human’s heart. "Besides it was necessary for me to find out where they are breeding. We stop what is going on."

"If we are caught..." Aragorn’s eyes flashed angrily as he took Legolas’ left wrist gently in his hands and began working the rope tied tightly around it, easing the loop away from the elf’s soft skin before starting on the right one. "I will not see you treated like this again. Rhuddryn has always been a fair mast..." The ranger stopped speaking and glanced up at the elf, aware for the first time of the fact that he considered being a slave part of his normal, day-to-day existence.

"You are no man’s slave Aragorn, son of Arathorn." The prince whispered, "They cannot know your memory has returned, so let us pray that we are not caught before we can take them down."

Aragorn nodded and released Legolas’ right hand, flinging the offending pieces of rope out into the night under the edge of the tent. Grabbing the thin blanket he used for bedding, the ranger wadded the cloth up and laid it in his lap, pulling the prince easily down until the elf’s head rested on the makeshift pillow. "Sleep. Tomorrow I’ll get a better look at your wounds."

"I cannot be seen with you." Legolas murmured, fighting his body’s desire for rest.

"Do not worry my friend. I will take care of that. Rhuddryn has no reason to suspect me and he will not think it odd to find me tending you tomorrow, trust me on this. Now rest. Your body needs it."

Legolas nodded slowly his eyes fixed on the sparking fire in the middle of the tent. "These people have been good to you?"

"Yes." Aragorn smiled knowingly. He leaned down and kissed the elf lightly on the head, speaking softly to him trying to quiet his anxieties, "Sleep Legolas Greenleaf, you are safe here."

"At least for now," Legolas murmured.

"Yes, at least for now," Aragorn conceded quietly. "At least for now."

 

___________________________________________________________

~*PART THIRTEEN*~

 

 

Morning found Aragorn sitting with a very ill elf. Legolas had taken a turn for the worse throughout the long night and he moaned softly as the ranger wiped the sweat that beaded on his forehead with a soft cloth. A fever had wrapped the prince in its throes sometime during the night and the ranger was having a hard time breaking through the injury induced illness. He wondered absently if the guards had used poisoned thongs when they whipped Legolas or if the elf had simply been beaten beyond what he could handle.

It had often fallen to the northerner to stay with the sick or wounded and they had found that his talents in healing extended to the injured animals as well. Aragorn had had a knack for knowing just how to heal the sick and exhibited the compassion and patience needed under those circumstances so it was not unusual for the ranger to stay behind during the day and work with slaves who were unable to go out and tend the herds.

Cabed and the family had left early to work with the oliphaunts. Before leaving, he had asked Aragorn if there were anything he could get the ranger to aid him in healing the elf.

"There was a weed were I lived, called kingsfoil. It had tiny white flowers on it and was helpful with illnesses and fever. Do you have anything like that here?" It was a long shot that the northerly common plant would be found in the hot arid planes of Harad but he hoped Cabed could help.

The elder Haradrim had nodded slowly, thinking through Aragorn’s request. There just might be something similar if he could find it growing this time of year. He would send Kidrin back with some in the event they ran across it.

With a sigh the ranger brought his thoughts back to the present as he pressed the square of cloth back into the pot next to him. The day was already heating up and the water had become tepid. Legolas moaned softly, thrashing weakly under the ranger’s gentle touch. Aragorn softly kept up a steady stream of elvish, trying to reach through to his friend but it was to no avail.

The flap of the sleeping quarters was thrown back and Rhuddryn stepped in flanked by two of his guards. Aragorn inclined his head, bowing low in the position where he sat.

"I did not see you out in the fields Adrar. What keeps you in here, are you ill?" The slave owner questioned even as his gaze fell to the form of the elf that Aragorn was caring for. His gaze flicked dispassionately over the one he had come to know as Tyndel. Talft and Lur had obviously done a more than adequate job, as he had suspected they would. If Tyndel lived, he would not soon forget the encounter, which was as the slave owner wanted it.

The ranger carefully steeled his emotions and his face before lifting his head and responding respectfully, "No, master. Cabed requested that I stay with the one you brought to us last night. He is strong yet and my elder believes he could be useful if he recovers from the fever that has taken him."

Rhuddryn pressed his lips together in a tight line and nodded curtly at the response.

"Yes, you seem very skilled in the healing arts." Aragorn’s owner replied hesitantly. "He is an elf Adrar. Have you ever seen one before?" He asked the northerner cautiously.

Aragorn looked down at the prince with feigned interest, "An elf? No. I do not believe I ever have. Is that why his ears are so strange?" He lied, playing the part of the simpleton that he knew the master believed him to be.

Rhuddryn smiled slightly. He didn’t need anything tipping the ranger’s memory and causing him to recall his former life. "Yes, that’s why. Well you be careful Adrar. Elves are dangerous. If he gives you or Cabed any trouble you let me know and we will handle him. You are a good worker and I would hate to see anything happen to you. Do you understand?" He spoke to the man seated before him as though he were a child and Aragorn responded in kind.

"Yes I will, thank you master." Aragorn inclined his head once more until Rhuddryn had removed himself. He swallowed hard and let out a deep breath. He had wanted nothing more than to rip Rhuddryn’s head from his shoulders for the state that Legolas was in now, and the smug, condescending smile he had laid on the ranger, as though he were a prized possession, had angered Aragorn. It irritated him in no small fashion that in the past he had actually thought he was being cared for by the man who pretended to own him. His own weakness sparked his fury further and the helplessness he felt as he sat beside Legolas only fed the hot fire in his heart.

"Come on Legolas," He whispered softly, "I need you to pull through. I can’t do this on my own." He brushed his fingers down the side of the elf’s cheek. "I’m so sorry my friend." Legolas’ breathing was shallow and labored and he turned towards the sound of Aragorn’s voice.

"Estel..."

"I’m here." Aragorn shook his head, leaning forward to wipe the cool cloth across the elf’s bruised chest. All he could do was wait. It would be a long day and he hoped the elf would still be with him at the end of it.

That night when the other Olybryn returned, Legolas had improved little and the worried look that etched itself into Aragorn’s features had deepened. The other slaves were not yet sure they trusted this new northerner yet, and in fact not at all sure they could ever trust anyone who had been one of the guards once, but he was Adrar’s friend, and so they would do their best by him, for the sake of the one they had adopted into their clan.

Cabed knelt next to Aragorn, letting his thickly callused hand rest gently on the pale elf’s forehead for a moment, judging the fair being’s still raging temperature. "We looked for the plant you described to us Adrar, but we could not find it, I am sorry. It is possible it does not grow this far from the land of the white ones. But we did bring you more Klii and even some Bani, Syna went all the way to the far fields to get it for you." The elder Haradrim passed Aragorn several small bundles of healing herbs and roots that were native to this particular land.

Aragorn had actually been the first to ascertain the fever-fighting properties of the Bani plant. He had not understood at the time, why he could look at a plant and know, or at least guess at, what kind of useful properties it might have, no more than he had known why he knew so much about the healing arts. Now of course, it all made sense and Aragorn remembered the many, many hours spent in the gardens, or the study, or the wilds, with his foster father. Lord Elrond’s gentle hands guiding his as he mixed his first poultices, turning over plant leaves, paging through books, showing the young human every different way there was to tell if a plant was helpful or poisonous and what kind of traits belied what kind of properties. With the memories, beautiful as they were, came a stab of pain that now had nothing to do with his healed injures. This one attacked his heart, not his head.

Aragorn took the herbs from Cabed, nodding his thanks. He couldn’t deal with those feelings right now. Legolas needed his attention; this situation needed his attention. He had his memory back, but that didn’t mean he knew how to deal with all the emotions that came with it yet.

"How does he fare?" Cabed questioned quietly, giving Aragorn a much-desired distraction from his own train of thought.

"Not well. He is strong, his body is fighting, but he has taken very grievous hurt..." Aragorn wasn’t sure what else to say. Looking at Legolas’ injured body still made his heart burn hot within him. Too often. Too often had Legolas been hurt, or suffered because of him. He knew the elf never wanted him to blame himself, but it was hard not to sometimes.

"Do you think he will die?" Cabed’s voice was still gentle, but he did not avoid the question. The Simbani had learned long ago that shying from the mention of death did not prevent its happening. The guards abused people, or punished them, and sometimes... many times, they died. It was a part of their lives, even if it was heartbreaking; it was the way things were.

"I hope not," Aragorn shook his head earnestly, unable to keep the pain out of his eyes. "I just don’t know... by morning we should know, one way or another."

"You mean to sit up with him again then?" Mambre asked with motherly concern. She would not try to dissuade him, but that didn’t mean she didn’t worry for the young man.

Aragorn nodded. He was weary, but Legolas’ condition was grave and could swing either way at a moments notice. "He is my friend. I don’t think he’d even be here if it weren’t for me," he whispered, realizing that he didn’t know how exactly Legolas *had* ended up here, beyond the bit that the elf had told him earlier, but that was a story for another time he supposed.

The young ranger tilted his elven friend’s head gently to the side, moistening Legolas’ cruelly split and swollen lips. The prince stirred and moaned, trying to draw away.

"Shhh, shh, hush Legolas, it’s all right my friend. It is just I, just Aragorn. No one’s going to hurt you any more. It’s all right..." Aragorn soothed softly in Elvish, quietly talking and repeating himself just so that Legolas could hear the sound of his voice.

The young ranger felt eyes on him and glanced up. Sircyn was watching them from across the tent and it was not an entirely friendly gaze he was laying upon the wounded elf. The moment the young Haradrim caught Aragorn’s gaze on him he looked away, turning back to the others and pretending to play with Kidrin.

Aragorn sighed. He knew Sircyn didn’t trust easy, but the other young slave had become dear to the ranger and he hoped Sircyn could learn to accept Legolas as he had accepted him.

Slowly, quiet fell and the slaves dropped off to sleep, leaving Aragorn alone to his vigil, and the company of his newly returned memories of the past, and concerns for the future.

 

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

 

Mambre smiled when she got up the next morning and saw the two northerners. Aragorn had fallen asleep, half curled up with and around Legolas. Painstakingly careful to avoid his friend’s injuries, Aragorn had managed to find a way to be near the elf without aggravating any of his hurts. To Mambre, they looked rather like children, like Sircyn and Syna when they were younger. The two friends’ heads rested together, golden hair mixing with dark curly locks in the dim predawn light. With one hand Aragorn still lightly monitored the rise and fall of his friend’s chest, even in slumber. If anything changed with the elf’s condition, he would know and awaken immediately, but outside of that, it might take a small oliphaunt stampede to wake the exhausted young man up. Legolas’ fever had finally broken in the wee hours of the morning and Aragorn had only just drifted off to sleep not a full two hours ago.

The slaves were quiet in their morning preparations, trying not to wake the two sleepers. They succeeded, for by the time Aragorn opened his eyes, daylight had already warmed the air and the interior of the tent. Aragorn started mildly, realizing both that he had fallen asleep, and that he had slept in. Then he wondered what woke him, and realized that Legolas had moved beneath his hand.

Blinking a couple of times, Aragorn turned his head slightly and found himself looking into his friend’s face. Legolas’ eyes were open. When he saw the young ranger looking at him, the elf smiled, albeit a trifle weakly, around his injured lips. "Good morning Estel." His soft, slightly rasping tone turned wry. "I suppose it should be comforting to know that if I wake up in a strange place, feeling like a cave troll used me for an anvil, and someone’s got their arms all over me, it’s probably you." After all, it wasn’t the first time. The elf laughed, which was painful, so he tried to stop, which only made him laugh a little harder, especially after seeing the somewhat surprised and bleary look that his friend gave him.

"Huh? Oh..." Aragorn quickly started to withdraw the arm that was still draped over his friend’s side, a little too sleepy yet to catch the prince’s joke.

Legolas realized his friend wasn’t fully awake yet and gently captured the young human’s wrist, pulling his arm back to where it was, although moving at all was still very painful. "I was joking Strider. I – It... it really is comforting. How long have I been out?"

"A day or so," Aragorn informed, pulling himself up onto his elbows and checking Legolas over. "I was really worried about you for a little while there... but I guess if you’re feeling well enough to start giving me grief again, you must be on the mend." He grinned impishly.

"You’re lucky I think it would hurt too much to smack you for that," Legolas chuckled wearily. The truth was he still felt miserable, but he could feel his strength returning slowly.

Aragorn helped the elf drink some of the water that Cabed and Mambre had made sure was left for them. Legolas wasn’t ready to eat yet, he still hurt too much, but Aragorn knew elves didn’t always need as much sustenance as humans, so he wasn’t too worried about that, and let Legolas have his way. Instead he just built up the smoldering coals into a small fire once more and heated some of the water, making a soothing tea for his friend.

"How did you know?" Aragorn asked presently, after the prince had finished his drink.

"Know what?" Legolas stared up at the tent ceiling. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to look at his friend, but unnecessary movement was still not a pleasant option.

"Where to find me."

"Wasn’t easy," Legolas chuckled. "When you disappear Estel, you disappear! I took a chance that you were heading down into Rohan, and then tracked you as best I could. There was more chance involved than skill really... although; perhaps chance is the wrong word. Providence I think would be better," the elf turned his head slowly, favoring the young human with a soft smile.

"I don’t know if I’d call this providence..." Aragorn murmured, shaking his head.

"Stop. Stop right there. You start blaming yourself for anything for an instant Estel and I will get up if only to flatten you," Legolas said seriously, starting to raise himself up on his elbows.

"All right, all right!" Aragorn actually laughed, hurrying forward and gently pressing Legolas back down. "I stopped! Now lay still before you’re the death of us both!"

"That’s better," Legolas grumbled, wincing as he settled back.

"But how did you know?" A confused look suddenly crossed Aragorn’s face. "How did you know to even look? I know your kind have foresight, but..."

Legolas just smiled. "Well my ‘foresight’ came packaged as two rather unexpected visitors who have a horrible notion of what visiting hours are."

Aragorn blinked. Of course, he should have known. "Elladan and Elrohir." He wasn’t exactly sure how he felt about that. He was even a little surprised that they had cared.

Legolas watched him intently. "Yes. It was Elrohir who gave me Barahir to give to you. He said he hoped it would make you remember that there were people who loved you. I don’t think he ever could have imagined just how true those words would end up. Are you angry Estel?"

Aragorn shook his head, not quite ready to speak.

"Well good!" Legolas leaned back again. "You shouldn’t be, unless you really *wanted* to spend the rest of your life as a slave down here."

Aragorn laughed, but his eyes were still uncertain. "Did they tell you anything else?"

Legolas closed his eyes before opening them again. "I know about Arwen."

"And?" Aragorn prompted, his insides unexpectedly seizing up.

"And what? I’m not surprised. My friend you have set your gaze on a high prize, but not an impossible one. And from the little I know of her, I think that if her heart was willing, you two would make a perfect pair. Just don’t race her, all right? She does not play fair." Legolas smiled at the ranger’s somewhat stunned face. It was almost ironic, because he had come a very long way and through a lot to have this conversation.

Aragorn didn’t know what to say. He had been afraid of Legolas’ reaction... prepared a million different explanations... but the elf’s total acceptance floored him.

"Aragorn..." Legolas started, but whatever he was going to say was lost when the tent flap was pushed inward quickly.

Syna and Sircyn stumbled through the entry. Syna was supporting her younger brother’s weight, his arm wrapped around her shoulder, but considering he was nearly a head taller than her, it was not easy.

"Sircyn! Syna! What’s wrong? What happened?" Aragorn jumped quickly to his feet, helping ease Sircyn to the ground before he fell down. The young Haradrim was holding his ribs tightly, his face pinched in pain. To Aragorn’s great alarm a dark red stain was spreading across the front of the young man’s shirt.

Quickly laying Sircyn down, Aragorn pulled his arm away and pushed his torn shirt up to reveal a deep gash in the young slave’s side that was bleeding freely.

"The Master’s brought a couple of new Oliphaunts into the herd," Syna was explaining breathlessly. "They’re wild, hard to control, not like the others. They’re not tamed yet and won’t listen to us. We put them in the pens on the north side of the field, but the fence broke. One of them got Sircyn when he was trying to calm it!" the girl was on the brink of tears, but controlling herself well. "Father wanted to come back with him, but he couldn’t, they’re still trying to round up the wild ones and need every man they have. I’m supposed to go back right away as it is... Adrar, is he going to be all right?" The slaves still called Aragorn by the name they had come to know him by for the most part, and that was all right with the young ranger. He had so many names already a few more hardly mattered.

"Of course I am, I’m going to be fine," Sircyn protested in irritation, although he winced in pain. "Don’t fuss, all right? It’s just a scratch!"

Legolas laughed despite himself and rolled his eyes, catching Aragorn’s gaze. "Oh, where have I heard *that* before?"

Aragorn shot him a withering glare before turning back to his new wounded charge. "Well it could be a deadly scratch if you don’t be still and let me help you," he remonstrated.

"Thank you Syna, I’ve got him now. Don’t worry, he’s going to be fine." he assured the young girl who was obviously torn between concern for her brother and her need to get back and help make sure no one else got hurt.

"Thank you Adrar," the girl squeezed his shoulder gratefully before having to tear herself away.

Aragorn skillfully washed and bound up Sircyn’s ribs. The gash was deep and without treatment it could cripple the Haradrim. He touched the young man’s face gently, staring down into the pain filled eyes and smiled, "It’s not that bad." He teased quietly, "I think you’ll survive."

"Though I may not want to." Sircyn finished the joke that had run between them for the past few months.

"Yes, something like that." Aragorn glanced back at Legolas, who lay near the fire, watching the slave and the ranger carefully. Smiling knowingly at the elf he turned back to the young slave, "I need you to do me a favor."

"I am afraid I am in no position to be of much assistance." Sircyn grimaced, his hand wrapping carefully over the top of the bandage Aragorn had just placed on his wound.

"This is an easy one. I need to go take your place in the fields. We can't endanger the others by having both of us removed from the work, especially if there are wild oliphaunts running around out there. And I would not see the wrath of Rhuddryn and his men fall on either of you." Aragorn sat down and moved so that Legolas and Sircyn had a clear view of each other across the dying fire. "I need you to keep Legolas company while I am gone and watch over him. He does not know what life is like here. Can you do that for me?" The ranger shifted his gaze from the elf to the slave at his side.

Sircyn did not answer but gazed hesitantly at the prince, and nodded slowly. Aragorn gently touched the young man’s shoulder, "Thank you. I will back at midday to see to your wound and to take care of you both. I will make sure the guards give you no grief." With a smile he stood slowly to his feet and walked to Legolas’ side.

He knelt down next to the elf who was smiling at him, shaking his head slowly. "As if I need the company, let alone the protection." Legolas spoke softly in Elvish.

"Humor me my friend, you need both. Sircyn is not so bad. He just is a bit untrusting of strangers. You cannot blame him, look at their lives. Keep an eye on him. If he gets worse, let me know. I will send Kidrin back throughout the day to make sure you both are all right. Don’t hesitate to call for me if either of you are in discomfort." He leaned closer to the elf; "Do you understand me."

Legolas smiled back at the human, it was so good to have his old friend back that he found himself simply nodding.

Leaning forward Aragorn touched his forehead gently against the elf’s, closing his eyes for a moment, just glad that the prince was recovering. "It’s good to have you here my friend."

Legolas’ hand slipped behind the ranger’s head and held him in place, "It’s good to have you back Strider. I have missed you."

With a small laugh, the man moved slowly back to stare into the blue eyes. "I have to go." He spoke in common glancing between the two. "Take care of each other." He called back as he walked to the tent flap and stepped out, closing the entry back down.

They could hear him outside, speaking hesitantly to the guards that stood near the tent, explaining that one of the slaves had been gored and the other was too weak to join them in the fields.

"I will return at midday to look in on them. The master has said that I may be here when there are injured." Aragorn further explained, keeping his eyes down and his tone inoffensively quiet.

"Fine be on your way." One of the sentries snorted at the report and gave the ranger a shove.

Legolas listened to the sound of his friend’s footsteps until they passed out of hearing. The flap to the tent was snapped back and a guard thrust his head into the sleeping room. He glanced warily at the two injured slaves before backing out and closing the entry after him.

"They will bother us no more for the rest of the day now." Sircyn spoke quietly, glancing at the elf though slitted eyes, sizing up the other. "Adrar speaks highly of you."

"His name is Estel." Legolas gazed at the ceiling of the tent for a few moments before slowly turning his head and piercing Sircyn with a sharp gaze. It hurt to move fast and his head still swam from the beating he was getting over.

The young slave rolled over painfully and glared at the elf. "You know nothing. You were not here when he was thrown into our tent. You did not help him through the dark times when he woke with night terrors; you were not the one that helped him regain a sense of dignity after all the abuse he endured at the hands of the masters. In fact your very presence caused him great pain up until yesterday. Adrar is our brother now."

"You may think you know the one you call Adrar, but he has been my brother for far longer than you could know." Legolas replied.

"You are an elf! What would you know of the ways of men?" Sircyn spat at the fair-haired being.

"You are right, I am an elf. I will tell you what I know of *that* man." Legolas matched the slave’s hard, harsh tone, but his eyes softened slightly as he thought on his friend, "He seems to trust you so I imagine he would not mind you knowing more about him."

The slave across the fire quieted and nodded, wanting the other to continue.

"Estel was raised by elves. He was orphaned when he was a young child. His human family was killed by a party of raiding orcs and he was brought to the home of a powerful elven lord. I did not have the opportunity to meet Estel until a few years ago." Legolas laughed slightly, "When he literally fell into my life. Until then I hated humans and had hated them for centuries. I saw no good or benefit in your kind at all and almost left Estel to the wilds. You think you have been treated badly by your master? I know the depravity of men. I know how bad it can be and how much it can hurt. When I met Estel I hated him for what had been done to me years before he or his father’s father was ever born, and I visited that anger and mistrust on him." Another small laugh escaped the elf’s lips, "And the hatred that took centuries to build in me, he destroyed in a few months."

"Centuries?" Sircyn repeated the word, intrigued. "Just how old are you?"

"A few thousand years, not very old by my people’s standards." Legolas smiled as the young slave’s mouth dropped open.

"Estel became like a brother to me," the elf continued. "He proved to me that not all men are evil. He has sacrificed himself to save my people and myself countless times. And he has shown that there is honor and goodness in the human race."

"So what right do you have to come here and take him with you? He was happy with us when he was Adrar. You think that he has not had an effect here on my people?" Sircyn shook his head and eased back down on the mat below him with a soft moan. "My people have always been trapped between the oppression of our own warlords on one side, and the oppression of the northerners on the other. My father was taken from his family and they were killed before his very eyes by a northerner. We have hated the northerners for as long as I can remember. They have lorded over us their power, their wealth and their desires, enslaving my people and forcing us to work for them. And then one night they threw Adrar into our tent. I wanted to throw him back out and let the taergs have him." He glanced sideways at the elf to judge the others reactions, "But my father wouldn’t let me. He protected Adrar and sheltered him and taught him how to survive and Adrar taught us how to love those who were different from us. He taught us that skin color and race made no difference. He did for my family what he has done for yours. Why won't you let him stay?"

Legolas laughed softly, shaking his head, "Oh, Strider." He spoke the words in Elvish, he should have known his friend would have made peace with these peoples as well, "He was named Estel on purpose." The elf switched to common and glanced once more at Sircyn, "In my people’s language it means hope. He is very important to my people and the race of men back where we come from. He cannot stay here. His destiny lies up there. He must return. He has a family that needs him back and they miss him terribly. They sent me to find him and bring him home. We need your help, and in return we can free you and your people as well. If you will trust us and if you will let us."

Legolas’ winced and sucked in his breath holding it as the pain shot through his body. He closed his eyes tightly shut and willed the spasms in his healing back to stop. When he opened his eyes, Sircyn had dragged his pallet around the nearly spent fire ring and laid it down next to the elf’s.

"Here, let me." The slave dipped his fingers into the herbal poultice Aragorn had been using on the injured elf, "Turn over." When the prince slowly obeyed, Sircyn gently worked it over the still healing welts that marred the elf’s back. "Adrar...I mean Estel has been teaching me what he knows of the healing arts."

Sircyn quietly worked over the elf for a few minutes before speaking again, "It has been very difficult, loosing people that I love. They are killed in our work or by the guards or by the master himself if he wills it. They are taken from us and murdered before our very eyes as lessons to us. It is hard to learn to like someone, let alone accept them as your family and then have them taken from you."

The slave lay down next to the elf and gazed into the blue eyes. "Adrar has been here less than a year, but I consider him like a brother. I do not wish to lose him."

Legolas smiled and laughed lightly. The herbs, doing their work, began to dull the pain and lull him to sleep, "Estel is not one to be easily gotten rid of. In all likelihood he will drag me back here on any excuse to visit you and your family." The elf’s voice grew soft as sleep overtook him; "But he must be allowed to leave. I have come for him. He is my friend. His father misses him. You must let him go." The elf’s body went limp as he fell into unconsciousness, his voice trailing off quietly.

Sircyn watched the sleeping elf long into mid-morning when Kidrin came hesitantly back.

"Adrar sent me Sircyn. Do you need him?" The child crept closer glancing at the sleeping elf, still not at all used to the half-lidded sleep of the fair-haired being.

Sircyn nodded slowly, he had been thinking long and hard about all the things Legolas had said. If the elf was right then he knew how to help Adrar. "Yes Kidrin, fetch Adrar quickly, tell him that I need him."

The boy turned and raced out of the tent calling for Adrar as he ran.

A little while later Aragorn pelted back to the tent, fear dogging his every step. He threw the flap to the tent aside and rushed in, falling on his knees next to the two wounded beings.

"What, what is wrong?" His hand immediately reached out to touch the unconscious elf, brushing the hair away from the fair face and quickly tracing down Legolas’ neck to feel the steady pulse. "Sircyn are you all right? Kidrin said you needed me, what’s wrong?" He seated himself between the two patients, his hand never leaving his friend as he turned to the slave. He gently felt the Haradrim’s forehead with his free hand but Sircyn stopped him, grabbing his wrist easily and pulling the ranger’s hand away, resting it on his chest, trapped there by his own hand.

"Estel." The slave spoke the ranger’s elven name. "Legolas said it means hope in your native language."

Aragorn glanced quickly behind him at the elf before returning his gaze to the human and nodding slowly.

"He also said that you have a family back where he came from and they miss you."

Aragorn swallowed hard and glanced to the floor of the tent nervously. His family. He hadn’t thought about them in a very long time.

"Legolas said you are needed back in your own lands. He said you have done for him and his family what you have done for mine." He continued when the ranger looked back up at him, the deep silver eyes holding the steady gaze of the dark ones that watched him. "You must be free. You were born free. Forgive me... I simply didn’t want to lose you, for you have been like a brother to me." Sircyn swallowed hard. "But Legolas is right. And if you will help us become a free people again, I will see you returned to your own, I swear it." He released the ranger’s hand and gazed steadily into the silver eyes that watched him.

Legolas’ hand brushed Aragorn’s wrist and tightened around it. The ranger glanced down at his friend and smiled softly. "I told you to be nice, I didn’t tell you two to swap embarrassing stories about me." He gently teased the elf.

"We didn’t." Legolas breathed in deeply, waking slowly, he smiled back, "We were saving those for supper time when the whole family is gathered about."

Sircyn laughed softly; "I bet you have some good ones too don’t you? Well I could tell you about the time that a three month old oliphaunt mistook Adrar...sorry Estel, for its mother. Followed him around EVERYWHERE."

Legolas raised an eyebrow and glanced at his friend, "Nursemaid to a mûmakil?"

"All right enough out of both of you. There must be something more interesting to talk about than me!" Aragorn protested good-naturedly.

It was silent in the tent for a moment before Legolas shook his head and answered quietly, "No, I don’t think so."

"You nift." Aragorn gently cuffed the elf upside the head.

"Actually I asked Kidrin to send for you, because I know how to over throw the master... if you two are serious." In truth, Sircyn had been thinking about this for a long time, but never had had reason or impetus for it to go beyond thinking. No one else in his family or his clan seemed to take an interest, and his father would have forbid him to speak of it anyway. They had seen too many people die attempting escape. But Sircyn’s plan didn’t involve escape, and now that he had someone to listen to him, he took the chance.

"Master Rhuddryn has a secret plot of land that he does things on. The slaves taken there never return and at night you can hear the most unearthly keening coming from that direction. I have never ventured that far but I know where it is. And in two sunrises, the master will be gone for three days. The guards are lax then; they get drunk on the wine he stores in the cellars. They abuse our people every year at this time, but if we are ready for them and if my people will join us, I know a way we can overcome them with your help Estel and your knowledge of herbs." Sircyn pressed himself up on his elbows and stared hard at the northerner. "Will you help us be free as Legolas has said you can?"

Aragorn glanced once more at the elf who stared up at him.

"Yes I believe we can. And I have a very good idea of what Rhuddryn is doing on that far acre of the farm. We will help you." The ranger promised.

"Then I am with you," Sircyn nodded seriously. "But I have to warn you, the others may not wish to join us at first, they may need convincing. Understand Estel... this is all we’ve ever known. They’ll be scared."

Aragorn smiled and rested his hand on the other young man’s shoulder. "Then we’ll have to help them find their courage."

 

 

___________________________________________________________

~*PART FOURTEEN*~

 

Morning light was just beginning to streak the sky as the slaves made their out of their tents for morning round up. Aragorn was silent as he followed Cabed out of the tent. Talking to the other slaves last night had not gone well. It was as Sircyn had said, they were afraid. Some of them had never been free and although all of them wanted it, it seemed to them a dream either too dangerous, or too impossible to achieve.

To Aragorn’s distress, even Cabed had been hesitant. Not that he didn’t want to do whatever he could to help Aragorn, but he had his family and his people to think about. If something went wrong... there would be bloodshed and many, many of the slaves would pay with their lives. Not everyone was sure it was worth the risk.

The guards worked their way up the line of slaves, barking orders. Talft and Lur usually gave no more than a cursory glance to see that everyone was there before letting them go about their work, but this morning when they reached the Simbani huts they looked around in disgust.

"Where’s the other one?" Talft demanded.

"Sircyn was injured yesterday sir, he’ll be able to work again by tomorrow, I’ll pull his load ‘til then," Cabed explained quietly. This sort of thing was not usually a problem, for Rhuddryn wanted his slaves kept in good health and good condition. Cabed and his people were hard workers and did not shirk their jobs, so most times when they said someone was too ill to work, they were taken at their word. Technically Sircyn should probably have rested even longer than they said, but his family knew to take it one day at a time and see how he was in the evening.

Lur shook his head impatiently. "I know that!" he snapped. "I don’t mean him, I mean the other northerner."

"He’s not well enough yet," Aragorn spoke up, but tried to keep his voice and his eyes down. "He’s still very weak, Master said..."

"The Master is tired of playing nursemaid to worthless slaves." Bypassing Aragorn, Cabed and Mambre, Lur entered the tent behind them, even as Talft spoke.

"He says no more rest for this one, either he pulls his weight or we let the taergs have ‘em," Lur did not give the elf a chance to comply willingly, but half dragged, half jerked Legolas out of the tent by his arm and threw him forward, sending the prince sprawling on the ground near Talft’s feet.

Legolas sucked his breath in sharply as his injured back hit the ground and curled protectively around his broken ribs. He was better, but he could tell his body was far from fully healed of the very vicious abuse that the two guards had inflicted upon him at Rhuddryn’s bidding not so long ago.

"On your feet, lazy scum," Talft kicked Legolas none-too-gently in the stomach and the elf gasped softly as the pain exploded across his battered ribcage.

Aragorn tensed, his hand curling into fists at his side and he started to move forward, but Cabed’s warning hand shot out to hold him back. "Adrar!" he whispered firmly when Aragorn almost attempted to push past him. Aragorn getting into trouble would not help Legolas.

Silently Cabed willed the guards to hurt the elf no further, both for Legolas’ sake and Aragorn’s, because he knew that the young man they called Adrar would not long stand by and see this happen. Aragorn had been visibly changing since his memory returned. He was bolder, no longer so afraid and no longer content to play the part of the subservient slave. While Cabed was glad for Adrar’s healed mind, he was gravely worried it was going to get the young northerner into serious trouble.

Legolas pulled himself quickly, if unsteadily, to his feet and for the moment at least the guards left him alone, yelling at the slaves to stop gawking and get on with their jobs.

Aragorn quickly made his way to Legolas’ side, steadying his friend and offering the elf his shoulder to lean on if he needed it. Legolas gripped the young ranger’s arm tightly for a moment as he gathered his strength, but then eased up and let go, trying to show Aragorn that he was all right and could walk on his own.

"I’ll be all right," Legolas still had one arm pressed tightly against his throbbing ribs, but smiled at his friend. "But you’ll have to show me what to do."

Aragorn nodded, not entirely convinced, but allowing the elf do as he wished. The ranger tried to keep close to Legolas as they went out to the fields, but had to run ahead when one of the fidgety, wild oliphaunts that had been brought into the tame herd a few days ago nearly broke free of its fencing again, narrowly missing goring Cabed as it had Sircyn the day before.

Aragorn quickly helped the older slave calm the huge creature and shore up the fence. That done he looked around for Legolas, who should have caught up with them by now, even moving as slow as he was.

However, when his searching gaze finally found his friend, a violent red haze obscured the ranger’s vision.

"Adrar! No!" Cabed called after him, but the young northerner was already running for the edge of the clearing and the elder Haradrim could not stop him this time.

When Aragorn ran on ahead to help with the oliphaunt, Legolas had increased his speed to catch up, but something shoved between his feet from behind nearly tripped him. Even weakened, his elven reflexes kept him from falling, but he stumbled and wobbled somewhat unsteadily. He heard the guards behind him laugh.

"What’s the matter Tyndel?" Talft mocked. "Not so quick on your feet anymore? I wonder why..." the disagreeable man smirked because he knew exactly why and all that had been done to the elf.

"Not used to being on this side of things, are you? Not so tough now that you can’t boss us around like we’re beneath you, huh? I’ll bet one of the oliphaunts steps on him right away," Lur chuckled unpleasantly.

Legolas ignored them, straightening his shoulders and continuing on.

"Hey!" Lur grabbed the elf’s arm from behind and spun him around roughly. "Don’t you walk away when we’re talking to you *slave*! You’re as bad at listening as the half-wit! Do none of you northerners have any sense under those bleached hides of yours?"

Legolas tensed, anger and fear chasing themselves around inside him. His memories of the feel of these men’s hands on his arms the last time, as they held him on his knees and beat him unconscious, not once, not even just twice... filled his senses and a queasy shiver of dread ran up his spine. Fear was a feeling that Legolas hated, but one he could not deny.

"You know, he hasn’t been properly initiated yet Lur. Why, he doesn’t have any understanding of what it means to be a slave yet, do you?" Talft taunted as Lur twisted the elf’s arm behind his back and dragged him into the shadows of the trees edging the field.

Legolas remembered what Aragorn had said, about how the guards would only abuse the slaves out of sight, where they couldn’t be caught at their sport, and started to struggle; but a swift, cruel blow to his already hurting ribs quickly put an end to that.

"No?" Lur smiled evilly. "Well, mister better-than-everyone-else, here’s your first lesson, fast and hard." He cuffed the elf upside the head hard and pressed him face-first against the bole of the huge tree, rubbing Legolas’ twisted arm roughly into the still healing welts between the prince’s bare shoulders.

Legolas gasped and squirmed in pain, his injured body protesting loudly. A swift blow dropped him to his knees. Strong hands held him there. The elf’s body panicked and he thrashed against his captors no matter how useless it was. Not again. Not again. He couldn’t do this again. He couldn’t... fear chased all reason from his mind.

"No!" Aragorn, surprising the guards by his sudden appearance, dropped to his knees protectively behind Legolas, putting himself between his friend and the guards. Aragorn felt the prince’s back tremble against his chest, but the elf shook his head. "N-no, Arag-Adrar, go back to work, please." Legolas’ voice was ragged and unsteady and Aragorn could hear the raw fear hiding behind the brave words. It made his heart burn. He may not have been able to do anything about what these people had done to Legolas before, but he’d be damned if he was going to let them hurt him again!

Talft jerked Aragorn away from Legolas, growling angrily. "You get in our way ever again and you’re food for the taergs, no matter what the boss says, got it Adrar?"

Aragorn could not hide the defiant glimmer in his glance and the guard’s eyes narrowed. "I don’t know what’s gotten into you, but maybe if you have to watch what we do to this one, you’ll remember your place a little better!"

Lur shook out his whip, standing behind Legolas to illustrate his partner’s words. "You heal quick," he observed the closing cuts and welts they had given the elf last time. "Maybe you need to be freshened up a little."

Legolas tensed and pressed his forehead against the smooth bark of the tree, his hands trembling no matter how hard he tried to be calm. Running was useless, in the shape he was in he would never make it far anyway, but his heart was in his throat and his body was screaming at him that it could not take another beating like this, not again, not so soon.

Aragorn saw the way Legolas was shaking and visibly drawing in on himself and something inside the ranger snapped. His friend hadn’t reacted this badly to men since Taradin had mistaken the elf for Hebrilith and he couldn’t stand seeing the prince in such fear and pain. Lashing out with unexpected violence for one they considered too dim-witted to put up any planned resistance, Aragorn wrenched free of Talft and yanked the whip out of Lur’s hand. The startled guard tried to grab the young ranger, and Aragorn dodged, swinging out automatically and punching Lur in the jaw.

The man stumbled and fell backward, unconscious.

Talft’s eyes were huge and quickly filled with rage as they bored into the ranger.

Aragorn stood very still for a moment, looking down at Lur and realizing what he had done. He had committed the worst transgression any slave could ever commit, he had struck an overseer. The part of him that had been trained to think like a slave felt a hot slick of panic pass through his insides, but the other half of him felt stubbornly glad, no matter what was going to happen to him because of this.

Legolas rose unsteadily, touching Aragorn’s shoulder lightly as he too looked down at Lur’s unconscious form.

For all his bluster, Talft truly was a coward underneath and did not want to have to stand up to the two slaves by himself. Backing up, he glared at them, most of his ire directed at Aragorn. "You’re in *so* much trouble boy, you have no idea! I’ll be back, and you had better be here or I’ll let Cabed or Sircyn take whatever you’ve got coming!" Turning, he ran off to get some of the other overseers.

Aragorn let his breath out slowly, his knees suddenly feeling like they didn’t want to hold him anymore as the initial adrenaline drained out of his body. He eased down onto the grass and knelt with his hands leaning on his thighs. He had really done it this time. It was barely morning and he had already gotten himself into trouble so deep he wasn’t sure where it was going to leave him. He knew how Seobryn had dealt with it when he’d struck out at someone over him... but if Talft were just going to beat him, he would have done that already.

Legolas knelt by his friend’s side. He wanted to tell the young human that he should not have done it, but he knew he would have done no different if their positions had been reversed. "I’m sorry," his blue eyes sought the grey ones next to him. "I’m so sorry." He felt this was all his fault.

"It’s not your fault Legolas, and I don’t regret it, you hear? I *don’t*!" the ranger’s soft voice was fierce as he squeezed his friend’s hand where it rested against his shoulder.

Cabed and Mambre, with Kidrin tagging close behind as always, reached the spot a few moments later, taking in the scene, and the still unconscious Lur, understanding what must have happened. Cabed’s eyes searched between Legolas and Aragorn. It was Aragorn who sighed and looked away.

"Oh Adrar..." Mambre murmured, pain filling her deep, dark eyes. Cabed knelt opposite Legolas on the other side of the young man that he had taken into his home as part of his family.

"You do this Adrar?" he nodded dispassionately towards Lur.

Aragorn nodded. "They were beating Legolas again, they wanted to make me watch... I’m sorry Cabed. I just couldn’t do it. Talft told me to wait here," he said softly. Aragorn knew that if he did not obey, either his little family, or some other hapless slave would pay for this, and he wouldn’t see that happen.

Mambre and Cabed exchanged anguished looks. Neither of them knew exactly what would be done, because nothing like this had ever happened to them before, but they knew it would not be good, or easy.

"What? What’s going on? Is he dead? I hope he’s dead. I don’t like him. He’s mean. Is something bad gonna happen to Adrar?" Kidrin’s eyes were large as he poked at Lur’s still body and tried to understand his parent’s concern.

"Shh, hush child. He’s not dead, unfortunately," Mambre muttered the last part under her breath. "Go on back, help your sister now, all right? There’s a good boy." She sent the child away, turning back to Aragorn once the little boy had reluctantly taken his leave.

She checked Lur, and found that he was indeed fine, although he would doubtless have a killer headache, which she hoped he would feel for a very long time.

Cabed was talking quietly to Aragorn.

Loud, angry voices reached them and they looked up to see Talft and several of the other guards approaching quickly.

Aragorn rose to his feet. Cabed and Mambre both gave him an encouraging hug. "Be brave Adrar," Mambre whispered, not wanting to release him. The two Haradrim backed off a little, but Legolas did not move, staying by Aragorn’s side, his hand resting on the young human’s shoulder.

"Him," Talft nodded his head towards Aragorn and several of the other guards quickly took the young slave by the arms. At his side, Legolas tensed. "See, there he is, poor Lur! I told you boss, that half-wit attacked us!"

Rhuddryn himself was there and frowned deeply. The master rarely came out to the fields in person, so this was obviously a serious occasion.

"I doubt very much that his actions were completely unprovoked," Rhuddryn’s voice was dry as he leveled his underling with an even stare. "HOWEVER, there is nothing that justifies striking one of your betters, even you should understand that Adrar," the slave owner turned his gaze on Aragorn, and the young man dropped his eyes, knowing he could not let Rhuddryn see the change that had been working in him.

Rhuddryn turned his gaze on the elf next to Adrar, his eyes narrowed. "You, I think are going to be more trouble than you’re worth. I blame you for this Tyndel, the boy’s not all there upstairs and you’re the one that got him into trouble. Not that that excuses him, but it implicates you. So you can both share the penalty. Talft," he turned back to the guard. "You and some of the others take these two out to the salt flats. Give them no water and make sure they put in a full day’s work. Understood? All right then-"

Cabed and Mambre had both stiffened. "If it please you sir," Cabed spoke up quietly, something he would never have dreamed of doing if he weren’t so distressed. "Adrar’s never been conditioned to working out there... he could die. I’ve done it before. Let me go in his place."

Mambre gripped his arm tightly, but Cabed let his offer stand. The salt flats were a harsh, unforgiving desert. Temperatures there routinely soared far above what the human body could safely handle and slaves had to be gradually exposed and worked up to it to be able to work in those conditions. Throwing two people in there cold, with no conditioning at all, was a nearly certain death sentence.

Rhuddryn glared at the slave. "If they die then they are an even better example for the rest of you. Don’t you start giving me trouble too Cabed. I am in no mood to be trifled with any further." The master’s eyes were dangerous. "What is everyone standing around for? Back to work unless you all want to be mining salt today! Talft, get those two troublemakers moving, *now*!"

Everyone obeyed and Aragorn and Legolas were tied up, hands strung in front of them on lead-lines, and moved out. Mambre buried her face on her husband’s shoulder and Cabed wrapped his arm around her as they moved numbly back to work. Whatever would they tell Sircyn?

In their hearts they feared that they had learned to love only to lose again. Adrar was strong... but could he and his friend possibly survive the harsh and deadly heat of the flats? They didn’t know. All they could do was hope.

Aragorn and Legolas were hitched up behind a flatbed wagon which Talft and another guard drove. A snap of the reins started the mule team moving and so began the first leg of their arduous journey and they had a feeling things were only going to get worse.

Aragorn looked across at Legolas and sighed. "Well, this is just like old times, isn’t it?"

Legolas almost smiled. "At least you have old times to remember again," he said quietly, talking too soft for the guards in the front of the wagon to hear him.

The young human nodded, twisting his wrists slightly in their bonds in an effort to ease the tension a little. "Yes, I do... and do you want to tell me why it is that most of them I have with you in them involve situations like this?"

Despite everything, Legolas was glad to see that old familiar glint in Aragorn’s eyes once more. He had missed his friend’s spark and odd sense of humor more than he could say.

"That, Strider, may remain a mystery forever," he smiled gently. "Let’s just try to survive this one, all right?"

 

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

 

The trip out to the salt flats was not a short one and it was already mid-morning by the time they reached them. Dry, cracked earth, a blindingly shimmering white, stretched out for miles in each direction. There were no trees here, no cover whatsoever, just acre upon acre of flat, salt-crusted earth. Once upon a time there must have been a large body of water here, but it had long ago dried up, leaving behind only its sediments and a dry, scorching desert.

The signs of previous mining were evident in the lines, furrows and ridges carved into the flat earth here and there, however there were no other slaves out here right now. Salt mining was usually done in the early morning or late evenings, or during the cooler months of the year. Only as punishment were slaves ever forced to work in midday heat.

Heat rose in shimmering waves off of the baked earth; the bleached, white salt flats intensifying the sun’s rays as it reflected them, so that the extreme warmth was not only coming from above, but below as well. The bright glare hurt their eyes and both Aragorn and Legolas had to squint, and put their hands in front of their faces before they could become adjusted to it.

Talft and Nalb, the other overseer, cut the slaves’ hands free and prodded them further out into the flats. Flat-ended hoes and shovels were given them, along with a wheeled barrow and they were instructed to remove the top layer of earth and salt crystals into the barrow, which was then emptied into many large wooden crates that formed a line some distance away. Later the crates would be carted off and the salty earth processed and distilled by some means that Legolas and Aragorn were unfamiliar with as their captors had not seen fit to speak to them unless absolutely necessary. Some of the finished product was used in the feed given the Oliphaunts, Aragorn knew, having mixed the stuff often enough. It was also essential for the livelihood of cattle, and although Rhuddryn raised none himself, he sold his excess salt product to those who did.

After delivering their instructions in a short and terse manner, the two overseers retreated to the shade of a small sheltered canopy, erected for just such a purpose, on the far northern edge of the field. The two Haradrim could not take the heat of the flats and had no intention of frying with the slaves they guarded. From the shade under the canopy, they could watch the slaves well enough, and see that they did not attempt to escape; although such a notion would have been sheer foolishness, for making a break out here would only mean certain death in the desert.

Left with the strict warning that slacking on the job would result in harsh punishment, Legolas and Aragorn had nothing to do but take the tools given them and go to work.

The sun crawled slowly and torturously across the sky. By the time it was near the waning hours of the most intense midday heat the two slaves’ situation had become unbearable.

Aragorn felt as if the heat were an actual, physical enemy that was trying to overcome him. Unfortunately, it was winning. The hot air and scorching sun made them perspire heavily, and with no water to replace what was lost, both friends were feeling the effects of the dehydration.

As an elf, the extreme heat in and of itself did not affect Legolas as severely as Aragorn, but the prince’s still healing injuries made him weaker than usual, and on top of that, his fair, un-weathered skin did not take well to the harsh glare. Over the past several months Aragorn’s skin had bronzed and built up a protection to the sun, but Legolas’ had not had that opportunity, and his exposed face, arms, chest and back began to let him know it. It took him far longer to burn than it would have for a human, but by this point in the day his healing back had begun to throb mercilessly once again, and his own perspiration stung his arms and chest.

Legolas watched Aragorn with concern. The young human’s face was flushed and he had become increasingly sluggish in his movements and disoriented in his actions. Covering his dark hair with his hands for a moment, Aragorn tried to ease the intensity of the sun for a brief respite. His head was swimming and he felt ill.

"Aragorn!" Legolas said his name in alarm when the ranger fell suddenly to his knees.

Becoming ill in a reaction to the intolerable conditions, Aragorn’s insides heaved and his stomach emptied without his consent.

Legolas stood behind his friend, letting his shadow fall across the human and holding Aragorn’s shoulders gently as the young man retched miserably. Legolas knew his friend couldn’t help his body’s actions, but he was alarmed, because he knew that the Dùnadan could ill afford to lose anymore moisture.

Aragorn leaned weakly back against Legolas’ legs. "I don’t feel so good," he murmured. It was a massive understatement.

"I know," Legolas held Aragorn lightly against him, his shadow providing the only shade there was as he attempted to shield his friend from the sun’s merciless rays. He wished there was something more he could do. "I know you don’t."

"I wish I was an elf..." the ranger whispered somewhat hoarsely. He tried to smile, but his parched lips did not fully cooperate with him. "This is always happening to me... sun, snow, burning, freezing... and you’re always stuck trying to deal with my weaknesses... I’m sorry Legolas, I’m always such a burden to you, I wish..." he wasn’t making a lot of sense, even to himself, but Legolas squeezed his shoulders tightly.

"I wouldn’t have you be anything other than what you are my friend. Your strengths and your weaknesses alike are dear to me Aragorn, by now you must know that. You have never been a burden to me and you never will be, anymore than you consider me to have been to you. We’ll make it through this like we have everything else. Evening will come, this can’t last forever Aragorn, it will be all right," the elf soothed gently.

Aragorn nodded with difficulty, but his body was telling him otherwise. "I-I can’t breathe Legolas... the air is so thick..." he held his chest, leaning forward. Suddenly Legolas felt his friend’s body go slack against him and caught the young man before he toppled limply sideways.

 

 

___________________________________________________________

~*PART FIFTEEN*~

 

 

"Aragorn! Aragorn, stay with me," Legolas eased the ranger gently to the blisteringly hot earth, wishing desperately for some single bit of shade or coolness to offer his friend.

"Legolas..." Aragorn murmured his name. "Legolas..."

Overturning the barrow and propping it up on the shovel handle, the elf tried to create a little protection for his friend. At this point he did not care if they got in trouble for not working. He had to do something or Aragorn was not going to make it.

Kneeling by his friend’s side, and using his own body to shield the rest of the sun away, the prince ran his fingers swiftly through the ranger’s dark, tangled locks, trying to cool the human’s head somewhat. Aragorn’s thick tresses were so hot they nearly burnt the elf’s hand.

Aragorn’s heart was racing and it was hard for him to breathe. His pounding heart demanded more oxygen, but the scorching, heavy air burned his lungs, making him pant helplessly as the heat wreaked havoc with his body.

Legolas felt Aragorn’s pulse hammering beneath his fingertips when he held the human’s wrist. Too fast, much too fast. Deep concern lined Legolas’ face as he touched his friend’s cheek. It was hot and flushed, but Aragorn was no longer perspiring. Legolas knew that when humans became so hot they stopped perspiring, they usually died.

Gently, Legolas laid his palm over his friend’s racing heart. "Slowly Aragorn, breathe slowly," he soothed quietly in Elvish.

Aragorn had been trying to do just that, but Legolas’ soft touch seemed to help and the elf’s closeness calmed his body. However the very air itself continued to burn him like fire and his chest ached with the heat and need for oxygen.

Firmly but carefully, Legolas pressed his thumb down and a little up against the lower part of the ranger’s sternum. Whether it actually did something useful, or just because it gave the human’s overwrought body something else to think about, the contact, combined with the limited shade, seemed to ease Aragorn’s breathing a little.

However, Legolas knew it was a battle against time, because if he could not bring Aragorn’s body temperature down soon and get some fluids into him, severe and even fatal internal injury could result.

Removing the ranger’s perspiration drenched shirt, Legolas whipped it rapidly around and around in a circle until it was as cool as anything could get out in the middle of this desert. He dabbed Aragorn’s flushed face and pressed the cooled cloth against the base of his armpits, where the larger blood vessels were nearest to the surface, attempting to bring down the human’s soaring temperature. The elf alternated between fanning Aragorn with the shirt, and spinning it to cool it off and using it that way. It was all he could do. He could only hope it would help.

Back under the canopy near the edge of the field, Nalb glanced over at Talft as he fanned himself with a large ananab leaf. Even in the shade the heat was oppressive out here, and the two overseers hated their job. "Talft, they stopped working. Should we do something?"

Talft wasn’t even watching but was lying on the ground, his eyes closed, almost asleep. "And have to go all the way out there in this heat? In the full sun? You can if you want to. They’re probably just dead anyway. I don’t see how anything could survive these conditions."

Nalb nodded and went back to trying to keep cool. So long as the slaves weren’t trying to get away, or doing anything else that would get them into trouble with their boss, they really didn’t care what happened out there.

It seemed like ages that Legolas struggled to keep Aragorn’s temperature below critical, and the ranger had long ago lapsed into unconsciousness, despite his friend’s attempts to keep him awake and talking, but finally the sun did begin to ride down the western sky and the air began to cool at least a little.

The elf continued to kneel by his friend, so run-out that he did not hear the guards approach until Talft grabbed him roughly by the shoulder from behind and spun him partway round. Slapping Legolas hard across the face the overseer knocked the prince to the earth on his side. "If you’re not dead, why aren’t you working?" the Haradrim snapped harshly.

Legolas slowly wiped the blood from his mouth with the side of his hand, not bothering to try to answer such a stupid question. He wasn’t sure he would have had the strength to formulate a reply anyway. Fortunately, one was not required and the overseers seemed interested only in getting out of there as quickly as they could.

Nalb was checking Aragorn.

"Is he dead?" Talft asked dispassionately, walking over and peering down at the unconscious northerner.

"Not yet," Nalb shook his head.

"You, carry him back to the cart," Talft commanded Legolas and it was one demand with which the elf was glad to comply. Scooping Aragorn up in his arms, Legolas made his way unsteadily back to the wagon that had brought them here, lying his friend carefully in the back and leaning heavily against the side.

Talft bound Legolas’ hands once more, but didn’t bother with Aragorn since he obviously was in no shape to go anywhere. Pushing Legolas away from Aragorn, Talft looped the other end of the elf’s lead rope through the rear bar of the cart’s frame as it had been on the way down. Legolas sank to his knees in exhaustion, his head spinning.

"You walk back. And if you fall, I’m not gonna stop, you understand?" Talft jerked the ropes tighter.

All Legolas could do was nod wearily. He knew Talft hated him, but he couldn’t even muster up enough energy to hate the man back at the moment. He was spent and every spare shred of anything he had left in him had to go towards survival at this point.

Nalb looked a little unsure, the elf appeared ready to drop. "Talft... can’t he just ride back with the other one?"

"I said no!" Talft snapped, rounding on his subordinate in irritation. "They didn’t even put in a full day’s work out there, so if he’s still conscious then he is going to pull his own weight. Now come on, I want to get back before nightfall."

The journey back was a nightmare for Legolas. Dehydrated, hurting and exhausted, his only saving grace was that the cumbersome cart could not go too fast. He was glad that Aragorn was unconscious. The elf kept his eyes on his friend’s still face as the wagon jostled and shook the limp ranger; refusing to let his mind take him back to the last time he had been bound and forced to follow human riders while in this much pain. That was a very long time ago, and those wounds were thankfully healed. He had to think of Aragorn now. Aragorn still needed him. Someone had to help the ranger when they got back. Fixing his friend as his goal to fight for, Legolas pushed himself on when his body wanted to quit.

Darkness was falling when they pulled back into the main estate and stopped. Legolas fell to his knees again as soon as they stopped moving. The nighttime air was cool and the elf shivered. The change from hot to cold, combined with the over-sensitivity of his sunburn was hard for his reeling body to deal with. Nalb cut Legolas free and Talft dumped Aragorn off the back of the wagon.

"You’d better hurry. You don’t want to get caught out after curfew," Talft advised with a mocking smile as he and Nalb got back in the cart and rode off. "See you tomorrow!" he called back and the cruel humor in his voice was clear.

"What a pleasant thought," Legolas thought dryly, too parched and tired to speak aloud. Picking Aragorn up with effort, the elf made his way haltingly back to the Simbani family tent. His friend’s weight was almost too much for him by this point, but somehow he made it.

Stumbling wearily through the tent door, he fell to his knees again and couldn’t rise this time. The other slaves were all there and Legolas was barely aware of them taking Aragorn out of his arms. They were talking, but he couldn’t hear their words. He could barely see their faces. His vision wavered uncertainly and he blinked several times to clear it. When he could see again Cabed was holding Aragorn and Mambre was sponging the young man’s flushed face, while several other relatives were trying to keep Sircyn from jumping up and reopening the mending gash in his side.

"H-he needs water, they wouldn’t give us any," Legolas forced out with effort, his voice hoarse and thick. "He was t-too hot, but it’s cool n-now, he should be a-all right if he..." the prince suddenly found that his voice wasn’t going to work anymore, but he couldn’t think straight enough to finish his own sentence anyway, so it hardly mattered. He started to fall sideways, but strong, gentle hands caught him and he was lowered carefully onto a soft blanket. His head was lifted and a water gourd was put to his lips, which he accepted gratefully, once he had seen that the same was being done for Aragorn. His dry, swollen throat hurt to swallow, but the cool liquid was deliciously refreshing.

Mambre left Aragorn’s side for a moment and came over to Legolas, laying the back of her cool hand against his cheek. The elf’s normally fair skin was singed a painful shade of pink. He had a nasty sunburn and that was going to need some care.

Aragorn stirred in Cabed’s arms and moaned softly. Legolas caught Mambre’s wrist gently in his hand, his eyes finding hers for a moment. "Please," he whispered, his eyes going to Aragorn who was starting to wake up. "I’m all right. See to him first."

Mambre doubted very much that the elf was anywhere near all right, but she nodded and moved back to her husband and the young man they had adopted as another son.

"Now will you believe me?!" Sircyn glared fiercely at his father who would not return his son’s angry gaze. "Maybe when we have lost these also, maybe that will be enough to make you listen! What will it take? The master’s taergs are better cared for than we!" He was nearly shouting, but his anger was not directed solely at the occupants of the tent nor did it stem from them.

Mambre glanced at her son sorrowfully as he lowered his voice, emotions choking off his words as he spoke, "How many must we loose? Will they be like Sinar and Jabek and all the others the masters have take from us in order to make examples for us and to teach us? What will you do when it is Kidrin or Syna or myself? Must it go that far?" He swallowed hard, finally dropping his gaze to the floor; "I for one cannot let another one go. You made me accept Adrar as a kindred. Why? So I could lose him, watch him die slowly? It is time we stopped being slaves and acted as the people we are. Adrar is no slave. His friend has told me who he is. They will help us take the compound back as we told you; we have a plan, a good one. It can work. But we need your help." When he looked up once more there were tears in his eyes and Cabed was watching him intensely.

Legolas hardly dared to breathe in the still quiet of the tent that followed Sircyn’s emotional outburst. It was up to Cabed now. Either he would help them or he and Aragorn would have to find another way to survive and escape their imprisonment.

"Please." Sircyn begged.

Shifting slightly on the blanket he lay on the elf turned his attention back to the elder. Aragorn stirred lightly, falling in and out of consciousness, drawing Cabed’s gaze back to the young man. Shakily he brushed the hair from the northerner’s flushed cheeks and stared down into the silver eyes that opened slowly.

"Cabed?" Aragorn tried to speak but the words would not come. He mouthed the man’s name, barely whispering.

"He has a father." Sircyn’s voice drew his elder’s eyes back up to focus on him. "So do I. Don’t I?"

"Yes. Yes you do." Cabed answered as Aragorn lost consciousness once more, his head falling gently against the older man’s chest. "And you are right. Our people were not always slaves. We were once a proud people." The elder’s voice was soft and remorseful, his thoughts focused far in the past to the stories he had heard about the way his people used to live.

Free...

"And you can be again." Legolas whispered, his voice rough and soft from the abuse of the heat. "Let us help you. Your son is right, you do not deserve to lose any more of your people. You are not goods or beasts to be worked and owned, you are people, just as much as anyone else. You should be free Cabed." Although soft, Legolas’ tone was intense. He knew what it was to be owned, to be a treated as a thing and made to know how little you mattered... this wasn’t his first experience with slavery and the months he had spent here watching all that went on had only confirmed his dislike of the despicable practice.

"You need to conserve your strength young one." Mambre knelt back next to the elf, as Syna passed her several large, thick leaves from what appeared to be a succulent plant. She rubbed the stems briskly in her dark hands.

The elf tried to smile at the woman, her choice of words warming his heart, but his lips hurt and they cracked when he moved them too much.

"They can figure out their problems without bothering the two of you. Much more out of either of you and it won’t matter what you think. You won’t be with us long, you understand me?" She was leaning over the prone elf, staring hard into his blue eyes, the tinges of a smile twitching the corners of her mouth.

With a simple nod Legolas acquiesced. He eyed the leaves she held, the soothing scent of their freshly broken stems just barely noticeable to his heightened senses.

Seeing his curiosity she held one of the fat, long leaves up so he could see it better. The skin of the leaf was tough and thick and the edges were covered in small, dark blunted barbs.

"Aerovala." She stated simply as she squeezed the plant. It oozed a thick green substance onto her fingers that she gently began spreading over Legolas’ burned chest and arms as she explained, "We discovered it in the south mûmakil fields. Them creatures were breaking them open one day rubbing their tough hides against the broken stems. We found it is good for burns, it will help take the sting out."

The elf breathed in deeply, closing his eyes, and held his breath as the cooling gel from the plant soothed the unrelenting pain that had set in from his burned skinned. He’d had worse burns than this before; much worse, but the amount of skin that was affected this time had an undesirable effect on his nervous system. Legolas found himself shivering slightly as the evening breezes found their way in near the gaps under the bottom of the tent were it was pegged to the floor.

"I would rather you used this on Aragorn." Legolas spoke quietly to Mambre. "He is much worse than I."

"Hmph, so you have said. Cabed!" Mambre called back to her husband, interrupting his conversation with Sircyn. She did not bother turning to look at the man but kept a steady glare on the elf, her look somewhere between irritation and humor, "You bring Adrar over right now. I can get no cooperation out of this one when he is constantly worried about that boy."

"Mama we’re planning out tomorrow what we need..." Sircyn answered, his protest cut off as his mother turned and glanced at him warningly.

"I don’t care none what you be planning. You plan all you like, but you’ll do what I say if you want your brother and his friend to survive." She snapped at the boy. "Syna go out and fetch more water and see if Tanani’s clan has anymore Aerovala, take Dena with you and be careful, don’t you be getting caught. I canna handle no more hurt children. Off with you now, quickly."

Cabed stood, carefully holding the ranger as Syna and her sister snuck out into the dark night. He walked Aragorn around the newly stoked fire, moving off towards the far wall of the tent away from the heat where Mambre was tending Legolas. Blankets were quickly spread out to receive the ranger as the family members gave up their sleeping spaces for the wounded.

"So we will go together tomorrow and defeat them?" Sircyn’s soft voice broke in. The injured slave had ignored the others protests and picked up his bed, following his father and laying his blanket down on the other side of Legolas, slowly easing down onto it. "Tomorrow I will be well enough to go out with you. We can harvest all the nandani we need to drug the guards once the master is gone. The root is plentiful near the watering hole we will not be seen there. I know for certain that Nenil’s clan will aid us. The master has been allowing them to oversee his wine cellars. And you know how the guards cannot stay out of them when he is gone. Nenil says if we supply them with enough nandani they will see to it that we will have no troubles from Talft and his men." Sircyn leaned over Legolas and touched Aragorn lightly as the ranger gained consciousness once more; the jostling of moving him from one place to another had woken him. "Adrar?"

The northerner watched the Haradrim blearily, his gaze roaming between Legolas and Sircyn. "I am dreaming?"

"No. You are not Estel." Legolas touched him very lightly; afraid of aggravating any burns the human may have sustained.

A small smile touched the ranger’s lips; "You look awful."

Legolas rolled his eyes, trying to smile with cracked, dry lips, "I wouldn’t be talking if I were you, human." He teased lightly.

"I wouldn’t be talking at all if I were either of you. Now rest or I’ll separate you again." Mambre chided, lifting Legolas head and touching a water gourd gently to his lips once more.

"Sircyn, tomorrow the Simbani will join you to overthrow the masters." Cabed’s voice was soft and held the slightest tinge of resignation as he sat down next to Aragorn.

The silver-eyed human watched him carefully; "You should be free."

With a smile Cabed motioned with his head towards Legolas, "Your friend, he says the same thing."

"Well he’s right." Aragorn spoke quietly, his voice just a whisper from the day’s aggravation left under the merciless sun. The water they were forcing in him slowly was doing the trick and away from the heat of the fire his body was slowly cooling down. He noticed Legolas shivering and reached out to the elf shakily.

The prince carefully laid his palm in the upturned one offered him. Aragorn could feel the heat from the elf’s burned skin and held Legolas’ hand up to the dim light of the fire behind them.

"Legolas you are sunburned, badly." His brow furrowed in concern as he concentrated on the words he wanted to say.

"Is that your professional opinion?" The elf murmured softly, with a light chuckle. "Do not concern yourself." He was finally safe, Aragorn was conscious and they were in good hands. The burning from his abused skin had begun to subside and he allowed himself to calm down enough to rest. "The burn I got outside Eowioriand was much worse, this is nothing."

"Nothing?!" Aragorn spoke slowly, the word slurred as he glanced up at Mambre when she leaned over Legolas. Gently she took the elf’s hand from her adopted son’s and lathed it in the green, sticky ointment she squeezed from the prickly leaf before laying it back in the ranger’s waiting hand. With a small smile the young northerner closed his eyes and relaxed, falling deeply into a much-needed sleep. His body was worn out beyond anything he could remember and his mind, unable to even form words anymore, sought release. The coolness of evening had finally descended just like Legolas had promised and the quiet darkness was a soothing comfort. He sighed deeply as sleep stole his thoughts away.

"Estel? Estel!" Legolas struggled weakly against Mambre but she held him gently down.

"You leave that one alone now," She chided, "He’s only resting and he needs his sleep he does. His body is finally cooling off." She gently pressed the backs of her fingers against Aragorn’s cheek, nodding to herself, pleased with the fact that his skin was not as hot as it had been. "He’ll be down for a few days. You’ll have plenty of time to talk with him then." She silenced the elf’s arguments with a soft smile.

A cool hand lay gently on Legolas forehead and stilled his attempts to rise. It was Sircyn. "You are in no better shape, relax. Mambre knows what to do. Unfortunately being over come by the heat is something we are very familiar with." He smiled at the elf as he rested on his side, propped up on his elbow. "Besides Adrar would have my hide if I let you hurt yourself." He quickly moved into a sitting position and grabbed the edges of a lightweight sheet that Mambre unfurled, shaking it out over the elf’s prone body. Between the two of them they lay the soft cotton carefully across Legolas’ chest to keep him from cooling too much in the cold of the desert night. "Now you rest. He won’t go anywhere in the night and I’ll be right here. Mambre will take care of him."

The young slave lay down next to the elf, facing Legolas so the new slave would not be startled or afraid during the night, his bright eyes watching as the prince slowly allowed sleep to steal over his weary, abused body.

 

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

 

The quiet sounds of a day well begun woke Aragorn with a terrible headache. He moaned in spite of himself, surprised that the sound came from him. Slowly, achingly he rolled over on the thin blanket and stared at Legolas.

The elf sat cross-legged, his head bowed down between his shoulders as Mambre gently rubbed aerovala ointment on his bare back and neck. He laughed softly at something the female Haradrim had said, their voices too low for Aragorn to quite catch. The tent was empty except for the three of them as the others had left for their daily chores.

Mambre glanced over the prince’s shoulders and smiled at the young northerner.

"Well look who is with the living once more." She teased gently as her dark eyes watched her adopted son.

Aragorn squinted at the two; yawning from where he lay, unwilling to move and unsure if he could answer.

Legolas glanced up at him and smiled but Mambre gently tapped his head, pressing it back down so his chin rested against his chest as she moved his long blonde hair out of the way and spread the cooling green liquid across the burns on his shoulders and neck.

"You feeling better?" She asked quietly.

Aragorn nodded, adjusting his body to a more comfortable position. His skin, though more used to the intensity of the sun here in the south, had not escaped the heat’s wrath and his back ached with a slight sunburn where the low neckline of his shirt had not protected him. The ranger rolled onto his stomach with a soft grunt to alleviate the pain.

Not satisfied with the younger man’s lack of response Mambre pressed him. The time she had spent that morning talking with Legolas had left her with questions that she found unsettling.

"Your friend says you have a family. This is true?" She glanced quickly at the ranger before concentrating on the elf once more. She was not sure she wanted to hear the truth but she knew she must. It was hard somehow, to imagine Adrar with another family. Hard to admit that he wasn’t really theirs.

Again the northerner nodded. It hurt to think and his mind was fuzzy and worn as though he had been awake for a very long time. Legolas looked up at the human trying to gauge how his friend was doing.

"Strider are you in pain?"

At the elf’s soft questioning the young man swallowed hard, his throat thick and tight and answered quietly, "I am fine. I am just very tired and I ache."

Legolas smiled and nodded, "Mambre was worried about you."

"And you weren’t?" The Haradrim snorted at the prince, garnering a soft chuckle from Legolas. Moving around the elf she sat between the two and proceeded to methodically work over the burns on his arms.

"I will be fine Mambre." Aragorn whispered, reaching out to touch the woman who had been his mother for the past six months or more.

"When we are free you will leave." She glanced behind her at the young man, hating the sadness in her own heart. She knew she should be happy for him. She wanted to be happy for him.

He simply nodded, his glance flitting quickly to Legolas, who shook his head slightly, the touch of sorrow in his eyes alerting the ranger.

"And you think I will forget you?" Aragorn asked quietly.

"You have a mother." She stated simply. "I will be nothing to you."

"I had a mother. I loved her very much, but I barely remember her."

Mambre stopped her ministrations and looked at her hands before turning around and facing the northerner she had accepted into her clan.

"Of course I loved her, and her memory... it will never leave me. But I never really knew her. She died when I was very young. I was raised by two brothers and a father." He continued to explain. Slowly he wrapped her slender, sun-wrinkled hand with his own fingers, "You are the first mother I have truly known." He laughed as he thought on his family for moment, "Except my brother Elladan, but he hates it when I call him that."

Mambre laughed and swatted at the boy, "Adrar. I just hate to see you go. You have brought such joy and happiness. We never laughed so much as when you joined our clan."

"Yes well that’s what happens when you let a northerner loose in the mûmakil fields." He smiled, the laughter catching in his swollen throat and turning into a painful coughing fit.

Legolas grabbed a gourd of water near his bedroll and scooted closer to the human, helping Aragorn as he tried to sit up and still his breathing. Tipping the water flask to the ranger’s lips, the elf carefully meted out the refreshing liquid, limiting the amount that flowed through the neck of the slender gourd so that Aragorn would not choke. The elf’s skin was still flushed a bright red and the burn seemed concentrated on his back, shoulders and the tops of his forearms and hands.

When he had slaked his thirst for the moment, Aragorn pushed the gourd back and gently pressed his fingers to Legolas’ hand, feeling the slight heat that the sunburn gave off.

"Are you all right?" Correcting himself quickly the ranger held up his hand to stall the elf’s answer and turned to Mambre who had slowly gained her feet and was getting ready to exit the tent. "Mambre, is Legolas all right?" He knew better than to hope for a useful answer from his friend.

She walked stiffly back to the two and stood behind Aragorn. He glanced up at her from where he sat a smile on his tanned face.

Her dark eyes twinkled as she returned the smile and nodded her head, "He’ll live." Bending over she took the younger man’s head in her hands and kissed the top of his hair, "And so will you my son."

Aragorn grasped her hand and gave it a gentle squeeze, "Thanks to you mother."

"Ah," She brushed the compliment aside lightly, "There was someone looking after you other than I."

"Yes, Ilúvatar," Legolas muttered under his breath, "He always keeps the foolhardy and the trouble prone alive."

"Something you should be very familiar with by now." Aragorn smiled wickedly at the elf.

"Only since I’ve met you young human."

"Oh please don’t start the ‘my life was normal’, lecture," Aragorn moaned rolling his eyes, "I think I have heard that one a thousand times."

"And if we live through this I imagine you will hear it a thousand more. Get used to it!"

Mambre stood shaking her head as the two bickered back and forth. She stepped in between them and thrust a handful of aerovala leaves at Legolas, pointing at Aragorn and instructed them both, "I have to go now and see to the others. You," she glared playfully at the elf, "put that on Adrar, his burns will ache soon. There is plenty of water for the both of you." Pointing at a small stack of corked gourds she turned towards her adopted son, "I expect you to drink it all your bodies need it. Now behave and don’t argue while I am gone. All I need is for you two to be attracting the guards with your nonsense."

She left the tent with their laughter hanging in the air. Closing the flap on the sleeping room she headed out to the fields. Her other children and her husband would be gathering for mid-day break and she wanted to be there to collect the nandani they had harvested during their morning’s work. It would need to be prepared for tomorrow. The thick root when crushed formed a tasteless odorless toxin, which in the right doses would knock an oliphaunt out for hours. They were going to be busy. She sighed deeply fearing the relentless passage of the day. If only she could stop time and let it sit here for a while, sometimes change even good change was difficult to face.

 

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

 

"Is anyone awake in here?" Sircyn’s accented voice called out as he threw the flap to the tent aside and bent to pass into the low opening.

"Well we were asleep until you woke us. I hope it’s important." Aragorn replied sarcastically from the corner where he and Legolas sat.

The fire had been started some time earlier in the late evening but the two friends had moved from the perimeter of the ring. Aragorn was fully dressed, his tunic laced up the front concealing the sunburn that was quickly fading to tan. Legolas however had not replaced his shirt and although his elven skin was healing swiftly, the burn still chaffed and pained him when clothing touched it. He smiled brightly as he gazed up at the family that entered.

"Pray tell your day went well and you were able to find all that you sought." He commented cryptically knowing the guards could still be milling about.

Sircyn quirked his lips in a semi-grimace and shook his head, stepping over the spread out sleeping pallets until he reached the two friends and dropped heavily down beside them.

Aragorn took Legolas’ hand in his own and stretched the prince’s arm out, lathing the pinked skin with the soothing green gel that had been aiding his healing. The elf concentrated on the Haradrim and his quiet words as the cool ointment reduced the ache to a dull roar that he could ignore.

Sircyn glanced back to the tent entrance, his eyes mere slits as he spoke quietly, "They would not let us bring any wood or the nandani with us. They forced us to leave everything in the woodsheds. Most likely to stoke their own fires through the night tomorrow."

"Then we’ll need to steal out and retrieve it tonight. They’ll never notice it is gone in the morning. I doubt even Talft and Lur are that observant." Aragorn shook his head in disgust. The small hitch in their plan could be easily remedied. At Sircyn’s nod the ranger stood swiftly to his feet only to weave unsteadily as the room spun around him crazily. He crashed back to the floor landing on one knee.

Legolas leapt to his feet and steadied his friend, easing him gently back down on the mats. Aragorn held his head gingerly in his hands as things slowly stopped their circling and his vision returned to normal. "You are not yet able to be about. Rest some more, tomorrow will be tiring enough. I will go with Sircyn to help retrieve the herbs." The elf cautioned him softly, laying his hand on the top of his friend’s head.

"We will not be caught." Legolas glanced at Caleb who was protesting their leaving. "I will see to it."

The Haradrim was shaking his head; "There are guard patrols and even wild taergs that sometimes come into the compound. No, being that far from the tents and the others is not good."

Aragorn grabbed Legolas’ wrist gently with his hand, raising his voice above the commotion in the tent, "They will be safe Cabed. You can trust Legolas." Carefully he turned and glanced up at his elder.

Knowing he was fighting a loosing battle Cabed pierced his eldest son with a stern look. Sircyn glanced away from his father and faced Legolas; "Then we both go, come." He stepped to the tent flap and listened carefully before easing the canvas away from the entry.

Aragorn tightened his grip on the elf’s wrist and glanced up at the prince, "You be careful I don’t want to have to come rescue you." A lopsided smile decorated his tanned face.

Ruffling the human’s hair, Legolas gave a small laugh and stepped close to Sircyn, "Not to worry human." The elf glanced at Mambre and she nodded moving to the ranger’s side a flask of water in her hands.

Legolas followed Sircyn down the path that led to the oliphaunt pens. The Haradrim knew the way even in the dark and easily sidestepped the pits and rocks that dotted their way. The elf had no trouble following the slave, his eyes easily adapted to the bright nights. Roots from a manga tree crossed their trail and Sircyn turned to warn the prince. The young Haradrim stopped in his tracks his eyes wide as he stared at the elf in the shadow of the large fruit tree. Here the branches blocked the light of the moon and the faint glow that accompanied the elf shimmered in the darkness.

"What! What is it?" Legolas crouched and looked about them, his senses thrown outward ready for whatever had startled his companion.

"What *are* you?!" Sircyn whispered fiercely, stepping back from the elf.

"What?" Legolas was confused and shook his head, glancing about them.

"There is a light about you." The slave stepped back nearer and touched the elf cautiously.

"Oh..." The prince tried to hide his amusement, he had not given his appearance a second thought. But these people had never seen his kind and there was much about elves that even the northerners did not know. "Yes, my people are people of light. Do not worry it will not draw attention to us, the moon is full tonight and the stars are bright, they will shield my light."

Sircyn nodded slowly, trying to come to terms with the new information.

"Are we close?" Legolas whispered, trying once more to get the youth’s attention focused on the task at hand.

With a quick glance around them, Sircyn nodded once, turning and heading stealthily out towards the plains, "We are nearly there. Follow me."

The moon was indeed high and full as they slipped out from under the cover of the master’s shade trees. In the open they were vulnerable should anyone be watching. For the most part the guards never watched the pastures at night. The taergs were no match for the oliphaunts. It was only when the humans were present did the wild predators attempt to attack, hoping to drag off a slave. At such times the herds were vulnerable and the young at risk from the large felines.

Legolas could see the mûmaskil huddled together on the field. Their quiet shufflings and guttural speech soft in the night, reached his sensitive ears and he turned and gazed out over the pasture lands. The moon cast a blue silver glow upon the grassy tundra; the effect of the soft light was not lost on the elf who smiled contentedly as he watched the herd. Movement on the edge of the field to their right alerted him and he tensed slightly even as Sircyn called out to him.

"Over here, the wood and nandani weeds are over here." The slave unlatched a low wooden shed and swung the short door open. He glanced inside unaware of Legolas’ over attentiveness. "They always let us take back to our tents the herbs and wood we have collected. It never even occurred to me that they would want it all for their own with the master leaving. You don’t know what it’s like when he is gone. The master is a fair man for the most part, but some of his guards are ruthless and cruel and they do not care what they do to us."

Legolas backed slowly towards the shed, glancing quickly back toward Sircyn. In the shadows, a deeper shadow moved and the glint of black eyes alerted the elf. He spoke calmly to the slave, not wanting to alarm the human if it were unnecessary. He hoped the creature that advanced slowly on them was not what he feared, "Does no one inform your master?" His quiet voice questioned.

"Who do you think he would believe his trusted guards or a his slaves?" Sircyn replied sarcastically with more bite than he intended. He was moving the wood around seeking the small bag of nandani roots that they had gathered throughout the day. It was secreted against the wall of the shed, protected by a pocket of timber. With a smile he pulled the cache out and stuffed it inside his vest.

"I found it." Sircyn sighed in relief as he stood up and grasped the edge of the shed door.

"Shhhh..." Legolas backed slowly towards him; "We are not alone. Do not move." The elf whispered fiercely, his eyes locked onto the feral ones that watched the two beings intently.

Sircyn turned towards the prince and followed his gaze into the dark shadows beneath the shade trees that bracketed the oliphaunt fields. Shifting red eyes caught the light of the full moon and a low growl caused the slave to freeze in place.

"A taerg." The Haradrim breathed quietly, his fear palpable.

 

___________________________________________________________

~*PART SIXTEEN*~

 

 

Legolas simply nodded as the creature stepped out into the light of the moon. The huge predator stalked slowly forward, the hair on the back of its neck standing on end, edged silver in the moonlight. It bared its fangs, revealing a mouth full of sharp pointed teeth, its growl low and deep in its chest rumbled menacingly in the still night air.

Legolas crouched down, reaching for a thick branch from the woodpile, his movements slow and measured as the taerg bared its long fangs and unsheathed claws the length of the elf’s fingers. The beast hissed at the being before it and its thin whip like tail thrashed the air as Legolas stood slowly once more a piece of wood clutched tightly in his hands.

Sircyn could contain his fear no longer and turned and ran behind the wood shed. The taerg thinking its prey was fleeing rushed them, leaping mid-stride and landing on the top of shed, glancing between the elf and the slave. Sircyn fell back with a cry as Legolas taunted the predator, jabbing the piece of wood at the creature to take its attention off of the other slave.

Loosing a fierce roar, the taerg leapt at the elf, intending to take down the being. But Legolas ducked under the animal’s advance, falling to one knee and ramming the end of the wooden limb up underneath the creature’s ribs. He half stood to his feet pressing into the animal’s belly with his weapon and threw the taerg over his head into the wooden fencing behind him.

"Run Sircyn!" Legolas yelled at the Haradrim who had gained his feet and fled to the other side of the shed. He had watched the fight from his sheltered position opposite Legolas over the small wood storage bin. Legolas had fought these great cats before, but never unarmed.

The taerg had been dealt a serious blow and it staggered unsteadily to its feet hissing at Legolas. Before the creature could attack again the elf caught the large feline along side the head with the timber he held, smashing the taerg with the wood and sending the animal crashing heavily to the ground.

"Go!" Legolas turned and fled, pushing the young slave ahead of him back towards the tents. All pretense at stealth was lost as the sounds of the scuffle having attracted the attention of the guards brought the distinct shouts and cries of the overseers, the light from their torches weaving through the night towards the two slaves location.

The large cat behind them crept unsteadily away, its prey forgotten, its only wish to escape.

The Haradrim guards skidded to a stop near the wood shed. The door to the small covered enclosure was open and one of the men spotted the faint black outline of a large cat limping slowly off out onto the fields retreating from the compound. Further investigation was unwarranted as the guards mistakenly assumed that a small animal must have taken shelter in the shed and the taerg had followed it. Talft stepped up and kicked a loose piece of wood back into the dark interior. Closing the door he locked it and looked back for the feline, the taerg had disappeared into the night.

With the attention off themselves and the guards congregated near the woodpile, the elf and the Haradrim blended once more into the shadows and quickly reached the tents with no further delays.

Sircyn stumbled into the tent first, tumbling onto the floor near Mambre as Legolas backed in slowly, listening and watching to see if their flight had been discovered.

He turned as Sircyn fished the small bag of herbal roots from his vest and handed them over to Mambre. Without another word she and the other females removed themselves from the fire and moved to the back of the tent to begin crushing the roots into powder for the following day.

Dropping the tent flap quietly down Legolas left the doorway and stalked back to where Sircyn was recounting the taerg attack for his father. The elf sat down wearily on the mat next to Aragorn and gently touched his friend. The ranger had fallen back asleep, his chest rising and falling slowly with the depth of his rest. Wayward strands of the human’s dark hair covered his eyes and the elf carefully brushed the hair back, laying his hand gently on the man’s head. "Sleep Estel, tomorrow will be a long hard day I think." He spoke softly in Elvish.

As if knowing his words Cabed glanced up, "He fell to sleep after you had left. We let him rest. Tomorrow we will all need to be rested, it is a big day."

Legolas nodded slowly, glancing to the far side of the tent where the women were preparing the drug. He only hoped they had enough of the thick nodular roots to cover all of Rhuddryn’s guards. Sircyn had been very sure, reassuring the elf that it took very little of the potent herb to drug a full grown human. Tomorrow would tell them.

Tomorrow...

With a deep sigh Legolas laid down next to Aragorn. Tomorrow would bring them one day closer to going home.

 

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

 

Aragorn sat quietly in the predawn, listening to the muted sounds of the bugs that buzzed and chirped outside the tent. Even the Olybryn had yet to waken.

Glancing down at the form of the elf asleep next to him, he smiled softly. There was so much on his mind, so many thoughts and memories. The memories...

All of his anxieties were coupled with the day that faced them. Today they would take the guards out and secure the house after Rhuddryn left. Once that was done they would be able to procure weapons and then go after Seobryn and stop the crossbreeding that he was performing to create this new army that had been ordered by... by whom? The mystery behind the question still bothered him, but he let it go for the present. Today had enough troubles of its own and he wanted to make sure that that trouble was visited on the guards only and not on the Olybryn.

It would be tricky. Nenil, one of the household servants would tend to the wine vats kept in the cellar by Rhuddryn. If all had gone as planned the serving staff already had the nandani drug in their possession; Sircyn should have taken it to them during the night while Aragorn slept. If the guards stayed true to their routines, as the Haradrim were adamant that they would, then by midday they would be lax and Rhuddryn’s main sentries that watched the house would begin to help themselves to their master’s draughts. Then came the tricky part, drugging the rest of the guards in the fields and the groves without anyone catching on. But then what if...

"We have been over it many times. It will all work out well." Legolas’ soft voice interrupted the ranger’s thoughts and he glanced quickly down at his friend.

The surprise of being caught in the act of worrying shown easily in the young man’s eyes and the elf smiled as his friend quirked a questioning eyebrow, the lopsided smile that crossed his face caused the prince to laugh lightly.

"Yes my friend, you are that easy to read." Legolas sat up and smoothed the hair out of his eyes, "I know you too well. You worry that something will happen to these people and it will be somehow your fault for suggesting they could be free."

"Am I truly *that* easy to read?"

The elf snickered lightly, "Yes you are. And I have been in your company long enough to know how you think." He laid his hand gently on the human’s shoulder and easily changed the subject, "How feel you this morning?"

"Well enough." Aragorn moved closer to the elf and lowered his voice so as not to wake anyone else. He switched effortlessly into the Elvish tongue and continued speaking. "I slept hard, I did not hear you return. In fact I had not realized that I had fallen sleep. I take it all went well last night."

"We retrieved the nandani and Mambre and the women crushed it into fine powder. All is ready. It will be well. Trust me." Legolas gave the ranger a gentle shake.

"As always my friend." Aragorn whispered back.

"What are you whispering about?" Sircyn’s quiet voice broke into their conversation.

"Sircyn?"

"Yes."

"Why are you awake?" Aragorn questioned.

"It is time to be awake." The answer came back through the inky darkness.

Legolas laughed, "So it is. Then let us begin the day." He smiled at the ranger and stood nimbly to his feet. His eyes, easily adjusted to the morning gloom, allowed him to step lightly over the still sleeping slaves to the fire ring.

Kneeling next to the well-used pit in the center of the tent he quickly started a fire with the smoldering coals in the bed of the ring. Turning a brilliant smile on the ranger he nodded as the room lit with the warm glow of fire, their day had begun.

~*~

When the slaves had all been assembled in the court yard for their morning assignments the guards, instead of issuing the daily orders, fell into rank as Rhuddryn rode past his household staff seated on the back of one of the large male oliphaunts. Aragorn recognized the creature as the one who had a habit of following him around and demanding the Olybryn’s undivided attention; the large cantankerous one who let no one else tend him. The ranger barely held out his hand when the mûmakil reached out for him with its trunk as it passed by his station. The soft touch of the animal caused him to smile and he glanced up quickly at the intelligent dark eye that watched him. Talft, at the end of the line of slaves to Aragorn’s right, cleared his throat and the man swiftly dropped his hand to his side and returned his gaze to the ground.

Rhuddryn stopped his mount and addressed his guards, explaining that he would be gone for the next three days, attending the local yearly festival and auction. He admonished his slaves to behave and with a hearty farewell he urged the oliphaunt forward. The mûmakil lumbered off, a trail of servants and guards following in its wake, chosen by the master to attend him on his journey.

When the train of people has passed out of sight the guards quickly sent the slaves off to their posts, roughing up those that did not move as fast as they wanted them to.

Aragorn shot Legolas a sidelong glance out of the corner of his eye as Lur walked by them and cuffed the elf alongside the head, demanding that he pick up his pace.

The slaves for their part were more docile than usual but the festive air that colored the guard’s perception of the three-day holiday from their employer made them oblivious to the changes in those under them.

Talft and Lur were especially jovial and overt in their actions. As the Olybryn reached the mûmakil fields Talft hooked his arm around Syna’s waist and pulled the young slave from the file of people passing through to the meadow beyond. Sircyn bristled and stopped mid-step, trying to move around the slaves and get back to his sister’s side.

Seeing the Haradrim’s intentions Legolas grabbed the young man and whispered fiercely in his ear, "Do not follow your anger. It will not serve you here. Wait." The elf nodded his head in Aragorn’s direction.

The ranger had quickly backtracked his steps and headed towards the two guards and the female slave they had trapped. He feigned clumsiness as he swiftly picked up a bucket filled with brackish water from yesterday and stumbled in the direction of the small scuffle that had ensued.

Syna was desperately trying to get away from the sentries, who were enjoying the challenge of keeping hold of the young girl.

"Syna can you help me?" Aragorn questioned as he walked towards them. He pretended to stumble, loosing his balance and tipping the bucket of water so that it splashed into Lur’s face causing the guard to lose his grip on Syna.

Wrenching away from Talft the young Haradrim ran through the gates and into her father’s arms, watching in fear as Lur disgustedly brushed himself off.

"What is wrong with you Adrar?" Lur forcefully shoved the northerner away. Aragorn stumbled slightly but kept his balance, trying to keep up the act without giving away that he still was not the idiot they thought he was.

"I only needed help with the water bucket. I’m sorry, I forgot..." His apology was interrupted as Talft walked to his side and cuffed him roughly across the back of the head, forcefully shoving him through the gate and giving a swift kick that caught the young ranger in the stomach.

"Next time you pay better attention or we’ll have to teach you not to interrupt us when we are having a conversation with someone else." The guard slammed the gate shut, causing the animals to jump and shy away.

Aragorn had been unable to stop himself from collapsing in the field and he lay for a moment on the ground, catching his breath.

A gentle hand was laid on his back as Legolas crouched next to him. "Aragorn?"

"I’m alright." The ranger sat slowly up, helped by the elf.

"That was foolish."

"But it worked." The human smiled up at the elf. He knew, or at least had hoped, that he could get away with that because they thought he was a simpleton, whereas anyone else would have probably ended up with a much more severe beating. "Besides," He whispered in Elvish as Legolas helped him to his feet, "That is the last time he will ever do that to me again."

"Let us hope." The prince shook his head; his own smile uncontainable as he walked out towards the animals that waited them. "For now though, we tend the oliphaunts."

The day passed like any normal day. The only difference was the waiting. At midday there had still been no word from the house staff and Aragorn was beginning to worry. Talft and Lur were unusually lax in their overseeing of the Olybryn and the slaves for the most part were left to themselves.

"Something has gone wrong." Aragorn whispered to Legolas as he smoothed ointment around the eye of the large mûmakil he was attending. He passed the small vial of thick balm to the elf.

Legolas glanced up at the ranger; his thoughts lay along much the same path. He feared the slaves that worked in the house might have been discovered. Hiding their conversation in his work, the elf knelt and rubbed the balm into a scratch on the oliphaunt’s leg next to him before glancing back up. Instead of answering the human, motion on the shaded path behind Talft and Lur caught Legolas’ attention and he touched his friend, gently redirecting the ranger’s worried glance.

Nenil’s sister, Tali walked up the garden path a flask of wine held in her hands.

"I think all is well." Legolas whispered softly.

Aragorn stooped quickly and retrieved a small stone from the ground. He threw the flat rock so that it smacked Sircyn in the back, garnering the slave’s attention. With a nod towards the guards, Aragorn silently informed the Haradrim that it had begun.

Tali glanced quickly at the Olybryn before coyly approaching the guards. "I have brought you some wine from the master’s cellar. A gift," she spoke softly, her words musical as she taunted the two guards with the soft smile she laid on them, "a gift from Alkyn."

Alkyn was the head sentry that oversaw the comings and goings in the house and it was a cue for the Olybryn that things were indeed moving along as planned.

"And did he send you to us as well?" Lur questioned, his eyes everywhere but on the flask that the female slave carried.

She stepped easily out of their reach as Talft relieved her of the wine and smiled sweetly, "No. Alkyn said to tell you that I am his tonight and that you had best not keep me."

The Haradrim guards smiled wickedly at Tali, "Saves the best for himself does he?" Talft joked coarsely, "Then be off with you or he won't have you at all." The guard uncorked the flask and took a long drink, passing it to Lur who was still watching the female slave as she walked away. Talft shoved the other guard teasingly holding the flagon up in front of his friend’s face and blocking his view. "Here drown those thoughts before you get us into trouble."

Aragorn deftly moved the mûmakil he was working with closer to the fence, gently pushing his body weight against the animals side until he was as close to the guards as he could possibly be with out seeming obvious. Legolas watched the ranger carefully, making sure he had a good view of his friend and the two Haradrim overseers.

Talft and Lur were so busy toasting each other and the three days ahead of them that they failed to notice when every Olybryn stopped to watch them drink the drugged wine.

Aragorn glanced back at the slaves, seeing they were all watching the guards and fearing the unusual attention would give them away he kicked a dirt clod in the direction of Sircyn and mouthed the word ‘work’ at the Haradrim. Realizing what they were doing, the young slave cleared his throat, catching the attention of the others and motioned for everyone to continue as if nothing were amiss.

By the time the two guards had drained the wine container Aragorn was sure they were in trouble. Both were still busy recounting past holidays and the conquests and fun they had had at the slave’s expense. The ranger sighed in frustration and glanced at Legolas turning his palms up in question, but the elf only shrugged his shoulders.

Passing near Sircyn, Aragorn whispered fiercely, "I thought you said that drug would work."

"Nandani is slow acting but they will be out for a long time when it hits them."

"If it hits them." The northerner muttered darkly as he walked back to the feeding trough a bucket of fruits in his hands.

Sircyn slowly stopped his work, his eyes locked on guards. Talft yawned and stretched his legs out from the bench he was seated on. He slouched down on the wooden seat and laced his fingers behind his head. Lur slipped off the low resting-place and leaned his head back against the base of the bench with a soft sigh. In moments they were both asleep.

Silence fell on the small group of slaves as they watched intently, hoping that the guards were not merely napping and that the drugs in the wine had indeed done their job. Breaking the stillness Aragorn opened the gate and walked quietly to the shaded watch post. Legolas leapt nimbly over the fence and followed his friend. He could see the steady, even rise and fall of the men’s chests as they breathed.

Cautiously Strider reached out to touch Talft. The guard fell limply over onto the seat when the ranger pushed him gently.

A cheer rose behind them from the slaves and Aragorn spun and quickly shushed them. "The other guards in the groves may not yet be drugged. We do not need to tip them off. Sircyn, you and Timbrel go check on the slaves in the groves and in the house. If all is well and the guards have all been taken out then instruct the workers to bring them to the punishment hut. We will contain them there. Go! Quickly and bring back word." He called after the two young Haradrim as they ran beneath the trees, Sircyn heading for the house and Timbrel veering off making for the manga groves to the south of the mansion.

Legolas turned Talft over and stripped the guard of his weapons. Laying the large hunting bow and quiver aside the elf tossed the Haradrim’s knife, sheath and all, to Aragorn who quickly buckled the blade about his waist.

Disarming Lur next and passing the weapons to Cabed, Legolas pulled the empty flask from the guards fingers and broke the gourd open, burying the pieces of the broken flagon in the ground as instructed by the older Haradrim. The flask could never be used again because traces of the nandani would always be in the flesh of the gourd itself.

Aragorn talked quietly with Mambre, asking the women to finish caring for the mûmaskil while they rounded up the drugged guards. It would be safer for them here and not all the animals had been seen to yet.

Sircyn came running back down the path from the house. He skidded to a stop near where Talft had left the cart that they had followed out to the fields that morning. Easing the large bulls back into the heavy wooden yoke he steered the animals closer to the pasture fence. When he reached Legolas and Aragorn he was still trying to catch his breath but the smile on his face gave away his report.

"It went well?" Aragorn asked as he and Legolas picked up Lur’s limp body between the two of them and tossed the man onto the back of the cart.

"Very well indeed." Sircyn answered as he and Cabed eased Talft onto the wagon next to the other. "Timbrel said to tell you he went with the manga workers to take their guards to the hut. He will meet us there." The Haradrim quickly strapped on the scabbard that his father passed him and leapt onto the wagon to make sure that the guards did not fall off on their way back to the house.

When they reached the punishment hut they were met by a number of nervous but excited slaves. Legolas and Aragorn drug their former overseers into the low building and bound the men with rope that Nenil had procured from the main house.

With more gentleness than he felt towards the Haradrim, Aragorn leaned Talft in a corner of the building, his hands tied behind his back.

"When will they wake?" He asked Nenil without turning around, helping Legolas to lay Lur on the ground near Talft.

"At least they will have each other to talk to when they wake." The elf teased. He did not like the guards, nor their attitudes towards the slaves and it pleased him slightly to see them bound in their own building where they dealt out such cruel punishment as they had to him.

Aragorn laughed lightly before looking over his shoulder to where Nenil was helping to bind the last of the household sentries. "The guards are not likely to wake until well into tomorrow if I got the dosage correct." The small Haradrim answered absently, quietly directing the others as they finished their tasks.

"If?!?" Aragorn turned fully towards the shorter slave and questioned him.

Realizing what he had said Nenil raised his hands in a placating motion, "No, no I got it right. I am sure." The dark skinned man repeated himself. "Yes. I am sure. It is right."

Legolas exchanged a questioning glance with Aragorn before smiling ruefully. They both hoped the small slave was correct.

Leaving the older men to stand watch over the guards, the ranger took Nenil aside and spoke with him quietly, "Nenil, did your master have an armory?"

"I do not know." The Haradrim answered softly. "I was part of the kitchen staff only. It was just recently that the master even let me down into the cellar you see. I never saw any other parts of the house."

Legolas noted the quiet conversation and stepped nearer Aragorn; "You look for the armory?" He unconsciously switched to elven to disguise his questioning.

"You know where it is? You have seen it?"

With a nod the elf stepped over the sleeping bodies of the guards and led the ranger into the house. Slaves came and went through the large doors, some going about their everyday chores others preparing beds and dispersing sheets and pillows, blankets and coverings that the slaves had not had the privilege of using in years. Clothing was passed out to those who needed it and soon the closets were empty of all save the shelving units that were once full.

"The armory is back here," Legolas glanced over his shoulder at the ranger and the young Haradrim that were following them, easing his way past a group of women who were walking in the opposite direction, bedding piled high in their arms, "It is behind his study. I was able to see it once. Rhuddryn was found of bragging and Seobryn had goaded him into letting him see it. I was there that day with them."

The elf easily pushed the door open and stood aside. Normally the room would have been guarded so there was no need to keep it locked, but with the sentries all subdued the house was wide open to the wishes of the slaves.

Aragorn brushed past Legolas and quickly began handing out bows and quivers to the Haradrim that had followed them in. Once the others had been outfitted with weapons, he chose a sword of good weight for himself and strapped the weapon to his side before selecting his own bow. Legolas had taken down one of the large recurve hunting bows that the guards normally used out on the fields to combat the growing Taerg problems. He ran his hand up the spine of the weapon, feeling its weight and checking its craftsmanship. Stepping into the curve of the bow he bent the top down towards the floor and expertly strung it, testing the tension before slinging it over his back.

"I wish I had my own." He murmured softly.

The northerner watched him quietly before speaking; "We’ll find it. Knowing Talft and Lur they have it hidden out in their things."

"And what will we do with the guards Aragorn? What happens when they wake?" Legolas turned a worried look on the human that stood behind him.

"They can choose. They can leave of their own free will or they can leave under duress. I do not think that they will have the courage to stand up to the slaves now that they have been disarmed and the very ones they have tormented stand in their places. The slaves outnumber them dozens to one, now that they are armed and roused, it would be no contest, and surely they will see that. If they are truly cowards like their actions show, then we will have no troubles. If they choose to fight it, they will either be driven out or..." He stopped and considered his words carefully, "or they will die. It’s a simple choice." He met the serious eyes of the elf with his own gaze.

"It may not be so easy." Legolas cautioned.

"I know but we will deal with that after tomorrow."

"And what of the master?" a soft thickly accented voice interrupted their conversation, "What will we do about him? He returns the day after tomorrow and he may not be so willing as the guards to let this go."

Aragorn glanced at Legolas; the elf shook his head slightly. They didn’t have answers yet. The future was mapped with possible difficulties, but the only way over them was to take them head on. They had made the first step; there was no turning back now. "We’ll deal with that when the time comes also. One step at a time Cabed." The ranger smiled at the older Haradrim.

"No matter what, he will be made to see that he can stay and work with you or he can leave and find a new place elsewhere. This is your land now. It has always been your land." Legolas spoke quietly.

Cabed tipped his head slightly and gazed up at the tall elf, "And you think it will be that easy? Rhuddryn is a powerful man with many connections. We could have serious trouble."

With a slight nod, Legolas replied, "Yes it will be that easy. Aragorn will convince him."

Aragorn shot the elf a quizzical look, "Oh I will, will I?"

"Yes you will." The elf smiled conspiratorially at the human. "After tomorrow morning we will have what he wants most. From the letters we both have seen, Rhuddryn’s benefactor will not tolerate his failure with the crossbreeding project. He will have the choice; he can leave and we will report his demise and the collapse of the project or he can stay and face the wrath of this one who has threatened him already if he does not come through. He will not want to stay on once he finds out what we have done and you my friend have your memory back and can implicate him in the murder of Laener. That alone will earn him a death mark in the northern places. He will leave of his own free will and he can start a new life, elsewhere." Legolas turned to Cabed and smiled gently, "It will be fine."

Clasping his friend’s shoulder Aragorn steered them out of the small, now empty room. "Let's go discuss Seobryn’s encampment and get some rest. We’ll head out well before dawn. I want to catch him unaware."

 

___________________________________________________________

~*PART SEVENTEEN*~

 

 

The cool of predawn darkness wrapped about the small group of beings that quietly trekked across the oliphaunt fields.

The women, children and most of the men had been left to see to the daily affairs of the house. Cabed and the elders had elected to take turns standing watch over the still unconscious guards, what was to be done with them had yet to be fully decided. When Aragorn and Legolas had left that morning, the only ones awake had been those guarding the punishment house.

Sircyn led Aragorn, Legolas, Timbrel and three of his cousins towards the south end of the fields where Seobryn reportedly kept his secret camp. This area of Rhuddryn’s lands dipped into the hilly places of Harad. Gullies and valleys running with now dried up rivulets made the companies passage more difficult and Legolas stepped closer to Sircyn, guiding the Haradrim through the rough places that his eyes could not see.

A gentle touch to the elf’s shoulder stopped the prince in his tracks and he turned to gaze into Aragorn’s dark eyes.

"Something follows us. Do you not hear it?" The ranger’s words frosted on the cool morning air.

Glancing over the human’s shoulder, Legolas could see into the gulch behind them. A mass of dark, slowly moving objects shuffled after them.

"It is the mûmaskil. They have followed us." He glanced at the Olybryn about him.

"They must have scented us." Sircyn whispered.

"They will give us away." Timbrel’s worried voice came from Legolas’ left.

"No," Aragorn glanced back at the animals; "they will cover our tracks and our smells. The mûmaskil walk everywhere in these fields unquestioned. No one will think twice about seeing them here. Let us continue. They will not follow us into Seobryn’s encampment, they hate the scent of taergs." He pressed the elf forward and followed him over the next levy.

When they reached the lip of the ridge, Legolas stopped and dropped down into the tall grasses, edging forward on his stomach. He turned and glanced at the ranger as Aragorn eased up quietly next to him. The glow from a dying fire lit the hollowed out bowl that Seobryn had chosen to establish his compound in. The small valley was ringed on three sides by rolling hills and eroded cliff faces, effectively blocking in his quarry. Large cages butted up against the cliffs on one side of the ravine. Taergs paced endlessly in small circles inside most of them. However the two cages nearest the spies held wargs, but the beast lay unmoving in their prison cells. Beyond these cages were even more, built of a sturdier fashion they held an array of predatory animals the likes of which neither the ranger nor the elf had ever seen. Horrific creatures rattled the bars and chewed on the iron slats of the cages, these animals were the deranged miscreations of Seobryn’s evil attempts to create a new species. The beasts were misfits, ill tempered and unequipped to survive on their own. Most died early in their life spans, their bodies not capable of bearing the alterations that had been worked on them.

"Legolas..." Aragorn whispered in horror as he viewed the compound. "They have nearly done it."

"They have done it." The elf glanced quickly at his friend, his brow furrowed in anger, "Once."

"How do you know this?"

"I killed it on the pasture lands. It must have escaped. It was like nothing I have ever seen." He eased away from the edge and stared into the dark eyes that watched him closely, "It was not like the ones down there. It was fast, quiet and very lethal. It was capable of thought like the wargs and it was wholly evil like them as well." He leaned back and glimpsed the deranged animals on the far side of the encampment; "I do not see anything like it. But if they accomplished this once they will do it again even if that is through error."

Aragorn was nodding. This was worse than he had thought. "We need to destroy those animals."

He leaned over and watched the large predators for a moment but the elf’s gentle tug on his tunic brought him away from the edge. "What is it?"

"Not the taergs." Legolas shook his head quietly.

"Why not? They kill the Olybryn, they hunt the younger mûmaskil, they are a threat Legolas." Aragorn did not understand.

The elf pressed his face close to the ranger’s and spoke softly slipping easily into Elvish; "They kill them because their own are imprisoned here and they know it, but do not understand. They are not evil Aragorn. They are frightened and they are striking back. Rhuddryn and Seobryn hunt them. If we release them, they will return to their own and leave this valley. There is not the water here now that there was in the spring, which originally drew them down. They stay because their families have been broken up and they want their own back. We let the taergs go." The elf’s voice was decided.

Aragorn had no love for the predators, but everything he had learned about them, had been from the Olybryn who feared the large animals. Legolas was always right about these types of things; there was no reason not to trust him on this as well. Finally nodding in agreement, he edged back down on his stomach and pulled the elf with him, indicating the thrown together buildings that sat opposite the rows of cages.

"Very well, you release the taergs. Put the wargs down, we can't have them escaping down here in the south, I don’t care what shape they are in. I will take care of those abominations that Seobryn and his evil intentions have created. When we are through with the animals, we can take on the humans. It looks like Seobryn only has eight men. Six that travel with him and two that must stay here full time. We can take them easily if the animals don’t alert them to our presence. Besides even if we fail to stop Seobryn now, we must put an end to the crossbreeding, we can risk no more successes." He glanced sidelong at the elf to see if the prince agreed.

Legolas wasn’t sure that leaving the men to the last would work, either way it would be risky. "Have the Haradrim stay here until we call for them. They are not warriors by nature Aragorn and they will only get themselves killed if we aren’t careful."

"Good thinking." The ranger slid backwards through the tall grass and easily leapt the short distance down the small sloping incline to where Sircyn and the others waited for him. They stood among the mûmakil, patting the large creatures and talking softly to them. Legolas was correct, he smiled softly to himself, they were shepherds, not warriors although they would have to learn now that the compound was theirs once more.

Legolas joined him at the foot of the hill. He listened as the Haradrim argued with the ranger, but the argument was short lived and in the end Aragorn won them over. They would wait until they were called for.

"I do not like it." Sircyn muttered softly as he rubbed the forehead of the large oliphaunt that butted up against him, vying for his attention.

"You do not have to." Aragorn smiled leaning in front of the Haradrim and patting the mûmakil. "But I need you to do this for me."

With a nod the five Haradrim followed the elf and the ranger around the side of the hills and entered the natural valley through the dead streambed that cut through it. The oliphaunts had followed and their feet crushed the small pebbles of the riverbed, making soft sounds in the predawn. Morning was only an hour way now; they had to move quickly. Motioning the Haradrim to stop, Aragorn crept quietly after Legolas.

They entered the compound near the cages that held the wargs. The elf crouched low next to the large iron cell. The beast inside did not move. Its red small eyes tracked the elf dully and its breathing was labored.

Aragorn moved stealthily behind his friend, touching the prince lightly on the back as he knelt behind the elf. Turning slightly Legolas whispered softly, "They are dying."

"Then be swift and end their misery." Aragorn eased around the elf and glanced down the row of cages, his eyes darting to the low-lying buildings, nothing stirred inside of them. "I’ll meet you in the middle." He called softly before he darted swiftly into the darkness heading for the far side of camp.

The caged taergs paid him no attention as he moved quickly down the row of pens. It was when the ranger had reached the cells that held the deranged miscreations that their trouble started. The animals in the steel cages looked like someone’s worst nightmare. Their body parts mismatched to oversized heads or paws. They threw themselves at the bars of their prisons as Aragorn crept towards them, creating a racket that could not be silenced.

Knowing they had given themselves away, Aragorn stood from his hiding place and called back to Legolas.

The elf had already put the wargs down, ending their tormented existence with mercifully quick, deadly arrows. He knew their weak points and gave them swift deaths. Quickly he threw open the slats on the cages that held the taergs, easily releasing the animals as Seobryn and his men spilled out of their tents.

The camp filled with cries and chaos. The released taergs were confused by the torches that the men held and they scattered easily, some racing to the hills others heading out onto the flats. One unlucky taerg fled up the ravine towards where Sircyn was hiding. The smell of the creature frightened the oliphaunts.

The large creatures trumpeted in terror at the familiar scent and sight. Sircyn, Timbrel and the others clung tightly to the animals, trying to calm them, but it was no use. The tension in the air and the presence of the taerg spooked the oliphaunts who broke away from their handlers and stampeded towards the large cat. The taerg yowled and sprung quickly away, darting for the hills, but the rampaging mûmaskil did not seem to notice. In their frenzy, they stormed into the camp, adding to the bedlam that already raged there.

The earth shook; thundering with the pounding, stamping feet of the huge animals, the cool morning air pierced with their loud trumpeting cries. Unheeding of where they were going, the Oliphaunts crashed into the buildings, tearing the sleeping quarters to shreds and crushing those unlucky enough not to escape under their huge feet.

The Olybryn chased after their charges, trying to calm the frightened beasts.

Aragorn had only succeeded in destroying two of the deranged, crossbred animals when the mûmakil stampeded through the gulch. He turned towards the chaos, trying to see by firelight what had happened. At his inattention, the beast in the cage in front him threw itself at the bars of its prison, rocking the pen off its foundation and loosing the slats that held it captive. It leapt out of the cell, knocking Aragorn over and landing several feet behind the ranger. Saliva dripped from long jagged fangs that jutted out at intervals from underneath its upper lip. Stringing an arrow onto his bow as quickly as he could, Aragorn had nearly released the projectile when a dark shape fell from the cliff above him, rolling the ill-created creature off its feet. A huge taerg sunk its fangs deep into the animal’s neck and shook its head violently, snapping the others neck with a lethal ferocity.

Stunned, Aragorn stood with his bow at the ready as the beast turned quick, bright on eyes on him.

"Aragorn!"

The ranger’s glance darted towards the far side of the gully and he spotted Legolas leaping across the tops of the now empty cages, running in his direction. When he looked back to where the taerg had been, only the dead half-warg lay there; of the predator there was no sign.

Legolas jumped down next to the human and pushed him aside, his bow strung, he quickly began dispatching the miserable, wretched creatures that were the examples of Seobryn’s failures, calling to Aragorn over his shoulder, "Our element of surprise is gone my friend and the Olybryn are in trouble. We must be quick."

Shaken out of his surprise, Aragorn left the elf to his task and raced towards the middle of camp where Timbrel was locked in combat with Malk. Of Seobryn’s men only Chadoc and Malk seemed to have survived the initial onslaught. Vavon, Teek, Zelbo and the two that Aragorn had never met appeared to have either been crushed by the oliphaunt stampede or slain by the taergs as they attempted to escape. The ranger leapt over Vavon’s mauled corpse, running towards Malk as the northerner knocked the young Haradrim in the face with the pommel of his sword and Timbrel fell backwards. Quickly reversing the hold on the blade Malk drove the sword towards the incapacitated slave.

"NO!" Aragorn’s loud cry startled the northerner and he only had a brief glimpse of the ranger as Aragorn threw his weight into the man and rolled him away from Timbrel.

He struggled with the trader, as they came to a halt. Malk had gotten the upper hand and knelt on top of the ranger, pressing the blade of his sword against the flat of Aragorn’s, trying to overpower the young man. Malk pushed with all his might, driving the ranger’s own blade dangerously close under Aragorn’s chin.

Aragorn resisted violently, slowly moving his knee up between them, trying to get an edge over the heavier man that held him down. He had nearly gotten the upper hand when a rake of pain sliced across his stomach, separating Malk from him. He watched as the trader was tossed high into the air over the back of a large mûmakil that had come upon the fighting men. The Oliphaunt lowering its head had caught Malk on its huge upper tusk and tossed the man away from its Olybryn. The sharp edge of the tooth had dug into the ranger’s soft skin, leaving a deep, nasty welt across his abdomen.

Standing quickly to his feet, the ranger patted the enraged mûmakil, trying to calm the animal. He stumbled to Timbrel’s side and pulled the Haradrim to his feet. "Get the oliphaunts out of here." He instructed the terrified Olybryn. "Now, Timbrel quickly!" He gave the young man a good shove towards the large, agitated animal that stood behind them, "Seobryn will begin killing them if he sees they are a threat. GO!"

Regaining his senses, Timbrel nodded and grabbed the oliphaunt’s large tusk, steering the animal back towards the end of the valley and the route out through the riverbed. Aragorn heard him calling to Sircyn and his cousins as the Olybryn began to round up the mûmakil and attempt to exit gulch.

Aragorn glanced back through the debris that littered the valley. The fire pit had been destroyed and the fire had leapt out of the ring of protective stone, burning through the heaps of destroyed canvas and wood that had once been Seobryn’s housing. The smoke hung thick and low in the small ravine and it was difficult to see through the shroud that wrapped the camp.

Morning was coming; the skies were streaked with red fingers that seemed to reach out over the destruction that marred the landscape. Across the compound, the ranger caught site of Legolas putting down the last of the misbred creations. Movement to the left of the elf drew his attention and he recognized Chadoc slowly gaining on the prince.

"Legolas, your left!" He called out in elvish, warning his friend seconds before Chadoc got the upper hand. Intending to aid the elf, Aragorn ran towards the far side of the camp only to be knocked to the ground as a spear that had been thrown in his path impeded his legs, tripping him up. He rolled hard onto his shoulder and came up in a crouch, the surprise of the attack catching him off guard.

Seobryn walked slowly towards him, his sword drawn. His face was a mask of anger as he stalked the ranger.

"Well I guess Chadoc was right for once." He circled Aragorn as the young man gained his feet. "I should have killed you when I had the chance Adrar." He spit the ranger’s slave name at him.

Aragorn wiped the sweat from his eyes with the sleeve of his tunic, smiling back mirthlessly into the face of his tormenter, "Would have saved you a lot of trouble Seobryn."

"Damn you rangers and your entire race!" He shook his head, "You have no idea what you have done. You have no idea who you are up against. I’m the least of your worries. You are on the wrong side."

"Oh and I suppose you’d let me join you now." Aragorn feinted at the trader; the man quickly sidestepped his thrust.

"Too late for that now my pet," he growled. Moving closer to the ranger Seobryn swung his blade low in a wide arc that Aragorn jumped, narrowly avoiding. "I made you. Now its time to get rid of you, like I should have done before." He rushed the ranger and attacked him fiercely.

To the trader’s surprise, Aragorn gave him no ground, but met and parried every blow and strike. Spinning around quickly and ducking underneath a sweep of Seobryn’s blade Aragorn slammed the pommel of his sword into the man’s face, throwing him off balance and breaking his nose.

Seobryn stumbled backwards, one hand covering his face, breathing hard. He looked at the blood that cover his palm and licked his lips where the blood had dripped down his face; his eyes were hard and fierce.

"Who is your employer?" Aragorn questioned.

Ignoring the question, Seobryn stepped back in towards his opponent, his anger igniting the fierceness of his attack. Unable to keep up with the trader, Aragorn swept low and spun in a crouch, attempting to get out from underneath the onslaught, but Seobryn was ready for him.

Moving in close to the ranger, he twisted his ankle around the young man’s pivotal foot and jerked back wards, slamming his fist into the side of Aragorn’s head. Momentarily stunned senseless, Aragorn did not move. Seobryn grabbed the collar of the ranger’s tunic and pulled the semi-conscious man towards him before punching Aragorn hard.

The trader dropped the younger man to the ground and stood over him, spitting out the blood that had accumulated in his mouth, he smiled down grimly at the youth. "You were never cut out to be a ranger. Neither you nor that pathetic excuse of an old man that you drug around with you. If I had the time, you’d die the same way he went - screaming." He spit the words at Aragorn, hefting his blade; he prepared to drive it through the young man’s heart.

 

___________________________________________________________

~*PART EIGHTEEN*~

 

 

Seeing his death, Aragorn’s fingers grasped the hilt of his sword and he brought the blade up in front of him. At the same time two arrows cut the air over his head, embedding themselves in Seobryn’s chest. The trader fell forward onto Aragorn’s upheld blade, a look of sheer surprise etched on his face.

Aragorn pushed the dead trader off of him and scooted out from under his bulk. He sat on the ground, staring at the body of the man he had at one time thought was his owner and a flood of emotions caught him.

Legolas ran to his side and knelt next to him. Turning Seobryn over, he retrieved his arrows and concentrated on the young human.

"Are you alright?" The elf gently moved Aragorn’s hand away from where he held his abdomen; the cut from the oliphaunt was bleeding. When the ranger didn’t speak Legolas leaned down and stared into the haunted eyes, tenderly touching the welting bruise on the side of his friend’s face. "Aragorn?"

Slowly the human nodded, his gaze coming to rest on the elf kneeling in front of him. "Yes, I am all right." He moved unsteadily to his feet with Legolas’ help. "And you? Are you in one piece?" He asked with a slight smile; the cut to his lip smarted and he touched it gingerly with his hand. He looked over the wood-elf, checking for cuts or damage. The fair being’s face was bruised and dirtied but he appeared to be in no worse shape.

Legolas nodded and looked back towards where Chadoc lay fallen in the dirt.

Aragorn glanced down at Seobryn once more; "He never said who his employer was."

"Did you think he would?"

"I had hoped." Aragorn laughed lightly, brushing himself off and cleaning his sword on his pant-leg. He looked around them slowly. The bodies of the dead wargs and half-wargs were everywhere. One of the taergs had not made it out alive but none of the Oliphaunts or the Olybryn had been hurt or killed, much to his relief. "We must burn this place. It can never be found."

Legolas nodded, "It is an evil place. I will fetch Sircyn and the others, we can gather the bodies in the center of the camp and set it all on fire, all that has not already burned that is."

The skitter of small rocks above their heads made the two companions look up to the edge of the rift on their left. A large male taerg was watching quietly from the high vantage-point. Its bright eyes scanned the small valley below it, coming to rest on the two living beings that stood in the middle of the carnage.

"I released that one." Legolas whispered.

"And it has come back to thank you by eating you." Aragorn replied sarcastically.

The elf glanced at the ranger and laughed, "I doubt that very highly Strider."

"Oh really?" Aragorn gazed back to the edge of the cliff over their heads once more.

The taerg was gone, as silently as it had come it was gone.

"Really." Legolas leaned against him, whispering in his ear. He gave the ranger a gentle pat on the shoulder before walking back towards where the oliphaunts waited, "Come Aragorn," he called to the young human who still stood staring at the cliff edge, "let us finish this and go home."

 

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

 

The Olybryn stood on the edge of the ravine with Legolas and Aragorn. They silently watched as the campsite below them smoldered and burned down to heap of darkened ash. Even the cages had been thrown into the fire, their beams sticking at odd angles from the smoking pile like the bones of some long dead creature.

It had been easy enough to contain the blaze within the walls of the gulch and the lack of breeze had kept the fire from jumping its perimeter. It barely sparked now as the ashes began to blow away on the easterly wind that had just picked up, cooling the lone figures that watched over the canyon silently.

"It is done." Legolas clasped Aragorn’s shoulder gently and walked the human away from the edge of the valley. "Let us go home." He glanced at the impromptu bandage that wrapped the ranger’s midsection, it had at least done its job for now and stopped the bleeding but he would want to see it tended to better when they got back to the house.

Aragorn caught his inquisitive glance and smiled, patting the bandage gently, "Its all right."

They walked in silence back to the main house and those who waited for them.

 

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

 

Commotion at the front of the house brought Aragorn and Legolas running from the Oliphaunt fields. They had been seeing to the herd animals before coming in for breakfast but the loud trumpeting and crying of the Haradrim had interrupted the Simbani’s morning chores.

Legolas rounded the corner of the house first. Taking in the situation he turned and shouted for Strider to hurry, before cautiously approaching the large oliphaunt that stood in the courtyard thrashing its head against the manga trees and trumpeting loudly. It was the beast that Aragorn had grown found of, the large patriarch that Rhuddryn had ridden out on several days ago. A long gash cut down the length of his front left leg and the broken end of a spear jutted from the wound. Scratches and cuts marred the thick skin and the large ornate tented saddle that adorned the oliphaunt’s back was broken and shredded.

One of the male household servants that the master had taken with him was holding the creature’s lead line, trying to calm the distressed oliphaunt. The man was in no better shape than the animal he was standing next to and his attempts to calm the creature were not working.

Legolas swiftly ran to the man’s side and pulled him from harms way as the oliphaunt turned on the handler, swatting at the man with his trunk. Rolling them both beneath the intended strike, the elf dragged the man away from the animal and passed him off into the hands of the waiting Haradrim that had formed a ring around the oliphaunt and were trying to calmly bracket the creature in and move it away from the house.

Rounding the corner with Sircyn close on his heels, it took Aragorn only seconds to recognize the beast that had caused the riot of commotion. He pushed his way through the small crowd that had gathered and ran up to the animal talking loudly to it in broken Haradrim. Frenzied from pain the animal did not recognize the human at first. Dipping his head down in a defensive posture he aimed his left tusk at the man.

"Get the people back!" Aragorn shouted at Legolas who immediately began clearing the area.

Seeing the danger the oliphaunt presented to his friend, Legolas called out a warning to the ranger and ran back to assist him. Aragorn ducked at the last possible moment, and the huge tusks brushed the air above his head. He stood up swiftly, positioning himself in front of the animal between its long tusks, and wrapped his arms around the oliphaunt’s trunk talking softly to it.

The familiar smell of the northerner stopped the animal and it slowly stilled its thrashings until it stood swaying slightly, uttering small growls and grunts.

Legolas approached the beast’s injured leg. His hands held out before him, speaking in Elvish. The small, dark eyes of the oliphaunt watched his movements but the animal did not resist when the elf gently touched the bleeding gash. Keeping his tone soft and continuing to speak in his native tongue, Legolas called Aragorn to him.

"Aragorn, he is wounded and the spear tip is still in his foreleg." The elf glanced around the animal’s large tree like leg trying to catch his friend’s eye.

With a small nod Aragorn moved slowly to join his friend. The oliphaunts huge head turned to follow the Olybryn it had come to trust and watched patiently as the man inspected the cut.

"What happened here?" Aragorn twisted on his boot heels and glanced back into the crowd of faces that had pressed close once again now that the animal had been calmed. His eyes lighted easily on the servant that had attended Rhuddryn and he asked once more, "What happened?"

The Haradrim nodded; knowing the question was intended for him, "We were attacked on the way home. It was unprovoked. We did nothing! There was no haggling in the auction yards, the master met with no one for business, he was simply in town for pleasure!"

"Who did this? Did you recognize them?" Legolas pressed the man for answers.

Looking to the stone walkway beneath his feet the man replied softly, "It was the warlord Asynic. The one who continually wants to purchase the master’s oliphaunts. He asked again this time, as he always does, for his clan had gathered for the celebration as well. But as always Master Rhuddryn declined. There were no harsh words between them and Asynic seemed humored by his response as usual. They ate together the night before we left." Shaking his head in confusion he continued, "I do not understand. They did not ask us for anything, they simply killed the master and anyone who tried to stop them."

Aragorn frowned at the Haradrim, thinking through what he had been told. "They did not try to take the oliphaunt?"

"No." the slave shook his head, "That is what I do not understand. Asynic has wanted this one for many years. But when the opportunity came he did take him."

"Did they take anything?" Legolas questioned further, as confused as the ranger.

The slave was silent for several moments thinking back through the attack, "It all happened so fast." His words were soft and he reverted to Haradrim. Aragorn translated quietly for the elf. "But wait! They did take something. The master’s migar clip." The slave turned to the head of his clan, imploring the man to remember with him, "The silver one. The one in the shape of an oliphaunt?" When the others nodded in agreement he glanced at the elf again; "Master Rhuddryn always kept it with him, in his shirt pocket. He prized it greatly and had his name inscribed on it. But that was all they took."

Aragorn and Legolas glanced at each other knowingly. Rhuddryn’s death hadn’t been an accident nor had it been a rivalry argument or a robbery, it had been a murder at the hands of his benefactor for the failure of the warg facility that they had destroyed two days ago. Obviously, even before their actions, whomever it was Rhuddryn was working for had run out of patience.

The Oliphaunt that the ranger was crouched near stomped his wounded leg gently, drawing the man’s attention back to the beast.

"Very well. Get inside and get cleaned up, Sircyn will see to your wounds." Aragorn dismissed the wearied man. Catching Cabed’s eye, he motioned the older Haradrim over.

"Can you get some of the numbing weed that Rhuddryn kept in his pantry, we have to get this spear tip out of our friend here. He is getting impatient." Aragorn smiled up at the beady dark eye of the animal that watched him intently, as the man nodded quickly and ran into the house.

"With Rhuddryn gone the Simbani and all the Haradrim that served him are now free." Legolas observed quietly. "Without the threat of retribution."

"Yes." Aragorn glanced up at his friend, "Cabed said that Rhuddryn had no family, no one to inherit his lands and whatever so-called friends he had will not put themselves out fighting for it. After the manner in which its previous owner died, no one will come near this place. It is the sweat and blood of Cabed and his people that has run and worked this ground these many years, I think they’ve earned the right to them if that’s what they want. They are their own masters now and may leave or stay as they like and work the earth. This place will house and feed all of them if they keep it up as they have."

"Only now they would be doing so for themselves and for another man’s profit." Legolas nodded.

A huge smile broke across Aragorn’s face; "Yes and the taergs will bother them no more now that Seobryn’s operation is gone. They are truly free."

"I wonder if they realize it yet?" Legolas asked curiously. But Aragorn never had a chance to answer as a loud cheer went up inside the house and the sounds of celebration rang out into the courtyard. The oliphaunt jerked slightly at the sudden noise and Aragorn stood gently patting the creature’s underbelly to keep it calm.

Cabed descended the steps in moments a huge smile on his rounded face as he approached the two friends, the bag of herbs cradled in the crook of one arm and a pot of cool water balanced in the other.

"Adrar, we are free!" His cry boomed through the manga grove and the joy in his voice was contagious. He sat nearby talking incessantly about their new found freedom and the plans they were already making to keep the grounds up as the ranger and the elf removed the spear and slathered ointment on the scarred tough hide of the oliphaunt.

With a gentle pat to the great beast, Aragorn stood and smiled once again at the leader of the Simbani. "Well my friend, you have only to decide if you will stay here or not. You are not bound to this fate any longer, you may go where you like." He watched the older man carefully.

Cabed tilted his head slightly weighing the northerner’s words. It was true, they were free, but he knew that in their hearts the Olybryn belonged to the herds and they could not have left if they wanted to. Already in the past half hour, they had seen some of the household servants and those that had worked the fields traipse out the front door provisions on their backs, as they headed out returning to families they had left behind in other regions. But that was not for them.

"No." the older Haradrim finally spoke as they walked the oliphaunt back behind the house to rejoin the herd, "The Simbani will stay. All our family is here now. We belong here. We belong to the herds and with them is our heart. This is our home and it was bought with the blood of our kin long ago. We will make a good life here for ourselves and all who wish to stay."

Aragorn nodded, smiling softly to himself, he had figured as much. Reaching the low stone fence he opened the gates to the herd’s field and led the large oliphaunt out onto the meadow, giving the animal a fond pat as it lumbered slowly away to join the others.

"I still wish we had found out who funded Seobryn and Rhuddryn and requested the creation of those foul creatures." Legolas latched the gate behind them once more and followed Aragorn back towards the house; "It is obvious by the means of his death that Rhuddryn’s benefactor grew tired with their failures."

"True enough." The ranger walking next to him agreed. A lopsided smile spread across the young man’s face, "Well then he ought to be really happy when he finds out about what happened to Seobryn."

He laughed as Legolas shook his head, the elf wondered darkly to himself if they had truly done Seobryn a favor. Whomever the man had worked for, the hint of evil had hung in the air and the crossbreeding, though a failure, had been achieved in part at least through foul craft and not purely natural means. Few were capable of such a feat and neither Seobryn nor Rhuddryn had possessed such knowledge on their own. He would need to remember to speak to Mithrandir about it when he saw him next; it would be interesting to see what the Maiar thought. But now there was not the time for such dark ponderings as the happy sounds of the Haradrim’s celebrating rang in his ears. Mounting the steps of the house the trio was immediately wrapped up in the cheer that exuded from it. The elf could not stop himself from smiling as he followed Aragorn into the main room, there would be time for talking later.

 

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

 

Saruman stood on the shallow balcony high above Isengard, his gaze searching the far horizons. The lush green gardens below had long ago lost their enchantment for him and he found them more of a nuisance than a pleasure. So much was changing in his world of late. He was dissatisfied with the progress in southern Harad and had decided to the end the project. It was too far away to control properly and he was beginning to suspect that the men he was dealing with would double cross him if they could. Besides, the crossbreeding of the wargs and taergs had obviously failed and in his opinion, Rhuddryn had failed him for the last time.

The Wizard would continue with his own secret breeding. And the outcome of that conjoined new race would be more terrifying, loyal and unstoppable than the failed warg breeding could ever have been. Imagine orcs crossed with goblins... more fierce, able to travel in daylight without problem... idly he wondered what he would call his new race when the time came. Of course, that day was still a long way off for the experimentation was just beginning, but he was confident that he would have far more success than had come out of the Harad debacle. With a disgusted sigh, he let his thoughts wander, pondering the race of men.

To the wizard, they seemed weak. They were fallible, greedy and they never followed through. Failure seemed to dog their very shadow and he wondered what their purpose in Middle Earth could possibly be. Although they were good for breeding armies and creating dissension and strife, he agreed with himself idly, a thin smile spreading his lips. The southern warring tribes wasted no amount of time coming to his call to attack the northern men at want. They delighted in it in fact, a small snort of laughter escaped him and he shook his head at the idiocy.

A black spec on the horizon was moving steadily towards him and it caught his straying attention. It grew in size as it closed in on his position and within moments he could distinctly make out the shape of a large black crow.

When the bird had drawn sufficiently closer Saruman extended his hand up over the edge of the black stone balustrade. A silver object fell through the air, dropped for him by the crow, and he caught it easily in his upturned palm.

His interest peaked as he turned the slim cutting device over in his fingers. It was a silver migar cutter in the shape of an oliphaunt. The piece was delicately intricate but the artistry of the tiny blade did not interest the wizard as much as the name that was carved into the smooth backside of the tool and the dark crimson stain that covered most of the cutters surface; human blood.

"So you have accomplished your task I see Asinyc. Good, now I can proceed with my own experimentations without the bother of maintaining them both." He spoke softly to himself, pleased with the day’s outcome. A small, dark hunched-over shadow behind him caught at the corner of his eye and he turned towards the orc that limped into the chamber.

"What is it Skarmazh?" The tall white wizard glanced at the orc that approached him.

"There is progress below. Your presence is required." The gravely low voice of the dark creature purred.

The smile that stretched the Maiar’s lips would have frightened any normal being but the orc before him smiled back and followed his master into the bowels of Orthanc, his laughter echoing that of the Istari. As they descended, a name crossed Saruman’s mind and he thought he rather fancied it. Perhaps that was what he would call his new breed someday.

Uruk-Hai.

 

 

___________________________________________________________

~*PART NINTEEN*~

 

 

Word of Rhuddryn’s death had spread quickly and been verified by neighboring tribes. The guards having learned that their employer was dead were given the choice of leaving and never returning or facing the wrath of the newly freed slaves. Aragorn had stood in the doorway of the punishment hut and informed them of their choices. His gaze fell hard on Talft and Lur. Neither of the Haradrim would look at him. The sentries truly were the cowardly bullies they had been painted as. As he walked among them cutting their bonds, Legolas and a small contingent of the new owners of the house stood by with their weapons at the ready. It was unnecessary however.

Not one of the guards remained and none of them resisted their expulsion. They would be able to find work elsewhere and although many of them deserved death for their treatment of the former slaves Aragorn would not allow any that left of their own free will to be harmed. There had been too much death already and he did not want Cabed or his people harassed by other Haradrim who were looking vengeance.

The best way to start a new life was with mercy and grace, however undeserved it may be, not bloodshed, and the newly freed slaves accepted the young ranger’s wisdom on this and were setting out about it the right way.

On threat of death the former guards were taken to the edge of the compound and released. They left quickly and not a one of them looked back.

When that had been accomplished, the new owners of the house had been truly freed of all their past enslavement. Aragorn and Legolas stayed on an extra month to make sure no retribution was visited upon the Haradrim that remained with the land. Legolas taught the young men how to fight and make their own weapons and Aragorn helped Cabed and the other elders set up the household so that all were equal and no one would ever again be lord over another again.

As time would have it, the day to leave grew near. On the morning of their departure, Legolas followed Sircyn into the main house; his arms loaded down with the burden of wood that they had collected that morning after seeing to the needs of the oliphaunts. He laughed as the Haradrim finished recounting a story about Aragorn’s first days with them and how he had mistakenly thought that the large creatures were simply distant mountains.

Setting the wood down near the large hearth, the elf turned to address his friend and laughingly teased, "Well Strider you would think that you..." His laughter died as he scanned the large room and realized that the ranger was not among Cabed’s clan, who were busy cleaning the house with the other families that were more familiar with the palatial building.

Looking back to Sircyn he questioned the young man, "Where is Estel? Was he not with us when we returned?"

The dark skinned youth shrugged his shoulders in confusion. "I thought he was Legolas. I do not know."

With a quick nod of his head the elf walked swiftly back through the halls and left the house, heading for the west side of the compound. Something in the back of his mind was telling him he would find his friend there.

~*~

Aragorn stepped quietly into the abandoned slaves’ tent. The fire ring was empty and cold and the sleeping pallets had long been removed, put to better use inside the house, which those who had chosen to remain now lived in. He smiled sadly as he glanced around the empty tent. He had spent many happy evenings with the Simbani clan under this roof and the memories stopped him momentarily.

Memories...

That was why he had returned here.

Quickly he moved to his task, searching the dirt floor of the simple building. It was here. He had left it here for its safety. His boot dislodged a small dark stone and he knelt carefully, his fingers brushing away the loose topsoil. A glint of silver caught his attention and he dug his fingers into the dirt, pulling the ring of his ancestor’s out of its hiding spot. He had hidden Barahir beneath his pallet the night that Legolas had returned the ring to him in order to keep it safe, marking its place with a small smooth stone and now at long last he had come back to claim it.

Turning the ring over in his fingers he blew the dirt away from the green emerald jewel that was seated between the two serpents. He brushed the small circle against his leggings, cleaning the delicate metal work until it gleamed in the low light that seeped in through the canvas siding.

Unconsciously he crossed his legs beneath him and sat down as recollections of his life flooded his thoughts. He found himself smiling as he recalled the day his father had given him the ring. Elladan had gone to no small effort to tease the human about the latest piece of his past and his destiny that had been further revealed to him. It had taken his mind off of the great responsibility that always weighted down on him whenever he gave it the least bit of thought. He shook his head slightly in remembrance; his father had caught Elladan in the act... his father.

His mind snagged on the image of the older elf, warrior, lord... father. Their parting had been painful and he swallowed hard in indecision. He had been gone quite some time now. Would they welcome him back? Perhaps it would be better to return to the wilds for a bit longer. He was not at all sure that he was ready to face any of them again.

The ranger’s thoughts were interrupted as the tent flap was quietly moved back and Legolas stepped in. Taking note of the man seated on the ground the elf breathed a soft sigh of relief. He had thought that perhaps he would find his friend here. Silently Legolas sat down next to Aragorn; his eyes latching onto the silver circle that human was fingering.

The silence stretched easily between them as the elf waited his friend out. He knew Aragorn had a lot to consider. Today they had planned to leave the Olybryn and turn towards home. The Simbani had been the ranger’s surrogate family for the better part of a human year; Aragorn had bonded with these people when he had no one else. Legolas feared that it might be a difficult parting.

Aragorn passed the ring to Legolas, acknowledging him finally. "If not for you and Barahir, I may never have remembered." The human’s words were quiet and the elf strained to hear him. "I hid it here so that Talft and Lur would not take it from me. I almost forgot that I had left it behind."

The elf’s slender fingers gently brushed the smooth face of the stone. "I would not have let you forget." His words holding more meaning than simply referring to the family heirloom he passed back to his friend.

Aragorn accepted the ring back and laughed softly, "Stubborn elf."

Legolas stood gracefully and extended his hand down to the human. "We should be going. The day is nearly half spent and we have a long journey ahead of us."

With a slight nod, Aragorn accepted the help to his feet and brushed himself off, placing the ring on his left forefinger. "I am not sure I am ready for this my friend."

Legolas glanced to the floor of the living space, his eyes lighting on the dead fire ring. He knew Aragorn was fully aware of why they had to leave but repeated it softly anyway; it would be good for them both to hear it again. "Estel, the rainy season is coming to the lands northward of us, and beyond that the snow will start to fly. The passes will close for the winter before we reach them if we do not leave now. We have delayed as long as we may. We will need to move quickly as it is. We can tarry no longer. The Simbani are free. The grounds and the Oliphaunts are theirs now and it is obvious that no one intends to give them any trouble. They have their life back and so my friend, do you." He placed his hand gently on the man’s shoulder. "I have informed Cabed of our intentions and Mambre has prepared food for our journey. They await us at the house."

Aragorn glanced up at his friend, his eyes locking onto the blue ones that stared sympathetically back at him. "Let us be off Strider. The longer we wait the harder it will be and I do not wish to be caught in the mountains when the first storms come." The elf laughed softly, "I do not think I could survive another winter having to drag you through the passes."

The teasing barb elicited a soft snort of mirth from the man and he smiled at the elf. "You are right Legolas. I just..." Aragorn refrained from finishing his thoughts. Now was not the time to tell the elf his deepest fears about returning home. They would have that time alone later.

"I know."

Aragorn nodded, knowing that Legolas understood his hesitancy and fully expected to deal with it on the long journey ahead of them.

"Come, the Simbani are waiting and we must go." The elf prince stepped to the canvas entry and led his friend out of the tent for the last time. They walked to the house in amiable silence; each lost in their own thoughts.

Sircyn was waiting on the front step, a rolled up wad of clothing in his hands. He shook the garment out, and let the folds of leather fall down to barely touch the top of the stone steps. The frown on his face as he wrinkled his nose in disgust brought a burst of laughter from the elf as he recognized the piece of apparel.

"Hey!" Aragorn gained the steps quickly and gathered the long leather overcoat in his hands. "Where did you find that?!" He looked in wonder at the young Haradrim.

Confusion touched the young Haradrim’s eyes; "You like it? You may have it!"

"I thought I had lost it." The ranger shrugged into his familiar jacket and smiled to himself. He pulled the collar up to his face and sniffed the interior of the coat before turning a questioning glance on the elf that stood next to him. "This smells like you, but I know it is mine."

Legolas laughed and nodded. "I found it near where you were captured by Seobryn. It had been rolled into a ball and abandoned, buried beneath the forest debris; presumably where you left it. I wore it down here to hide who I was. It worked rather well for a bit anyway." The elf explained as the man inspected the coat.

Aragorn quickly found the mended tear in the shoulder which he did not recognize and he touched his fingers to the expertly sewn patch, raising his eyebrows as he glanced at his friend once more, his silent look begging an explanation.

"Now *that* is a long story!" The elf next to him smiled and stepped quickly away. "You are lucky I patched it all! Talft and Lur took it and all my things from me when I was found out by Rhuddryn." Legolas turned his attention back Sircyn, "You did not happen to find my bow or quiver in their possessions did you?" He had accepted the Haradrim’s weapons when they had attacked the Seobryn’s warg compound but had missed the feel of his own bow, it was weighted and set just for him, a gift from his father a few years back and he wished to reclaim it. The guards had things stashed all over the house, guard quarters and grounds in sometimes implausible seeming alcoves, and the former slaves were still discovering all the secrets that those places had to offer.

With a quick smile Sircyn leaned back in the entryway and retrieved the weapon from where it leaned against the doorframe. He picked up the quiver from the floor and handed them back to the overjoyed elf. "Are these they?"

Aragorn, not about to be put off by his friends’ easy change of subject, smacked the elf lightly, "Do not think I am going to forget about this my friend." He ran his fingers lightly over the dark stain that spread out from the sewn edges, apparently from blood.

Legolas laughed aloud and nodded, "I wouldn’t dream of it."

By this time most of the Simbani clan had gathered around the two northerners joining in their laughter and knowing that their friends were leaving.

Looking slowly around them Aragorn sobered and smiled sadly, his gaze redirected as Cabed stepped forward.

"I will miss you my son." He spoke softly, his voice rough with the emotions he was trying to hide.

Aragorn found that the words he intended to speak stuck in his throat and he simply nodded, pulling the old Haradrim close to him and holding him tightly. "I’m sorry." He whispered to the man he had grown so fond of.

"It is well." Cabed stepped back from the ranger and smiled. "You have a family that needs you and you have helped this family more than you can possibly know." The older man graced Legolas with a smile, "Both of you have."

Legolas bowed slightly to the patriarch.

"But now you must go, before the snows of the northern places keep you from returning. Know that your home here will always be open to you." Cabed stepped back slightly as Mambre pressed forward her arms laden with the goods she had so carefully wrapped for them to see them through to their journeys end.

Aragorn pulled the woman into a tight hug, when Legolas had relieved her of her burden. "Thank you Mambre." He kissed her temple lightly, brushing away the tears that spilled over her cheeks gently with his fingers. "I will come back if ever I can, I promise."

With a simple nod she moved away, taking her place next to Cabed.

Legolas had quietly melted to the back of the crowd, loading their packs while Aragorn said his good-byes to the large clan he had lived with, giving his friend the time and space he needed. Slinging one bundle on his back he handed a similar one to the ranger as the man stepped off of the stairs his hand clasped around Sircyn’s upper arm in farewell.

With a last glance behind them and a parting wave the two friends walked down the dusty front path, heading northwest. Legolas did not speak, knowing that his friend was having a hard time with the emotions in his heart and mind.

A small cry from behind them stopped the elf and man in their tracks and Aragorn spun around at the sound of his Haradian name.

"ADRAR!" The tiny voice cried. Kidrin vaulted off the porch and ran towards the northerner.

Kneeling in the dirt, Aragorn held his arms open as the child threw himself into the man’s embrace. "What is it Kidrin?" He asked quietly as the little boy clutched tightly to the ranger’s coat.

"Don’t go." The child whispered softly.

Aragorn swallowed hard and laid his cheek on the boy’s head. "I have to Kidrin, but I will miss you terribly."

"You’ll forget me." The child buried his head on the ranger’s shoulder.

Aragorn closed his eyes tightly against the tears threatening to overwhelm him. "I could never forget you." He answered softly.

Kidrin pulled back and looked down to his hands. He held a small toy oliphaunt that Cabed had carved for him and hesitantly offered the treasure to Aragorn. "I want you to have him." He whispered through his tears, looking up into the silver eyes that watched him carefully, "Then every time you see him you can think of me."

The ranger slowly accepted the toy and pressed it carefully into a breast pocket. "I'll keep it right here, close to my heart just like you will always be." He smiled at the child he held before glancing over the boy’s head to his foster family once more.

Standing slowly to his feet, Aragorn patted the youngster on the head and pushed him gently back towards Mambre. "If ever you need me, I will be there for you, and I will come back, I promise. You take care of each other."

"You keep your promises ranger," Sircyn called after them. "My brother." He added more quietly but the title did not escape the sharp ears of the ranger who turned back once more.

"You know I will!" Aragorn smiled at Sircyn, before following Legolas out into the orchards that ringed the large dwelling. The elf clasped his shoulder gently once they were out of sight of the main house. "We'll come back." He spoke softly, adding reassuringly to his friend when he noted the tears in the ranger’s eyes. "Strider, we *will* come back."

Aragorn nodded slightly, turning towards his friend and finally smiled softly. He knew deep in his heart the elf was right. They would come back. Passing out from under the shade of the canopy of the large trees the two crested a small hill. The man turned one last time and gazed back before they pass out of sight again. Sircyn, Cabed and Mambre holding Kidrin had waiting for them and stood on the porch, waving goodbye.

With a deep sigh the ranger walked slowly down the far side of the hill heading towards home with his friend. The northern expanse of Harad swept before them endlessly and he found his pace picking up to match the elf’s. It would be good to return to the northern reaches of Middle Earth. His heart longed for the woods and mountains of his people and he was surprised to find that he was indeed eager to be off.

Thoughts of his enslavement fell farther behind him with every step and each day his time with the Simbani became more memory as Aragorn followed the elf out of Harad and into the hilly reaches of Gondor. They needed to make the pass near Isengard before the first snow. If they kept to their pace and no ill befell them they would reach Rivendell on the eve of Winter.

 

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

 

Aragorn tossed the pieces of wood he had collected into a pile on the ground and collapsed on his bedroll next to Legolas with a sigh. The elf watched with amusement as the man flopped over backwards and tucked his arms beneath his head, gazing into the darkened night sky.

Another sigh escaped the ranger’s lips and a small smiled tugged at the corners of his mouth.

"What is with you tonight?" The elf laughed, leaning back against the rock that he sat in front of.

"Eärendil." Aragorn spoke the one word softly.

"Yes?" Legolas glanced towards the expanse where the bright star twinkled in the depths of night.

"I haven’t seen it for so long." Aragorn turned his head and gazed at the elf, "When I was a slave, I looked every night into the sky, searching, but I did not know what I was looking for. Yet in my heart there was an ache, because I knew something was missing that should have been there." He redirected his attention back to the star, "And tonight for the first time since we left Harad, I can see it again."

Legolas smiled softly and gazed into the heavenly expanse overhead. It was indeed good to see the stars of home again. The ranger was not the only one who had missed them.

"You know what I miss now?" Aragorn spoke wistfully, his eyes still locked on the point of light so far away, like his thoughts at the moment. "I miss their singing." He answered his own question without being prompted.

Legolas watched his friend quietly, allowing the human time to think through his thoughts and perhaps share them out loud if he chose to.

"They were so musical, the slaves I mean. And the tune that they hummed every night..." His voice dropped quietly as he remembered, "I can hear it in my mind. I fell asleep to it every night while I was there. I wish I could hear it now."

"Shall I sing it for you?" Legolas laughed gently, teasing his friend.

"Oh very funny. I doubt you could you sing that one anyway. Only the slaves sung it and only when it was dark. Cabed said that it was an old lullaby that the women used to hum to sing the children to sleep. And those children grew up and they would sing it every night until it just became a ritual."

Legolas thought for a moment, he too could hear the Haradrim’s lullaby in his mind. Softly, quietly, he hummed what he could hear in his heart and in moments the soothing tune filled the small campsite.

Aragorn rolled over on his side, his star gazing all but forgotten, a huge smile on his face as he looked in rapt attention at this friend. The elf was gazing at the stars overhead, focused on listening to the melody that sifted in his mind. The last soft note hung in the air and the elf smiled slightly as he listened to the song.

"Was that the one?" Legolas finally whispered, breaking the spell that had fallen over them.

"Yes..." Aragorn still lay staring at the prince in disbelief, "but how did you...?"

"I used to go out almost every night and stay by your hut. I heard them singing." The elf turned a brilliant smile on the human, "I too loved their music. They reminded me of my people in some ways."

"Thank you." Aragorn smiled at the fair-haired being. The ranger’s eyes were half lidded and he laid his head down on his arms as he watched his friend. "For never giving up on me, for, for everything, Legolas."

"Estel, I could not let you go alone." The elf spread his bedroll out on the ground bedside the fire and lay down upon it watching the human. "When I heard how you left Lord Elrond’s house and then discovered that you might have been killed by Seobryn and his men..." Legolas stopped speaking and stared at the fire for a few moments, "I have not been that frightened in a long time. I am not ready to lose you yet human." He threw the word at his friend, like the slang that it was occasionally used as.

Aragorn laughed and gave the elf a gentle shove; "Well obviously not even a herd of oliphaunts could do that."

"You do realize, don’t you," Legolas pushed himself up on his elbows and stared seriously at the ranger, "that when Elladan and Elrohir hear you, heir to the throne of Gondor, have been playing nursemaid to those wretched creatures for over half a human year that you will never live it down."

The man rolled his eyes, unable to control his laughter, "You cannot tell them! Do you hear me?"

"And pray tell my friend, what shall I tell them you were up to?" Legolas shook his head, smiling all the while, "I was sent to find you and it has taken me over two years to do so. We will have to think up something very ingenious indeed if you hope to keep this from them. Although..." the elf was again shaking his head, "there will be no hiding that darkened skin of yours. You will have to tell them truth."

Aragorn sobered and glanced into the fire. "In all likelihood it will not be necessary. I am not sure I wish to return hom- to Rivendell just yet."

"Estel..."

"Hear me out Legolas." Aragorn stopped his friend’s argument. He moved into a sitting position and grabbed another piece of wood, throwing it onto the fire, feeding the small flame, "You already said my brothers told you why I left. Did they also tell you what it has done to us, to our relationship?"

It was Legolas’ turn to cast his gaze down from that of the man’s, "Yes, they did." He quickly glanced up to see how the ranger would handle the admission.

"Then what you probably don’t know is that I think Arwen feels the same... I think she does... rather, I hope she does, but what does that make me then Legolas? If I hope that she returns my feelings, knowing what I know it would mean?"

Legolas said nothing because he knew that his friend was not really looking to him for an answer. Aragorn needed to get his thoughts worked out and the elf was willing to listen in silence until he could say something useful.

The young ranger looked at his hands. "But then, she may think I am only a foolish child, she has every reason to. I don’t know Legolas... I can’t help the way I feel when I think of her, even now! And yet I know it breaks my family’s heart.  My father and I..." He stopped, his voice faltering, "we...there were words.  All that was said in parting was not kind or taken right. They don’t want me there Legolas. They may think they do, but that’s just because they’ve gotten so used to protecting me. I don’t want them to have to look out for me because they think I am the hope of men! If they care, I-I want it to be for *me* as it was in the past. But I fear that in their hearts... it will never be the same Legolas. I can’t live that way, knowing that some part them will always resent me, even if outwardly it all seems well. I can’t." Aragorn looked away. "It is better not to see them at all," he whispered softly.

"You are right, I don’t know about that, any of it, I could not begin to guess what is in either yours or Arwen’s hearts, I have never felt as you do. But what I do know Estel is your father and brothers are worried sick about you and not just because you are Isildur’s heir Aragorn! But because you are a part of their family! And no one faults you for falling in love with Arwen... whatever they may feel about what it could possibly mean, they don’t blame or resent you for that which you cannot control. She is the most beautiful of your father’s people. Who would can blame you?" He smiled when Aragorn met his gaze. "Do not punish them because you are confused right now about your feelings for her. You are after all still Elrond’s son, Estel, brother of Elladan and Elrohir. They miss you; can you honestly say that you do not miss them also? No matter what you think, they do *want* you to come home."

Legolas’ soft words and easy acceptance of Aragorn’s secret fears and feelings quieted his troubled mind and roused in him a deep desire to return to the ones he called his family. So long... so long he had been away. So long he had not even remembered. He simply nodded as he held the elf’s gaze.

With a smile the prince turned over on his side facing away from the fire and pulled his blanket around his shoulders, "Then let us get some rest and tomorrow we can head for the Gap of Rohan."

"Yes.  I would like that very much.  I do miss home...a lot."  He spoke softly, gazing into the flames, listening to his heart. "A lot."

Legolas could hear the human moving quietly around the campfire and resisted the urge to roll over to see what he was up to. He was too tired himself and needed to rest.

Aragorn sat for a moment, thinking through what the elf said. He glanced about them into the dark night. He had grown used to sleeping with several other people pressed closely up against him at night and he shivered unconsciously. It seemed suddenly so cold and dark. He watched Legolas, trying to gauge if the elf had fallen asleep or not. Although he had been trying since they had left Harad, he couldn’t sleep like this. Attempting to move quietly he picked up his bed roll and lay it out behind the prince, carefully lying down next to the elf and turning his back to Legolas’. Ever so slowly he inched backwards until his shoulders barely touched the elf’s. Comforted by the closeness of his friend, he finally relaxed, the fire mesmerizing his overly tired mind.

Legolas felt the gentle brush of his friend against him, their shoulders barely touching and he smiled slightly as he turned and looked over his back at the human. Softly he began to hum the slaves’ lullaby, smiling as Aragorn sighed slightly and released his worries into the darkness of sleep.

 

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

 

The leaves rustled gently on the cool fall breeze as Elrond walked through the gardens that flanked Rivendell. His thoughts were far way, wandering through memories and worries, snagging on the emptiness that ached in his heart. It had been two, nearly three years since he had seen his youngest son and he had only just a month ago closed off Estel’s room, keeping its contents safe until the boy... no he was a ranger now, until the ranger returned home. He stopped and glanced to the forest floor. There was no fooling his heart, no matter how old Estel became or how long he stayed away; the human would always be his son.

How he longed to see that smiling face just once more before winter set in yet again. Never in his immortal life had the passing of simple, human years seemed so long as the past few had. No word, no news. Not even the rangers knew what had become of the lad. If Aragorn still lived then he had rejected them utterly and did not seem to want any part of his elven family.

Elrond passed into the front courtyard of Imladris causally, unaware of where his walking was taking him, so lost in thought was he. It took the elf lord by surprise to hear the ring of boot-heels on the stone walk and he turned towards the entry, freezing mid step.

 

 

___________________________________________________________

~*PART TWENTY*~

 

~~~~~~~

And like the rain that falls into the sea

In a moment what has been is lost in what will be.

When love takes you in

Everything changes...

--Steven Curtis Chapman

~~~~~~~

 

 

Legolas stepped quietly into the courtyard, followed by Aragorn. The human stopped, taken back by the look on Lord Elrond’s face. The older elf stared wordlessly between the two young friends, half afraid he was simply imagining his son home, afraid his heart was tricking him once more, playing the last light of day in some twisted vision to suit his longings.

Legolas bowed slightly, touching his hand to his heart and sweeping it outward in the typical Elvish gesture of respect as Aragorn stepped hesitantly forward. Now that he was home, now that he stood before his father he did not know what to say or where to begin. His hands shook with the adrenaline that the fear had spiked through his system and he simply bowed in an unspoken request for forgiveness, touching his fingers reverently to his forehead as he did so.

Not only had he threatened Arwen’s peace and happiness, he had run from his family, he had shut them out of his life and wounded their hearts in the process. Aragorn wasn’t sure they could ever forgive him. He wasn’t even sure how to ask.

Elrond stepped forward, testing the vision. It did not move although the human flinched almost imperceptibly at his advance.

Aragorn closed his eyes and held his breath as his adoptive father walked closer to him. The silence was unbearable and yet at the same time unbreakable. Legolas watched mutely as Elrond slowly slid his hands along the sides of the human’s face and tipped the ranger’s head up. The elf’s long graceful fingers brushed the tanned cheeks softly, his eyes searching the silver ones, memorizing them again as his own filled with unshed tears.

Brushing the hair away from the young man’s left temple Elrond gently turned the boy’s face and traced the slight mar near his eye, the remnants of the scar that decorated his son. Silently he fingered the tips of the long unkempt hair now streaked with deep red highlights from days spent working under the hot sun. And when the elf lord looked once more into the hesitant silver eyes that watched him so closely Aragorn realized that his father knew. Knew where he had been and somehow without even a word passing between them knew what had happened.

"I’m sor..." The ranger started to apologize softly, but the elf lord pressed his fingers against the human’s lips, silencing him. Without another word he pulled the young man into his arms and held him tightly as he let out a deep sigh of relief. A sigh he didn’t even know he had been holding, a sigh that had been waiting for release for the past few years. Estel was finally home, he closed his eyes briefly as he felt Aragorn’s arms wrap around his back and tighten.

Elrond glanced up, seeking out Legolas’ face over his adopted son’s shoulder, and the elf prince could see the tears welling up in the elf lord’s eyes, nearly spilling over. There was no need to explain anything at the moment. It was just so good that they were home, safe, once more. Legolas nodded at the unspoken thanks.

Aragorn didn’t move from the embrace as his father hugged him tighter. He had forgotten how it felt to be treated kindly after so long, had forgotten the way his father smelled and the feel of the crisp cool air of Rivendell on his skin in the evenings. His shoulders shook slightly and could Legolas have seen the ranger’s face at that moment he would have noted the tears streaming down the young human’s cheeks as well.

All was forgotten all was forgiven and something in the fair halls of Imladris sighed in the sweet after glow of reconciliation as the world of men and elves came together once more and the tiny mended family turned and walked back into the ancient vaulted halls.

 

 

The End

 

___________________________________________________________

~*EPILOGUE*~

 

~~~~~~~

And this love will never let you go,

There is nothing that will ever cause this love to lose its hold.

--Steven Curtis Chapman

~~~~~~~

 

Aragorn heard the snap and hiss of a fire sparking beneath the mantle on the far wall and smiled softly. It was early and the house was so peaceful that Aragorn just laid quietly under the pile of soft blankets that wrapped about him. It had literally been years since he had slept in his own bed and the softness and the comfort was a luxury that he had all but forgotten. The ranger burrowed into the warmth, relaxing into the pillow beneath his head, his face turned to the far wall and his mind still fogged with sleep.

He remembered how he had sat with his father and Legolas in the main room far into the night, retelling the tale of all that had happened to him and how the elf prince had found him and helped him to remember who he was. He shifted slightly under the blankets and lifted his hand out from under the heavy warm coverings. On his finger, Barahir glinted softly in the warm light and he smiled as his thoughts drifted to Legolas. They had laughed at each other and spoken of all that had happened until Legolas had tiredly excused himself and sought out the ever ready guest room, collapsing down onto what had been fondly termed ‘Legolas’ bed’. It was then when they were alone that Aragorn had finally been able to apologize to his father. His brothers were out hunting, trying to fill the cellars before the storms of winter and had not yet returned. Their absence gave the father and son the time alone that they needed to heal.

His father. He had been so afraid of what he would find when he came home, and after last night he realized that what he had found were not the misgivings of his family but the hesitations and misunderstandings of his own heart and confused emotions. He had internalized all the pain and hurt and confusion that falling in love with a lady who was not only an immortal, but also his adopted father’s daughter, had brought on, and *he* had isolated *himself* from his family. If not for their love and the persistence of his friend, he would have lost them all forever, along with everything else, his identity and everything he ever was. He breathed in a slow, ragged breath as gratitude overrode the last tiny twinges of homesickness and gripped his heart tightly in its warm embrace.

Dark eyes were watching him carefully. Elrond knew the ranger was awake and had waited, simply allowing himself the luxury of sitting near the sleeping boy. No he was a man; he kept reminding himself of that, although his elven heart laughed at the thought. The young human before him would always be a boy to him. At the soft sound of Aragorn’s hitched breathing, Elrond leaned forward and gently placed his hand on the ranger’s back.

Aragorn started and turned over, his sleep-hazed eyes locking onto the deep blue ones that stared back at him. He drew his breath in deeply, trying to ease the emotions that squeezed him.

A small smile tugged at the ranger’s lips as he watched the older man; "Isn’t that where I left you last night?"

Elrond tried to suppress his own smile.

"Father." Aragorn spoke the word softly and the sound of it fell like music on his ears. He smiled as Elrond’s lips turned upward mirroring his own. "Don’t tell me you stayed in that chair all night long." He teased the older elf.

"If I chose to watch my youngest son sleeping where is the harm in that?" Elrond raised one elegant eyebrow as he answered, his voice soft and low. He reached out and brushed the wayward strands of brown hair out of the young man’s eyes. "Allow your elder the privilege he has been denied for so long. It is so good to have you home my son."

My son... The words warmed Aragorn’s heart more than any he could remember hearing. His thoughts were broken as the downstairs door opened and closed and the sounds of Elrohir and Elladan resounded cheerfully up the stairwell as the two headed to the kitchens to find Celboril.

Motion at the doorway to his room caught Aragorn’s attention and he looked up to see Legolas standing on the threshold. The elf leaned against the doorframe, his slender shoulders draped in a thick blanket.

"Legolas." Aragorn smiled at his friend, "Come on in, take a seat near the fire where it is warm."

The elf nodded sleepily and silently acknowledged Elrond as he walked into the room, dropping down into a large chair near the fireplace.

"How do you feel this morning Legolas?" Elrond turned towards the prince and graced the young elf with a small smile.

"Tired. Weary and tired. But very glad to be here with you." Legolas answered truthfully.

"You do realize you are wintering here with us." Aragorn spoke quietly, glancing at his friend from where he still lay, unwilling to leave the comfort he had missed for so long.

"I had hoped for it." The prince glanced between the father and son. "Can word please be sent to my father to let him know of my intentions and my safety?" The prince had given up worrying what his father would think. Thranduil would understand because he had no other option. But since he had left with his father’s blessing this time, Legolas was not overly concerned, even though his journey had taken... a *little* longer than expected.

"Of course." Elrond nodded, laughing slightly, "It will be good to have you both under the rafters once more. This house has missed the sounds of laughter."

Aragorn laughed softly and glanced at the door as the sounds of quiet footfalls echoed up the stairs.

Elrohir stopped at the head of the stairs and glanced at the open door at the end of the hallway. A deep, sad sigh escaped him. He knew his father had sealed Aragorn’s room only a few months ago. Fearing that the older elf had gone there to console himself again he quietly approached the doorway. From his viewpoint he could see neither the bed nor the chair that Legolas occupied, only the large sitting seat that held his father.

"Father why do you torment yourself like this?" The younger elf stood just outside the doorway in the hall, unwilling to enter the room he mistakenly thought was still unoccupied. "It is not good for your heart to continue to grieve so over Estel. Legolas will find him and bring him home. Please come down and eat something, perhaps even this will be the day they return." Those words. Said so many times, they had almost lost their meaning, yet the young elf still clung to them, as he clung to hope, although both had grown faded.

Elrond glanced from the twin to his youngest. Elrohir’s admission of Elrond’s grieving pierced Aragorn’s heart and regret for the sorrow he had caused shown in his eyes.

Elladan gained the stairwell and noted where Elrohir stood, his heart aching for his broken family.

"Is father in Estel’s room again?" He called down the hallway to his twin.

Elrohir glanced back quickly at his brother, "Yes, I was trying to convince him to come down to eat."

"Why don’t we all go down to eat?" Elrond questioned, a warm smile tugging on his lips.

He watched as the twins stood perfectly still. Elrohir, catching onto the meaning of his words before Elladan, grabbed the doorframe and stepped quickly into the room, looking to the bed just out of his line of sight.

Aragorn glanced up at the twin unsure. His last words to his brothers had been in anger and hurt. He didn’t know how they would receive him back. He smiled soft and hesitantly at the elf.

"Estel?" Elrohir couldn’t believe his eyes. The sight of his younger brother brought a rush of emotions flooding his heart and he wasn’t sure how to respond.

"He is home?" Elladan pushed his twin out of the way and entered the bedroom. The older brother stopped near the bed glancing down at the sleepy eyed ranger.

"Elladan?"

At the sound of his name the elf dropped next to the bed and pulled the human into his arms, holding him tightly. "I never thought to see you again. After what was said..."

"No. Shhh... It’s all right. Legolas found me. I-I didn’t mean to stay away, honestly I didn’t." He held the twin closely to him, "And it wasn’t your fault either. I was injured and forgot who I was and was unable to return."

Elladan pushed him back quickly and searched the young man’s eyes. "Injured?" His sharp eyes found the slight scar and the human allowed the elf to tip his head to the side and gently touch where the wound had been. "Who hurt you?" He whispered fiercely.

"It does not matter, they are dead now." Aragorn wrapped his hands around the elf’s arms and pressed his forehead against the twin’s. "All that matters is that you, Elrohir and father are still here and still well. I have missed you." His voice broke as he whispered the words softly.

"Estel?" Elrohir whispered the ranger’s name again.

Aragorn glanced up at the younger twin and smiled, "You were the one who gave Legolas Barahir." The man held up his hand, the ring fitted about his finger. "It helped me to remember. Thank you so much."

"I’m sorry." Tears spilled over the rims of Elrohir’s eyes and Estel held his hand out towards the elf begging the other to come closer as he sat up.

Aragorn closed his eyes and relaxed into the warm embrace of his brothers. With his head buried on Elladan’s shoulder between the two twins he softly apologized, "I am so sorry." His grip on Elrohir’s tunic tightened when the elf shook his head trying to pull back. "Yes I am. I was wrong."

"You were not wrong to fall in love, you have no control over that." Elladan whispered. "We just reacted and acted on what we were feeling, we didn’t stop to listen to you... to see what you were going through too. We should have Estel, I’m sorry."

"No, the heart does not follow the rules of elves or men," Aragorn conceded. "But I was wrong to speak to you so, both of you. Wrong for pushing you away and thinking I could not trust your love for me. You are my brothers and I could ask for no better. Please now, forgive me."

"Everything. Estel everything is forgiven." Elladan answered softly.

"If you’ll pardon us as well." Elrohir added.

The ranger moved slightly and kissed the temple of each twin. "It’s already been done."

Elrond glanced back at Legolas who had remained quietly seated in the corner and smiled. The elf prince nodded knowingly at the older elf.

"Shall we all go downstairs and get something to eat?" Elrond’s deep voice broke through the quiet reunion.

Elladan glanced back at his father, wiping the tears from his eyes, his gaze lighted on Legolas sitting in the corner near the fire. The elf prince had a huge grin on his face, and his eyes sparkled more than usual, happy unshed tears in their depths gathered the light brilliantly.

"Thank you Legolas." The twin nodded to the prince. It was not the first time the wood-elf had brought their brother home to them when he had almost been considered lost. If they weren’t careful it was going to become a habit.

Elrohir moved back and stared at the elf, his own smile matching that of Legolas’.

"None necessary. It is enough that everything has worked out. I even have some really good stories to tell you." The prince smiled wickedly at the ranger who was shaking his head. "Like Estel playing nursemaid to mûmaskil!"

"Legolas!" The ranger grabbed his pillow and flung it at the elf, smacking the prince in the face with the cushion. "You promised!"

"No I didn’t! I promised I wouldn’t tell about the time that you mistook the..." His statement was cut off as Aragorn shouted down his friend.

"Do not! Do not or I will tell of our time in Moria!"

Legolas immediately stopped speaking and glanced at the other elves in the room. "You wouldn’t." Aragorn had been pulling that threat on him since it happened.

"Oh try me my friend. Surely there are other stories you could tell my family. Like say, how it was you who helped restore my memory."

"Now that would be a good tale." Elladan stood to his feet and reached down to pull his younger brother from the warm bed. "Let’s go eat, I would hear all that you have to say."

"I want to hear about the mûmaskil." Elrohir wrinkled his nose, "Tell me it’s not true. Did you really have contact with those nasty beasts?"

Aragorn swung his legs off the side of the bed and glanced at Legolas who had left the blanket behind now that he was warmed. The prince snickered softly and turned away as the ranger glared at him.

"Well for one thing they aren’t nasty by nature." He glanced back at his bedside table and fingered the crudely made, tiny wooden oliphaunt toy that stood there besides the shell night-light. "Only if they are trained, or driven to be so. And you wouldn’t believe what truly tame animals they can be!"

"Well the ones we worked with anyway." Legolas muttered as he followed Elrohir out and down the stairs.

"We?" Elrohir glanced over his shoulder, "So you were a nursemaid too?"

"Heavens no!" Legolas laughed, "I was a sharpshooter. I protected the herds."

"Until he got caught and then he was just a slave like the rest of us." Aragorn laughed as his father’s strong arm curled around his shoulders and led him out. He grasped the small toy quickly off the nightstand and shoved it in his pocket, gracing his father with a small smile as they followed the others down the stairs. Gently he wrapped his hand around the strong one that rested on his shoulder.

"A slave!" Both Elladan and Elrohir stopped dead in their tracks staring open mouthed between the elf prince and their brother.

Elrond pushed Aragorn between them and walked him down the stairs, trailing Legolas who was laughing at the elves’ astonishment.

"Wait a minute what do you mean you were slaves?" Elladan was indignant as he caught up with his father and brother.

"I do believe I hear Celboril calling us." Aragorn laughed, reaching behind him and pulling Legolas with him into the dinning hall. The small family tumbled into the warmly lit room, the conversation at a fever pitch. Elrond stood in the doorway and watched the four young beings as the twins plied the friends for answers faster than they could give them.

Silently he thanked Ilúvatar for bringing his family, all of them, adopted and borrowed alike, home for the winter. Shaking his head he walked into the room and entered the fray, laughing at the tale Legolas was attempting to retell around a fit of giggles as Aragorn sat shaking his head and denying it all, consumed with his own laughter. Yes it was good to be home.

 

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

 

It would be many years before Arwen Evenstar decided to follow the leadings of her heart, but when she and Aragorn met again, this time in the beautiful woods of Lothlórien, she put her hand in his and they pledged their love forever. Their trials were just beginning and their road would be a long one but when the day came that Elrond placed the hand of his daughter in the hand of his foster-son, now King of Gondor, a family was united, not broken, and it was a day of joy for all of Middle Earth.