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Dark Visions

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-Dark Visions-

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~*PART ONE*~

 

 

Two figures moved beneath the mottled shadows of the large mallorn trees, quietly talking together.  One of the sojourners supported the weight of the other who limped slowly forward, his useless right arm clutched tightly to his chest in a rough sling.

 

In the woods about them swift, light beings ran alongside the pair of intruders, carefully watching them from their hiding places amongst the tall trees.  Their sharp hearing picked up the quiet conversation as the elder man turned to the youth he was supporting; one arm wrapped protectively about the young man’s waist, his free hand tightly gripping the gnarled wood of his walking staff.

 

“No, my dear boy it was not at all funny at the time, but now looking back surely you can see the humor of it.”  Gandalf could not hide the smile that tugged at his lips as he tried to lighten his companion’s mood.  “The look on your face when I reached you...”

 

“The look on my face was pain and irritation.  I still fail to see the humor there Mithrandir.”  The young dark haired man tried to blow the wayward strands of hair out of his eyes.  He was sweating and breathing hard and the wavy curls stuck fast to his skin.  He tried to concentrate on walking and not on the shape he was in; the Maiar’s attempts to humor him were lost in the ache that throbbed dully through his body every time he took a step.

 

“Now perhaps if the roles were reversed and it was you who tumbled down that incline and ended up pinned beneath the bulk of a dead six-foot goblin then perhaps I would be laughing now as well.”  He stumbled slightly and their pace slowed a fraction as the wizard compensated for the human’s awkward, limping gate.

 

One of the hidden warriors that tracked their progress made to move forward but was held back by his superior.  The tall grey headed being was known to them, but the other was not.

 

“Now that cut on your thigh is no laughing matter.” Gandalf’s tone turned serious and he glanced at the makeshift bandage that wrapped around the young human’s leg, the red stain was spreading again.

 

With a deep sigh Aragorn leaned more heavily on his companion and glanced at the elder being, “Are you quite sure you couldn’t have handled this yourself?  I really don’t want to have to go to Lothlórien, it’s not that bad.”

 

“Not that bad.”  Gandalf rolled his eyes.  “My dear boy one does not get in a fight with a mounted wraith and his ground patrol and come out in the shape that you are in now and say he has a scratch.”

 

“I didn’t say I had a scratch.”

 

“Yet.” the wizard murmured. “Besides we are already in Lothlórien and have been for sometime now.”

 

“Can't we just go to Rivendell? My father can take care of this.” Aragorn drew his breath in with a sharp hiss as he stepped forward, placing too much pressure on his left leg.  A long cut traced the human’s thigh where the goblin’s blade had cut him.  He hadn’t even incurred the injury in the fight, which only added it his irritation.

 

“We are closer to Lothlórien and they can help you here.  Rivendell is too far in the shape you are in.” Gandalf spoke softly worry touching the edges of his age-old eyes.

 

“What do you think they were doing there?” Aragorn tried to change the subject, attempting to keep his mind off the ache that had crept back into his body.  He hadn’t wanted to tell Gandalf but he had known for a few days before their unfortunate encounter that he had been getting sick.  He could feel the pain deep in his throat when he swallowed and the tiredness that stole over him was from more than their all night trek back to the elven territory.  It should have been much cooler in the shade of the leafy trees than it was and he knew the heat was not from the injuries he had sustained last night.

 

“I think they were looking for something.”  Gandalf replied cryptically.  He had his suspicions what the wraith had been doing near the Anduin river and he felt partly responsible for the injuries that the young man in his company had incurred.  He simply had not realized that the one who searched had begun to concentrate his efforts in that region of the river once more.  He had been wrong.  He didn’t care *what* Saruman said about how anything that fell into the river must surely have washed to the sea by now; the wraith was there for a reason and it was making Gandalf re-think many things. 

 

The companions had been taken unawares early in the evening the day prior as they had set up their camp near the shores of the river Anduin on their way south.  Gandalf’s presence had been requested by the steward of Rohan to aid in talks with the Easterlings.  The wizard did not believe the truce would hold but he had been willing to accompany Rohan’s leader and assist him in anyway possible.  This setback bode ill for the tentative peace that had settled in the southern lands. 

 

The Maiar had sensed their attacker first but even he was not prepared for the sight of the wraith lord mounted on a huge flying beast that swept low in over their campsite. The wings of the large creature brushed the tops of the trees that bracketed the edges of the waterway, beating the air in a slow rhythmic thrum as it swept up the middle of the river.  The beast’s howls echoed across the waterway, competing with the hair-raising wails of its rider.  Seconds later the orcs had converged on them without warning and with Gandalf concentrating on their winged master, Aragorn was left to take care of the ground patrol that accompanied the wraith.

 

The orcs seemed as shocked to find the human and the wizard as the two companions had been to see them and Aragorn had the element of surprise on his side.  The fight had been short, swift and brutal.  The last of the orcs had put up the greatest amount of resistance.  The wraith lord seeing his servants decimated and unable to withstand the power of the Maiar alone and without the bidding of his master, had hastily retreated, blending into the darkening sky before Gandalf could stop him.

 

When Gandalf had turned his attention back to Aragorn, there was one orc left, and that one had nearly gotten the upper hand by the time the wizard was able lend a hand.  The two warriors struggled together on the edge of small knoll that dipped back into the woodlands.  The foul creature pressed Aragorn’s blade against him, his overpowering strength giving him the advantage.  The ranger widened his stance and shoved his opponent back with all his might giving him a split second reprieve.  Ducking under the orcs sweeping blade Aragorn narrowly missed being decapitated at the same instant that Gandalf sent a pulse of power straight at the creature, snapping its neck as it arced against the unseen hand that shoved it forward...into Aragorn, toppling them both down the grassy knoll.

 

When Gandalf reached the young human he lay pinned underneath the body of the dead orc, his right shoulder dislocated and his collarbone broken beneath the weight of the black creature.  The orc’s blade had torn a jagged cut in the ranger’s leg as they tumbled down into the sloping valley.

 

Unwilling to wait out the youth’s injuries and worried about poisons in his system, Gandalf had bandaged Aragorn’s wounds as best he could and headed them out that night towards the elves woodland fortress deep in Lothlórien.  He needed to leave the ranger somewhere safe until he was healed and proceed to Rohan as quickly as possible, without his young traveling companion – a thought with which he was not at all comfortable for some reason.

 

That was how they had ended up limping through the woods towards Caras Galadon so early in the morning.

 

“If we are in Lothlórien, where are the elves?” Aragorn glanced around them.  He had grown more uneasy the deeper they had walked into the woods.

 

With a small laugh Gandalf swept his staff in a lazy circle, “Why all around us, and they have been for some time.”  He glanced at the human who limped stiffly beside him, holding on to the Maiar for support, “Remember Aragorn you are not in Mirkwood or Rivendell.” He whispered quietly.

 

The ranger sighed deeply, “What I wouldn’t give to be standing in front of Thranduil, listening to one of his lectures on the carelessness of youth right now. Or better yet *home*,” dark silver eyes returned the searching glance, “listening to my father lecture me.”

 

A burst of laughter broke from the wizard’s lips, “My dear boy if we were at your home your father would more than likely be lecturing me and not you.”

 

For the first time since their encounter with the wraith, Aragorn smiled, “And that is truly why you don’t want to take me home right now am I not correct?”

 

“In part yes.  But I really must make with all haste to Rohan.  And as much as I hate to leave you behind, this is the safest place for you now.”  The Maiar stopped their forward motion, his hand clutching his staff crossed protectively in front of Aragorn as much to hold the wounded human up as to stop him from proceeding.

 

Wearily the ranger glanced up into the piercing blue gaze of a dozen armed elves.

 

“Good morning and well met.”  Gandalf addressed the warrior that stepped out from among those arranged in front of the travelers.

 

“You are known to us Mithrandir,” The elf’s blue eyes apprised the man that stood beside the Maiar, “But the human is not.”  The warrior spoke in the grey tongue out of habit.  It wasn’t that the Lothlórien elves were rude, but they were not accustomed to allowing strangers into their sanctuary unchallenged.

 

“I am Aragorn of the Dunédain, a friend to Gandalf the Grey.”  The man introduced himself, speaking elvish perfectly.  He touched the fingers of his left hand to his forehead and bowed slightly, as much as his wounds would allow.

 

The warrior hid his surprise well, his stoic gaze drifting wordlessly to the wizard for further explanation.

 

“I need you to care for this one for me.  The Lady Galadriel will know him even though you do not and I am sure she will welcome him here.  I have business that cannot be delayed or I would stay myself.  Will you escort us to your Lady?”  The wizard spoke common not needing to impress either of the young beings he stood with and feeling a sense of urgency as Aragorn leaned more heavily against him.

 

Thinking through the situation for the fraction of a second, the elf nodded curtly and pushed back through the warriors behind him, “You will follow me.” He instructed as he led them on.

 

“You mean to leave me with these elves that do not especially want me here?” Aragorn whispered through gritted teeth as he forced his body to move once more, “Please I beg you take me with you. The last time this happened I was accused of murder and exiled.”  He smiled slightly as Gandalf glanced at him a huge smile tugging at the corners of the old wizard’s lips.

 

“My boy, I think you will find the welcome warmer than you did in Mirkwood at first, these elves are your relatives.  Galadriel is in a very distant way your Great Grandmother, your father is her Son-in-law.” He meant to put the youth’s mind at ease with his words and was surprised when a soft bark of laughter escaped the ranger’s lips.

 

“My relatives. Oh joy. And I have made such a stunning first impression already.” The sarcastic comment caused the wizard to laugh out loud, his mirth contagious.

 

“Don’t make me laugh Gandalf, it hurts.”

 

“Arwen might be here.” The wizard whispered conspiratorially.

 

“WHAT!?!?” Aragorn stopped moving and pulled back staring at the older man. “Who told you?”

 

With a small shake of his head the wizard wrapped his arm back around the young man’s waist and started them moving again.  Their guide was watching the outburst one fair eyebrow quirked upward in silent question as he waited for them to catch up. 

 

“I know all sorts of things.”  Gandalf replied with a quiet laugh, “Not to mention the look on your face when reference is made of her.  It’s only obvious.”

 

“It’s not that obvious.” Aragorn grumbled darkly.

 

“More than you know.” Gandalf glanced back to see why their guides had stopped. “Ah, here we are.”  The wizard deftly changed the subject redirecting his companion’s gaze.  “That, Aragorn is where your relatives live.”

 

“Caras Galadon.”  The elf next to him spoke quietly as they looked on the huge forest palace of the Lothlórien elves.

 

~*~

 

“I can’t walk any farther.” Aragorn gently pushed himself away from Gandalf and eased down onto the ground at the base of a tall tree.  A huge spiraling staircase wrapped the massive trunk and he was half afraid that the wizard intended to force him to climb it. 

 

Closing his eyes the ranger rested his head against the rough bark and tried to relax.  The bright light of the midday sun hurt his eyes but here under the interwoven canopies the lights were soft and comforting.  The darkness behind his closed eyelids beckoned and before he realized it, Aragorn had fallen asleep.

 

When he woke it was to the gentle brush of fingertips on his cheek, moving the wayward strands of hair away from his face.  Feverish silver eyes opened and he was surprised by the beauty of the elf that knelt before him.  Her gaze was piercing as though her eyes held all the wisdom of the universe beneath their transparent depths but the look she gave the young man was full of compassion unlike the warriors they had met earlier.  Her proximity startled him and the ranger jumped slightly, banging his head back against the tree behind him.  He winced and reached up to touch his head but the elf crouched in front of him gently took his hand in her own, turning his palm over and letting her fingers lightly play over the ring that Aragorn wore.

 

Galadriel turned to glance up at Gandalf and the wizard stiffly knelt next to her.  “It is as you say Mithrandir.” She spoke softly and Aragorn found himself enraptured by the sound of her voice. 

 

A small smile broke across her lips as she glanced at the young human who was watching her so intently.  “But I fear there is more damage in his body than you realize.”  She pressed the palm of her free hand against Aragorn’s forehead, the fingers of her right hand seeking out the pulse that beat in his left wrist that she still held.  Aragorn found himself flinching slightly as she moved closer to him.  “Do not be afraid, you are safe here.” She spoke quietly to the man.

 

Standing gracefully she turned and glanced behind them, addressing someone that Aragorn had not realized stood just beyond her.  “He is ill.”  The regal looking elf she spoke to nodded and at his command two warriors raced off heading deep into the woods.

 

Gandalf frowned into the tired eyes that gazed dully at him, “You thought to hide it from me.”

 

“I get sick Gandalf, I am human. It would have been nothing more than a cold if we had not run into that wraith.  I would have been fine.” He spoke quietly, a little disoriented by all the sudden attention.  How he simply wished for his own bed and family.

 

“You are missing your own?” Galadriel asked the ranger as though she could read his mind, which was not far from the truth.  Aragorn simply nodded as a lordly elf with long flowing blonde hair stepped next to Gandalf and drew him aside.

 

“You say you met up with a wraith?  Near our borders?”  The elf questioned the Maiar worriedly, his conversation hidden in elvish.

 

“We did.” Aragorn whispered as the female elf knelt once more by his side.

 

She smiled softly as she realized that the human could understand their language, “Of course I should have know he would have taught you to speak the high tongues first did he not?” she asked cryptically.

 

Aragorn wasn’t sure if he was just too sick to understand her questioning or if the question had even been meant for him.  Seeing his confusion the lady continued, explaining herself softly.  “I am Galadriel, Lady of these woods and the one who speaks with Mithrandir is my husband Celeborn.”

 

“Arwen’s grandparents.”  Aragorn was surprised that he had spoken out loud, his thoughts were fuzzy and it hurt to think.  Of course he had heard of them before, chiefly from Arwen when they had been together, since she spent far more time here than her brothers or father did.  He closed his eyes.  Just perfect.  This was *not* the kind of first impression he would have liked to make. 

 

“Yes.  My daughter is Arwen’s mother.”  She let the meaning sink in slowly as she undid the sling that held Aragorn’s arm to his chest.  He winced and drew his breath in holding it against the pain that movement brought on.

 

Galadriel continued speaking, “We have the knowledge to reset your shoulder and your collar bone.  The wound you incurred in battle will heal well, but your illness...” She stopped and gazed into the fever bright eyes, “I have not dealt with the likes before.  That is something that we have little knowledge of here for few are the outsiders who pass beneath these trees and elves do not get sick young human.”

 

“I know.” Aragorn muttered darkly, “My brothers constantly remind me of the fact.”  Had he been more himself and felt less like he was on the verge of passing out once more he probably wouldn’t not have interrupted the elven Lady.

 

“I imagine they do.  And that brings me to my point.” She smiled as Aragorn blushed realizing his mistake, “There is one that I know of that has knowledge of healing for both men and elves and that one is Elrond.  He has just taken leave of our borders; Celeborn has sent sentries to call him back.  He will be here shortly and he will know what to do.”

 

“My father was here?” He spoke the words in elvish, it was easier to concentrate on his native language.  He didn’t think to ask how they had known to send runners even before he and Gandalf arrived in Caras Galadon, but in time he would learn that there was nothing which passed the borders of this land of which Galadriel was unaware.

 

Galadriel tipped her head slightly at the words, she had known that her son-in-law had taken the human in and given him refuge, but then Elrond had fostered all the heirs of Isildur; she had not realized that this young man had also won the elf lord’s heart and taken on the role of a son. 

 

“Yes,” her answer echoed oddly in Aragorn’s ear, as though he were a long way away from the one who spoke it, “he is on his way.  Hold on until he gets here young one, it will not be long.”  The Lady of the Woods’ words circled in his mind and the ranger was not sure he had even heard them with his ears or they had simply been spoke into the darkness of his thoughts.

 

“Rest...just rest...”  His tired body could not resist and he slipped away into unconsciousness.

 

 

 

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~*PART TWO*~

 

 

 

Consciousness returned slowly and it seemed to take great effort for Aragorn to turn his head to the side.  He could sense someone sitting next to him.  Dully he recognized his father, a smile creeping onto his lips.  The elf lord was sitting crosslegged on the ground near Aragorn’s bower, his head resting in his hand, sound asleep.

 

“Ada.” Aragorn whispered, his smile widening when Elrond started and stared down at his human son.  “I told Gandalf it would be better at home.”

 

Elrond leaned forward, touching the palm of his hand against the cool skin of the ranger’s face, “We are not home my son, we are in Lothlórien.  Do you not remember?”

 

Aragorn frowned up at the familiar face, sorting through the fuzzy recollections of his immediate past.  “I remember Gandalf...”

 

“He has had to travel on with out you.  He leaves his apologies and his blessings for a speedy recovery.  There was trouble in Rohan, he could not linger although he wished it greatly.” The sound of Elrond’s soft voice was comforting.

 

“I remember a lady also, she said you were related to her?”  The ranger sighed deeply letting the flitting memories go, “She was pretty.” He murmured softly.  His tired mind would not cooperate with him.

 

Elrond laughed quietly at his son’s comment, “Yes, I dare say she is.  She is my wife’s mother, sister of the departed Finrod Felegund and daughter of Fingulfin all of whom you ought to remember if you did not spend all your history lessons looking out the window...” the elf lord’s smile was gentle.”

 

The human watched him tiredly, nodding; he remembered something to that effect and would have recalled a lot more if he had been feeling better.  The oddness of Elrond being away from Rivendell dawned slowly in his mind and he questioned his father on it, “Why are you here?”  It wasn’t what he meant but the elf lord understood.

 

“I am here because you are ill and because we were just leaving Lothlórien ourselves.  Your brothers and I had stopped through to pick up Arwen and escort her home for a short stay.”

 

Aragorn glanced around them searching for signs of elves that he might know, “Where are they now?”

 

“Your brothers?”  Elrond questioned for clarification continuing when Estel nodded, “They have gone back with Arwen.  Although she claimed not to need the company I would not have her travel alone in these days.  Celeborn’s messengers reached us midday two days ago and I returned with them then.  Doubtless they all would have come back if they had known the nature of the summons.  But the messengers said only that Galadriel requested my presence, and we all assumed it was council business until I actually arrived.  We did not know you were in this area Estel.” 

 

“Two days ago?”  Aragorn was still stuck several sentences back.  “It has been that long?”

 

“Yes.”  The elf lord threw a handful of athelas into a tiny boiling pot that sat near Aragorn’s head.  The human smiled softly, that was the familiar scent that had so reminded him of home.  “You were more ill than you admitted to being.  For a little while they feared for your life.  Why didn’t you tell Gandalf that you were not well?”

 

“It would not have mattered had we not been overtaken by those orcs.  It would have been no more than a cold, I know for a fact.  But we walked all night and I pushed too hard.” He finally admitted to his father, casting his gaze down to the sling that held his right arm against his chest.  He fiddled with a frayed edge of the cloth before meeting Elrond’s eyes once more.

 

“Without letting anyone know.”  The elf lord watched the human.

 

“Yes.” The simple admission was spoken quietly. “Please don’t lecture me.  I hate being here as much as you.”

 

Aragorn was startled as his father laughed, “I do not hate being here Estel, nor being called to return.  This is one of the most beautiful places on all Arda.  What I hate is when I see you endanger yourself needlessly.”

 

“This is bordering on a lecture.” Aragorn warned, playfully slipping into elvish.

 

Their conversation was interrupted by a quiet voice whose power was not belied by the softness of the spoken words, “So it is, and you deserve one young human.”

 

Galadriel stooped slightly and entered the open aired room.  She favored Elrond with a smile before turning her gaze upon Aragorn.

 

“How is he?”

 

“He is doing much better now.” Elrond answered for his son, idly checking the bandage that covered the gash on the man’s leg.  “His wounds are healing and his fever is gone.  I’d say he was on the mend.” 

 

Dark silver eyes were watching him closely as Aragorn followed his father’s movements.  His leg was stiff but the fiery pain that he remembered was gone.  His right arm however was bound tightly to his shoulder and a sling prevented it from moving.  He ached when he moved but he could tell that his dislocated shoulder had been reset while he had been unconscious.

 

“Estel, this is Galadriel, she is the Lady of these woods.” Elrond said by way of introduction.

 

“We have met but I doubt that you remember.”  Galadriel inclined her head, “I have heard much about you, since your father returned.” She smiled at the two of them.  As she watched them she was struck by how very much they did resemble one another.  It was no small matter for her to accept the human as Elrond’s son, since that placed a bond of kinship between them as well, yet her heart told her that it was not for naught that he had been named Estel.  “When you are better, you are welcome to dine with us.  But tonight we will have refreshments brought to you.”

 

“Elrond, if I may have a word?”  Galadriel motioned towards the exterior of the canopied room walking out ahead of the elf lord when he nodded his acceptance of her request.

 

He gently reached out and touched Estel’s chest, a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth, “Rest, I’ll be back shortly.”  Quickly rising to his feet he joined Galadriel and walked with her out of earshot of the human.

 

The elves rounded the base of one of the huge towering trees that comprised the interior of Caras Galadon and Aragorn smiled contentedly to himself.  Secretly he was very glad they had sent for his father.  He closed his eyes and listened to the lilting voices of the elves high up in the trees hidden from his view. Their soft singing and conversations creating a soothing sound in his ears.  He was relieved, this did not promise to be anything like his first visit to Mirkwood had been.  With a smile he laid his head back down on the soft pillow and rested.  He hated being sick, he needed to get better and soon.  It may not be his home that he rested in, but having Elrond close by, it was starting to feel like it.

 

 

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

 

 

The soft sounds of night muted together, but they were lost on the young man who lay restless and gently tossing in his sleep. 

 

No, no, no... it was all wrong, all wrong... and he couldn’t stop it.  There was nothing he could do.  Nothing.  Emptiness, crushing emptiness.  He was gone.  He was gone and he couldn’t hold onto him...

 

Aragorn jerked awake his eyes wide, his body tense as he sat up quickly in bed, throwing the light covers off of himself.

 

“Legolas?!”  He glanced about trying to get his bearings, the soft lights of the night helping to ground him back to reality.  Even in the black of night Caras Galadon was never completely dark.  A soft blue-white light continually lit the stairwells and sparkled in the tree tops.  The elf’s themselves seemed to radiate even more of a glow here than he had noticed in Mirkwood or Rivendell.  Aragorn had finally begun to be used to this place and in fact to love its beauty and timelessness.  It was like, and yet unlike Rivendell.  

 

As the fear of the dream that had woken him wore off so too did the stranglehold of the images that had terrified him. He brushed the hair out of his face with his free hand, holding his head gingerly and allowing his forehead to rest against his knees, drawn tightly to his chest; still being careful of his injured shoulder.

 

His arm was healing quickly and the break in his collarbone was knitting itself well in the time he and Elrond had spent beneath the elven canopy of Lothlórien. Although Aragorn was nearly healed his body had still not caught up to his will and as he stiffly tried to move his right arm the bone-deep ache and discomfort from being unable to move it out of the sling just yet grated on him a little. His mind was distracted from the pain, snagged on the whirling afterimages of his latest nightmare.

 

His latest one...

 

The dreams had started over a week ago.  They plagued his sleep and robbed him of rest.  Every night they returned, insistent, demanding.  Sometimes it was the same images over and over again, sometimes just the horrible pressing feeling that something was terribly wrong and all the dreams and feelings seemed to center on Legolas.  The impressions the night terrors left where that his friend was in trouble, grave danger and that he, Aragorn could not help.  Always they ended the same - the ranger came too late and was continually left with an utterly helpless feeling of loss and sorrow.

 

Breathing in deeply and slowly, Aragorn stilled the fears chasing through his heart.  He had it in mind to seek out his friend as soon as he was well.  In fact he attributed the dreams to his illness and tried to just ignore them.  His elven father had foresight but surely he did not.  Perhaps if he worked up the courage he would ask Elrond about it.  Thus far he had kept his troubling dreams to himself. 

 

Laying carefully back down so as not to disturb the elderly elf he shared his open aired room with, he turned his thoughts to his brothers, to happier times.  He wondered how Gandalf was doing and where he was, for he had most likely left Rohan already.  Then he wondered what his brothers were doing and realized idly that he was doing everything possible to not fall asleep again. 

 

Turning gingerly onto his side he watched his father sleeping.  The elf lord’s eyes were half lidded, deep in rest.  A smile touched his lips as he recalled the first time he had found his father asleep not long after he had been brought to Rivendell.  Thoughts of his family soothed the anxieties that he couldn’t quite banish and he had nearly allowed sleep to steal over him once more when both ranger and elf lord were awoken as the peace of the night was shattered by a contingent of elves racing past their open chambers, heading towards Galadriel and Celeborn’s resting place.

 

The echoes of an argument rose audibly as a second party approached them.

 

“I recognize that voice.”  Elrond spoke sleepily, glancing quickly at his son.

 

But the ranger was on his feet and running towards the lower glen.  He recognized the voice as well, and on the heels of his latest nightmare it filled his heart with urgency.  “It’s Trelan!” He called back, not waiting for his father to join him.

 

The ranger’s bare feet made his approach nearly impossible to detect and Aragorn slowed as he came up upon the contingent of warriors who had woken them.  The elves were gathered around a single person, who was not coming with them willingly.

 

“You don’t understand! I was not alone. You must let me go, I have to find my friends they can help, I cannot stay here!”  The elf warrior’s voice was slurred with delirium, but rose to near panic before his argument was cut off by a groan of pain.

 

“Do not speak folly.  You cannot go out in this condition, you cannot even walk.”  A soft elven voice tried to persuade the one they kept in their midst.  “It is not safe outside our borders at night and you can go no further or you will kill yourself!”

 

“But Legolas is out there!” the strained voice protested, pain, concern and guilt mingling freely. 

 

“Trelan!” Aragorn gained the edge of the party and pushed through the warriors, heedless of the glares and frowns his presence caused.  When he reached the center of the tight circle his mouth dropped in surprise and a small cry of anguish broke from his lips.

 

He knelt down next to a stretcher that had been crudely and swiftly fashioned to carry his friend; it rested on the carpet of grass beneath their feet and a Lórien elf crouched beside it, trying vainly to keep the smaller wood elf from further hurting himself.  Blood caked Trelan’s face and matted in the tangled locks of his blonde hair.  Swelling bruises outlined his cheekbones and his arm was obviously broken.  The fingers of his right hand that clutched his shoulder, trying to damp the pain, were scraped and cut as though he had been dragged or fallen on sharp rocks.  The small elf took short painful gasps of air as he spoke, trying to breathe around the ache of broken ribs.  Huge, red rimmed eyes turned on Aragorn, and the ranger could see where tears had streaked through the dirt on friend’s cheeks.

 

“Trelan,” Strider leaned forward and pulled the elf against him gingerly, his heart breaking at the sight.  “What happened to you?” he whispered softly.

 

“Legolas...” The small elf just repeated the prince’s name, “We have to find him, I lost him Aragorn.  I lost him.”

 

“Shh... we will Trelan, we will.  But first let us take care of you.”  Fear spiked through the ranger’s heart at the elf’s words but he silenced it quickly.  Gently pushing Trelan back, the human took the warrior’s bruised face in his hands and forced him to focus.  “Trelan, who did this to you and why?”

 

“I do not know what they wanted.  A group of men...they chased us and split us up.  I was unhorsed and fell.  I was caught beneath their horses.” He touched his arm gently as though noticing it was broken for the first time.  “They did not care or even wait to see if I had lived, they took Kynter with them.” Trelan’s eyes were huge and he jerked slightly as Elrond pushed through the circle of elves and knelt next to his son.  If Aragorn did not know Kynter was Trelan’s horse, he would have thought the injured warrior spoke of another elf, but he was not surprised, he knew how elves felt about their horses. 

 

“Trelan.”  The elf lord’s voice was soft but held an authority that could not be denied, “You are wounded, let us see to your injuries you can tell us what happened later.”

 

Not to be dissuaded the younger elf shook his head and gazed back at Aragorn locking eyes with the ranger, “Strider, I lost the prince.  I do not know where he is or if he...” His voice faltered and he winced holding his breath as a wave pain swept through his body.

 

Elrond stood swiftly to his feet and pushed two of the elves forward that were standing beside him, they could waste no more time.  Trelan’s life was in danger.  “Enough.  Quickly, pick up his stretcher and follow me to my rooms, he needs attention, immediately.” 

 

The Galadrim warriors were used to taking orders and did not question the elf lord but obeyed him, walking the wood elf away from the glen and towards the bed chambers that Lord Elrond had been using while he remained with them. 

 

Galadriel met them half way, falling in step next to Elrond.  Gently she laid her hand upon the wounded elf’s forehead, bidding him strength. 

 

Celeborn walked past them, synching the belt on the over robe he wore.  He nodded quickly in acknowledgement and acceptance of his son-in-law’s demands on the Lothlórien warriors and called the captain of the guard to himself, requesting a full report.

 

Aragorn grabbed the sleeve of the elf nearest him, gaining the warriors attention, “Tell me, how did you find him and where?”

 

The elf hesitated, but seeing no need to keep anything hidden from the ranger who was obviously high in the favor of the Lord and Lady, he explained that they had found the other Silvan elf wandering their northernmost border, heading for the hills.  He was wounded and delirious but intent upon reaching Rivendell.  They had not the supplies to care for his injuries and had instead brought him here for help against his wishes.

 

“It is a day’s journey from the southern border to Caras Galadon.” Aragorn noted softly.

 

“It is.  We did not stop and made it in less than that.”  The elf’s piercing eyes held the ranger’s as he continued, “I think willpower alone must have been the only thing keeping him going.  I do not know how long he traveled but he had not food or water.  Once we were able to give him both he became more coherent.  He said he was looking for Strider and that their friend, Legolas had been lost.”

 

Aragorn nodded numbly, his gaze dropping to the forest floor as the words sunk in.  Trelan had been searching for him.  He had known that the ranger was traveling with Gandalf through this region, for they had stopped by the palace not a full month ago.  A sudden thought struck him and he glanced quickly up at the warrior before him.

 

“Was there any...”

 

As though knowing the human’s thoughts the elf answered the yet unspoken question, shaking his head, “There was none other besides the one we returned with.  I know; I was sent back on our trail by my captain.  There were neither tracks nor signs of anyone else.  From the state we found him in, I would say that your friend had been wondering for some time before we came across him; the direction from which he came is impossible to guess for he was delirious and crossed his own trail many times.” 

 

Aragorn closed his eyes and sighed deeply.

 

“I am sorry.”  The elven warrior touched the ranger lightly before walking off with his contingent.

 

“Thank you.” Aragorn whispered softly to the retreating forms.  He knew they had heard him.

 

 

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

 

 

He was too late.  Again he was too late!  Legolas’ eyes drifted shut and he softly exhaled one last time.  He could hear Trelan’s cries “I lost him, I cannot find him.”

 

Aragorn beat against the invisible bonds that held him back helplessly as he struggled against his own powerlessness.

 

“No...” The word was a mere whisper as it left the ranger’s lips but he had not even realized he had spoken so wrapped in the nightmare was he.

 

The man tried to touch Legolas, tried to call him back, but all his attempts failed and the image of his friend swirled away, replaced by the painful emptiness of his passing.  Tears streamed down Aragorn’s face as he called out to his friend, Trelan’s sorrowful voice echoing his cries, taunting his helplessness.

 

“I lost him Aragorn...

 

“I lost him!”  Aragorn repeated the words in his sleep his distress in the nightmare hedging into reality as he fought to stop the vicious cycle of the dream. “NO!”

 

“NO!”

 

The heart wrenching cries woke Lord Elrond from a deep, exhausted sleep.  For the better part of the day he had cared for the Silvan elf that had been brought into their midst.  Trelan’s injuries had been severe and Galadriel had seen to it that Elrond was given access to all the supplies he needed to ensure the small warrior was given the very best care.  They had set him up in his own room with someone to watch him at all times should the elf lord be needed.  He was unconscious now, and that was not expected to change any time soon.  Elrond doubted he would awaken for several days.  His body had taken too much damage; it needed rest to heal.  As much as they all wanted to find out more details about what had happened, any further news from Trelan was going to have to wait.  Perhaps for quite a while. 

 

Elrond sat up quickly, throwing the light covers off of as he turned towards the source of the cries, Aragorn.

 

His human son was caught in the throes of a nightmare, fighting within himself.  Tears streaked the ranger’s face and his breathing was quick and fast. 

 

Aragorn tried to press forward and fight back the darkness, tried to cover his ears from the sounds of his friend’s voice calling to him.  He moved his right arm swiftly in his sleep, nearly hitting his father in his attempts to shut everything out.  The motion sent a wave of pain shooting up his arm and he cried out, his eyes flying open and locking on the blue ones that stared down at him.

 

Elrond held the sides of his son’s face, speaking quietly to him, trying to get the boy to wake up.  He ducked the wild swing of Aragorn’s hand and gently grabbed the ranger’s wrist, laying his wounded arm back against his chest and sliding his hands once more to the young man’s face.

 

Aragorn’s eyes were wide as he looked around them, frantically trying to force reality back into perspective.  He glanced quickly to the draped doorway as an elven warrior brushed the fabric entry back and stepped cautiously inside.

 

“Is everything all right Lord Elrond?” 

 

“Yes.  Yes, thank you, everything is under control.”  The elf lord never took his gaze from his son’s face.  The silver eyes locked onto his as Aragorn slowly reached his left hand up and grasped his father’s forearm.

 

With a curt nod the elf warrior stepped back out, giving the small family the privacy they needed.

 

Elrond gently traced his thumbs under Aragorn’s eyes, wiping away the stray tears as the ranger’s breathing evened out and he began to calm down.

 

For several moments the elf lord simply knelt beside the young man quietly, waiting while Aragorn composed himself.  With a slight, somewhat embarrassed nod the ranger acknowledged he was fine and Elrond sat back, giving him more space and helping him to sit up.

 

Closing his eyes, Aragorn took a deep, shaky breath releasing the tension that had bound him up in his nightmare.  When he opened his eyes again, Elrond was watching him closely.  The ranger smiled nervously, running his hand back through his hair, he dropped his gaze to the floor.  Surely he was too old to be waking up with nightmares and having to have his father comfort him.  All the same, he was not a bit sorry that Elrond was there.  The elf’s mere presence radiated calm, as it always had.

 

“I just had a bad dream that’s all.”  Aragorn explained quietly.  “I’m sorry I woke you.”

 

“That is all?”  Elrond echoed the casual dismissal questioningly.  The silence grew heavy between them before he continued, pressing for more, “It’s not the first one you’ve had.”

 

“You know about them?”  Aragorn was surprised, he thought that he had been quiet enough and not woken the elderly elf.

 

With a small smile Elrond shook his head, “Not until just now.”

 

Aragorn grimaced; he’d been caught.  He shook his head and smiled softly.  “Yes, I have been having night terrors for the past two weeks...”

 

He stopped talking, his gaze dropping to the fingers of his left hand, twining a loose thread from his sling as he fidgeted nervously.

 

Elrond’s large hand covered his own stilling his movements, “Estel?”

 

“They...they’ve been about Legolas.”  Aragorn glanced up through the strands of hair that had fallen about his face answering the question his father had not asked.  It didn’t matter how old he became... something about Elrond would always make him feel like a little boy.  Surprisingly enough that wasn’t a bad thing. 

 

Elrond nodded encouraging his son to continue.  He brushed the hair gently away from his son’s eyes. “And?”

 

The words tumbled out fast and furious, the relief at being forced to speak of them easing his fears.  “And every time I am too late.  He is gone.  There is a terrible sense of loss as though Legolas is in danger and I cannot help him.  It replays over and over whenever I fall asleep; I can get no rest.  Tonight was the worst though.  After Trelan was found in the shape he was and his report of losing Legolas to someone, somewhere... I am sure that some ill has befallen him.  I know they are just dreams but surely there must be something wrong.  You know father, that I have not had nightmares for years.  Why now?  Why Legolas?  Can you see anything?  Can you tell me anything?  I need to know.”

 

Elrond gazed quietly into the silver eyes beseeching him.  There was so much the young man did not know even about himself.  When he finally spoke his voice was soft and low and he switched without thought to elven, “They may just be dreams.  Or they may not.  My son, you must understand that there is much strength and power in you that you have yet to fully discover.  You are descended from the line of the ancient kings, Númenorean kings.  Within you is the power of insight, of far-seeing.  It would not surprise me if you have the gift of foresight in your own way, although you may not yet understand aright that which you see.”

 

Aragorn watched him wordlessly, wondering on the further revealing of his heritage and the innate strengths and weaknesses that went with it.

 

“One day this gift will serve you well, but now it is still only waking within you, untried and untrained.  It may be that Legolas is not in the trouble that you think him to be.  Visions are not always what they seem.  Sometimes we see only that what we fear, instead of that which is.”

 

“But father I...”

 

Elrond raised his hand and stopped his son from interrupting.  “Of Legolas’ future I am unsure.  Whatever troubles you for him is not readily apparent to me or I would tell you Estel.”  He paused, as if considering something.  “There are ways to look closer, tools to bring such visions into clearer focus if you will, but they are not to be used lightly or on a whim.  Nor are they easy for the untrained to master.”

 

“This is no whim Ada, I know it.”  Aragorn touched his chest lightly; “The dread does not leave me now even in waking.  If there is a way to find out more, I would hear it.”

 

Nodding slowly, Elrond conceded.  He held up his left hand and splayed his fingers; Vilya glinted brightly in the soft elven light.  “You know of the power of Vilya and I have told you there are other rings of power in Middle Earth.  So I will tell you a secret Estel that must never go beyond this conversation.  Galadriel is the keeper of Nenya, ring of Adamant, with power over the element of water among many other things.  She is powerful among the Noldor, more so than even myself for she alone on Middle Earth is left of those elves who originally came over from Valinor.”  Elrond smiled slightly despite himself.  The twins thought he had never heard their light-hearted jests, but it was true, what they had laughed about as children; they could actually say that their grandmother was older than the sun.  Bringing himself back to the moment the elf lord continued his original train of thought. 

 

“She has a mirror that those who are allowed to look upon may use to see what the possible future holds and many other things if they are able.  Few are the firstborn who have been privileged to gaze upon it and of mortals even less.  Yet it may be that she will allow you to look into the mirror if you ask it of her.”

 

Aragorn glanced to the ring fitted about his own finger, his thoughts swirling wildly through what he knew and what he had been told. 

 

“Tomorrow, if you like, we will go to Galadriel and you may ask her.”  Elrond offered.

 

“I would like to if it will help to know what has happened.  It may be that I am wrong, but it would put my heart at ease to know if that is the case.” Aragorn answered quietly.

 

His father’s hand on his shoulder redirected his attention and the ranger gazed back up into the blue ageless eyes.  “Very well.  Understand though Estel, that people do not always see what they wish to see.  But tonight you need to rest.  Will you be able to sleep my son?”

 

Aragorn smiled and stifled a small laugh, “You mean will I be able to sleep on my own or would I like you to fix me some of that awful tea you make when you wish to put me to sleep?”

 

A gentle laugh escaped Elrond’s lips and he shook his head, “You and your brothers will be the death of me yet, not to mention those Silvan elf friends of yours.”

 

Stiffly Aragorn lay back down and rolled onto his side, watching as the elderly elf leaned against the pillows propped behind his head.  “I will be all right now father.  I will sleep.”

 

“If you should wake...”

 

Elrond stopped speaking as Aragorn closed his eyes a broad smile stretching across his face.  He quietly interrupted the elf lord, “Yes I know. I promise I will wake you and if I cannot sleep I will tell you.” He sighed slowly and deeply as sleep overtook him once more, his body had not yet caught up with his spirit and was worn out.

 

Elrond watched his adopted son long into the night.  The young man was growing up before his eyes, assuming the power and the rights that were his and yet he had such a long ways to go.  As fast as Aragorn seemed to be growing up to him, Elrond knew that he was blessed in a way because if the ranger did not have the timeless life span of an immortal, at least Aragorn did not age quite so quickly as other humans.  His Númenorean blood kept him young and age came more slowly than was normal, but maturity... maturity had been there for some time and lately Elrond could see it blossoming before his eyes.  The awakening of the human’s potential foresight and his increasing strength of will were signs of that. 

 

The elf lord cast his thoughts out into the tumult of the future.  There were ripples there that were not right, dark touches that bespoke a nameless fear, and uncertainty entwined the destinies of his human son and Aragorn’s most frequent elven companion.  He shook off the coldness that had crept into his own heart at the whispers the future held.  Elrond of all people, knew that the future was an ever changing, unrelenting flow of possibilities and nothing was certain until it had passed.  Easing down onto the soft bedding beneath him he turned on his side, facing Aragorn, and closed his eyes.  Worry would do him no good, nor would it bring the future on any more quickly.  They would find out what they needed to know tomorrow.  It would be interesting to see how the boy handled the fledgling power that was waking in him.

 

 

___________________________________________________________

 

~*PART THREE*~

 

 

 

The breeze was cool, rustling across the emerald grass and making the heads of the blooming elanor and niphredil wave and bob peacefully beneath the trees. 

 

The Lady Galadriel was dressed in white as she almost always was, and looked very at home among the slender pale flowers. 

 

True to his word, Elrond had taken the ranger to speak with the Lady of the Golden Wood.

 

It was late afternoon now, and Aragorn had chaffed all day for this opportunity, and yet now he hesitated.  Now that he was faced with actually asking the question he wasn’t sure how to do so and felt as if his tongue had grown limp and uncooperative.  Elrond may have been perfectly comfortable with Galadriel, but she was still a stranger to Estel, one that he was more or less in awe of, and it was a slightly awkward situation. 

 

The young ranger resisted the urge to fidget with the edges of the sling that held his immobilized right arm and shoulder bound tightly to his chest.  His mending injury had been hurting him this morning after his un-cautious moves last night, and Elrond had insisted he wear the immobilizing sling again today. 

 

“There is something you desire Estel?” there was a hint of mirth in Galadriel’s wise eyes as if she knew exactly what he wanted and how he was feeling.  However if she did she said nothing.  Aragorn sighed inside.  Just like his father.  They could know perfectly well what was on your mind but would insist on waiting to hear it from you in person. 

 

“For some time now I... have been having disturbing dreams,” the young ranger started slowly. 

 

“So I have heard,” Galadriel glanced at Elrond who stood quietly behind Aragorn, watching his human son.  “You think they are something other than dreams.”  It was not a question.

 

Aragorn nodded, also glancing back at his elven father.  “Lord Elrond told me that in some small way, I also have the gift of foresight because of my heritage.  I fear this is true and I feel certain that my friend Legolas is in terrible danger.  After the word Trelan brought and the condition he is in...” he hesitated before plunging onward.  “I came to ask if... if you would permit me to look in your mirror.  If this has been so strong in my dreams, I had hoped...” he left the statement open, waiting for her response.

 

Galadriel smiled softly.  She understood why her son-in-law had such affection for this one; he had an honest, open quality that made even his uncertainty more sincere than some people’s boastful show of confidence.  “You hope that you may see something to help you,” she finished for him with a graceful nod.  “Come with me.”

 

The Lady led them across the green grass of Caras Galadon and down a curving set of stairs set into the earth which led to the simple basin that all of them knew was much more than it seemed. 

 

Aragorn stopped in front of it and watched, transfixed despite the worry eating at his heart, as Galadriel filled the basin with water from her fountain.  The Lady of the Galadrim breathed upon the water, which almost immediately took on a different hue, and then stepped back.

 

Replacing her pitcher she fixed Aragorn firmly in her gaze.  “I will allow you to do this Aragorn, son of Arathorn, although few are the mortals who can say they have gazed into the Mirror of Galadriel.  Lord Elrond has told you truly, you have both the foresight and the strength of will to use the far-seeing tools of both elves and men... but be careful Estel.  Your skills are yet young and untrained, if you are unwary you can injure yourself.  Take a care where you look and for what purpose.  The mirror shows not only the past and the possible future, but many things that will never come to be... it is a dangerous guide.”

 

With these words of warning, Galadriel backed away from the pedestal, allowing Aragorn access. 

 

Slowly, Aragorn stepped up to the graceful basin, gripping one edge of the cool stone lip with his good hand and looking down to peer into water that was strangely dark and reflective for such a shallow bowl.  Both Elrond and Galadriel had their eyes silently fixed on him, but he tried not to think about that.  Instead his thoughts went to his dreams, and to Legolas as he gazed down at his own wavering reflection in the dark water.  For a moment that was all he could see, his own reflection, but presently the water seemed to get darker, and deeper as if opening out into a vast, swirling vortex before his eyes.  Yet the water itself was not moving.  Beyond sight and consciousness, Aragorn seemed aware of a thousand different things in the seemingly endless depths of the mirror.

 

He saw many images swirl by as if caught in a gale.  Some the ranger recognized as scenes from his own childhood, but others he could not even begin to guess at unless they be from tales or things that happened either very long ago, or possibly had not yet happened at all.  As Galadriel had warned, some things that the mirror showed never came to pass at all... it was difficult to know what to trust. 

 

The pictures flickered by almost faster than the young man could comprehend. 

 

A man with a blazing gem in his hand standing before a great, hideous wolf. 

 

The bright stars of the heavens in elder days before the shape of the world was changed.

 

Tall Númenorean ships... a white tree, young and graceful with stars caught in its branches like jewels woven into the hair of a beautiful lady.

 

Elrond dressed in armor and locked in desperate battle in the middle of a body-strewn plain. 

 

Rivendell, filled with many, many more elves than currently called it home and surrounded by enemies, a lone refuge in a dark sea.  Elrond stood on a balcony looking out from a distance at the dark, hopeless sea, his face grim and a bloody cloth bound round his arm. 

 

Elladan smiling at a small human boy, Estel when he was young.  The older twin was teaching him how to hold a bow.

 

A fiery mountain.  Small beings toiled up the side on some great and perilous errand.  

 

Arwen... Arwen’s face... he was almost tempted to try to look closer, to see what the future held if he could... but he pulled back.  That was not his purpose here.   

 

Focusing his mind more closely and attempting to weed out distractions, Aragorn found the images becoming clearer and slower, coalescing under the guidance of his unspoken thoughts.  Legolas.  He forced that to be the one overriding thought in his head.  Legolas.

 

As if at his bidding, Legolas face swirled into view, but the prince looked younger somehow, if that were possible for an elf.  There were men and they were hurting him... Aragorn nearly jerked physically back as his mind recoiled from the images that he knew to be coming from Legolas’ past. 

 

Elrond, standing a ways back, could not see what Aragorn was seeing, but he saw the young man tense and recoil and only just kept himself from stepping forward.  Not everything the mirror showed one was pleasant. 

 

Galadriel met his eyes.  This was Aragorn’s test of strength and will; he had to pass it alone if he would accomplish that which he sought. 

 

Aragorn’s emotions caused the pictures to wobble and spin out of focus again and for a few moments he was left groping to pull them back into focus again, but slowly he did. 

 

Legolas’ face appeared once more, but he was laughing this time, talking with... with Raniean and Trelan it looked like, while riding next to Elrond.  Other scenes, ones that Aragorn remembered from their own not so distant past together surfaced: Mirkwood, fighting the spiders, Lord Thranduil’s halls, Rivendell, the Witch King, the cold snow of the mountains and the burning heat of Harad... all of them swirled past in the blink of an eye, before Aragorn once again found himself faced with unfamiliar images, but it was hard for him to know whether he had just moved forward or backward in time since the mirror was not showing him things in any kind of order, chronological or otherwise. 

 

A river.  Two riders crossed it... they were elves, one was Legolas, he couldn’t see the other, it might have been Trelan.

 

They were attacked, separated... he saw Trelan caught beneath the horses’ hooves and flinched hard, everything seemed so real.  Aragorn struggled to see what happened and where Legolas was, but he could not and the scene slid away from him.  He did not seem to have the skill to look more than surface deep into anything he saw.  That frustrated the young man and he tried harder.  Of course, being able to bend the mirror to his will at all was no small feat, however Aragorn had no way of knowing that. 

 

A scene snapped clearly into focus.  Legolas, lying pale and still on slanting bed of grey shale.  Behind him in the distance a faint, foggy mountain range formed a striking resemblance to the image of an old, hook-nosed man.  Something moved in the rocks.  Aragorn could not see what, but he knew it was danger for Legolas. 

 

Mentally he screamed for his friend to wake up, attempting to force the image to stay, but it slipped away like sand between his fingers and he had no way of even knowing if it were the past, the present or the future that he was seeing.  Aragorn’s left hand tightened vise-like on the edge of the mirror basin, causing the stone to dig roughly into his fingers. 

 

The image wavered.  He was closer to Legolas now, he could see his friend’s face and the elf was awake. 

 

“Don’t be angry with me Estel...” Legolas’ voice was weak and soft.  “I’m sorry...” the elf seemed to reach out for his hand, but was not strong enough to do so and the prince’s arm fell back to his side.  Legolas’ eyes closed and his spirit fled as death reached up and swallowed him. 

 

“No!” Aragorn didn’t realize that he had shouted it aloud.  With all his will he fought to hold the picture he was seeing, to know what was wrong and why his friend was dying... but he could see nothing.  The elf seemed uninjured.  The scene replayed itself again, exactly the same way and it was like being stuck in a nightmare all over again.  Legolas’ hand fell limply back to his side and Aragorn reached out, trying to take hold of it, his whole concentration and will bent on the horrible scene in front of him.

 

“Do not touch the water,” Galadriel’s quiet warning went unheard and unheeded. 

 

Aragorn’s good hand slid over the lip of the bowl, reaching for his friend out of reflex and anguish, even though he knew he wasn’t really there.  The instant his fingers touched the water the pictures went into a nauseating spin as the seemingly cool liquid bubbled tumultuously, searing the hand that had violated it.  The young man cried out in surprise and pain as he was mentally ripped free of the scene he was concentrating on and jerked back to the present. 

 

One of Galadriel’s slim, strong hands was on his shoulder and the other firmly grasped his left wrist, lifting his hand out of the water and anchoring him back to reality.  “Estel?  Estel...” she spoke his name like a call but for a moment he did not respond. 

 

Her eyes fell quickly upon Elrond but he needed no summons, he was already beside them, touching his son’s face and bringing Aragorn’s head around towards him.  “Estel, Estel answer me.”

 

Aragorn blinked twice and took a deep, shaky breath, looking around as if not sure what had happened. 

 

“I’m sorry...” he apologized for the concerned looks on their faces, a deep humiliation flooding him.  “I’m sorry.  I-I think I must have done something stupid, didn’t I?”  He dropped his head and his gaze as everything came back to him.

 

Elrond touched his shoulder gently as Galadriel released the young ranger.  “You are brave Estel, but you have to be more careful.  Your time will come, but you are not yet skilled enough young one to understand nor wield the full power inside of you.  Now look at me, look at me Estel,” he insisted and Aragorn slowly met his searching gaze. 

 

Elrond sighed softly.  Aragorn was all right.  Weary beyond measure from exerting himself and his untried abilities far too much while in an already weakened condition, but ultimately unharmed by his experience.  His foster son was, however, deeply troubled and he could see that.  “What did you see?”

 

“I saw Legolas,” Aragorn was slightly breathless but quickly got control of himself.  “He was in danger.  Grave danger... I saw him die.” 

 

The raw pain behind Aragorn’s eyes made Elrond’s heart ache.  He knew what the prince meant to his son.  “It is not the certain future Aragorn, it may not even be the future at all.”

 

Aragorn was already shaking his head.  “No!  He is in danger.  I know it.  I can feel it.  Ada, I know where he is!”

 

Elrond glanced at Galadriel but returned his gaze to his youngest son.  “What do you mean Estel?”

 

“I saw him,” Aragorn wavered slightly and had to grip the mirror pedestal with his burned fingers again to keep steady.  “I saw him, and in the background I could clearly see the old man in the mountain.  It was distant and faint, but there.”

 

Elrond’s brow creased.  The only vantage point from which the mountains lined up right to create that unique picture was Northern Rohan, above Fangorn.  But what would Legolas be doing that far south of here?

 

“But can you be sure?  The mirror can show us that which we wish, or that which we fear, as well as that which is true,” Galadriel questioned quietly. 

 

“No,” Aragorn’s mind was made up and he battled the dizziness working on him.  His shoulder and arm were hurting again; a lot.  He was very tired but fought off the sluggishness.  “No, he’s *there*.  I don’t know how I know it, I-I just do!  You have to believe me.  I know what I saw and if something is not done he is going to die.  I have to go, I have to...” the young Dùnadan’s knees buckled. 

 

Elrond caught his foster son and supported his weight gently.  “You are not going anywhere in this condition Estel.  Your own body will not allow it,” he remonstrated as he gently eased the ranger down onto a nearby bench. 

 

Aragorn’s breathing was quick and fast.  His whole being was exhausted from his efforts and frustrated with its own frailty.  He winced slightly as Elrond checked the burns on his hand but they were light ones only and not serious. 

 

Worn as he was, the human was still protesting and attempting to rise.  “I have to go, I have to...”

 

Galadriel touched his forehead lightly with her fingertips, brushing them across his clammy brow and the young man’s hurting, agitated body relaxed almost instantly, slumping into Elrond’s arms. 

 

“­­Īdh si, rest now,” the elf lady murmured as Estel’s eyes closed.

 

“That’s not fair...” Aragorn murmured before sweet, dreamless slumber pulled him under. 

 

Elrond gathered the young man easily in his arms; careful of the Dùnadan’s mending bones.  “I suppose it’s not,” the elf lord whispered to his unconscious son with a soft smile.  “But it is best for you.”  Aragorn would only hurt himself at this point by trying to do too much in such a critically weakened condition.

 

“That works slightly better on him than it ever did on the twins,” Elrond remarked quietly, directing his amused gaze towards Galadriel as he carried Aragorn back to bed in one of the ground-level bowers. 

 

The elf woman laughed softly at the memory they were both recalling.  It was a wonderfully musical sound.  “They were young and overactive.  This one does not have that much energy now.”

 

Elrond chuckled as he laid his human son down on the soft, silky cushions of their resting-place.  Like most of Lórien it was both indoors and outdoors at the same time and the sweet fragrance of niphredil hung like a healing balm in the cool air. 

 

“You haven’t seen him when he is well.  At full strength I would say he could challenge them both when it comes to energy and exuberance,” the elf lord remarked with a soft smile.

 

Galadriel settled the ranger’s mending arm comfortably on his chest and pulled a light covering over him.  It had been a long time since she had helped tuck anyone into to bed and it amused her.  “I do not doubt it.  Your and your brother’s descendants have always been a handful.  I’ll have you know that you were no different when you were young.”  Her smile was soft. 

 

Elrond just shook his head as they moved quietly away, leaving Aragorn sleeping.  “That was before I married Celebrían.  Being a father changes many things.”

 

Galadriel cast her gaze back towards Estel’s still form, her eyes distant as she thought of her daughter.  “She would have liked him.  Many would not have taken him in or taken him to heart as you have done, yet the fate of the world may someday hang on such quiet beginnings.  My daughter chose well.”  She rested her hand lightly above her son-in-law’s heart. 

 

They did not often speak of Celebrían now that she was gone and Elrond touched Galadriel’s hand in a gesture of thanks.  It did not hurt now to think of his wife.  He would always miss her until the day they were together again, but he knew she was happy. 

 

“The boy has a good heart and a fierce loyalty.  He will go after Legolas if we are not careful.  Yet... I am also troubled for the young prince,” Elrond said as they walked amid the trees together.  “Estel’s visions are correct if what my heart speaks is true.  He is in danger.”

 

Galadriel nodded, she felt the same.  “I fear you are right, but I will admit I do not know him as you do, we have never met and his fate is hidden from me.  For Estel to feel the danger so acutely his connection with Legolas must be a strong one.”

 

“It is,” Elrond nodded, clasping his hands behind his back.  “It is.”

 

 

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

 

 

Thunder rolled lazily across the cloudy sky.  The air was thick and oppressive and the gentle drizzle that was beginning to fall did nothing to lighten it. 

 

Jagged, craggy grey rocks and loose shale formed the face of the landscape, absorbing the rain drops with little effect, save that the shale slowly darkened in color, as if trying to disappear into the overcast sky. 

 

Water beaded on a grey cloak, nearly the same shade as the shale, before slowly seeping into the light fabric and running in small rivulets off of unmoving fingers.  A pale face with closed lids, stared up unseeing at the grey sky while moist air and misty rain made long black eyelashes glisten and soft golden hair cling to the unresponsive form.  Thin streaks of crimson mingled in the rainwater, as blood seeped slowly from a deep abrasion across the still being’s right temple.

 

A tall, slippery knoll rose high above the unconscious figure on the left, barren and above the tree-line.  In the distance the Misty Mountains rose faint, yet distinct, forming the shape of an old man’s face. 

 

The shale on the knoll above was hard and yielded up no secrets.  Not even an elf would have been able to read the struggle that had taken place up there.  Not even their keen eyes would have been able to see where the larger group of horseman had backed the lone rider up against the edge of the slippery cliff, whooping and yelling, shooting arrows and snapping whips, attempting to unsettle the agitated elven horse. 

 

“Thala... thala, lasto beth nín Avornwen,” the blonde-haired rider tried to calm his horse as the dapple grey backed skittishly towards the cliff-edge, her hooves slipping and sliding.  His bow was gone, he was too far away for his hand-to-hand weapons to be any use, he had no idea where his friend was now and that last worried him to no end. 

 

Not even the strangely melted shale or burnt tree stump would have offered a clue as to how the elven horse, extremely unsettled by the harassing presence of the others despite the calming reassurances of its rider, had reared suddenly when lightening struck the earth not fifty feet away, melting stone like butter and sending the tree bursting into flames. 

 

No skid marks.  No trail.  Nothing but the still body at the base of the cliff to mark the elf’s passing when he was thrown clear of his horse, glancing off the ragged cliff face three times before slipping and sliding into this narrow rift where he had lain since, unmoving. 

 

The grey horse bolted and the riders took off after it, no one thought of what had happened to the elf.  No one cared. 

 

Water pooled in the folds of the elf’s clothing and beaded off his skin but the sensation did not wake him.  Neither did the soft sounds of scrabbling, and the scraping of scales across stone.

 

A long, strong-bodied lizard, larger than a cat, but not quite so big as a dog dragged its scaly underbelly along the ground as it inched cautiously forward on four short but powerful legs.  Mottled grey, brown and green patterns enabled the reptile to blend in with its surroundings while keen senses drew it towards the only thing in these dead, craggy paths that was radiating heat. 

 

The lhyguan flicked its long, thin tongue out, testing the air in an almost snake-like manner.  It smelled blood.  And the blood smelled sweet. 

 

Seemingly from nowhere, two more of the creatures appeared, called by the scent of blood and the silent summons of the first lhyguan.  Warily, the beasts half waddled, half slithered forward towards the still body of the elf prince.  Unresisting prey was too tempting to pass up and the lhygians looked at one another.  The first one opened his mouth in a soft hiss that was almost a growl, revealing two small but razor sharp rows of teeth.  He had found this one first, the others could share in the spoils, but the kill was his. 

 

Slithering forward until he was standing on the unconscious elf’s chest, the lhyguan dipped its head towards Legolas’ neck; its bite loaded with enough venom to kill a small Oliphaunt given enough time.  The other two creatures edged closer, waiting for their opportunity.  But Legolas remained unaware of the danger.  The prince did not stir. 

 

 

 

___________________________________________________________

 

~*PART FOUR*~

 

 

 

The soft, blue hues of night had settled once more upon Lothlórien.  Beneath the quiet trees a lone figure slid silently across the grass near the southern borders of the wood. 

 

Aragorn was very nearly holding his breath in an attempt to remain perfectly quiet.  Thus far he seemed to have escaped notice, but he would not relax until he had left the forest behind him. 

 

Elrond and Galadriel meant well, and he knew they were concerned for him, but his heart was telling him that he had already waited too long.  Aragorn slid silently behind a thick tree trunk as he saw several elf sentries pass noiselessly by in the distance. Holding his stiff right arm against him, he tried to keep the white sling hidden in the shadows.  The bones were more or less mended now, but the arm was still weak from forced non-use and the new bones were thin. 

 

Aragorn wished he had his cloak because that would blend better, but he had been unable to get together many supplies before leaving, since he had wished to avoid detection. 

 

Once the coast was clear the young ranger moved on again.  After several hours he was finally free of the woods and in the open plains below Lórien.  Breathing a sigh of relief, Aragorn let some of the tension leave his aching body.  He was still more worn from his experience with the mirror than he wanted to admit, but at the same time a dreadful urgency had filled him.  Legolas was in danger.  And the fear that he was already too late gnawed at him incessantly.

 

Aragorn shivered slightly.  The night was cold, and it seemed to have gotten even more so as soon as he left the protective borders of the Golden Wood.  He wished he had his cloak even more now, but there was no use thinking about that.  He pressed on, working his way slowly and carefully down a steep incline.  The grass and loose earth was slick with nighttime dew and his boots slid treacherously in the dark as he cautiously edged down the slope.

 

There was no warning.  He heard no footfalls, no rustle of movement.  Nothing to indicate that he was not alone.  However, some inner sense made the young man turn sharply to the right and look around.  Unfortunately the abrupt movement on the steep incline was not a good idea. 

 

Aragorn’s boots slid on the slick grass and he lost his balance.  His arms cut through the dark air as they waved in a useless attempt to regain his lost footing.  He felt himself starting to tumble as his feet slid out from under him... suddenly a strong hand caught his flailing left arm, pulling the young ranger up short and spinning him part way around. 

 

The young ranger jerked in surprise and alarm.  He couldn’t see his attacker from this position and trying to turn was only going to make him slip again.  He didn’t know who or what else was out here but it had him at a disadvantage.  Automatically, he pulled free of his sling, trying to go for his sword with his right hand since his left was caught firm.  His tenuous footing slipped and slid further as he tried to pull free of whoever had grabbed him, or at least turn towards the being, but the strong hands that held him grappled against his forward momentum, pulling him back and catching his good arm in a position that effectively rendered him unable to struggle further.

 

“Estel, what are you doing?  Be still or you’ll fall!”

 

At the sound of the voice Aragorn instantly stopped struggling and allowed the grip on his arms to pull him fully upright and set him on his feet again on a more stable patch of grass and rocks. 

 

The hands released him then and Aragorn pulled away, turning around to face the being behind him. 

 

Elrond was smiling wryly at his foster son, one eyebrow cocked. 

 

Aragorn’s breath was still coming quick and fast and his heart was pounding in his ears from the adrenaline surge a few moments ago.  “Are you trying to kill me?” he panted out, shocked at seeing the elf lord. 

 

“Actually that’s what I was hoping to avoid,” the elder elf said calmly, his smile growing as he saw how flustered the human was.  Elrond shimmered faintly in the moonlight, but only faintly.  To an extent he could control or hide his inner radiance depending on what the situation called for. 

 

Aragorn shook his head and put one hand over his slowly calming heart as he glared accusingly at his father’s amused look.   “And I thought my brothers were bad about sneaking up on me!”  The truth was they held nothing on their father.  Elladan and Elrohir Aragorn had learned to detect, but Elrond was another matter all together. 

 

“Perhaps if you didn’t always feel the need to take off in the middle of the night, you wouldn’t have to worry about it,” the elf lord fixed his son with a somewhat stern look.  Yes, Aragorn was plenty old enough and capable enough to look after himself, but still...

 

Aragorn closed his eyes for a moment and passed his hand over his face.  He didn’t bother asking what Elrond was doing here, he figured he knew.

 

“I’m not going back,” the ranger said quietly, meeting the elf lord’s eyes and hoping he understood, but prepared if he didn’t.  He gestured to his right arm and the sling that was right now hanging uselessly around his neck.  “I am nearly well again.  I will be all right.  But Legolas is in danger, I know he is and I must go try to find him.  It is no more than he has done for me.  Please understand, this is something I have to do.”

 

“Are you through?” Elrond waited until the human had finished speaking.  “Good,” he nodded when Aragorn did not respond.  “As so often is the case you are not nearly so well as you think Estel, if tonight’s little altercation is any indication.  What would you have done if I *had* been an enemy?  I cannot allow you do this alone.”

 

Aragorn’s eyes turned hard with determination.  “I’m sorry father, but you cannot stop me.”

 

“Who said anything about stopping you?  If I had wanted to do that all I would have had to do is say a word to Galadriel and the Galadrim would have halted you long before you got anywhere near the borders of the woods.  Yes, Estel, don’t look so shocked, the Lord and Lady of the Wood know everything that happens in their realm and I know *you* at any rate,” Elrond added with a twinkle in his eye at Aragorn’s surprised look.  “I knew you’d never stay put.  Of course you are going to find Legolas, and since I cannot with good conscience let you go alone in your condition, I am going with you.”

 

Aragorn blinked, utterly taken aback by this new revelation.  “You are?”

 

“I’m glad my companionship is so highly rated,” Elrond remarked dryly at his adopted son’s nonplused expression. 

 

Aragorn flushed.  “That’s not what I meant, I mean, there’s no one I would rather have with me, but it’s just-”

 

“Just that you’ve never seen me leave Rivendell?  I’m not a fixture there Aragorn,” he laughed.  “I dare say I will not be a burden to your travels,” he cut the young man off with a wave of his hand before the ranger could again protest that that was not what he had meant.  “Besides, I think you forgot a few things...”

 

Un-shouldering the pack that up until now Aragorn did not even realize the elf lord was carrying; Elrond dropped the weighty knapsack on the ground with a thud.  “How far did you think you were going to get supplied like you are now?” the elf shook his head with an amused smile.  “I *know* I taught you better than that Estel.  Look at that, you didn’t even bring your cloak... well I don’t have yours, but I have a spare.”  Elrond pulled the cloak off his own shoulders and wrapped the warm fabric around the young human’s, his look brooking no protest. 

 

Aragorn pulled the dark cloak closer around him with his good hand.  With minimal difficulty he pulled the small brooch off the shoulder of his tunic and used it to hold the cloak closed about his neck.  After it was fastened the ranger let his fingers linger on the small star-shaped clasp that Elladan had given him many years ago as he broke into a large grin.  Touching Elrond’s arm, he caught the elf lord’s gaze again. 

 

“Thank you,” Aragorn meant far more than the cloak and his eyes said that clearly.  Just how far Elrond was willing to go to support him touched his heart deeply. 

 

Elrond brushed his son’s unruly locks with the back of his fingers, his smile both fond and proud.  “You are becoming a man Estel.  Indeed, you have been one for some time.  Our paths will lead us apart very soon I think, and it may be that we see less of one another than in former years... but at least this journey we will make together.”

 

Aragorn smiled softly in the darkness.   “Then I will treasure this time, as I have every moment I have lived in your house.  Thank you, you ease my mind in more ways than one.  If Legolas *is* injured in some way, he could ask for no better care than yours.”

 

“Indeed,” the elf lord’s smile turned wry again.  “So instead of dragging him back to me you are dragging me out to him are you?  This should prove interesting.  Perhaps I will finally see just *how* it is that you two manage to get yourselves into so much trouble!”

 

“I’m sure we’ll have no trouble with you around Ada,” Aragorn said innocently. 

 

“Why do I doubt that?” Elrond shook his head with a soft laugh, stooping to grab one strap of the pack that was still sitting on the ground.  “Well?  Are you going to take your things out of here or not?  If you think I’m going to carry everything you are gravely mistaken...”

 

Aragorn chuckled as he helped his father sort his share of the supplies out of the pack.  He was glad for the elf lord’s company.  He had traveled many times with his brothers but rarely ever with his father.  The visit to Lothlórien had woken many questions in his mind that he had never stopped to consider before about Elrond and his past.  He supposed it was part of truly growing up when you began to see someone as more than just your father, but as a person, a person he would like to get to know better, especially since Aragorn too felt that their lives would soon begin to undergo many changes. 

 

This was going to be a very interesting trip indeed.

 

Aragorn shouldered his own pack once more and turned back in the direction he had been going.  He took a deep breath of the night air and an unexplainable chill ran through him. 

 

Elrond noticed the troubled look on his foster son’s face and touched his shoulder gently as they started descending the steep slope once more.  “You fear for Legolas.” 

 

“Yes,” Aragorn was not ashamed to admit it.  “I have the awful feeling that somehow I have already waited too long... I fear I will be too late.”

 

Elrond was silent for a time, but when they had reached the bottom of the hill he spoke, his voice quiet, but firm.  “We cannot do more than we are doing now Estel.  There is nothing more ultimately destructive than focusing on what might have been but can no longer be changed.  Have faith, Estel.” 

 

Elrond could not promise that all would be well, for that was more than he knew, but Aragorn took comfort in his father’s wisdom and nodded, silently praying that his dreams would not come true.  That they would not be too late.

 

 

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

 

 

A tall human with sandy blonde hair pulled back in several rough braids was swearing prodigiously, an empty halter clamped in his hand.  The falling rain made the leather slick and was steadily worsening his disposition.  “Any sign of them up there Léod?” he called up to his companion on the dark, shale covered ridge above. 

 

“No, you know Freca’s gonna have our hides if we don’t bring them back,” the second fellow responded helpfully. 

 

“Thanks, I never would have guessed,” the first man grumped, swearing a little louder, his voice echoing off the walls of the curving canyon he was descending into.  “I hope they haven’t tangled it up with any of those stinking lhygians.  You did bring the anti-venom kit with just in case, right?”

 

A grunt from above answered to the affirmative.  “Yes Fastred, I’m not stupid you know.  After all, it wasn’t *I* who let them get away...”

 

These men were in fact horse-breakers by trade, in search of some of their stock that had run off and made for the hills.  This light rain was not making their search any easier, or any more pleasant. 

 

Fastred kicked a loose piece of shale angrily as he rounded a corner, holding on to the cliff face next to him to keep from slipping on the sharp incline and shifting stones as he rounded the bend.  Any horse that came down here stood a good chance of breaking a leg or worse and that would be a tragedy, not only because of the loss of a good animal, but because these horses did not belong to the breakers, but were entrusted into their care by individual clients to be tamed and made saddle-ready.  To violate such a trust was a serious thing and not one that their employer would take lightly.

 

“Well I certainly hope that none of them were foolish enough to come down through... here.”  Fastred pulled up short at the sight he found himself confronted with.  A still body lay sprawled on the ground at the base of the cliff and on its chest...

 

The lhyguan leaned down close, ready to taste the elf’s blood when a heavy stone hit it full in the back of the head, making it reel before turning around and hissing loudly, its flat broad head swiveling to find the source of the new threat. 

 

“Hey, get away!  Get away!” Fastred threw another stone, narrowly missing the second lhyguan.  “Léod!  Léod!  Get down here quick!” he shouted, snapping a long thin branch off one of the spindly trees nearby.  Edging forward, while trying to keep out of the reach of the deadly lhygians, Fastred swatted at the creatures with the leafy end of the branch, continuing to shout loudly, since he knew the reptiles were sensitive to loud sounds. 

 

The lhygians hissed and retreated a few paces in fear and anger, but they were reluctant to leave the prone body of their intended prey. 

 

Léod quickly slithered down the steep incline behind his friend and immediately seeing what was going on, he drew a knife from his belt.

 

Two of the great lizards were still perched atop the unmoving body of the stranger on the ground and one, closer at hand, was staring at the newcomers with small deadly eyes. 

 

Just at that moment, the one closest to the two humans lunged forward, straight at them.  Quick as he could, Léod hurled the knife in his hand, catching the creature in the back.  The lhyguan made no audible outcry, but it thrashed madly, turning and writhing on the shale in its death throes.  There was a flurry of movement from the lhygians standing on the unconscious being, but when the two breakers moved towards them they fled with a scuttle and a hiss, disappearing into the shadows of the rocks. 

 

“Who in the world is this?” Léod knelt next to Legolas, turning the prince’s head towards them and checking his pulse. 

 

Wet golden hair pulled away from the elf’s pointed ears and Fastred blinked in surprise.  “*What* in the world is this?”

 

Léod kicked his friend’s boot.  “Don’t be an idiot, it’s an elf!  Haven’t you ever seen an elf before?”

 

“Oh, and you have?” Fastred shot back as he checked the prince over for injuries.  His friend ignored him.  “I wonder how he got out here?” he muttered quietly, thinking out loud.

 

“Oh damn,” Fastred murmured as he turned the elf’s right hand over and lifted it up.  A small, but deep wound marred the pale, flawless skin of the prince’s palm, just below the base of his thumb.  The bite had an odd, irregular shape and the deepest part of it were two nearly identical punctures about an inch or more apart.  The flesh around the wound was already red and beginning to swell. 

 

“Lhyguan poison,” Fastred muttered with revulsion.  “One of them got him before they ran off.”  Under normal circumstances, the elf would die in a matter of minutes as the deadly venom spread through his body, swelling internal organs and wreaking havoc with the nervous system. 

 

Léod dropped the pack off his back and rummaged through it quickly.  Pulling out a jar and a small flask he passed the vial to his friend while he opened the jar.  Ladling out a generous amount of the gooey yellow substance inside with two cupped fingers, Léod spread the mixture onto a strip of cloth and pressed it tightly against the bleeding wound on the elf’s hand, working it into the puncture and binding it off.  That would slow the poison and neutralize it at its point of entry. 

 

Meanwhile, Fastred had mixed the contents of the vial with the water in the drinking horn he carried.  Tipping the unconscious elf up into a sitting position, they put the end of the horn in Legolas’ mouth and slowly poured the water in, waiting for the natural swallowing instinct to take effect before administering some more, a little at a time. 

 

Léod glanced at his friend as they slowly administered the anti-venom to the unresponsive elf.  “Whoever he is, he’s lucky we had some of the AntiVen with us.  But... this batch was mixed up for horses... do you think it’ll work on a human or an... an elf?” 

 

Fastred shrugged.  “I have no idea.  It ought to still work on a man, although it might be a mite stronger than necessary... we’ll know soon if the same holds true for his kind.”

 

The rain was intensifying and they tipped the drinking horn one last time, administering the last of the anti-venom serum. 

 

“Come on,” Fastred dragged the limp elf upright as he stood, throwing Legolas over one shoulder and finding that the prince was remarkably light.  “Let’s get him back to Émuseld.  If he makes it he’s gonna need a fire and dry clothes to see him through the shakes.  We’ll keep looking for the horses after the storm breaks.”

 

Léod nodded.  “At least this way Freca can’t complain about us coming back without the horses.”  Both men were glad for a reason to not prolong their search in the midst of such inclement weather. 

 

Fastred rolled his eyes.  “You wish.”

 

 

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

 

 

 

Chapter Text

“Ada?” Aragorn waited until the elderly elf met his eye across the fire. The sparks from the pitch that burned on the wood leapt high into the night sky and painted the ranger’s face in warm amber tones. “Tell me of mother.” He asked quietly. “I never hear you speak of her.”

 

The elf sat cross-legged on the far side of the fire. His hair normally braided in intricate elvish design was simply pulled back and pleated into one long braid behind his head, in the fashion that Aragorn had seen warriors sometimes wear theirs. The elf lord wore no distinguishing garments that would set him apart from any other elf if they happened across travelers on their journey south. His royal clothing had been given up in exchange for a dark brown under tunic the color of the woods. It was overlaid by a simple suede jerkin, that laced up the front. The impressions of hand tooled leaves decorated the borders of its edges as it swept down his slender frame tapering mid thigh and was belted about his waist by a nondescript leather belt. He wore dark leggings that contrasted slightly with the ornate sheath at his side. The elf had also brought his bow and quiver; they lay beside him within easy reach of his hands.

 

Aragorn had stared long at his father wondering about his early life, he had never seen the elf lord dressed as he was and it had occurred to the ranger that there was much he did not know about his father. Oh he had heard stories of the courage and strength of Lord Elrond, but never from the elf himself.  In a way it was strange really, Elrond was the lore master and storyteller and from him Aragorn had learned much of the history of Middle Earth over the years... but very few tales that involved the elf lord’s own past.  Those thoughts had surfaced questions in the ranger’s mind and so he had finally gotten up the courage to start asking. 

 

Elrond frowned in confusion at the human’s statement, Aragorn had always been told everything he wanted to know about his birth parents.  “You ask of Gilraen?”

 

With a small shake of his head Aragorn cast his gaze down, slightly unsure of how his father would respond.  Did Elrond not speak of the past because he did not wish to?  The crackling fire cast odd shadows about them and Elrond tipped his head slightly trying to see into the shaded eyes of his adopted son.  He waited out the human, while the young man thought through his question.

 

“No.  Not her.”  When he spoke again Aragorn’s voice was soft and low but the elven hearing quickly picked up the quiet tones. “You have told me much about them, and I thank you, but... although I know she is my mother by birth, as Arathorn is my father, still if...if your wife were yet in Middle Earth she would have been the mother I came to know.  Elladan and Elrohir talk of their mother often and I have come to think of her in such a way through them.  I did not mean to be presumptuous.”  Silver eyes searched the blue ones that watched the ranger closely.  Elrond gave his head a slight shake, letting Aragorn know he had done nothing wrong, but he did not speak. 

 

“You never speak of her Ada.”  Aragorn repeated quietly.  There was so much about Elrond that Aragorn realized he really did not know, even though he had lived with him all his life.  He had never thought much about it before, but now he wondered about the woman who had captured his father’s heart. 

 

Elrond looked quickly out into the night, unconsciously shielding his inner soul from the piercing gaze of his son.  No, he rarely spoke of her anymore.  The years had fled so quickly and the past seemed more like wisps of remembrance with barely any substance.

 

Afraid he had hurt his adoptive parent Aragorn quietly stood and rounded the fire, seating himself near Elrond’s side.

 

The soft sounds of footsteps did not register in the elf’s mind as his thoughts were flung eons into the past.  It was the gentle touch of his son’s hand on his knee that brought elf back to the present.

 

“I’m sorry.”  Aragorn whispered softly, “I did not mean to bring you pain. I was only curious.  I thought perhaps it would be easier to speak of her without my brothers here, but obviously I was wrong.  You don’t have to remember for me, its all right to let it go.”

 

Elrond smiled gently at the human that was seated next to him.  Why wouldn’t his son ask him such questions?

 

“No Aragorn, it is well.  You are correct I do not speak of Celebrìan often and if she had stayed in Middle Earth she would indeed have taken the place of your departed mother.”  His smiled widened as he thought on his wife, “She would have loved you.  You have the same spark and joy of life that always marked her.  I find it odd but you, all of you, in one way or another remind me of her.  And I see reflections of her soul in yours.”  He laughed slightly, for Aragorn was no physical relation to his wife, and yet as in his own sons, he saw a kindredness of spirit.  “Her heart was big enough for all of Middle Earth, not unlike your own my son.”

 

“How did you meet her?”  Aragorn pressed gently, noting that his father was opening up to him.

 

Elrond laughed, his face flushing slightly with embarrassment. “Oh now that is a tale.”  He shook his head, a smile widening on his face, “A very long one.  It took place on the face of an earth that was very different than the one you now know young one.  You recall that before the forging of the Rings of Power, there was a great elven kingdom in Eregion, which men now call Hollin.  Galadriel and Celeborn dwelt there and governed the people.  Ost-in-Edhil that realm was called in the days of Celembrimbor, when the dwarves of Moria and the Elves of Eregion lived in peace.  Now when my brother and I were quite young, after our parents left but before the founding of Númenor, we left the house of Maglor whose keeping we had been in, and joined the elves in Eregion.  There we would go out hunting with our friends near Ost-in-Edhil from time to time and for the most part, we younger ones would stay away from the main citadels and hunt the outer edges.”  The elderly elf stopped, deep in remembrance a frown slightly marring his noble face and Aragorn was amused to see that he bit his lip exactly the same way Elladan did every time the younger elf was lost in thought.  “I can’t remember why,” he finally continued, “But this particular time we had ridden into the inner sanctuary and were on our way back out when she passed by.”

 

“Father!”  Aragorn gave the elf a gentle shove as his elder started laughing, interrupting his own tale.  The elf lord picked up a stray piece of wood and tossed it on the fire before continuing his story.

 

“I couldn’t take my eyes off of her.  I think my mind had all but frozen, for she was the most beautiful maiden I had ever seen.  She was walking beneath the trees with a group of her friends but I saw none of them save her.  And that of course was exactly the time that my brother chose to spook my horse.  He admitted later that he did it on purpose when he saw the look on my face.”

 

“Ah, so that’s where Elladan and Elrohir get it from.” Aragorn laughed aloud and ducked a playful smack. “I knew you had to be a ruffian when you were younger, get in lots of trouble did we?”  He snickered at the glower his father laid on him.

 

“Do you want to hear the story or not?”  Elrond threatened lightly, unable to contain his own mirth.

 

“No please, please I wouldn’t miss this for all the world.”

 

With a shake of his head the elf lord continued, “Needless to say my horse reared up and I was thrown from it.  I broke my arm in the fall and when I did not rise immediately the commotion gathered quite a crowd.  The first one to reach me was Celebrìan and hers the first voice I heard.  But it was her eyes that held me captive. Oh her eyes, by the Valar Aragorn I swear they held all the stars of the universe in their depths.” Elrond was smiling softly, lost in memories as he stared into the sparking fire.

 

Aragorn smiled in kind as he watched his father recall his past, swept away to the younger days of Middle Earth and enraptured by the tale the elderly elf told.

 

“And her hair, it was thick and long and it shown like flax on a summers day.  It smelled sweet like the meadow flowers.  I can still recall the scent...” Elrond’s voice dropped off and he glanced down to his hands, “None of our children carried on that trait.”  He turned and looked at the human next to him, gently touching an errant strand of Aragorn’s unruly locks.  “None of them.  You all have the darker hair of my side of the family.”

 

Aragorn did not speak when Elrond turned back to gaze once more into the firepit.  He did not continue for some time and the ranger gave him space to be alone with his thoughts, idly stirring the fire with a stick he had found on the forest floor.  The quiet sounds of the forest about them filtered through the night, bringing with their song a calm and a peace that all was well in the woods and it seemed as though that serenity stretched through the whole of Middle Earth if it were possible.

 

“She was the first one to reach my side after I fell and the only one I can recall being there.”  Elrond laughed softly at himself as he picked up the story where he had left it off.  “I couldn’t even speak her beauty held me sway, much to my brother and his friend’s amusement.  Thank the Valar her mother rescued me, having witnessed my accident and saved me further embarrassment by taking me with her to have my arm set.”  He laughed out loud, “*That* was the first time I met your mother...I mean Celebrìan.” He corrected himself quickly.  It was hard to remember sometimes, that Aragorn was not truly his son the way Elladan and Elrohir were.

 

“Its all right father, you can call her my mother, for, meaning no disrespect to the dead, I consider you my true family.”  Aragorn smiled up into the dark eyes that watched him intently, “Tell me, how long before you decided she was the one?” A mischievous grin spread across the young human’s face.

 

“Oh that very day, when I looked into her eyes. I knew I would never be able to live free of her enchantment.  So it was that I began to *visit* often, very often.”

 

Aragorn raised an eyebrow in silent question.

 

“As in daily.  I couldn’t get her out of my head.  She of course made a merry chase of it, but I knew that she felt the same way and it was only a matter of time.”  Elrond frowned mockingly at his son who could barely contain himself, trying hard to fight back the giggles, “Don’t look at me like that.” He gave the ranger a good shove.  “As if you haven’t been the same. I’ve seen that far off look in your eyes a time or two.  You know how women are!”

 

Aragorn’s mouth dropped open. He was at a loss of what to say.  “You...how... I never!”

 

“You have and you know it! Your brothers have seen it, I have seen it and,” he sighed deeply in resignation, “Valar knows Arwen has seen it.”

 

The silver eyes that held his gaze suddenly sought the forest floor.

 

“O, Estel.” Elrond’s voice was tender and soft and Aragorn glanced hesitantly back up at his father, “I have tread the path that you have and though our destinies lie in different places, we are not so far removed from one another that I can not understand the heedless choices of the heart.”  He gently touched the young man’s chin, lifting the ranger’s head until their eyes met.

 

“You said we would not speak of it for many years yet.”  Aragorn’s voice was low and slightly hesitant.

 

“And so we shall not for the future is uncertain, and the time will come.”  He smiled at the ranger, “But not now, however you did want to know about Cele...your mother, did you not?”  He matched the youth’s suddenly mischievous grin.

 

His smile broadened as Aragorn nodded.  He was glad that they had this time together alone; they needed it – father and son.  “We spent many happy days together, for we were young and the world seemed full of nothing but time... however peace did not last.  Sauron bred discontent among the elves and they rebelled.  Galadriel and her family were chased out of Ost-in-Edhil by their own people.  With the aide of the dwarves she and Celebrìan passed through Moria and so escaped to Lothlórien, although that was not yet its name.  Celeborn refused to pass into the dwarf realm.  He, I and the other elves that followed Gil-Galad and were not part of the doings in Hollin remained on the west side of the mountains.  Then Sauron unmasked his evil intents and war came for many, many bitter years.  I did not see Celebrìan again until after it was all over and she and her mother came looking for Celeborn, who was staying with me in newly founded Imladris.  It had been so long by then... I said nothing to her at the time, fearing that the bond made in our youth was forgotten.  But it was not so, and that soon became clear.  By the time I asked her if she would stay with me forever, her answer was not the yes I had hoped and expected, but rather she lectured me on taking so long to ask her!”

 

“She lectured *you*?!?!?” Aragorn was laughing hard, “I wish I had seen that.”

 

“Yes, well asking her was nothing compared to finding the courage to speak with her parents about our intentions.”  Elrond let his breath out in a rush, shaking his head.  “I may have stood beside Celeborn in battle many times and faced death, but that was nothing compared with the thought of asking for his daughter’s hand!”

 

“Are you telling me *you* were nervous?” Aragorn asked incredulously.

 

“Yes!”  Elrond glowered at him playfully, “Being an elf lord is no easy business and I have been nervous many times in my life since, but none more than then.” He elbowed the youth next to him, “Stop laughing. Celeborn and Galadriel have been good relatives through the years, helping me raise two boys and one girl without their mother.”

 

The young human had quieted listening intently once more.

 

“I tell you Estel, living with a woman half one’s life is far different than raising one.”  A deep sorrowful sigh escaped the elf’s lips and Aragorn leaned forward slightly, “Her leaving was one of the hardest things I have ever had to endure.” Elrond’s voice softened as spoke of Celebrìan’s departure, “When she left, much of the beauty of Rivendell passed with her and ere then it has fallen into autumn as though the very woods themselves mourn her leaving.”

 

“You miss her greatly don’t you?” Aragorn whispered.

 

“Everyday.” Elrond smiled sadly, his eyes fixed on the brightly burning fire.  A look of peace crossed his face and the lines etched in his brow eased as he continued, thinking now on the future, “But we will yet be together once more, when it comes my time to leave this land.”

 

The wistfulness in the elf’s voice pained the human and Aragorn found himself glancing out into the dark of night, his own thoughts furrowing lines of sadness onto his face.

 

Elrond noticed the abrupt change and turned towards his son. “Estel?  What is it?  What have I said that has caused you pain?”

 

Aragorn shook his head slowly, “You will one day all leave me and I will see you no more.” His voice was a mere whisper when he finally spoke his fears.  They were no secret and he had voiced them before, but that didn’t mean they had ever truly gone away.

 

Elrond’s fingers gently hooked beneath the ranger’s chin, tipping Aragorn’s head back up and forcing him to look at the elf again.  Tearful eyes met the blue and the elf lord closed his own at the intensity of the emotions.  “There is much young one that is not revealed of the future.  Do not weary your heart with worry.  It does you no good and besides,” He smiled gently at his son, “you’ll not be rid of me anytime soon nor your brothers I fear!”

 

Conceding the point, Aragorn nodded and returned the smile.  He started to respond but his father cautioned him to silence, suddenly alert.  The sounds of the forest around them had grown silent and Elrond glanced about them listening, his hand shifting slowly to the pommel of his sword sheathed at his side.

 

Aragorn moved quietly into a crouched position, drawing his own weapon, the steel of the blade ringing softly in the dark stillness.  He could barely hear the shifting of heavy feet and he swiveled out of instinct bringing his sword up before him as the moonlight caught the edges of the heavy orc blade that swung towards him.

 

The foul creature's weapon descended on the ranger with a vengeance and Aragorn stumbled slightly under the blow.  His collarbone, though mended, was not quite fit for battle and the strain he was placing on it was obvious as a deep throbbing ache set in.  Without time to worry about it, the human ignored the warning signals and spun towards his opponent, smashing his fist into the orcs face before driving his blade through the evil beast.

 

To his right he could hear his elven father struggling in his own battle.  The elf parried a glancing blow and brought his blade up in a high arc; twisting in a tight circle on his boot-heels he swiftly decapitated the orc that advanced on him from behind.  Elrond was fast, too fast for his opponents.  His style of graceful, efficient warfare took his clumsier adversaries off guard and he dispatched his attackers with ease and swiftness.  Running his sharp elven sword through the heart of the orc before him, Elrond realized he was momentarily free from the dark wave and turned to see how Aragorn was faring.

 

The ranger was locked in combat with an orc nearly twice his size and a good head taller than the human.  With a deft twist of his blade Aragorn disarmed the foul creature but before he could finish it off, the orc lunged at him, bringing his fists down together on the humans newly healed shoulder.  The blow swept an agonizing wave of pain through the ranger and he was momentarily thrown off his guard as he collapsed down to his knees, bright sparks of pain flashing on the edges of his vision as he gasped, trying to catch his breath.

 

He heard Elrond call his name and could see the elf out of the corner of his eye as the elven warrior raced to his side.  But there was no time; the orc, having reclaimed his scimitar raised the weapon above his head intending to kill the human. 

 

 

___________________________________________________________

 

~*PART FIVE*~

 

 

 

In the split second before the orc could bring the blade down, Aragorn’s fingers tightened on the handle of his sword and he thrust the weapon upward beneath his attacker’s ribs, piercing the darkened heart.  The orc fell with a stifled cry to the ground.  Elrond stopped, his own weapon dropping to his side as Aragorn turned a weary gaze on the elf lord.

 

A shadow behind his father caught Aragorn’s attention and he slipped a dagger from his boot.  Deftly tossing the small knife into the air he grabbed the blade and threw the weapon across the camp with a shout. The dagger passed through the air mere inches from Elrond’s face.  The elf didn’t move nor did he flinch as the blade barely brushed his hair before embedding itself in the neck of an orc behind him.  The creature dropped to the forest floor with out a sound.

 

“I think that’s all of them.”  Aragorn glanced around them, his senses still on alert.  He swallowed hard, resting where he was kneeling on the ground, not quite trusting himself to his feet yet.

 

“Are you all right?” he asked quietly, his gaze falling on his father.  The elf lord nodded, he too was still listening, wanting to make sure they were alone.

 

“Estel?”  Elrond asked cautiously, stepping over the dead body of an orc.

 

Aragorn waved him off and stood unsteadily to his feet, straightening up slowly.  He pressed his left hand against his still mending collar-bone and groaned softly, it ached deep in the bone.  That last blow had almost been too much.  Quietly he surveyed their wrecked camp; the bodies of the dead orcs littering the tiny glen lay in dark in heaps.  The fire ring had been utterly destroyed the carcass of one of the foul beasts lay prone across the crushed embers.

 

“Well that’s nice.  I am *not* sleeping here tonight.” He turned his gaze on his father.  The elderly elf was frowning as he ripped a piece of cloth from one of the dead creatures and wiped the edge of his blade clean, inspecting the smooth steel for any nicks or pits it may have picked up in the fight.

 

Aragorn watched Elrond for a few moments, fascinated by the warrior that he had seen in the elderly elf only minutes earlier.

 

“What do you think they wanted?" The Ranger resumed his inspection of the destroyed glade as the elf lord gazed dispassionately at the bodies that strew their camp. His lips turned up slightly in disgust.

 

“Our gear and ourselves if they could have gotten either.  The group was relatively small and from the way they are outfitted they are not soldiers, but marauding raiders, most likely from the mountains somewhere.  We are far enough south to be in danger of such errant scouting parties such as this one.  It simply never occurred to me when we made camp.”  Elrond supposed that maybe it really had been a long time since he had been away from the lands surrounding Rivendell, especially when not traveling with a large host.  He was going to have to be a bit more on his guard. 

 

A soft laugh drew the elf’s attention to his son who was walking slowly toward him, “Those types of things don’t always occur to me either, which is why I am always thankful when Legolas is traveling with me.  He is... how shall I put it... ultimately cautious about situations like this.  I think it comes from living in Mirkwood.  If he were here I think he mostly likely would have insisted on camping in a different location entirely.”  The ranger glanced quickly into the tree tops above their heads before stooping to retrieve a flat branch, gathering it into a pile that he had started collecting, stacking them on the ground along with various other piece of wood and large leaves that he could find laying on the forest floor. “And he’d be right too.”  Aragorn was walking slowly gazing intently into the upper reaches of the trees around them again, his preoccupation taking him out of the ring of the small glade.

 

“Estel wait, come here,” Elrond walked after the young human, “I really need to see to your collar-bone, that was a vicious blow you took.  You are not yet healed enough my son.”

 

“In a minute, we need to set up camp somewhere much safer, there may be more parties about.”

 

Elrond could hear the human’s voice just outside the glen under the shadows of the woods and growing fainter; the ranger was moving away from him. “I think I’ve found the perfect place to rest for the evening.”  Aragorn called back through the forest, his voice taking on an odd strain to it as though his attentions were focused elsewhere. 

 

Elrond had begun collecting what things were salvageable and picked up the pile of leaves and wood that Aragorn had left stacked up, having a good idea of what his adopted son was up to.  He followed the soft sounds of the ranger's approaching footsteps as he walked back towards the elf, meeting him part way.

 

“Here let me help you.”  Aragorn stepped out of the half-gloom of the woods, and, seeing the load his father carried, quickly wrapped his arms around the upper half of the stack of tree limbs, intending to help ease the burden.  Unfortunately the weight of the wood was too much for his injuries to sustain and he fell to one knee in an attempt not to drop the load he carried, unsuccessfully stifling a small cry.

 

“Enough.”  Elrond dropped his burden on the ground and steered the ranger over to a large boulder, forcing the human to sit down.  “Let me see to your shoulder *now*.  Not another excuse, we’ll build our loft in a moment.”

 

Aragorn winced as his father pressed his hands underneath the ranger’s tunic and gently felt the healing bones.  Moving the tunic back from near the youth’s neck Elrond’s sharp eyes detected the darkening bruises from where the orc had hit his son.  “How does it feel?  Can you move your arm at all?”

 

“A bit.”  Aragorn painfully tried to rotate his right arm, unsuccessfully attempting to convince the elf that he was all right.

 

“Estel.”  Elrond’s tone was a warning in its self.  He rummaged through his sack and pulled out a white piece of cloth.

 

“I am not putting that back on.  I fully intend to build us a flet and climb up there myself.”  Aragorn stiffly stood and rounded the rock, keeping the boulder between he and his father.

 

“You may *help* build a flet and you may climb up there by yourself but you will wear this sling again until that arm and shoulder have had some rest.”  Elrond laid the cloth on the rock and glanced up at the tree next to him. “This one will do.”  With that said the elf lord easily vaulted into the lowest branches of the tree, climbing half way up it where the thick limbs crossed one another and were wide enough to carry the weight of a human and elf.

 

“Hand me up the wood Estel.”  The disembodied voice of his father floated down to him, the elf lord’s form hidden in the thick gloom.

 

“I cannot see you.”  Aragorn hefted a flat limb and lifted it above his head.  A soft blue glow brightened slightly in the tree, emanating directly overhead and he smiled up into the eyes of the elf lord, “Oh there you are.”  He teased lightly as he slowly handed the wood and greens to Elrond, pulling himself and their supplies up with him at the last.

 

The loft as Elrond had called it was far more sturdy than any flet Legolas and he had ever constructed as far as the ranger could remember.  The elf lord had padded the wooden platform with the large fronds from the forest floor, their scent adding a familiar fragrance to the tree top dwelling.

 

His father scooted to the back of the thrown together shelf, intending to make room for his son as Aragorn edged up on to the loft.  The human stood uncertainly, glancing from the trunk of the tree at the elf’s back to the elf lord himself.

 

“What is it Estel?”

 

“Well, its just that...Legolas always lets me...makes me...” the ranger sighed in resignation and admitted the reasons for his hesitancy to his father, “I sleep by the tree and he sleeps by the edge.”

 

Try as he might Elrond could not stifle the small laugh that the admission provoked.  “You mean to say that he fears you will fall off in the middle of the night?”

 

Aragorn blushed and the color that rose in his cheeks was not hidden from his father.  “It’s not that... well maybe it is.”  He glanced in embarrassment out into the night around them.  “Mostly it's just that *Legolas* can’t sleep cause I fidget and toss in the night, this high above the ground.  I just sleep better with the tree at my back.”  He smiled ruefully down at his father as he inched around the elf, his hand braced against the tree that formed the back of the platform.

 

Elrond easily slid out of the way and moved towards the edge of the flet, trying to contain his laughter.  “Oh Estel, forgive me, sometimes I forget you aren’t elven.” He reached towards the boy, pulling him closer away from the safety of the trunk as the ranger seated himself wearily onto the platform.  “Let me have a look at that shoulder again.  I have some ointment here that will help to take the ache out of the bones.” 

 

Gently brushing the long wayward strands of dark hair away from the youth’s neck, the elf lord worked the soothing lotion into the bruised collarbone.  “So Legolas taught you how to build flets did he?”  He tried to preoccupy the ranger with quiet conversation as he rotated Aragorn’s shoulder and reset his right arm in the soft sling.

 

A quiet moan escaped the human’s lips and he shut his eyes tightly, nodding in answer to the question.  Breathing in slowly as Elrond eased his arm back against his chest and held it there gently he continued to speak, “The first I built by myself fell out from underneath us.  Don’t you know he never lets me live it down.”  Aragorn laughed softly at himself, “It really was funny though and thank the Valar neither of us was hurt.”

 

Elrond was shaking his head in amusement. His dark eyes watching intently as his son inched back towards the tree’s tall trunk and eased down onto the fronds that lined the loft, carefully positioning himself on his left side, the faintly glowing light of the elf aiding him.  The youth smiled at his father.  He felt worse than he wanted to admit; the surprise attack by the orcs had worn him out and he hated those feelings of weakness.

 

“Thank you Ada.  It does feel much better now.” The ranger spoke softly, his words easily falling into elvish. 

 

“Good.  Were you injured anywhere else?”  The elf lord questioned as he lay down, wrapping himself in his cloak and pillowing his head on his arm.  His son’s eyes reflected the dim glow he cast about them as the human tried vainly to remain awake.  “Estel don’t fight it.  Let your body relax and rest, you need the sleep.”

 

Aragorn pulled away from the hand that reached towards him, a mischievous grin pulling at the corners of his mouth, “Do not try that elven trick on me again!  I’ll fall asleep on my own, thank you.”

 

Laying his hand gently on the young man’s shoulder Elrond laughed, “I wouldn’t dream of it.  Besides Galadriel always was better at that than I.”

 

Relaxing back against the trunk, Estel blinked slowly.  “See, this is how Legolas and I are always getting into trouble.  We never go seeking it, somehow it simply always finds us.”

 

“You expect me to believe...” Elrond cut their quiet conversation off, rolling swiftly onto his stomach and pulling himself silently to the edge of the flet.

 

Something stirred below them.

 

In seconds Aragorn had awkwardly joined him, peering intently into the darkness below their hiding place.

 

A small party of orcs passed beneath them, their shuffling gait loud in the night stillness.  Everything in the forest silenced as they passed, grunting and talking to one another in their coarse graveling voices.  Their complaints carried easily on the slight breezes and the two watchers could hear the evil beasts discussing their slain comrades and wondering where their murderers were hiding even now.  The hulking black form of a warg padded next to its masters, scenting the varying smells.  Neither it nor the evil creatures that accompanied it detected the elf and the ranger high above their heads.

 

Elrond gently tapped Aragorn’s shoulder and the two pulled back from the edge of the platform, quietly lying back down and watching one another, waiting until the sounds of the woods crept back into the trees around them, their soft cacophony like a symphony to the two.

 

“We are safe now.  They know not where we have gotten to and they will not pass this way again.”  Elrond whispered, his voice barely heard by the ranger.

 

Aragorn nodded in understanding, he had long ago learned to read what people were saying without having to fully hear it.  Years of wandering with Legolas had given him that edge.  His thoughts turned once more to his friend and he grimaced, shaking his head slightly at the edginess that dogged his heart and waking moments.

 

“Tomorrow we’ll resume our search.  We will find him Estel.”  Elrond comforted.

 

“I know.”  Aragorn was far from sure but the words of his father went far to soothe his worried heart and he closed his eyes, content in the fact that for the moment they were safe and he was one step closer to finding his friend.

 

 

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

 

 

Legolas shivered violently, yet he felt as if his body was on fire.  Heat radiated off him and his hair clung to the sides of his fever-damp face.  Inside he felt as if he were burning up, yet his skin was unaccountably cold and tense shudders wracked his frame.  For one who was unaccustomed to having to feel the presence of either hot or cold, the sensation was distinctly disconcerting, as well as miserable.

 

If the elf prince had ever had the flu, or anything of that nature, he would have likened his current state to that, but, being an elf, Legolas had never been ill, so the only thing that this reminded him of was the hellish state he had been left in after having been given too much Dragon Water to drink, or some of the worse fevers he had had after being injured.  But even that hadn’t felt quite like this.

 

The elf prince moaned softly and opened his eyes, attempting to work the blurry world into focus.  A hand rested on his forehead to check the state of his fever.  It was not the hand of another elf. 

 

“Estel?” Legolas murmured blearily.  His cloudy mind didn’t register that it had been several over a month since he last saw the ranger, or how highly unlikely it was for Aragorn to be anywhere near here, wherever ‘here’ was.  All he knew was he was hurting and disoriented and usually when he was in that state, the young Dùnadan was close at hand.  Odd how that worked. 

 

“No, Freca.  Just lay still.  You’re going to live,” a gruff but not unkind voice spoke nearby, making Legolas start slightly.  The accent was that of Rohan.  “You may not feel like you want to for a little while, but you will.”

 

Legolas realized that the man near him was a complete stranger, so were the other men he could only vaguely sense nearby.  The elf stiffened.  He didn’t feel threatened by these people, but past experience had not lead him to be comfortable being vulnerable around most mortals. 

 

“Where am I?” Legolas tried to keep his voice from shaking.  He felt horrible.  Truly horrible.  “Who are you?”  The prince winced.  His tone had betrayed much more fear than he intended.  He wanted to sit up, but he felt too dizzy and ill to attempt it. 

 

“You’re in Émuseld, above East Emnet.  My men found you up in the rocky places of the Wold.  I’m Freca and you’re in my house.  You were bitten by a Lhyguan.  My people saved your life and brought you here.  Now just lie still and rest or you’ll wish you were still unconscious.  Trust me, I’ve seen a lot of these cases.”

 

Legolas relaxed because he could not afford to remain tense.  If these people intended to harm him, then there was nothing he could do about it and they probably would have done it already.  “Where’s Trelan?” he murmured as he remembered what had happened before his fall. 

 

“Who?”

 

“M-my friend... another elf, did you find another elf?” Legolas was starting to shiver again, the violent trembling taking over him as darkness began to edge his vision. 

 

“Sorry, we found you alone.  Now be still, it’ll pass faster if you save your strength.  Be still...”

 

But if Freca said anything else, Legolas did not hear it, for the shadow world had pulled him under again and he knew no more.

 

 

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

 

 

“Rise and shine,” an overly rough hand shook Legolas out of his slumber and the elf winced, trying to pull away.  The jarring sent waves of pain and nausea through his aching body and the loud voice made his head throb. 

 

“Come on now, wake up,” Freca was still shaking the elf. 

 

Legolas rolled over and fixed the man with a slightly blood-shot glare.  “I am awake.”  Silently, he reflected that he would have to have been dead to not be. “What is it?”  The prince passed his hand over his face, trying to dispel the deep ache behind his eyes, but it was no use, even the slightest movement of his gaze made his eye sockets throb as if he were looking into the sun. 

 

“What is it?  You’ve been down for nearly two days, it’s time you got up and started moving around.  You have to work the toxins out of your system now with activity, or they will continue to linger much longer than you’d like.  Come on, get up,” Freca said with an overly annoying amount of cheerfulness.

 

Legolas moaned softly.  Two days?  He only remembered waking up once since the accident and his perception of time was totally lost.  Had it really been two days?  The elf started to sit up only to have the world crash down upon his shoulders.  Legolas found himself flat on his back again and not quite remembering having gotten there.  His head was buzzing and he thought he just possibly might need to throw up.  That was a very unique feeling and he decided he did not like it one bit. 

 

Freca took the elf’s arm and dragged him upright again, wrapping the prince’s hands around one of the bedposts next to Legolas to help him remain upright.  This time Legolas managed, but he was not sure he wanted to. 

 

“I do not feel well,” he murmured softly, letting his hot forehead fall to rest against the cool, rough wood of the bedpost.  It was a massive understatement.  Even his hands hurt.  No, just one hand.  Legolas looked at the bandage wrapped around his right palm and tried to figure out what it was for. 

 

“Of course you don’t!” Freca shook his head.  “I told you.  You were bitten by a Lhyguan,” he nodded towards the bandage that Legolas had just been looking at.  “You’re lucky to be alive.  You wouldn’t be if some of my men hadn’t found you right after it happened.  Them are nasty creatures.  You’re over the worst, but you’re gonna feel like dragon spit for a few more days yet.  However, the best thing to do is to get active right away and not let the poisons sit around idle in your body.”

 

Legolas just clung to the bedpost and nodded.  All he wanted to do was lie down again, but if he needed to be up and moving then that’s all there was to it and somehow he would have to manage.  His mouth felt incredibly dry and there was a very bad taste in it.  “May I have some water please?”

 

Freca dipped a cup of fresh water out of a pail in the corner of the room and passed it to the elf.  Legolas drank slowly, finding that his throat hurt, but when he was done he felt slightly better. 

 

“You want something to eat?” the man inquired.  Legolas shook his head, letting one arm wrap lightly around his stomach.  He didn’t feel ready for that yet.  The elf was surprised to see that Freca was holding another cup out towards him after taking the first one back.  The elf took it and looked down at the warm, slightly amber liquid uncertainly. 

 

“Drink,” Freca commanded when it became apparent that Legolas didn’t get the drift.

 

“What is it?” the prince questioned, holding the cup away slightly.  It had an odd odor and the smell turned his already troubled stomach. 

 

“The only thing keeping you alive,” Freca said casually.  “We call it AntiVen.  It’s our own formula, and I might add the only thing that fights Lhyguan poison.”

 

Legolas was confused.  “I thought you said I was bitten two days ago.”

 

“You were, and you survived the first 24 hours which are the worst part, but don’t think that means your out of the woods yet,” Freca shook his head.  “You’re definitely not from around here, are you?  If you knew anything about lhygians you’d know that their poison remains in a person’s body for at least two weeks.  Most of the time it’s fatal within the first few hours.  People in these parts have lost a lot of horses and more than a few people that way in past.  But my boys and I have the only remedy for it, *however*, you have to have morning and evening doses of AntiVen each day for the next two weeks to keep the toxins under control, or they’ll still kill ya.  I’m sorry to say that you’re gonna be feeling ill for quite a while, but eventually the side effects will wear off a bit.  If you stay on the AntiVen, you’ll be right as rain in a fortnight.”  Freca explained as he moved around the room.  It made Legolas feel too ill to try to follow the man with his eyes, so he didn’t know what exactly the fellow was doing.

 

Having to take on faith that these people knew what they were talking about; Legolas raised the cup to his lips and drank.  His stomach protested and he gripped the post he clung to a little harder, remaining still as he tried to battle with his own nausea.

 

“What’s your name then if you don’t mind my asking?” Freca said when it seemed apparent that Legolas was not going to comment on what he had just been told.  “And what is an... well, one of your kind, doing out here?”

 

“Legolas,” the prince was too ill to think of taking an alias.  Besides, it didn’t matter, these men wouldn’t know him from the next elf.  “I was riding with a friend near the borders of the forest, we were attacked.”

 

“You were near Fangorn?” Freca interrupted.

 

“No,” Legolas shook his head.  Obviously they must now be nearer to that ancient wood than to the forests of his home, although he did not realize he had fled quite so far south.  “Mirkwood.  We were pursuing some orcs across the river Limlight, but lost their trail.  It was then, on the Downs that we were attacked.  The men who assaulted us were after our horses.  I do not know what became of my friend; we were separated and pursued.  I was forced into a rocky area... my horse was frightened and I think she threw me.  I... I don’t remember anything else,” Legolas closed his eyes.  Worry for Trelan was eating at his heart again. 

 

He told the truth, just not all of it.  He and Trelan had been sent down to southern Mirkwood to check on rumors of stirring in the supposedly vacant Dol Guldur.  There they had found a band of orcs who strangely enough did not want to fight, but ran away from the elves as if they were under orders that they could not risk jeopardizing.  Legolas and Trelan had pursued them, but the trail was lost with the crossing of the Anduin and then the Limlight, and although the elves felt sure that the creatures had gone down through Rohan, they had decided to abandon the trail and return home with the strange tidings, when they were attacked.  But these humans didn’t need to know that.  It did not concern them.

 

Freca inclined his head as he pulled a jingling set of leather and metal off a hook on the wall and slung it over his shoulder.  If Legolas had been feeling better he would have recognized it as a halter. 

 

“Well Legolas, you need to move and I need an extra set of hands, so follow me,” Freca headed for the door in the rear of the room rather than the one that led out into the rest of the house. 

 

Legolas was not sure he could, but he did not want to show this man that much weakness.  Standing seemed a daunting task, but the prince found it easier than he feared.  The anti-venom drink he had been given had helped his dizziness a little and he made it to the door without mishap.  The bright sunlight outside assaulted his senses and he had to stop for a moment, holding the doorframe and swaying slightly as he gathered his strength. 

 

“Close your eyes, and stand in the light for a moment,” Freca had backtracked, seeing the elf’s hesitation.  “It’ll be easier when you open them again.”

 

Legolas did as he was told and was surprised that when he opened his eyes again he found that the fierce pain had faded back to a dull ache.  He blinked a few times adjusting to the brightness.

 

“All right, good, come on then,” Freca was off and moving again across the windswept grass, passing around the side of the house.  The day was clear and the sun shone brightly on the rolling green hills that spread out around them. 

 

“Where are we going?” Legolas’ mind was still a little foggy. 

 

“Down to the stables.  Fastred and Léod are out looking for our missing horses again and I need a hand.  Here, hold this,” Freca passed the halter to Legolas. 

 

Legolas quickly found out that Émuseld was not a town as he had at first thought upon hearing the name, but rather a large estate that was comprised mostly of horse pastures and two long rows of stables.  There was also a strange, fenced-in ring with a sandy floor to the right of the stables, as well as Freca’s main house, and a smaller building nearby.  All were fashioned in the manner of the Rohirrim: pointed roofs and thick wooden beams, with images of horses and other beasts carved into the doorposts.

 

Entering the first stable and moving through the low, thatch-roofed structure, Freca stopped by a stall that held a large, black horse.  The animal shied back from him, snorting and pawing its hooves in warning.  The stall was not big enough for it to evade his reach however and Freca caught the horse’s head, holding it still as it tried to jerk free.  Quickly, he tied a piece of cloth over the animal’s eyes and it quieted some, but it was still trying to pull away from the human’s touch.

 

“All right, I’ll hold him, you put the halter on,” Freca’s voice was choppy as he strained to hold onto the horse.  It was putting up a good fight, even blindfolded. 

 

Legolas stared down at the contraption in his hands.  He had had very little call to have to do this in his life, because he generally used no reins or bridle when he rode.  Yet he did know the principles behind it more or less.  If he were feeling better, it would have been easier, but he tried to push aside his weakness and proceed.  The horse did not make matters easier by jerking its head around and attempting to pull up, so the man and elf could barely reach him.  Sliding the nosepiece on quickly and pulling the straps up over the horse’s ears, Legolas paused, realizing something was wrong. 

 

The horse swung its head to the side, clipping Freca’s chin sharply and making him let go.  The man swore and spit blood, yanking the halter away.  “Don’t you know anything?  You have to get the bit into his mouth first!” 

 

Legolas was feeling poorly and increasingly irritated, but he also felt a bit foolish.  “I’m sorry.  I have not done this in a long time.  I don’t usually ride with reins.”

 

Freca looked at the elf as if he were either lying or still more muddled from the poisons than he had thought.  Shrugging, the man pointed at the agitated horse.  “Fine, then *you* hold his head and *I’ll* put the halter on.”

 

Speaking softly in his native tongue, Legolas reached out for the horse’s head.  When he caught it, the animal snorted a few times, but did not try to pull away.  Instead he stood very still, bringing his head down and allowing Freca to hook his thumbs in the horse’s mouth and slip the bit easily over his tongue, sliding the bridle on without trouble as Legolas just loosely held his head with one hand on his neck and the other on his jaw. 

 

Freca quietly made note of the affect the elf had on the horse.  This could work out all right and perhaps not be a total loss after all.

 

After the horse was haltered and put on cross-ties, Freca prepared to see to his hooves, but first he took Legolas to a long table at the end of the stables.  Many twisted leather strips, rope cords and bits of metal were laid in a heap on one end, while a few finished bridals hung against the back wall. 

 

“Here, see if you can get some of these sorted out and properly strung, you can look at these here if you need an example of how they should be.”  Freca gave the elf a light task to do because he knew that Legolas was still coming out of the worst of the detoxification period.  But around here if a person was able to work, they did.  “In a little while we’ll go back to the house and you’ll take another little lie down.  I’ll return in a bit.”  With that Freca went back about his own work.

 

Legolas sank down on a stool next to the table, resting his head in his hands for a moment.  He hated feeling this weak and achy.  He hated it.  He did not question why Freca was asking him to do these things.  These people had saved his life, and if they needed a little help he wouldn’t begrudge them that.  Especially since he apparently needed to be moving around anyway; even if his hurting body wanted nothing more than to crawl into a dark shadow and go back to sleep. 

 

Pushing his hair back from his face, Legolas picked up one of the partially formed halters and began straightening out the twisted leather straps, glancing at the ones on the wall to make sure he was threading them right.  The halter shook ever so slightly in his hand and the prince realized with extreme annoyance that he was trembling.  Clenching his fist harder he forced himself to stop. 

 

Several hours later, Legolas had made good headway through the mess on the table, but he could no longer force his eyes to focus on anything.  A burning headache was throbbing between his temples and he was feeling sick to his stomach again.  Leaning his elbows on the edge of the table and pressing his palms into his aching eyes, Legolas tried to clear his head. 

 

He jerked when a hand touched his shoulder.  The elf hadn’t even heard the human approach and that showed how bad off he was. 

 

Freca glanced over the newly fixed and cleaned halters hanging against the wall with approval.  The elf felt hot under his hand.  Enough work for now, this one needed to rest again. 

 

“Léod and Fastred are back.  Finally found the missing horses if you can believe that,” Freca chuckled.  “Come on, its lunch time.”

 

Legolas stood up but had to grip the table ledge to stay steady.  “I think I just want to lay down for a little,” he touched the fingers of his bandaged hand lightly to his temple, closing his eyes for a moment. 

 

“You will, *after* you eat something. It’s been two days now, you have to keep your strength up, come on then,” Freca said decidedly.  He was obviously used to giving orders and having them obeyed.  It grated slightly on the prince’s nerves, for he was not accustomed to being bossed around in this manner, but he tried to remain civil anyway.

 

Freca, Léod and Fastred cooked outside and ate around their fire.  They appeared to be the only permanent occupants of Émuseld, although Freca said that they hired temporary hands as needed depending on how busy they got.  But it was a slow time for them at the moment and only these three were needed. 

 

The elf really did not feel hungry, but to please the men, Legolas ate lightly and put up with a host of questions from Fastred and Léod who were fascinated to no end to meet a real elf.  They had gotten the idea into their heads that he must be from Lothlórien, because that was the only place they had ever heard of in connection with elves before.  Eventually, after being continually corrected, they more or less accepted that he was from Mirkwood, although they knew little of that place save for what fearful tales told and seemed slightly unsettled by the thought that their new companion came from thence.

 

After they had eaten, Legolas was finally allowed to lie down again on a blanket they brought out for him in the shadow of a nearby tree while Fastred and Léod cleaned up the remains of the meal and Freca sharpened his leather-working tools. 

 

It felt good to be still and be able to close his eyes, but Legolas’ mind wouldn’t rest.  “How soon until I am able to travel?” he inquired, not caring which of the three men took the question as being directed at them so long as one of them knew the answer.  Even ill as he felt he was worried about Trelan and the sooner he could go searching for his friend, the better. 

 

“Two weeks,” it was Freca’s voice who answered and Legolas’ eyes opened in surprise.  He leaned up on his elbows despite the ache it caused. 

 

“Two weeks?” he didn’t want to imagine feeling this miserable for that long. 

 

Freca shook his head, amused.  “Don’t get yourself in a lather just yet.  You won’t feel this bad the entire time.  In two or three days you should begin to feel quite decent again.  By the end of the week you won’t hardly know there’s anything wrong with you.  BUT remember what I said?  You don’t get those AntiVen doses twice a day you’ll be just as dead as if we hadn’t wasted our time on you.”

 

Legolas sank back again a little.  “Oh.  Would you be able to show me how to make it?  I have to leave as soon as I’m able...”

 

Fastred laughed.  “Show you how?  Oh I’m sure you’d like that.”

 

They were all laughing and Legolas didn’t see anything funny about it. 

 

“Look, Legolas, I don’t think you understand how this works,” Freca said when he saw the highly irritated look on the elf’s face.  “We here in Émuseld are the only ones who know how to make the anti-venom for a lhyguan bite.  It’s what you might call a trade secret.  My father passed it on to me as his father did before him and Fastred and Léod here have been sworn to secrecy.  If just anyone knew how to make it, there wouldn’t be any reason for folks to come and buy it from us, now would there?”

 

Legolas pressed his palms into his eyes again with a deep, weary sigh.  He was hurting and irritable and not in the mood for a recitation of Freca’s business policies.  “I thought you said you were horse breakers,” the elf mumbled, wishing this headache would allow him to think properly.

 

“We are,” Freca was calmly working a sharper edge on his awl.  “And we’re a lot more.  Horses are our main trade if you want to know the truth.  Folks bring theirs to us and we saddle-break them.  Catch some of our own wild ones to break and sell sometimes as well.  But we also treat sick horses, and that’s how the AntiVen came into existence originally.  Lhygians are native to this particular area you see, and so we often get horses being brought in with bite wounds.  My grandfather’s the one who discovered the cure and we’ve been saving both horses *and* people with it for years now.  HOWEVER, treatment isn’t free and it isn’t cheap.”  He pointed the tip of his awl at the elf.  “You my friend, have already built yourself quite a tab to be paid off.  Forgive us for not asking first, but we made the leap of assuming you’d rather be alive than dead and we could work the details out later,” the human chuckled.

 

Legolas scowled; the profit-conscious mindset of these humans was not one he completely understood.  Whether that was because he was an elf, or because he was a prince, Legolas didn’t know.  “You would let people die if they can’t pay you?”

 

“Of course not!” Léod seemed insulted by the suggestion, glancing up from his work with a dark look.  “What do you think we are?”

 

Freca shook his head.  “We didn’t let you die did we?  All I’m saying is that we don’t do something for nothing and those that can’t pay cash for a large enough supply to last them the whole time it’s needed find another way to work things out.”

 

The elf prince stared quietly up at the leafy branches of the tree over his head, watching them move slowly in the wind.  “I suppose I should ask what you mean by that, since I am most likely about to find myself in that position.”  Of course he and Trelan had not left home without some traveling money, but they usually did not need much and in any case, Trelan had been the one carrying their purse.  He didn’t suppose that these men would believe him if he promised to return with money for them... even if he did tell them his father was a king, it would mean very little here in Rohan; they barely knew where Mirkwood was to begin with and Freca at least did not seem the trusting type. 

 

Freca already knew that the elf didn’t have any money on him.  Or anything of quite enough value to cover the cost of his treatments.  “Don’t let that worry you.  You can work it off, like the others have.  We don’t keep a lot of workers around here, just the three of us usually, but we can always use an extra hand with the horses and the chores.”

 

“You mean then that I can be your slave,” the prince’s voice held an unmistakable edge of disdain.  He had served humans before, more than once, and it had never been a pleasant experience.  He was liking his current situation less and less. 

 

Freca stopped working and leveled his gaze with that of the elf.  “No.  That is not what I said, nor what I meant.  I don’t know how things are where you come from, but we don’t believe in slavery here in Rohan.  We never have.  We work hard, but we are free people.  I’m not asking you to work *for* us, I’m asking you to work *with* us, just until the poison is completely out of your system.  Then, when you’re finished with your treatments, you’re free to go whenever you want, or you can stay and hire on with us for a longer time if you so desire of course.  Still, the choice is yours master elf.  I’ll not force you to do anything.”

 

Legolas closed his eyes and draped his arm over his face, blocking out the light which was beginning to hurt again.  He let his breath out slowly.  Truly, he supposed, Freca was not being unreasonable with him... but that didn’t mean he particularly liked the situation.  “And what choice would that be?  To leave and die, or to stay and trade a day of work for another day to live?”

 

Freca ignored the tone of the elf’s voice and shrugged, returning to his work.  “Put it however you like, it’s still your decision.”

 

Legolas was silent then, for there seemed to be nothing left to say.  Freca was right.  It may be his decision, but he had very little choice.

 

 

___________________________________________________________

 

~*PART SIX*~

 

 

 

Legolas pushed a wayward strand of hair out of his face only to have the light, teasing breeze blow it back down again.  He was still worried about Trelan, but right now he was glad that neither he, nor Raniean were present.  They would never let him live this down.  Never.  After all, it wasn’t every day that you got to see the prince of Mirkwood down on his knees scrubbing built-up, caked-on grime out of the bottom of half a dozen huge feeding troughs.

 

It wasn’t that Legolas minded working, or working hard.  Or even dirty work for that matter, although it was not his preference.  He had never been the type to sit around and let others do things for him and prided himself on independence.  However, he knew that his friends would tease him mercilessly if they could see him now, because when they were young, punishment for their childish antics usually meant helping the palace staff with the scrubbing or the gardening or something of that nature. 

 

At least the elf was beginning to feel better.  The first few days had been a sheer misery.  The violent illness that had gripped him in the beginning had faded now, but Legolas could tell he was still not fully healed.  The poison yet lingering in his system, kept under control by the daily treatments that the breakers gave him, continued to sap a small part of his strength, although the prince was becoming accustomed to its presence and no longer noticed it as pronounced as it had once seemed. 

 

*THUMP* Fastred’s body slammed into the soft, sandy ground in the center of the pen across the field on Legolas’ left.  The breaker rolled once before getting back to his feet, scowling at the horse that had just thrown him.  The large, powerfully built chestnut stallion nickered as if happy with itself and danced lightly away, its dark eyes following the human and seeming to speak a warning about what would happen if the small bipedal being attempted to get on its back again.

 

Léod, kneeling on the grass and scrubbing feed-troughs next to Legolas, looked up and laughed.  “That’s it, keep at him Fastred!  I think you were on a whole five seconds this time, that *has* to be a new record...”

 

Fastred glared at his friend, dusting his trousers and muttering.  They had been trying to saddle-break this particular horse for the better part of two weeks.  Thus far with no results other than a host of bruises.  It took Fastred nearly ten minutes to actually corner the horse long enough to get the blindfold on him again so that the man could swing up for another try.  He lasted only three seconds this time. 

 

The breaker sprawled in an undignified manner and this time Legolas could not help but join Léod’s laughter.  It was amusing how cantankerous animals could be around humans. 

 

Fastred saw the elf laughing at him as well and glared harder.  He was used to Léod’s goading, but Léod had his own share of bumps from this horse and had earned that right.  “Hey, what are *you* laughing at elf-boy?”

 

“You,” the prince admitted without compunction.  “He’s never going to let you ride him that way unless you break his spirit, but by the time you do that he will have lost the very spark that makes him valuable to you,” the elf’s tone was light but his eyes a little sad.  Some horses could be safely and happily saddle-tamed in the method they were attempting, but somehow he could tell right now that this one never would. 

 

“Oh, and you think you could do better?” Fastred snorted.  Everybody was an expert, from a safe distance. 

 

Legolas just smiled and shook his head wryly.  “Yes.”

 

“Well I would love to see that,” the human dared him.  “Please, by all means...” Fastred gestured towards the horse who was restlessly pawing the earth and glaring. 

 

The prince accepted the challenge without hesitation, rising to his feet and easily swinging over the fence.

 

Fastred and Léod exchanged devilish grins.  This kind of work always *looked* easier than it was and they fully expected their latest co-worker to eat dirt, and his words, very quickly. 

 

Legolas stretched out his hand, talking softly to the horse in his native tongue as he approached.  The horse nickered and backed away, its dark, liquid eyes wide.

 

The elf paused, his tone turning even more gentle.  This horse had been hurt.  Somewhere, someone had abused it and it was not going to let anyone get that close again.  Legolas understood that feeling and whispered quiet, comforting words as he edged closer, leaving a path open if the horse wanted to run so that it did not feel trapped.

 

The huge stallion snorted and eyed the elf suspiciously, but did not try to run away.  Once the prince had his head, Fastred moved to slip the blindfold on again, but Legolas waved him off as the horse began to shy away.  “Thank you, that won’t be necessary.”

 

“He’ll buck you off before you even get on!” Léod laughed at what he perceived as inexperience. 

 

Legolas ignored him as he swiftly and gently removed the bit and bridle from the horse, unfastening and taking the saddle off next.   

 

Fastred smirked, folding his arms.  “Giving up already?”

 

“Hardly,” Legolas allowed himself to flash the two humans a puckish grin as he swung smoothly up onto the horse’s back in one fluid movement. 

 

Fastred scrambled back over the fence quickly, anticipating a very short-lived struggle. 

 

The horse however, seemed a completely different animal.  It did not buck or rear, or seem to reject the presence on its back as an intrusion.  The stallion fidgeted and stirred restlessly at first, but quieted quickly under the prince’s soothing voice and a few minutes later Legolas had it walking around the ring and following his every command as if it had been tamed since a foal. 

 

Freca came out of the building across the way.  “What are you two staring at like slack-jawed idiots?” he asked Fastred and Léod, before seeing Legolas in the breaking ring.  “Wait a minute...isn’t that Firebrand?”  Of course it was and a closer look told the man that Legolas had not been lying to him, nor muddled by illness a few days ago when the elf asserted that he did not need a bridle to ride. 

 

“Not bad,” Freca approved, slapping the other two men casually upside the head when they did not stop gaping in shock.  “Not bad at all.  Will he let anybody else on him though?”

 

Legolas patted the stallion’s neck.  All living things seemed to have a natural affinity with elves, and this horse appeared to be able to tell that the prince understood him and intended him no harm.  “Firebrand here is used to being wild, that is where his heart is, but be gentle with him, and he will prove an excellent mount.  Let me ride him for a few days and I think I can convince him to bear others as well.”

 

Freca nodded.  Whatever it took to get this horse rideable and out of his hair sounded good to him.  The creature had been nothing but an expensive nuisance since he arrived.  “You’re obviously a natural at this Legolas, you sure you don’t want a job with us when your treatment’s up?”  The offer was half-jest, half-serious. 

 

Legolas just smiled wryly and shook his head, taking Firebrand around for another pass and petting the horse’s arched neck with one hand.  “Some of us were always meant to be free.” He whispered. 

 

 

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

 

 

Day was fading into night outside as Léod dropped dramatically down onto his bed against the far wall.  “I could sleep for a week!”

 

“You should talk,” Fastred shook his head as he dumped his gear in the corner of the room and tugged off his boots. 

 

Legolas was already sitting on the bed that had been assigned to him while he was here.  The first few nights he had stayed in the main house with Freca, until the boss was sure that the AntiVen had the same desired effect on the elf as it did on humans.  After the main danger was perceived to be over, Legolas had been moved to the common house with Fastred and Léod. 

 

Léod seemed about to respond when Freca’s form appeared unexpectedly in the doorway.

 

“All right come on, turn out everybody!” the boss called as he leaned in.  “Got a group riding in, looks to be at least six to eight head strong.”

 

The other two humans moaned. 

 

“Now?” Fastred griped as he tugged his boots back on.  “It’s bloody nightfall, couldn’t they choose a better time?”

 

Legolas just slid off his bed and moved towards the door.  He had let his hair down so it now fell over his ears and around his shoulders, but was otherwise still dressed and ready.   

 

“Hey, we don’t control the time, we control the horses, now come on, get moving,” Freca shook his head.  “You’re all getting soft and lazy!  Look at Legolas here, he’s not tired.”

 

This was met with more good-natured mumbling from the humans as they pulled themselves together.  “That doesn’t count, he’s *never* tired!”

 

Freca laughed.  That nearly seemed to be true.  While Fastred and Léod got ready Freca passed the small corked drinking horn he was holding in one hand to Legolas.  “Drink up lad,” he added.

 

Legolas unstopped the opening and swallowed the liquid inside in one draught.  He knew what it was.  By now his morning and evening doses of the lhyguan anti-venom had become quite habitual.  The weeks had passed quicker than the elf had feared and in two more days Legolas’ treatments would be ended.  In truth, the elf felt fully well again already and had for some time.  It was Legolas’ personal opinion that he was well enough to leave now, because he did not think these men took into account the fact that elves mended faster than humans, but for caution’s sake and to avoid argument, he would wait out the last two days before saying his farewells. 

 

Legolas handed the drinking horn back to Freca.  The only thing that still reminded him at all of his near-death encounter was the thin white bandage that ran in between his right thumb and forefinger and wrapped around his palm in an X before tying off around his wrist.  The bite wound to the prince’s hand had taken a strangely long time to heal but the breakers had assured him that was normal for a lhyguan bite and it too would heal completely with time. 

 

Freca re-corked the horn and nodded.  “All right then, let’s move,” he said before turning and heading out to meet their arriving customers. 

 

Léod and Fastred shoved Legolas lightly from behind as they walked out into the cooling evening.  “Oh yes, look at Legolas, he’s never tired...”

 

Legolas rolled his eyes.  He was never quite sure whether they were teasing him or actually irritated when they got like this, but shrugged it off in any case, because they never seemed to hold him any serious ill will, whether they were teasing or peeved. 

 

When they got down into the lower pasture some of the first riders and horses had already begun to arrive.  A robust, sandy-blond haired man of obvious Rohan heritage swung down off his horse and had just finished speaking to Freca when the others joined him. 

 

Freca turned to his three hands.  “All right boys, roll up your sleeves and get ready for work!  This is Gram, and these gents have some horses that need grooming, tending and shoeing.  Spruce ‘em up, they gotta look nice to sell.  These six here are just the first batch; the rest of them are a little behind with their main company.  They want the already broken ones ready by morning, which gives us less than an hour to get these beauties started on before the others arrive.  Let’s get to it then!”

 

“How many more head will your boss be bringing in?” Freca asked Gram as Legolas, Léod and Fastred got to work, herding the horses towards the pens across the yard with the help of Gram’s two underlings. 

 

“Near twenty,” Gram wiped his brow with the back of his hand, glancing back over his shoulder as he spoke.  “They would have been with us but a couple of the horses are incredibly wild, gave us a hell of a lot of trouble and slowed the main group up.  My boss, Scatha let us ride on ahead to get things started.”

 

Freca whistled softly.  “Twenty?  Unbroken?” This was an unusually large order of business for the off season and normally Freca would have had more workers on hand to deal with an influx of horses as large as this was proving to be.

 

“No, they’re all broken,” Gram shook his head.  “Only two of them are giving us trouble...” his eyes unfocused for a moment.  “But we’ll deal with that.  We don’t need your services for breaking; we just need them fixed up a bit.  The trail’s been long and not all of them are looking their best.  We also need a few re-shoed.  Got a couple of ones that are pulling lame on us and we don’t know why... that sort of thing.”

 

Freca nodded.  “I’ll send down to Kurnwait,” he indicated the direction of the nearest town with his head.  “Get a few extra hands up here to help...”

 

Gram was already shaking his head.  “No, not necessary.  Kurnwait is two hours from here.  It would only waste time.  Scatha wants these animals ready to go by sunrise.  Don’t worry, our hands will help as soon as they get here and you will be well paid for your services and the use of your equipment.”  Gram’s tone brooked no disagreement. 

 

Freca’s eyes narrowed slightly.  “If you’re sure that’s the way you want it...”

 

Gram nodded confidently.  “We’re sure.”

 

“All right then,” Freca shrugged.  “Let’s get to it.”

 

By the time Freca reached the stables the horses had been penned outside and three of them were on cross-ties against the inside wall of the stable with the five workers buzzing busily about them.  More than a dozen torches had been lit, chasing away the growing evening shadows and giving plenty of light to work by.  Freca reasoned that they would need more torches than this before the night was over.  These were very strange customers indeed. 

 

Legolas curried one of the new horses with quick, efficient movements while Fastred lifted each foot in turn, checking the shoeing job.

 

Léod and Gram’s two men were working on some of the other animals.  All of the horses were coated in mud and in some cases their original color and markings were almost impossible to tell under the layers of dirt. 

 

“This one’s thrown a shoe, but the other three are still good,” Fastred straightened up.  “Legolas say’s he’s got a cut on his foreleg, but now that we’ve washed the worst of the dirt off him it’s not that bad.  Two others I’ve looked over so far in more or less the same shape...” the man hesitated, speaking quieter, his words now meant for Freca’s ears only.  “Although I’d love to know where they got over twenty perfectly saddle-broken horses, some of which, like this one, are sporting incomplete sets of steel-weight shoes...”

 

Freca raised his eyebrows.  Steel-weight shoes were expensive.  Very expensive and they lasted for a long time.  No one in their right mind sold a horse still wearing such shoes when they could easily be first replaced with cheaper ones and the more expensive ones re-used.  And if a horse was sold with them included in the price... who would be so careless as to let such shoes be lost?  But then, from the condition that these horses were in, it did not seem that their current owners had been overly concerned about their care or over-gentle in their handling. 

 

Legolas stopped moving, pushing his lose hair absently back from his face a little, the currycomb in his other hand resting on the horse’s shoulder.  This horse acted calmly, but it was disturbed and agitated inside.  He could tell.  Nature and animals spoke to elves in ways that humans could never understand, and this horse spoke of disturbing things.  As the mud was worked out of the black horse’s coat, an unusual patch was revealed on his shoulder.  Cleaning further, Legolas realized that the patch was in fact a brand mark, an identification of some sort.  He had not seen this practice used before, but supposed it to be a local custom for the area. 

 

Gram, who had come over to stand near Freca, saw the elf staring.  Legolas’ hair was still down and in the torchlight Gram did not realize that the prince was not a man.  Besides, all Gram was interested in was Legolas’ questioning look. 

 

“Oh, I forgot to mention,” Gram turned to Freca.  “Some of these horses were marked by their previous owners.  You have the equipment to remove those of course...” it was not a question.

 

Freca watched him for a moment, but did not seem tossed off.  “Yes.  Of course we do.”  He did not mention that such work was almost always done *before* the horse was sold, and at the owner’s bidding, not the buyer’s.  He was sure that Gram and whoever this Scatha was that he was working for were also well aware of that.

 

“Will that be a problem?” Gram’s eyes were hard as he held Freca’s gaze and there was a hint of threat in his stony glare. 

 

“What problem?” Freca cocked his head.  “I told you we could do it didn’t I?  As soon as this one’s clean get him into a marking halter Fastred.  And watch for any others who need it,” he ordered calmly, before moving on to see how Léod’s work was coming. 

 

Fastred moved off to do as he was told, but Legolas caught the other man’s arm, inclining his head towards the horse in front of him.  “Fastred... something is not right.  This horse does not belong to these men.”

 

Fastred just looked at the elf for a moment before he shrugged the other’s hand off.  “It’s none of our business Legolas.  We do what we’re paid to do and we don’t ask unhealthy questions.”

 

“But...” the elf shook his head. 

 

Fastred stepped closer for a moment, putting his head near Legolas’ and lowering his voice.  “Look, right now there’s three of them and three of us, but who knows how many are coming over the hills in the next hour or so?  You heard what they told Freca.  Now just do your job and don’t ask questions that you don’t want to know the answer to, all right?” 

 

Legolas looked away.  He understood, but he didn’t agree.  Fastred however did not care whether or not the elf agreed and was already busy back about his task. 

 

The elf slid his hand gently along the horse’s neck. The sound of approaching hooves made everyone look up. 

 

“Looks like your friends got here a little sooner than expected,” Freca called to Gram as he went down to meet the newcomers.

 

Scatha was a swarthy man.  A Rohan native, he obviously had a fair share of Dunlending blood in his veins as was evidenced by his dark hair and dark eyes. 

 

Freca greeted him politely, although there was little trust between the men of Rohan and those of Dunland ancestry.  Gram had not exaggerated; there were at least twenty horses now being herded into his larger pens in the low meadow behind them.  With just his workers, the task they were being asked was impossible, however, Scatha had brought at least a dozen men with him, so they might possibly be able to pull it off... but the pay had better be well worth the trouble. 

 

Gram looked down the hill and his eyes gleamed with hard amusement as his boss talked with the head of the breakers.  Scatha would promise these people whatever they wanted.  It mattered not, because none of them would live to collect.  Once their usefulness was done these four men were dead.  It would never do to leave anyone around who might report them.  Besides... it was so much less expensive this way.

 

“You run into a mudslick?” Freca questioned.  All the arriving horses were as dirt-coated as the ones they had already begun cleaning. 

 

Scatha smiled at the other man.  “You run into lots of things out in the wilds.  That is not your concern.  All I want to know from you is if you can do the job or not.”

 

Freca nodded with clipped motions.  “Oh we can do it so long as you can pay.”

 

“Don’t worry my friend, you will be well rewarded for your service,” Scatha assured.  Talk of just what exactly that pay involved was interrupted by a commotion in the middle of the herd. 

 

Two of the horses were not loose with the others, and it was not hard to guess that those were the troublemakers that had been mentioned earlier.  Several of Scatha’s men had been trying to pen them with the other horses, but as soon as the creatures had the chance they bucked and reared, shaking their heads and trying to yank away from their handlers. 

 

The four humans guarding them swore loudly as they avoided the flying hooves and yanked on the halters which they had rigged to work like choke-chains; striking the horses brutally with the crops in their hands in an effort to subdue them.  This particular pair of horses had been nothing but trouble and the men’s patience was gone. 

 

“Got yourself a couple of fiery ones there, hm?” Freca whistled softly as he turned towards the struggle taking place nearby, wincing inwardly at how rough Scatha’s handlers were being with the high-spirited horses.  That was no way to handle the situation, but these were not his horses and no one had asked for his opinion. 

 

Scatha scowled.  Those two beasts had almost been more trouble than they were worth.  They were a treasured prize, but they would be useless if they remained as untamable as they had been thus far. 

 

“Hey!  Léod!” Freca called up the hill.  “Send Legolas down here!  We’ve got a couple of wild ones, let’s see what he can do!”

 

Léod, halfway between the stables and the lower meadow pens, nodded and sprinted up the hill.  The breaker poked his head into the stable quickly where Legolas and one of Gram’s men were still working.  “Legolas!  Freca wants you down the hill!” he called before heading back to his tasks.  They were all going to be very busy and the sooner they got to work the sooner they’d get done.  He figured that tonight would be a long night.

 

Léod had no idea just how right he was.

 

Legolas dropped the wet sponge he was using on the horse in front of him back in the bucket by his feet and wiped his hands off on the soiled apron tied around his hips.  Pushing his hair back behind his ears for the dozenth time he exited the stable and walked down the hill towards the main group. 

 

At the same time, the two rearing horses broke free of their vicious handlers.  Nearly trampling Freca and Scatha who only just got out of the way in time, they bolted up the hill. 

 

“Legolas, look out!” Freca called in warning as the horses barreled towards the prince. 

 

However, the horses had no intention of running the elf over.  Instead they pulled up on either side of him, tossing their heads and neighing in distress. 

 

One of the horses pressed her muzzle against the elf’s shoulder pleadingly, leaving behind a dirty smudge.  Her sides were heaving and bright red blood from the cruel crop strokes of her handlers mingled with the mud that clung to the distressed creatures. 

 

Legolas blinked in shock as he looked into the mare’s frightened, but trusting eyes.  The two horses were so mud-coated that they were almost unrecognizable, the dark earth hiding their light, dappled grey coats.  However no amount of dirt could hide them from the elf. 

 

“Avornwen?” Legolas said in surprise, taking her head gently in his hands before moving one hand to rest on the nose of the other horse who was now nipping lightly at his shirtsleeve.  “Kynter?”

 

Surprise turned quickly to rage as he took in the cruel choke-halters that they were trailing and the injuries they had both sustained. 

 

Scatha and his men followed the horses up the hill slowly now that they seemed to be under control.  Scatha’s eyes locked on the fair-haired elf standing between the two horses and his look darkened.  He recognized the elf, and as Legolas’ eyes met his he knew instantly that the elf recognized him as well.

 

As Legolas looked at Scatha he felt his blood run cold.  Horse hooves pounded in his head and he was on the edge of that grey shale cliff again; the one he now knew was called Scatha was leering at him as they tried to spook Avornwen and unseat him... 

 

The moment hung suspended for a very long instant... before absolute chaos erupted. 

 

Scatha’s eyes narrowed dangerously.  They had been recognized and could no longer afford to delay getting rid of these unwanted liabilities.  “Change of plans boys!” he thundered, drawing his sword and pointing it at Legolas.  “Kill him.  Kill them all!”

 

Scatha’s men reacted almost instantly.  An arrow whizzed by Legolas’ head and he dodged only just in time.  Grabbing Avornwen’s mane he swung up onto her back, away from the lunge of another man’s sword.  The mare wheeled around as Legolas’ eyes searched for Freca, Fastred and Léod.  He couldn’t see any of them, only the tossing sea of men and weapons that were rushing towards him. 

 

The elf felt uncomfortably naked without any of his weapons on hand.  Avornwen and Kynter sprinted up the hill, away from their pursuers, but Legolas knew he could never just run away and leave the breakers here alone.  He scanned the dark landscape for them urgently. 

 

Suddenly Avornwen stumbled and swerved sharply to the side, making Legolas clamp tightly with his knees and cling to the horse’s mane to keep from sliding off the horse’s mud-slicked back. 

 

Gram, and his men, stepping from the shadows of the stables where they had been all but forgotten, had grabbed the trailing choke-rein from Avornwen’s halter and wrapped it around the stable door post, checking the horse’s full-out flight sharply. 

 

As her hooves skidded sharply, Avornwen gave a snorting, strangled cry at the cruel yank.  She couldn’t turn fast enough to counter the check to her speed and fell heavily to her side. 

 

Legolas let out a soft cry as his left leg was caught between the ground and the horse and the side of his head slammed forcefully against the earth.  Avornwen lunged against the choke-line, rolling to her knees and trying to break free.  Legolas rolled away swiftly before another vicious tug pulled the panicking horse back onto her side.  Avornwen was so quick that she had not stayed down long enough to break her rider’s leg, but the impact had not done Legolas any good and he staggered slightly as he pulled himself to his feet. 

 

Gram, having reached the downed horse, tried to tackle Legolas but missed by only inches, the elf’s injured leg shooting sharp pains through him as he danced away.  The pain was distracting and he was not quick enough to avoid the second attacker who knocked the elf to the earth, rolling over and over with him as they grappled for the upper position.  Legolas gained the top and slammed the man’s head back forcefully against the rocky ground, punching him hard and jumping up and away.  Gram and his men blocked the elf’s retreat up the hill and Legolas spun around, only to come face to face with Scatha and more of his men coming up from below. 

 

The main host had caught up now and some of the men were holding Kynter again as Avornwen struggled to her feet, obviously winded.

 

Legolas’ eyes darted around him, but his options were incredibly limited.  Torches were bobbing everywhere; casting confusing twisted shadows on the darkened earth.  Sounds of chaos filled the lower pasture where the other horses, half-in the pen, half out when the commotion began, had spooked and were wreaking havoc with the men trying to recapture them. 

 

“Don’t run elf and we’ll make this quick,” Scatha threatened, his bloody sword drawn as the circle of men surrounding the prince drew tighter.  “Not like the other elf.”

 

Legolas’ gaze burned into the Dunlending as he tried to circle warily.  His left leg was screaming at him and would barely hold his weight.  It may not have been broken, but it was definitely not happy with him. 

 

“What did you do to Trelan?  Where is he?” the prince ground out through his teeth.  Wishing again that he had some kind of weapon.  Legolas limped slightly as he moved and Scatha noticed.  His grin deepened. 

 

“Was that his name?  We didn’t do anything, but the horses did pretty good I hear.  You ever seen a person trampled to death elf?  Well you don’t want to.  Don’t give us no trouble and we won’t be forced to let you see how it feels either,” Scatha moved closer, forcing Legolas to retreat nearer to the men behind him.  “Your boss is dead,” he fingered his bloody sword.  “Your other friends soon will be if they aren’t already... don’t make this harder than it has to be, or I’ll make sure you go slow.”

 

Legolas’ eyes narrowed and his heart filled with crushing sorrow.  “You’ll pay Scatha,” he whispered softly, lethally, pain making his eyes hard.  “I swear you’ll pay for what you did to Trelan and these people!”

 

“At whose hand elf?  Yours?” Scatha laughed, leveling the tip of his blade with Legolas’ collarbones.  “I don’t think so.”  He nodded almost imperceptibly towards Gram.  Legolas caught the motion and tensed, but did not know what it foreboded and had no time to react.  Gram, knowing what Scatha was doing by driving the elf towards him, had uncurled the long lash whip that hung by his side and held it loosely in his hand.  At Scatha’s signal he let the lash snake out with practiced skill and wrap around the elf’s bad leg, drawing it back swiftly and yanking Legolas’ footing out from under him. 

 

Legolas gasped slightly as he hit the ground, half-catching himself on his hands, the jarring fall making his shoulders and palms ache.  Before he could even draw his breath in again a sharp boot caught him in the stomach and ribs while another barbed and braided leather thong wrapped around his upper arm, jerking back hard and flipping the elf over onto his back.  The lash cut through his sleeve as it was yanked away, leaving a curled, bleeding welt behind on the arm underneath. 

 

Scatha stomped ruthlessly on the elf’s out-flung wrist, pinning Legolas down as Gram knelt, grabbing the prince’s other arm and sliding the sharp edge of a dagger under Legolas’ chin.  The prince winced as Scatha’s boot ground into the still healing wound on his hand. 

 

Legolas stopped struggling reluctantly as he felt the steel biting the soft flesh of his neck, his eyes blazing furiously up at Gram as the human carefully pinned both his arms over his head by kneeling on the elf’s wrists, keeping the dagger tight against Legolas’ throat. 

 

Here and there in the distance Legolas could hear the sounds of raised voices and fighting and guessed that somewhere Fastred and Léod were putting up a fight.  The spooked and unsettled horses down the hill had broken through the fence holding them in, as well as the one holding the other horses that the breakers had been boarding and the creatures were scattering everywhere, leaving a number of the thieves chasing them around and generally adding clamor to chaos.  Avornwen and Kynter were bucking and pulling on their lead-lines as they were drug forcefully away, trying desperately to get back to the elf, but the men holding them were not about to make the mistake of letting those two escape again. 

 

Most of the other thieves had scattered to try to keep as many horses as they could from running away, leaving only Gram, Scatha and three of his men hovering around their captive.  Scatha stood over Legolas, grinning, his whole attention on the elf and not sparing too much thought to anything else right now.  His men would take care of the horses, but this elf... this elf was his and he was going to pay for causing them as much trouble as he already had.  Letting his sword rest against Legolas’ chest, Scatha dragged the razor blade slowly down the prince’s torso, cutting open his tunic and the skin underneath.  Legolas tensed but wouldn’t show them pain, biting back his breath to keep from crying out. 

 

Scatha’s smile just widened.  “I lied,” he whispered softly.  “You die hard elf.  You die very hard.”

 

 

___________________________________________________________

Chapter Text

~*PART SEVEN*~

 

 

One of Scatha’s underlings went into the stable and returned with a heated iron, the kind that was used for changing the markings on horses.  The brand had been put in the fire earlier in anticipation of making those changes and now the flattened end of the rod glowed red-hot. 

 

Legolas closed his eyes when he saw them bringing it out, taking a few deep breaths to dispel the wave of panic that was washing over him. 

 

Scatha laughed at the elf’s reaction.  “Guessed what that was for did you?” he chuckled evilly, taking the iron from his underling.  “Well you’d be right...” he let the heated metal rest close to Legolas’ face and the elf could feel the blistering heat rolling off the instrument.  He tried to turn his head away a little, but Gram’s hand tightened on the side of his head, pushing down harder on the knife to hold him still. 

 

“We mark horses to show we own them,” Scatha hissed cruelly as he held the burning iron close to the elf’s face, letting Legolas know exactly what he intended to do before he actually pressed the brand against the elf’s cheek.  “Well you can know for the rest of the very short time you have left to live that I own you, and I will take the greatest pleasure in being the one to control how you draw your last breaths!”

 

Legolas closed his eyes, trying to steel himself for the pain he knew would follow as Scatha pushed the glowing iron closer to his flesh.  The elf could hear Kynter and Avornwen neighing and calling out desperately as the men dragged them further away.  Suddenly he felt the ground under his back tremble slightly; the pounding of hoof beats. 

 

The elf opened his eyes again just in time to see a dark, rearing shape loom up over Gram’s sneering face, above his head.  Bending over the elf, Gram couldn’t see it coming until the horse’s hard hooves struck him directly in the head, knocking him to the ground and killing the thief instantly. 

 

Scatha looked up in surprise and alarm as Gram fell, stumbling back a pace. 

 

Legolas seized advantage of the situation, jerking free of Gram’s dead weight and rolling away from the heated iron by his face.  He rolled easily under the stamping horses’ hooves, but the creature did not step on him.  Springing to his feet, Legolas winced as he tried to put pressure on his leg again.  That did not prove to be a good plan so he shifted his weight back to his other leg, hop-limping slightly as he looked up at the large, dark form of the horse who had come to his rescue.  To his surprise it was not Avornwen or Kynter.  It was a much more recent friend. 

 

The dark chestnut stallion cantered in a quick circle, scattering the thieves like chaff before riding quickly past Legolas, offering the elf the chance to grab hold of him, which the prince readily did. 

 

Hannon le Firebrand,” Legolas whispered as he clung to the horse’s neck, laying forward to avoid the arrows that streaked through the night after him.  “Thank you.”

 

The horse nickered softly as it dodged one man and nearly bowled over another.  Legolas smiled faintly as they rushed down the dark hill.  “You’re right,” he said softly. “Some of us were always meant to be free.”

 

Grabbing up two long, sharpened poles leaning against the fence as he rode by, Legolas hurled the projectiles like deadly spears at the men who were struggling with Avornwen and Kynter, felling them. 

 

The Elvish horses swerved away and came to ride along side.  Legolas transferred smoothly from Firebrand’s back to Kynter’s.  He knew that Avornwen had been hurt in her fall and did not wish to stress her with his weight right now.  Avornwen followed along behind on her own at a slightly slower pace. 

 

As soon as Legolas was safely over, Firebrand swerved away, heading back for the other horses which the thieves had just begun to calm down and round up once more.  Calling out to them in their own language, the powerful stallion whipped the animals up into a frenzy, beginning an all out stampede.  It seemed to be Firebrand’s opinion that they should all be free. 

 

Legolas heard hoof beats behind him and knew it was not the loose horses.  Two or three of Scatha’s men had mounted up and were chasing after him.  Legolas pressed his legs into Kynter’s side, urging the horse to go faster. 

 

Kynter stretched his neck forward, putting all he had into the gallop.  He was not naturally as fast as Avornwen was but he had heart and would run until he dropped if his rider asked him to.  In the darkness everything was confusing and for a few moments Legolas wasn’t even sure where he was exactly.  Then he saw the tall fence that surrounded the outer pastures of Émuseld loom up suddenly before him in the darkness.  Kynter never even broke pace but leapt the wooden enclosure in one swift, compact move.  Behind them, the other riders cleared the obstacle with less grace, but kept right on coming. 

 

Avornwen had fallen behind somewhere but Legolas couldn’t worry about her right now, he knew she would catch up with them.  As Émuseld and the waving bobbing torches scattered across the hillside faded behind him the elf felt deep regret tugging at him.  He would have turned round, despite the danger, if there was any hope that Fastred and Léod might still be alive... but he knew that the only way they might have survived this long was if they had already made it away into the hills.  In which case going back served no purpose.  Legolas had to look to his own survival now and that was not nearly as certain as he would have liked.

 

Kynter was doing his best, but the thieves had mistreated the two elven horses gravely for their lack of obedience and his strength had been depleted.  Legolas, bending low over his neck and whispering encouragement as they navigated the unfamiliar, rocky terrain, was in little better shape. 

 

His pursuers also seemed to know the terrain better than the elf did, which did not help matters at all. 

 

Legolas risked a glance over his shoulder and saw that two of the riders were still hot on his tail, their jingling halters flashing dully in the moonlight, almost like ghost riders.  Legolas turned back and pressed himself lower, pulling Kynter quickly to the side as another arrow from behind whistled past his head, coming so close it stirred his hair.  Where the third rider had gone he knew not.  Hopefully he had lost them. 

 

The elf’s leg was throbbing as he held on tightly, navigating the swift turns and jaggedly bouncing landscape.  The path he was on plunged the elf down into a low, rocky gully with the hearth slanting steeply upward on his left and steeply downward on his right, leaving no room for any navigational errors in the darkness.  Fortunately the elven horse’s sight and balance was true and his rider steady. 

 

Kynter’s hooves thudded and echoed loudly against the gravel floor of the path they were racing down, blocking almost all other sound from even the elf’s sharp hearing.  Yet looking over his shoulder, Legolas could see that the thieves chasing him, although obviously very skilled riders themselves were slowing and falling father behind on the dangerous trail. 

 

As Legolas whirled around a difficult, switch-back turn he suddenly sensed something on the ridge above.  Looking up sharply he only just had a momentary glance of the third rider cantering his horse along the upper ridge before the man pounced.  The thief had obviously known exactly where this path led and broken off from the chase earlier in order to gain the high ground over their prey. 

 

Leaping from his horse, the man crashed into Legolas’ side, grabbing the elf’s waist and shoulders and flinging them both off of the elf’s mount.  Kynter started and reared, but Legolas and his attacker had already hit the ground on the far side of the path.  Landing with a hard, breath-steeling jolt the two beings rolled over several times, grappling as the momentum of the impact carried them over the lip of this path as well.  The elf and the human found themselves tumbling sharply down the steep, rocky incline, locked in a fierce struggle. 

 

The man had a knife in his fist and Legolas desperately held his wrist as they tumbled over and over one another in the dark, the flashing blade hanging precariously between them.  Jerking the man’s hand back when he was on the bottom, Legolas bashed the human’s knuckles against the ground, letting the man’s wrist twist as their momentum rolled them over again.  The thief had to let go of the blade and it disappeared into the darkness as they continued downward, unable to stop their own rapid descent. 

 

Legolas tried to fling the man away from him, but a large rock slammed painfully into his ribs and back as they tumbled over it, making him gasp and lose his restraining hold on his opponent. 

 

They landed with a bone-crunching jar a few moments later, Legolas pinned on the bottom.  For the second time in less than a half an hour Legolas’ head slammed forcefully back against the hard ground, making his vision swim nauseatingly.  The man on top of him had faired little better, but took advantage of the situation, locking his legs on either side of the prince and trying to pin him. 

 

Legolas grabbed the hands that closed around his throat, trying to dislodge them as the pressure cut off his airway.  Quickly trapping the man’s foot and arm with his own, the elf bucked up and flipped the human over. 

 

The thief rolled away just in time to avoid letting Legolas get the upper hand and punched upwards hard, catching the elf in the ribs where he knew Scatha had kicked the prince earlier. 

 

Legolas winced and brought his knee down sharply into his opponent’s gut.  He just wanted to get away, the longer he lingered here the more dangerous it became. 

 

Unfortunately it was already too late.  A sharp blow to the side of his head from behind threw Legolas sideways.  The elf’s ears rang painfully as the other two thieves came into his view.  He struggled to his knees but couldn’t quite rise yet. 

 

One of them grabbed Legolas’ hair, yanking his head up.  The elf could see their sabers gleaming dully in the moonlight as he tried to battle the dizziness and pain sweeping over him.  The logical part of his mind was telling him he was not going to survive this, but the stubborn part of him refused to listen as he pulled his legs under him and gathered his strength watching guardedly as the second man reached out to grab his arm. 

 

He would not die without a struggle, no matter how futile it would most likely prove. 

 

 

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

 

 

Aragorn was trying to still his laughter as he walked alongside his father.  The day was swiftly melting into the encroaching dusk but they pushed on.  The mountain range that the Dúnadan had seen in Galadriel’s mirror was only a mile or so away now.  Elrond knew his son would not rest tonight until they had reached the exact spot and had attempted to take the human’s mind off his worries by asking him a simple question about the ranger’s finely tuned archery skills he had observed earlier in the day.  Aragorn had far surpassed his early training that the elven lord had taken part in and he was curious about some of the young man’s habits and forms that he had picked up.  The conversation had quickly degraded from there as his youngest son attempted to retell the story of how Legolas had taught him to shoot, ‘like a Silvan elf’.

 

“He wanted to know what?!”  Elrond glanced at the man that walked next to him unable to control his own laughter.  He had heard the mumbled statement but could not help goading Estel.

 

Rolling his eyes Aragorn sighed and fought the smile that pulled at his lips, “I said that Legolas wanted to know who taught me how to shoot.”  He repeated himself more loudly still not meeting the questioning gaze of the elf lord.

 

“Your brothers did.”  Elrond replied simply, “And I helped in your training.”  He failed to see why the boy had become so hesitant in retelling this particular story. “And so?”

 

“Well Legolas said that I was shooting like a female.”  He cringed, trying not to smile as his father faltered and turned towards him.

 

“A what?” Elrond stuttered in disbelief.

 

“You heard me.”  The ranger stepped lightly away from the elf, unable to stop laughing. “He basically said that all Noldor elves shoot like females and that Silvan elves excelled in the art. Of course it could have just been the way Elladan and Elrohir taught me but... I don’t know...”  He couldn’t help the taunting.  It wasn’t often that he was able to take his father by surprise.  He could see the elf lord glaring at him out of the corner of his eyes and danced slightly farther out of reach.

 

“We most certainly do not shoot like females.” Elrond’s eyebrows knit tightly together across his brow.  He was trying his best not to laugh and look stern but it wasn’t working.  With a shake of his head he glanced to his left so that his son could not see the smile he hid and continued speaking, attempting to hide his mirth.  It was a long held argument and one he was not unfamiliar with.  “I’ll have you know if it weren’t for the help of the Noldor elves there would be no Silvan elves left to practice their ‘famed’ archery skills.”  He protested good-naturedly. 

 

“Well he thought I needed help nonetheless,” Aragorn moved back next to the tall elf and glanced up into the blue eyes that watched him closely, the mirth uncontained in their depths, “and he took it upon himself to retrain me a bit.”  The human stepped lightly in front of the elf lord and walked backwards while he talked, trying to get Elrond to look at him.   The elf was doing his best not to start laughing at the young man as he recounted how Legolas had proceeded to compare him to one of the younger learners and teach him slowly several of the more Silvan techniques of archery and warfare with the bow and arrow.

 

They had left the safety of the woods a half mile back and the ground had become rocky and uneven.  Elrond reached out and grabbed Estel’s elbow, turning the human back around as he stumbled slightly on the shale rocks beneath their feet.  Darkness had just set in and the very last shades of dusk were fleeing from the sky as night threw her blanket across the canopy above them.

 

“Careful now my son, this is unsteady terrain.  It would be best if you walked facing *forward*.”  He smiled at the ranger beside him.  The young man, the boy he had known had grown so quickly into a man.  One he was very proud of.

 

“Well you do know father, that Legolas was only teasing.  I am sure it was my lack that he was seeing and it did not in anyway reflect on you or Elladan and Elrohir.”

 

“Of that I am certain.” The elf lord deadpanned, staring straight ahead.

 

Aragorn simply burst out laughing and elbowed the older elf.  “Want me to teach a few moves?”  He teased good-naturedly.

 

Elrond simply shook his head and allowed the smile he had been hiding to steal back over my face. “Yes I would very much like to see exactly what you know.”  He humored his son.  Years of living as a warrior and fighting side by side with Celeborn had not left him without knowledge of both Noldorian, Sindarin and Silvan warfare, but he never grew tired of listening to the young man that walked beside him.  He delighted in his son and loved to spend time with the boy.  His heart ached dully at the knowledge that soon they would be parted for a time as Aragorn began to take his place among men.  Pushing back the undesired wisdom that his foresight often bestowed on him, he simply enjoyed the moment and the time they had together.

 

Aragorn smiled brightly as his father stepped closer and listened intently, the elf’s hand laid gently on the ranger’s back as they walked in the near dark.

 

Elrond was surprised when his son stopped abruptly, the young man’s eyes fixed across the small valley they were walking towards.  Just beyond it was the hill, the one when at the right position, took on the odd resemblance of an old man carved into the mountain.

 

"This is where Legolas was in my vision."  He ran up the small incline on their right and knelt at the edge of the precipice.  His fingers barely brushed the sharp rocks that covered the hill.  “This is the ground that I saw in my dreams.  Only not from here...”  His voice trailed off as he crouched closer to the rocky plateau searching.  It was too dark now to see and he quickly dropped his pack behind him careful of the area he was intent upon.  Frantically he dug through the satchel searching for something.

 

Elrond stood just outside the circle of the space that his son had been so carefully inspecting, knowing that the ranger was searching for clues as to what happened to Legolas. 

 

“I need some light.  A torch.  Father?”  Estel looked up to find the elf lord already busy scouring the area for a piece of wood or bramble to use.  He came running swiftly back with a branch and knelt next to the human as Aragorn struck the pieces of flint he had retrieved from his pack quickly setting the dry wood on fire.

 

"Here."  Aragorn pointed to a section where the rocks seemed displaced and slightly scattered away from the edge, directing his father to bring the light closer.

 

"Estel, it will do no good to search tonight.  There is no knowing how much time has passed... or even if he has been here yet." The elf lord touched the ranger gently on the shoulder.  "Let us wait until first light."  It seemed too daunting a task to find any clues in the dark.

 

Aragorn shook his head resolutely, his sharp eyes detecting the scratches on the soft rocks.  The pattern of the loose flakes of shale that had been pushed aside and the barely imperceptible depressions still visible attested to the fact that a horse stood here on the edge of this cliff on its hind legs.  His time with Gandalf and the Rangers had taught him much and he was keener at tracking than most men or elves.  Whether it was an innate gift or a special talent he had picked up he did not question it and Elrond was amazed as he watched the young man methodically recreate the events, stepping it out and speaking softly out loud as he worked his way through what had happened on the mount days ago.  Elrond had not had the opportunity to see his human son at work before and found that he was surprised at the boy's level of skill, the Dúnadan's eyes picked up the slightest details that even the elf overlooked.

 

"There was a horse here, an unshod horse."  His fingers pressed into the slight indentations.  "It was backed to the cliff, by horses that had been shoed.  See these scuff marks on the shale?"  He crouched on the ground leaning forward and sweeping his hands in a semi-circle around him, pointing out several sets of odd scratched patterns on the rocks in the near vicinity.  Turning back he continued, his eyes searching the ground for clues, "And at this point it reared up and..." He stepped to the edge of the small hill and looked down.  His gaze traveling into the canyon below them and back up at the mountain that held the face of the man.  "Father! Legolas was thrown by his mount into the valley below! That is were I saw him in my dreams and in the vision in the Mirror!"

 

Reaching out swiftly Elrond stopped the human from descending the cliff face from where they stood.  "Are you sure of this my son?"

 

"Yes!"  Aragorn was near panicked by now.  He was positive of the trackings he had found and desperation ate at his heart.  If Legolas had fallen and had not been found, if he had been wounded...

 

The negative possibilities would not let him rest.

 

"Then let us find a safe way down.  And a path that will not disturb any clues you may find at the bottom."

 

"But what if..."  Aragorn didn’t continue his question, he couldn’t.

 

"What if we find Legolas and he is dead?"  Elrond spoke aloud the deepest fears in the young man’s heart.  Estel stood perfectly still his gaze locked onto the older elf's.  "If that is so then we will have our answer and we will find whomever did this.  But in my heart young one I do not think this is what has happened."  Elrond tilted his head to the side slightly and gauged the human before him, testing Aragorn's own awakening abilities he asked, "Do you believe this is what happened?"

 

Closing his eyes and quieting the loud fears that shouted him down Aragorn listened, to what he was not sure, but deep in his heart he knew that although he had seen Legolas die in his dreams, it had not been on this mountain or in this way.  "No."  He whispered softly, “I do not think we will find Legolas at the bottom of the hill nor do I think it is what caused his death, the death that I saw in the vision I mean."

 

With a curt nod, Elrond pulled the ranger away from the cliff edge and turned to their right, descending the hill by the natural slope of the mountain.

 

"Your tracking skills are excellent my son."  The elf lord glanced at the ranger behind him as he led the way holding the torch high so they could both see their steps in the dark.  It would do neither of them any good to twist an ankle on the loose shale.

 

With a small smile Aragorn shrugged.  "I enjoy it.  It comes easy to me."  He shook his head ruefully.  “About the only thing that does,” he added under his breath. 

 

"It will aid you well in your future I believe."  Elrond shifted down a few feet as the rocks slid beneath him.

 

“If I find Legolas alive then I will simply be grateful for it at all.”  Aragorn grabbed his father’s elbow and steadied the elf, helping him to regain his footing as they reached the bottom of the hill.

 

The man started to head for the base of the mountain beneath the overhang when the elf stopped him, stilling his movement and cautioning for silence.

 

Elrond turned sharply to the south, riders were approaching, several of them just beyond the next rise.  There was shouting and yelling and the elf could make out words in the broken sentences, their echoes scattering through the rocky hills.

 

“Don’t let him get away...”

 

“Cut him off...”

 

“There sc...go aroun...”

 

“Follow me, someone is in trouble.” Whispering to his son Elrond quickly extinguished the torch he held and headed for the hill that blocked their view.

 

Aragorn grabbed the elder elf and pulled him to the floor of the gully they were in pointing wordlessly to the ridge off to their left.  A lone rider had mounted the thin path and was using the high road to get the upper hand on the situation.

 

They watched wordlessly as the man threw himself from his saddle off the other side of the ridge, sounds of a scuffle and frightened horses echoed oddly in the ravine.

 

Elrond and Aragorn raced up the side of the hill, slipping and sliding on the uneven ground.  By the time they gained the high ground a group of men were standing over the form of another.  The one they had wrestled to the ground was unsteadily trying to sit up, kneeling on the rough earth.  He was forced to glance up at his attackers as one of them grabbed a fistful of the being’s hair and jerked his head back.

 

In the soft light of the moon Aragorn could just see the blonde hair that spilled about the prisoners shoulders.  Legolas’ face was hidden from his sight by the men that stood round him, their swords drawn, but from Elrond’s position he could see the elf clearly.

 

Unslinging his bow and stringing an arrow in one smooth movement the elf lord sighted in on the back of the man directly in front of the prince.  The human was advancing on Legolas his sword raised ready to strike.  Without asking Aragorn followed suit.  The silent projectiles streaked through the night air slamming between the shoulder blades of the men that stood before Legolas.

 

 

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

 

 

Legolas tensed beneath the man who jerked him upright, his eyes hard even though he was finding it difficult to remain conscious.  He would take as many with him as he could if this were the end.

 

Breathing in deeply and steeling himself against the ache in his body the elf leapt to his feet as Scatha’s men in front of him staggered oddly; small gasps of pain barely escaped their lips before they fell dead.

 

Taking the moment of surprise Legolas turned and smashed his fist hard up under the remaining thief’s jaw causing the man to stumble backwards enough so that Elrond’s second arrow found its easy target in his chest. 

 

Legolas stared at the thieves that lay dead on the ground around him.  He staggered away from them, his eyes seeking out whomever it was that had stopped them.  He had hoped to find Léod and Fastred behind the rescue and was slightly wary when two cloaked beings ran down the hillside towards him, looking nothing like the men he had been working and living with the past couple of weeks.  His vision swam and his ears were ringing oddly from the blows to his head.  He staggered backwards as the cloaked figures gained his side, holding his hand up warily to ward them off.

 

“Legolas?”  Aragorn reached out and gently took the hand meant to fend him off, pulling the elf closer as he quickly threw the hood of his cloak back.

 

Elrond checked the men on the ground satisfying himself that they were dead and would pose no more of a threat.

 

“Father he’s injured!” Aragorn called out as Legolas collapsed.  He barely caught the elf before he fell.

 

“Estel?  What are you doing here?”  Legolas was confused.  The Dúnadan was the last person he had expected to see.  He turned towards the being that knelt next to his friend and was equally surprised when Lord Elrond pushed back the dark hood of his own cloak and smiled down at the confused elf.

 

“Now I know that I am dreaming or treading the Halls of Mandos.”  The elf whispered softly, his hands clenched tightly in the folds of Aragorn’s overcoat.  “Lord Elrond?”

 

“It is I.  Lie still young one, you are yet among the living.” The elf lord spoke quietly, trying to sooth the fearful expression from the prince’s face with his words.

 

Estel was quickly evaluating the worst of Legolas’ wounds.  His gentle fingers finding the bleeding welt on the elf’s arm and tipping the prince’s head back to inspect the cut underneath his chin and the ragged one that ran the length of his chest.  “Legolas I’m sorry we were not here sooner.”

 

The elf glanced between them, frowning slightly trying to make sense of everything but his head hurt terribly and his leg was throbbing again.  His leg... he suddenly remembered the horses and tried to stand.

 

“Avornwen! Kynter!” 

 

Aragorn pressed him back down unwilling to let his friend up.  The elf’s wrists were bruised as well as his ribs and it was apparent that the prince was disoriented.

 

“Legolas rest easy now.  You are in no shape to be up.”  Aragorn eased his friend back against him, holding the prince gently in his arms. “I thought I lost you.”  He whispered into the blonde hair, his head resting on Legolas’.  “Father will find the horses.  Be still.  Who were those men that attacked you?”

 

“Thieves.” The elf prince answered softly; trying to stay awake was becoming more difficult. “They were thieves.”

 

Elrond stood to his feet and whistled a high piercing note.  In seconds the sounds of hoofbeats could be heard.  Two horses cantered slowly up, their heads held low, nickering and quietly talking to the elves.

 

“Your horse and Trelan’s I take it?”  Elrond directed the question to Legolas.  The elf had finally given in and lay quietly against Estel, his head ached too much from the blows he had received and he nodded gingerly.

 

The elf lord quickly inspected the horses, finding their injuries and easily removing the cruel halters that had been placed on them.  His sharp ears picked up the sounds of more men approaching.

 

“We must leave and quickly, you are being tracked.”  He helped Aragorn ease Legolas up to a standing position allowing the prince to lean against him for support as he led the limping elf towards the horses.

 

“They are wounded as well and Avornwen fell.  They cannot be ridden.”  Legolas was hesitant to mount the animals, unwilling that they should be injured further.

 

Elrond nodded, “I know, it is apparent that they were ill treated but if we do not leave and now, I fear what may befall us.”  He glanced swiftly back the way they had come.  “Whoever hunts you has not given up.”  He helped steady the elf prince as Aragorn swung up onto Kynter’s broad back, reaching back down towards his friend.

 

Legolas moaned softly as he seated himself before the ranger, his weight resting against Aragorn’s chest.  One of the human’s arms slid gently around his waist holding him steady, while Estel’s right hand carefully caught the elf’s forehead and pulled him back until he rested against the ranger’s shoulder.  He had no strength to protest and the world swam sickeningly around him.  As Kynter slowly trotted off following Avornwen and Elrond, Legolas let his fragile hold on consciousness slip and relaxed limply against Aragorn.

 

“Legolas?”  Aragorn brushed the long unkempt blonde hair away from the elf’s face, “Legolas?  Father I think he passed out.”

 

“It is well.  If he has been treated only half as poorly as these animals we will be lucky.  We cannot ride them far, they can not carry our weight much longer.”

 

“Back towards the woods, there was a cave that way, it is large enough to hold the horses, I found it while scouting out water, it is behind the pool that gathered at the head of the small rivulet we discovered.”  Aragorn gently turned Kynter towards the wooded area that butted up to the plains comprising northern Rohan.

 

With a nod Elrond nudged Avornwen into a gentle gallop, his quick hearing had picked up the sounds of the men behind them.  “They have discovered their slain friends, we must flee.”  He glanced over at his son, noting that the elf the young human held glowed naturally in the dark night.  “Estel, your cloak.”

 

Aragorn glanced down and caught the meaning of his father’s words.  The elderly elf had already dimmed the light that emanated from him and pulled the hood of his cloak down over his head, shielding himself from view.  Shifting carefully Aragorn opened his own coat and wrapped the edges of it around Legolas, to cover the glow that emanated from the elf.  Lowering his head until it rested near Legolas’ the ranger let the large hood cover them both.  They could not risk being seen.  In the shape they were in they would not be able to out run their enemies.

 

~*~

 

Night still held sway over the land as the elf and the human directed the animals into the brightly lit interior of the cave Aragorn had discovered the previous day.  A warm fire sparked and burned softly near the back of the cavern where Legolas lay deep asleep.  Aragorn had tended to his wounds with the help of his father and then they had seen to the horses.  Cleaning the mud from the animal’s hides and lathing ointment on the cuts and scratches that the horses had sustained from their cruel imprisonment.

 

The two animals stood near the entrance, watching the elves and the human within, content to be back amongst the race that they trusted so willingly.

 

Aragorn dropped wearily down next to Legolas, his hand gently drifting to the elf and checking the bandages that decorated his friend once more.  A deep frown marred his face as he pulled off his cloak and draped it carefully over the sleeping form.

 

“Who would do this?”  He asked quietly, his eyes not meeting the gaze of his father, who sat on the opposite side of the fire.  It was not a question he expected a response to.  The only one who could still his curiosity lay sleeping beneath his overcoat.  His heart rested in the fact that Legolas still lived and that whatever the tragedy he had seen in his dreams, perhaps it had been averted.

 

Elrond was not so sure. A deep sense of foreboding still obscured the future but he did not mention his fears to Estel, he had no answers for his son’s questions.  Standing from his resting place he walked around the fire and seated himself next to the ranger.

 

“Get some rest Estel.  You will need it for tomorrow.  I think we will find all the answers to your questions then. And let us hope that they are enough.”  Elrond smiled at his son, shaking his head at the human’s reluctance to sleep.  “I will stay watch and Avornwen and Kynter are at the entrance.  No one will bother us tonight.”

 

With a small smile Aragorn stretched out on the ground behind his father, his head near Legolas should the elf wake at all.  Resting his weary gaze on the dancing weaving pattern of the fire he was finally lulled to sleep. 

 

Elrond gently brushed the hair back from the human’s face before carefully draping a blanket over the sleeping ranger.  He smiled to himself.  For now, at this moment everything was still and at peace and he allowed himself to fully enjoy the calmness shutting out the clamorings of the future and the worries of tomorrow.  His hand rested lightly on Aragorn’s shoulder gently easing up as the man moved slightly in his sleep.  Perhaps they truly had come in time and everything would work out well.

 

Perhaps...

 

 

___________________________________________________________

 

~*PART EIGHT*~

 

 

 

Legolas woke slowly.  He ached everywhere and someone was gently working on the cut to his arm.

 

“Shh...” The whispered voice of Aragorn soothed the elf’s confusion as the man laid the palm of his hand against the prince’s forehead, careful of the purple, bruising welt that crossed his temple, “You are safe.  Let me see to your wounds.”  The words were spoken in elvish and Legolas relaxed back against the cool stone floor.  Lord Elrond’s cloak spread out beneath him gave little comfort save to stave off the chill.

 

“Where are we?” the elf murmured softly.

 

“We are in a cave north of where we found you last night.” Elrond’s voice cut through the fog in Legolas’ mind, brining him sharply awake.

 

“I wasn’t dreaming then, I did see you.”  Legolas moved his head slowly, his blue eyes opening and locking on to the elf lord’s steady gaze.

 

He moaned softly as Aragorn laid his mended arm across his chest, out of the way while the ranger gently rubbed a cool ointment against his bruised ribs.  They were hot to the touch and tender; the lotion took some of the pain away, allowing the elf to breathe easier.

 

“What happened?  Everything is so foggy and hard to remember.”  Legolas shifted his gaze and stared up at Aragorn where the ranger knelt over him.

 

The human brushed the wayward strands of hair out of his eyes and smiled down at his friend.  “We were hoping you could tell us.”  His voice was low but he knew his two elven companions could easily hear him.

 

Elrond had moved off to restoke the fire, its burning embers were bright beneath the cooled, dead wood.  In moments he had stirred the coals into a good size flame.

 

“We were attacked just after dark.”  Legolas moved slowly into a sitting position, aided by his friend. “They claimed to need our services but the horses they brought with them were stolen.”

 

Aragorn and Elrond exchanged confused glances.  “Legolas what were you doing in Rohan and who were you with?  We have been looking for you for over two weeks now.   Trelan was brought to...”

 

Lord Elrond’s questioning was cut off as Legolas glanced sharply up at the elf lord the sudden movement awoke a fierce nausea in him but he ignored it for the moment, steadying himself against Aragorn he leaned forward.

 

“Trelan lives?”

 

“Yes.”  Aragorn held onto Legolas until the elf’s grip on his arm eased up, “Are you alright?”  He handed the prince a tunic and helped pull it around his sore shoulders, allowing the elf to button it himself when Legolas glowered at him, pushing his hands away.

 

“I am fine. Just...” He tried to ignore the warnings from his body.  It felt a lot like the sickness from the lhyguan bite had felt before, but he attributed it to his injuries and the repeated blows to his head.  Concussions could be nasty things.  Changing the subject he pressed for more information, “Where is Trelan? How is he? I was told he was dead.  Scatha said the horses trampled him when they took Kynter.”

 

“Scatha?”  Aragorn shook his head, “Legolas you have to start from the beginning, you aren’t making any sense.”  With a deep sigh he gave in and answered his friend’s question first knowing the elf would not proceed without hearing how the small warrior fared, “Yes, Trelan is fine.  We left him in Lothlórien with Celeborn and the Lady of the Woods, they are caring for his injuries.  He was most worried about you.  Legolas tell me what happened, it’s important to me.”

 

Aragorn knelt in front of the elf, staring into the slightly glassy-eyed gaze of his friend.  He brushed his fingers gently across Legolas brow, wondering if the prince had a fever.

 

“Two weeks ago Trelan and I were scouting near Dol Guldur, investigating reports that said evil was stirring in it once more.  A band of men chased us down with out reason, separated us and drove Avornwen and I to the edge of a precipice.  They spooked her into unseating me and I fell over the cliff.  When I awoke I was in the house of Rohan horse breakers, Émuseld they called it.  I was injured, they gave me medical aid and in return for their services I worked for them.  Last night, men rode in with more than twenty horses, Avornwen was one of them.  They steal the horses and resell them.  The horses were coated with mud to keep anyone from recognizing them.  I know all those others were stolen as well and they...”  He faltered as he recounted the events, “They said they killed Freca and his two ranch hands.  The ones who saved me.  Kynter was also there.”

 

“Yes, we retrieved them both.”  Elrond motioned to the entrance of the cave.  Morning was nearing but the sky was still dark beyond and the grey hides of the horses stood out clearly in the firelight.  Avornwen bobbed her head in response to Legolas’ attention.  He smiled as she nickered softly, her huge dark eyes watching him carefully.

 

“Thank you.”  He whispered his gratitude.

 

“We should go see to your friends though.  It is possible these horse thieves were not able to carry through on their threats and the horse breakers might need our help.”

 

“Please Lord Elrond, I would like to go back with you.  They saved my life and I was unable to help them last night.” Legolas shook his head, thinking on the three men.  A thought struck him oddly as he remembered Aragorn’s earlier comment and he turned to his friend.  “You were looking for me here?  Why?”

 

It was the human’s turn to gaze down at the cave floor, his face flushing slightly in embarrassment.  He had been wrong and the vision had been wrong, he suddenly felt rather silly for all his worrying.

 

Elrond noted the emotions playing across the young man’s face and stood to his feet, rounding the fire and moving behind his son.  “Estel is gifted with foresight as are most of his kin.  He is just experiencing it’s awakening within him and has yet to control what he sees.”

 

Legolas frowned at his friend. “What did you see?”

 

Aragorn glanced over his shoulder at his father who only nodded.  There was nothing to be ashamed of in seeing the future incorrectly, it was often not as it seemed and in this case at least he was eternally grateful that his visions had not proved totally true.

 

“I saw your death.”  He admitted with a sigh, “Over and over every night in my dreams and then in then Galadriel’s mirror.”

 

“You looked in the mirror?!” Legolas was shocked.  Few were the immortals who had ever claimed to have done so.  Of mortals, it was unheard of.  Legolas himself had never even been to Lórien before, but he had heard many tales about the Golden Wood.

 

The man rolled his eyes, “I’ll tell you about it sometime later.  Let’s go check on your friends before it gets too late in the day.”

 

“You’ll tell me about it on the way back!” Legolas corrected him as he slowly stood to his feet with the help the ranger.  “We are not so close that you won’t have time to recount it.”

 

With a laugh Aragorn followed Elrond to the mouth of the cave; handing Legolas a small cake of elvish weybread wrapped in a leaf as they walked up to the horses.

 

Aragorn grabbed a fist full of Kynter’s mane and vaulted onto the animals back, “Eat that and regain your strength and I’ll tell you all about it.” He teased, extending his hand back down and helping Legolas up behind him.

 

The elf hissed softly with the ache that the swift movement caused.

 

Elrond had doused the flame and gently approached Avornwen, quietly talking to the horse before carefully mounting the steed.  She walked slower than her counterpart, the elf’s light weight easier on her than that of two riders as she trailed Kynter.

 

“Start talking.”  Legolas laid his chin on Aragorn’s shoulder and smiled at the man.

 

Aragorn swatted at him, with a playful laugh, “Start eating!”

 

 

~*~

 

 

When they reached Émuseld the beams of the stable house were still smoldering in the soft morning light as the three rode up to the remains.  The ranch had been set on fire and the fences of the paddocks were completely broken down.

 

Aragorn lent his hand to Legolas as the elf slid stiffly off of Kynter’s haunches.

 

“Freca!  Fastred!  Léod!”  Legolas hobbled to the main house.  It alone of all the buildings remained intact.

 

A body lay sprawled in the open door way and the elf knelt next to it.  It was Freca; he was dead just like Scatha had promised.

 

“No...”  Pushing himself up with the aid of the doorframe Legolas urgently searched through the house.  The living quarters had been torn apart and everything of value had been taken.  The flask that Freca had kept the AntiVen in lay crushed on the wooden floor, its contents spilt out, staining the beams a darker brown.  There was no sign of Fastred or Léod anywhere.  With a sigh Legolas sank down on the bed that his employer had let him use for his first few days’ stay in Émuseld and stared down at his hands.  He had hoped to find them alive.  Although he was not fond of most men, he had come to enjoy the company of these three and it pained his heart that they were gone and he had not been able to help them.

 

The sounds of Aragorn calling his name roused the elf and he wearily walked to the doorway, stepping lightly over Freca’s body and stooping to cover his former employer with a blanket out of respect, gently closing the human’s eyes.

 

“We found two more.  One in the ruins of the stable and one down near the lower pens.”  Aragorn glanced to the ground, “I’m sorry Legolas, they are both dead.”

 

Holding back his sorrow the elf dropped down onto the steps of the porch and rested his head in his hands.  He wasn’t feeling well and the creeping fear that he truly was not over the lhyguan poisoning ate at the back of his mind, mingling with the ache in his heart.

 

“Scatha was just that cruel.”  Legolas whispered with sad, weary contempt.  He prayed that his friends had died quickly, not the slow way that Scatha had intended for him.

 

“It looks like it was swift,” Aragorn said softly, as if reading the pained thoughts in the elf’s eyes.  He could tell Legolas was grieved over this discovery.  “They went down fighting and felt little or no pain.” 

 

Legolas gave a small nod, grateful for the information and the fact that his friend had understood without his asking.  “I should have done more,” the elf murmured softly.  “They did not deserve this.”

 

“No one does Legolas,” Aragorn shook his head.  “But you can’t blame yourself for other people’s cruelty.  You did all you could.”  The ranger stepped forward, intending to sit next to his friend when his father came running back to the main house.

 

“A group of men approaches from the east,” Elrond informed. 

 

“Kurnwait is to the east.”  Legolas commented, remembering the times that Freca had ventured into town for supplies.

 

Before the elf had finished talking a troop of riders converged on the main house.  The men were, by all outward appearances, soldiers.  Their helmets and weaponry carried the emblems of warhorses and they surveyed the destroyed ranch solemnly.

 

A warrior at the head of the group quickly dismounted and approached the elves and the ranger.  Aragorn straightened up and stepped protectively in front of Legolas, his hand resting lightly on the pommel of his sword.

 

Without preamble the soldier removed his helmet, tucking it under his arm as he shook back a thick mane of dark blonde hair from his eyes.  He was obviously of Rohan descent. He scanned the house silently, his eyes resting on the body now covered in the open doorway.

 

“Who are you and what has happened here?  And pray you tell me the truth for if you have done this there is no hope for you in Rohan.  Freca was a friend.”  His golden eyes were fierce and he glared from one to stranger to the other.

 

Elrond broke the impasse, “I am Elrond, Lord of Rivendell.”  He stepped lightly aside so the soldier could see Legolas more clearly and know that they were unarmed.  “We were searching for our companion, Legolas, heir of Mirkwood.  It seems that the men of this place gave him refuge but they were attacked last night and none escaped.”

 

“Except your friend?” The question was a challenge and the young horse lord held them with his intense gaze.

 

Aragorn had not yet spoken; he glanced quietly between the soldier and his father.

 

“He was able to, yes, and we returned this morning to see if any of the others had also been so fortunate and if we could be of aid.  Regretfully we are too late.”  The elf lord bowed his head slightly, his eyes never dropping the gaze of the man who stood before him.

 

With a small motion of his hand the warrior directed his men to search the grounds.  Stepping forward he extended his hand to the elf lord.  “I am Éomund of Eastfold, third marshal of the Riddermark.  We are the Rohirrim and Émuseld was a favorite stopping place for my men and I.”  He sighed deeply as the tension of the situation left and he glanced around them, disturbed by what he saw.  “We have been tracking a group of horse thieves for some time.  They steal from the soldiers, from strangers and caravans.  They are a plague, a blight on the face of this fair land.  They take what they like and remark the animals, selling them to whomever will bid the highest and we have never had success in catching up to them.  We were on our way here and had stopped in Kurnwait when we saw the fires in the night sky.  We rode hither as swiftly as we were able.”  The man kicked at edge of the porch in disgust.  “It seems we also were too late.”

 

“They rode north-east through the gulches beneath the Old Man.”  Aragorn spoke up.

 

Éomund glanced sharply at him, “And who are you, quiet one, that you travel in the company of elves?”

 

Aragorn was suddenly at a loss to tell this man who he was.  He was Estel to the elves and Strider to the Dunèdain and people of the North, but this was yet not the time for his right name to be known and none of his other monikers seemed appropriate.

 

Elrond noted the indecision and stepped nearer to his adopted son, his eyes fastening on the brooch that clasped his cloak at the neck.  “His name is Thorongil,” Elrond replied, “He is our tracker and our guide.”

 

“‘Eagle of the Star’?”  Éomund question curiously, it was a somewhat unusual name, at least in this part of the world, although the young marshal thought it sounded somewhat Gondorian.  It was a credit to his knowledge, or at least his retention of trivia, that he knew roughly what the name meant.  The people of Rohan were not usually much learned in such matters, but Éomund was a close friend to prince Théoden whose his father, King Thengel, had lived a good portion of his life in Gondor, bringing back a large store of knowledge from thence.  

 

Aragorn touched the star shaped brooch at his neck and nodded quickly, “A family heirloom.” He replied as he gazed steadily back at his father for a moment before returning the commander’s piercing gaze.

 

“The brooch or the name?” Éomund raised an eyebrow. 

 

“Both.”  Aragorn answered with a wry smile.

 

Éomund shook his head slightly returning the smile, “Strange, but you are not from the south.”  He looked the ranger up and down.  Something about him seemed Gondorian, but his manner and speech were not those of the men of the WhiteCity. 

 

“No, I am of the northern men.”

 

With a simple nod the commander accepted the information.  He knew almost nothing of the world to the north of them, so these strange people may well be from there, and at any rate, he sensed no deceit or ill will about them.  That decided, he gave it no more thought he moved back to the matter at hand.  “If they were here only last night they cannot be overly far away yet... if we had a decent tracker in our group we might have a chance of catching up with them,” the last part was half muttered under his breath.  They had had no one with that skill in their group since the last one was killed and his abilities were sorely missed.  Éomund turned back to Aragorn.  “You say the horse thieves went northeast?  How sure are you?”

 

“Very.”  Aragorn said confidently, stepping away from the porch and leading the Rohirrim away from the house a few paces, back towards the burnt-out stable, pointing him in the right direction.  He had tracked the horses while Legolas and Elrond searched for survivors.  “They back-tracked the whole lot of them and rounded them through the pastures a few times to throw off anyone that might be looking for them, but I picked up their trail at the top of the hill.  There are gulches and gullies in plenty for them to hide in there.”

 

“And they are very familiar with the terrain.  I know, I tried to lose them through there last night and could not.”  Legolas’ breathing was ragged and he closed his eyes letting his head rest in his hands again.  His pulse was pounding between his temples in a very painful way.

 

“Legolas?”  Aragorn walked quickly to his friend’s side.  It was obvious the prince was not feeling well. 

 

Éomund glanced back at the elf once more, his eyes narrowing.  “You said you stayed on with Freca for a time?  Why?”

 

The prince looked up at the human; “I was paying him back for medical aid.” It was the truth, just not the whole truth.  He hadn’t wanted Aragorn to worry and he had truly thought he would find the AntiVen in the house... besides he was so close it shouldn’t matter.  At least, that’s what he told himself. 

 

“Were you bitten?”  The horse warrior stepped closer, leaning down to look into the elf’s eyes; they were beginning to dilate.  Anyone familiar with these regions knew about the deadliness of lhyguan poison.  If untreated, or if the treatment was interrupted, it would swiftly overwhelm the victim again, nearly as swiftly as if the bite were fresh.  It was a fast, vicious toxin if not kept at bay. 

 

With a sigh Legolas admitted the truth, “Yes, almost two weeks ago.”

 

“Bitten?!?! By what?”  Aragorn crouched in front of the prince, immediately concerned, “Legolas why didn’t you say so?”

 

“I didn’t want you to worry.”  Legolas looked away.  “Besides, I wasn’t thinking very clearly last night,” he rubbed his head. 

 

“Did you complete whatever treatment they had you on?”  Éomund asked cautiously, quite sure he knew what the elf had been bitten by.  Two weeks... almost long enough... at least that’s how long the breakers kept the horses that the Rohirrim sometimes brought them to receive the life-saving treatments.  But from the way the elf looked... 

 

Legolas hesitated, staring at the Rohan warrior for a few moments.  The light hurt his eyes and his head was beginning to pound.  He knew the feeling, but didn’t want to admit it.  It couldn’t be coming back this fast, it couldn’t... he had felt well, felt perfectly normal... but then Freca had often warned him that lhyguan poison was not to be underestimated. 

 

“Legolas?” 

 

Blue eyes met the silver ones staring hard at him and Aragorn reached out to touch the elf, his fingers gently brushing the prince’s neck and feeling the increased heart rate.  “You didn’t, did you?” The ranger’s voice was soft.

 

“No.”  Legolas looked down to his hands; “I was two days from recovering fully.”

 

“But surely there *is* a cure?”  Elrond questioned.  He glanced behind him as the other soldiers began to filter back towards their commander.  “If he was receiving treatment then it can be finished now, can it not?”

 

Éomund pushed two of his men towards the far grounds, “Search that way, the thieves are believed to have escaped in that direction.  Helm, look through the house for anything that might be an anti-toxin, they may have had some made up on hand.”

 

“It is useless.”  Legolas spoke up, stopping the man who was mounting the stairs.  “They destroyed the house and took everything of value.  The AntiVen was spilt and is no more.”

 

“Well if there was an antidote then it can be recreated.”  Elrond stated calmly, although he was concerned about the level of distress he was sensing.  Something here seemed wrong.  “What ingredients is it comprised of and what does it counteract?” he questioned.

 

“The AntiVen was created by Freca’s great-grandfather.  The formula was passed down through the years from one generation of horse breakers to another.  Freca would have passed it along to the next generations if he had been allowed that opportunity.  Only the three men who worked here knew what it consisted of.”  Éomund glanced apologetically at the three friends.  “As for what it counteracts, a native lizard the size of a cat calls the northern downs of Rohan its home.  They are ill tempered and eat anything they can find, including men and horses.  Their bite is lethal and without the antidote your friend will not survive the day.  What I do know is that the doses are divided into two per day for two weeks in order to purge the poison from the system.  Your friend here has already missed at least two unless I’m mistaken.”

 

Legolas shook his head slightly.  “One, this morning,” he corrected, rubbing his temples slowly. 

 

Éomund’s eyes narrowed.  Only one?  The elf had missed only one and he was already feeling this badly?  The warrior’s calm gaze fixed on Legolas once more, “You are feeling nauseated and ill aren’t you?”

 

The elf nodded slowly, not wanting to admit what that meant, but having no choice. 

 

“It’s beginning to attack his system again.  I know of no one who has... who had,” he corrected himself sadly, “the AntiVen but Freca.  It was part of his business and he never gave away his secrets.”

 

Elrond listened intently, his sharp mind already formulating an antidote to the venom.  The intricacies of anti-toxin were no mystery to him, and although each poison was different, there were certain general principles that could be applied as a starting base.  “Where can I find one of these lhygians?”

 

“You wish to trap one?” The soldier stared at him in astonishment before laughing and turning to look over his shoulder.  “No one searches out a lhyguan, they run from it.  Believe me when I say these creatures are not to be trifled with.  They are much meaner than they look and more deadly than I can say.  Not to mention the fact that they are seldom to be found out in the open.  You can’t just walk out looking for one, you could go for days with no luck.”

 

“If I can find one I believe I can recreate the antidote.  But I need a sample of the poison to work with in order to do so.  Then, with Legolas’ help in reporting the symptoms I should be able to do this in time to save him *if* you tell me where I may find one of the creatures.”  Elrond pierced the human with a deadly glare, “There must be some places that they prefer, some type of environment that they favor, think hard.”

 

Éomund could think of an answer, but he was loath to mention it because it would be little better than sending these two to their death if they chose to go there.  “There is a place... but none go there and live.  I would not send you thither.”

 

Elrond’s demanding gaze was unrelenting.  “Our care is not in your keeping, although I thank you for your concern.  But if there is a place, I would know of it, and swiftly.  This is our friend’s only hope.  It may be that we will fail, that is always a risk, but if we do not try then failure is certain.  And at least I will know I have done everything in my power to try.”

 

Éomund’s men were mounting up behind him, ready to be off but their commander stopped them.  Dividing the group up he commanded four of them to remain behind and keep watch over what was left of Émuseld, to help bury the dead and to protect the elf that was ill if the other two decided to follow through on their foolhardy attempts to coral a lhyguan.  The majority of them would track the horse thieves in the direction that Thorongil had pointed them.  His scouts, such as they were, had confirmed that the northerner was correct and the trail led away into the gulches.

 

Mounting his horse he leaned back down, his arms crossed atop his thigh as he addressed Elrond.  “The lhygians have just begun mating season.  They congregate to the southwest of here, in a grotto where they find mating partners and lay their eggs.  Normally they are not fast for a ground lizard, but this time of year they are unusually quick and even more ill tempered than ever.  I would use great caution in approaching them, men have tried before to go there, in hopes of wiping out the threat while so many of them are congregated together.  None have ever come back alive.  When they are in groups, they are a hundred times as deadly as they are alone, but it is the only place you will find them for the next few weeks.”

 

His steed pranced beneath him and Éomund danced the horse in a tight circle, facing the elf lord once more, “One other thing.  The bite causes the blood to have difficulty thickening and once bitten it is easy to bleed to death.” Éomund glanced at the bandages on Legolas’ neck that disappeared beneath his tunic.  True enough, red stains were already beginning to show through, although the wounds should have been well on their way to being closed by now.  “My men will stay with your friend until you return.  They are well skilled in dealing with such injuries and will give him the attention he needs while you are away.”

 

They all knew it was a very generous and courteous offer, but Aragorn started to protest anyway; he knew how uncomfortable Legolas was with humans that he did not know.

 

“Thorongil,” the elf used his friend’s new name, “It will be well.  I will stay inside until you return.  The bed I used when I first came is in there.”  Turning to the Rohirrim captain he bowed politely as he stood unsteadily to his feet, “I thank you.”

 

“May the Valar watch over you and your friends.  We will return to see how you fare once our business with these thieves is accomplished.”  Éomund spurred his horse forward and led the soldiers out of sight over the far hill.

 

“Let’s get you inside before we leave.” Aragorn hooked his arms around Legolas’ waist and steered his friend into the house as the soldiers that remained with them carefully picked up Freca’s body and removed him for burial.

 

Gently the ranger lowered the elf onto the bed, flinging back the blankets and bed-sheets.

 

Legolas laughed softly, and Aragorn stopped to gaze down into the upturned face, “And what is so funny?”

 

“You.” He whispered softly, “You and your many names.”  Legolas coughed as his laughter caught in his throat, “And now you have a new one, Thorongil.”

 

Aragorn shook his head.  “If only I can remember them all!  Seriously Legolas, I fear that some morning I shall wake up and forget which one I am going by today!” He muttered sarcastically.

 

“That I would like to see,” the elf chuckled.  “But I like your latest addition, it suits you.”  Legolas laid back on the pillows that the human pressed under his head before pulling the sheets over the elf.

 

Placing his hands on either side of the elf’s head the ranger leaned over the prince and spoke quietly to him in elvish, “You stay with me Legolas, Greenleaf.  My father will find a cure.  I only wish you’d told us sooner...”

 

“I know, I’m sorry.  But there wasn’t anything that could have been done.”  The elf smiled slightly at the frown his friend fixed him with and gave up trying to explain.  He was weary and tired and his body ached.  “Don’t be angry with me Estel... I’m sorry...” Legolas’ voice was unusually weak and soft as his hand reached up to clasp the young human’s shoulder.  He felt incredibly drained and it was almost unbelievable how fast he could feel his body succumbing. 

 

Aragorn’s head swam dizzyingly with a sudden sense of having experienced this moment before and his heart seized up inside of him when he realize that this was the very instant he had seen in Galadriel’s mirror.

 

“Don’t be angry with me Estel...” Those were the very words.

 

“By the Valar Legolas, you cannot give in to this.  You must hang on until we return do you understand?”  Aragorn’s voice held a tone of desperation that scared the elf.

 

“I will, I promise.” The prince spoke quickly, searching Aragorn’s face and trying to bury his weakness since he saw how much it was scaring his friend... but that didn’t seem to be all that was bothering the ranger.  “What is it?”

 

“Thorongil?”  Elrond called to his son from the doorway, a soldier stood just behind him.  “We best be going.  The sooner we are away the sooner we can return.  We have precious little time.  Helm has offered to stay with Legolas while we are gone.”

 

Aragorn nodded, closing his eyes tightly against the memories and fears that had surfaced.  Leaning quickly down he kissed the elf gently on the forehead.  “Hold on and wait for our return my friend.” He spoke quietly, for the elf’s ears only.

 

Legolas’ hand slipped gently from his shoulder and the prince and nodded once.  “Go and come back quickly. And don’t get into trouble on the way!”  He smiled softly at the human, “I promise I’ll wait.”  He reassured.

 

With a small nod, Aragorn stood and followed his father from the house.  Each step he took was dogged by the knowledge that this was the future he had seen in the mirror and he greatly feared the outcome.

 

 

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

 

 

Elrond quickened his pace to keep up with his adopted son.  They headed southwest as Éomund had instructed them, searching out the grotto where the Rohirrim had said they could find the large lizards like the one that had bitten Legolas.  Helm, one of the warriors that had stayed behind in Émuseld had informed the elf lord that it was only a two-hour walk to the nesting grounds.  The sun had just barely established itself in the sky and by all rights the elf was sure they would have enough time to return and create an antidote by the evening so he was slightly surprised at the tension and distress he felt from the young man that was walking briskly just ahead of him.

 

Aragorn glanced over his shoulder again, but the house was out of sight by now, blocked by the rolling grassy hills that comprised this area of the Riddermark.

 

"Legolas will be all right Estel.  Helm seemed like a decent man and I believe he will watch out for the prince."

 

“It’s not that.”  The ranger’s pace quickened as the walked downhill.

 

“We will have plenty of time to come up with an antidote.  The nesting grounds are close enough.”  Elrond tried to understand.

 

Aragorn shook his head, his eyes searching the horizon, avoiding the questioning gaze of the elderly elf. 

 

Elrond let the silence hang between them, listening to what wasn’t being said.  “What did you see?” He finally asked, his intuition leading him to the question.

 

He must have hit close to the subject for the ranger faltered and glanced at him sharply, slowing his gait to a stop.  Turning towards the elf lord he hazarded an explanation, “Do you remember when I told you I saw Legolas die in the vision when I looked in Galadriel’s mirror?”  He continued when the elf nodded, “I thought that was averted the night that we found him in the company of those thieves.  I thought we were safe and that future was no longer a possibility.”  The ranger’s gaze fell to the ground at his feet as he gathered his thoughts, Legolas voice echoed in his mind. “I was wrong.”

 

The simple admission took Elrond by surprise but he waited out the human, wanting Aragorn to explain further in his own timing.

 

“When we were in the house.  Legolas spoke the exact words that I saw him speak before he died, in the vision.  *That* was the moment that Galadriel’s mirror showed and now I fear that it may follow through.  He may die father.  We might have been too late after all.”  Aragorn’s gaze was locked on to the elf’s begging him, daring him to deny what he feared.

 

“If that is so and you have seen this moment then we have no time to spare.  The future is ever changing and it may be that we are not too late, that it is still only a possibility.  Not even the wisest can tell these things my son.”  Grabbing the ranger’s arm the elf lord started them walking briskly again.

 

“How sure are you that you can create an antidote?” Aragorn matched his father’s steps.

 

“Very.” Elrond stated simply, holding his sons gaze.

 

With a slight nod the ranger took off running, “Then let us make all haste for I am not pleased with the future I saw.  I fully intend to change it!”

 

Elrond smiled at the hopefulness in the young man as he raced to catch up with the fleet-footed ranger.  He had no time to think on such things as he followed the human who was cutting a quick path through the rocks and hillocks, finding the easiest fastest route in the direction they had been pointed.

 

“Come on father!” He called over his shoulder; “You don’t need me to slow down for you do you?”  He taunted, a wicked grin on his face.

 

“Brat.”  Elrond muttered, increasing his speed until he was side by side with the young human, matching his every move. “One does not live 6,000 years to be bested by a child.”  He grinned at the ranger before running ahead of him.  His lithe form dodging stones and missteps, gracefully fleeing ever closer to the grotto.

 

“You’re lucky you aren’t Elladan or Elrohir or I would make you eat those words!”  Aragorn called after him, pacing himself in his father’s wake.  It felt good to be running in the wilds.  And for a few moments he actually forgot the fears that dogged him.  The wind rushed through his hair combing it away from his face and filling his lungs with the sweet scent of the long grasses.  The form of the elf racing before him brought a smile to his face and he relished the moment, reveling in the fact that his father was an elf and he had had the privilege of being raised by the fair beings.  Thoughts of the future, his and his friend’s, were lost in the fleeting joy of the immediate present. 

 

The moment of peace ended swiftly as Elrond slowed his pace and cautiously approached the edge of the plateau they were on.  Aragorn matched the elf’s stride and eased up next to his father, leaning out slightly over the incline.

 

He frowned looking at the floor of the open cavern.  For all intents and purposes it looked uninhabited, a false lead.  Large slabs of rock overlapped one another at the base of the cliff, looking as though they had been shorn from the very walls of the grotto itself.  A few sparse scrub bushes grew here and there poking their hearty greenery out from the oddest of places, even decorating the steep inclines, growing horizontally out at awkward angles seeking the sun from cracks in the cliff face.

 

Aragorn glanced back at his father but the elf lord raised his hand, cautioning silence and pointed back into the grotto.  “Watch the floor of the ravine.” He barely whispered, his eyes riveted into the cavern below them.

 

Redirecting his gaze once more, Aragorn watched the bottom of the cliff.  The rocks and sandy floor of the grotto sparkled in the sun.

 

No...wait...

 

The ground was moving, writhing, undulating...it was alive.  Thousands of the large lizards moved over and around one another reveling in the heat of the mid-morning sun.  Their tan and slate mottled bodies blended perfectly with the rocky ground cover, nature’s camouflage for life in northern Rohan.  Listening harder, the ranger could hear their throaty growls and hissed warnings as several of the males fought over the attentions of the females, warding off the younger lhygians and securing their place in the mating hierarchy.  Now that he knew what to look for and where to look, Aragorn noted that a few of the lizards had crawled up a pace from the floor of the cavern and lay sprawled on ledges about the cliff face enjoying the warmth of the day, uncaring of the frenzy below them.

 

Elrond shook out a canvas bag that he had brought with them.  The large flour sack had come from Émuseld’s kitchen and would just do the trick.  They needed to capture one of the lizards alive in order to properly sample its venom as they had planned.

 

Glancing over his shoulder at the older elf Aragorn, pointed wordlessly to a spot just below them.

 

With a small nod Elrond stepped closer to the ranger as the human kneeled quietly on the ground, laying flat out near the edge of the ravine and slowly inched his way forward.

 

A large lhyguan lay sleeping a few feet below the lip of the cliff’s edge, sprawled across a deep ledge in the rock face.  Aragorn was sure he could reach the ledge and surprise the lizard before the creature could escape.  A shadow to his left caught his attention and he waited patiently as his father stepped over his prone body and lay down next to him.

 

“Below us on the shelf.  I believe I can get down there and catch the lhyguan that is sleeping.”  Aragorn glanced back over the lip of the grotto once more.  The lizard he was watching was no more than ten feet below them.  A large scrub bush grew at an odd angle just above where the lhyguan lay.  It would make the perfect ladder. 

 

Carefully, the ranger sat up and slowly lowered himself over the edge on his belly, the tips of his boot toes just balancing on the thick trunk of the rangy bush.  His gaze was cast below him, intently watching the large reptile to make sure he didn’t wake it.  The heat of the day and the warm air that constantly blew up from the basin of the grotto had lulled the creature into a deep sleep.  Being this far up from the floor of the cavern the lizard did not fear any enemies or contemporaries and its false sense of security made it vulnerable.

 

Glancing quickly back up at the elf, Aragorn reached towards his father, taking the burlap bag from Elrond.  The trick was going to be getting the large lizard in the bag in one quick motion, before it had a chance to strike back or bite.  The creature was by no means small and if it once began to fight it could probably put up a stiff resistance.  On a cliff edge this narrow, with no room to maneuver, that could be deadly. 

 

“Be careful my son.”  The elf lord whispered.

 

Aragorn felt the small tree that held his weight shift lower in the crevice it was wedged into, groaning in protest of supporting him.

 

With a grimace the human stepped quickly off the branches, his shoes barely scuffing the rocky surface as he quietly approached the lhyguan.

 

With calculated moves Aragorn placed the open end of the bag on the far side of the lizard.  Taking a deep breath and bracing himself he scooped the lip of the bag towards himself, taking the reptile off guard and rolling the lhyguan into the sack in one smooth move.

 

The lizard, taken totally by surprise thrashed wildly inside the knapsack, kicking and attempting to bite through the course fabric.  It writhed in panic, throwing its weight against the ranger as the human quickly tied the opening off.

 

Arching its back and thrashing itself in a whip-like fashion the lhyguan slammed its body into the ranger’s.  The awkward position that Aragorn was standing in was compromised as the long, muscular body of the huge lizard smashed into him.  His boots slipped as he was shoved backwards and he flailed with his free hand, trying to right himself.  Grabbing blindly Aragorn’s fingers caught the smaller branches of the bush next to him and held onto them tentatively as he tried to gain his footing.

 

Elrond was calling to him from the edge of the cliff, uncaring if their presence disturbed the mating reptiles.  He held his breath as his son glanced up at him in alarm, his eyes wide as the bush he was holding onto was ripped from its precarious hold on the rock face and, with a rending tear, broke in half.

 

Aragorn fell forward, trying to cling to the edge of the rocky ledge.  The bag that held the lhyguan had slipped from his fingers.  The creature inside was still in a panicked rage, thrashing wildly and slamming into the ranger’s face.

 

The rush of air all around him and the horrible feeling of weightlessness startled the ranger as he fell backwards away from the cliff, his fall sending him hurtling towards the floor of the rocky grotto and the seething mass of deadly reptiles collected there.

 

Elrond dropped lightly down on the cliff ledge only seconds after his son had slipped from the edge, his fingers grasping only air as he tried to catch the human, his horrified cry echoing through the grotto.

 

“ESTEL!”

 

 

___________________________________________________________

 

~*PART NINE*~

 

 

 

Elrond dropped down on his knees and looked down into the ravine.  Aragorn lay on his back, unmoving, the bag holding the lhyguan he had captured rested near his head.  The lizards on the floor of the grotto had scattered when the two bodies fell amongst them, but the initial shock was wearing off and they began to converge on the ranger, hissing and growling angrily at the disturbance.  In their native pattern of aggressive behavior several of the males began displaying the warning signs of attack, their mouths opened wide to show off the sharp incisors that were actually hollowed out to deliver their venomous poison.  Snapping their jaws shut with loud clicks they advanced on the human warily.

 

Elrond shouted to his son but the man did not move and the elf lord quickly began looking for a way to climb down into the cavern.

 

Aragorn groaned softly, he ached and for a moment he wasn’t sure why or where he was.  He could hear his father calling his name and strange rustling and moving sounds as though others were close by but consciousness was slow to return and comprehending his condition lagged far behind.

 

“Father?”

 

“Don’t move Estel!”  Elrond called from his position on the rock face, quickly searching out another handhold as he made his way to the grotto floor much more slowly than he would have liked.

 

But the lhygians were not fooled and the human’s lack of movement only meant the large creature would be easier to incapacitate.  Smelling an easy meal they crawled back towards the ranger, intent on overpowering him.

 

The reptile in the bag that lay near Aragorn’s head heard his companions and threw himself into a frenzy trying to find a way out.  The top of the sack slapped the man in the face bringing him startlingly awake and instantly aware of his situation.  The ranger sat up quickly, glancing around him at the creatures that surrounded him.  His back ached fiercely but he had no time to assess his injuries as a large male lhyguan jumped at him, fangs bared.  Aragorn scooted quickly out of reach of its snapping jaws, kicking the lizard away from him with his boots.  There was no way around the creatures that encroached on him and the walls of the cavern were too far away for safety.

 

Looking desperately about him, the human spied his only hope of protection.  Behind him lay the two stone slabs that had fallen from the walls of the grotto.  They lay one atop the other, braced on smaller rocks so that there was a good-sized crevice underneath them, forming a perfect hiding place.  Grabbing the sack that held the captured lhyguan Aragorn scooted underneath the dark overhang, pressing his body back as far as he could, trying to see if the semi-dark held any hidden lizards.  Fortunately for him, it seemed as though the entire lhygian population was out in the bright sun, trying to warm bodies that were naturally cool, so the shaded area was free from any threat.  At least from the inside, where he lay trapped.  Outside the small cave, the lhygians were enraged.  They charged the opening of the crevice snapping and hissing, their long clawed feet digging underneath the fallen rocks, trying to catch hold of the ranger and drag him out.

 

A set of sharp talons scraped across his shoulder and Aragorn cried out in pain.  Picking up a small rock he bashed the stone down against the reptilian foot that was clawing for him again.  A shrieking cry from the grotto let him know he had dealt the creature a serious hurt.

 

The lhygians scattered back as one of their own howled in pain, their quarry was not going as easily as they had thought.  The perceived threat to their territory escalated and they watched curiously waiting to see what would happen next.

 

Taking the moment of inattention Aragorn reached out, snagging the broken branches of the small tree he had used for leverage up on the wall of the cave.  Movement by the intruder set the nest off once more and as he drug the trunk in with him, Aragorn was forced to use the prickly barbed branches as a shield between himself and the lizards trying to unsuccessfully to reach him. 

 

The lhyguan in the sack had finally gotten its teeth through the burlap and sank its fangs into the heel of his boot.  Without thinking Aragorn slammed his fist against the top of the lizard’s head, dislodging its teeth and driving it to the floor of the cave.  The creature relaxed and did not move.  He hoped he hadn’t killed it, if he got out of this alive there was no way he was going to try to capture another one of them.

 

“ESTEL!!”

 

Aragorn could hear his father’s urgent calls.  For his part, Elrond was beside himself with worry.  He dropped down onto a ledge a few feet from the bottom of the grotto.  A lhyguan resting on the shelf turned towards him snapping its wide jaws at the elf.  With a swift, vicious kick the elf lord dislodged the creature and sent it sprawling back into the mass of writhing reptile bodies below it.

 

Elrond could no longer see his son amidst the teeming throng of lhygians.  The possibility... no, probability, that Aragorn was buried under that mass was sending ribbons of horror and nausea rippling throughout the elf’s consciousness. 

 

“Estel answer me!”  He called, raising his voice above the sounds of the lizards that moved below him.  Unsheathing his sword the elf lord dropped the last few feet to the floor of the cavern.  A snapping reptile lunged at Elrond and he cleaved the creature in half mid-jump, kicking the dead body away from him and clearing a path before him with smooth, rapid moves as he made his way swiftly and with methodical grace towards the rocks his son had taken refuge beneath.

 

“Father! Under here, I can’t get out! I’m trapped!”  Aragorn finally responded, shoving the branches viciously at one of the lizards that was trying to wrestle through the foliage.

 

Lashing out with his sword and using his boot toes as weapons, Elrond was able to fight his way to the mound of rocks that covered his son.  Leaping lightly atop the rocky formation the elf lord kicked out at a mid-sized lhyguan that was using the slab as a resting place.  The lizard’s body tumbled off the side of the natural shelter and rolled into the frenzy around Estel.

 

Their ire peaked the lizards on the ground tore the one that the elf had kicked over the ledge to pieces.

 

Quickly removing his cloak, Elrond began beating back the lhygians that clogged the entrance to the crevice where Estel was hiding.  The dark flying object startled them and they began to scurry out of the way.  The elf could hear his son speaking to him and his heart calmed a bit.  His initial reaction to seeing the human overwhelmed by the creatures had frightened him more than he wanted to admit.

 

“Estel, when I tell you to, come out quickly!” Elrond’s voice was taught, but controlled. 

 

“Yes father!” The ranger kicked at a lhyguan that had locked its teeth around the hard leather of this his boot sole.  The creature would not let go and he slammed his foot against the roof of the rocky enclosure.  The heat on the floor of the grotto was intense; sweat beaded on his face and ran through his hair, plastering the wayward strands against his neck and cheeks but the ranger didn’t let go of the shrub he was using as a shield, it was his only defense. 

 

The lizard that had locked its jaw on his boot released its grip and twisted quickly on its side, opening its mouth and reaching for the ranger’s calf, intent on sinking its fangs into the leg muscle.  Aragorn tried to scoot farther back.  He saw the reptile moving in and felt its jaw graze his leg, but the lhyguan let go at the last moment, its head falling down near his thigh as its body jerked spasmodically.  The ranger noticed with a mixture of disgust and relief that the creature had been cut in two.

 

“Now Estel! NOW!” His father called to him from directly above, pulling his sword back to his side and swiping swiftly at another beast that came too close.

 

Needing no further prompting, the ranger rolled out from under the crevice, pushing the branches of the bush out before him and crouching just beyond the opening of his shelter.  His father knelt above him on the rocks, extending his hand down to the human, but Aragorn leaned back into the dark interior and quickly grabbed the burlap sack swinging it into his father’s open hand.

 

Without thought the elf lord tossed the sack aside next to him and reached back down, grabbing the collar of Aragorn’s over coat and pulling the young man up with him onto the large rock.

 

Aragorn was breathing hard and trying to calm his racing heart.  It was much cooler on top of the rock than under it and he wiped his forehead against the sleeve of his coat.

 

Elrond quickly looked the human over.  His son seemed to be all right despite the fall into the cave, but he also realized the ranger was running on adrenaline and any injuries he might have taken would be discovered later in the day when the danger was far behind them.

 

“Are you ready?”  Elrond gripped Aragorn’s arm tightly and redirected the young man’s gaze.  The human was staring at the floor of the grotto as the lhygians pressed underneath the rocks, looking for their prey, not quite yet seeming to realize that it had moved away.  He glanced up at the elf lord, taking in a deep breath and letting it out slowly, he nodded. 

 

Aragorn noticed for the first time that his father held a bloodied sword in one hand and his tattered cloak in the other.  The lizards had latched onto the elven fabric, ripping the edges of it as he beat them back from the opening of the tiny cave his son had been trapped in.

 

Estel touched his father’s shoulder gently, searching the intense blue eyes that watched him, “Are you alright father?”  He asked in elvish.  Those words came so much easier to him when under stress than common did.

 

Glancing back up to the edge of the ravine the elf lord nodded.  “Yes, I am but we need to get out of here and back to Émuseld quickly.  I shouldn’t like to be here when they figure a way to get up here,” he nodded towards where the Lhygians were now trying to clamber up the sides of the ledge the elf and the ranger were standing on.  So far they were finding the sides too slick to climb up from the ground, but eventually they would realize they had only to climb the wall behind in order to reach the ledge.  “And I fear that every moment now may be critical for Legolas.”  He stooped to retrieve the burlap sack, hefting the heavy bulk over his shoulder.  “Is it dead?  I need it alive Estel.”  He questioned as he felt the limp creature against his back.

 

“I hit it on the head.  It grabbed my boot and I couldn’t get it to let go.  I don’t *think* I hit it hard enough to kill it.”  Aragorn admitted, glancing around them at the lhygians, most of which had now tired of trying to reach the elf and the human but still clogged their only path back.  When he looked up again he noticed that Elrond was slowly turning around, sizing up the cliff walls with his sharp eyes.

 

“There.”  The elf lord pointed to the wall on the left.  The cliff face was riddled with pockets and ledges; easy hand holds for a quick climb out of the grotto.

 

Shrugging out of his overcoat the ranger nodded and jumped off the rock, beating back the creatures that scuttled out of his way.  With a well placed kick he slammed the soft underbelly of a dominant male with his boot toe, lifting the creature off the ground and flinging it into the middle of a mating fight.  The chaos that erupted as the lhygians were interrupted drew the attention of the reptiles that were nearby.  The rest that were unfortunate enough not to move out of the way were forcefully shoved aside by the elf and the man as they made their way to the cavern wall.

 

Aragorn leapt up to the lowest ledge, turning quickly on his boot heels; he knelt and extended his hand down, grasping his father’s forearm and pulling the elf up next to him.

 

Elrond balanced easily on the thin shelf.  He turned to look up and find the next foothold when the lhyguan in the sack he carried suddenly came to life.  The reptile thrashed against the elf lord’s back, startling Elrond and he dropped the sack on the ledge next to him.  The trapped creature hissed from within its burlap prison.  With a slightly amused look Aragorn glanced from the sack to the elf.

 

“I guess I didn’t kill it after all.”  He smiled as his father shook his head and breathed deeply. 

 

“I would guess not.”  Glancing back above them Elrond pulled himself up to the next foothold, “Hand that thing up to me when I reach the ledge above.”

 

It took them longer than they expected to make it to the lip of the grotto.  Lugging along a struggling burlap sack had not made the task any easier.

 

Elrond knelt on the edge and pulled Aragorn up.  The ranger lay down in the long waving grasses on his stomach and just rested for a moment.  Elrond sat down next to him with a heavy sigh, his hand resting lightly on the human’s back between his shoulders.

 

“Let’s not do that again shall we?” Aragorn muttered from his prone position.

 

“Are you hurt my son?”  Elrond questioned, “That was quite a fall you took.”

 

Aragorn didn’t move.  In all truth he wasn’t sure he was all right.  With all the fighting and in the attempt to escape as quickly as possible he hadn’t allowed the minor aches and pains to even touch his mind, but now...

 

Breathing in a deep sigh the ranger turned slowly over onto his back and stared up into the blue eyes of his father.  A small smile tugged at his lips. 

 

“Well?”  Elrond couldn’t help the slight worry that tinged his question.

 

With a quiet laugh Estel closed his eyes and relaxed, “I think tomorrow I may ache... quite a bit, but right now I am fine.”  He turned to look over his shoulder, pulling at the tattered edges of his shirt and gingerly fingered the cuts in his shoulder that one of the lhygians had inflicted.  The deep scratches stung a bit.  “Well, maybe just a scratch.” He mumbled under his breath, half grinning at the irony of what had now become a much-used phrase as well as a joke between he and Legolas... Legolas.  Aragorn’s mind once again re-focused on his friend with worried urgency. 

 

When Elrond simply continued to stare at the young human, Aragorn pressed himself up on his elbows and met the stern stare, “Father, I am fine.  Or at least, I will be.  Nothing life threatening, I promise.”  He stressed each syllable as the smile that crossed his face even wider.  Was he forever going to be having this conversation with his father?  Or come to that, *any* elf he traveled with?  The bag near his hip thrashed wildly and the ranger flinched, scooting away from the trapped lhyguan. “Besides it is Legolas who needs our help now.”

 

“I will want to see to those cuts on your back before the day is through.”  The older elf stared hard into the smiling eyes of his youngest son.  “We don’t need any more surprises.”

 

With a slight nod, Estel resisted the urge to roll his eyes, “Yes, father.”

 

Reaching out, the ranger grabbed the tied off top of the sack and stood slowly to his feet, holding the bag away from his body until the reptile calmed down.  Moving quickly he grasped the lizard behind the head, holding the thick neck in one hand and tucked the lhyguan, bag and all under his arm, pinning the reptile against him.  His shoulder ached but he ignored the pain.  A loud hiss answered the imprisonment, but the animal stopped moving.

 

“How sure are you that you can re-create an antidote?”  He asked his elven father once more, just to settle the fears that nipped at his consciousness. 

 

Elrond stood to his feet, retrieving Aragorn’s overcoat and his own cloak from where they lay on the ground.

 

“Very sure Estel.”  The elf lord replied patiently once more as he beat the cloth against his leg before securing his cloak quickly around his neck, “But if what Éomund said is true, about the ferocity and toxicity of the poison, then we best return with all haste.  I will need every moment we can spare to create a new antidote.”

 

With a curt nod Aragorn paced his father as they ran back to Émuseld.  The danger of the lhyguan grotto fell away with every step as they headed back and the dread of Legolas’ future began to weigh heavy on his mind once more.

 

 

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

 

 

When they reached the ranch house, Aragorn passed the captured lhyguan off to his father who headed immediately for the kitchen area of the living quarters, calling out to one of the soldiers to follow him and bring the elf lord’s knapsack with him.  The human however moved quickly to the back of the house, seeking out the room where he had left Legolas.

 

Aragorn heard his father’s voice behind him as he walked swiftly away, “Estel, I may need your help before this over.”

 

“Yes, father.”  The young human replied quietly, knowing full well the elf had heard him, but intent on seeing to the welfare of his friend.

 

Helm met him in the hallway and the grim countenance of the soldier’s face sent icy shockwaves through Aragorn’s heart.

 

The soldier saw the look on the other man’s face change as Aragorn quickly tried to push by him and he caught the Dùnadan’s shoulders, stopping him.  “Thorongil, wait,” he bid him quietly. 

 

Aragorn paused and looked into the Rohirrim’s eyes, fearing what he would find.  “Is... is he...”

 

“No,” the horse soldier shook his head quickly.  “He still lives, but... I am not sure for how long.  Thorongil listen to me!” Helm was insistent as he caught and held the younger man’s arm when Aragorn tried to push past him again after hearing those dreadful words. 

 

“I have seen cases of lhyguan poisoning before,” Helm kept his voice low so the conversation was just between he and Aragorn.  “And I have never seen anyone fail quite this fast.  I don’t understand it. I have said nothing to him about this... sometimes hope is the best medicine one can offer.  I’m sorry to have to tell you, but you seem to be close to him and I thought someone should know.  I’m sorry.” The soldier’s manner was gruff and yet his eyes showed compassion. 

 

“I put salve on his wounds to close them, they aren’t bleeding anymore and he’s still conscious, but he is not doing well.  And... and I wanted to warn you.  Sometimes in the late stages of its progression this venom renders the victim unable to speak or respond, but they’re still in there.  If,” Helm looked gently into the hurting eyes of the younger man.  “If that happens... it means his time is almost up, but... just talk to him.  Just be there with him so he knows he’s not alone.  Sometimes that’s the last gift we can give them.”  Helm’s voice was quiet and his eyes spoke of much hard-earned and hard-learned experience.  He had seen many men die, on the battlefield and off it.  He knew of what he spoke.

 

Aragorn swallowed raggedly around the choking obstruction that was beginning to constrict his throat, unable to respond.  Helm seemed to understand and just released the ranger’s arm, inclining his head towards the bedroom. 

 

Aragorn nodded numbly and quickly entered the room.  Legolas was lying still on the bed.  His face and his hands, folded on his chest, were almost as pale as the bed coverings.  For half an instant Aragorn’s heart stopped beating.  Then the elf’s eyes fluttered open, having heard the familiar footsteps.

 

“Estel?” Legolas said somewhat blearily.  Blinking the young man into focus the elf graced his friend with a weary, rueful smile.  “Sorry, Thorongil I mean,” the elf’s voice was hoarse and faint, but still managed to carry humor in it.  “And you were worried about *you* remembering what you’re going by today,” the elf murmured.  “I do hope you realize what a terrible bother it is for your friends...” the elf broke off, coughing into his hand, his breathing wheezing a little as he pressed his head back against the pillows, closing his eyes for a moment.

 

When he opened them again Aragorn was sitting on the side of the bed and holding his hand gently, pressing the back of his other hand to Legolas’ burning forehead.  The young man’s eyes betrayed his heart-rending concern although he was trying to hide it from his friend.

 

“We captured one of the creatures, father’s working on the antidote right now.  How are you feeling Legolas?”

 

Legolas smiled, tightening his fingers around his friend’s where they lay clasped against his chest.  “That my friend, would qualify as one of those stupid questions people ask when they do not know what to say,” he said with a small chuckle.  “I *feel* miserable.”

 

Aragorn allowed himself to laugh, although it stuck a little in his throat as he brushed the elf’s damp hair back from his face. 

 

Legolas sighed.  “What is it now?  You are terrible at hiding things from me you know and I’m too tired to guess, so you had better just tell me.”

 

Aragorn didn’t answer right away and Legolas’ fever-bright eyes narrowed.  “It’s Helm isn’t it?  He said something to you.  He’s a good man Est - Thorongil, but he worries too much... I’m going to be fine.” The prince assured with confidence, although Aragorn could feel the elf’s body trembling under his hand as if the prince was very cold.  “With two such remarkable healers as you and Lord Elrond here, how could I not be?” Legolas grinned, trying to get his friend to smile back. 

 

Aragorn did, clasping the elf’s hot fingers and brining them up to his lips in a gentle kiss.  “Of course you will be mellon-nín.”

 

Legolas started coughing again, the spasms nearly seeming to cut off his airway all together.  Alarmed, Aragorn quickly helped his friend sit up, wrapping his arm around Legolas’ shoulders and holding him as the wracking coughs shook the elf’s slender frame.  In a momentary lull Legolas let his head fall back to rest lightly against Aragorn’s shoulder. 

 

“This is more or less where we started, isn’t it, dear friend?” the elf rasped softly between wheezing breaths.  He could tell his body was failing, not matter what he tried to pretend for Aragorn.  “You remember?  The poisoned trap, in Mirkwood...” Another choking cough.  “We didn’t trust you then... I didn’t... I’m sorry.  I feel as if that were a lifetime ago somehow, in another world...” Legolas let his fingers drift weakly up to touch Aragorn’s arm as he turned around, seeking the ranger’s eyes. 

 

Aragorn barely remembered the incident at this moment, but it came back when the prince mentioned it.  The human shook his head, trying to silence the elf.  “Shh, save your strength Legolas, it’s all right.”

 

“Maybe...” Legolas leaned away a little, concentrating on breathing as he tried to force air into his sluggish lungs.  “But... Estel?  I wanted you to know... If... If I...” the prince trailed off and did not finish.  “I’m glad our differences did not keep us apart,” he said instead, with a small smile.  “Or we would have missed discovering how much we had in common.”

 

“I am glad too Legolas.”  Aragorn had to look away and blink a few times before he was safe to meet his friend’s eyes again, but the prince’s eyelids were closed now and he seemed to be struggling.  Another coughing fit seized the prince and this time it did not ease. 

 

Each convulsion left the elf gasping and reeling for air as the toxins in his blood swelled his airways closed more and more.  The coughing gave way to rapid, shallow wheezing and Legolas’ hand tightened in Aragorn’s sleeve, balling desperately as the elf slumped forward, fighting to draw air into his lungs. 

 

Frightened, Aragorn scooted further onto the bed, pulling Legolas back against his chest and putting his hand on the elf’s heaving diaphragm. 

 

The prince’s body was tense, scared and spasming.  Legolas’ crystal blue eyes were wide with the desperate struggle for oxygen and the fear only made his aching lungs and airways tenser.  This had been happening more and more frequently as the poison progressed, but this was the first time it had actually stopped his breathing altogether.

 

“Shhh, breathe deep Legolas, slowly, slowly...” Aragorn pushed his own fear aside so that his body would be a calming presence for his friend.  Taking slow, deep breaths himself he held Legolas back against his chest so that the elf could feel the steady rise and fall.  “Don’t be afraid, breathe with me, come on Legolas, breathe with me, slowly...”

 

Legolas gasped desperately.  He could breathe out, but no air seemed to come in to replace it, leaving a vacuum in his lungs that made bright flashes dance before his eyes.  He felt Aragorn’s warm, calming presence surround him, willing him to breathe, willing air to return to his lungs.  He felt the human’s chest rise and fall at his back and tried to match his own, frantic gasps to that rhythm. 

 

“In and out Legolas,” Aragorn soothed softly, whispering into his friend’s ear as his hand pressed encouragingly against the elf’s chest, rubbing soft circles in sync with his breathing.  “In... and out... and in...” he was relieved to feel the elf’s body beginning to respond and risked breaking his concentration away for a moment. 

 

“ADA!” he called urgently, lifting his head and turning away so he wasn’t shouting in Legolas’ ear.  “Lord Elrond!” he quickly corrected himself, although it didn’t matter since Helm was the only one to hear them and he wouldn’t know what the elvish word meant. 

 

Elrond came quickly when he heard the alarmed tone in his son’s voice and he saw the two friends on the bed.  The elf prince’s lips were tinged blue but his breathing was beginning to slow and gradually match itself to the deep, relaxed pace of the Dùnadan behind him. 

 

“He can’t breathe,” Aragorn informed quickly, although Elrond had already guessed the trouble. 

 

Checking the prince’s pulse the elf lord found that Legolas’ heart was racing erratically.  Gently Elrond laid his hand on the younger elf’s chest, above Aragorn’s, willing the swelling airways to open. 

 

Slowly the gasping wheezes became steadier and more regular as Legolas felt air beginning to seep back into his tortured lungs. 

 

When Legolas was finally breathing on his own again, Elrond straightened up.  Aragorn kept holding him just in case however and the elf prince slumped limply back against his shoulder, exhausted.  Perspiration soaked the elf’s light tunic and clung to his clammy brow.  Aragorn felt Legolas’ weak breaths stir his hair and his heart ached, he hated to see his friend like this. 

 

“Well that was fun...” Legolas muttered weakly with an apologetic smile as he turned his head towards Aragorn.

 

“You have an odd idea of fun my friend,” Aragorn shook his head with a small, encouraging smile. 

 

“And *you* have an odd idea of staying out of trouble,” the elf observed, glancing meaningfully at the torn shirt and deep red scratches across Aragorn’s other shoulder which the prince could see clearly now. 

 

Aragorn chuckled softly and shifted Legolas a little.  “Are you feeling good enough to lie down again?  I’ll be right back.”

 

Legolas nodded and Aragorn scooted around, letting the prince ease back against the pillows. 

 

Touching Elrond’s arm lightly Aragorn questioned, “Do you need any help with the lhyguan?”

 

Elrond could tell that the human wanted to talk to him alone, out of Legolas’ earshot.  The elf lord nodded.  “Helm is helping me but he’s a little... leery about holding the creature still while I get the sample I need.”

 

Aragorn followed the elf lord back towards the kitchen, pausing for a moment in the doorway and fixing Legolas with a concerned look.  “You will be all right for a few moments, won’t you?”

 

Legolas rolled his eyes and waved his hand, gesturing for the ranger to leave.  “Go!  You know I hate it when you hover.”

 

Aragorn shook his head and quickly caught up with his father. 

 

“It’s progressing much faster than it should,” Elrond spared Aragorn from having to explain his worries once they were in the kitchen again, but he kept his voice low to avoid Legolas’ elvish hearing. 

 

Aragorn nodded, worry etched into his face.  “Helm said...”

 

“I know,” Elrond nodded, his deep eyes grave.  “He told me the same and I could feel as much in the prince’s body.  Aragorn, I cannot be sure, but it is my guess that this poison affects elves more seriously than it does humans.  Much more seriously.  I fear we do not have as much time as we thought.”

 

Aragorn nodded, blinking rapidly to keep the sting behind his eyes contained.  Somehow hearing his own fears confirmed from his father’s mouth brought it home even more painfully. 

 

“Estel,” Elrond whispered quietly, catching the young man’s shoulder.  “Do not despair.  It just means that I will have to work twice as fast to get the antidote ready.  Now help me with our scaly friend here...” the elf lord led Aragorn towards the table where the captive lhyguan was still thrashing around in its sack.  It had nearly eaten through one end and it was high time to do something with it. 

 

With Aragorn and Helm’s help Elrond was able to get a sample of the creature’s venom before it was quickly placed in a new sack.  The Rohirrim was for killing it, but Elrond’s say on the matter prevailed and instead Helm reluctantly agreed to take it back up into the hills a ways and release it. 

 

Aragorn was chafing to get back to Legolas, and Elrond wasn’t sure how wise it was to leave him alone either, so after the elf lord had collected the various things he needed, both of them returned to the bedroom.  To be successful in recreating the AntiVen in the ever-shrinking amount of time they had left Elrond would need Legolas’ input.  

 

Legolas’ weary eyes raised to greet them, but he did not speak.  He was feeling too tired... much too tired...

 

He answered Elrond’s questions about the flavor, consistency and size of the dosage he had been on, but even that seemed to weary the weak elf and as Elrond put his full focus on the mixture he was creating in a small bowl on Freca’s night-table, silence fell over the room. 

 

Aragorn was sitting next to Legolas on the bed once more, when the prince tugged softly on his sleeve.  “I don’t... feel well...” the elf murmured, his face creased in pain as he rolled onto his side, clutching his stomach. 

 

It took a moment, but when Aragorn realized what his friend meant he hurriedly retrieved a large kettle from the kitchen since Legolas was too weak to get out of the bed.  Helping the elf sit up and holding his shoulders supportively as the prince curled over the kettle Aragorn gently rubbed Legolas’ back as the elf retched, involuntarily loosing the contents of his stomach.  The prince’s tentative breathing hitched and choked, not helped at all by the nauseous spasm of his stomach. 

 

If he had been feeling better Legolas would have been embarrassed by the loss of control over his body that he was experiencing, but as it was his head hurt too violently and he was too ill to feel much of anything else. 

 

Aragorn cared for his friend with great tenderness, holding Legolas until he was done and then helping him lay back down again, bringing a cool drink of water to wash his mouth with and a damp cloth to lay against his hot forehead. 

 

Legolas gazed up at the ranger with a small, grateful smile.  “Is this what it is like to be sick?” he murmured hoarsely, remembering when Aragorn had been ill some time ago and he had very naïvely wondered what it felt like.  The elf chuckled wryly.  “I don’t know how you humans survive...”

 

Aragorn smiled, dabbing his friend’s face with the cooling cloth.  “Yes, this is what it feels like to be sick.  Welcome to the wonderful world of being mortal.”

 

Legolas moaned slightly.  “I’d like to leave again thank you.”

 

Aragorn laughed.  “Soon my friend, soon...”

 

Silence stretched between them for a few moments, and Legolas shifted his position feverishly.  He’d rather talk to Aragorn then just lay here and hurt with no distraction, but he was too weak to do much talking himself.  Instead he asked a question. 

 

“What was it like?”

 

“What was what like?” Aragorn didn’t understand. 

 

“The mirror... what was it like when you looked in the fabled mirror of the Lady of the Golden Wood?” Legolas made his question clearer.  “I have heard stories about it, but half thought it to be a fable.  I have been wanting to ask you since you told me.”

 

Aragorn realized that Legolas needed distraction from his pain and was only too glad to help in any way he could.  “Well, it was like nothing I have ever experienced before.  I saw so many things... I don’t think I was even consciously aware of everything I saw.  Some things it was more as if I felt them than saw them, and some things were very clear...” Aragorn intentionally did not talk about what he had seen concerning Legolas, because as he sat here holding his friend’s hand those horrifying memories simply hurt too much. 

 

“I saw a lot of things I didn’t understand, and some that seemed to come out of stories of long ago.  I also saw myself and my brothers when I was younger and some things that I hope were only fantasy, and not the future, such as Rivendell surrounded by enemies, awash in a dark sea of orcs...”

 

“That was no fantasy at least,” Elrond put in quietly from the corner of the room he was working in.  “Nor was it the future.  That was the past you saw.  The long distant past... before either of you were born.  Before the fall of Sauron.”

 

“Really? I never realized they were that close,” Aragorn shuddered slightly. 

 

Legolas watched with sleepy contentment.  He liked listening to Aragorn and Elrond talk.  It eased his headache even if his weary mind could hardly follow what they said. 

 

“They were,” Elrond nodded as he carefully measured out a spoonful of amber liquid from a little vial he had taken out of Freca’s supply cabinets.  The horse breaker had had quite a store of herbs and medicines on hand, and the elf lord didn’t have too much trouble guessing what they were, either by sight, taste or smell. 

 

“It was a war that we in the west nearly lost.  Rivendell held out a long time, but we could not have lasted forever.  Mithlond, the Grey Havens were about to fall, although Gil-Galad and all that were left of his folk defended them with their lives.  Sauron almost had the mastery he desired.  It was the Númenoreans, your ancestors my son, who turned the tide.  They sailed into the Mithlond from Númenor in their tall ships and drove the forces of Sauron back before them like chattel.”

 

The soft, quick smile that Elrond graced his youngest son with seemed a wish to remind Aragorn that there was much good and bravery in his heritage, as well as the weakness that he knew the young man feared. 

 

Legolas’ eyelids felt heavy.  “I learn something new whenever I am with you both...” he murmured.  “They never told those stories in my home.”

 

“I fear young Greenleaf that your father was not over-fond of men and so it does not much surprise me that tales of them did not take a large place in your upbringing.  No more than you probably heard of the courage of Durin and how he and his fellow dwarves were the only thing that saved my warriors and I when we were overcome by orcs near the Mines of Moria during that same war.”  Elrond said with a small smile. 

 

“Dwarves?” Legolas cocked an eyebrow slightly.  “No, I don’t think you’d ever hear my father or anyone in his earshot who had any sense say a good word about them.  But at least some things have changed...” Legolas squeezed Aragorn’s hand weakly, pulling it up to rest on his chest. 

 

For the first time he noticed the fading blisters on the fingers of Aragorn’s left hand.  The prince’s brow creased in foggy concern.  “Don’t tell me those creatures burned you as well as scratched you.”

 

“No,” Aragorn shook his head with a rueful grin.  “That... well, it seems that Galadriel’s mirror does not like to be disturbed,” he said very quickly, knowing what the elf would say.

 

Legolas actually smiled full-out.  “You touched it didn’t you?  I *swear* Aragorn you touch *everything*!”

 

“You know he’s been like that since he was a child,” Elrond put in helpfully, glad for anything that made the elf prince smile.

 

“Go ahead and laugh,” Aragorn muttered good-naturedly.  “Both of you.  But if it weren’t for my insistence we wouldn’t be here now.”

 

“And I’m glad you’re here Estel,” Legolas whispered quietly, his eyes beginning to glaze.  “Whatever happens...” he coughed slightly and shifted his position.  “I’m glad you’re here.”

 

Then the prince seemed to drift away and his eyes unfocused, staring into space.  His hand slid limply out of Aragorn’s and fell back to his side. 

 

A nearly paralyzing zing of terror shot through Aragorn’s heart as he groped after the prince’s limp hand with fingers that had been burned in the same attempt not so long ago.  But this was no vision now, it was real.  Horribly so. 

 

“Legolas?  Legolas!” the ranger cried his friend’s name as he clasped the slender, lifeless fingers to his heart, but the elf did not respond. 

 

 

___________________________________________________________

 

~*PART TEN*~

 

 

 

Elrond looked up from his work sharply when he heard Aragorn’s cry, glancing back towards the bed in time to see his adopted son desperately checking the prince’s pulse. 

 

Legolas was still alive, but no longer responsive and Aragorn feared that it was as Helm had said and his friend had slipped into the last stages of his deadly illness. 

 

“Ada...” Aragorn turned pain-filled eyes on Elrond. 

 

The elf lord’s hand were moving furiously quick over his work as he dumped one vial and re-filled another, smelling the results and trying to judge how the potion he was working on was coming along.  “Talk to him Estel, stay with him.  I believe I almost have it.”  His compassionate tone was not distracted by his work.

 

Aragorn did as he was told, talking softly to Legolas and stroking his friend’s hand.  Hoping that Legolas knew he was there.  It was all he could do.  If you asked him about it later, Aragorn would not have been able to tell you what he said to the unresponsive elf, because the feverish eternity seemed unclear and clouded in his memories by the anxiety that was ripping his heart out. 

 

The next clear thing that he remembered was Elrond sitting down on the bed next to him, holding a mug full of amber liquid.  The elf lord’s face was concerned and drawn.  He had had to work a lot faster than he liked and could only hope and pray that this was indeed the right mixture. 

 

“I’ve doubled the dose to give him a bit of a head-start,” Elrond told Aragorn quietly as the ranger propped Legolas upright so that they could gently administer the life-saving anti-venom. 

 

For what seemed an age they waited and hoped, Aragorn sitting by his friend’s side, Elrond monitoring the younger elf’s condition with his hand upon the prince’s head. 

 

Then Elrond’s tense posture loosened somewhat.  “He’s going to be all right Estel,” he whispered with quiet relief.  “His temperature is going down, his breathing is easing.  He’s going to be all right, he’s just sleeping now, and that is well, he needs his rest.”

 

Aragorn let his breath out and slumped back against the bedpost behind him.  He was so relieved he felt dizzy.  “But he’s going to live?”

 

“Yes my son,” Elrond gently touched the side of the man’s face.  “He is going to live, thanks to you and your determination.”

 

“Just so he’ll live,” Aragorn slowly felt himself truly letting go of the horror that had gripped him ever since he first started having nightmares so many weeks ago now. 

 

Outside they heard the clatter of hooves and a horn blowing.  Elrond stood up and looked towards the sound.  “I would say that young Éomund is returning,” he said, heading out the hallway door and towards the front of the house.  Aragorn followed, finally feeling free to leave his friend’s side now that he knew the elf was just resting.

 

Helm was already outside as Éomund and the Rohirrim pulled up.  The Third Marshal of the Riddermark dismounted as soon as his horse cantered to a stop, calling orders to several of his men. 

 

Aragorn scanned the ranks of horsemen.  They were only a fraction of the host that had set out earlier and he feared the worst.   “Éomund, what happened?”

 

The young Marshal of the Mark shook his head, guessing what the other was thinking.  “All is well Thorongil.  Your directions were true we caught up with the thieves not many leagues from here.  They put up quite a fight and many of them are dead, our own losses were small.  The rest of my men have taken the prisoners and the horses back towards Kurnwait.  We have had word that Prince Théoden and his riders are near and have sent messages to them.  The prisoners must be taken back to Edoras for sentencing by King Thengel.  Understand that even aside from the murder of the men here, horse stealing in the lands of the Mark warrants death.”

 

Aragorn nodded, but he could tell that something still bothered the young Marshal and the fact that several of the Rohirrim were busily scattering into the nearby hills confirmed his suspicions. 

 

“What are you looking for?” the ranger queried.

 

Éomund smiled dryly.  “You are quite observant Thorongil.  The brigands’ leader got away during the fray.”

 

“Scatha?” Elrond, quiet until now, put in the name that Legolas had given them last night. 

 

“Is that his name?  I know not,” Éomund shook his head.  “He was last seen fleeing back this way but the trail has been lost.  Perhaps you would like to have a look Thorongil?” he added as an afterthought.  “As I told you earlier, we lost our tracker some time ago.”

 

Aragorn nodded easily, following the young Rohirrim up the hill and away from the house.  “I’ll have a look if you like.”

 

 

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

 

 

Legolas tossed lightly in a fitful sleep.  His fever was leaving, but he still felt ill and weak.  Locked in his uneasy dreams he did not hear the back door of the bedroom being opened, nor the soft, limping footsteps that echoed on the wooden floor. 

 

Dark, surprised eyes saw the injured elf lying on the bed and a deep frown creased the man’s features. 

 

Scatha scowled darkly.  He had lost everything, including almost his life as the quickly tied-off gash to his leg attested.  He could not get far in his condition and the course of his flight had brought him back to Émuseld.  He had hoped that the Rohirrim would not think to return here looking for him, but he had not counted on there still being anyone here.  He could not run, so his only hope was to hide in the house and wait it out.  The Rohirrim had already been over this area, they would not think they needed to search it again...

 

Finding the elf however, surprised him.  He had never expected to see this one alive and it ruined his plans yet again.  If this one were here, then there would inevitably be more people coming back into the house.  He could never hope to hide from all of them.  Outside he could hear the Rohirrim talking and calling to one another.  They were looking for him.  He was trapped here; there was no way to escape. 

 

The ringleader’s fingers tightened around the hilt of the dagger on his belt as he slowly and quietly drew it out, careful to not let the metal scrape against the scabbard.  At least he would not die alone or without revenge for his losses.  This blasted elf had caused him enough trouble.  If he could not escape, he would at least take some of the joy out of his conqueror’s victory.

 

Lifting the knife he placed it against Legolas’ neck.  “Wake up little elf,” he hissed mockingly through his teeth, into the prince’s ear.  He wanted the elf to know who it was that took his life.  “Wake up one more time.”

 

 

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

 

 

Éomund fell back, letting Aragorn take the lead as the ranger walked swiftly up the incline towards the hills that bordered the back edge of Émuseld.  The flat grasses betrayed nothing to the young Rohirrim and little even to the elf lord who followed quietly in the rear.  However, Aragorn’s keen eyes could distinguish many different tracks running hither; unfortunately they were a confused jumble, some old, some probably from last night and some that could even have been made by other Rohirrim. 

 

Aragorn didn’t really expect to find anything this close to Émuseld, he imagined that they would have to get quite a bit further back towards the area where the horse soldiers had lost Scatha before he would find anything useful.  Therefore his long strides ate up the distance quickly as he headed for the canyons in the direction that he, Elrond and Legolas had come from just this morning.  It seemed like an eternity ago.

 

Suddenly the ranger stopped and dropped to a crouch to look at the ground, something catching his attention.  A small, dark patch stained the grass.  It was so small it almost escaped his notice, but something had called his attention to it.  Dabbing up a sample of what the ranger knew already was blood, Aragorn rubbed it between his fingers and sniffed it, his brow creasing in thought. 

 

Éomund stopped behind him, gazing curiously over the older man’s shoulder.  “What is it?”

 

“Blood,” Aragorn said slowly, his mind working over the puzzle swiftly.  “Human blood.  But it is fresh, not old.  It could not have been left here more than four hours ago... I would even say much less than that if I were to guess.  “Are any of your men injured Éomund?”

 

The young captain shook his head.  “Nay, any that were wounded went to Kurnwait with Folcwine, my second-in-command.  You’re sure it’s not from last night?  Or could it be your friend’s, or a horses’?  Many of the horses we rescued were injured in grievous manner,” Éomund’s eyes flashed angrily at the memory. 

 

“It is not from last night, and it is neither the blood of an elf nor a horse...” Aragorn’s eyes were quickly scanning the plain around them.  This seemed to him suddenly very important although he wasn’t quite sure how it fit together yet.  Looking closer he began to see the trail in the grassy plain which before was hidden by all the others that crossed it.  Yet this one seemed the most recent, and lay on top of the other trails. 

 

“Someone passed this way quite recently... they were limping, the impressions are uneven, you see?” Aragorn’s eyes narrowed as his attention honed in on this new information.  “I’d guess that his leg was injured, that’s probably where the blood came from...”

 

Éomund couldn’t begin to see what had so caught Thorongil’s attention, it all simply looked like trampled grass to him, but he trusted the young man’s word and his face darkened slightly in shock.  “Right leg or left leg?” he questioned, his voice suddenly serious. 

 

“Left,” Aragorn looked up, quickly seeing the change that had come over the other man.  “Why?”

 

“The one you call Scatha, he was injured thus.  I know, I dealt him the wound myself and would have killed him if fortune had not taken away the opportunity,” the marshal said darkly.  “But how could he have gotten back here so quickly...?”

 

“It seems that those men know these hills much better than most,” Elrond commented, his own face marred by a concerned warning in his heart that he could not yet understand.  “It is possible that he knows of ways you and your men do not Captain Éomund.”

 

Aragorn’s attention was still on the ground.  “Lord Elrond is right, these tracks seem to come from beyond that rock outcropping up yonder,” he gestured ahead of them, up the hill.  Turning he traced them in the other direction.  “And they lead...” his voice trailed off as his heart leapt up into his throat.  For half an instant Elrond caught a glimpse of the alarmed look in his son’s eyes and knew the dreadful answer before it was spoken. 

 

“They lead back down to the house!”  Aragorn was already running back down the hill as he said it.  Clearly mapped out before him by his keen skills, the ranger could see the erratic trail of footsteps lead right up to the back door of the very bedroom where he had left Legolas, asleep, weak and helpless, not long before. 

 

Elrond and Éomund were right behind the ranger, although Éomund did not yet fully understand their heart-stopping concern. 

 

Aragorn didn’t think he had ever run so fast in his life.  This couldn’t be happening, Legolas was supposed to be safe now!  Twice, *twice* already he had almost lost the elf... and now by a bizarre twist it all could have been in vain.  This couldn’t be happening.  His heart was pounding in his ears and all he could think of was every horrible story that he had ever heard about people who tried to cheat fate only to find out that no matter what happened, the future could not be changed.  He couldn’t believe that.  He couldn’t believe that Legolas was simply *meant* to die no matter how hard they tried to stop it.  He wouldn’t!

 

 

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

 

 

Legolas’ eyes opened slowly.  His eyes ached and it reminded him of the first time he had woken up in this same bed, feeling this miserable.  However whether because the poison had been near the end of its life cycle, or because the anti-venom that Lord Elrond created was more effective than the one that the breakers had used, he didn’t feel quite as badly as he had that first time, after Fastred and Léod had first brought him to Émuseld.

 

His sleep had been restless and filled with strange, discomforting dreams.  Suddenly the prince’s weakened body jerked slightly as he came to his senses, passing from one nightmare to another as he found himself staring directly into Scatha’s dark, deadly eyes.  Legolas felt the blade pressed against his throat, between his chin and the top of the bandage that wrapped the last wound he had received from Scatha and his henchmen in such a fashion. 

 

“I wanted you to know who killed you elf,” Scatha hissed, enjoying the surprised fear that played across the weak being’s widely dilated eyes.  His hand on the knife hilt tensed and plunged downward.

 

 

 

___________________________________________________________

 

~*PART ELEVEN*~

 

 

 

The elf’s body was still critically wearied.  He couldn’t grasp what was happening; to Legolas it seemed like some kind of horrible extension of the nightmare he had already been having, a replay of yesterday, unreal.  Reacting to the perceived dream with elven reflexes, despite his weakened state, Legolas rolled quickly towards Scatha, sliding out from under the knife.  The sharp blade bit down quickly, cutting only the bandages that were already around the elf’s neck before sinking deeply into the mattress, driven by Scatha’s ruthless plunge. 

 

Tumbling off the bed and half into his assailant, Legolas landed hard against the human’s injured leg, sending them both sprawling on the floor in a tangle of bedclothes.

 

Caught up in the jumble of sheets and blankets with legs that were too weak to support him, Legolas experienced that horrible dream-like sensation of knowing that something terrible was coming to get you and being unable to move any faster than a pathetic crawl.  It didn’t even occur to the prince to call out for help because at this point he honestly thought he was still caught in his nightmares.  And in his nightmares he could never scream.

 

Scatha pounced on the elf with the determination of a man who has nothing left to live for but one last act of vengeance.  

 

Legolas rolled away just in time and the knife barely grazed his arm.  Scooting backwards on his elbows as the world spun around him, Legolas bumped into the night table in the corner of the room, causing the used vials, mugs and bowls that Elrond had left atop it earlier to rattle and wobble.  The sharp flash of pain across his arm brought the elf out of his daze as the realization burned itself upon his mind that this was no dream.  Somehow it was very real.

 

Scatha lunged after him, knife in hand, but his own injured leg was slowing him down as he extracted himself from the bedclothes tangle.  Crashing into Legolas in his wild, ungraceful rush the human knocked the prince back against the table leg behind him, causing the table to tumble over on top of them, sending the items atop it flying everywhere. 

 

A large ceramic mug hit the hard wood floor close to Scatha’s head; smashing into a million pieces and making the thief pull back as it sprayed them both with biting, broken shards.  At the same moment Legolas, half underneath the human, grabbed the man’s knife hand and tried to wrench the dagger out of Scatha’s grip.  Not about to let that happen, the horse thief rolled violently towards the elf, throwing his weight onto the wounded being beneath him, attempting to drive the blade downward between them and impale Legolas through the heart...

 

Only the blade was no longer turned downward.

 

The backdoor of the bedroom flew open with a bang.  Aragorn entered first with Elrond and Éomund on his heels. 

 

A saucer spun agitatedly on its rims as it settled onto the ground near the recently over-turned table.  For an instant Aragorn’s eyes searched the torn-up room, passing quickly from the empty, slashed bed to the tangle of sheets and bodies on the floor. 

 

For an instant the ranger’s heart stopped beating.  Neither Legolas nor Scatha were moving and the white sheet tangled near them was quickly turning a very dark red. 

 

Then Scatha fell back slightly, his eyes glazed, his own dagger protruding from his chest.  He laughed mirthlessly.  “I guess it was by your hand after all elf...”

 

He was dead before his head hit the floorboards. 

 

Legolas was shaking; his hands covered with the human’s blood as he released the knife handle and let Scatha fall away from him.  Freca, Fastred and Léod were avenged then.  This man would steal no more lives. 

 

Aragorn knelt quickly by Legolas’ side as Éomund stooped to check on Scatha and make sure he was really dead.  Elrond picked through the contents of the dumped table, finding the large drinking horn he had filled with the newly mixed AntiVen and making sure that it was still intact.  He could recreate the potion easy enough now, but some of the supplies had been spilt or destroyed in this fight and it would take a little time to find more.  Fortunately the AntiVen he had already made would be enough to see Legolas through the remainder of his illness. 

 

Aragorn squeezed Legolas’ shoulders gently, relieved to see that his friend was unhurt save for a minor cut to his arm.  Pressing his forehead against the side of the elf’s head, Aragorn let his breath out slowly, unable to hide the fact that he was trembling as well. 

 

Legolas leaned sideways against the ranger, feeling totally run-out now that the adrenaline had left his system.  “I thought I was dreaming...” he murmured as Aragorn and Elrond helped him back to the bed.  Éomund went to fetch Helm and another soldier to deal with Scatha’s body once he saw that the elf was all right. 

 

“And I thought I had nearly lost you in spite of everything,” Aragorn whispered back as Elrond easily cleaned and bandaged the elf prince’s latest cut. 

 

Legolas shook his head, finally beginning to come out of his daze a little.  “No *Thorongil*,” the elf stressed the ranger’s new name with a small smile.  “You won’t get rid of me that easily my friend.”

 

“Heaven help us all,” Elrond muttered good-naturedly.  “You know when I said that I wanted to see how you two got into so much trouble, I should have known to be careful what I wished for.  If I had any sense I’d lock you both up in Rivendell and never let you go anywhere again.”

 

Aragorn laughed and shook his head.   

 

“Believe me, right now, that doesn’t sound like such a bad idea,” Legolas said with a rueful chuckle.  “I feel like I could sleep for a week.”

 

 

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

 

 

Elrond stayed on in Rohan until Legolas had completed his course of treatment.  Before he rode back to Lórien, he taught Aragorn how to make the anti-venom and bid him share it with the Rohirrim and the neighboring villages. 

 

“But father, why don’t you...” Aragorn started to protest, knowing that the people would hail him as some kind of hero for the life saving secret and he did not feel that that was his right to claim.  Besides, being a public figure was not something the ranger was comfortable with, he far preferred to remain behind the scenes. 

 

Elrond shook his head.  “Estel... they will accept it better from you than from me.  Trust me my son,” he whispered softly.  “If they get it into their heads that it is ‘elf magic’ of some kind and not merely a remedy, it will cause more harm than good.  For them Aragorn, share it for their sake.”

 

The ranger nodded, bidding his elven father one more farewell as Elrond mounted up on Kynter, whom Legolas had more than readily given him permission to use, and rode northward once more. 

 

Aragorn ended up entrusting the knowledge of how to make the AntiVen to Éomund and his men who spread it throughout the countryside.  They wanted the ranger to come with them now that his ‘contract’ with the elf lord seemed to be over, but Aragorn was unwilling to leave until Legolas was fully recovered.  Éomund did not give up easily and vowed he would come back at that time and see if the northerner had changed his mind about joining them or not.  Trackers with Thorongil’s skill were hard to come by, and the young Marshal of the Mark liked the older man, even if he was not a native of that land.  

 

Legolas remained in Émuseld some time longer, but it was not very long before he wearied of convalescence and desired to be active again.   He still needed to report to his father about the orcs that he and Trelan had encountered and after a fortnight he knew he could linger no longer. 

 

It was at that time that Éomund returned, true to his word.  He brought news that between the capture of the horse thieves which had been plaguing this area for far too long and the selfless distribution of the secret to making the AntiVen, King Thengel had heard much about this man named Thorongil and greatly desired for him to journey to Edoras with the Rohirrim if he was willing. 

 

Aragorn requested the night to think on it, which Éomund willingly granted. 

 

“You are still mulling over the offer to join the horse lords,” Legolas observed quietly as he sat down next to his friend by the fire. 

 

Aragorn nodded.  “There is so much that we don’t know about the world we live in... you know that Legolas?” he said thoughtfully, gazing into the sparking flames.  “You can pass through a country a dozen times and never really stop to look at it.  I want to know more about these people Legolas.  If I truly could help them, I... I want to do some good somewhere.”

 

Legolas smiled and squeezed the ranger’s arm.  “You do good everywhere you go mellon-nín,” he whispered.  “If your heart leads you to remain with these people, then I trust it is right and they will benefit from you in ways they cannot even begin to imagine.”

 

Aragorn laughed and shook his head.  “I fear you overestimate me my friend!”

 

“I do no such thing,” Legolas protested with a smile.  “I speak what I see.”  He paused, his attention turning outward.  He placed one slender finger to his lips.  “Someone approaches.”

 

It was a few moments before Aragorn could hear them as well; hoof falls.  Horses were approaching.  Two of them.  Both friends tensed, their hands going to their weapons automatically.

 

Avornwen, by now fully recovered herself, knickered softly in the darkness where she was grazing off to their right, whinnying a soft greeting.

 

There was an answering call from some distance away and Legolas smiled, rising to his feet.  “We have nothing to fear,” he shook his head and Aragorn relaxed, slowly standing next to him. 

 

A few minutes later two riders came into sight, one tall and dark, one fair and short.   

 

The smaller of the two swung off his horse almost as soon as they got within seeing distance.  “Legolas!”

 

Legolas’ grin widened.  “Trelan!  It is good to see you again my friend, I was so worried about you!” the prince clasped his friend’s arm in greeting. 

 

“Me?  I was worried about *you*!  I couldn’t find you Legolas, I lost you!” Trelan shuddered slightly, quickly banishing the frightening memories.  He shook his head, nudging the prince with an impish grin.  “Do you have *any* idea what your father would do to me if I came back without you?  Or Raniean for that matter?  I’ll tell you one thing my lord, if you were not all right I do not think I would ever have risked leaving Lórien!”

 

Legolas laughed and clapped his friend on the back.  “Well I’m not dead and you’re not in self-imposed exile, so we can ride back home and weather my father’s displeasure over our extended absence together.”

 

“Oh what fun.  You had to go and spoil a perfectly good reunion by bringing *that* up,” Trelan made a face and this time Aragorn laughed as well.

 

Lord Elrond, for he was of course the other rider, dismounted with a little more grace and decorum than his companion.  While Legolas and Trelan talked, he drew his adopted son aside. 

 

“I am returning to Rivendell Estel,” he informed quietly. 

 

Aragorn nodded slowly.  “King Thengel has requested that I go to Edoras and Éomund would have me join his company if only I agree...” Aragorn was waiting for something and even he barely knew what.

 

Elrond nodded.  Estel had much to do in the years allotted to him and he had no doubt that getting to know the ways of these people was one of them. 

 

“Then go with my blessing my son,” the elf lord smiled gently, letting his fingertips brush over the star-shaped brooch that rested against Aragorn’s chest.  “And remember what we told you the day you were given this crest.  However long you are away, your home will always be your home to return to, and our love will always be with you Estel, wherever you go.”

 

Aragorn smiled, his heart feeling very full at that moment.  Reaching out he hugged his father tightly, and Elrond wrapped his arms around his son’s shoulders.  The boy had become a man.  A man he was very proud of. 

 

Aragorn, Legolas, Elrond and Trelan settled down around the fire.  Tomorrow morning Aragorn would tell Éomund that he had decided to accept both the offer and the summons, Elrond would depart for Rivendell and Trelan and Legolas would head back to Mirkwood.  But tonight they had all the time in the world to laugh, to talk and to be together. 

 

Elrond and Trelan had brought some spiced wine out of Lothlórien, which they heated over the fire.  As Legolas poured and Aragorn passed the warm mugs of wine out, Trelan caught Aragorn’s fingers, looking at the healing scratches that covered the back of his hand, resulting from a mishap involving a thorn bush the day before. 

 

“What happened to your hand?” the small elf inquired as he accepted the cup of wine given to him. 

 

“Stuck it into a thorn bush,” Legolas promptly answered for his friend, shooting the other a devilish grin.  “Don’t you know?  Strider touches *everything*.”

 

Aragorn glared at his friend and Trelan started laughing so hard he nearly spilt his drink.

 

“I did *not* touch the bush *intentionally*!” Aragorn protested.  “As I recall I was trying to retrieve that bird that *you* shot...”

 

Legolas shrugged innocently.  “It’s not *my* fault it fell into a pricker bush...”

 

“Oh no, it never is, but somehow they never land there when *you’re* the one going to be doing the retrieving...” Aragorn shook his head with an amusedly accusing stare.

 

Legolas pretended to look offended. 

 

The uncommon sound of Elrond, Lord of Rivendell laughing with un-contained mirth made the bickering friends look up. 

 

“What’s so funny?” Aragorn couldn’t even muster up enough composure to look miffed at this point and his wide grin gave him away.  “I swear that he does it on purpose.”

 

Legolas whacked his friend upside the head for that, before quickly putting a dismayed Trelan between himself and the human. 

 

“You!” Elrond chuckled.  “All of you.  Life is going to be so dull without the two of you around all the time.  I don’t know what I shall do without you to create havoc at every turn!”

 

Trelan looked thoughtful.  “Get some rest perhaps?”

 

That was the last straw, and everyone dissolved into quiet, comfortable, heartfelt laughter. 

 

The stars twinkled down over their merriment and if it were possible, even they were smiling. 

 

 

 

THE END