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Escape From Mordor

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- Escape From Mordor-

By: Cassia and Siobhan

 

~*PART ONE*~

 

 

~~~~~~~~~

Somewhere in this darkness

There’s a light I cannot find,

Maybe it’s too far away...

Or maybe I’m just blind.

Maybe I’m just blind...

 

--Three Doors Down

~~~~~~~~~

 

 

Darkness.  Light.  Darkness.  Sounds.  Shapes.  Colors.  Pain. 

The world seemed two-dimensional and strange.  The only thing that was constant was the pain. 

 

A small, dark room swayed oddly.  Miserable people in chains were packed together so close one could barely breathe. 

 

Darkness...

 

Hot, scorching mid-day sun and the sneering faces of men and orcs.  Dozens of slaves were being bought and sold.  He was one of them. 

The lone elf attracted a lot of attention and the orc captain who bought him had paid a pretty price to the Corsairs who were selling. 

 

Groggy and fighting the half-drugged unconsciousness he had long been kept under, Legolas’ mind and memories were clouded and hazy at best, but some things he remembered with vivid clarity. 

 

The orcs’ hands on his arms and shoulders as they slapped him into even heavier sets of chains; their whips cruelly kissing his reeling body as they forced all their newly purchased slaves to run for hours.  Dropping in exhaustion only to be kicked and clubbed, his face was rubbed in the dirt and his parched mouth filled with choking dust. 

 

The orcs kept the elf apart from the other slaves.  He was not for the slave farms they said, not to be wasted chipping rock or working furnaces; he was theirs.  Their toy.  That’s why they bought him. 

 

Legolas’ head began to clear as the dark haze of drugged senselessness wore slowly from his body, but even as it did, he half-wished it would not.  At least when he was drugged some part of his mind could pretend that this was a nightmare only, in which he was living, and someday he would wake from it... but as clarity returned he became very aware that from this dream, there was no waking.  No hope of escape.  No hope of anything. 

 

The dark creatures often pressed their captives hard, but seemed in no great hurry themselves.  Today they had made camp at noon and did not appear interested in moving on again for reasons that the slaves could not guess and did not care about anyway.  Usually orcs traveled almost exclusively at night, but in Mordor day and night were often blended into one unending, gruesome twilight and the orcs journeyed at will.

 

The reprieve from travel was all well and good, until the orcs became bored.  They quickly decided that most of the slaves were no fun.  They shrank in horror and started crying and shivering if the fell creatures even looked at them.  There was some sport in that, but it grew tiring quickly.  The elf on the other hand... he was a different matter.  He did not cringe from them, no matter how much he may have wanted to do so, and his steely grey-blue eyes refused to show emotion.  That however, did not last very long. 

 

Legolas had tried not to cry out, just on principle, but he was too run down to be very stubborn and before long the orcs using him as a punching bag were wringing frequent sounds of pain from his hurting body.  They beat him for no reason other than sport and delighted in finding new and inventive ways to hurt him, telling him to get used to it, for he could expect this sort of thing regularly now that he was theirs. 

 

Curling over his burning ribs as much as his bonds allowed, the elf shuddered as the big orc captain grabbed his shoulder.  The creature’s clawed fingers dug sharply into the not yet fully healed welts left from Denethor’s questioning, which now seemed a life-age ago.  Legolas’ body was healing much slower than was normal for an elf, but under the circumstances that was not too surprising. 

 

The orc rammed his fist into the helpless elf’s stomach, eliciting a cry of breathless pain as his fingers tightened on the slave’s shoulder, squeezing the joint so tightly that the clawed fingers left deep bruises in the soft flesh, nearly dislocating the bones.  Running his other hand through the elf’s hair before tangling in it and tilting the captive’s head sharply to the side the hideous creature leaned close and whispered darkly in Legolas’ ear.  It delighted the orc to tell the slave in gruesome detail exactly what they had in store for his future, and what it meant to be theirs. 

 

Legolas’ ragged breathing accelerated.  He shuddered helplessly, blood running down his chin, unable to even hide the utter terror the horrible, twisted words evoked.  If there was a living hell on earth, he had found it. 

 

The orcs laughed at his obvious distress and the one holding his hair knocked his head hard against the stone wall next to him. 

 

Darkness came again as consciousness faded and the elf prince welcomed its embrace.

 

The next thing Legolas was aware of was that murky evening had finally fallen and with it blessed release from the torment of his captors who were now nowhere to be seen.  The elf leaned forward heavily, allowing his wrists to hold up his weight.  While he was senseless they had apparently switched him back into the cliff-mounted manacles they seemed to favor when camped, but they had not carried through on any of their worst threats, not yet.  He knew however, that it was only a matter of time. 

 

The cool night air brushed his face gently; caressing the hot bruises and bringing him slowly back to the moment, and the pain.  He only hoped that somehow the orcs would tire of him quickly and end his life soon.  He could take no more of their sick games and vicious abuse.  The malevolent hatred they bore him made life positively unlivable and the elf’s spirit was withdrawing from the weary, hopeless world he was trapped inside.  He had simply been through too much in too short a time. 

 

The Corsairs had given Legolas precious little chance to recover from the painful interrogation he had gone through at the hands of Denethor and Castamir before their own rough treatment began to drain his strength anew.  In the condition he had already been in, there was not much left to drain; and now the orcs were bent on teaching him new and even more horrible definitions of the word pain... 

 

The soft sounds of footsteps alerted the prince that someone was coming and he let his head fall forward, unwilling to watch as the black creatures returned.  He could not endure much more.

 

 

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

 

 

~~~~~~~~~

Into this night I wander, it’s morning that I dread;

Another day of knowing of the path I fear to tread...

 

--Sarah Mclachlan

~~~~~~~~~

 

 

Stealthily, Aragorn crept into the quiet valley.  Jagged crags and rocky fissures loomed dark and foreboding in the inky starlessness of night in Mordor.  The heavy, sulfuric air did not lighten when night fell and the moon did not appear, although the landscape grew darker.  A red, sickly glow that seemed to hover on the horizon was the only light by which to see. 

 

This was the one place on Middle Earth that Aragorn had never been and if he had had any choice, he would certainly never have come.  But somewhere in this foul land he knew that his friend Legolas, prince of Mirkwood, was being held captive.  That was an intolerable thought. 

 

Aragorn had left Pelagir behind and followed the PorosRiver into Mordor, all the way to the loathsome slave farms surrounding the inland sea of Nurnen.  There was no doubt that this was where the Corsair ship had docked and off loaded its cargo, selling the unfortunates in its hold to the motley collection of orcs and evil-looking humans who ran this corner of the Dark Lord’s lands.  The ship itself, now empty of all but the crew, had still been in the harbor.  The hardest part had been finding out to what group the elf had been sold after arriving here, and where they had gone. 

 

Aragorn had known better than to tangle with orcs or Sauron’s corrupted human thralls.  The Corsairs who had done the selling however, were another matter.  The slavers had finally divulged what they knew, but it had taken some *creative* convincing.  He winced as he thought about the heavyset slave seller he had threatened.  In all honesty he would have followed through on all his threats if the man had not confessed to having sold Legolas to an orc group that was headed north, towards the rock quarries and smelting furnaces closer to Barad-Dûr.  An elf was a very rare slave indeed and he had unwisely bragged about the price the prince had fetched.  It had taken all of Aragorn’s restraint not to kill the man outright, but the slaver would definitely think twice about ever selling another firstborn in his markets.

 

After finding out their direction, it hadn’t taken the ranger long to track the orcs who had apparently bought Legolas, as well as most of the Corsair’s other Gondorian prisoners.  The fell creatures had tarried a small while after making their purchases apparently, for according to the signs he followed, they only had a day or two’s head start on him at the most. 

 

Silently, Aragorn shifted the weight of his weapons on his back.  In addition to his own bow and quiver he carried a second parcel.  One he considered very dear.  Legolas’ bow, quiver and knives.  He had liberated them out of the clutches of the same slave traders from which he had wrung Legolas’ whereabouts.  Valar willing, he would soon be able to return them to his friend once more. 

 

The ranger traveled through the barren wastelands silently and alone, easily tracking the orc horde that journeyed north.  They made no effort to hide their path and seemed in no great hurry.  So it was that this evening, Aragorn finally managed to overtake the host.  When they stopped for the night he waited until the orcs left, leaving one of their own to stand sentry.  They had no reason to fear enemies in this land.  No one dared oppose them under the eye of their lord, so their guard was lax.

 

With the element of surprise on his side, Aragorn’s blade cut easily through the dark creature that had remained behind in camp, watching over their lone prisoner and the pickets that held the other newly culled slaves.

 

Quickly Aragorn dragged the dead body out of camp, moving it behind a rocky shoal and shoving the corpse under a shallow, natural shelf formed by the stone.  He was hoping the orcs would think nothing of their companion being missing, and perhaps even entertain the thought that the guard had wandered off for a moment to take care of some bodily need.  Besides, Aragorn was banking on the fact that the slave drivers were overly confident and would never expect anyone to ever attempt to free slaves inside the fences of Mordor.  Most orcs were not known for their great attention to detail, but the ranger still wanted to put as much land between the campsite and he and Legolas as quickly as he could after he rescued the elf.

 

Running silently back towards the camp after disposing of the body, he approached cautiously.  The human slaves on the picket lines cringed in the nearly spent dusk, afraid of the man who had just attacked their guard, and yet glad to see an end to one of the dark creatures.  They did not speak for fear of drawing more of Sauron’s minions back early from their midnight errands.

 

The encampment was butted up against a black, looming cliff that cut across the valley through which they traveled, hedging them in on their left and making any escape impossible.  There were only two ways to run, south, back to the slave farms, and north to Barad-Dûr, where they were being taken anyway.  Out on the wasted plains to their right, the orcs roamed, making sure that Mordor was safe and scouring for wood for the fires.  Hopelessness was etched into every face that turned towards Aragorn.

 

Pity rose in the ranger’s heart but as much as he wanted to help them, they were not his immediate goal.  His eyes fastened onto the sight of the prisoner the orcs had singled out, the one slave they had incurred that they were keeping for themselves, for their own twisted pleasures.  His long strides took him quickly to the captive’s side.

 

This lone being had been separated from the others, his arms stretched far above his head and placed in manacles that had been driven into the rock face at his back.  His booted feet barely touched the floor of the rocky valley and his head hung forward, his unbound hair obscuring the view of his bruised face.  His breathing was shallow and consciousness came and went.  His captors had already had fun with him earlier in the evening, that much was obvious.  As night drew on however they must have had other duties to be about and left him for later.

 

To Legolas it felt as though breathing itself was too great a burden.  The evil of Mordor weighed down his spirit and the brutality of his tormentors had nearly driven it from his body altogether.  He had lost hope and it seemed that his world had narrowed down to all that was contrary to his kind.  If Alcarin had wished to send him to the worst fate possibly conceivable, he had succeeded.  If his life had been miserable before, in Gondor, it had been nothing short of hell since the Corsairs had pressed him into servitude. 

 

Legolas drew another ragged, labored breath.  That part had been hard.  The last Corsair he had had dealings with, way back in Dorolyn... it did not bear remembering.  Fortunately the elf had been unconscious a good deal of the time and remembered very little before the pirates sold him into slavery to the orcs.  However, the little he did remember merely served to deepen his despair.  His Corsair captors told him that the battle he had been taken in was lost and the Gondorian captains had been executed.  He had no way to know that the men were lying.  Only a thin thread of hope that had been stretched too far kept him hoping that Aragorn had survived and waiting for the rescue that he feared would never come.

 

While it was true that elves were immortal it was also less widely known that when sorrow had so consumed their hearts that no hope for the future was left, the fair beings could simply give up their life of their own free will and it was this that Legolas, heir of Thranduil was considering at this very moment.  For the first time since he was quite a bit younger, the elf found that he did not wish to continue on in Middle Earth.  Every breath had become a weariness and he ached for rest he could not find. 

 

The gentle touch of hands on his face caused the prince to flinch and move away from whomever it was that had approached him.  He could not handle much more before his heart gave way.  He was already on the brink; the slightest push would tip the scales. 

 

“No.”  The whisper was involuntary and the elf hated the fact that he had spoken at all, but there was nothing left in him.  No strength left to be proud or stubborn, and he was terrified of not knowing when the orcs would demand of him that which he would rather die than give. 

 

“Legolas.”  Aragorn’s voice was soft and wavered slightly as he tenderly tipped the elf’s head up, brushing back the dirty, disheveled hair, exposing the proud, bruised cheeks and pain-glazed eyes.  “It is I, Estel.  The orcs are out on patrols and we need to leave now.  Can you walk my friend?”  The ranger drew his breath in with a soft hiss as Legolas gazed back at him with glazed, uncomprehending eyes; the orcs or Corsairs must have been exceedingly cruel and it shot a white hot blade of anger through his heart.

 

“Aragorn?”  The elf frowned, trying to concentrate on the human, trying to decide whether the man in front of him was real or just a dream created by the dying desire within him to continue holding onto life.  A small rush of hope shot through his defeated heart.  Aragorn had not perished as he was told, he knew it could not have been true!

 

The human reached above the elf’s head, trying to jerk the manacles from the rock face, his breath warm on the prince’s face as he turned and whispered into Legolas’ ear, “Yes, and I am going to get you out of here, before the orcs return.”

 

“Can’t.”  Legolas whispered breathlessly as the reality of his situation crushed back down on him, seeming now all the more heavy and dark for having had a momentary touch of hope.  “These plains are crawling with orcs, I already tried... we wouldn’t get far.” The fair being’s voice was raspy from thirst and long days of making no sounds save those of pain. 

 

“The big one has keys... no other way.”  Legolas was glad to see his friend, relieved that Aragorn was alive... yet a heart that had no spark left to it could not be thrust back to life so quickly and the elf held little hope of his own escape; he knew all too well the myriad of problems confronting such a venture.  He would not see Aragorn throw his own life away attempting the untenable. 

 

“There’s always another way, there has to be.”  Unable to pull the chains free, Aragorn retrieved a small dagger from his boot and tried to pick the locks, but the blade was too large to fit into the narrow keyhole.  Besides, these manacles were orc-make so their fasteners almost always resisted attempts to be opened with ought but the key designed for them. 

 

Legolas was trying to get his attention, but Aragorn began chipping at the rock face, desperate to release his friend before they both ran out of time.

 

“Aragorn.”  Legolas shook his head slowly, glancing at his friend out of the corner of his eyes, “Aragorn!”

 

When the ranger stilled his frantic movements and stepped back in front of the elf, he heard what had alerted the prince.

 

The orcs were returning.  They were still a ways off, but even Aragorn’s heightened human hearing could detect them, so they were already too close for comfort. 

 

“I have to get you out of here!”  Aragorn desperately tried to pry the rocks away from the huge metal bolt that held Legolas’ manacles so firmly in place.  Stepping lightly up onto a natural ledge to give himself a better advantage, he wedged his blade into the hard rock, trying to pry it free.  They had only minutes before the orcs came into view of the camp. Their coarse joking and talking already echoed eerily through the small canyon.

 

“No.  NO!” Legolas struggled against the chains that held him, “Aragorn you can't let them take me with them again.  They are not going to turn me over to Sauron’s slave masters; they intend to keep for their own.  Please.  Don’t let them.”

 

Jumping lightly down in front of the prince, Aragorn took the elf’s face in his hands and drew close to the fair being.  “Do not worry, I will not leave you.  We’ll get another chance to get you free.  I will get you out of here, I swear it, but you have to promise me you will be strong and hold on for me.”

 

A hard knot formed in his throat as the elf slowly shook his head.  As much as he wanted to do as his friend asked, he knew it was beyond his power.  “I cannot.  I cannot anymore.  Please, end it now.”  Legolas asked him softly.

 

“I’m trying, it wont budge.” the ranger choked on the words, “I’ll get you free I promise.  I just need more time.”  He attacked the rock once more with a vengeance, pulling on the chains and digging into the stone with his dagger.  If Legolas asked him to stay then he would face all the orcs in Mordor if necessary rather than leave the elf alone.  He had never seen Legolas this hopeless and frightened, it burned his heart. 

 

“It is not possible, there are too many and we are in their lands, their stronghold.  Mordor,” he uttered the word like a curse.  “Do not leave me to them; do not let them find me alive when they return.” The prince’s hoarse voice was earnest.

 

“What are you asking me?”  Aragorn looked swiftly over his shoulder; the shuffling gait of the orcs could be clearly heard.  A cold knot formed in his stomach as the ranger glanced back at his friend and noticed for the first time that the elf’s light was very dim... no, it wasn’t just dim.  It was gone.  He could see in Legolas’ eyes that the prince had already given up and a swell of heartache made his throat burn.  “No, my friend, don’t worry, if you ask it I will stay and fight them, I swear I’ll not leave you.”

 

“I’m not asking you to stay with me Aragorn, I’m asking you to end it.”

Legolas’ tone was frighteningly calm and yet heartbreakingly pleading.  “End this nightmare for me now, before it becomes more than I can bear.  Please Estel.”

 

Realizing finally what the elf really meant the ranger shook his head in denial.  “No... Legolas, you cannot ask me to-”

 

“But I do! Please Estel, give me this last gift.  Let it be by your hand, not by theirs once I am broken.  If you have ever loved me, end this.”

 

“I intend to, but not that way.”  Tears welled unbidden in Aragorn’s eyes.  Frustration at his own helplessness and the fear of losing his friend were overwhelming.  His voice trembled slightly.  He could not do this.  He could not take the life of his best friend, his heart would break...

 

“No.  Now mellon-nín.  Now.  Before they return.  Use your bow.”  The elf’s eyes were locked desperately on the ranger’s, “I am ready, but I cannot endure with them any longer.  It is time for me to go, my spirit has become too weary, I cannot abide here anymore.  Please help me.  Free me.  Do not leave me here with them.  Do not leave me at their mercy again.  They are orcs; you know what they will do to me as an elf.  If you have ever been my friend you will do this for me.  Please, do not make me beg you.”  Tears fell quietly from the elf’s huge eyes.  Aragorn knew he was already begging.

 

The ranger simply shook his head as the elf implored him to end his life.  How could he refuse such a plea?  And yet how could he honor it?  Aragorn couldn’t breathe.  He had told Legolas not so very long ago that he had never seen the elf take a hurt that went beyond his body to wound his spirit, but when he looked in the prince’s eyes now, pain and hopelessness was all that was there.  Was it possible?  Was his friend really so far gone that life could not hold joy for him anymore?  He had heard Elladan and Elrohir speak of their mother and how that had happened to her... Oh Valar, no, not Legolas... not by his hand... if it was mercy it was a cruel one.

 

“Listen to me, there is no other way.  Do it now!!  They return!”  Legolas’ silently mouthed the word ‘please’, terror springing fresh into his despairing, hurting eyes.  He feared what this night might bring a hundred times more than he feared the unknown realm of death.

 

Aragorn gazed into the deep blue eyes and noted the dark weariness that threatened his friend’s life.  He had seen the elf through many life threatening injuries, but at this moment, seeing Legolas’ eyes totally devoid of any spark of life or hope, he had never been more afraid of losing the prince.  He knew elves would give up life if sorrow overwhelmed them and he could tell that Legolas had given in and was on the brink.  The abuse at the hands of the Gondorians and then the Corsairs, not to mention what horrors the Orcs had in store for him were too much and his friend was going to leave this world with or without his help.  The only question was how much pain the elf had to suffer through before he found that escape. 

 

“Please...” Legolas’ hopeless eyes begged for a merciful release. 

 

Stepping back, the human blinked away the tears falling freely down his cheeks.  Unslinging his bow he quickly strung an arrow, aiming for Legolas’ heart.  He knew that if this arrow flew, he would kill part of himself as well.  He would forever have blood on his hands that a river of tears could never wash away.  “Legolas...” he breathed, his voice hitching, agonized.

 

“Please!” Legolas mouthed the word again, his gaze silently imploring his friend to not force him to continue to beg, but to let him go with some dignity left. 

 

Aragorn closed his eyes and drew the bowstring back, his heart tearing in two with the motion.  “Forgive me...”

 

Chapter Text

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~*PART TWO*~

 

 

~~~~~~~~~

When passion’s lost

And all the trust is gone

Way too far, for way too long...

Only in a world so cold.

Only in a world this cold...

Hold the hand of your best friend,

Look into their eyes, and watch them drift away.

 

-- Mudvayne
~~~~~~~~~

 

 

Aragorn’s mind was numb and reeling as he opened his eyes again and sighted in the arrow.  The bow felt strange against his fingers.  He couldn’t leave Legolas, and he couldn’t free him, this was mercy some voice deep in his mind was stoically repeating.  It was what Legolas wanted, the only kind thing he could possibly do for his friend now.  But the ranger’s hands shook as he stretched the bow back, his heart and mind screaming at him that there had to be another way, overriding the logic that spoke so calmly and begged him through the eyes of his friend. 

 

Legolas was right, Aragorn knew perfectly well what the orcs would do the fair being and it was worse than anything that had ever been done to him, more than he could have ever survived.  Aragorn remembered the horror stories his brothers had told him about finding their mother Celebrían after the orcs had captured her... he knew he couldn’t leave the elf prince to the orcs’ mercy for they were totally bereft of it.

 

And yet...

 

Legolas closed his eyes and whispered softly in elvish, “Thank you mellon-nín may the Valar see you safely home.  If there is any grace in this world or the next then we may meet again some day, if only briefly.  If Mandos permits, I will wait for you.”

 

A sob broke from Aragorn’s lips and he dropped the bow to his side, his will collapsing and the arrow clattering to the floor of the valley.  The orcs were nearing the bend in the canyon - he could hear them.  Rushing forward he held the elf’s face in his hands and gently kissed Legolas’ forehead, wrapping his arms around the elf and holding him for a moment, resting his head against the fair being’s temple.

 

“Forgive me.  Forgive me Legolas, I cannot do it.  I cannot.” He whispered in the prince’s ear. The soft sigh of defeat from the elf tore at the ranger’s heart.

 

“I will not let them hurt you, I swear by all that is good in Middle Earth. I will be in the rocks above you and I will come back and free you this very night,” Aragorn promised desperately.

 

Legolas was shaking softly; quiet sobs breaking from deep in his chest.  He loved his friend, but Aragorn did not understand that this was not mercy to keep him alive now... not like this... not with the orcs’ threats hovering over him like a hammer about to fall.  Not when his weary heart craved only eternal peace.

 

“Do not leave me.”  Aragorn’s hands bracketed the elf’s face, his eyes begging the weary blue ones to trust him one last time.  “Stay.  For me, please Legolas.  For all the years that we have been friends.  I swear that if they are going to hurt you and I cannot stop them, I-I will end it for you then.  But please, promise me that if it does not come to that, then you will not let go, that you will stay until I can get you free.”

 

When Legolas nodded his head the ranger turned swiftly away, grabbing his arrow from the ground where it had fallen and fleeing into the night just as the orcs came into sight of the camp.  The elf could hear the quiet sounds the human made as he climbed the rock wall at his back.  A soft sprinkling of dust fell onto the elf’s head and he looked above him into the dark.

 

“I’m here.”  Aragorn’s whispered words were picked up by the keen elven hearing, “I’m right here.”

 

With a small nod Legolas let his head hang forward once more as he sagged against his bonds.  For Aragorn, for the sake of their friendship and the emotional devastation he knew his death would cause the human, he would wait... but not for long.

 

The orcs spilled back into camp and soon had a roaring fire going in the midst of their dark masses.  The absence of the orc guard had been casually thrown aside as the evil creatures coarsely joked about where he might have wandered off to and why.  The expectation that the guard would return at any moment was easily forgotten as the soldiers began to settle in for the night.

 

Legolas had not glanced up once since they returned and Aragorn was getting worried that elf’s despair might overwhelm him yet, promise or no.  The ranger leaned out over the cliff and glanced down cautiously just as a large orc made his way towards the prisoner.

 

“How are we my pretty?”  The orc purred as he stepped close to the elf, pressing his face against the prince’s, his hot breath a stench to Legolas who tried to turn away.

 

A thick, black, hand caught the elf’s face and held him still as the orc taunted him, “Didn’t think we’d forgotten you did you now?”  He pulled a long handled knife from a sheath on his side and ran the cool, pointed blade down the side of the prince’s face, slipping it beneath his tunic and popping the first button off the green suede vest. 

 

“Not a chance of that... not a chance.”  He slid the knife down and popped the second button off.  “We have so much to do pretty one, so many screams to hear from that lovely throat of yours,” the orc hissed, his hand tightening against the elf’s neck. 

 

Legolas’ breath was coming in fast, ragged gulps and he pulled against the manacles, trying to twist away.  The blade dug sharply into his breast bone, pinning him in place and stopping his movements, drawing a small cry from the fair being, much to his captor’s delight.

 

Legolas desperately wanted to escape and was silently praying that Ilúvatar would give Aragorn the courage he needed to follow through on his promise.  Above him, the ranger raised up on one knee, his bow strung as he watched the orc tormenting the elf below him.  His anger rose and wrapped through his thinking, shutting off all else.  Legolas had been through too much to have to put up with the dark creature’s stupidity. 

 

Pulling back on the drawstring the ranger stilled his breath, the head of the arrow moved from targeting the elf to the orc.  He couldn’t kill the prince, no matter how much Legolas wanted him to, there was nothing inside of him that would allow him to do so unless the elf were being tormented to death with no other way to save him, and they had not yet reached that point as far as the ranger was concerned.  Not while he still had a breath left in him to stand against these foul creatures.

 

Breathing in deeply and steeling himself for a fight, the ranger’s fingers lightened up on the string, readying to loose the projectile despite the deadly consequences that would unleash, when an orc from near the fire shouted at Legolas’ guard.

 

“Prangtz, damn it! I told you to guard that thing not talk to it!  It’s not for you!  I want it alive when get back.”

 

Prangtz quickly pulled his knife away and turned around, trying to affect an air of innocence if such could ever describe an orc, “Oh come on Graghnak, we was just having a bit of fun with it.  It squirms so when you get close.”

 

The large orc that Aragorn now assumed was in command took a step towards Legolas’ guard and pointed his sword at the creature’s dark heart, “You leave it alone or I’ll have your head.” He growled at Prangtz.

 

“Keeps all the good stuff for himself.”  The guard muttered darkly staring back at his commander before eyeing the prisoner with an evil glare, “We’ll have fun with you later little elf don’t you worry about that.”  With a snort of frustration the orc settled himself on the ground facing the fire.

 

Convinced his soldier was now obeying him, Graghnak jabbed the point of his scimitar at the orc once more before turning away.

 

With a sigh of relief, Aragorn released the tension on his bow and settled back into the shadows, his eyes never leaving the elf below him.  Soft words spoken in elvish drifted up to him on the slight winds that blew through the ravine they were camped in, “Mellon-nín if you are there, do not forget your promise to me.”

 

“I am and I won’t.” The ranger answered so softly he was not even sure that the elf had heard him.

 

“It is well.” Legolas whispered.

 

Interrupting the nearly silent conversation the orc that guarded Legolas turned abruptly slinging a small stone at the elf and yelling. “Shut up!  No one is talking to you.”  The black beady eyes of the evil creature narrowed when the prince glanced wearily up at him. “Stupid elf, you won’t be talking so much when we cut your tongue from your head and feed it to the crows, now will you?”

 

Closing his eyes wearily, Legolas dropped his head back down, resting his temple against his painfully stretched arms.

 

The jingle of keys caught Aragorn’s attention as he watched the scene play out beneath him.  The large orc that had been chosen to guard the prisoner lay down on the rocky ground; a rusted ring of keys hanging from his belt scraped across the dirt as he stretched out.

 

The ranger quietly slung his bow over his back and leaned forward intently, a plan emerging in his mind.  He glanced down at Legolas but the elf did not respond.  The camp was quieting for the evening and the orcs had begun to bed down.  Now they just had to wait.

 

The orcs were singularly un-restful creatures, grumbling and turning fitfully in their sleep, waking only to sink back into dreams again.  Each time Aragorn thought they might really all be asleep, another one rolled over with half lidded eyes before falling back to sleep.  It was maddening.  Still, Aragorn crouched patiently in the shadows of his hiding place, watching them and waiting for the opportune moment as the watches of the night crept on.  Finally, many hours later a kind of peace seemed to settle over the camp and the restless orcs stirred no more.

 

Scooping up a small handful of dirt Aragorn dropped the debris onto the elf’s head, trying to catch Legolas’ attention.

 

Legolas shuddered slightly, shaking the dust out of his hair and glancing upwards with a small frown. Communicating in silence with the elf, the ranger pointed at the guard sleeping near Legolas’ feet, making the sign of an ‘o’ and indicating the key ring.  Understanding broke through the elf’s mind quickly and he nodded in agreement, placing more weight on his booted toes and standing up under his bonds, he waited in anticipation for his friend’s approach as the ranger slipped from view.

 

It seemed like an eternity before Aragorn crept into the darkened, sleeping camp.  He had waited until none of the captors stirred.  The sounds of their sleep filled the camp with guttural snores and grunts.  The ranger crouched just beyond the circle of light that the fire threw about the orcs.  Legolas’ eyes were fixed on the sight of the human who glanced over the sleeping hulks, looking for anyone who was still awake.  It seemed that all of the evil creatures slept, including the one the human stalked quietly up beside.  What appeared as an unusual lapse in attention was nothing more than the orcs over confidence, deep within the borders of their own land.  Here they feared no attack, nor any resistance from the heavily bound and hopeless slaves.  It was a fatal error for them. 

 

Slipping his sharp blade from its sheath on the back of his belt, the ranger leaned over the one named Prangtz, bringing the knife up under the snoring orc’s chin.  With a quick deft move he slit the orc’s throat.  The sleeping beast never even knew that he was dead. Rolling the carcass over onto its stomach, the ranger relieved the guard of his key ring and ran quickly back to Legolas’ side, cautioning the elf to silence.

 

They could suffer no mistakes.

 

Suddenly the ranger felt incredibly clumsy as he climbed back onto the rock shelf behind Legolas and fumbled with the keys trying first one then another, urgency hampering rather than helping his attempt.

 

Movement on the far side of camp startled Aragorn and he pressed himself into the shadows behind Legolas, hiding behind the elf as an orc stood slowly from its sleeping place and glanced around the camp.  The prince immediately dropped his gaze back to the floor in front of him, peeking out through the strands of hair that fell into his eyes.  They both held their breath as the orc watched the prisoner for a few moments.  Satisfying himself that all was well the creature walked off towards the shadowed perimeter.

 

“Don’t move.” Aragorn whispered softly to the elf, his dark clothes blending with the shades of night and the rock wall behind them.  “It will be back.”

 

Legolas nodded imperceptibly, his body tensed and aching from the position he had been stretched out in for so long.

 

Noting his friend’s tensions and distress, Aragorn whispered in the elf’s ear, “Stand on my boots.”  The ranger pulled the prince back a few inches.

 

“What?”

 

“My boots.” Aragorn kicked the toes of his boots underneath the heels of Legolas’ soft leather shoes, scooting forward until the elf’s body rested against him. “Now stand up and let some of that pressure off your arms.”

 

Legolas was surprised to find that he could actually stand when he balanced on top of the ranger’s shoes and he sighed quietly as the pull on his hurting arms was lessened.

 

They both tensed as the orc returned, melting into view from the edges of the camp.  It flopped to the ground and was asleep in moments but Aragorn remained where he was for a bit longer, unwilling to chance that the orc was not resting deeply enough quite yet.  Morning was nearly upon them and with it came an urgency that he could not ignore any longer.

 

“All right. I’m going to try again.”  Aragorn brushed the blonde hair out of his eyes and whispered in Legolas’ ear.  The elf nodded and stepped forward, groaning involuntarily as the brunt of his weight was again suspended by his wrists and arms. 

 

“I only have two more keys to try. I will be quick.”  The ranger reassured his friend as he tackled the awkward position, shoving a dirty, rusted key into the opening.

 

To his surprise the key turned and the manacles popped open, falling away and banging noisily against the cliff face.  Aragorn cringed at the loud metallic sound but had no time to worry about it as Legolas fell forward, trying to stifle a small cry as his freed arms were released.  The blood rushing back into his stiff limbs was painful but the ranger could give him no respite, not yet. Wrapping his arms around the elf and pulling him gently, but forcefully up from the ground Aragorn half dragged the prince from the camp.  They had made more noise than he was comfortable with and he eyed the sleeping horde warily as they shifted and grunted in their sleep.

 

Something had woken him, someone stirred.  Graghnak lay perfectly still where he was, listening to the night sounds.  He normally slept soundly in Mordor, there was no reason to fear here... but something had woken him.  His gaze swept lazily to the line of picketed slaves where they huddled together, uncomfortably trying to catch what little sleep they could.

 

Turning to look over his shoulder the commander of the orc troop glanced to the far side of the camp and spied the empty manacles.  The sun was nearly up and its first filtered rays were brushing the canyon walls, gleaming dully off of the open metal bonds.

 

“Get up!” The orc yelled at his men, causing the slaves to flinch and draw closer together. “NOW! Get up!  The cursed elf is gone!”

 

The soldiers woke, groggily peering at each other through sleep fogged eyes as they fought their way sleepily to their feet, glancing about the camp for the source of their commander’s displeasure.

 

Only one orc did not rise.

 

Within moments the camp was in a frenzy.  Aragorn could hear the orcs behind them yelling and stirring one another on as they separated into two groups, one heading north and one south, trying to track where their escaped prisoner had fled to.  He could hear them hollering at the other slaves, demanding to know what had happened, but the poor wretches claimed ignorance.  Aragorn felt a stab of guilt that he had been unable to free all of them, but right now it was all he could do to try to assure that he and Legolas survived this.  There was little place to hide in the shallow canyon and it was painfully apparent that Legolas could not keep pace with the fleet-footed ranger.  Aragorn surmised that the elf had been beaten more severely than he first thought as the prince stumbled, catching himself on his fingertips without breaking stride.

 

Legolas simply nodded at Aragorn’s concerned look, unwilling to spare the breath it would take to reply to the worry that was unconcealed in the silver eyes.

 

Hearing their pursuers only heightened the elf’s fear as they ran and he began to pant from the exertion and the toll that the abuse had taken on his body.  He had been starved, beaten, kept in bonds and passed from one captivity to another for almost two months now.  The evil effect of Mordor itself and the terrible beating the orcs had given him again only yesterday had already claimed whatever strength he had left.  The elf’s body was failing him and although he cursed his weakness, he could not fight it this time. 

 

Legolas' condition was not lost on the ranger and he began to frantically seek a place to hide. To their right, small scrub brushes grew from the side of the rockface, springing up in the dry dusty canyon.  Their brambly, tangled branches partially covered an overhanging lip of rock, creating a deep crevice that was a few feet high off the floor of the valley – enough for a human and an elf to squeeze into, or at least so the ranger hoped.

 

Grabbing Legolas by the sleeve, Aragorn dragged the elf to the side of the gully and fell down near the lip, pulling the prince with him.  He rolled to the back wall of the small overhang and drug the protesting elf in with him, covering Legolas’ mouth with one hand and throwing his cloak over both of them, hoping the color would not vary too greatly from their surroundings.  Orcs were not known to be overly observant and he was counting on that to help keep them hidden.

 

In seconds a horde of orcs rushed past, running up the canyon brandishing weapons and yelling as they ran headlong after their supposed prey.

 

Aragorn had wrapped his arms around the elf, pulling Legolas closely next to him, trying to shield the blonde hair from eyesight with the sleeves of his coat.

 

When the dust settled, he relaxed his grip on the prince and leaned his back against the cool wall behind him.  Legolas sighed deeply and closed his eyes, slowly relaxing as his head rested lightly on Aragorn’s outstretched arm beneath him.

 

 “They will be back.” The elf whispered softly, “They will realize that we did not get as far as they will run.”  Opening his eyes slowly he gazed into the silver ones a few inches from his own.

 

“I know.  We’ll stay right here until they’ve all passed by and we can leave after they’re gone.”

 

Legolas gasped slightly in surprise and mild pain as the ranger pulled him forward and held him tightly for a moment.

 

“Estel?”

 

“Don’t ever ask me to do that again, do you hear me?” The ranger whispered hoarsely into the elf’s ear, “I don’t think my heart could handle that a second time.”

 

The elf nodded against the human, “I promise.” He replied wearily, smiling softly and not even trying to move away from his friend.  His body was tired and his mind worn out.  He had hardly slept since finding himself in the slave farms, and little enough before that.  The over-exhaustion was beginning to show in the sluggishness he felt pulling at him.

 

Aragorn moved back as best he could.  The ledge above their head was only inches from his face when he glanced up and the crevice itself couldn’t have been more than five feet deep. Stretching out he tried to make himself comfortable.  He was startled to find that in the few moments of inattention, Legolas had fallen asleep.  Using the ranger’s arm for a pillow, he lay on his side facing the human.  Aragorn stopped moving and relaxed, a small smile on his face. 

 

Legolas slept with eyes closed, attesting to his drawn state, but a faint hint of luminescence had crept back into his pale features, making him look more like himself. 

 

Aragorn’s heart was no longer racing and the adrenaline in his system was fading as they lay in the darkened recess, waiting. The relief that washed through him made him breathe in deeply, holding back the tears that threatened to spill over his eye lids.  He never wanted to go through that again.  He never wanted to have to see that kind of utter hopelessness in his friend’s eyes, nor hear the proud prince beg for death by a familiar hand rather than face the indescribable horror that the orcs had planned for him.  That image was one that would not leave him and he knew it was going to haunt his dreams for many days to come.  The ranger shuddered slightly, the fingers of his free hand drifting over to rest lightly upon Legolas’ arm.  As the elf slept, he began planning their route of escape.

 

Hours later, the orcs dragged back past the refugees’ hiding place, their coarse mutterings and talkings waking both ranger and elf.  Legolas tensed and glanced over his shoulder.  The feet of the orcs stirred up the dry dust and it was hard to see if the whole contingent had returned this way or not.

 

As the sounds of the troop receded Aragorn gently pressed the elf out in front of him, slowly pulling himself to a standing position once he was freed of their rocky hideaway. 

 

“We head north for the Undun.  We will never make it back to the Poros without being caught, there are too many of Sauron’s forces near the slave farms.”  Aragorn leaned out, trying to glance around the bend in the path where the orcs had gone.  “Let us be off.”

 

The sun was descending over the hills and soon the valley of Nurn would be cast into shadows.  Although in truth that was simply a darker version of what Mordor called day, as the sky was always cast over with the soot and fumes that collected across the deep basin, making the air a foul stench in the nostrils.

 

Aragorn doubted the orcs would move the slaves that night as they had spent the better part of the day chasing down the one they had lost.

 

The two companions walked slowly up the valley, heading towards the opening where the hills on either side flattened out.  Aragorn was focused on the ranges beyond the canyon; he could just barely make out more rocky mountains beyond the rift’s opening when Legolas tensed beside him, drawing his breath in with a small gasp and grabbing the ranger’s sleeve.

 

His attention redirected, the human stopped and stood dead still in his tracks.  At the mouth of the rift a troop of orcs had just stepped into the path, having rounded the blind corner and stopped their forward march, as surprised to find their quarry as the elf and the ranger were to be seen.

 

Aragorn grabbed Legolas, pulling the elf back with him, shouting to the prince to run.  Unfortunately, the dark creatures were swifter than their prey.  They were only fifty feet behind the two escapees and the hair on the back of the ranger’s neck stood on end when one of the evil beings lifted a horn to his lips and blew a sounding tone on the instrument.  The sound sent shivers skittering down the human's spine.

 

The prisoners had been found.

 

Chapter Text

___________________________________________________________

 

~*PART THREE*~

 

 

~~~~~~~~~

I can’t last here for too long
I feel this current it’s so strong
It gets me further down the line
It gets me closer to the line..

And all these little things in life, they all create this haze
There’s too many things to get done, and I’m running out of days

 

-- Three Doors Down
~~~~~~~~~

 

 

 

Having heard the trumpet blast, the orcs that had passed by the hiding prisoners earlier turned and headed back they way they had come.  Graghnak led the way, an evil, satisfied grin on his face.  He had no love for any of the creatures that served in his troop but it did not please him to have to report the unnecessary demise of them either.  Prangtz had been an idiot, but someone was going to pay for his death.  Their master did not take news of escapees and lapses of attention lightly.

 

The valley they were in was now quickly becoming blocked off from before and behind, leaving the two friends no choice but to turn aside and take their chances with the hills.  Aragorn and Legolas scrambled up the steep incline next to them, their boots sliding and scrabbling on the loose, dry earth as they sought for purchase.  Desperation hastened their frantic movements as they half ran, half climbed towards a low plateau above.  Neither of them wanted to be caught.

 

Legolas felt his heart pounding in his chest so hard it made him dizzy.  The mix of physical exertion and fear shot through his injured body, making him tremble lightly.  His injured ribs screamed as he scrambled up the steep grade, shooting sharp knives of pain into his consciousness, but he paid them no mind.  He would run until he died if it kept him away from being recaptured by the orcs.

 

Aragorn felt the heavy air stick and choke in his throat, mixing with the dust their wild assent was kicking up.  Fearful adrenaline drove him up the hill, sometimes almost climbing more than running.  They could not be captured; he had been a captive of orcs before and the memory was very dark.  Yet even more important to him, he could not let Legolas be put back in their hands. 

 

The ranger whipped around as quickly as he could without losing his footing when he heard a heavy thud and the scrabble of rocks behind him.  Legolas, far more unsteady than any elf usually was, had lost his purchase on the shifting shale and fallen hard, sliding backwards a few paces. 

 

The elf barely kept from crying out when his stomach and chest slammed against the ground, cushioned only a little by having caught himself on his hands.  The fall knocked the air out of his lungs and for a moment he couldn’t move or think. 

 

Aragorn scrambled and slid down the hill back to where his friend had fallen.  The orcs they had nearly run into were now in active pursuit, closing in on them at an alarming rate, and the rest of their company that had been alerted were no doubt not far behind.  He knew Legolas was hurting, but he didn’t even have time to ask if the elf was all right as he grabbed his friend, pulling him up.  He winced slightly as he grasped Legolas’ hands, seeing the blood on the prince’s palms, torn by his fall.  Wrapping Legolas’ arm around his shoulders so he could support the elf’s weight, the ranger dragged the prince swiftly up the hill again. 

 

Legolas winced at the abrupt movements, inhaling sharply, but motion was quickly coming back to him and Aragorn released his friend as soon as he felt the elf moving under his own power again. 

 

The orcs’ horn was blowing again as the two hunted beings reached the plateau.  Ahead of them loomed another hill and to their right was a steep drop back into the valley they had just come from.  Down there they could see the dark shapes of more than two dozen orcs rushing to join the ones already on their heels.  This land seemed infested with the foul beasts! 

 

Turning towards the left, which was their only option, Aragorn suddenly found himself thrown backward, the dark, heavy form of an orc appearing from almost nowhere as it jumped on him. 

 

“Strider!” Legolas shouted in alarm as Aragorn went down beneath the foul beast. 

 

Reacting quickly Aragorn tucked his feet up even as he fell, getting his knees between he and his attacker so that when they hit the earth he pushed upward and kicked the orc off, over his head. 

 

The dark creature grabbed the shoulders of the ranger’s coat as he went over, dragging Aragorn around with him so that the two of them ended up rolling across the slanting ground.  Tumbling to the right they rolled towards the steeper drop back to where they had just come from. 

 

Legolas ran after them, realizing with frustration that he had no weapons, nothing to fight with. 

 

The force of their struggle carried Aragorn and the orc off the edge of the plateau.  The small cliff was not entirely sheer and the two combatants landed on the edge, clinging on and struggling with one another at the same time. 

 

Aragorn felt the orc’s weight dragging him towards the drop and he struck at the fell beast with one hand as he fought to keep his grip on the rocky ledge with the other, his feet swinging free.  It was not a very far drop to the ground, maybe twenty feet at the most, but it was not the fall that worried Aragorn, it was the scores of angry orcs at the bottom. 

 

The ranger felt his fingers slipping as the loose rocks shifted under his tenuous grip, the weight of the orc still clinging to him dragged him steadily down like an anchor.  Just as his hand began to pull free he felt it caught in a strong, familiar grip.  His eyes shot up to lock with Legolas’ as the elf prince leaned down over the edge to grasp his arm and keeping him from falling. 

 

“Aragorn, I swear, you should *not* go near anything that drops off,” Legolas actually found enough breath to say, even if he didn’t have the strength to smile.  It was true.  If Legolas had bad luck with caves, then Aragorn’s misfortune seemed to run towards cliffs.  The strain of holding his friend shown in the tension on his face as the elf focused on pulling the ranger back up.  Settling himself firmly against the rocks that lined the lip of the cliff, Legolas grasped the ranger’s coat sleeve with his other hand trying to find the leverage he needed.

 

The orc holding onto Aragorn dug its fist into the ranger’s stomach, kicking the back of the man’s knees, in an attempt to dislodge the human.  Aragorn jerked and his arm slid in Legolas’ grasp as he slipped further down over the edge. 

 

Legolas bit back a gasp as the combined weight of Aragorn and the orc pulled full upon his injured body; but his hands just tightened in Aragorn’s sleeve.  He was trying to pull his friend up, but the ongoing struggle and his own weakened body was preventing him.   

 

“Lose the orc!” the elf grit out through his teeth as he felt his hands beginning to tremble.  “I can’t hold you both!”

 

Desperation flooded Aragorn’s mind as he struck and kicked at the creature clinging to him with his legs.  If they didn’t move soon it was going to be too late anyway, they were running out of time before their pursuers caught up with them. 

 

As if in answer to his worried thoughts a dark shape loomed up over Legolas’ head, casting a shadow upon them. 

 

“Legolas!” Aragorn’s warning did little good.  What could the elf do without dropping his friend?

 

The prince cried out as the orc behind him clubbed him between the shoulder blades, knocking him forward and Aragorn felt himself slide further down the drop.  Legolas kicked backward, knocking the creature back a pace.  The fact that the brute had not drawn a weapon on his disadvantaged adversary showed that the orcs were interested in retaking their captives alive. 

 

“Strider!”  The elf’s long fingers remained firmly enmeshed in his friend’s sleeve, holding bruisingly tight to Aragorn’s forearm and wrist, but he could feel his friend slipping even as the shadow of the orc fell on him again, causing fear to pump wildly through his veins. 

 

Aragorn kicked viciously at the orc he was tangled with.  “Let go Legolas, let go!”  The elf had no chance if he kept holding onto his friend. 

 

Legolas did not waste energy refusing, but his knuckles whitened as he gripped tighter, trying even harder to pull his friend up.  The orc came again and Legolas twisted away as much as he could while still holding Aragorn, lashing backward with his elbow to catch the creature in the chin. 

 

The angry orc grabbed the elf’s shoulder, trying to drag Legolas backward, away from Aragorn.  A vicious punch to the elf’s already burning stomach made Legolas cry out in pain as his fingers loosened involuntarily. 

 

Aragorn slid down sharply, starting to fall until Legolas’ hands tightened quickly around his wrist once more, catching him at the last moment and jerking him to a halt.  The jolt was enough to shake the orc clinging to him, and one good kick finally sent the creature tumbling down into the midst of his companions who were watching the battle from the ground.  There were far less down there now then there had been a few moments ago and Aragorn knew that they must be on their way here. 

 

Rid of the orc’s weight, Aragorn used his free arm to claw at the cliff edge, straining to swing his legs back up over the lip.  The orc fighting with Legolas inadvertently helped them by dragging the elf backward a pace or two, which gave the ranger just the tug he needed to swing his knee up onto the ledge. 

 

Quickly scrambling all the way up Aragorn released Legolas’ hand and the elf was free to turn his full attention on the orc harassing him.  The prince was ill prepared for a fight, but the orc still never knew what hit him as the previously helpless elf spun quickly to nail the beast in the jaw. 

 

The orc stumbled back and Aragorn, having gained his feet, rammed into it with his shoulder, pushing it off the ledge from which he himself had recently been dangling. 

 

The creature fell with a cry, but neither elf nor ranger waited to see it hit the ground, they were already moving again, running back towards their only possible hope of escape. 

 

Suddenly six or seven orcs spilled into their path.  A moment later half a dozen more came scrambling down the hill to their right while nearly twice that many gained the plateau from the valley below. 

 

The area was positively teeming with orcs in a matter of moments and all routes of escape were cut off as Aragorn and Legolas were pressed back to back, slowly circling.  The ranger passed his knife off to the elf and quickly unslung his bow, stringing an arrow and loosing a volley into the dark press around them.  Yet more orcs were arriving by the moment, twenty, thirty... the sheer number of the enemy was overpowering and no matter how hard they fought, the pair was overcome by the press of orc bodies. 

 

Graghnak struck out at the ranger, catching Aragorn’s bow and slapping it aside.  He crushed the weapon underfoot, snapping it in half.  The orc grabbed for the human, who ducked his clumsy move and pulled a sword, backing the orcs up a few paces and widening the circle that surrounded them.

 

“Put that down and I won't kill you right here.”  Graghnak growled at the ranger.

 

Aragorn didn’t respond.  It wouldn’t matter what they did now, they were both dead and he knew it; there was no way out of this, but he planned on taking as many of the foul beasts out with him as he could.  Lunging, he impaled a slower orc on the sharp blade before spinning out of reach and smashing his fist into the hard jaw of another sending the orc sprawling.

 

He could hear Legolas fighting as well but the battle with the elf was short-lived and the injured prince was soon over powered.  He did not posses the strength of his human counterpart right now and what little he had had been spent in the previous struggle.  It frustrated him to no end when his arms were painfully pinned behind him and Aragorn’s elven blade, which the orcs had taken from him, slid roughly under his chin.

 

“Stop now or I’ll let them kill the elf.” Graghnak pointed to a place behind Aragorn.  The ranger was standing over a slain orc and had nearly decapitated another when the command rang out.

 

Breathing heavily but unwilling to drop his gaze from the large orc commander that stepped in front of him, Aragorn called to Legolas in elvish, “Legolas is it true?” he asked raggedly, his sword wavering slightly in front of him. 

 

Graghnak smiled evilly, he was having fun hunting these two down, they hadn’t had this much excitement in a long time.  He would make sure they paid for the blood they had spilt, but the human amused him.

 

“I’m sorry Estel.  Don’t let them take us, kill as many as you can.”  The elf answered, he groaned softly as his arms were twisted tighter behind his back in response to the length of his answer.  Aragorn could not become a prisoner in Mordor.  If the orcs did not kill them both right away... if Sauron’s eye ever turned to rest on the human who had so long been hidden from him and he saw the truth of who the ranger really was... Aragorn’s fate would be far worse than even that which would be contrived for an elf. 

 

Aragorn chanced a quick glance over his shoulder.  His own blade was held firmly to the elf’s neck.  A thin trace of blood edged it and the orc that held the fair being turned Legolas’ arms a bit harder, just for fun as the ranger eyed his friend.

 

Slowly standing down from his defensive position, the ranger dropped his sword.  He couldn’t watch them slit the elf’s throat.

 

Moving swiftly for such a large creature, Graghnak stepped forward and slammed his fist into the side of the man’s head, knocking Aragorn to the ground.  The ranger barely caught himself on his hands as he fell hard to his knees, temporarily stunned senseless.  He winced as his arms were held in a vice-like grip behind him.  He was hauled to his feet and manhandled back to the orc camp.

 

Legolas felt terror so dark and deep that it chilled his bones coursing through him.  This was the worst thing that could have happened, the *worst*.  Now not only he, but Aragorn as well would be subjected to the orcs’ cruelties.  He wished he would have died rather than get his friend into this kind of trouble.  Aragorn should have either killed him or left him.  Now they were both lost. 

 

The orcs holding Legolas cuffed him repeatedly as they dragged him along, snarling at him about running away again.  The elf fell frequently under their abuse, but it hardly seemed to matter to them since they were more dragging than guiding him anyway. 

 

When blood started trickling from the corner of the prince’s mouth, Graghnak gave a silent signal for his underlings to lay off.  The elf looked spent and the orc captain was not ready to have the pretty little trinket die just yet.  Oh he would be more than properly punished for this, but not yet, not until he was strong enough to survive it. 

 

The human however... that was another matter.  He had trespassed in their lands, stolen one of their slaves and probably killed one of their own.  He was going to need some very immediate attention.

 

When they re-entered camp, the body of the guard the ranger had slain still lay where it had died in its sleep.  Graghnak walked over to the dead orc, kicking the corpse with disdain.

 

“You did this?” He growled looking back at the pair.  When neither answered, the commander grabbed the human from his underlings and dragged the ranger back into the center of camp, throwing the man roughly to the ground.  Before Aragorn could rise another orc grabbed him by the back of the neck, holding him in place, bent over in a kneeling position, his face only inches from the rocky floor.

 

The ranger’s left arm was jerked roughly out to the side and he felt the cold bite of a manacle fasten around his wrist. He stopped struggling when the toe of Graghnak’s boot caught him sharply in the ribs.

 

“Lie still or I’ll make you wish you had.” The dark creature growled as he pulled Aragorn’s arm farther away from his body, the metal cuff digging into the soft skin.  He couldn’t turn his head but the ranger could hear Legolas cry out softly and the sound of another manacle being secured.  He only assumed that Legolas had been bound in much the same way as he was.  The rattle of a chain length caught his attention and he flinched involuntarily, thinking the metal links had been brought out to punish them with.

 

When his wrist was released by the large orc that had recaptured him, Aragorn tired to pull his arm back in close to his side, but the sudden movement brought a cry of pain from the elf.  With mounting fear the ranger realized they had been chained together.  Struggling underneath the bulk of the weight of the orc that pressed him down, he desperately tried to get away. 

 

The struggle was useless.

 

Graghnak noticed the difficulty his underling was having in constraining the human and he smiled darkly.  Motioning to the elf, he ordered the fair being held down and laughed as he was quickly obeyed.  Legolas was pressed flat to the earth as a large orc kneeled on his back, digging his bony kneecap into the middle of the prince’s back.

 

“The new one needs a lesson you maggots, needs to learn how to mind!” Graghnak grinned evilly.  “Teach him!” he hissed. 

 

“Strider, be still!”  Legolas could see what the orcs intended and he feared for his friend.

 

Held down as he was and unable to breathe properly, the ranger was panicking as the orcs crowded around him.

 

“Legolas!”  His muffled cry was cut off as the orcs that converged on him began to follow through on their captain’s commands and tried to subdue the human by beating and kicking him. 

 

The elf watched in horror as the ranger was completely blocked from his sight.  There was nothing he could do and when he writhed underneath his captor, the orc simply kneeled on him harder, pressing the air from his lungs. 

 

From amid the teeming tangle of orc bodies Legolas heard Aragorn cry out in pain as the dark creatures battered him without restraint. 

 

“Stop!  Stop it!  Strider!”  Tears ran down Legolas’ face as he was restrained, unable to aid his friend.  Aragorn’s left hand reached out towards Legolas, frantically.  The elf stretched his right arm out until his fingers barely touched the human’s.  Aragorn desperately latched onto Legolas, unwilling to release him.  His soft cries muffled by the laughing orcs that surrounded him.

 

The orc perched on the prince laughed and taunted Legolas, pointing out that the two prisoners were trying to help one another.  Graghnak looked over the huddle of his minions beating on the man and laughed with dark mirth.

 

“Let them,” He said as he noted the way the two beings held on to one another, the chain that bound them together pooling beneath their clasped hands.  “It won’t do them no good.”

 

Noting the fun that their companions were having without them the orcs guarding the slaves left their posts and wandered over.  Purtang, a relatively young orc that had just joined Graghnak’s clan stumbled forward gleefully having retrieved a large tree limb that was destined for the fire ring.

 

As he approached the orcs that pinned the human down he tripped over the feet of the one that held Aragorn’s neck in a viselike grip.  The older orc turned, enraged, and Purtang fell back, dropping the log he held.  The thick wood impacted the back of Aragorn’s skull, smashing his face into the ground underneath him and he lost consciousness, slumping sideways.

 

The hand that had gripped the elf’s so tightly went lax and fell from his fingers.

 

“STRIDER!”  Legolas screamed his friend’s name; fear flooding his heart with adrenaline he had no way to release.  “Strider!”

 

 

 

___________________________________________________________

Chapter Text

___________________________________________________________

 

~*PART FOUR*~

 

 

~~~~~~~~~
Please come now, I think I’m falling
Holding onto all I think is safe
Seems I’ve found the road to nowhere,
And I’m trying to escape.

I yelled back when I heard thunder,
But I’m down to one last breath
And with it let me say...

Hold me now, I’m six feet from the edge and I’m thinking
Maybe six feet ain’t so far down...

--Creed
~~~~~~~~~

 

 

 

The orcs surrounding the human began fighting amongst themselves, angry that their fun and games had come to such a quick end.  Purtang was shoved roughly back into a knot of the dark creatures as the older orc pushed Aragorn away from him and followed the underling.  In moments the tangle of orcs had erupted into an all out brawl, their prisoners mostly forgotten.

 

Legolas’ guard left the elf unattended and rushed into the melee.  It was not often that they got a good fight going amongst themselves and he wasn’t about to be left out.

 

Legolas pressed himself up on his hands and knees, breathing in deeply and filling lungs that had been starved for air.  He glanced to where Aragorn lay only a few feet away.  The man was unconscious, lying on his side.  Blood pooled down from a cut to his head and he was covered in dirt from the press of the orcs.  His clothes were torn and the skin that the elf could see was scratched and bleeding. Amazingly it appeared that the orcs had only taken to beating the young human with their fists and boots, not one of them had produced a whip to help subdue him.  That much was a mercy. 

 

Dragging himself over to the prone ranger, the elf carefully rolled Aragorn onto his back and pulled the human into his lap, holding the man’s head gently against his chest as he rocked them both back and forth.  The chain that held them bound together made movement difficult but the elf would not let that stop him.  He needed the contact as badly as his friend did.  He was shaking and unable to control the trembling that wracked his body.  The adrenaline in his system had had no outlet and tears streamed down his face as he tried to deal with the relief that his friend was alive and the guilt that he had been able to do nothing to help him.

 

Graghnak watched his men for a few moments and sighed deeply, shaking his head.  They were always provoking one another and this had been brewing for some time.  He simply watched them beat on each another until Gortag, his second in command, walked up to him.

 

“Shouldn’t we stop them?”  The smaller orc eyed his commander through slitted gaze.

 

“Why?  They have been waiting for this, let them fight.  Maybe it will cull out some of the trouble makers.”

 

Gortag’s harsh laugh caused the captain to smile darkly.

 

“And what of them?”  The orc turned and glanced at Legolas and Aragorn.

 

Graghnak looked back at the two prisoners dispassionately.  “What of them?” He shrugged, catching an orc that stumbled in their direction and shoving the creature back into the fray with a laugh.

 

“They might try to get away again.” Gortag cautioned.

 

“The elf is almost dead; you can see it in his eyes.  With the weight of that human holding him down, he’s not going anywhere tonight.”  The manacles they had been using on the elf had gotten damaged somehow when he escaped and were now useless.  Probably the work of that meddling human.

 

“Then I’ll put them in collars.” Graghnak’s second-in-command was not comfortable with the idea of leaving the two troublemakers not completely secured.

 

Graghnak growled.  It was a good idea, unfortunately it wouldn’t work.  “We don’t have any more.  Our allotment of slaves was too great this time and that fool Rasbag didn’t bring enough.  We’ll keep a sharp eye out and they’ll be all right for the moment; we have nothing to worry from that little elf or his human friend, do we?”  Graghnak turned and kicked at the fair being that was watching them closely, but Legolas stared back into the foul creature’s face unflinchingly, his hands protectively covering the human he held.  His desire to live had returned to him a little, if not fully, now that Aragorn was near and they were together.  He knew he could not give up with his friend depending on him and they would have another chance to escape, of this he was sure.  He would not let them torment and kill the human; Aragorn’s body could not withstand the orcs’ torture as well as that of an elf.

 

“What are you looking at?”  Gortag growled at the elf.

 

“I am looking at a dead orc, spawn of Mordor.”  The elf spat back at his captors in elvish.  He knew full well the orcs couldn’t understand him, but the tone and the defiance were easy to read.

 

“Why you...” The orc stepped forward but was stopped by Graghnak.

 

“Leave him.  We’ll teach him how to talk to his betters later, right now we best break this fight up, I see we’ve already lost Toks and Gretnayz.”  Pulling a whip off his belt the commander and his second waded into the sea of orcs beating them off one another and calling for an end to the brawling.  In moments the camp had stilled and the orcs sat in small groups muttering curses at each other under their breaths and tending their own wounds, laughing about what had just happened.

 

A thick, black, heady mead was brought out and passed around.  Soon the orcs were toasting themselves long into the night until most of them began to doze, intoxicated and worn out. 

 

The sentries were set and a scowling orc waddled over and dropped down near where Legolas sat holding Aragorn.  “Don’t even think about trying anything elf or I’ll send you to join the other maggot!” he growled before settling his chin forward to rest on the handle of his axe which he leaned against the ground. 

 

After about a half hour however, the guards’ eyes closed and his head fell forward on his breast.  The other sentries were not far behind. 

 

Legolas could hardly believe the dark creatures were so foolish, but then orcs had never been renown for their cleverness.  Plus, the fact that he had run twice now, and both times they had recaptured him without much trouble seemed to bolster their confidence.  Still the sentries nodded only fitfully, and any sudden movements would awaken them.  Legolas knew that if he gave even the slightest sign of causing trouble the orcs would beat him senseless if that kept him still enough for them to safely sleep off the rest of their grog.  Drunk orcs were dangerous orcs. 

 

After a little while, he began to slowly inch farther away from the encampment, pulling Aragorn with him, until his back touched the blackened wall that he had been manacled to earlier that day.  Their guard stirred and glanced at him crossly, but Legolas just leaned his slumped shoulders against the stone wall and closed his eyes as if a more comfortable resting place was his only aim. 

 

The orc grunted and stopped scrutinizing them, his eyes soon glazing over once more.  Legolas bent over the ranger and whispered softly to the still unconscious man.

 

“Estel.”  The elf brushed the dark locks of tangled hair away from the bruised face, “Estel wake up.”  He spoke softly in elvish, not wanting to disturb their guards.  Gently he felt the ranger’s chest and arms for breaks or fractures, but it seemed that Aragorn had survived his beating only badly bruised, save for the cut on his head.  The crush of the orcs around him had actually saved the human from being more severely wounded than he was.  For that Legolas was glad. 

 

Legolas’ hair brushed across the ranger’s face; the gentle touch and the sounds of the elvish language bringing him slowly around.  Aragorn started slightly, breathing quickly and glancing about them, his eyes wide and his body immediately tensing as his mind remembered the last few moments of consciousness.

 

“No, it is well.  They have forgotten us for the night.  Shhh...”  Legolas gently stilled his friend’s movements. “Relax.  You were beaten badly but there are no broken bones.”  The elf redirected his gaze from the sleeping orcs that shifted in their slumber back down to the face of the human that he still held in his arms.  He smiled slightly, careful of his split lip and Aragorn noticed that the faint light the elf gave off naturally brightened just a degree.

 

Returning the smile, Aragorn relaxed against his friend and let his breathing calm down as he took in their surroundings.

 

“We are not staked down?” The ranger asked quietly as he moved his chained wrist, trying to see the lock.  The metal clinked dully and he stopped moving.

 

“No.”  Legolas bent close near the ranger’s ear and spoke softly, his eyes watching the plain before them for any sign that their captors were awake, “I do not believe they thought you would recover.  They do not know how hard your head is my friend.”

 

Legolas was rewarded with another tenuous smile.

 

“They may have meant to do more, but these creatures cannot even keep mind together long enough to see to their own ends,” Legolas whispered with quiet disdain.  “Too much brawling and drink has taken care of that.  Our guard is sleeping off his portion of both.”

 

Slowly, and with help from the prince, Aragorn sat up and untangled the length of chain that connected them, moving quietly so that the elf was on his left.

 

“I suspect they thought you were much more seriously injured.” Legolas offered when Aragorn glanced back at the prince, one eyebrow raised in question upon seeing the sleeping camp. 

 

The ranger found it hard to believe the orcs hadn’t been more careful.  As though reading his thoughts Legolas continued, “Aragorn we are in Mordor, where would we go?”

 

“How about out of Mordor, and now!”  The ranger whispered back, “Whether intentionally or by accident, they will kill us before we reach Barad-Dûr, we cannot remain here any longer.”

 

“What do you suggest?”  Legolas glanced back at the area in front of them; it was strewn with the hulks of sleeping orcs.

 

Aragorn was eyeing the encampment intently.  He spied the slaves still picketed on the far side, trying to sleep in the awkward positions that their metal collars held them.  The orcs were asleep now, but they were everywhere, blocking all foreseeable means of escape.  Movement was risky, especially with the heavy, clinking chain that now connected them.  The ranger’s gaze continued to roam, seeking to light upon a source of inspiration for how they were going to get out of this. 

 

Near the fire the orcs had piled their cache of supplies.  He could just see by the light of the dying embers his knapsack and leaning against it were his sword and what looked like Legolas’ bow and quiver.

 

“Do you think you could handle your weapons at need?” Aragorn asked softly kneeling into a crouched position, his eyes still surveying the encampment.  He knew Legolas was weak, he wasn’t sure how weak.

 

“Perhaps, but they are long gone, the Corsairs took them.”  Legolas leaned against his friend for a moment, his weariness stealing back over him as his body began to ache once more now that the fear of losing his friend was over.

 

Aragorn turned quickly to the elf and knelt beside him, a little alarmed by the elf’s actions.  “Legolas what is it?”

 

“I am weary Aragorn.”  Tired blue eyes stared up into the silver ones.

 

“I know.”

 

“No, I am not sure you do.  This is no normal weariness, it is more.  We are in Mordor and the evil is heavy... so heavy.”  Legolas touched his heart lightly with the fingers of his free left hand.  He knew the human could not fully understand or appreciate the way the weight of the evil here hung upon the sensitive immortal heart; especially one that had been wounded. 

 

“And that my friend is why we are leaving tonight.”  Aragorn shifted in front of the elf and held the prince’s gaze, knowing that Legolas was nearing the limits of his strength.  It was a bad time to attempt a second escape, but Legolas’ health was not going to improve under the orcs captivity and they would likely never get another chance like this.

 

“We are going to go to that pile of supplies and retrieve my knapsack and our weapons, I ransomed yours from the Corsairs, but the orcs took them with mine.  Once we have them we shall set the slaves free,” Aragorn explained his plan. 

 

“The orcs will hear, we cannot!” Legolas gripped the man’s arms and held him tightly.  He hated his own momentary flash of cowardice, but as much as he wanted to help the others he feared being caught more.  He had suffered through it once and been spared the full brunt of it this time only because they had taken their rage out upon Aragorn and each other.  The same would not be true of a third time.  If the orcs beat him again, Legolas knew he would not survive.  

 

“Exactly.”  Aragorn smiled down into the worried face and braced his hands against Legolas’ shoulders.

 

“Has anyone told you lately that you are insane?” Legolas whispered fiercely.

 

“Not since Pelargir, no.” Aragorn laughed softly and explained himself, “Yes the orcs *will* hear my friend and that is good.  The camp will be in chaos, the fire has burned out and we can slip away in the darkness.  With everyone running in every direction our chances of being detected will be minimal and even if we are followed it will not be by half that horde, but only one or two.  Besides it will give the slaves a fair chance to escape as well, the only one I am able to offer them.  If everyone runs, there is a better chance that more will escape.  I made a promise to do what I could for them and I’ll keep it.”

 

He smiled slightly as the elf caught on to his plan, nodding slowly and glancing around the ranger’s shoulders.  “You are right as usual Mellon-nín.”  He whispered softly.  “Forgive me.  I am not myself.”

 

Aragorn’s heart ached.  After what his friend had been through he had no reason to apologize for anything.  However, when he answered, his words were light and meant to make the elf smile.  “Obviously you are not, or you wouldn’t be admitting I was right.”

 

He lifted the chain between them and held it up where the elf could see it, “We have to go together and thanks to this it will not be easy.  I know you are tired my friend, but do this with me and I will see that we get out of here.”  //Or die trying// the mental note was not added aloud. 

 

“I cannot use my weapons bound to you like I am.” Legolas stared hard at his friend.  These feelings of helplessness were not something the elf was used to or enjoyed as far as emotions went.  It seemed to him that he had been dogged by nothing but fear since they had entered Mordor’s borders.

 

“You can, I’ve been thinking about that and I will show you, but not tonight.  I’ll carry your bow and you take your quiver.  Your knives are still in it you will not be defenseless,” the ranger promised.

 

Legolas still hesitated, his stomach tight.  He had never felt this uneasy about anything before and he cursed himself for it, but it seemed so hard to overcome the weary apprehension that was attempting to nail him to the spot.  “Strider...”

 

Aragorn bit his lip.  Legolas was right; he was not acting like himself.  He couldn’t fault the elf, and yet he longed to have his confident friend back once more.  It hurt him to see the prince so lost. 

 

“Legolas... I know you are... wary, and that’s all right.  You would be crazy not to be, I am.  But we’ll make it out of this.  Somehow.”  The ranger could tell that the elf felt vulnerable and afraid, although he was careful not to use those words so as to avoid damaging his friend’s pride. 

 

Elves seemed to think they should be invulnerable to fear and second-guessing, and maybe they were more resistant, Aragorn didn’t know.  But those emotions were ones that the ranger had become used to as a human; ones that came and went frequently with the situations he had often found himself in throughout his life.  Lord Elrond had spent a lot of time when he was younger trying to convince him that there was nothing wrong with that, and it was your response to the fear that mattered.  It was odd to find himself on the other side of the argument this time, the one giving the encouragement, but he was not about to let the elf fall back into despair.

 

“Now, are you ready?”

 

Legolas smiled wearily and nodded.  “So long as you have hope enough for both of us my friend.  Faerthoniel,” he whispered in elvish.  “Spirit kindler.”

 

Aragorn leaned forward and rested his forehead against the elf’s.  They sat that way for a few moments, resting in the cool night air.  He could feel the way the prince trembled slightly and knew that once they were free they would need to find safety, and fast. 

 

“You think I need any more names my friend?” he whispered. 

 

Legolas chuckled.  “No, you certainly do not.”

 

Pushing back from the elf, Aragorn smiled before twisting on his bootheels and standing quietly to his feet.  Next to him Legolas rose as well.  The prince’s sharp sight even in the darkness gave him the advantage as he stepped forward, intending to step over their guard who had sunk down until he was lying on his side.

 

The heavy-set orc moved in his sleep, turning towards the two friends who dropped quickly back to the ground.  The dark creature’s eyes opened, mere slits as he gazed unseeingly at the duo, his mind still fogged with sleep and not awake.  With a groan he stretched and turned back over falling into a deep sleep once more.

 

“That was too close.”  Aragorn let out a heavy sigh and stood to his feet again, resting his hands on his knees as Legolas stood shakily next to them.

 

“Shall we try again?” The elf whispered.

 

With a nod Aragorn motioned for the prince to continue and they stepped lightly over their sleeping guard, threading their way quietly through the camp.

 

In moments they crouched by the mound of supplies.  Aragorn quickly retrieved his sword, strapping it on awkwardly as he tried to move around the chains and be fast, yet silent, about their escape.  Shifting his knapsack over his head and right shoulder he passed Legolas his weapons.  The prince threw the strap over his neck and eased into the harness while Aragorn picked up the elf’s bow and slung it over his back.

 

As they stood to leave, the ranger snagged a flask of water and shoved it into his pack.  He had no idea of the lay of the land and was not even sure Mordor had drinkable water.

 

Nearing the slaves, Aragorn held his right hand out to the elf.  Legolas placed one of his perfectly balanced knives in the upturned palm.  The ranger grasped the picket line that the slaves were all connected to and quickly cut the thick rope.  The bright eyes of the human nearest Aragorn gazed at him in fright and the people did not move when the rope that held them fast together slipped from the rings at their necks and dropped to the floor of the canyon.

 

“Go.” Aragorn whispered to the bearded man that crouched in front of him, watching the ranger intently.  When they did move, Aragorn stood to his feet, pulling Legolas up with him and running lightly away before calling back: “Run!”

 

An orc near the slaves stirred and rolled over.  One of the captive females screamed and leapt to her feet.  Pulling a teenaged child with her, they ran into the night, calling to the others.

 

In moments the camp was in chaos as the slaves went fleeing into the dark in every direction, stumbling over and into their captors and waking the orcs.  The dark creatures, sluggish from the alcohol they had imbibed, responded slowly at first, trying to understand what all the commotion was.

 

Gortag however had woken quickly and saw the ranger and the elf fleeing northward.  He called out to Graghnak, waking his captain.  The orc captain, seeing the slaves disappearing into the night began kicking his underlings, waking them quickly.  The snap of his whip could be heard as it licked the backs of the sleeping orcs.

 

The sharp crack of leather thongs spurred Aragorn and Legolas on.  The shouts of Graghnak echoed through the canyon spiking fear through the two escapees.

 

“Find the elf and that human, I want them brought back alive so they can know what it means to cross me!  Find them!”  He yelled kicking at a pack of orcs and pointing in the direction the prisoners had escaped to. “FIND THEM!!”  He threw a bow at one of his men to urge them on faster; his anger peaked as he spun around taking in the empty, disheveled camp.  This had never happened under his watch before and he would not tolerate a slave break-out. 

 

Gortag stood to his left and he growled at an underling.  With a sharp nod the orc ran off into the dark, chasing after the pack that was hunting the ranger and the elf.  The orc knew it would go badly for them if they returned empty handed.

 

Arrows whistled past Legolas’ head, flying blindly in the dark.  The elf ducked and shied to his right, stepping into Aragorn and causing them both to stumble off balance.

 

Aragorn grabbed Legolas and righted the elf, pushing him forward and ducking as a second volley rained down about them.

 

“We have to get out of sight!”  Legolas shouted at his friend.

 

Only sparing time to nod, the ranger increased his speed, forcing the elf to keep up with him as he frantically took in the darkened landscape about them.  The stars could not penetrate the thick haze that hung over Mordor and with the new moon all he had to guide them by was Legolas’ faint brightness.

 

Aragorn swerved midstep, dragging Legolas with him as he headed for a low dark ridge that rose on their left.  The face of the cliff was pocked with holes and caves their yawning openings a deep black against the night.  Without thinking the ranger ran for a large opening in the rocky wall.  They needed to lose their pursuers and he had an idea...

 

...an idea that did not sit well with his companion.  Seeing where the ranger intended to lead them, Legolas stopped running and yanked backwards hard on the short chain that connected their manacled wrists.

 

Aragorn nearly stumbled as his forward motion was stopped so abruptly and he swung around to see what had become of the prince.  The look on the elf’s face was nothing less than complete belligerence.

 

“Legolas come on!”  Aragorn glanced nervously behind them, he could hear the orcs closing in it would be mere seconds before they rounded the corner and came in full view of the two prisoners.  He knew this time they would never live through their punishment for escaping. “We can hide in the caves.  We can loose them there.  This land is too flat and there is nowhere to hide.  It’s our only chance!”

 

“We are in Mordor!”  The elf nearly shouted, “Do you have any idea what may live in a cave in Mordor?”

 

“I know that our pursers don’t.”  Aragorn jerked hard on the link that bound them together, dragging the unwilling prince forward a few steps.  “Now come on!”  He was nearly frantic.  “Legolas, what do you fear more?  The cave or the orcs?  We must go!  I swear I am NOT going to stand here and have this argument with you again!  Trust me!  Come!”

 

“I cannot go in there.”  The elf’s eyes were wide and dark, the sheer terror of evil that weighted down his soul just from being in the twisted, forsaken land of their enemy was wreaking havoc on the prince.  Being injured, and faced with going into places he hated at the best of times made it almost too much.  It was true, he feared being recaptured by the orcs more than he had ever thought it was possible to fear anything... but going into that yawning dark hole before them and being buried alive by the pressing weight of Mordor’s evil terrified him almost the same.  As much as Aragorn loved his friend, he truly could not understand what Legolas was going through, nor appreciate the torment their situation caused.  A human never could.

 

Even though they were not as far north yet as Gorgoroth, the elf could feel the evil as though it were the very air he breathed.  It skittered down his spine in eerie patterns, he heard it on the haunting winds that blew through the wasted canyons and when he breathed in the foul air of Mordor it caught in his chest and choked him.  The terror of the place gripped the elf’s heart and he was afraid that the dark, whispering voices were right and he would never make it out alive.  The darkness clouded his heart and his mind, fogging his reason. 

 

The burden Legolas felt did not weigh so heavily on his human companion.  Aragorn did not have the sensitivity of the elven race to feel the terrible oppression of evil that permeated in the land Sauron had claimed, yet even he was aware of a deep, vague dread that had constantly echoed in his heart from the moment he had crossed the westernmost mountain-fence of Mordor in search of his friend. 

 

From not very far away the brutish language of the orcs rang clearly in his ears, shattering the two friends’ impasse. 

 

They were out of time. 

 

Chapter Text

___________________________________________________________

 

~*PART FIVE*~

 

 

~~~~~~~~~

I will not pretend to feel the pain you’re going through,

I know I cannot comprehend the hurt you’ve known...

And I used to think it mattered if I understood

Now I just don’t know.

 

But if you need to cry go on and I,

I will cry along with you.

 

--Steven Curtis Chapman

~~~~~~~~~

 

 

 

Grabbing the elf by the shoulders Aragorn bodily forced the prince into the mouth of the cave.  The prince gasped in pain at the rough handling and struggled for the briefest of moments, making Aragorn’s hammering heart clench tightly in anguish.  They were out of time and had no choice; he was simply going to hope his friend could forgive him for this later, if they lived to see later. 

 

Once over the threshold, Legolas did not resist him.  The internal battle he faced silenced as a state of shock, a combination of his injuries and the ever-present evil, shut down his defense, turning him inward.  He stumbled after the human that led him, following Aragorn down through a dizzying maze of tunnels and caverns.

 

After they crossed through the first offshoot in the underground system Aragorn awkwardly stuffed his hand into the knapsack slung over his arm, pulling out a small hand full of Athelas, he spilled the dried leaves and flowers out sparingly at every turn they made.  He had no intention of dying in this forsaken place and doubted very highly that if they were followed any orc would ever notice the sparsely dropped trail, and even if they did, the wholesome sent of the plant would repulse them enough to leave it alone.  He hated to waste his small store of herbs, but it was the best thing he could think of at the moment. 

 

When they could no longer even hear the echo of the orcs’ voices or footsteps anywhere in the massive underground stillness, Aragorn allowed their frantic pace to slow.  Stumbling to a stop in the large cavern they found themselves entering, the ranger walked slowly to the far wall and leaned against it, bracing himself with his hands, trying to still his ragged breathing.  Legolas stood numbly beside him and waited.

 

When Aragorn finally glanced around them he noted that the cavern they stood in had been occupied before, long ago apparently.  The skeletons of two humans sat against the wall opposite them, barely visible in the faint light that Legolas cast.  A small cache of clothing and torches lay piled near the two corpses.

 

Slowly Aragorn turned around, causing Legolas to have to turn with him as well.

 

“That will be us.”  The elf whispered quietly.

 

The ranger walked towards the skeletons, dragging his friend unwillingly with him.  Crouching down near the abandoned supplies he rummaged through them, grabbing a few pieces of cloth that weren’t too soiled and collecting what kindling and small pieces of wood were left, stuffing them into his sack. 

 

Picking up a few of the discarded torches he tucked them under his right arm.  Now, this close to the skeletons, Aragorn could see the large metal rings that sat about their necks, resting on the bones of their breastplates – they had been slaves.  In all probability they had escaped to this very cavern and then later died here trying to find their way out again. 

 

“Let's go.”  Aragorn stood to his feet and led Legolas back the way they had come, resisting a shiver.  “There was a good sized cavern a few turns back, we’ll be safe there.  I can’t hear the orcs anymore, I think they’ve given up.”

 

Legolas was staring at the dead slaves as the ranger walked them back out of the cave, his thoughts as dark as the tunnels about them.  The glow from the elf faded slightly and Aragorn stumbled, turning back to his friend in worry.

 

“Legolas what is it?”  He had noticed the unusual dimness of the elf’s natural light ever since had found him.  It had brightened a little when they escaped, but now it was fading once more. 

 

The prince shook his head mutely.  Everything had been too much for him lately and this, this being drug into the bowels of a cave in Mordor had been the final straw.

 

“All right.  It’s all right.”  Aragorn noted the lost look the elf laid on him and the ragged, shallow breathing of his friend.  They needed to get somewhere safe quickly and rest for a bit.  Removing a piece of flint from his knapsack he forcefully struck it against the edge of his sword, moving carefully to keep from jerking Legolas around while he lit one of the torches they had found.

 

It was hard to console his friend with his left hand chained to Legolas’ as it was, so he very gently took the elf’s hand in his own and slowly led them back to the large, secluded cavern.  As much as he didn’t care for the thought of keeping company with a pair of skeletons, it was the best place to make a temporary camp. 

 

“Come on Legolas, we’ll be fine.  We just need to rest.”  Aragorn moved to the back of the cave, placing them at the farthest point from the two tunnels that led away to whatever unknown darkness lay beyond.

 

“I do not need to rest.”  Legolas was glancing around them warily, considering his options.  If he were not bound to the human as he was, the ranger would have had a very hard time getting the stubborn elf to remain here like this.  The elf couldn’t imagine staying in the cave; not here, not like this, not when even above ground he felt the suffocating presence of evil everywhere.  It was like being smothered. 

 

“Yes you do.”  Aragorn crossed his legs and sat down on the rocky ground, pulling the elf down with him, “And so do I.” 

 

Legolas glared hard at the ranger but the anger wasn’t directed at the human, it was frustration over the situation. 

 

Aragorn smiled softly at the elf. 

 

Legolas watched as the human set aside their weapons and allowed the ranger to take his quiver from him; gently pulling it over the elf’s head, careful of his bruised shoulders and laying it beside the elven bow.

 

“I’m going to make a fire, so bear with me.  I’ll need to move around you a bit.”  The human stared into the large blue eyes that watched him carefully as he moved into a crouched position and twisted on his boot heels until he faced Legolas.

 

He was very grateful that the length of chain that connected them was at least a foot in length, as it allowed him room to maneuver while Legolas rested.  Aragorn smiled slightly to himself as he piled the sticks and kindling he had collected and once more removed his flint, striking it and setting the tinder on fire.  His companion was doing anything but resting.  The elf was tense as a bowstring and hadn’t spoken since Aragorn told him to rest.  The ranger was going to need to do something if he expected either one of them to get any sleep that night at all.

 

With the tiny fire sparking merrily, bathing the cavern in a warm golden glow Aragorn sat down crosslegged, still facing his friend, and emptied the contents of his knapsack.  The small metal pot he carried with him fell out, ringing loudly in the cramped confines.  Legolas jumped, refocusing his attention on what the ranger was doing.

 

Aragorn pulled out the small sack of Athelas he had brought with him from Gondor and set it aside before unstopping the flask of water that they carried and pouring a small amount of it in the pot.

 

“We cannot waste the water it is all we have.”  Legolas voice was a mere whisper.

 

“I am not wasting it.”  Aragorn replied softly, preoccupied with what he was doing.

 

The region of Mordor lay in a valley about fifty feet below sea level and so the water in the pot boiled a lot faster and a lot hotter than it normally would have.  Aragorn, aware of this, carefully watched the water level as it quickly warmed.  Legolas was right about one thing, this was their only flask of water and they would need every drop of it if they could not find more.

 

When the water had reached its boiling point Aragorn removed it from the fire.  Wrapping one of the old shirts he had taken from the previous cavern around his hand to keep from burning himself he set the pot down next to him and sprinkled a large handful of athelas into the water.

 

Legolas glanced slowly up to meet his gaze when the ranger turned back to the elf.

 

“We need to stay here tonight and perhaps tomorrow night as well.  Until the orcs have moved well on.  This will help make the air a bit more breathable.”

 

The elf did not respond and Aragorn’s heart went out to his friend.  The bruises on the prince’s cheeks were turning a deep purple and blood had caked in the corner of his mouth where his lip had split.  Dirty blonde hair spilled over the elf’s shoulders and fell in tangles about his face.  The slump of the proud shoulders belied more than Legolas was willing to say.

 

“You need to rest.”  Aragorn said softly.  His statement provoked no response.  With a sigh the ranger glanced to the rocky floor, he ached more than he was willing to admit himself.  The beating they had taken had left him more wrung out than he had realized and his body was beginning to stiffen up painfully.   He pushed the thoughts brusquely aside; it was Legolas’ loss of spirit that frightened him.

 

“Here.”  He spoke the word gently as he moved behind Legolas, causing the elf to have to cross his right arm across his chest to accommodate the ranger as Aragorn seated himself behind the prince.

 

Knowing his words weren’t reaching the elf any longer; Aragorn gently took hold of Legolas’ shoulders and drew the prince back, carefully forcing him to lie against the ranger’s chest.

 

Legolas shook his head a little but did not resist.

 

“Yes, my friend.  Relax.”  Aragorn whispered into the elf’s ear as he stirred the athelas with his free right hand, releasing more of the sweet scent into the air.  He threw another stick on the fire before turning his attention to Legolas once more.  He knew the prince had wounds that needed tending, but it was too difficult right now, chained as he was, and his own body was begging for rest.  It was hard to move with their wrists manacled together so he simply let his left hand rest on the elf’s left shoulder, gently moving his fingers in soothing patterns.

 

Legolas’ right hand caught Aragorn’s fingers, stilling the ranger’s movements as he tightened his hold on the human with the feel of someone who was looking for a lifeline to keep from floundering.

 

“I’m right here.  We are safe.  They’ll never find us down here,” Aragorn assured softly. 

 

“We’ll never find our way out.”  Legolas voice was a mere whisper.

 

“Yes we will; I made sure of it.”  Aragorn gently placed his right hand over Legolas’ forehead, his fingers brushing the elf’s face and causing the prince to close his eyes as he slowly drew Legolas’ head back to rest in the hollow of his shoulder.  “Now just close your eyes and relax.”

 

The elf was too tense under his touch so the ranger continued to speak quietly, slipping without thought into elvish.  “Keep your eyes closed, you can't see the cave ceiling then.” He explained himself, “Now breathe in deeply.”

 

Doing as he was told, Legolas’ overwrought senses were assaulted by the sweet clean smell of athelas and he relaxed unconsciously, shakily releasing his breath before taking another deep draught of the clean air into his lungs.

 

Aragorn smiled softly as he felt the tension slowly leave his friend.  “Imagine we are in that meadow, the one just to the north of Rivendell.”

 

“The one we had to spend the night in because you wouldn’t pay attention to me?”  Legolas questioned, his silent laughter could be felt against Aragorn’s chest.

 

The ranger rolled his eyes as he tossed another small twig on the fire. “Yes that one.  You will never let me live that down will you?”  He didn’t mind the teasing barb, he was simply glad the elf was speaking and beginning to calm down.

 

Legolas, his eyes still closed, smiled slightly as he shook his head, “No.”

 

“Well it wasn’t my fault there was a hole there.  You could *not* see it from the trail.”  Aragorn tried to defend himself; they had been over this before.

 

“I saw it and I warned you.” Legolas’ smile widened, “You were being arrogant and you thought you were the better tracker.”

 

“I am the better tracker.”

 

“You weren’t then.”

 

Aragorn gave the elf a small shove, eliciting a quiet laugh from the fair being. “Well you could have gotten me out instead of laughing at me and then I wouldn’t have been in quite such bad shape.  That was how I twisted my ankle!”

 

“Oh no.  You didn’t fall in a hole.  There was no hole there, remember?  You’re the better tracker and you insisted there was no hole.”  Legolas snickered at their gentle teasing.

 

“You go ahead and laugh but the look on your face when Elladan blew your cover and told us that they had found you stuck in that same hole earlier that week was priceless.”

 

“I couldn’t believe he told.”  Legolas opened his eyes and tried to glance over his shoulder.  He tensed slightly when the walls of the cavern crushed back down on him.  Instantly Aragorn’s hand was covering his face once more.

 

“Close your eyes.”  He whispered in the elf’s ear, moving his face around the tangled blonde hair and laying his head against Legolas’, “Just remember the meadow.”

 

After a few moments of silence he spoke again, “Can you see it?”

 

“Yes.”  Legolas relaxed again, although his grip on the ranger’s hand had not lessened.

 

“Do you remember how the stars looked?  It was close to mid-summer and they were bright and huge and the night was lit by their presence.”  He stirred the athelas again, pushing the small pot back near the fire to keep it warm and throwing more of the dried weed into the water.

 

“Yes. I remember Eärendil being especially bright that evening.”  Legolas pressed against the ranger and stiffly stretched out on the rocky floor, his mind far away and his thoughts freed from the confines of their rocky prison as he crossed his ankles and relaxed.

 

“I remember the bugs.”  Aragorn spoke quietly, causing Legolas to laugh again.

 

“You would remember something like that.”

 

“Well I thought there were only bugs that big in Mirkwood!”  Aragorn could feel the elf slowly giving into his body’s desire for sleep.

 

Taking a deep breath Legolas sighed and began to softly hum a tune Aragorn hadn’t heard in years, it was the slave’s lullaby that Cabed’s family had sung themselves to sleep with.

 

Memory surfaced and the ranger spoke quietly.  “I saw Kidrin in Gondor, below Lithiant.  He was with the slaves we freed there.  He says the Simbani are well and they send their greetings.”

 

Legolas stopped humming and listened to the sound of the ranger’s voice as it thrummed against his back. 

 

“I meant to ask you how it went for the Gondorian army after I was taken, but it slipped my mind.” The elf quietly answered.

 

With a small snort of amusement Aragorn nodded, “Wonder why.”  When the prince laughed lightly he continued.  “It went well.  We found the traitor.”

 

Legolas grew very still and quiet as he thought back on the past half a year he had been away from home.

 

“It wasn’t you who killed those two young soldiers Legolas.  Denethor, Castamir and all the others know it now.  It may not be much of a comfort, but at least they know the truth.  They know that you were set up.  You have been cleared of all the charges the Gondorian army levied against you.”  Aragorn tried to see the elf’s face but was unable to; the silence that stretched between them was difficult to wait out.

 

“They should have not have died like they did.”  Legolas’ voice was very quiet when he spoke.  “Alcarin was kind to me.  His betrayal was painful.  I still don’t understand it.”

 

“He used you to throw suspicion off of himself, I’m sorry my friend.  You met them on the road to visit me at just the wrong time and he used it to his advantage.  Stealing those weapons and killing those boys had always been part of his plan.  His father was Corsair, his mother Gondorian but she died when he was young and the bigotry between the two races killed whatever conscience he had when his father died fighting for Gondor and yet was branded a traitor by the very people he died defending.”

 

Legolas nodded slightly but did not reply so Aragorn continued speaking, “When I could not find you I feared the worst but hoped you had merely escaped.  I left Tarcil to hunt for any traces of you while I convinced Lord Ecthelion to let me take a contingent down against the Corsairs.  I am so sorry I could not come sooner.  Ecthelion conceded, sending me back with more than enough troops and we destroyed their shipyard and all their soldiers and took their supplies.  I found the second slaver’s vessel among the warships and we freed the slaves.  It was there that I met up with Kidrin; the slavers had taken him a few weeks earlier.  He was the one that told me he had seen the slavers take you aboard the first ship and pointed me in the right direction.  I never would have known if it weren’t for him.”  Aragorn tightened his hold on the elf in his arms.  “I was just glad to see him and hear of you.”

 

“It is good that it went well for Gondor.”  Legolas sighed deeply letting the past and its pain slip from his thoughts.  He hadn’t realized that he had nearly been lost for good and quickly changed the subject.  “I am glad you found Kidrin, how is he?”

 

Aragorn smiled to himself, “Tall! You would not believe how he has grown.”

 

“Humans do that.”

 

“Do what?”  The human questioned softly.

 

“Grow up.”  Legolas smiled sadly, an expression his friend could not see.  As Aragorn thought on what he said the elf began to quietly hum once more, the familiar soothing song filling the cavern.

 

The ranger smiled softly, feeling his own aching body begging for rest. 

 

Yes, humans do grow up, he thought, thinking back on the life he had lived with men for the past fifteen years and all he had learned.  He was simply content that he was now in the company of an elf once more, even if their circumstances were not what he would have wished. 

 

Shifting slowly, Aragorn repositioned himself behind the prince and rested back against the rocky wall behind him.  Throwing a few more scraps of wood on the fire and mounting the small flames higher he relaxed, content it would last for a few hours of sleep.

 

Gently brushing Legolas’ hair out of his face, Aragorn rested his head back against the elf’s.  He could still feel the prince humming softly but the tune was becoming more faint as Legolas fell asleep.  “It will work out all right Legolas.  You’ll see, we really will see those stars again.  I promise you.”

 

The soft humming ceased as the human and the elf fell asleep, exhausted from the abuse and the stress of the previous day.  Next to them the athelas boiled merrily away, filling the cavern with the sweet smell of a land far away to the north that haunted their dreams.

 

 

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

 

 

Aragorn watched the orc patrol party march out of sight from his hiding place behind the large boulder he and Legolas were crouching next to.  He slid as far around the rock as he could, his back pressed against the warm black chunk of stone.

 

They had passed into the barren lands of Gorgoroth a few days ago, nearing the northwestern edge of Mordor.  The black walls of the Ephel Dùath, the mountain-fence that surrounded the dark lands, rose steadily into the sooty sky on their left. The landscape was dreary and desolate and places to hide from the increasing amounts of orc parties that moved through dry hills and shale valleys were becoming scarce.  Stretching his neck, the ranger peered in the direction of the sound of the fading orcs voices, content they had not been spotted.  The ranger’s arm was jerked slightly as Legolas flopped back against the rock with a sigh.

 

“What’s wrong?”  Aragorn immediately redirected his attention.  Legolas’ flagging spirit still bothered the human.

 

“What’s wrong?!” the elf repeated what the man had said.  Holding up the chain that linked them together.  “This is what’s wrong and...and this!” Legolas swept his free hand about them.  “Hiding behind rocks in Mordor from orc patrols.  If I had free use of my hands I would have slain them all.  I am tired of this hiding and sneaking about, tired of Mordor and tired of being your shadow.” He gave the chain a good yank, his frustration getting the best of him.  He wasn’t mad at the human he was mad at their circumstances, but his friend was getting the brunt of it.

 

Aragorn shifted, crossing his legs under him and seating himself so he faced the elf, his left hand rested lightly on his knee near the prince’s thigh.  Legolas wouldn’t even meet his gaze.

 

“I’m sorry...” the elf muttered after a few moments but was silenced as his right hand was gently covered by the ranger’s.

 

“Don’t be.”  Aragorn glanced around them, “You’re right.  This is wrong and we are going to get out of here, soon.” 

 

“You have been saying that for a week or more.  Your definition of ‘soon’ is questionable Aragorn, unless you have started keeping elf-time.”  Some of the real irritation had bled out of the elf’s voice, leaving only the dry humor behind. 

 

When the elf rolled his eyes and glanced at the man out of the corner of them the ranger couldn’t help laughing before quickly continuing, “Look we can't be far from the gates...”

 

“And you expect to walk right through them.  Or better yet ask nicely to be let out?”

 

“You’re annoying when you’re sarcastic, has anyone ever told you that?”  Aragorn couldn’t stifle the smile that threatened to spread across his face as his friend lay a dark, mirthless gaze on the human.  Holding up his right hand in a gesture of peace he continued, “No I do not suggest we ask to be let out, but they must open those gates eventually.  Dagorlad lays just beyond them, the orcs never pass through there I have been told.  We can easily loose them in the wastelands, its nearly all swamp now anyway and the woods are not far beyond that.  They will not follow us.”

 

Legolas nodded in agreement.  He was not sure he felt up to the challenge but neither did he want to die in the evil land they were crossing.  His eyes drifted to the smoky canopy that sealed them in the rocky valley.  He realized Aragorn was still talking and glanced back at the ranger who was now holding the elf’s bow in his hands.

 

“So?  Do you want to me show you?” Aragorn smiled impishly.

 

“I’m sorry I didn’t hear what you said.”  Legolas frowned slightly, asking the man to repeat himself, which Aragorn did with easy patience, his eagerness shining through the silver eyes that watched the prince closely.

 

“I know how you can shoot your bow even though we are chained together, I’ve been thinking about it.  Do you want me to show you?”  Aragorn was watching his friend carefully.  He passed the elven weapon off to Legolas and raised his eyebrow in question, he really hoped this worked.  He had tried everything he could to raise the elf’s spirits, this was his last idea, but it was also his best.  He held his breath hoping the prince wouldn’t say no.

 

With a small nod the elf slowly began to mirror the smile the human favored him with.  He pushed the sweaty blonde locks that fell into his eyes away from his face.  Normally unaware of the temperatures around him, the elf was more susceptible to the heat here in Mordor because of the evil that clung to him like the sulfur clouds that hugged the edges of the valley cliffs.

 

The promise of being able to use his weapons once more had brought back a spark to his eyes and it pleased Aragorn’s heart, but the elf’s susceptibility to their surroundings was not lost on the ranger and he tugged the prince back into a seated position, passing the flask of water to the fair being.

 

Legolas was confused and shook his head, “I am not thirsty.”

 

“Your body is.”  Aragorn pushed the gourd towards the elf again overriding his companion’s denials.  “Yes, Legolas, you need to drink.  You have barely eaten or taken any sustenance, I know you think you can push yourself as you have many times in past, but trust me on this, your body cannot handle it now.  Drink or we’ll not move an inch from this place.”

 

The elf glared at the human, finally accepting the flask muttering to himself, “That’s probably how those two slaves in the cave died, one of them was a stubborn ranger.”

 

“Yes, well the other would have been a bullheaded elf then.” Aragorn returned the glare the blue eyes held as Legolas tipped the flask to his lips, inadvertently causing the ranger to have to move closer to him as he drank deeply.

 

The water was tepid but cool to Legolas’ parched throat and he felt the liquid all the way down to his stomach, sighing slightly as the coolness refreshed him.

 

“Told you.” Aragorn leaned nearer and whispered playfully.

 

Responding with lighting speed to the jibe, the elf pushed the ranger back, forgetting momentarily that they were attached by the chain.

 

Aragorn rocked backwards, pulling Legolas into himself and bursting out laughing.  “You forgot!”  He taunted, holding up the links.

 

“I did no such thing.” Legolas tried to stifle his own smile and stand awkwardly to his feet, attempting to maintain his dignity while pulling the laughing ranger up with him, “Quiet your voice or the orcs will hear you!” He cautioned, dramatically glancing off to their right where the patrol had passed.

 

His warning only caused the ranger to laugh harder as he was halfway pulled to his feet by the elf.  “If that were the case, they would have heard you whining about Mordor long before they ever heard me.  Admit it; you forgot we are chained together.”

 

“I will not.”  Legolas bent down to retrieve his bow.  Straightening up he couldn’t help smiling at the ranger who was watching him, “Are you going to show me your brilliant idea about how to fire this thing while hampered by you or not?”

 

Trying to unsuccessfully catch his breath and stop laughing Aragorn glanced around them before pointing to a small, dead scrub brush that was growing from a crack in large boulder about a hundred yards to their left, “There that’s a good place.”  He led them towards the makeshift practice range.

 

As Aragorn stepped passed him, Legolas shoved his bow between the man’s feet, tangling them up and tripping him hard.  Aragorn gasped in surprise but did not hit the ground as strong hands gripped his elbow and quickly righted him, holding him in place until he got his feet underneath him.

 

He turned a surprised glance at Legolas who was trying hard to conceal a smile, “Oh I’m sorry I didn’t mean to trip you.”  The elf lied.

 

Giving his friend a playful shove the human laughed, simply glad that the elf’s spirits were rising.  “I’ll get you for that.”  He threatened as they stopped fifty yards from the intended target.

 

Suddenly turning serious Legolas handed his bow to Aragorn, “How do you suggest that I shoot with my hand tied so to yours?  You have seen me shoot Estel, I can't defend us restrained like this.”  He rattled the offensive chain, earnestly holding his friend’s gaze.

 

“That’s what I’ve been thinking about.”  Aragorn handed the bow back to the elf, pressing the smooth wood into the prince’s left hand.  “Shoot the bow; take the far left branch off that dead bush, the one that sticks out at an odd angle.”  When the elf continued to look at him questioningly he continued, “Pretend I’m not here, do everything like you normally would.”  He nodded in encouragement when Legolas raised the weapon and concentrated on the small, stunted tree.

 

Blocking out all else, the elf narrowed his vision, breathing in rhythm to his heartbeat.  Reaching swiftly over his shoulder, the clinking of chain startled him and he flinched slightly before grabbing an arrow from his quiver and stringing it on the bow.  The notch fit smoothly against the string and in moments he let the projectile fly, momentarily forgetting he was impaired by his human companion when the arrow nicked the branch, clipping it from the dry scrub brush.

 

Legolas turned towards the ranger in surprise as Aragorn let out a quiet sound of victory. 

 

“I knew it would work.”  He smiled into the fair being’s face as the elf wordlessly asked for an explanation.

 

“Do it again in slow motion and I’ll show what I did.” Aragorn stepped slightly back behind the elf standing just adjacent to the elf’s right shoulder.

 

As Legolas reached back to the quiver Aragorn’s hand brushed the fletchings before the elf’s and quickly slipped one of the tips higher, making the wood shaft easy for the prince to grasp.  As Legolas gripped the arrow and slipped it onto the string the ranger moved forward with the elf’s motions, keeping the tension on the chain at a minimum.  He had seen the prince in action so many times that the elf’s movements were like dance steps to him and the ranger marked them out in his mind.  He watched Legolas intently once the arrow had been strung and noticed the way the elf’s right eye squeezed slightly shut just before he loosed the projectile.  True to form the elf concentrated, narrowed his right eye and released the arrow.  It was an almost imperceptible, nearly unconscious reaction that Aragorn was sure Legolas didn’t even realize he was doing. But it was enough to tip off the ranger of when to move and how as the elf fired the long bow.

 

“How did you know?”  Legolas turned incredulously towards the ranger, “How did you know when I’d release the arrow?  When to move?”

 

Aragorn pointed at the prince’s right eye, “You narrow your right eye just before you fire.”  He smiled softly, “I’ve been going over the way you shoot in my mind and I thought I remembered that.”

 

Nodding slowly Legolas smiled, “It worked.”

 

“I know.”

 

“Let's try it again.”  The elf asked excitedly.  It felt so good to go through the familiar motions again, like reclaiming a part of himself from the shadows.  He was *not* helpless.

 

Affecting an air of indifference and mocked agedness the ranger glanced at the prince, “Just like teaching the young ones.”  He spoke patiently, raising his eyebrows in a condescending manner.

 

Legolas stared at the human for a few seconds, knowing it was a joke but not quite remembering why.  Then his memories swung suddenly back to a time far in the past when he had said those exact words to a much younger ranger than the one that now stood next to him.  Bursting out laughing the elf clapped Aragorn on the back.

 

“Yes! Just like teaching the young ones.”  He smiled into the bright silver eyes that echoed his laughter, “So can we try it again?”

 

With a light laugh the ranger stepped behind the elf, “By all means, let’s try again.”  He moved in rhythm with the elf, shifting faster and faster as Legolas slowly gained his speed and confidence. 

 

//I may never know what it is about you and your bow my friend, but it worked then and it works now and seeing you smile again is all that matters to me.//  Aragorn thought with a small smile. 

 

The elf’s hand reached back to grasp another arrow only to be caught by the ranger’s fingers.  Legolas turned slightly, startled by the contact having forgotten for a few moments that the ranger stood so closely to him.

 

“You’ve run out of arrows my friend.” Aragorn smiled softly and started walking towards the scrub brush the elf had been practicing on.  The dead bush had been reduced to merely a twig as the two collected the spent arrows.

 

Legolas accepted the last of the retrieved weapons, staring wordlessly at his friend.  The ranger couldn’t quite read the elf’s expression and he was caught off guard by the openness of the gaze.

 

“What is it?”  Aragorn tipped his head slightly, trying to gauge the prince’s mood.

 

“I was wrong.”

 

Raising his eyebrows in question Aragorn shook his head slightly confused by the elf’s admission.

 

“Not only was I wrong, I was conceited.  I am sorry I complained about being chained to you.”  Legolas smiled slightly and looked to the walls of Mordor that were even closer than they had been days before.  “You are not hampering me and I am not unhappy to shadow or be shadowed by you, human.”

 

Aragorn laughed softly at the friendly taunt.  “Legolas I never took what you said to heart.  It is this land,” He motioned around them, “It is foul and it covers the heart with heaviness.”  The ranger’s smile turned impish and he moved back a pace before continuing, “Besides once we get back to the forests I am sure that that prissy haughtiness will return to you.”  He ducked the smack the elf aimed at him but couldn’t escape the playful hit.

 

Wrapping his fist in the chain that held them together he pulled the elf towards him, snatching the arrows from Legolas’ hand and stuffing them into his quiver.  “Now what say you we head northwest and find a way out of this accursed place?”

 

Chapter Text

___________________________________________________________

 

~*PART SIX*~

 

 

~~~~~~~~~

It’s such a privilege for me to give this gift to you,

All I’d ever hope you’d give me in return

Is to know that you’ll be there to do the same for me,

When the tables turn.

 

--Steven Curtis Chapman

~~~~~~~~~

 

 

 

Even though it was only early in the morning the pair of refugees was worn out; wearied from the continual heat and the press of evil that occupied the land they were trapped in.  They had been walking all night taking advantage of what coolness the darkness offered.  Amazingly, Mordor did not stir in the darkened hours and their progress had been uninhibited.

 

They had encountered little in the dry, dead wastes over the duration of their long trek.  How long it had been they couldn’t even say anymore.  Time seemed to stop and blend together here as did night and day, fusing into one, long, horrible endlessness with nothing to break its monotony.  There were few signs of life, fewer trees... and no water. 

 

Now and then they saw orc patrols crisscrossing the terrain and had to hide.  Much to their great annoyance they were aware every now and again that the orc patrol they had escaped from before was still on their heels.  Or at least some of them were.  The fugitives had avoided even letting their hunters get near them thus far, but it was a constant hassle and the two friends could not believe that the dark creatures were this stubborn.  They did not seem to know the meaning of the word ‘give up’. 

 

Ahead, the parched land shimmered slightly and the cracks fused together as they ran down a shallow bank towards where had once been a small pool of water.  But even that pond had now dried up into almost nothing more than a cracked indentation in the ground.

 

“I need to rest for a moment.” Aragorn mumbled as he stumbled towards the edges of the small pond and sank down beside the thin shimmer of water that yet remained in the bottom of the stagnant pool. 

 

Their own water had run out two days ago and they had been on incredibly short rations before that.  Aragorn’s mouth was dry and thick feeling; his head reeled slightly from the dehydration that was taking hold of him.

 

Legolas flopped down next to the human, his eyes intently scanning the valley floor for any movement.  He was thirsty, but his body had begun to regain a little of its former strength as he started to heal and could still outlast a human’s. 

 

When the chain rattled between them and he felt Aragorn moving behind him he shifted his arm back to give the man more freedom to move around.  He wasn’t paying attention to what the ranger was up to as he caught his breath and watched the valley floor lighten as the sun rose in the east.

 

Quiet sounds behind the elf caught his attention and he rolled over quickly; Aragorn was drinking from the pool behind them.

 

“Strider!”  Legolas grabbed the chain that bound them and jerked the man backwards away from the shallow, muddy hole.  “What are you doing?”  The elf knelt over the water and smelled it, while holding the ranger back with his right hand.  He grimaced as the odor of staleness wafted up to him.

 

Aragorn wiped his mouth on his sleeve and frowned at the elf.

 

Pushing himself back away from the edge of the pond, Legolas knelt in front of Aragorn, matching the frown on the human’s face.

 

“You drank that?” Legolas pointed at the water.  When Aragorn glanced at the pool behind the elf he continued, “You are ranger!  You could not tell that water is foul?”

 

Aragorn met the elf’s gaze hesitantly.  What he knew with his head and what his body demanded were two different things.  Wagering death from dehydration against water-poisoning was a tricky proposition however.  He swallowed hard, licking his lips and testing the taste in his mouth.  “It does leave a nasty aftertaste in my mouth.  Are you sure?”  The ranger tried to lean over and smell the water but the elf restrained him.

 

“I’m not going to drink from it again!” Aragorn protested as Legolas touched the back of his fingers to the ranger’s forehead.

 

“I can’t believe you did that!”  Legolas sighed heavily.  “You will be lucky if you aren’t sick in a few hours.  Can you throw up?”

 

“Can I throw up?”  Aragorn stared incredulously at the elf, “No, I can’t throw up!  I don’t feel sick.  I can’t throw up if I’m not sick. It’s not just something we humans *do* you know.”  The ranger was angry with himself.  He should have known better, he should have paid attention, he should have not taken the chance.  He was tired and thirsty and his senses were dulled.  He was sick of this place.  It clogged ones brain like dust clogged the airways, making everything difficult.  Trying to support Legolas’ often depressed moods and his own battle against the elements had completely worn him out. 

 

Legolas sat a foot away from him, staring at the ranger, not answering the angry tirade.

 

After a few moments the man spoke up.  “I’m sorry.” Aragorn whispered with a sigh, “I was just really thirsty and I wasn’t much paying attention...well fine, I wasn’t paying attention at all.” He confessed, highly disturbed by his own carelessness.  “It’s this place, I hate it here.”

 

“I know.”  Legolas glanced over their shoulder as the sound of rocks skittering down the high walls resounded quietly through the empty desolate valley.

 

“Do you really think it’s poisoned?”

 

Glancing back at the ranger Legolas shook his head slowly, “Poisoned no, but foul, yes.  It may make you sick and we have nothing to counter it with.  We’ll need to find you clean water and quickly.”

 

“Good luck there.”  Aragorn swept his arm around them before letting it fall into his lap dejectedly.  The water had left an even worse taste in his mouth now and he regretted his actions a bit too late.  Perfect.  He’d made a mistake he would have upbraided one of his green new recruits for back when he was a Captain in Gondor.  Legolas was right, this place turned people into strange, muddled versions of themselves and that was not pleasant. 

 

Legolas shifted his gaze and swept the area behind them again as the soft sounds of rocks falling from heights once more caught his attention. “We cannot linger.  We are not alone I fear.  Let us get as far from here as possible until you are unable to travel well, if that should happen.  I pray the Valar that you will not fall ill, but I am expecting it.”

 

Nodding in resignation and not arguing with the gloomy prognosis, which was no more than his own experience told him, Aragorn shifted stiffly to his knees and gained his feet.  He followed dejectedly after the elf, silently berating himself as they walked steadily towards the shadow of the stone fence that surrounded the forsaken land.

 

“Just wait until your brothers hear about this.” Legolas jested lightly, trying to pick their mood back up again. “A ranger who can’t take of himself, or tell foul water from fresh...”

 

“They will *not* hear, not a word of it.”  Aragorn jerked the chain between them lightly, “Do you understand?  Are you listening to me?”

 

Legolas feigned disinterest as though he had not heard a word that the human had spoken, eliciting a snort of derision from the ranger, “Right, with ears like that...”  Aragorn let the taunt fall, laughing as the elf turned a glower in his direction.

 

“Human.”

 

“Elf.” The ranger growled back at him good naturedly, giving Legolas a shove and unbalancing him slightly much to the prince’s amusement.

 

 

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

 

 

The wasted desert region of Mordor, known as Gorgoroth, ‘place of very great dread’ was living up to its name, Legolas thought darkly, as he plodded slowly on, his right hand tightly grasping Aragorn’s forearm, steadying the ranger.  Even without the direct light from the sun, the air they breathed was hot and thick.  The heat of the noon day became trapped beneath the ash laden clouds that layered the valley and made their progress slow, belaboring even the elf as they walked nearer to the blackened hulk of Ephel Dúath.  The hopeless of the land was wearing on the travelers.

 

The poisons in the fetid, stagnant pool that the ranger had drunk from earlier in the day were beginning to take their toll on him and he lagged behind a pace.  Legolas knew they had only one option now; they would have to find a way through the walls of Mordor and reach the outside if the ranger was to recover from the poisoning.  They could not afford to try to go any further north, they had to find a way out *now*.  Therefore they had to endure the risks of leaving the rocky, uneven ranges they had been hiding in and cross the great, wide-open valleys that led into the foothills of the mountains.

 

Every pond they passed here in the wretched wastelands was unfit for drinking, there was no fresh water to be had anywhere.  Neither had they seen any trace of the orcs that had dogged their steps so tenaciously thus far.  The heat and the deadness of the land about them dulled their senses and they were not prepared for the stealth, nor the suddenness of their enemies’ attack.

 

Wiping blonde strands of hair from his face, Legolas slowed his pace to accommodate the human.  Aragorn walked silently next to the elf, his right arm held tightly about his mid-section.  His leather coat was tied off around his waist; it was much too hot to wear it.  The ranger felt as if he had a fever and that made the heat so much worse.  He tensed with the nausea and ache that came and went in severity like waves of sickness threatening to overcome him.   Concentrating solely on breathing and walking, the ill feelings had so consumed Aragorn’s attention that he was caught totally off guard when Legolas stopped.  Faltering midstep, the elf pressed his eyes tightly shut as he bit back a groan.

 

“Legolas?”  Aragorn moved around his friend and stood in front of the elf, shaking the prince gently by the shoulders when he didn’t respond. “What is it?”

 

Legolas had frozen.  A sudden wave of dread had fallen upon his heart like a curtain over the sun.  With a cry the prince dropped to his knees, his right hand jerking Aragorn down with him as the elf grabbed his left shoulder.

 

Unable to understand the source of his friend’s pain, Aragorn leaned over Legolas, quietly speaking to him in elvish and attempting to pry the prince’s fingers from his shoulder.  At first Aragorn thought that Legolas had somehow been shot, but there didn’t seem to be anything physically wrong with the elf.  The source of his pain escaped Aragorn, and yet the prince was obviously hurting.

 

The ranger glanced around them quickly.  There was no one to be seen, nothing stirred and even the winds brought no sound of threat.  “Legolas, tell me what it is mellon-nín, or I cannot help you.”  He could not get the elf to look at him and his worry mounted.

 

Legolas’ eyes flew open, reflecting sheer terror and surprise as he glanced over Aragorn’s back. Pulling the human down towards him, the elf forcefully jerked the chain that attached them and grabbed the ranger’s head, covering it with his hands as he rolled them to the ground, trying to protect the man.

 

But he was not fast enough.

 

Hot fiery pain lanced across Aragorn’s back and an inhuman scream echoed in his ears, emanating inches from his face as he was knocked to the ground by a heavy weight descending upon him from behind. Teeth ripped through his clothing, tearing into his flesh as he felt Legolas pull him down and roll them both away.  The sound of his shirt ripping seared through his consciousness as a blast of hot wind swept past them, leaving a trail of fear in its wake. 

 

“What?” Aragorn barely whispered, rolling to his side and glancing quickly above them.  He was horrified to see a large, black winged creature, like nothing he had ever witnessed before, wheel away from their position and climb back into the sooty, grey sky, its evil, keening cry echoed by a sound that sent shivers of dark fear skittering down his spine – the shrieking call of an Ulairé. 

 

They had been discovered by a mounted wraith.

 

Trying to see the damage done to his back, Aragorn twisted around, grabbing a fist full of the tattered outer tunic he wore, but his actions were stopped as Legolas stood to his feet, his eyes riveted on the dark creature wheeling around overhead... and the one who rode it.

 

Fire and determination warred with utter horror as the elf watched the wraith and its mount circling back towards them.  He knew who it was that had found them, knew it with deadly certainty, for this one was his former dark master; the Witch King that had tried to enslave his soul.  The familiar touch of that evil was unmistakable and sent shivers running down his spine.  That was why his shoulder hurt then; it ached in memory, pained by the very presence of the one who had inflicted the wound so long ago and tried to control him through it. 

 

The great winged beast swooped low over the escaped prisoner’s head, trumpeting a loud roar.  It was alerting the orc patrols on the ground as to the slaves’ position.  The two fugitives wanted to run, wanted to hide... but in this open, empty wasteland there seemed to be nowhere to go.  The wraith did not come down again to attack them directly, but seemed content to circle, waiting for the minions it summoned on the ground to do the dirty work.

 

“They are still looking for us.” Legolas spoke quietly.  Aragorn glanced from his friend to the sky once more, trying to understand what had happened.  Legolas carefully removed his hand from his shoulder, checking to see if the old, vanished scar had actually reopened it pained him that much.  There was no blood, no tear in his shirt or skin when he looked further, only the memory of the pain surfacing.

 

“What is wrong?” Aragorn watched the elf curiously, looking over his shoulder from time to time at the sky as the dark creature and its master circled high over them. “What is it?” He focused back on the elf and when he could get no answer from the prince, the ranger began gently pushing the fair being in front of him, away from the open area where they were so vulnerable.  “We need to get to shelter, come on.”

 

The wraith saw the two beings below begin to make a run for it and altered his plans, completing his wide arc and swooping back towards them. 

 

“The Witch King... My shoulder, it is where he cut me.  His presence... hurts.”  The elf ground out the words as though even speaking them was difficult.  He stumbled back next to the ranger, following him numbly.

 

“It must be because we are in Mordor.  It has never bothered you before.” Aragorn glanced behind them, expecting an orc patrol to come into sight at any moment.  His vision blurred but he pressed on.

 

“No, it is his presence.”  Legolas stopped and turned his gaze skyward. “It is *him*.”

 

Understanding finally dawned on Aragorn and he stared stunned at the dark rider.  “Then we have to get out of here.” He stumbled forward as spasms caught his insides, causing him double over.  Unwilling to be caught by the ring wraith or the orcs, he pulled Legolas with him.  “Quickly we need to draw closer to the mountains; the wraith will be unable to attack us from that position.  The creature he rides cannot reach us in their shadow.”

 

The elf however was no longer listening to his human companion.  Anger flared in his heart and he jerked his friend to a stop, pulling the unwilling ranger back out onto the flat desert plain.  Open defiance flared in his blue eyes and he stiffly unshouldered his bow.  Aragorn stared open mouthed at the elf, vainly questioning his friend’s intentions – they were clear...

 

Legolas was baiting the wraith.

 

“Legolas?”  Aragorn stepped closer to the elf, positioning himself behind the prince, tensing in anticipation as the wraith’s mount turned on his wingtip and headed straight for them.

 

“This ends now.  I will not be frightened, I will not be beaten, I will not accept this dark invasion of my soul.  I’m not running anymore.”  Legolas whispered softly in elvish, speaking as if to himself.  The feelings of fear that had trapped him moments ago seemed a culmination of everything he had been suffering through since he was brought to Mordor, and they were emotions that he would tolerate no longer.  The wraith was not his master and never would be.  The darkness would never have him, nor his spirit; not by force, and *not* by his placid consent to simply roll over and die rather than fight with everything he had left in him. 

 

The evil beast the witch king rode opened its mouth unleashing a fearful screaming roar as dove towards the two prisoners.

 

“Aragorn!” Legolas called out, readying the ranger as the wraith drew swiftly closer.

 

“I’m here.” The human answered softly, moving in tandem with the chained prince’s motions.  If it had been anyone other than the elf he would have called the idea insane and would be pulling the other with him to the safety of Mordor’s mountain fence.  But Aragorn could see the set of the elven jaw, the defiance that sparked in his deep blue eyes, and watched carefully for the tell tale signs of when he would reach back for the arrows.  It was as if Legolas were visibly casting off some kind of dark chain of despair upon his soul that had troubled him since the day Aragorn had rescued him.  Somehow, this was important. 

 

The dark creature was almost upon them when Legolas reached over his head, grasping the arrow shaft Aragorn readied for him and fired at the mount, slicing through the taunt wing membrane and piercing a hole in its wing. 

 

The creature screamed, back-beating the air and moving out of range of the small projectiles.  It hissed angrily as the wraith nudged the beast’s long neck with its pointed metal boots trying to drive the creature down towards the two figures.  He had recognized the elf and the elf’s human companion as well and his black heart wanted revenge.  Elves have long memories, wraiths had longer ones. 

 

“Two Aragorn, now!”  Legolas called to the ranger as he reached over his head, his fingers brushing the fletchings.  The human’s fingertips left the shafts just as the elf grabbed the arrows and rapidly fired them at one time, piercing the top wing bone of the wraiths mount and fracturing the thick supporting bone.

 

The creature’s wing dropped uselessly to its side and its cries of pain shook the wasteland.  Circling clumsily the dark beast caught an updraft from the heated air and wheeled off to the right, heading back towards the lone peak of Orodruin despite its rider’s wishes.  Echoes of the wraith’s angry cries reverberated through the canyon and Legolas moaned softly in pain, grabbing his shoulder once more, nearly dropping his bow.  Those bold shots had cost him, dearly; but they were worth the price. 

 

Stepping quickly forward, Aragorn tore his gaze from the dark retreating forms; he could just barely make out the creature’s shape as it fell from the sky.  Gently taking Legolas’ weapon from his hand he helped the elf over to a small rock, pressing him down upon it and crouching in front of him.

 

“Legolas?”

 

Before the prince could answer, a lone trumpet blast sounded to the south of them, their position had been made by the orc patrols - it was too late. 

 

Aragorn trembled slightly as he glanced swiftly back the way they had come.  He felt awful and knew he was at the end of his limits, but the alert from the hunting party meant the valley would be swarming with orcs in minutes.  There would be no rest for them yet, especially if they did not want to have come all this way merely to be trapped again as they had been before on their previous escape attempt.

 

Ignoring the human’s concerns for his wellbeing, Legolas stood shakily to his feet and began scanning the area for any place to escape their pursuers.  An oddly shaped boulder protruded from the ground at an awkward angle behind them, near the rising stone fence.  Quickly he led the ranger into the scant cover of its shadow.  Here, this close to the Ephel Duath, the area was strewn with boulders and broken stones, large shards of rocks that had crumbled from the face of the interior mountain fence.

 

Running next to the elf, Aragorn tripped, stumbling to his knees and didn’t rise.  His back was on fire where the wraith’s mount had torn him and he could feel the bile rising in his throat once more.  He tried to ignore his illness but it had caught up with him and combined with his injuries it was threatening to overwhelm him.

 

The sounds of the hunting party could now be heard as the pack of orcs ran towards their position.  They were out of time and found themselves in a cruel reversal of their previous failed attempt.  This time it was Aragorn who could barely go on. 

 

Stopping, Legolas quickly but gently tilted the man’s face up, noting the glassy stare and the heavy, labored breathing.  Aragorn needed attention but there was nothing he could do out here in the open. If they were caught they would not live through their captor’s wrath, of that he was certain.

 

Pulling Aragorn to his feet once more the elf forced him behind a large rock, easing him down in the cool shadow it cast and warily scanned the sky for any sign of more of the mounted wraiths. 

 

There were none. The one carrying the witch king had fallen and would not rise any time soon.  If there were any other wraiths even present, it would seem that they had left the task of capturing the prisoners to the orcs.  Legolas prayed they would not be successful as he tried to calm his breathing, crouching down next to Aragorn and resting against the jagged boulder they were hiding behind.  The elf’s heart still hammered in his chest and he tried unsuccessfully to ignore the pain in his shoulder as it slowly faded to a dull ache. 

 

Beside him Aragorn crouched miserably, leaning heavily against the rockface and concentrating on breathing.  He moaned softly and bit back the dry heaves that threatened him.

 

Glancing at the ranger, Legolas could see that the man was perspiring heavily and his face was flushed.  Gently he slid his hand under the drenched locks of dark hair and pressed his palm against the human’s forehead.  Aragorn did not fight him or move away, he simply closed his eyes and grit his teeth as a wave of nausea swept over him.  The unnatural heat of a fever warmed the elf’s fingers and he nodded to himself, confirming his suspicions.

 

“I wish I had died from lack of water instead of this.”  The ranger mumbled darkly.

 

“I know, but this will pass.” Legolas smiled softly at his friend, gently laying his left hand on the ranger’s shoulder as he crouched in front of the man.  He knew that they had little time before Aragorn would be unable to travel.  They needed to find shelter and clean fresh water, preferably far out of the reach of the orcs hunting them. 

 

A shout to their left startled the prince and he sprang lightly to his feet, careful of the chain that bound them so he would not force Aragorn to move with him.  Leaning over the ranger and peering around the side of the rock he spied an orc troop heading slowly their way.  A lone orc preceded the company, carefully inspecting the hard packed earth – a tracker.

 

Their trail had been picked up; their secrecy was lost.

 

There were precious few hiding places this far north in Mordor.  The spires of Minas Morgul towered over them in the not so distant distance, casting long shadows across the valley as the sun raced overhead above them in the sky.  The north-westernmost edges of Ephel Dúath rose sharply on their left.  The elf surmised that the large, oddly shaped boulder they took refuge behind had fallen from the very mountain fence itself eons ago. 

 

Eons ago...

 

The sounds of the approaching orcs diminished in the elven awareness as Legolas searched his memories. Childhood stories really, myths... tales told to keep wayward elflings in line... the stories chased through his thoughts.  He smiled slightly to himself as his mind turned back the years and he could almost hear Raniean repeating the story to he and Trelan, a story that the older elf’s brother had told him one night to scare the young elflings.  It had worked... but that wasn’t why the memory came back to Legolas now.  No, it was the subject of that particular story...

 

In the ages past when even the elves were new to Middle Earth there had lived an Ainu, named Ungoliant, who had taken up the form of a creature of spider-shape.  Separating herself from the others of her race she had turned aside and followed Melkor, becoming his accomplice and through her the offspring that haunted the lower reaches of Mirkwood had been birthed.

 

Some of her children, or so the tales were told, had drifted from living near the nest.  Although the insects were usually of a hive nature there were a few who ventured out on their own over the years.  One such bold creature was called Shelob.  Her exploits were unrecorded and little was known of her save that she had found Mordor and a secret passage that ran through the mountain fence surrounding it, making her home in the labyrinth of tunnels known as Cirith Ungol.  There she lived and from there she terrorized the surrounding areas, coming out in the dark moonless nights and stalking the forests for her prey for little ventured through the tunnels she called her home... Legolas could almost exactly recall the way Raniean had jumped at Trelan when he told them that bit, making the smaller elf start almost three feet off the ground.

 

Raniean had said that his brother told him that if one were wise and paid attention to the signs they could actually traverse the tangled maze of Cirith Ungol and come and go without the dark lord's knowledge... if they could escape the giant spider guardian.  How a place could ever exist within this evil land and not fall within Sauron's knowledge was beyond Legolas' comprehension, but if the tales were true and not just campfire stories that young elflings in spider-infested woods told to scare one another...

 

...if they were true then it was in this passage that their last hope lay, for their route northward had been cut off by Sauron’s minions and they must either find a way out, or perish right here.

 

A shout rose from the orcs; the escaped slaves had been found.

 

"Aragorn come now."  Legolas pulled the human to his feet, trying to ignore the ranger as he moaned, staggering upright.  The elf slipped his hands under the man’s armpits as best he could and hauled him to his feet.  They were out of time.  The pounding of the orcs pursuit could be heard, thrumming in the rocky floor beneath them.  Legolas didn’t even spare their pursuers a glance as he ran towards the mountain fence trying to judge their position against the long dark shadow of Minas Morgul.  If the tales were correct they were close to those dark and hidden paths now, if only he could find them in time...

 

It was all Aragorn could do to keep up with the elf.  He chanced a look over his shoulder and stumbled hard.  The dark creatures that chased them were nearly upon them.  Legolas was pulled back by the ranger’s weight as he fumbled to follow the prince.  Trying to be as gentle as possible, but moving quickly, Legolas wrapped his right arm under Aragorn's left and lifted the man up, pulling him against his side and half dragged, half forced the ranger to run with him to the small angled crack in the wall that he had spotted moments ago.

 

"Legolas, the orcs!"  Aragorn panted heavily, leaning on his companion.  Fear spiked through him as the evil creatures shouts and yelling grew louder.  They were right on their heels.

 

"I know.  Trust me." The elf whispered breathlessly.  The vertical crevice he had seen from afar loomed larger.  It looked as though at some point in the past a great earthquake had shook the very foundations of the mountains in this place and split them apart at the base.  The dark crack in the mountain-fence was foreboding and held a sense of evil that made the elf's heart recoil but he pressed on.

 

Easing sideways he ducked down, passing through the larger part of the narrow opening and dragging Aragorn in after him.

 

The passage was dark and littered with obstacles; the walls were narrow and slimy from the condensation that collected in them.  Their pace, hampered by the constricted tunnels, slowed and Aragorn pressed closely to the elf that led him as the sounds of their pursuers magnified by the confines of the tunnel echoed loudly in their ears.

 

Legolas glanced over his shoulder at the human that followed him; Aragorn's eyes were large in the dim light the elf shed. It was difficult for the prince to walk with his right hand behind him, chained to his companion.  He was forced to rely solely on his left hand to sense any obstructions that might block their path.  The elf concentrated on the light that emanated from him naturally, trying to brighten their dank surroundings with his glow.  Trying *not* to think about the darkness, the feel of evil or the walls of cracked and broken stone pressing down from above and in from the sides.

 

The short tunnel they were running in dumped out into a large spacious cavern.  Two of the three exits that marked the cave had been blocked by debris and cave-ins.  Legolas led them straight for the dark opening directly ahead.  They could not slow down and had no time to catch their breath as orcs poured into the cavern behind them.  The evil beings were used to dark spaces and their eyes easily adjusted to the gloom that shrouded the cave.  However, a number of their company had quickly scavenged for torches and passed the flaming branches up the tunnel as they ran.  The firelight cast eerie shadows on the rough walls reaching towards the two that fled deeper into the bowels of Cirith Ungol.

 

The tunnel they stumbled through felt odd to the elf.  The sounds of their footfalls were muted and the rocky surface was not hard under his boot heels.  Reaching his hand out cautiously the elf's fingers caught in a tangle of sticky fibers, breaking the fragile threads.  Slowing their steps Legolas glanced into the gloom ahead of them, his every sense suddenly alert.  He recognized this stringy, sticky substance easily, any Mirkwood elf would.

 

Something was close, something knew there were others about and though it had not yet woken, its slumber was light, its awareness of them was waking.  Legolas could feel it in the air; he could sense it in the rocks themselves.  When his leg brushed a thick, sticky tendril he froze in his steps, catching Aragorn and holding him still.

 

"Legolas?"

 

"Shhh...be very still."  The elf pressed his free hand against the ranger’s mouth, whispering quietly to him, "Here, sit for a moment, I have a plan."  Gently, he pushed the human to the ground, ignoring the ranger’s quiet protests and questions as he stepped over Aragorn so that he stood on the man's right, forcing the ranger to cross his left hand over his chest to accommodate the elf.  He would need to time this perfectly.

 

Carefully turning back towards the way they had been headed the elf brightened his glow.  Just as he had surmised, the soft blue light caught and fractured jewel-like on a huge silver web that had been spun across the tunnel width.  The beaded joints of the silver threading glittered in the darkness like precious stones strung on a necklace.  Like an intricate metal worked brooch, the webbing covered every inch of the passage except for a two-foot space at the bottom of the path where the tough silky strings drew up from the tension, too taught to close the passageway off.  In some ways this area was similar to Tairach’s lair that Legolas and Aragorn had destroyed many years ago in Mirkwood, and yet it was also quite different.  The creature that made this web was more cunning in its design and a greater sense of evil lingered here.

 

The web was empty, but its crafter was close.

 

Too weary from running and too sick to put up much of a fight Aragorn slumped sideways against Legolas' leg and rested, his breath coming in ragged gasps, he hadn’t noticed the nearly invisible trap that hung behind him.  He heard the elf slowly unsheathe one of his elven blades but had no time to ask what the prince was up to as the tunnel he faced filled with orcs.

 

Seeing their prey stopped and thinking they were trapped, the orcs shouted in glee, pouring into the passageway, too intent on their success at recapturing the two slaves for their own good.

 

Legolas slipped the razor sharp edge of his blade against a thick, sticky cord that ran from one side of the tunnel into a small alcove on their right.  He knew a thing or two about spiders and had a fairly good idea of just what lay sleeping in that darkened recess, he was banking on it in fact.

 

The orcs came in, spilling down the corridor, intent on their prey, the light of their torches, illuminating the tunnel and making the web nearly invisible in the yellow glow.

 

Legolas stood perfectly still in the middle of the path, his chained hand gently resting on Aragorn’s head, his other hand tensing on the hilt of the blade lying against the taut webbing.  He couldn’t move too soon or the spider would only see him and the human and they would not be able to escape her.  He would have to wait until the last possible moment.

 

The orcs came closer and closer, not even giving a thought as to why the elf would be waiting for them to catch up. Their proximity was alarming to Aragorn and he glanced up at Legolas, trying to gain his feet, but the elf held him gently down, hazarding a quick glance at the man.

 

It was evident that the ranger was frightened; he knew didn’t have the strength to fend off the dark tide that surged forward. 

 

“Do not be afraid, no matter what happens.  Follow my lead; keep your eyes on me.  Do you understand me Aragorn?”  Legolas whispered to the man, knowing the sight of the large arachnid would throw the human off as he had not had the chance to tell the ranger of his intent, and their last experience with spiders had not gone well.

 

Sleeping soundly in her hidden nest, Shelob never heard the converging throng that headed her way, for the great spiders do not hear in the way other animals do. Rather they sense the vibrations of their prey when the unwitting souls stumble into their nest.  Her front appendages lay across the thread that Legolas broke in one swift move.

 

The orcs had come close enough that they had very nearly taken hold of the two escaped slaves.  Legolas jerked his blade through the thread of webbing, setting up a resonance within the strands of the web. 

 

Shelob jerked awake, alerted by the vibrations, and scuttled quickly out of the alcove in the side of the wall leaping out onto her web, her massive body causing the netting to bow under her slightly as she tensed, eager to trap her prey.

 

Legolas dropped to the floor of the tunnel, pulling Aragorn down with him, their arms tangled together and caught in the chain that bound them.  The elf heard the frightened gasp from the man next to him and held Aragorn down as the ranger caught sight of the spider, recoiling from the dark hulk of her body.  Partly shielding the human with his own body Legolas forced Aragorn flat to his belly on the floor of the cavern and frantically began pulling the man with him.

 

“Aragorn, follow me!”

 

Wriggling underneath the bottom of the webbing the prince pulled his friend through with him, yelling to the ranger to follow him and emulate his moves, trying to make his voice heard over the chaos that broke out in the tunnel behind them. 

 

The orcs were so intent on recapturing the elf and the human that the ones in the forefront slammed into the web as Shelob sprang into its center.  The sight of the dark beast threw them into a panic but their thrashing only helped to ensnare them further.

 

The web bowed under the combined weight of the trapped orcs and the great spider.  The bottommost strand caught fast to Aragorn’s boot.  He jerked backwards as the sticky netting bounced upward pulling his leg with it and he cried out in surprise as he found he could not break free.

 

Chapter Text

___________________________________________________________

 

~*PART SEVEN*~

 

 

~~~~~~~~~

 If I could,

Then I would,
I’ll go wherever you will go.

Way up high, or down low

I’ll go wherever you will go.

 

And maybe I’ll find out, a way to make it back someday...

Towards you, to guide you, through the darkest of your days.

 

--The Calling

~~~~~~~~~

 

 

 

Seeing what had happened and how Aragorn had become entangled, Legolas rolled towards the ranger, keeping low, and broke the strand that had caught his friend, easily cutting through the cord.  Pulling the human back towards him, he scooted away from the spider’s web and into the dark tunnel behind her.

 

Shelob couldn’t recall the last time she had had catch this deep in the cave and excitement got the best of the evil beast.  Grabbing the orc nearest her she bit the foul creatures head off, stopping his thrashing.  That one she would eat now, and save the others for later.  The rest of the trapped orcs panicked but their fear only tangled them further until they could not move.  Touching each future meal with her feet to ensure they were tightly held, the spider leapt off her silvery trap and ran down the tunnel after the rest of the retreating orcs. 

 

Having seen their companions so easily ensnared and their prey now beyond their reach, the remaining company of orcs turned in on its self and fled back to the crevice in the wall of Ephel Dúath, hoping to see daylight before the great spider reached them.

 

Shelob scurried after the fleeing creatures, catching one of the slower ones on their way out and dragging it back by its leg to her nest where she firmly sealed it in place, keeping it for later.

 

Legolas watched as the ancient nightmare that had haunted his childhood dreams chased the orcs out of the tunnel.  She had been worth being fearing.  Truly, that beast had to be even older, larger and more evil than Tairach had been.  He eased Aragorn gently up; wrapping his arms as best he could around the human and leading them away from the spider’s nest.

 

“You could have warned me.”  Aragorn whispered breathlessly, turning to glance over his shoulder.  Legolas walked slowly on his right, the elf’s arms supporting the man’s weight.  His position had forced the ranger to cross his left hand across his chest and he grasped Legolas’ arm tightly.

 

With a small laugh Legolas redirected the ranger’s attention.  “I’m sorry my friend, I had not the time to tell you.  I was not even sure that anything still lived near the web.  Until just now she was simply a story I had heard as a child round the fires late at night to frighten us into staying close to the camp.”

 

“Although...” Legolas suddenly turned an intent glare on his friend.  “I thought you promised no spiders this time.”

 

Aragorn shook his head, amazed that the elf could even remember that exchange.  He chuckled weakly.  “Don’t blame this on me, you’re the one who dragged us in here and used us as live bait.”

 

It was Legolas’ turn to chuckle.  “I suppose I did.”

 

They passed through several caverns and junctions before Legolas stopped them.  His sense of direction had paid off as they entered a large cave.  The grotto held a fair sized subterranean pool that took up most of the room and a shaft of light split the darkness, falling down from some steep, open chimney high overhead.

 

Allowing the ranger to sit on the floor beside the pool the elf crouched near the edge and leaned over the lip of the small lake, his fingers gripping the cool stone edge.  He smelled the water, touching a few drops of it from his fingertips to his lips.  There was no stagnancy to it and it tasted sweet like the springs in the mountains near his home. It was a fresh water pool and he turned to the ranger to inform him only to find the man smiling at him with a lopsided grin.  The ranger was breathing hard and his face was pale.  The smile he laid on the elf was weary and he rested heavily on his side.  His condition worried the prince but the laughter in the tired eyes confused him.

 

Sitting up and pushing away from the edge of the pond, Legolas smiled warily back at his friend, “What is so funny?”

 

Aragorn glanced around them before answering, “*You* led *me* into a cave.”

 

Legolas’ eyes narrowed and he glowered at his friend, “It is a tunnel.”  He corrected.

 

“Really?” Aragorn glanced to the far side of the cavern, “It looks an awful lot like a cave.”

 

“You could at least have the decency to act sick when you are sick and not torment me until you are better.” Legolas glared playfully at the human.  “The water is fresh.  We have plenty to drink and I need to see to your injuries.”  He would not let the ranger protest as he simply talked over the top of him, “And if you have athelas I suggest you get it out...”

 

Legolas stopped speaking his smile widening as Aragorn questioned him, “Athelas?”

 

“Yes.”  The elf couldn’t suppress the small laugh that escaped him.  Their narrow escape from death and the fact that he could smell the forests outside had brought a relief to his heart that he had not realized he had been waiting for, “We *are* in a cave,” he admitted playfully “and you are ill.  The athelas is for us both my friend.”

 

Aragorn nodded slowly.  Now that they were free and the adrenaline from the chase was wearing off, the ranger was beginning to realize just how worn out and sick he was feeling.  Laying down on his side, he pushed his knapsack towards Legolas.  Dizziness had set in and it was becoming more and more difficult to keep his eyes open.  Giving up the fight he rested his head in the crook of his arm.

 

“Aragorn?”  Legolas scooted closer to the ranger and gently shook the man.

 

“...need to rest...”  His companion murmured softly before he passed out.

 

 

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

 

 

The quiet dripping of water woke the human and he breathed in deeply, slowly opening his eyes.  Memory was far from returning and he lay where he was.  Unmoving, he gazed around the cave that he found himself inside.  Late afternoon light fell through a shaft high in the ceiling off to his right.  To his left, a deep clear pool rippled softly as water ran into it from some hidden recess.

 

Recollection leaked back into his awareness slowly and he found himself glancing around worriedly for his companion.  His slight movements elicited a soft sigh from behind him and the ranger stilled his reactions as Legolas shifted in his sleep, laying his cheek on the top of the human’s head.

 

It suddenly occurred to Aragorn that the reason he wasn’t free to move was that he was lying in the elf’s arms and the chain that bound them together lay heavily across his chest.  The prince had moved them both to the far wall near the pool after the ranger had passed out.  He had cared for the man through the night, working to lower the human’s fever and cleaning the wounds he had not been able to earlier as they had had no water for the past few days.  A pot of Athelas, now hours old, rested near Aragorn’s left side.  Even though the water had long ago cooled the mixture still filled the cavern with the sweet clear scent that was so healing. 

 

He dared not move for fear of waking the elf.  Of them both, Legolas needed the rest more than he.  He could feel the prince’s slow steady breathing against his back and relaxed into the arms that held him tightly, his fingers gently gripping the hands that lay across his ribs.  They had both made it out alive; he couldn’t remember feeling more relieved at that fact.  True, they were technically still inside Mordor, but they were on their way and he could not help but hope that the worst was over. 

 

The ranger realized with a start that he didn’t feel too badly anymore.  The pain in his stomach was gone and the headache that had threatened to overwhelm him was merely a dull ache in the back of his mind.  He had been cleaned up and somehow while he shifted in and out consciousness last night Legolas had seen to his thirst, for the deep longing had been slaked.  He vaguely remembered the events of the previous evening.  He felt better than he had in weeks and he wasn’t so sure that it didn’t have something to do with their proximity to the outer edges of Cirith Ungol and being nearer to the forests of Ithilien.  The Anuir ran not a mile away from the Ephel Dúath; he longed to see it once more.  It would be good to be free of this evil land; already its hold on their hearts was slipping.

 

He thought back through their harrowing escape.  He had been totally unprepared for the sight of the large spider that had distracted their pursuers and made their escape possible.  The memories of Tairach had flooded his thoughts and made the nightmarish vision of Shelob even more horrific.  The state of his feverish mind had not helped any and he remembered struggling against Legolas as the elf drug him underneath the huge webbing.  Aragorn shuddered involuntarily as he recalled how frightened he had been when his foot had stuck fast in the sticky threads. 

 

“What?!” The elf behind him woke with a start, the tremors that raced through the human he held had alerted him, “What is it?”

 

“Legolas, I’m sorry.” Aragorn whispered quietly not moving from the position where he lay, “Did I wake you?”

 

“No...yes...”  Legolas’ arms tightened slightly around the human as he came more fully awake. “I mean... no.”

 

He felt the soft laughter of the man against his chest and relented, gently laying his chin on the top of the ranger’s head. “Fine, yes you did wake me.  Are you alright, you’re not cold are you?”

 

“No.” Aragorn frowned gazing across the cavern as he considered the elf’s question.  “Why?”

 

“You were shaking.”

 

“Oh that.”  Aragorn chuckled quietly, “I was remembering that nightmare of a spider you pulled me underneath.  One would think a warning would have been given before you do something like that.  I thought my heart was going to stop beating when I saw that evil thing jump into the middle of her web.”

 

Legolas tried to suppress his laughter but Aragorn could feel the elf’s silent mirth. 

 

“It’s not funny.” The ranger dug his elbow into the prince’s ribs, eliciting a short gasp of surprise.  He continued talking as Legolas shifted behind him, extricating himself from their close quarters and moving around until he sat in front of the human. “I wasn’t sure if I was dreaming or it was real.  Don’t ever do that again.”  He shoved the elf playfully.

 

“Well I promise not to drag you under spider nests if you promise to never drink stagnant water again – ever.  You were very sick last night.” Legolas laid a hard stare on the man, “One really would think a ranger would know better...” He teased good-naturedly.

 

Aragorn feigned shock and returned the even gaze, “I wasn’t in my right mind.”

 

“Are you ever?”  Legolas tried to duck and move away from his friend but the chain held them fast.

 

Recovering from his fit of laughter Aragorn taunted, “I think the last time I was in my right mind was before I met you.”  He smiled as the elf shook his head denying the age-old taunt.

 

“Let us see if we can’t get these separated before you drive me mad.” Legolas held up the chain between them as he stood slowly to his feet.

 

“I thought that had happened years ago, isn’t that what you told Gandalf?”  Aragorn squinted his eyes shut and glanced at the elf out of the corner of them, tipping his head slightly to the side, “How did you put it? ... ‘I am afraid it is too late all ready, the Dunédan has corrupted me’? Or something to that effect I believe?” 

 

He couldn’t help laughing as the elf’s mouth dropped open slightly.  The prince took hold of his hand and helped him slowly stand, shaking his head in disbelief.

 

“How is it you always remember these inane things and bring them back up!?” Legolas gave a short tug on the chain as the ranger bent back down to retrieve his pack and the now refilled water flasks.  “I swear you have the memory of an oliphaunt!”

 

Aragorn glanced back at the elf with a smile, “Oh you know we rangers and what they say about us?”  He poured the athelas out into a natural indentation in the rocky floor and shoved the wet pan into his pack.

 

“Yes, I do.”  The elf raised an eyebrow and stepped back a pace as though wary of the human, much to the ranger’s amusement.

 

Aragorn shook his head with a laugh.  “Not THOSE parts of what they say...  Never mind.”

 

With a quick glance around the cave, Aragorn followed Legolas to the far passage, “I can smell the forests of Ithilien.  We must be close to the outside.”

 

“Let us hurry.” Legolas concurred, quietly eager to be free of their confines.

 

“Missed the forests have we?”  Aragorn smiled when the elf glanced back at the human, knowing the man was teasing him and trying to hide his own mirth.  “Well you aren’t the only one.”  The ranger continued quietly.

 

In reality they were quite a bit farther away then they thought, for they had yet to traverse the many different sets of stairs that were set into the mountain before the path would take them down and out, but the journey, though long and somewhat tiring, was uneventful and with each step their hearts grew lighter for the knowledge that they were leaving Mordor slowly behind them. 

 

Finally, the stairs evened out and disappeared altogether.  Legolas rounded a bend in the cave, stepping into a gently sloping tunnel that led them out into the deep forests of Ithilien.  The woods were quiet in the pre-dusk.  The sun coated the tops of the trees in a flaming bright light, making them appear as though their highest reaches were afire.  Pale evening light painted the floor of the forest in warm patterns as they moved beneath the trees.

 

The elf stopped a few feet into the woods and closed his eyes, lifting his face heavenward he breathed in deeply, filling his lungs with the clean scents of the plant life around them.  He held his breath and listened.  Listened to the sounds of the earth, to the insects that had just begun their nightly chorus, to the birds that were returning to the trees to settle in for the night, to the very trees themselves as they sighed gently in the evenings winds, welcoming the elf into their midst.  He simply stood and listened to the earth as it breathed beneath his booted feet.  He had not been able to hear the song of the free earth in Mordor for there the tortured land did nothing but moan and cry in his head.  The relief was great. 

 

It seemed to the ranger that the elf was changed even as he watched the prince.  The tension in the lithe body fled and the creases near the eyes that had furrowed the fair being’s brow smoothed.  Legolas released the breath he held with a sigh and smiled softly as his own heart beat in rhythm with the woods about him, re-energized by the life that he could feel flowing all around him.  The gentle blue glow that emanated from the prince was just beginning to show in the early dark of night and it brightened perceptibly. 

 

“Legolas?”  Aragorn whispered his friend’s name.

 

The elf started and turned towards the man, a smile spreading across his face.  The light shining behind his eyes was so happy it made Aragorn want to laugh for the joy of it all. 

 

“I never thought to hear it again,” the prince drank up the sweetness around him like a parched man guzzling water.  “It’s so beautiful!  Though a darkness lays on this land, still the woods are free.  Can you not hear it Aragorn?”  He breathed in the cool evening air again holding it deeply in his chest before releasing it.  “I am free.” Legolas sighed softly.

 

“Yes my friend you are.”  It pleased the ranger’s heart to see the elf’s spirit returning so quickly, he couldn’t help returning the smile Legolas laid on him.  He could not hear what the elf heard, he did not have the same connection with nature, but seeing what it did for Legolas was enough.  Simply being *out* of Mordor made his spirits lift. 

 

“Quickly, let us find shelter for the night, far from these mountains of shadow.  I do not wish to ever see its blackened fence again.”  Legolas leapt forward, running through the woods, his spirit free and light as he chased the fireflies that fled before them through the meadow they quickly crossed, daring the sun to set before they had found a sleeping place.

 

With a laugh, Aragorn sprinted next to him, his heart as happy at finally being free as the elf’s.  Although it was more difficult for the ranger to keep up with the light hearted prince, he would not hold Legolas back.  It had been too long that his friend’s heart had been weighed heavy by the evil that encompassed Mordor.  Still, the human’s body had not recovered as quickly as he wished and he tired easily, slowing the elf.

 

Stopping their rush into the woods Legolas slowed and turned to his friend, realizing that the human was having difficulty maintaining their pace.  Aragorn was smiling as he leaned over, resting his hands on his knees, trying to catch his breath.

 

“Aragorn, I’m sorry, you should have stopped me.” Legolas gently touched his friend’s back with his free left hand, but his apology was stopped as the ranger waved him off. 

 

“It is well.  It felt good to run through the woods and to be as far from that forsaken land as possible.  Only I think it wise to find a place to rest for the night and soon.  We are still just outside Mordor and Ithilien is not known for its safety my friend.  Darkness draws against us quickly and who knows what stalks these woods besides our many legged friend.”  He laughed lightly having regained his breath and they began to search for a place to rest until morning.

 

“The trees then.”  Legolas glanced above them looking for limbs of adequate size.

 

Agreeing with the elf, the ranger began scouring the underbrush for enough wood and fronds to create a flet.  It was a challenge finding what they were looking for, bound to one another as they were, and even more frustrating was climbing high enough into the tree carrying the supplies they needed.  It took many trips and a few falls before the flet was completed.  Legolas had tried to be patient with the ranger as they had climbed slowly up and down the length of the trunk.  Proceeding only as fast as the human was able, they had learned to move within each other’s rhythms, but it was still frustrating.  By the time they collapsed onto the carpet of needles and fern leaves they spread across their high-perched bower the moon was high in the sky overhead.

 

Legolas lay on his back near the edge of the flet, staring through the leafy canopy at the stars above them.  He hadn’t seen the stars in months. The sight of the bright night lights twinkling over head soothed his heart and he smiled up into the sky.

 

“Stars Aragorn.  We haven’t seen stars in... well I can’t remember how long.” He whispered quietly, not willing to disturb the sounds of night.

 

Aragorn however did not respond and Legolas turned his head to gaze at the man.

 

The ranger lay on his side facing the elf; his back braced against the solid trunk of the large tree, his left arm was stretched out uncomfortably to accommodate Legolas who had subconsciously clasped his hands across his stomach out of habit.  The human was asleep; his head pillowed on a pile of fern fronds, worn out from the escape and the building of the flet.  He was over the illness from the poisoning, but he hadn’t regained his full strength yet.

 

Legolas smiled softly and quietly moved his right arm to his side, giving the chain a bit of slack.  Shifting in his sleep, the ranger drew his arm closer to his body and curled in on himself, trying to keep warm.  Seeing the human’s discomfort the elf carefully pulled several large fronds from underneath him and lay them over Aragorn for what little warmth they could trap beneath their leaves, smiling slightly when Estel scooted nearer the elf, warming himself with the other’s proximity.

 

Legolas noticed for the first time the bruises on the human’s wrist where the manacle had been pulled tightly against the soft skin one time too many and he winced in sympathy, knowing how much that had to hurt, considering how his own did.  He would be glad when they could sever the metal links that held them chained together and see to the cuts and bruises.  Tomorrow perhaps they could find an outlying establishment where the links could be cut with little questions asked and little given in return.

 

Tracing the ugly bruises gently with his gentle fingertips, Legolas realized that the ranger had never even complained; his first thought had always been for the elf’s comfort.  His friend had truly been his guiding light and saving grace through those long dark days that stretched out as a black mar on his memory.  He would never have survived without him.  Strangely enough that debt, weighty as it was, felt comfortable, familiar... not so much a debt, as a pledge.  A pledge made between friends.  Between brothers.  The elf laced the ranger’s fingers with his own. 

 

Rolling onto his right side so that he faced Aragorn, Legolas drifted into a light, contented, *real* sleep for the first time in many moons.  Gently laying his hand on the ranger’s shoulder, he smiled as the man sighed slightly, his sleep drifting ever deeper, knowing they were finally safe.

 

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

 

 

The two refugees stood just beneath the canopy of trees on the edge of a glade.  An old, dilapidated farmhouse still stood near the center of the meadow.  It was obvious from the broken down fencing and the nearly collapsed barn that at one time someone had indeed lived here, but now the house was a wreck, its windows darkened and it carried the emptiness of a place that had been abandoned.  Nature had taken over and weeds poked up through the planks on the front deck.  Vines wrapped around the supporting posts and the boards creaked with the weight that the elf gently placed on them as he mounted the stairs first, trailing the ranger.

 

“Is anybody home?”  Aragorn called out.

 

Legolas looked over his shoulder at the ranger, raising one eyebrow as if questioning the man’s sanity.

 

“What? It’s only polite.” The human turned an impish grin on the elf.

 

“Aragorn, look about you.  Smell the place!” The elf’s nose wrinkled as he pushed the front door open and breathed in the air.  It was stale and musty in the house; the occupants had left long ago.  “I doubt we will find anything useful.”

 

“In the house no, but lets go search the barn.”  Aragorn shrugged innocently as the elf turned to glare at him. “You never know, we might find something to get these off.”  He rattled the chain that bound them and held up his manacled wrist.  The wounds beneath it were bruised and encrusted with blood and he had no doubt the elf’s wrist fared little better.

 

“You did *see* the barn when we walked past it didn’t you?”  Legolas followed the ranger out of the shanty and towards the leaning structure that used to be the barn.

 

Aragorn rolled his eyes and ignored the elf, but Legolas continued, stopping them short of the crumpled entrance, “It looks ready to fall at any minute Strider.”

 

“Then we best be quick!” The ranger smiled over his shoulder and pulled the elf into the darkened interior, stepping carefully and lightly over the threshold while praying that Ilúvatar would hold the building up a few minutes longer for them.

 

The interior was in no better shape than the structure was, but here it seemed that whoever had owned the house before had left their equipment behind.  Tools for shooing horses and slaughtering animals hung suspended from the ceiling and the walls.  An anvil sat in the far corner next to the darkened hulk of a smelting furnace.

 

“There.”  Aragorn walked hesitantly to the far side of the room.  The structure around them creaked and swayed unsteadily as they moved forward.

 

Warily, Legolas eyed the loft and ceiling above them, the once-sharp farmer’s tools tinked loudly against one another.  “This is a bad idea.” The elf whispered softly.

 

“It’ll only take a moment.”  Aragorn walked around the anvil, his hand on Legolas’ shoulder stopping the elf on the other side.

 

Realizing the ranger was up to something Legolas glanced quickly back at his companion.  The human had positioned them on either side of the black metal tool and was placing a large pin on the anvil next to the chain that draped across it.  Hefting an old wood handled hammer with his right hand he motioned to the pin, locking eyes with the elf.

 

“Oh no.”  Legolas backed up a step, glancing around them with wide eyes as the room creaked under the gentle winds that stirred the glen.  “You want to take these off here?” he asked incredulously.

 

“Yes.”  Aragorn smiled, stifling a laugh and simply nodded his head.

 

“And you expect me to hold that pin while *you* beat on it with the hammer?” The elf’s expression had not changed as he stared into the laughing silver eyes.

 

“Legolas.”  Aragorn shifted the head of the hammer down onto the anvil. It impacted the metal block with a dull clanked as he leaned closer to the elf.  “Do you want the chain and manacles off, or should we just continue on to Rivendell like this?”

 

The prince sighed in resignation and dropped his gaze.

 

“I am right handed, as are you my friend.  And *don’t* give me that ambidextrous line, the ability to handle two weapons at the same time has nothing to do with fine control.  I’ve seen you write, I know which hand you favor,” the ranger quickly cut off any protest on that count.  “My right hand is free and...”

 

“...and mine is chained to you!” Legolas finished the sentence for Aragorn, completing his argument as the ranger hefted the hammer again.

 

“Exactly!” He smiled brilliantly at the elf.  “Now let’s break this chain and then free you first.”

 

Reluctantly Legolas picked up the thick metal pin and placed it at an angle inside one of the iron links.

 

It took several hits before the heavy chain began to bend.  The two companions stepped apart, stressing the weakened link as Aragorn brought the hammer down again for the last time.  Legolas stumbled backward as the chain broke apart, a smile brightening his face as he stood a good three feet away from the ranger for the first time in weeks.

 

“It’s not that I don’t like you mellon-nín,” Legolas commented as he stretched his arm, enjoying moving it around freely.  “But I think you’ll understand when I say it’s good to be a little further away from you for a change.”

 

“I think the feeling is mutual.”  The ranger smiled.  “Now the manacle.” 

 

Aragorn indicated the anvil again and Legolas stepped forward, laying his wrist on the cool metal block.  The ranger inspected the restraint carefully.  Just as he thought, the elf’s wrist was torn and lacerated; ugly black bruises decorated it where the prince had pulled against the bonds.

 

Easing the pin into the middle of the two halves, near the locking mechanism, Aragorn swiftly and forcefully brought the hammer down, smashing into the metal cuff.  Legolas grimaced, stifling back a cry as the restraint bit into his already wounded wrist, causing Aragorn to flinch.

 

“Only one more time and you will be free.”  The ranger waited until the elf nodded.  He hesitated, hating to hurt his friend further, but getting the manacles off was necessary.  Taking a deep breath the ranger hefted the hammer and slammed it down, crushing the lock from the cuff and forcing it open.

 

“Here let me see it.” Aragorn held his hand out as Legolas grabbed his arm above his wrist, waiting for the sting from the aggravated wounds to subside.  The elf was resistant.

 

“No, not in here.”  He stepped back a pace, his booted foot pressing through the rotting wood beneath them.  The slight displacement sent shivers up the old structure and they both stood perfectly still until the building settled once more.

 

“Good point.” Aragorn handed the hammer and pin to Legolas and laid his left wrist on the anvil, turning his face away.  He had seen how it hurt the elf and knew that he would flinch if he saw the hit coming, his wrist already ached and he really didn’t want it to hurt anymore.

 

The slight effort it took to hold still was not lost on the elf and he quickly set about his task, trying to ignore the stifled cries of his friend as he beat the lock open.

 

Moving around the anvil, Legolas gently took hold of his friend’s shoulder and moved them towards the door.  He had no wish to remain in the building further and it was obvious that the structure would not tolerate their weight much longer.  Aragorn took the hammer from him and set in on the anvil before allowing himself to be led from the barn.

 

The wooden planks beneath them creaked and shifted as they carefully headed for the door.  The shift of the beams caused the anvil to shake and the hammer slipped from its edge, crashing through the floorboards, seriously damaging a plank that held a supporting beam.

 

With a groaning shudder the beam bent inward, snapping in half.  The newly freed friends bolted for the collapsing doorway as the structure came down around them, sending splinters and farming tools scattering in all directions.

 

 

Chapter Text

___________________________________________________________

 

~*PART EIGHT*~

 

 

 

~~~~~~~~~

A hundred days have made me older
since the last time that I saw your face
A thousand lies have made me colder
and I don’t think I can look at this the same
But all the miles that separate...
they disappeared now when I’m dreaming of your face

--Three Doors Down

~~~~~~~~~

 

 

 

Once free of the dying building, the ranger stopped on the edge of the glen, grabbing the elf and halting his forward motion.  They turned to gaze on the meadow as the barn listed to the right and slowly collapsed on itself, with the shrieking tear of breaking wood.  A dust cloud exploded out from it and hovered over the forest for moments before being swept away by the gentle south winds.

 

Legolas glanced at the ranger out of the corner of his eyes, gauging the human’s response.

 

“That was fun.” Aragorn whispered softly as the sounds of the woods slowly crept back into the forest around them.

 

“It was not.”  Legolas’ reaction caused the ranger to start laughing but his mirth was cut short as the elf took hold of his injured wrist, causing him to inhale with a sharp hiss.  The lacerations on the soft skin were aggravated and not healing properly.

 

“Let us go back to the river we passed before finding this place and clean this up.” The elf said softly, gently probing the cuts for fractures that could be hidden.  His own newly freed wrist looked no better and Aragorn quickly pulled out one of the old shirts they had found in the cave back on the plains of Nurn, ripping it into lengths as they walked back the way they had come.

 

“I thought that barn was going to come down on our heads.” Aragorn teased lightly as they knelt by the small stream.  He plunged his hand into the cool water and cringed as the icy liquid raced around the fever-hot cuts. 

 

Next to him Legolas was doing the same, carefully washing the dirt and grime of Mordor from the wounds.  “It very nearly did.”  The elf finally replied.  He was surprised to find that Aragorn was no longer next to him and glanced over his shoulder to see the ranger stripping out of his coat and tunics.  Seating himself near the waters edge the prince grinned playfully as he questioned the human, “What do you think you are doing?”

 

“There is a pool just to our right that is deep enough, I am washing this dirt and filth from me.  It is in my hair, in my...” the ranger wrestled a boot from his foot and tossed it over his back, “in my teeth, and between my toes.  I haven’t been clean in weeks.  I hate that feeling.”  Walking by the elf, Aragorn waded slowly out into the water, his splayed fingers, causing ripples across the smooth surface as he played them over the water.  Reaching the deepest part of the river he crouched down submerging himself in the icy flow and raking his fingers through his tousled dirty hair.

 

When the ranger came up for air he saw Legolas on the shore removing his own leather boots and smiled as the elf waded out towards him, carefully undoing what was left of the braids that kept the hair of out of his eyes.  He shook the blonde tresses loose so they fell over his shoulders and down his back.  The elf’s chest and back were decorated with various bruises and whip marks and Aragorn’s smile changed to one of concern as his friend drew close.  It had been some time now, but Legolas still had not healed.  It was as if his body had been incapable of healing in Mordor and the wounds were all as fresh as if they had been given yesterday. 

 

The elf was smiling however.  “Really?  And here I always thought you *enjoyed* being filthy.”

 

The ranger didn’t respond to the joke and Legolas noted the way the human frowned as he drew near and stopped a few feet from the man.

 

“I didn’t know.”  Aragorn stated simply.  “I’m so sorry.”  If those injuries told a tenth of what Legolas must have been feeling during their whole journey, then the elf must have been in excruciating pain most of the time.  He hoped he had not taken the usual elven healing abilities for granted and pushed his friend too hard. 

 

Legolas glanced down at his torso and examined the slowly healing marks and scars.  When he looked back up the smile he laid on the ranger surprised the man and the elf responded to the unasked question.  “Have you not looked at yourself?”  He chided quietly, “And I imagine that those bite marks from the wraith’s mount will need tending to as well.”

 

Quickly glancing at himself Aragorn noted the bruises that colored his chest and ribs, the boot marks that still striped his arms in black and blue from the beating he had taken from the orcs.  It seemed that neither of them had really been able to heal.  The tightness in his upper shoulders from the black creature’s teeth diminished as the icy water cooled the inflamed flesh and he had almost managed to forget about it.

 

“Turn around let me have a look.”  The elf prompted easily.

 

While the ranger did as he was told, Legolas eased himself into the pool, leaning back and submerging his head in the cool stream.  His hair caught in the current and the tangles were fingered out by the brook’s eddies.  Rising back up the elf pushed the long strands of hair out of his face, wringing the ends in his hands as he approached the ranger.

 

Aragorn was watching him over his shoulder, smiling slightly as the elf touched his chin and redirected his gaze back forward.  Pushing the ranger’s wet locks of hair off of his neck and shoulders he inspected the bite marks on the man’s back.

 

The wound was for the most part clean, but one particular break in the skin was inflamed and hot to the touch.  The open cut was jagged and not healing well.  Cupping his hands the elf washed the cut out repeatedly with the cool clean water.

 

Aragorn flinched slightly under the cold touch but held still.

 

“It will heal.” Legolas spoke quietly, keeping the man’s attention occupied as he cleaned the grit and dust from the cuts.  “Besides, what a tale you will be able to tell your family.  I know of no one who has been bitten by a wraith mount and lived to tell it, you’ll be the first.”

 

“Just what I always wanted.” Aragorn ground out as the elf finished cleaning the wounds.

 

“Come on.”  Legolas waded back to the shore, ignoring the ranger’s sarcastic comment.  “Let us clean those strips of cloth in the stream and bind our wounds. I would like to continue homeward before we loose the light.”

 

“Agreed.”  Aragorn waded past the elf, pushing his friend back as he headed for the shore. “Last one there cleans the cloths.”

 

Not to be outdone, the prince grabbed the ranger’s ankle and twisted it out from underneath him causing the human to stumble into the knee high water as the elf sprinted past.

 

With a shake of his head Aragorn stood from where he had fallen and stepped ashore, dropping lightly next to Legolas who couldn’t stop laughing.  The dark glare the ranger laid on him only caused the elf to laugh harder.  The fair being’s mirth was contagious and Aragorn jerked the strips of the old shirt from his friend’s hand; laughing as he cleaned them on the rocks submerged in the stream and drying on them on the stones that rested at the shores edge.  The two talked quietly in the small clearing as they wrapped one another’s injuries, and within the hour they were shrugging back into their clothing, the noonday sun having dried their skin and leggings sufficiently.

 

Aragorn’s comb had somehow survived the whole ordeal wedged into a corner of his knapsack where Legolas found it after scrounging through the entire pack.  He had combed his hair out sufficiently and now braided the long tresses as they walked, his fingers deftly weaving the blond locks into perfect braids that he fastened behind his head.  It felt good to have his hair up and back once more.  He hadn’t had the strength to do anything with it in Mordor. 

 

The ranger handed the elf his bow and Legolas slung it over his back where it tapped gently against his quiver.  It pleased him to be able to carry them both once more and his spirit brightened even further.  They were free and he was walking on Aragorn’s right, the position he usually took but had been unable to, restricted by the manacles as they had been.  Aragorn glanced at his friend out of the corner of his eyes an impish smile on his face. Without prompting, the elf knew that look and took off running, the human racing next to him as they headed home, their laughter light on the afternoon air.

 

 

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

 

 

No matter what time of year it was, there was always a breeze that found its way through Imladris and tonight was no different.  Legolas stepped out onto the ledge that overlooked Rivendell, joining Aragorn on the rocky edge.  The night was warm and the breeze that lifted up from the valley floor carried the coolness of the river that cut through the steep sided rift.

 

Fireflies gathered in the lower reaches, moving in dense knots through the trees or darting here and there in pairs and triplets.  The fires of Rivendell were burning low and only a few of the panoramic windows showed the soft light of evening glow lamps. 

 

Legolas turned at the sound of contentment that Aragorn breathed out in a soft sigh, smiling in the darkness of the early morning.

 

“It’s good to be home Legolas.”  Aragorn whispered as though afraid to wake the sleeping inhabitants of the house below. 

 

With a small nod the elf glanced back down in the rift.  “What do you say we *go* home so I can get some sleep.”  The prince commented dryly around a rare yawn.

 

The journey back to Rivendell had been a long one.  The last three days of it they had pushed hard, knowing they were so close and not wanting to have to wait any longer.  Aragorn was unwilling to stop unless it was absolutely necessary.  He had been driven by the desire to reach his home and had hardly slept in his relentless push to reach the fair valley.  To him it had seemed an eternity since he had seen Rivendell.

 

With a small laugh the ranger began to follow the nearly imperceptible, winding pathway that led down into the valley on the opposite side of the Last Homely House.  He found the hidden footbridge that few who traveled there knew of and within the hour the two friends were quietly walking up the large stone steps.

 

They had met no one on their way and he was surprised that even Celboril was not awake at this time of the night.  Taking caution, the ranger looked in on the elf that served his father.  The elderly elf slept quietly in his tiny home that adjoined the larger house.  Satisfied that all was well Aragorn eased the huge wooden doors open.

 

Warm light spilled out into the courtyard and Legolas nearly ran into the human as he paused in the doorway, breathing in the rich sweet scents of his home.  The clean wisps of athelas floated to him accompanied by the smells of the remnants of dinner.  Old wood, ancient books and the smell of the rushing river below brushed past him through the open-aired house.

 

Padding quietly into the foyer, Legolas touched his friend’s shoulder and pointed wordlessly to his room up the stairs.  The elf’s eyes were half lidded and he moved slowly towards the staircase, hoping his friend would understand.

 

With a small nod Aragorn quietly mouthed, “Go ahead, I’ll be right up.” He smiled to himself as the prince raised his hand in acknowledgement and stepped to the far right on the bottom stair, remembering how the wooden case would creak if one placed their weight in the middle of it.

 

Aragorn turned his attention to his father’s den as Legolas silently gained the top of the steps and soundlessly entered the room reserved him.  The lights were still burning in the study hall although they seemed to be dimmer than usual as if they were slowly burning out.  He wondered if Elrond was still up at this hour and so he tiptoed into the large living area.

 

Stopping on the threshold Aragorn stared at the far side of the room.  A large wooden desk took up nearly a third of the wall.  Behind it were shelves lined with books from the floor to the ceiling.  Aragorn had spent many an afternoon in this very room studying or simply reading his favorite stories.  It was a passion he had picked up from his father.

 

But it was not the objects in the room that held the ranger’s attention, it was the elf that had fallen asleep at the desk, his head cradled on his crossed arms as he breathed deeply, unaware that anyone stood watching him.

 

"Ada."  The years seemed to fall away as Aragorn watched his father sleeping.  How many times had he found the elder elf here in much the same way, collapsed across his latest treasure of a book, having fallen asleep while reading it late into the night?

 

The cool evening breezes stirred the ornamental curtains that draped the large picture window and Elrond moved slightly at their touch.  Aragorn shrugged out of his worn leather coat and crept silently to his father's side, gently laying the long jacket over the elf’s shoulders.  He crouched down near the seated elf lord and gazed into the half lidded eyes, dilated with deep sleep. 

 

Fifteen years was a long time for a human even though it seemed so much shorter for an immortal elf.  Elrond however, was entirely unchanged.  He still looked just the same as he did the day they said goodbye in Rohan so many seasons past. 

 

Hesitantly, Estel reached out and brushed a stray lock of dark hair away from his father's face, a small smile touching his lips as he watched the elf sleep.  It was not often he had the opportunity to do so, as Elrond was very hard to catch unaware, but the elf lord had not been expecting his son home tonight, or in the near future at all for that matter.  There had been many a night the ranger doubted he would ever see his family again.  It seemed almost surreal that he was finally here now.

 

Aragorn glanced at the book that Elrond was sprawled across and was surprised to see a sheet of paper laying over the top of the open tome's page.  The beginning of a letter was barely visible underneath the elf's fingers and Estel noticed for the first time the ornate pen that rested beside the book, having fallen from its master’s hand.  The ranger craned his neck trying to see to whom his father had been writing.  As he read the partial letter tears formed in his eyes...

 

      My Dearest Estel,

      Although it has only been a fortnight since I last wrote, it seems an eternity that I last saw you.  Elves are not supposed to mark the passage of time but so far I have been unable to convince my heart of that.  It has been long since I last had word from you, and I am no longer sure that these messages are even reaching you my son, but all I can do is write and send them with a prayer. 

 

My hope is that you are well and the campaign goes forward in your favor.  Remember to check your heart in the midst of battle, it is easy to take privilege and abuse it.

 

Your brothers have kept me busy in your absence.  Only yesterday I

 

The rest was obscured by the elf lord’s hand.

 

"Oh Ada."  Aragorn stood to his feet and tenderly kissed his father on the head before quietly exiting the room.  He hesitated, his hand hovering over the elf lord's shoulder.  He wanted nothing more than to wake the elf and tell Elrond he was home but he couldn’t bear to disturb his father’s sleep.  His own weariness betrayed him now that he had reached his destination and he was finally beginning to feel how truly tired he was.

 

Yawning quietly the ranger stretched stiffly and walked to the threshold of the room.  He stopped in the doorway and glanced back one last time, smiling at the familiar sight.  Deep inside he felt something in his heart give way and relax.  A small sigh escaped his lips as the reality weighed down on him that he was truly home.  Legolas found his joy in the woods, Aragorn found his joy right here. 

 

Climbing slowly up the stairs the ranger glanced in each of the darkened rooms of his brothers only to find them empty.  The twins were obviously out on some errand or hunting trip that required them to be away for several days as their rooms were kempt, but dusty.  He hoped they would return soon, he longed to be near them once more.

 

Removing a glow globe from the hallway wall sconce, Aragorn checked in on Legolas and found the elf sprawled across the bed.  He had collapsed on top of the sheets, not even bothering to remove his boots.  Aragorn laughed quietly as he shifted the sleeping elf more fully onto the large bed.

 

"What are you doing?" Legolas’ sleep groggy voice questioned.

 

"Helping you be more comfortable.  Now be quiet or you will wake the house."  Aragorn began unlacing the prince’s boots.

 

"Stop that.  Go to bed Estel."  Legolas whispered, waking more fully as the soft leathers were slipped from his feet, "Even my mother hasn’t taken my boots off in ages."  Legolas’ mother was of course long gone, but he was too sleepy to slice hairs right now. 

 

The soft sounds of laughter caused the elf prince to press himself up on his elbows.

 

"Well your mother never lived with Celboril.  He hates it when we fall asleep with our boots on and I don’t rightly want to hear one of his lectures."  Aragorn's voice trailed off oddly and Legolas squinted in the low light, trying to perceive what was wrong.

 

"Aragorn?  What is it?"

 

The smile that played at the corners of the ranger’s lips eased the elf’s heart some.  "It’s just that...well, I haven’t gotten a good lecture from Celboril in years.  I actually don’t think I would mind one so much right now."  He smiled fully at Legolas as he moved to the overstuffed chair in the corner and removed the quilt that was draped over it.  Walking back to the side of the bed he spread the comforter across his friend who had lain back against the soft bedding.  The sharp elven eyes were watching the ranger closely as he seated himself on the side of the bed.

 

"Your heart is lighter Aragorn.  It was time you came home."

 

"I never realized how fully I missed them all until tonight."  Aragorn whispered.  He rested his hand on the elf prince's shoulder and gave it a gentle squeeze.  "Never realized how tired I am either." Standing slowly he glanced down at Legolas, "Sleep well my friend."

 

Legolas rolled over on his side, pulling the quilt around his shoulders and burrowed into the warmth.  "Good night Estel." He countered softly as Aragorn picked up the glow globe and stepped back into the hallway.

 

The ranger’s room was closed and as he had suspected everything was there just as he had left it years ago.  He smiled as he fingered the carved wooden oliphaunt that sat on his nightstand next to his shell night-light, mementoes of a life full of hardship yes, but more importantly, full of love.  Carefully moving them over, Aragorn set the glow globe down on the small stand.  It was apparent that Celboril came in here frequently, for the place was dusted and tidy as though simply waiting for its owner to reoccupy it.  He noted with a smile that it was actually less dusty than his brothers’ rooms, since Celboril probably expected them to pick up for themselves. 

 

The glow globe behind him sputtered and died, throwing the room into darkness.  It had been so long since he had been in his own room that he was momentarily unfamiliar with the lay of the furniture.  Walking towards what he hoped was the mantle, where he knew the matches were kept; he stumbled over the trunk that sat at the foot of the bed.  Unbalanced by the unexpected obstacle he fell face forward onto his bed and slipped off the side before catching himself. 

 

It surprised him when a gentle glow slowly filled the room and he turned quickly, bracing himself against his mattresses, trying to maintain his balance.

 

In the doorway stood a tall figure holding his re-lighted nightlight.  The small lamp glowed brightly once more, illuminating the face just beyond it.

 

"Estel?" The deep, rich voice was unmistakable.

 

Aragorn couldn’t help the smile that spread across his face as he gained his footing and approached the elf lord.

 

"Ada."

 

"I thought I was simply dreaming when I heard your voice upstairs.  I had fallen asleep thinking of you.  You were in my study were you not?" He held out Estel's coat as he placed the shell light back on the nightstand.

 

Aragorn took the jacket and tossed it on the bed next to him as he stepped into his father’s open arms.

 

"I missed you so much." The ranger whispered as the elf crushed the human tightly against. “I didn’t mean to wake you.”

 

"It is well, I am glad you did, for I wondered if you would return soon.  I had hoped you would."  Elrond's voice was soft as he held the younger man, "We received word not long ago that the Corsairs had been driven back, although I was uncertain about whether the campaign continued on afterward."

 

Aragorn breathed in deeply, remembering the rich smells associated with his father, the athelas and herbs that clung to him even when he was not working with the medicines.  "It is over, they are safe.  I couldn’t stay any longer."

 

There was more to that statement than the ranger had willingly divulged but Elrond did not push the matter just yet as he gently pulled back from his child and looked him over.

 

"You have grown into quite a man, Aragorn."

 

"Please, call me Estel."  A small shadow passed over the ranger’s eyes and Elrond recognized it at once as the heaviness of a war weary soul.

 

Smiling softly Elrond repeated himself, "You have grown a lot my Estel."  He pulled the chair around to the side of the bed as Aragorn seated himself on the tall mattresses and began to pull his boots off.

 

"Legolas is here as well?"  It was a guess, but one he was fairly confident of.  After all, they had had word that Legolas had left to visit Aragorn quite a long time ago and as far as Elrond knew Thranduil had heard naught of his son since then, although considering how long Legolas had disappeared the last time he went off to hunt the human down, the elven king was not overly concerned yet.  Besides, the door to the guest room that the elf prince always used when staying in Rivendell had been ajar when he passed it a few moments ago.    

 

"Yes." Aragorn met the piercing gaze of the elf lord, "He needs rest father.  He has been through a lot and his spirit is now just returning.  I fear however that his strength lags behind, although he will not tell me so himself."

 

"What happened to the two of you this time?"  Elrond watched the young man, his heart at ease now that his son was home.  He had hoped for this so many nights.  From Aragorn’s words the elf lord gleaned the information that it had apparently not been an easy road home for the prince and his youngest son.

 

"Legolas was taken by the Gondorians as a prisoner of war and in a raid on our camp I lost him to the Corsairs who sold him to Mordor as a slave."  The ranger undid the laces on his tunic and eased the shirt off his shoulders as he spilled the events of a year or more into one weary sentence.

 

Elrond’s heart seized at the mention of his son in Mordor but when he saw the scars that decorated his son’s upper arms and torso, marks of war, he momentarily laid the fear aside.  The worry must have shown in his eyes for Aragorn reached out and touched the older elf gently.

 

"Father I am fine.  They are scars only."

 

With a slight nod Elrond leaned forward.  "I know that my son.  And they will heal with time."  He placed his palm against Aragorn's chest, near his heart, "It is the scars in here that worry me."  He smiled gently as the ranger's fingers wrapped around his.  "Tell me Estel, it is important.  Does the Lord of Mordor know you were there?"

 

Aragorn glanced down quickly, "Yes.  He might.  Although he would not know me by any name other than perhaps Strider.  The wraith that kidnapped Legolas years ago found us and I am sure we were recognized." The silver eyes looked back up once more, "But he does not know *who* I am.  Is that what you are asking?"

 

A small sigh of relief escaped the elf lord and he nodded, "Yes.  I was not aware that you had gone so far south.  Discovery by the Dark Lord would have been dangerous indeed."

 

Pulling the sheets back, Aragorn stretched out full on the bed, laying on his side, his eyes fixed on his father.  Sleep was wearing on his mind and he was finding it harder and harder to come up with the answers to the elf lord’s questions.

 

Sensing that the human was not going to be able to remain awake and knowing he had more questions than Estel had answers for at the moment, Elrond stood and pulled the sheets back over his son’s shoulders.

 

Aragorn turned so that he was staring full into the elf lord’s face.  He had longed for this for so many weeks now.  When they were in Mordor he despaired of ever making it back home.  But now...he smiled sleepily as Elrond leaned down and kissed his forehead.

 

It mattered not how old the human was, he would always be Elrond's youngest son.  The elf lord touched the side of the ranger’s face, his fingers gently tracing over the man's, brow causing him to close his eyes.

 

"Rest Estel.  Just rest."  The elvish command pressed forcefully down on the human's consciousness.  It had been years since Elrond had used that trick on the human and it worked as well now as it did then, although it was hardly necessary.  "Tomorrow we will have plenty of time to speak.  Sleep now."

 

"Ada...” The darkness of slumber pulled at the human though he resisted it temporarily.

 

"Yes?"  Elrond stared down at the man who was barely awake.

 

"I'm glad you're here."  Aragorn murmured sleepily.

 

"I'm glad you are here as well Estel."  Elrond moved the small night light to the mantel and let it rest there, its gentle glow barely filling the room as it burned itself out slowly.

 

In his heart Elrond could hardly wait until Aragorn woke and they had time to talk more.  He was sure there was much they needed to discuss... and he wanted to talk to Legolas as well.  Aragorn had not elucidated on his earlier comments much, but from their brief speech and the heart-weariness he could see in Estel, Elrond surmised that although the two had actually come home under their own power, they were still both of them nursing inner wounds that needed healing.  Elrond’s smile was soft.  He knew that here was perhaps the best place for them to do just that.  He also knew that the twins would be excited to see their brother.  They were expected home tomorrow morning and would be eager to spend time with him again.

 

Elrond paused in the door way and glanced back at Estel one last time.  "Thank you." He whispered silently to Ilúvatar as he walked back to his own room.  Two of his children had returned and from the sounds of it they both would need some attention... oddly enough that familiar scenario was strangely nice and comfortable to walk back into.  He smiled as he passed by Legolas' door, pulling it closed a little further so the elf would not be disturbed tomorrow morning.  The young prince spent so much time under his roof that the elf lord very nearly considered him one of his own by now.

 

As Elrond lay down in his own bed, it seemed the very house around him sighed contentedly.  All was as it should be in the fair halls of the last Homely House.

 

 

 

The End