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The Curse of Angmar

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-The Curse of Angmar-

By: Cassia and Siobhan

 

~*PART ONE*~

 

 

 

Their footsteps could barely be heard as they crept through the large house nestled deep in the beautiful valley of Imladris.  Sneaking up the elegant stairway and quietly entering the room at the end of the hallway, Lord Elrond’s twin sons silently approached the bed that held their younger human brother, Estel.

 

The ranger had returned the previous day and the twins had not yet had the opportunity to see him as they had only just returned from a quick trip through the mountains themselves.

 

The human lay on his stomach, his face turned to the far wall.  The sheets fell in folds off the bed, wrapped about his waist, exposing the top of his sleeping breeches.  One arm lay under his head beneath the pillows that cushioned him and the other dangled off the mattress. 

 

The man had filled out since they had last seen him.  He had grown up.  His shoulders and back were broad and muscular and his facial hair, albeit scraggly in comparison to others, had grown as well.  Shoulder length wavy tangles of dark hair, coated with the warm glow of early morning light, fell across his face as he breathed deeply in sleep.

 

Feigned sleep.

 

His senses, having been battle-heightened over the many years of war he had seen, were alert and although the man had not completely woken, every fiber in his body tensed, bringing his awareness slowly to the surface. 

 

Elladan barely knelt on the bed; it gave way easily beneath him with a soft squeak.  The elf leaned towards the ranger, a devilish smile on his face; it had been a long time since he had been able to surprise his youngest brother.

 

Instantly awake and on the defensive, Estel twisted in the bed sheets, recoiling from the presence he had felt.  Automatically his hand wrapped around the hilt of the elven blade he had placed beneath his pillow out of habit sometime in the pre-dawn after his father had left his room.  He slept better with it near at hand lately and putting it there had been an almost unconscious reflex. 

 

Bringing the weapon up with lightning fast speed, Estel pressed the sharp edge of the knife against his perceived attacker’s throat.  His left hand wrapped in the dark hair of the elf that knelt next to him, holding Elladan still against the steel razor and pressing forward threateningly.

 

The elf froze; breathing carefully as the blade scraped dangerously against his jugular.  His eyes wide, Elladan slowly raised his hands, taking note that the human who held him so precariously was not quite awake or aware yet.  His younger brother’s attack had simply been an automatic response to a perceived threat.  It was an action that neither twin was prepared for however; the ranger had never raised his weapons against them before save in jest or to spar... this was neither.

 

“Estel?”  Elladan spoke his name softly, causing Aragorn to blink several times as he took in his surroundings.  He was not on the banks of Pelargir nor the blood-soaked plains of South Gondor, the attacker before him was not a Haradrim or Corsair, it was an elf with oddly familiar eyes...

 

“Elladan?”

 

Aragorn loosened his hold at once, releasing his brother and allowing Elladan to press him back against the pillows while Elrohir slipped the blade from the human’s hand.  Aragorn breathed in deeply, closing his eyes and holding his breath as his heart pounded wildly in his chest, trying to absorb the adrenaline that had shot through his system.

 

The ranger sighed softly and stared up into the blue eyes that scrutinized him.  Estel didn’t move when Elladan pinned him to the bed, his hands on the younger human’s shoulders as he leaned over the man.  His nearly disastrous reaction to his elven brother frightened Aragorn; he hadn’t heard the twins enter his room and had forgotten that he had slipped his knife under his pillow before he had fallen completely asleep.  The reaction surprised him as much as it did the twins and so he simply lay on the bed, catching his breath.  If he had pressed against the blade even a little too hard... Aragorn shuddered slightly.  The wars he had lived through these past years had marked him too much; he had a great deal to unlearn.

 

It had been many years since the twins had seen their brother and the visible changes in the human both intrigued them and saddened them as well.  The emotions were foreign and strange.  Aragorn knew there would need to be a time of adjustment.  Things weren’t as they always had been and Elladan’s keen senses picked that up immediately.

 

“We heard you had returned.  You have... changed, little brother.”  Elladan whispered softly.  It wasn’t just his outward appearance or actions; they could see the age in his eyes, more so even than his years.  Because elves aged so slowly after reaching maturity, it was almost as if their little brother had grown up to be older than them.  It was strange to the twins, unsettling. 

 

Changed.  An understatement, Aragorn thought sarcastically, but he simply nodded.  There was nothing else to be said, it was true.  He tried to explain himself, “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to hurt you.  I wasn’t awake... I...  It was an automatic response; I thought you were an enemy.”

 

Gently placing the sharp elven blade on the dresser, Elrohir sat on the edge of the bed, watching his brothers.  Deep in his heart he knew Estel was different... older, and he could feel the weight the human carried in his own heart.  He smiled softly as the ranger’s silver eyes turned to gaze briefly at the dark haired elf.  Although things had changed, he for one was very glad that Estel had returned to them, the years since they had last seen the ranger had been long indeed, even in a timeless place such as Rivendell.  After all, life was full of changes; they didn’t have to be bad.  Estel would always be their little brother in their hearts, no matter what happened. 

 

When Aragorn glanced back at his older brother he noticed the frown that creased Elladan’s forehead.  The elf was staring at the scar that marred the man’s lip.  Self-consciously Estel covered the blemish with the fingers of his right hand, dropping his gaze from the twins.  His slight beard and mustache concealed the worst of the scar but it still bothered him.

 

Elrohir caught the ranger’s wrist and gently pulled Aragorn’s hand away.

 

“What happened?”  He asked softly.

 

Moving out of his brother’s grip Estel scooted back against the pillows behind him and sat up in the bed, drawing his knees up to his chest and fingering the mark.

 

“It was a war wound, from a fight with a Haradrim.  They are fierce warriors.”  He glanced at Elladan as he spoke, “But he did not return home and I did.”

 

Elladan nodded, a smile slowly spreading across his face. “Well you know, they say that women find battle scars very attractive.”  The elf looked quickly at his twin who matched his smile.

 

Shaking his head, Aragorn rolled his eyes, “Leave it to you to find something positive about it.”  He scooted over as Elladan seated himself on the edge of the bed across from Elrohir.

 

“Tell us of it?”  Elrohir asked cautiously.

 

“Of what?”

 

“The war, your time with men, all of it.”  Elladan finished the thought his twin had started, eager to hear how their brother had fared.  Little word had been sent through the years as carriers often fell prey to the ravages of war, bandits in the hills, or worse.

 

“Not yet.”  Aragorn glanced from one twin to the other, “Please, let me leave it for a while. I only wish to be Estel.  There are some things I *need* to forget.”  Deep weariness marked the gaze he laid on the elves and they immediately withdrew from their questioning.

 

Gently touching Estel’s shoulder, Elrohir apologized, “We meant no harm Estel.  If it is painful it is best left until you are ready.”

 

Aragorn smiled softly, his hands busy worrying the edges of the blanket that he had pulled up to his chest, a habit he had never broken himself of, “It is... I am weary of it.  The world men of has taught me many things, some good, but much of which I wish to forget.”

 

“I see it has also taught you to sleep with your blade under your pillow.”  Elladan eyed the weapon that rested on the nightstand, his tone taunting as he deftly changed the subject, not wishing to make his younger brother any more uncomfortable than they already had.

 

“Oh that.” Estel laughed quietly, “Yes, I got used to sleeping with that in my hand.  I slipped it under my pillow out of habit last night after father left me.  Please forgive me Elladan, that is one routine I will need to break.”

 

“*Before* you kill someone would be nice.”  Elrohir chided playfully.

 

“Oh and you think you didn’t deserve it!?”  Aragorn glanced from one twin to the other, his eyes narrowing in mock suspicion, trying to hide his smile.  “You think I don’t know that you were trying to scare me?”  He laughed as the twins affected an air of shocked innocence.  “Probably had in mind to drag me out of bed and play one of your tricks on me didn’t you now?  Well they won’t work anymore.”

 

Elladan sobered immediately.  He knew that Estel was teasing them but he could also feel that the human spoke the truth.  Aragorn’s age of innocence was gone and the little brother that they had known had finally, truly grown up.  The older twin looked quickly away, trying to hide the sadness his thoughts had suddenly evoked.  He knew it was natural, but could not help the bitter-sweet feelings of one who has watched someone grow from infancy. 

 

Aragorn however was not fooled and leaned forward, tipping Elladan’s chin up, forcing the elf to look at him.  It was a tiny action that the elven twins had done a thousand times with their younger brother and now the roles were reversed.  “What is it?  What have I said?”

 

“You are not the young Estel that we remember.” Elrohir whispered softly, his voice uncertain as he spoke the words.  They knew.  They knew their brother was human, they knew with their heads it would be this way, but their hearts still had trouble grasping the fact that their young Estel had become a man, a battle-weary man whose cares hung heavy upon him. 

 

Aragorn glanced from the youngest twin to Elladan who was watching him again carefully.  “He is right. You are not,” The elder twin concurred quietly.  It was not bad that Aragorn had become an adult, they were proud of the man he had become... but it was hard to let go of the boy. 

 

“Oh.” Estel silently mouthed the one syllable word and leaned back against the headboard as realization sunk in.  His elven brothers were having difficulty with the fact that Aragorn had finally grown up.  The ranger reached his left hand behind his back pushing a pillow into a more comfortable position.  As his fingers touched the soft, down-filled bag, a thought brushed his mind and he gripped the cushion, tensing.

 

“You think I am so changed that you fear you no longer recognize the person in this body?”  He asked quietly, voicing the elves’ unspoken fears.

 

“Yes, perhaps.”  Elrohir answered hesitantly, glancing at Elladan for confirmation.  The brothers had always been honest with one another; it would do no good for them to hide their thoughts now. 

 

Nodding his head Aragorn dropped his gaze, throwing his brothers off just enough so that when he slipped the pillow he held from behind his back, Elladan was unprepared for the soft blow.

 

The elf fell off the side of the bed; the pillow following him as Aragorn landed the cushion squarely in his older brother’s face.  Gripping the edge of the bed Estel looked over the side of the mattress, watching as the elf pulled the pillow off of his head and stared, open-mouthed, at the human.

 

“Hmm... well, guess if I can still rub your face in a pillow I haven’t changed that much, have I?”  The human laughed from his vantage point before being pulled back from the edge by Elrohir.  The twin had taken hold of Aragorn’s ankle and jerked the ranger back, pressing a large bed pillow over the human’s head and burying his face in the blankets with a shout of mirth.

 

By the time Lord Elrond entered the room, followed by Legolas, no one could remember who had actually started the pillow fight, but the broken cases and the snowfall of downy feathers that rained down on the room’s occupants incriminated them all.

 

When Elrond cleared his throat, Elladan and Elrohir quickly sat up, releasing their captive who bolted upright in the middle of the bed, coughing and spitting out a mouthful of feathers.  Fluffy white twigs of down stuck out from the dark, disheveled hair at odd angles and the bright silver eyes smiled as the ranger extricated himself from the pile of pillows and empty cases that he had been buried under.

 

Looking slowly around the room Elrond shook his head, his gaze landing lastly on his youngest son, sitting in the middle of the bed, flanked by the elven twins who were trying desperately to look innocent - a tactic that very nearly always failed.

 

“So Estel, I see you have lost the pillow fight again?”  The elven lord entered the room, his tone imperious, his eyes full of laughter.  He fought to keep contained the smile that slipped slowly across his face.

 

“I am afraid so Ada.” Aragorn glanced between his brothers, “They were picking on me again.”  The human’s eyes took on a pitiable gaze, begging the elf lord to intervene.

 

When the twins started sputtering in self-defense and pointing at the ranger, Elrond could contain his laughter no longer.  “I see some things have not changed.”

 

“I am afraid Lord Elrond,” Legolas spoke up from his place in the doorway, “that with Estel around, some things never will.”

 

“Good.” Elrohir whispered, “I like it that way.”  He smiled as Aragorn glanced at him.

 

The ranger pulled his brother into a tight hug, “Me too.” He whispered into the elf’s ear before shoving the twin playfully away from him.

 

 

 

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

 

 

~~~~~~~~
They gave me a life that’s not so easy to live
And then they sent me on my way
I left my loving, forgot my dreams
I lost them along the way.


Those little things you say
When words mean so much
You never back down
When they all shy away
You always listen to me.

 

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

 

 

It had been nearly two weeks since Aragorn had returned and the rest that his weary heart had begged for was just only now beginning to take hold.  Padding barefooted across the wood floor of Elrond’s study room Aragorn quietly made his way to the picture window that stood open, facing the rift that Rivendell had been built into.  It appeared that no one was awake yet in the house save for Celboril and the kitchen staff.

 

Morning was just breathing her sigh of warmth in the valley.  The far side of the cleft that held Imladris was aflame with the first touches of the sun. 

 

Estel stood silently on the balcony that overlooked the river far below.  His unfocused eyes did not notice as the sun crept over the valley and painted her black and grey palette with brilliant colors of light.  His thoughts were flung far beyond the safety of the rift that sheltered him.  He shivered slightly but the chill that ran up his spine had nothing to do with the still cool morning air.

 

Elrond had been awake when the ranger stirred that morning and followed quietly in the man’s wake.  The elf lord had fully expected that there was much weighing on Estel’s heart that he was either unable or unwilling to share.  A shadow edged the ranger’s eyes and his lightheartedness had not returned fully.  Elrond stood in the shadows of the room behind his son watching the young human.  He could feel the confusion that warred inside the man, mixed with a sorrow that he did not understand.  They had spoken of the dark shadows of Mordor and all that had happened there... but truly, that had touched Legolas’ soul deeper than Estel’s.  There was something different that troubled his youngest son.

 

When Aragorn sighed deeply and laid his head down on his arms crossed atop the balustrade the elf lord moved from the shadows and stepped silently up behind the ranger, gently placing his hand on the broad shoulders as he moved to the side, trying to glimpse Estel’s face.

 

Aragorn started slightly before laying a rueful smile on the elf lord.  Elrond remained about the only being that could utterly surprise him like he just had.

 

“Father, you startled me.”  Aragorn shifted, facing the older elf and leaning against the low stonework.  “What wakens you so early?”

 

“Funny, I was about to ask you the very same question.”  Deep blue eyes pierced through to the soul before him and Aragorn was surprised to find himself instantly shying away from the touch that was so familiar and yet so unwelcome.  He dropped his gaze to the floor of the valley, watching the Bruinen sweep by below them.

 

Elrond turned and leaned against the railing, waiting out the human.  The quiet roar of the waterfalls at the head of the river could just barely be heard on the still morning air and the silence hung between them heavily.  He had finally decided that his son was not going to open up to him just yet, when Aragorn turned his gaze back to the elf and held his father’s questioning glance.

 

“I do not wish to be human.”

 

The statement, spoken quietly, was simple and blunt.  The grief behind the words touched Elrond’s heart.

 

“You were never given that choice Estel.  Your blood is Númenorean and though there is very minute traces of elvish in you; you cannot choose to be one of the firstborn my son.”  Elrond gently laid his hand on the young man’s shoulder.

 

“If I had been I would go with you now across the sea.  The world is wearying.  I have seen enough of man’s cruelty and intolerance to last a lifetime.  If I cannot be what my heart desires, cannot lay claim to the things I truly love, then I will not walk amidst those for whom I feel so little kinship, will not tread a path whose end I cannot see, I choose exile.”  Aragorn frowned deeply and glanced back across the way, finally noticing for the first time that morning had blushed the mountains with its first rays.  Obviously these thoughts had been heavy on his mind for some time.

 

“Your heart is weary.”  Elrond recognized the battle-exhausted look; the look of one who had seen too much death and darkness. 

 

“More than you know.”  The whispered words fell away, caught by the slight breezes that were beginning to pick up.

 

“I know full well how you feel Estel.  I too have been there and if you think that only men have the corner on brutality, intolerance and hatred you would be wrong.”  Elrond stepped back as Aragorn straightened and turned towards the elf, resting the small of his back against the top of the rail.

 

The ranger shook his head.  “I saw men killing each other, not even knowing why, but simply because they were sent out to do so.  I saw women and children caught in the chaos and whole cities decimated.  Men who sought profit by enslaving another being and subjecting that being to horrible cruelty.  Selling one another, murdering, stealing...” Aragorn closed his eyes against the images that surfaced. “The darkness I saw in Mordor was deep and terrible... but I saw glimpses of that same darkness in the eyes of too many in the south that were neither orc nor wraith.  I have seen what power does to men, and I want no part of it.”

 

“The elven races are no different,” Elrond said quietly.  “We are simply older now.  When one has an immortal lifetime, lessons learned are sometimes better remembered.  We were just as you are once.  I have seen elves do the same to one another.  I know how heavy your heart is.   You must trust that it will not always be this way.”  Elrond hurt for his son.  The things the young man had seen drew scars on the heart of a kind that often did not fully heal, but he could not allow the human to turn from his own race; this one had a destiny that could not be so easily thrown aside.

 

“It does not feel like it will ever leave, the ache I mean,” the ranger explained when his father frowned slightly at him.  “I went to Rohan, to Gondor, to see what their world held.  To see if I could be what they need me to be... I cannot.  You have told me of my heritage, of my supposed future, but I do not want it.”

 

“You do not have to right now my son.  It is not for you at this time.”  Elrond’s words were calm and reasonable, yet laced with compassion. 

 

“But it will be!”  Aragorn stepped back, his anger peaking at his own helplessness and sense of inadequacy, “And do you think that in twenty or thirty years men will have changed?  I do not.  What difference will I be able to make in the world?”

 

“More than you can know.” Elrond glanced down to Estel’s hands and noticed that Barahir was missing from his fingers.  The ranger slowly opened his fist and the ring shown brightly in the warm light.  When the elf met his son’s gaze he noticed the guilt that hid just behind his eyes.  “You were going to get rid of it?”

 

Aragorn nodded and dropped his eyes to the floor beneath his boots.  “I had thought to throw into the Bruinen where it would never be found...”

 

“And so escape your destiny?”  Elrond closed his right hand around his son’s, the ring biting gently into his palm.  “The ring only marks you outwardly as Isildur’s heir.”  With his left hand the elf touched the human’s chest above his heart, “The true power you carry, and the goodness with which you will wield it, is in here... and nothing can change that.”

 

Silver eyes locked onto the earnest blue ones.  He knew the truth in what his father told him, but his war-weary heart shied at the thought.

 

“You have not come to that point in your life yet Estel; you have much farther to go still and many years to enjoy.  Do not feel imprisoned by the expectations of others, even those of us who love you.  Go where your heart leads you; you know you are welcome to rest here as long as you wish.”  Elrond smiled as the hand caught in his own tightened slightly and Aragorn wrapped his right arm around the elf lord, pulling him in closely.

 

“Thank you father.  I would stay on here for a while.  I need the rest.” Estel whispered softly into the elf lord’s ear.

 

Elrond nodded in understanding as the young man pulled back, “I for one am glad, for I missed you these past years.  Since you have been in my life young one, I have begun to experience time as the race of men does and I do not cherish that feeling.”  He laughed lightly as he wrapped his arm around Estel’s shoulders and drew him back inside with him.  “It will do my heart good to have you near again.  Besides, Celboril has done nothing but complain about not being able to make panjacakes.  You know you are the only one who loved those things.  I am sure he will have some ready for you this morning when we break fast!”

 

Aragorn smiled and walked back into the house, easily allowing himself to be lead through the large mansion.  He gently wrapped his arm around his father’s waist and laughed as the older elf began to tell him about a stunt his brothers had pulled just last week.  He found he was amazed at how young he suddenly felt and how light his heart became when he released his cares and relaxed into the warmth of his home, Imladris.  Something echoed deeply inside and he realized he had missed his family more than he knew. 

 

Slipping Barahir back on his finger he allowed his heritage to settle deep in his heart, far from the surface; accepted but not taken up.  For now he was Estel, at home in Rivendell and he could hear the sounds of his brothers echoing down the stairwell as they teased Legolas mercilessly.

 

He laughed, pulling back behind his father slightly for protection as the Silvan elf vaulted the railing, jumped from the last landing of the staircase and landed lightly next to him.

 

“This is all your fault.  You must stop them.”  The blonde elf laughed as he stepped behind the human and the elf lord. 

 

Elladan and Elrohir had chased him down the stairs and the prince glowered at them with unrepressed mirth as he hid behind their father and brother.  “*I* did NOT use either one of your closets for my clothes, Estel gave these to me last night!  Take it up with him!”

 

Aragorn held up his hands innocently against his brothers mock-accusing stares.  “Well Celboril is the wrong size.  I couldn’t find you last night to ask and Legolas said he was sick of wearing my clothing...”

 

At this Elladan and Elrohir had to laugh.  “I wonder he did not weary of that the first day.”

 

Elrond shook his head with a smile.  Aragorn’s clothing, even the silk or velvet tunics and robes he wore around Imladris, had looked slightly off on Legolas’ graceful form.  Especially since Aragorn was wider built than the slender elf.  However, even the brown and maroon tunic and leggings that Aragorn had borrowed from his brothers, although a bit of a nearer fit, still did not look completely natural on the blonde archer.

 

“Well the good news,” the elven lord said patiently as the younger beings jostled about him with Aragorn pretending to growl at his brothers for the slight and them pretending to be oh so frightened. 

“Is that the tailor said the clothing I commissioned for the Prince should be ready later today.”  Elrond supposed rightly that Legolas would feel more comfortable once he was again able to dress in the

familiar styles of his woodland kin.

 

Legolas smiled gratefully, pretending to ignore the three brothers.  “Thank you.”

 

“Now,” Elrond used a tone one might employ for very small children, which made his three boys look up almost in unison.  It was all Legolas could do to keep from laughing.  “I believe Elladan and Elrohir expressed the desire to take you both out hunting with them today, so I suggest that this would be a good time to have that breakfast.”

 

Aragorn smiled.  It was *so* good to be home.  “Yes, Ada.”

Chapter Text

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~*PART TWO*~

 

 

 

The sun had ridden half way through its course across the sky when Aragorn finally convinced his brothers and Legolas to stop for a bite to eat.  The four had been out with the hunting parties since early morning and had sent the other elves back to Imladris with their catches only an hour ago.  The game on the plateau they hunted now was sparse but their boredom had turned into sport as they took turns hunting each other.

 

Aragorn had been the last one to play the part of the prey and none of the elves, including Legolas had been able to track the human.  When the three hunters had finally given up on finding him, their quarry had leapt into their midst from the branches of the huge trees that spread out a thick leafy canopy over the elves heads.  The shock and surprise on the elven faces had given the human great amusement.

 

Elladan gave the ranger a shove as he recovered from the initial shock.

 

“Estel will you never grow up!?”

 

Attempting to sober, Aragorn straightened up and glanced amongst the elves.  “No.” the man answered with mock seriousness before breaking into a huge smile.  The twins had almost gotten over their initial shock at the changes the years apart had wrought in their human brother and Aragorn noted with amusement that he was once again back to being their ‘little’ brother.  And he liked it that way... although he would never admit that to them.  “Please, let us break for food. I am starving. Please.”  He eyed Elrohir, knowing the youngest twin would have the most sympathy.

 

Shaking his head Legolas hooked his fingers in the ranger’s sleeve and dragged the man with him, back through the woods, trailing the twins.  “There was a pond not far from here.  We can eat there.”

 

Aragorn was laughing as he stumbled after the prince, jogging to keep pace with the swift being.

 

“Only if it is not near a cliff.” Elladan taunted, elbowing Elrohir who joined in the teasing.

 

“Yes you know how clumsy Estel is around them.”  The youngest twin continued.

 

“Or an orc encampment...” Elladan picked up the thread again.

 

Doing his best to ignore them, Aragorn shook his head and rolled his eyes, walking next to Legolas who was trying not to break out laughing.

 

“Or dwarves...” Elrohir laughed.

 

“Or rivers, or cities...”

 

“Wargs or wolves or old mills that he could fall off of.”  Elrohir stopped talking and jumped back as Aragorn rounded on his brothers.

 

“Now, that was not my fault, and so long ago I can’t believe you are even keeping score!  I have not fallen off a building since I was a child.” Aragorn advanced on the two who split up trying to stay out of reach.

 

“No, just waterfalls, trees and cliffs, things like that.” Elladan ducked as the ranger turned towards him, playfully lunging at the elf.  He rather suspected that Legolas had told them about the cliff incident in Mordor and that had helped set this off. 

 

Legolas snagged the back of the ranger’s coat and jerked him around forward.  “Ignore them, they are just jealous because your father gives you more attention.  They only wish it was them who lived such an exciting life.”

 

The taunt elicited a stammering of arguments and denials from the twins but Aragorn had stopped listening.  His war honed sense of danger had kicked in, something was not right and he began to search for the source of the disturbance.  Grabbing Legolas’ arm and the ranger slowed the elf and glanced warily about them as they reached the edge of the glade.  The deep pool Legolas had mentioned sparkled on the far side of the meadow, fed by a high mountain stream but the ranger did not proceed towards it.

 

Legolas held up his hand silencing the elves behind him.  Noting the tenseness in the prince they all began to listen to the woods about them and heard what Aragorn had first noticed, the forest was silent.

 

“We are not alone.” The ranger barely whispered, turning slowly and gazing into the cool recess of the woods.

 

He caught Legolas’ gaze as the elf glanced sharply his way.  Without words the two friends communicated in silence.  Aragorn directed the twins to separate and head back the way they had come.  Legolas would head through the woods to the right and Aragorn would take the left. With a curt nod of agreement the elves disappeared without a sound into the forest seeking what it was that hunted them.

 

Aragorn slowly drew his elven hunting knife, the blade quietly singing as the metal slid from its sheath.  He stalked through the forest, constantly glancing above him into the tree branches over head, wary and alert, every fiber of his being tensed and ready.  There was definitely someone or something out there, he could feel their proximity.  Slipping to the edge of the stand of trees as he completed a full circuit around the meadow Aragorn stopped at the point where he should have met up with Legolas but the elf was not there.

 

His worry notched up higher in his throat and he stood very still, straining to hear in the unnatural quiet.

 

The soft sounds of booted feet on the carpet of undergrowth caught his attention and he swiveled to his right, running silently in the direction that he had been alerted.

 

The trunk of a large old tree sheltered him from immediate view as the ranger stalked up on Legolas.  The elf faced away from his position, he had just dropped his elven blade to the ground and slowly raised his empty hands. 

 

A man stood behind him, his features concealed by a hooded cloak.  One of the human’s arms was around the prince’s neck, the other holding a thick hunting blade against the elf’s jugular.  Whatever the human was saying was blocked out by the rushing adrenaline that spiked through Aragorn.  He would not suffer his friend to be tormented or hurt by any man every again if it was within his power.

 

What he could not see however, was the smile that played across Legolas’ lips and the relaxed cast of the proud shoulders as the elf released the tension in his body; his ‘attacker’ was known to him.

 

Just as Legolas turned to greet the human who had so surprised him, he caught a glimpse of Aragorn as the man lunged at the hooded figure roughly dragging the man back a few steps away from the prince and the perception of threat.  Pressing the elven blade hard against the human’s neck he drew close and questioned the other harshly.

 

“You think the elf is game?  You like hunting elves?”  Aragorn tightened his death grip on the man’s neck squeezing his airway as gloved hands pried frantically at his arm.  “You have chosen your prey poorly.  You are not welcome in these mountains do you understand?”  The ranger growled angrily in the other’s ear, giving his captive a good shake.

 

“Aragorn, no!” Legolas leapt forward, stalling his friend from hurting the would-be attacker.

 

“Aragorn?” the human in the ranger’s grasp rasped as Strider quickly released the man and stepped away from him, unconsciously placing himself between the hooded figure and the elf prince.

 

“Estel, it is Halbarad, the rangers have been searching for you.”  Legolas explained, switching quickly into the elven tongue as his friend caught up with all that had just transpired.

 

The ranger before him smiled brilliantly, rubbing his neck where it was still tender from the attack.  “Aragorn! I never even heard you come up behind me, and look at you!”  Halbarad gave the young man before him a careful glance, “We have heard the tales of Thorongil.  It was my suspicion that is was in fact you.  When the rumors said that the great captain of the Gondorian army had abandoned her, and that Estel had returned to Rivendell, I knew it was true.”

 

Before Aragorn could respond the ranger walked out in to the open meadow and pressed his gloved fingers to his lips, releasing a long low whistle.  In seconds other rangers stepped out into the sunlight of the small glade joining their leader.  Elladan and Elrohir raced to the edge of the glen and immediately began greeting the newcomers that they recognized.

 

Aragorn turned to Legolas and looked the elf over quickly, “You weren’t hurt?”  He was still trying to reconcile the threat he had perceived with what had really transpired.  The elf prince stepped close to his friend and lowered his voice, glancing at the human and quietly reassured him.

 

“I am fine. Halbarad did not harm me, well other than my pride at being surprised by a *human*.” Concern quickly colored the elf’s formerly teasing gaze, “Are you all right?”

 

“I thought you were in danger.  I thought that...”  Aragorn sighed deeply, releasing his fears and pent up tension not finishing the thought.  He hated the war-like responses that had been drilled into him.  This was the second time he’d nearly harmed a friend because of an over-reaction.  It would take time to hone out those responses and not take reflexive action now that there was no immediate threat in his life.

 

“You thought I was being attacked.”  Understanding filled Legolas’ eyes.  Understanding and compassion.  Aragorn had set himself up as the elf prince’s fierce protector during those long, hellish, hopeless days in Mordor; that would not be easy for the human to let go of now that it was no longer necessary. 

 

“Yes, again.”  Aragorn’s voice was now only faintly edged with tension.

 

With a small smile Legolas laid his hand on his friend’s shoulder, “It is well.  I am fine, although you scared the life right out of me.  If he had been an attacker I should fear for *him* with you about.”  The elf joked softly, trying to bring a smile to the ranger’s face.  His attempts were rewarded as Aragorn smiled and shook his head, wrapping his hand around the elf’s arm and giving a tight squeeze before he turned back to the others who were busy conversing with the elven twins.

 

“Aragorn!” Elladan looked up from the conversation, “You must hear this.”

 

The two friends quickly crossed the distance between themselves and the knot of rangers that were talking quietly to the elves.

 

“They say it is a wight.”  A younger ranger to Halbarad’s left spoke up.

 

“Arendur, Elrohir was not challenging you, merely questioning.” The leader of the rangers deferred almost imperceptibly to Aragorn as the Dùnadan joined the circle, stepping aside lightly to allow him in.  “Though the barrow-wights are never up to any good, you are correct Elrohir, it is highly unlike that it is them.”

 

“You speak of barrow-wights?”  Aragorn questioned, joining them in the middle of the conversation.  His question was directed to Halbarad but he glanced around the group of men curiously, noting the ones he recognized.  His gaze landing lastly on Legolas.

 

“Yes.”  Halbarad’s statement redirected Aragorn’s attention and he raised an eyebrow in question, urging the other ranger on.  “In the hills east of the Shire there has been suspicious activity among the Barrow Downs, or so they say.  People have gone missing, Hobbits have been taken from the paths that cross near there.  All of the little folk have been freed but their possessions are gone.  Rumor has it that a few of the humans who have disappeared have never been found.  Even animals have been reported as stolen.”

 

“That does not sound like the scheming of a wight.”  Legolas offered softly.

 

“No, it is highly unusual, but the folk around there are adamant that the barrow-wights have been stirred up.  There are even stories flying about that the wraiths have returned and are searching the area, taking people as slaves for Mordor.”

 

Legolas shuddered involuntarily, his eyes momentarily clouding.

 

“That is highly unlikely; the wraiths are holed up in Mordor itself.  Or at least one of them.”  Aragorn didn’t offer how he knew that information, he simply made the statement, ignoring Halbarad’s unspoken question.

 

When the Dunadan was not forthcoming, Halbarad nodded in understanding and continued, “Others believe that it is highwaymen.  Whatever the cause, it is an evil venture and it needs to be stopped.  Someone must find out what is at the root of the disappearances and thievery.  If it is the barrow wights then we will need more help than simply elves or rangers have to offer.”

 

“Are you headed there now?”  Elladan asked from the far side of the ring.

 

Halbarad cast his gaze to the forest floor, hesitant to continue, “Actually that was why we came.”  The ranger met Aragorn’s eyes finally.  “Our numbers have lessened the past fifteen years that you have been gone.  These are all that remain of my camp.  We were on our way to combine our forces with another encampment when word was brought to us of the goings on in the Downs.  The wars on the borders of Gondor and Ithilien have drawn away some of our number, stretching us thin, and the constant increase in reports of orcs and wargs have kept the rest of us busy.  There are none that I can spare to keep watch over the south farthing let alone the eastern downs.  I was hoping that since you were back...”  Halbarad let the question hang between him and the younger man.  He had heard some of what had happened to Aragorn during his stay in Gondor and then the rumors that the ranger had passed into Mordor, following Legolas.  He was not sure that the man would want to take up the challenge so soon to returning home.  He knew he wouldn’t.

 

“If there were any one else I could trust, I would ask them first.”  Halbarad’s voice dropped so that the request suddenly became a thing between the two of them alone.  “If you would rather not, since you have just returned I would completely understand...”

 

The older ranger stopped speaking as a wide smile crossed Aragorn’s face.  The man who he realized was no longer young stepped closer to him and grasped his arm.  “You do not need to worry Halbarad.  I will go and look into this and if it is a barrow wight I know just whom I will call upon to help in the matter.  If it is others then that person or persons will be dealt with but it will stop.” He reassured.

 

“I’ll accompany you.”  Legolas offered.

 

“And we’re coming too!” Elrohir called to his younger brother.

 

“You hate the barrows.”  Elladan frowned, glancing at his twin.  “You said they were more frightening than...”

 

“Shut up Elladan.”  Elrohir viciously jabbed his brother, silencing him as the rangers turned to stare at the two elves.  The twin’s face reddened slightly as he barely caught the soft snickers of the men around him.

 

“There, see.”  Aragorn laughed returning his attention to Halbarad, “It’s all taken care of.  We’ll leave tomorrow at first light. But first please be our guests tonight.  Father would love to have you spend dinner with us, he so enjoys hearing what you have been up to.  Besides,” Aragorn grimaced and pointed at the red welt that had formed around the other ranger’s neck, “I feel I owe you for that nasty bruise you are going to have.  I am so sorry Halbarad, I truly did not recognize you.”

 

The ranger’s deep booming laugh filled the meadow, “Oh Aragorn, if you could have seen my face when you snuck up on me from behind.  I remember the days when you could never pull one over on me.  I am just very glad for Legolas’ help.  You have grown quite adept in your stalking techniques.  I fear I can teach you no more.”

 

Aragorn’s face reddened and he glanced at the ground, rubbing the back of his neck idly with his hand, slightly embarrassed at the mention of how terribly loud he used to be when in the wilds.

 

“Well perhaps you can still teach me how it is that we have passed fifteen years and you look the same as you did when last I saw you.” Aragorn swatted at the long locks of dark hair that fell about the other ranger’s shoulders, “Why if it weren’t for that graying in your hair I would never have known the years had passed at all.”

 

Halbarad feinted at the younger man.  “Why you...”  He laughed as Aragorn ducked and pushed Legolas forward, “You’re a fine one to talk.  Not all of us were born with Númenorean blood in our veins.  And I’ll have you know the wear of the years shows in you as well, if not so much.”  He followed as Aragorn began to lead them back toward the rift that Rivendell had been built into. “I see you’ve a few new scars to flaunt for the ladies.”

 

Choking on his laughter, Aragorn cast a quick glance over his shoulder, “And you are as bad as Elladan.  Come, we were just breaking for food.  Let us return home, perhaps Celboril will be able to scrounge us up something to hold us over until dinner.”

 

The small entourage of men and elves made their way off the mountain, their cheerful banter filling the woods as they passed beneath the wide-flung canopy.

 

 

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

 

 

The hunger of the guests had been sated and Elrond had invited the rangers to remain into the evening and enjoy the hospitality of the Hall of Fire.  Already the great room was beginning to fill with elves from the surrounding homes.  They talked and laughed and sang.  More of them entered the large gathering place as the rangers filed in.  Some were producing instruments and in moments the Hall filled with music that lifted the heart and hung in the air. It reminded one of being outside gazing at the stars, hauntingly beautiful and at the same time ageless and old.

 

The rangers were received warmly and immediately joined the guests, dispersing through the room.  There were small pockets of elves and humans recounting tales on the east side of the room.  There Elladan and Elrohir could be found trading stories with their listeners and trying to out do one another. 

 

Legolas realized that he recognized few of the elves that filled the hall besides Celboril and some of the serving staff that he had become accustomed to seeing on his frequent visits.  He followed Aragorn as the human wound his way from one side of the great room to the other, greeting neighbors and trading news.  It seemed that most of Elrond’s guests were familiar with the elven Lord’s human son and warmly welcomed him back.

 

The Silvan elf was waylaid by Celboril who caught his sleeve and pulled him nearer.  The older elf was laughing helplessly and begged the prince to stay.

 

“You must help me.”  He smiled at the ranger who stood next to him, glowering.  Halbarad crossed his arms indignantly and glared at the laughing elf. “He sings like a love sick elk.  He cannot keep a tune and swears he can.  Help me teach this whelp what singing truly sounds like.”

 

Legolas laughed in spite of himself.  His spirit, still somewhat recovering from his time in Mordor was lifted as he glanced between the two beings.

 

“I do not sing like an elk!” Halbarad sputtered.  “Lesgalwen, play that ballad again and we shall let Legolas be the judge of my singing abilities.”

 

Aragorn, oblivious to his friend’s plight, slowly shifted through the elves gathered in his father’s house. It had been years since he had been in the Hall of Fire and still it was all he had remembered it to be.  The atmosphere was full of mirth and light.  The musical sounds of elven laughter buoyed his own flagging spirit as his mind turned to the things they had discussed at dinner over and over.  His attention was captured as Lord Elrond entered the room.  His father.

 

The smile that spread unconsciously across his face widened as the elves cheered and welcomed the elf Lord into their midst.  It seemed as though all the surrounding homes in Imladris had emptied and their inhabitants had gathered here for the evening as was so oft their want to do in the Hall of Fire.

 

Elrond moved easily among the many guests gathered under his roof, serving them and seeing to their needs.  The Hall of Fire was indeed large enough to hold even more, but the company that gathered tonight was plenty and easily entertained themselves.

 

The servants of the House of Elrond were never required to be such in the Hall of Fire.  They served their lord willingly, faithfully by choice and some out of familial devotion like Celboril who had known Elrond since his childhood days.  Never did one of the firstborn serve another under duress and Elrond for his part made sure that they were treated as guests at such gatherings.  He handed Halbarad a mug of heated wine as he passed by; it looked like the man could use it.  The elf lord’s laughter echoed through the hall when Celboril winced as the ranger missed a higher note.

 

Clapping his hand on Legolas’ slender shoulder, the lord of Imladris bent close to the Silvan elf, speaking loudly enough for those around to hear as he teased.  “Please Legolas; teach Halbarad how to sing the Ballad of Elondil before it is ruined forever.”

 

With a laugh and a mock bow the blonde-haired elf acquiesced.  “As you wish my lord.”  Legolas had up to this point been simply offering pointers and partially taunting Halbarad as Celboril attempted to teach the ranger the elven song, refraining from singing the melody himself.

 

Aragorn, having made his way through the large hall flopped down into one of the soft, comfortable chairs that was situated on the far side of the room and watched as Legolas began singing.  The Silvan elf’s voice started out softly, the notes pure and rich.  The musicians around Legolas picked up the song, their instruments a soft, melodic backdrop for the elven voice.  Remembering the words more clearly and finding his courage, the elf’s voice strengthened.  He let his thoughts infuse the words with the images that he saw in his mind as he closed his eyes and the song filled the room, silencing even those in the far corner telling tall tales to one another.  Aragorn closed his eyes as well and sank into the comfort of the chair, letting the rich elvish words and the sweet notes wash over his restless soul.  A smile touched his lips.  Legolas sang like one of the famed bards of old, never missing a note and singing with a clear, pure voice that the ranger found soothing.

 

As the song slowly quieted and slipped away the room erupted in cheers, quickly falling back into the low buzz of people talking and laughing with one another.  Stories were picked back up mid-sentence and a dozen different tunes were taken up, as more instruments were unpacked.  Clapping Halbarad on the shoulder Legolas excused himself and walked slowly through the hall, making his way to where Aragorn lay sprawled in a deep soft chair.

 

The elf seated himself quietly on the large, plush wing, pulling one knee up to his chest and resting his chin on it.  Neither friend spoke.  Aragorn had not opened his eyes but he knew that the elf had joined him.  He could smell the scent that was singularly Legolas and had felt the slight movement of the chair as the prince settled himself on the arm.

 

The warmth of the room and the light-hearted pleasure of good company lulled the companions into a state of peace and contentedness.  The fire in the great hearth sparked and roared merrily as it was constantly fed.  Aragorn had always loved this room, he had found it fascinating as a child to discover that the fire was continually kept going and never died out.  In fact, even when the Bruinen had jumped its banks, now so many years ago, and the house had been almost completely evacuated Celboril had never let the fire go out.

 

The ranger’s thoughts turned to the past, remembering and embracing once more his rich elvish heritage that his adopted father had so willingly and easily shared with him.  Oh but in his heart he was elvish, and he silently cursed his natural born lineage.  Men.  Thoughts of the men he had known who had served under and with him brought mixed feelings and uneasiness filtered quietly back into his heart unbidden.

 

“You are ill at ease on such a pleasant evening.”  The light weight of Legolas’ hand on his shoulder stirred the ranger from his reverie, “What troubles you Estel?”

 

For long moments they sat, the elf content to allow the human the time he needed to respond.  When he spoke, Aragorn’s voice was soft, meant for the prince’s hearing alone.  The words surprised the elf.

 

“Will you be wanting to leave for home soon?”  Grey eyes finally opened, fixing on the silver-blue ones that stared down at the human in surprise.

 

“I hadn’t given it much thought.”  Legolas replied honestly, for he had not.  Time was a different matter among elves.  And although he knew Thranduil would desire word of his plans if he were able to send it, his accountability to his father was not as it had been when he was younger, or as it would have been were he human.

 

Aragorn nodded slowly and looked back to the intricately tiled floor.  He kept forgetting that Legolas and his father had a different relationship than he and Elrond; due in no small part to the very fact that time was perceived so diversely among the races.

 

“Why do you ask?”  Legolas shifted slightly, turning so the Dùnadan had his full attention.  The celebrations in the room were forgotten as the two friends talked quietly.  “Do you wish me to leave?”

 

“No!  I mean... unless you wanted to.”  Aragorn turned in the large chair, drawing his feet up onto the cushion and resting them on the arm near Legolas’ thigh.  That was exactly the opposite of what he wanted.  “Actually, if you don’t mind, I would have you stay on for a time.  Even after we return from the Shire I mean.”

 

“Estel, I had no plans to leave anytime soon.”  The prince glanced up as a party of elves passed them by, exiting the large room.  Returning his stare to the open gaze of his friend he continued.  “I want to stay...” Legolas words faltered and softened and the ranger was forced to concentrate on what he was saying, “my heart needs it right now.” The elf lightly touched his chest, his thoughts far away.  He loved his home, but Mirkwood in general was no longer a place of light, and Legolas wished to linger in the beautiful bliss of Imladris for a time before he faced the journey into the dark woods. 

 

Concern colored Aragorn’s gaze and he started to speak when Legolas glanced up at him once more, the shadow of remembrance passing swiftly from the deep blue eyes.  “It is good for me to be here with your family, with you and with your father.  And if it is also your wish, then I would be more than glad to remain.”

 

Nodding slowly, it was Aragorn’s turn to shift his gaze anywhere away from the searching glance of his friend.  He knew the elf could see into his soul in a way that most others never could, never chanced, and weren’t allowed.  Usually that was all right, but for some reason it was hard to let the prince see his hesitancy, the indecision that warred inside of him.  “Yes, I would that you stayed on, but I did not want to keep you if you wished to return to your father.”

 

The light laughter of the elf surprised the ranger and he glanced up quickly, confused.

 

“Oh Aragorn, these months I have been away from my father’s kingdom are as days for him.  He will not have missed me so soon although I think I should wish to send him word that I am well and staying on in Rivendell.  Truly he has probably already guessed.  We have finally accustomed him to our ways mellon-nín,” the prince’s laughter was light.  “When he learned I meant to visit you he appointed a lieutenant to take over my patrols for an indefinite period of time and started making long-term care arrangements for my Ketrals.  He won’t have them in the palace when I’m not there.”  Legolas’ hand on Aragorn’s shoulder tightened slightly.  “He does not expect me back immediately.  I will stay.”

 

This was indeed what Aragorn’s heart was questioning that he had not had the courage to ask.  He was a leader of men, a captain in the army of Gondor, a man raised among elves to be both human and elven, the misgivings of his heart and the indecision that plagued his thoughts bothered the ranger.

 

“Your heart needs the rest too Estel.”  Legolas read past the walls and the closed, emotionless face that stared up at him.  “You are weary.  Perhaps... perhaps it would be better if we told Halbarad that we cannot go at this time?  It is no slight to you.”

 

“No.”  Aragorn didn’t shift his gaze, allowing the elf to see his fears and hesitancies, he trusted the prince with his life, with his soul. “No,” he repeated with a sigh, “there is not the man power to be spared else wise and the inhabitants of Bree and the Shire need help.  Something like this will lock the countryside up with fear.  They are simple people Legolas and they have had to live with evils such as this for far too long.  If you will go with me I would be grateful for your company my friend.  And between you and my brothers I have nothing to worry over.”

 

Legolas gazed up at the ceiling for a moment as though pondering his reply but the smile tugging at the corner of his lips betrayed his thoughts.  His hesitancy garnered the desired reaction as Aragorn laughed softly and gave the elf a small shove. 

 

“Yes,” Legolas laughed, dodging the playful smack, “I would enjoy being out with you, Estel, and your brothers as well.  It has been a long time since we have all traveled together.  It will be exciting for me, as I have never been that far west yet.  I would love to go.”  He smiled down at his friend, “And I will stay here in Rivendell when we return for as long as you should wish.  There isn’t another Yén for a few years and seeing as father and I parted on amicable terns for once, I have no pressing reason to return home.”  The elf’s smile reached his voice, softening the words in jest.

 

Aragorn mirrored the smile the elf favored him with and pushed himself up out of the deep cushions of the chair.  Extending his hand down he pulled the elf up and wrapped his arms around the prince’s slender shoulders.  “Hannon le mellon-nín.”  He whispered in Legolas ear.  “That being the case my dear elf, I am going to retire for what remains of the evening. I have not the stamina that you do and if we leave in the morning I wish to be fresh and ready.”

 

“Yes!” Legolas shoved the human towards the doorway, “I wish not to have a grumpy ranger on my hands.  Nothing is more intolerable!” 

 

“Prissy elf!”  Aragorn called the old taunt over his shoulder affectionately.

 

“Filthy human!”  Legolas called back in kind, “Bathe while you are at it!”

 

The room silenced a degree as the two old friends called the jaded remarks to one another.  Aragorn blushed deeply as he glanced at his father, realizing the words spoken in jest had been heard by more than just Legolas.  Elrond gracefully crossed his arms across his chest and raised an eyebrow in question.

 

“My pardon, gentle beings, but I must take my leave of you.  As my friend has so kindly pointed out, I am in need of a bath and a bed!”  The ranger called to their guests.  He smiled widely and pointed to the wayward strands of hair that fell into his eyes as proof.  His admission brought a round of laughter and a good deal of teasing from the other rangers in the room.  The voices of his brothers could be heard over the tumult of the cheer and he glanced once more at his elven father.  The elf lord’s smile widened and he shook his head fondly.

 

“Off with you then.” He mouthed silently, “I will be up later.”

 

With a nod Aragorn turned and left the great hall seeking out the quieter places of the Last Homely House.  He hoped his father would wake him even if he had fallen asleep by the time Elrond sought him out.  He really needed to talk with the older elf.

Chapter Text

 

~*PART THREE*~

 

 

~~~~~~~~
Unsure of yourself
You stand divided, and now
Which road will lead you there?
Last time you fell and you hit hard
Your wounds have healed by now,
But you still see your scars.

 

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

 

 

 

Aragorn woke with a small gasp, his body tense as he sat partway up in bed.  Elrond was seated in the large comfortable chair that was a permanent fixture in the ranger’s room.  The elf lord was gazing out the picture window that took up more than half of the far wall.

 

“Oh.” Aragorn relaxed back against his pillows, “You’re doing it again aren’t you?” He asked quietly as the dark eyes turned back to watch him.

 

Elrond didn’t answer the question, only smiled slightly.  It was true; he had been in the young human’s room for sometime now, watching his youngest son sleeping.  Aragorn glanced over the blankets scrunched in a ridge near his face and saw his small shell night-light burning brightly on the mantle. It had been refilled and its wick was trimmed.  He knew the light was for him should he wake, as the elf lord needed no aid in seeing in the dark.

 

The house was quiet within.  The sounds of laughter and celebrating no longer filtered up the steps to reach the sleeping rooms.

 

“Is Legolas asleep?”

 

“Yes.”  Elrond’s smile widened. “He had quite a good time tormenting your brothers by telling stories about them to our guests.  Moranuen even pitched in to aide him.” The older elf shook his head as the human laughed softly.

 

“Oh I can just imagine the response that garnered.”  Aragorn snickered quietly.

 

“Yes, he was...” Elrond sighed, echoing his son’s laughter as he stifled a laugh of his own, “he was very popular among the guests.”

 

Shifting under the covers, Aragorn propped himself up on his right elbow and pushed the wayward strands of hair out of his eyes.  His open shirt hung loosely across his chest and he pulled the blankets up a little higher to stave off the cool night breezes.  “I just bet he loved that.”

 

“It did his heart good to talk about lighter times than the ones you both have passed through recently.”  Elrond acknowledged quietly.

 

Aragorn glanced down to his fingers where they lay lightly on the bed sheets, twisting the soft linens into intricate swirls. It was a habit he fought hard to overcome, but it never failed that when he was nervous or uncertain, he absently fiddled with whatever was close at hand.  The silence stretched between them, but it was not uncomfortable and Elrond let it persist.

 

“I was thinking of leaving for the Downs in the morning.”  The ranger’s voice was a mere whisper.

 

Elrond nodded slowly.  His eyes searching the silver ones that slowly glanced up to gauge his response.

 

“I thought you would leave soon.  The wandering heart of a ranger beats in you my son.”

 

“The sooner we are away the more quickly the Bree-landers can be free of this threat.”  Aragorn answered as though his decision required an excuse.

 

“It is well, Estel.”  Elrond smiled softly, holding the tentative gaze the ranger laid on him.  He saw the hesitation and the self doubt resting so uneasily near the surface of the young human’s soul.  “Your journey should be an easy one this time of year.”

 

Aragorn only nodded, there was more he needed to speak of but he wasn’t sure how.

 

“What else troubles you?”  Elrond could tell that that was not all that bothered the man and waited while Aragorn sifted through his thoughts and fears.

 

“Legolas.”  His gazed flicked up to lock onto the elf lord’s and he allowed the immortal to glimpse straight into his soul.

 

“Ah.”  Elrond let his own gaze drop to his hands as he read past the ranger’s statement and into the fears that dogged him about his friend.  “He is healing well Estel.  The weakness he was still experiencing when you two arrived has faded...”

 

Yet the statement had been made as though there were more the elf lord wished to say and Aragorn picked up quickly on that fact.  “But there is more.”

 

“His wounds are healed.  He is physically capable of going with you.  Yet what troubles me, and I believe what it is that you see in him, are the wounds to his soul.  The shadow in his eyes from time to time where a light heart should dwell.”

 

A sigh escaped Aragorn’s lips and he pushed himself into a sitting position.  Scooting back against the ornate headboard, he pulled his knees to his chest and let his head drop down into his hands.

 

“And he is not the only one who carries them.” Elrond spoke the statement quietly, piercing to the heart of the matter.

 

“No, he is not.” Aragorn’s agreed, his muffled whisper barely ghosted to the elf lord.

 

Raising his head up and fixing his father with a weary gaze Estel continued, “Legolas asked me if we shouldn’t remain and tell Halbarad we couldn’t go at this time.  I had entertained the thought for a while before he asked.  I am not so sure he isn’t right.”  Aragorn’s gaze swept slowly out to the large window.  The light of the stars and the full moon bathed the veranda in a pale silvery glow.  “If even you have seen that Legolas needs rest, I would not risk going now.  I-I do not speak of it to him, but my dreams are still haunted by his voice begging me to...” the ranger pressed his eyes closed, cutting those memories off.  Elrond already knew all about that.  “If he needs to remain here for a time, then I will tell Halbarad in the morning that we cannot help him.  I know Legolas will never let me go without him.”

 

“Did he say he wanted to go?”  Elrond prompted, delving into the matter further and forcing Aragorn to look at all the angles before his mind was decided.

 

“Yes.”  Aragorn smiled as he recalled the conversation, “As a matter of fact I think he called it exciting, as he has never been that far west.”

 

“That I do not doubt.”  Elrond laughed.  “The Silvan elves of his realm have rarely traveled the western lands and even that was many eons ago.  My son, I will not lie to you.  I worry for the both of you.  Your hearts both bear wounds that need time to heal.  But time it seems has chosen to heal you in a way that I would not have foreseen.  Perhaps this journey will be good for both of you.”  He smiled as the tension left the ranger.  This was what the Dunédan had been hoping for, either confirmation from his father that his taking leave so soon was acceptable or a firm denial that either of them was in any shape to go.  “However Estel, I cannot be strong enough in my warnings.” 

 

Elrond shifted from the chair and seated himself on the edge of the bed staring hard into the young man’s eyes, “Be very careful of the wights, whether this current problem is real or imagined the wights themselves are all too real and not to be trifled with.  Use wisdom when you are near the Down’s and Bree, for wisdom will be a good ally for you through this. If what you are up against is the force of the wights it is possible that you will not be successful.  Theirs is an ancient and powerful evil that has not been broken since the war with Angmar and neither you nor Legolas are in any shape to stand against them.”

 

He leaned closer, piercing the human with a hard gaze, “Do you understand me Estel?  You must not engage them, you must not go near them.  I pray the Valar that what you will oppose is only of the mortal kind.  If you need help and this task is more than you are ready for, send one of your brothers back and I will see that assistance finds you quickly.  Do *not* attempt to deal with real wights on your own.”

 

A small smile crept across the ranger’s face as he stared in the blue eyes that were fixed on him so seriously and Elrond couldn’t help but see the child in him still.  “Oh Ada, it is good that someone still worries about me even though I am in my forties.”

 

With a snort of laughter the elf lord shook his head, “Child.” He said fondly, “Your father nears his five thousand and fiftieth celebration of life, if I haven’t lost count.  Do not forget that you will always be my son.”

 

Aragorn ducked his head stifling his laughter, “Please let us not have that lecture. I can quote it to you by heart now.”

 

Elrond wrapped one hand behind the man’s head and pulled him forward wrapping him in a light hug, “No lectures then.” Turning his face towards Aragorn’s hair he breathed in deeply, smelling that scent that was unique to the human raised among elves.  “But heed my warnings; it will lighten my heart for your leaving.”

 

Pushing back lightly Aragorn stared deeply into the elven eyes, realizing for the first time that Elrond actually wanted him to stay.  He had missed having his youngest son near, but would not stop the ranger from living his life or pursuing his destiny.  “We are coming back here, home, as soon as we are through.”  The ranger reassured. “Legolas has agreed to stay on as well.  He says he needs it.”

 

“He does.” Elrond concurred softly.

 

“Then we will go tomorrow so we can come home sooner and then we will both rest until you give us your blessing to do otherwise.” 

 

“Watch Legolas and do not let him over exert himself in ways that would cause him more pain.”  Elrond cautioned, “He is yet a little fragile under the surface but will not restrain himself if I know him.  You know of what I speak.  The barrows hold a foreboding all their own.”

 

“I do understand and I will, I promise.”  Aragorn squeezed his father’s arms gently.

 

With a nod Elrond stood and stared down at the human that he considered his youngest son, “And I have instructed your brothers to do the same with you.” He laughed lightly as the ranger rolled his eyes.

 

“Father I am an adult...” Aragorn started to protest, although he knew his family was well aware of that fact now.

 

“I would not use that argument near them if I were you.”  The elder elf laughed.  Leaning down he gently kissed the crown of the ranger’s head.  “Get some sleep Estel, morning will come quickly.  Worry not on it tonight, for tonight you can sleep in peace.”

 

“Yes I know, each day brings its own set of worries and burdens.”  Aragorn finished the statement.  “Thank you Ada.”

 

Elrond knew he meant the for elf lord’s blessing and the words of encouragement.  With a nod the older elf walked to the mantle and extinguished the small night-light; the light emanating from him shown softly in the now darkened room.  “Sleep well my Estel.”  He whispered as he walked back past the bed bending down and gently pulling up the blankets up as Aragorn eased back down under the sheets.  The ranger grabbed the elf’s hand and gave it a soft squeeze.

 

“Sleep well Ada.  I will see you in the morning.” Aragorn whispered as he turned over, rolling the blankets tightly about him.

 

Leaving the room, Elrond paced back down into his study, his heart preoccupied with the conversation he had just had. In all truth he had hoped that Estel would remain for a while, but he understood the necessity of their leave taking.  With a sigh he contented himself in knowing that they would soon return once more.

 

Behind him, the glow globes were quietly put out as Celboril followed in his lord’s wake.  The house was once more cleaned and in order and the fire in the great hall sparked merrily in the empty room.  It had been Celboril’s job and his pleasure to keep the rooms of Imladris since Elrond had first built it in the valley so many ages past.  The old elf had been a servant of Elrond’s adoptive father Gil-Galad and had remained with the son to oversee and help him much as he had done for years beyond remembering - it was his life’s joy to serve and he did it well.

 

Celboril knew his lord’s moods and needs and was ready, knowing that the elf he served would soon be asking for warmed tea.  He stopped at Elrond’s room and turned the bed sheets down, starting a small fire in the fireplace before quickly descending the steps and seeking out Elrond.  He had not heard the quiet conversations the elf lord had had with his son but he knew that the two youngest inhabitants of the house were leaving in the morning and the home just hadn’t been the same with out them for all the long years Aragorn had been away.  He hoped they would accomplish their task quickly and return even more swiftly.

 

“Celboril?”  The soft call pulled the servant out of his reverie and he hastened into the study.  The elder elf smiled.  The tea water was already warming. 

 

 

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

 

 

They had followed the Great East Road for many leagues.  The hill countries had eventually given way to the open meadows of the Lone-Lands and the ranger followed his companions, glad for once to be simply led and not leading.  Slowly the death grip of the daily stress he had been under since his decision to leave Gondor was slipping away.  Likewise he had noticed that Legolas seemed to have recovered fairly well as the elf laughed lightheartedly at something Elrohir had said.  The prince glanced back at the human and shook his head in denial.  In all truth Aragorn hadn’t been paying attention, his own thoughts drifting on the winds that brushed against them as they kept up the steady pace ever westward towards the Shire.

 

He honestly hadn’t heard whatever it was that had caused the elves to break out laughing, but the mirth that danced in the blue eyes that watched him brought a smile to his face.  It was a long time that he had worried about the prince on their return home to Rivendell and even for the weeks they had stayed on, there was a shadow that had hung over the prince.  He had tried to hide it but Aragorn knew him too well and it was not lost on the Elf Lord either.  Elrond had told Aragorn to give Legolas time and space to heal and despite the concerns he voiced last night, the healer was convinced the elf’s spirit was well on its way to returning to its former brilliance. 

 

He was been right.

 

Aragorn caught up with Legolas and questioned Elladan as they entered another sloping vale that ran parallel to a tributary off of the Mitheithel.  He could hear its waters now slowed to a mere stream just over the next rise. 

 

Looking out upon the valley they were walking through, Aragorn noted how the wind rippled through the long grasses, brushing the fields of green in invisible waves in the early evening light.  From the midst of the flat plain rose the remnants of the watchtower of Amon Sûl, known in the common tongue as Weathertop.  Its ragged ruins reached into the sky with jagged tips that seemed to rake the clouds passing over head, fingering them into ribbons that streaked the evening canopy.

 

The old tower stood atop a hill of stone, weather beaten, broken and covered with grasses and moss that decorated its torn heights in the shades of early spring.  That it stood at all was testimony to its makers.  The tower had seen much in the long eons that had passed it by. 

 

“Amon Sûl.”  Elladan whispered almost reverently when the magnificent ruins came into sight.

 

With a small nod of acknowledgement Elrohir walked on next to his twin.

 

Legolas however was forced to stop abruptly, nearly running into Estel.  The ranger stood staring at the remnants of the heights.  His gaze transfixed on the ruins.  Here and there burn marks scorched the tallest reaches where lighting had struck the old tower throughout the years as spring storms had passed this way.  The grasses adorned its broken down sides like a comfortable garment thrown across the shoulders of its upper reaches, the living greenery finding the oddest places to grow from in the rocky ledges.  The fading sunlight bathed the lower level in a bright warm glow as the sun shown through the bottom layer of clouds on its way to its evening rest.  To Aragorn it held an instant kinship to his weary worn heart.

 

Broken, battle scarred, a power forgotten...laid aside.

 

The human breathed in deeply, catching the rich smells of the meadow; the grasses that left a heady scent when crushed underfoot, the sweet aroma of the wildflowers that grew in bunches across the valley decorating the grassy floor with their vibrant colors and the slight smell of old stone that has too long been untouched by human life, musty and full of the very earth itself.  It spoke to him of strength and he closed his eyes as he allowed all the memories and thoughts to assault him.

 

“Estel?”  Legolas was glancing nervously between the ranger who seemed riveted to this place and his brothers who were walking swiftly back towards them.

 

“What is it?”  Elrohir questioned as they strode back towards the two friends.  Elladan grasped the ranger’s shoulder and shook him gently.

 

“Estel?”

 

When he opened his eyes he was still looking at the tower.  “It is old.” He stated the obvious quietly, oblivious to the odd stares, “What happened to it?”

 

Elladan glanced over his shoulder at the ruins, “Amon Sûl?”

 

“Yes.” Aragorn focused on the oldest twin.

 

Elrohir turned, watching the remnants, wondering what had so fascinated the human.  “It was a watch tower, many years ago.”

 

“A magnificent one.” Elladan chimed in, “It is said that it was built by Elendil in the early years of Arnor when this land at that time lay in the central parts of Elendil’s domain.  The tower housed a palantir at one time, although what happened to the seeing stone has long been lost to history.  They say that it was once beautiful here.”

 

“Why is it in ruins?”  The ranger pressed.

 

“I heard there was a war.”  Legolas stepped up and glanced around Elrohir.

 

“Many actually.”  Elladan continued.  “But the last was the worst.  The watchtower was nearly torn down.  The invading armies of Angmar destroyed it.  When Arnor broke up, the tower was abandoned in the borderlands and exposed to the enemy’s invasions.  They brought it to ruin before they were beaten back themselves. Only what you see remains, its caretakers were never found.”

 

A deep sigh escaped the human’s lips as he tried to imagine what the tower had once looked like in its days of glory.  Now, only a shell of its former dignity remained.  Stripped by war and violence, the watchtower had been left to the wilds and here finally it had become a part of them.  Its walls and stairways tucked into the crevices of the stone hill were covered like the valley floor in one sweeping carpet of green, abandoned, forgotten - instead of standing out from the land around it, the tower blended with its surroundings.

 

“It has seen much war.”  Aragorn whispered softly, “And it now has rest. You can feel it.”  He glanced at the elves that were watching him oddly.

 

It surprised Legolas that the human could indeed sense the deep ancient tranquility that filled the basin in which they walked, the touches of evil from Angmar were nearly dissipated now.  Usually that closeness with nature was reserved for the elves, but somehow Aragorn’s time among the men had intensified his awareness and his upbringing had made him more sensitive to his surroundings. 

 

Perhaps it was merely the traces of the elveness in his blood but Aragorn *could* feel this place in a way he never had been able to anywhere else but Imladris.  The sorrowful wounded places in his heart echoed the taint of war that still clung to the stone spires piercing the sky and the empty weariness inside of him was filled with the peace of the valley; it touched him like Rivendell always did whenever he came home.  He couldn’t quite explain it.

 

Suddenly he realized that was the feeling, like home, “It feels familiar somehow.”  He spoke out loud as he pressed by Elladan and strode towards the ruins.  The older twin shrugged and followed the human as the elves glanced between themselves.  Perhaps the heir of Elendil could still feel at home in Elendil’s ruins, even if he thought he wanted no part of that heritage. 

 

“Let us camp in its lower levels tonight.”  Aragorn turned back to his brothers.

 

“You don’t find it a bit creepy Estel?”  Legolas taunted the ranger, emphasizing the unusual word the human had used to describe Orthanc so many years ago as he eyed the tower hesitantly.

 

Rolling his eyes Aragorn glanced over his shoulder as the elf prince gained his side, “No, I do not.  Saruman doesn’t live here for one thing and there are no orcs about.”

 

“Orcs?”  Elrohir repeated curiously, grimacing at the mention of the foul beasts.

 

Legolas stammered, half laughing, trying to protest but was stopped as the ranger continued, “Besides, whoever created this place obviously was not the same person who dreamed up that nightmare of a tower our good friend the White Wizard calls home.  And do not tell me that you were not unnerved by it either.  You did meet me in the hall on the way to my room because you couldn’t sleep by yourself as I recall.”

 

“WHAT!?” The twins questioned at the same time.  This was a story they had never heard and Elrohir began to laugh.  “You wouldn’t sleep in your own room?” He teased Legolas.

 

“There was more to it than that!” The elf prince gave the ranger a good shove as they walked up to the lower staircase.  The hewn rocks were covered in moss and blended in perfectly with the grass-covered hill on either side of them. “Why don’t you ask your brother *why* it was I found him in the hallway and where he was headed?”

 

Aragorn scowled at the elf playfully, lightly jumping up the first few steps and turning to gaze back on his companions.  He tried to hide the smile that pulled at the edges of his lips but was unsuccessful. “I was looking for you.” He answered avoiding the whole truth.

 

“He was carrying his pillow and blanket and would not sleep in his own room.”  Legolas filled in the details as the twins stared incredulously at their younger brother before breaking out laughing.

 

“Your pillow?” Elrohir echoed.

 

“Do you have to repeat everything that is said to you?!”  Aragorn raced up the next few steps waiting for the elves to catch up with him.

 

“And that wasn’t the half of it.” The elf prince ducked as the ranger threw a small stone at him.

 

“Legolas.”  The human growled trying to stop the elf from continuing with the story.

 

“No, let him.  I can’t wait to hear the rest!”  Elladan pushed past Elrohir and ascended the steps on Legolas’ heels.  “What more is there? Do tell.”

 

“Well your brother, the ranger, wouldn’t sleep on the bed but he slept on the floor between the bed and the wall so whomever he believed was coming in would get to me first!”

 

Aragorn swiveled on his heels as he reached the lowest landing and glared at the helplessly laughing elves.  An archway set in the very stone itself led to the main floor of the tower but the human favored the landing for the view of the valley that it lent.  He fixed his oldest brother with a serious stare, “You should have seen the manservant, I swear Elladan he was no man!  He was...” the ranger stalled and quirked his mouth, barely stopping from saying the word.

 

“He was creepy!” Legolas finished the sentence, turning huge wide eyes on the elves and shuddering as if in fright.  He had had an irritating fascination with that somewhat plebian sounding word since the first time Aragorn had introduced it into his vocabulary. 

 

“Well he was!”  Aragorn defended himself as he gathered the small sticks and bramble that had collected in the concave area, swept there by the winds that would scour the valley from time to time.  They would make good kindling for a fire.

 

Elladan gave the prince a friendly shove forward as they all spilled out onto the ledge where Aragorn was crouched down, flint in hand, trying to start a fire and ignore his family and his friend.  In the end the lightheartedness of the elves was contagious.  He shook his head, pointing the tip of the branch he was feeding to the small flame with at the elven prince, “I am telling you there are hiding orcs in that dark tower *somewhere* and I’ll not be going back there anytime soon no matter what you say or do to me.”

 

His admission sent the elves into another fit of mirth as they dropped to the ground around the small blaze. 

 

“Saruman the White not knowing of orcs in his own tower!  Now that *is* a thought worthy of laughter!” Elrohir chuckled. 

 

The warm light filled the concave where they sat and Weathertop basked in the glow of the friendly banter long into the night.

 

Legolas walked to the edge of the landing and seated himself next to Aragorn.  The human was sitting on the lip of the precipice, his booted heels kicking the rock wall below them as he scanned the moonlit valley of the Lone-Lands.

 

“Not tired?”  The elf whispered softly.

 

“No.”  Aragorn yawned around a smile, his weariness betraying him.

 

“Why don’t you get some sleep?  Your brothers are already resting.”  Legolas eyed the human out of the corner of his eyes watching him carefully.

 

“I can’t sleep. I am tired but I can’t get my thoughts to quiet down.”

 

“What troubles you?”

 

Aragorn picked at a weed that grew up between the rocks near his thigh as he thought.  He tossed the bits of grass over the ledge into the darkness before he answered watching them catch on the wind and loosing them in the night.

 

“Do you believe that a wight is responsible for the happenings near the Barrow Downs?”  He had been thinking on the things Halbarad had told them and weighing the theories that the ranger had reported.

 

“I do not know what to believe.  We will have to wait until we get there to see if we can discover what has happened.  There is nothing good about a barrow wight Aragorn.  From what little I know, they are wholly evil and the wickedness that has been done near the Downs would not be beyond them.”

 

With a sigh Aragorn turned to face Legolas, his eyes locking onto the blue ones that questioned him.  It struck him as odd how very young the elf looked in the moonlight, his own glow enhanced by the soft illumination of the night.  The prince didn’t even retain the scars from their recent journey home, although Aragorn’s faintly decorated him still.

 

“In my heart I am not sure that I am ready for this.  There is a part of me that wishes to simply reside in Imladris and let the world pass me by until the end of my days.  If I never see another war or am never called to be a leader or assume my heritage I am not sure at this point that it would disappoint me.”  Aragorn laid his fears before his friend, surprised when the elf smiled softly at him.

 

“I know what you mean.”  Legolas lay back on the stone ledge and gazed up at the stars overhead.  “I have felt that way.  When your father rescued me from Dorolyn I never wanted to leave Mirkwood again. I did not care if I ever met another human being for as long I lived and if the world outside the borders of our woods fell then I would have not missed them.  I hid for nearly three thousand years.”

 

The elf laughed when the ranger quirked his eye brows at his admission.  Aragorn leaned back next to his friend resting on his left elbow as the prince continued.

 

“All right then, maybe three thousand years is a bit of a stretch but it was at least three times your lifetime before I even ventured out into the world again, even in our my own land.  Going beyond that was something I resisted for even longer, especially without companions.  That night you fell into my life was just about the first time I had left our borders alone since Dorolyn.”  Legolas’ gaze was far away accompanying his thoughts.  “Elves have the years to spend Aragorn when they want to hide, humans do not.”  The prince turned his eyes from the night sky and pierced his friend with an open stare.  “But human hearts recover more quickly than do ours.  You are gifted with the ability to forget, time fades the sting of your wounds, but our memories carry on with us.”

 

Dropping his gaze, Aragorn turned back to stare into the inky darkness of the night around them.  After a few moments a soft touch to his arm redirected his attention and he looked down at his friend.

 

“Give yourself time.  The memories you carry may never go away, but they will be replaced by others soon enough.  It is the way of life.”  Legolas knew of what he spoke and it was advice he himself was taking to heart.  His recent captivity in Mordor had marked him, marked him deeply... but he had recovered from horror before and he knew that the pain, no matter how deep, would not last forever if he did not allow it to do so.

 

Aragorn laughed softly, “You sound like my father.”

 

“His is a wise man, you should listen to him.”  Legolas closed his eyes a smile tugging at his lips.

 

“Now I *know* that you have speaking with him!”  Aragorn gave the elf a playful shove as he flopped back down on the ground next to his friend releasing a weary sigh.  He gazed up at the stars that twinkled in the garment of night.

 

“It was hard to see Eärendil in Gondor.”  Aragorn commented softly.

 

A small snort of laughter caused him to roll his head towards his friend and stare at the elf.

 

Legolas was smiling as he gazed at the bright star, “It was *hard* to see Eärendil in Mordor.”

 

For some reason the statement struck the ranger as funny and he tried to suppress his laughter, not wanting to wake his brothers.  His attempts to quiet himself set the prince off and in moments they were both watching the winking pinpoint of light and laughing.

 

Legolas elbowed the human as they quieted.  “Go to sleep Aragorn.  You have many years yet before you need worry about the troubles of this world.  Let us enjoy this time with your brothers.”

 

Aragorn nodded wordlessly as they lay side by side staring up at the stars, he knew Legolas was right and he realized that he just needed someone to say it out loud.  When he finally spoke his voice was soft, thinking his companion might be sleeping, “You just want to trade stories with them.” 

 

The quiet statement set the elf to laughing and he smacked the ranger, turning over on his side and rolling up in his cloak, “Now go to sleep Strider, you are intolerable when you are grumpy and I will not suffer you to be tired in the morning.”

 

With a snort of derision Aragorn placed his hands behind his head, crossing his boots at the ankles and stared into the sky a smile on his face until sleep stole him away.

 

Chapter Text

___________________________________________________________

 

~*PART FOUR*~

 

 

 

The sun warmed the mid-day sky as the small party of elves and rangers left the Lone Lands and Weather Top behind them.  Halbarad and Arendur had re-joined them earlier in the morning, reporting that the other rangers they had sought out and spoken with had no more information on the alleged Barrow-Wight threat. 

 

They were making towards Bree at a good clip when Aragorn held up his hand, signaling a stop.  The high fen and uncut grasses waving on either side of the road tossed lightly in the gentle breeze, but there was some stir in them that was not put there by the wind.  Someone or something was hiding nearby. 

 

Aragorn’s battle instincts came immediately to the front of his consciousness, wary of ambush.  Halbarad had been talking to Arendur and had not noted the possible threat, but halted when Aragorn did, looking around. 

 

The elves, a little ahead of their human companions, had also sensed something amiss and quickly backtracked up the road without needing a signal from Aragorn.  Elladan and Elrohir drew their bows and concealed themselves around the bend in the path while Legolas joined the men.

 

The elf prince slid to his friend’s side.  “There’s something out there,” he whispered to Aragorn, but his expression was not one of alarm, rather of puzzlement.  “I do not sense evil... but I do not know what it is.”

 

A small rustle on their left made them look up sharply once more.  Despite what he sensed or didn’t sense, Legolas’ fingers went to his bowstring, just in case. 

 

But Halbarad’s brows furrowed and he lowered the sword he had drawn.  “I think we are overly watchful my friends, ‘tis a small creature or I’m no scout.  Most likely a badger or hedgehog of some sort.”

 

“Badger or hedgehog indeed!” an indignant voice spoke up from somewhere below the normal eyesight level of the men and elves present.  They all looked down in surprise as a small man stepped out of the grass, brushing off his already tidy green waistcoat with a sense of injured dignity.  No, it wasn’t a small man, one look at the broad bare feet and the round cheerful face told you that.  This was a hobbit.  And one who was quite far from home which was not usual for their kind.

 

Legolas just stared, surprised and a little curious.  He alone in the party had never seen one of this race before.  “What is it?” he remarked in wonder without thinking much about how that sounded.

 

“*IT* is a hobbit good sir,” the small, curly-headed being huffed a little more.  “And I would have expected a bit more courtesy from one of the firstborn.” The hobbit’s bright eyes narrowed inquisitively.  “But then you’re not from around here are you?  You’re wearing Rivendell clothes... more or less... but you look Silvan to me.  However, I feel as if I’ve seen you before... bother, I can’t place it.  Memory is one of the first things to go they say.”

 

Aragorn almost laughed.  He had forgotten that although Legolas had spent a great deal of time in Rivendell since they became friends, the wood-elf had never had occasion to come this far west or to cross paths with any of the local hobbit population before.  “And what, pray tell, is a hobbit of the Shire doing so far from home, alone, and, forgive me for saying it, hiding in the grass like an egg poacher?” Aragorn asked with good humor, sheathing his sword while the other rangers did the same.

 

“Egg poacher!” The hobbit bristled slightly.  “Never done such a thing in my life.  I was just being cautious if you want to know.  Not all the big folk one meets out here are to be trusted.  When I heard the elf I figured it was safe to come out.  Bad men generally do not associate with the firstborn.  I see that there’s no rule regarding *rude* men however... who are you anyway?”  The question was directed at Aragorn. 

 

“I’m a Dúnadan my good hobbit, a ranger.  You have naught to fear from us I promise.  I apologize if I have insulted you, it was not my intent but you gave us rather a start I fear,” Aragorn bowed slightly as he introduced himself, sweeping his arm out to the side in a gesture for peace.  He was a little surprised at this hobbit’s knowledge about elves.  Few these days outside the rangers had much to do with elves or elvish lore.

 

Elladan and Elrohir, hearing the conversation gave up their hiding place and re-joined their friends.  Their gaze lighted on the hobbit with amusement.  “Mister Baggins, we didn’t expect to meet you out here.  Not on your way to Rivendell to commandeer father’s library again are you?” they jested. 

 

Aragorn raised his eyebrows as he turned to his brothers.  “You know him?”

 

Elrohir nodded.  “Of course we do, and so do you Estel although you may not remember.  First came through Rivendell years ago when you were about ten I guess, dragging a whole lot of dwarves with wagging beards and tired ponies... what a merry sight they were!  Surely you must remember something, Gandalf was with them and they talked to father quite a long time.”

 

Vague remembrance filtered slowly through Aragorn’s mind.  But it was a long time ago for him and he had been only a child. 

 

“Estel is it?” Bilbo eyed the ranger.  His many visits to Rivendell gave him cause to know that name even if he had not met the man in many years. 

 

“Bilbo here has been quite a frequent visitor to Rivendell these past few years since you’ve been gone,” Elladan further explained.  “Always trying to pick father’s brain for stories of the elder days and spending hours translating and pouring over old texts that I will admit not even I find an interest in.”

 

“I don’t know where the world is going these days, when young people no longer take an interest in their own history...” Bilbo shook his head sagely, but with an impish smile.

 

“Young people?” The twins laughed.  “You should talk Bilbo, we’re both of us far older than you even if you are getting old now for a hobbit...”

 

“Oh so getting old now am I?” Bilbo laughed despite himself.  “Well then looking at young Estel here I *do* feel old... excuse me, Dúnadan if you prefer that name,” the hobbit smiled at Aragorn.  “I don’t really remember you I fear, but at the time we seem to have met I had... many other things on my mind, but I know your brothers and look forward to making your acquaintance.”  Bilbo shook Aragorn’s hand.

 

“Well now we all know who each other is, but that doesn’t tell us what you are doing out here Mr. Baggins,” Halbarad pointed out.

 

“Bilbo, please, no need to stand on formalities among friends.  Actually my trip is quite pointless now as I was on my way to Rivendell to bring tidings of these odd doings around the Barrows.  Creating quite a stir in the four farthings it is and I said to myself that if anyone knows about the ancient things in these parts, it’s the elves.”

 

Legolas smiled.  “And how do you know that is our errand?”

 

Bilbo flushed slightly.  “Well I couldn’t help overhearing you talk as you came on...”

 

Aragorn laughed.  “Not an egg poacher then, but a spy.  But well met it seems.  What can *you* tell us of this whole troublesome business?”

 

“Not much I fear,” the hobbit shook his head.  “Just that there is a considerable to-do about it all.  Folks as far away from the Downs as Bree and the Shire are afraid to go out at night.”

 

“Did you not pass through them on your way out here?” Elladan inquired. 

 

“Certainly not!” Bilbo shook his head.  “Do I look like a fool?  I bypassed the Old Forest and the Downs entirely.  But folks are talking.”

 

“Well, it seems that the mystery still looms before us then, and we had best be on our way again,” Aragorn glanced towards the west and their goal, still many miles away.  “Will you be accompanying us then Bilbo, or going on to Rivendell?”

 

“I have quite enough work on my book waiting for me at home, I need no more at present, therefore, I shall accompany you,” the hobbit said decidedly.  “As far as Bree anyway.  If there *is* anything out there in those dreadful Barrows I certainly don’t want to meet them.  I’ll have quite enough of a mystery on my hands trying to figure out where I know you from Mr...” he nodded towards Legolas and waited to be supplied with a name. 

 

“Legolas, son of Thranduil of Mirkwood,” Legolas bowed slightly. 

 

“Ah!  Well now that explains it,” the hobbit seemed relieved.  “A wood-elf, I should have guessed.  I probably saw you at the battle of the Five Armies with your father.  And if not, you do look remarkably like your father, that hair isn’t too typical for your people.”  He left out the part about having been an uninvited guest in Legolas’ home for quite a long time without the wood-elves’ knowledge.

 

Legolas laughed.  “Well Mr. Baggins, you certainly do seem to get around.  I cannot ever recall having seen you before, but your name is familiar although I knew not the manner of being to which it belonged.  My father still wears the gift you gave him on high occasions; I am honored to make your acquaintance.”

 

Halbarad and Arendur were quite a ways ahead by now and stopped to call back to the rest of the slow moving party.  “Are all of you going to stand around and chat the whole day or are we moving foreword?”  The elder ranger teased.

 

“Coming Halbarad, we’re coming,” Aragorn called back as they moved onward. 

 

 

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

 

 

Bilbo sat upon a downed tree trunk that had been pulled near the brightly burning fire, listening to the men and elves discuss their next move.  They were just on the outskirts of Bree, having made camp in the forests that bracketed the eastern most parts of the fenced in town.

 

“No, I want to go into Bree.  I believe we can learn a lot from the townsfolk and this is the perfect time.”  Aragorn glanced between Legolas and Halbarad.

 

The older ranger shook his head, a wry smile crossing his face.  “Don’t tell me you are going to drag these elves in there with you.  I know what you’re thinking Strider and it has promise but you know the risk.  No one will talk to you and they surely will not speak to three elves.”

 

“I don’t need any of them to talk *to* me, I just need them to be talking.”  The younger man argued his point.

 

“You aren’t thinking of...” Legolas eyed Aragorn suspiciously his eyes narrowing as the ranger turned a brilliant smile on him.  “You are.” With a sigh the elf turned and walked back to the fire, dropping down next to the Hobbit.

 

“What?  He’s thinking of what?”  Elladan moved closer into the midst of the conversation.

 

“Don’t ask.  I’m staying here Strider.”  Legolas called out to the

man as he tossed another fallen branch onto the flames.

 

“Oh no you are not.”  Aragorn turned towards the prince. “I need those ears of yours my friend.”  He laughed softly as the elf glared at him.

 

“You have two other elves to torment with your insane plans.  Pick one of them. I hate those places.”  Legolas begged to be released but the ranger simply shook his head.  Aragorn depended too much on Legolas and knew that the environment they were heading into would not toss off the elf.  Although the prince would have liked to deny it, after their time in Harad he had more experience blending with humans than most elves.  Estel trusted his brothers implicitly, but he wanted Legolas at his back too.

 

Arendur’s laughter redirected Aragorn’s attention and he raised his eyebrows in question.  “You think I am insane as well?” he questioned the younger man.

 

“I think,” Arendur replied as he retrieved his weapons from were they rested against a nearby tree, “that I will accompany Halbarad to the Downs and see if we can verify any of these strange reports we have received.”

 

“It’ll be safer there.” Halbarad whispered loudly as he pulled his companion with him, heading for the mist-shrouded hills on the far side of Bree.

 

“Wait!” Bilbo jumped up from his perch near the fire.  Thus far he had quietly tried to keep up with the conversation, but a nagging fear had gotten the best of him and he interrupted the plans.  “You don’t mean to leave me here alone do you?  I mean...well its just...” the small being stuttered slightly, trying to make his request known without appearing to be afraid, even though he truly was.  “I mean you’re not just all going to go off now are you?”  He finished off his question quietly his voice falling soft as he spoke.

 

Aragorn responded first, his compassion for the small being caught at his heart.  Of course the Hobbit would be afraid.  He had been on his way to Rivendell for help.  Crossing the camp in a few paces, the ranger dropped down in front of Bilbo on one knee, putting himself eyelevel with the hobbit, his eyes locked onto the dark ones that watched him cautiously. 

 

“I had no intentions at all of leaving you here alone.  One of my brothers will stay in camp with you.  Your hearing is nearly as good as any elf’s and the two of you will be able to keep the fire going and the camp safe.”  Aragorn smiled slightly, “How would that be?”  He lowered his voice to keep the conversation between himself and the Hobbit, “They are both excellent marksmen, you couldn’t be in better hands.”

 

Straightening slightly the halfling nodded in agreement, “That would do nicely thank you.”

 

Standing to his feet Aragorn glanced over his shoulder at the rangers on the far side of camp, “That’s settled.  Shall we?”  Halbarad shook his head slightly matching the grin on Aragorn’s face.  “Oh, your coat if you would my friend?” Estel reached out towards the older man.

 

Halbarad knew what the ranger had in mind and he easily removed his over coat tossing it towards Aragorn.  The young ranger handed it over to Legolas who accepted it without question.

 

“We’ll see you at first light then.”  Halbarad called back to them. Silently the pair left the glen, their passing almost imperceptible even to elven ears.

 

“That just leaves one thing,” Aragorn glanced at the twins, “Which of you would like to stay with Mr. Baggins and which one would like to accompany Legolas and me to Bree?”

 

The twins glanced silently at one another for a few moments as though pondering if they wished to choose either.

 

“I’ll stay with Bilbo then.”  Elrohir spoke quietly; his answer was for his brothers ears alone for the moment.

 

“As you wish El.  Are you sure?”

 

The elf turned and threw a smile over his shoulder at his younger human brother, “I think I am very sure. I have no idea what Estel has in mind for the two of you, but I get the distinct feeling that I will be safer here in the hobbit’s company.”

 

“Good choice.”  Legolas muttered, standing to his feet and stretching out his hand to Aragorn who was shrugging out of his worn leather coat. “You have no idea how glad you will be.”

 

With a snort of laughter the ranger handed off his coat to the prince who passed it to a confused Elladan.  Digging in his pack Aragorn produced a long strip of colored cloth - a turban he had borrowed from his father before they had left.  He had anticipated just such an encounter as tonight would bring.

 

Elrohir walked around the fire and watched in barely contained mirth as Legolas shrugged into Halbarad’s coat.  The human’s scent on the clothing was not strong and did not bother him.  He accepted the cloth from Estel and began deftly winding the long piece of fabric around his head, binding his tresses up in the length.  Wordlessly the prince turned towards Aragorn for his inspection.  This was nothing new to the two of them; they had gone through this ritual many times in the past by now.  The ranger glanced first at one side of the elf’s head and then the other.  Legolas had missed covering up the tip of his left ear and the human gently moved a strip of the fabric swath down so that the point was concealed.  Satisfied he nodded at the prince, glancing over the elf’s shoulder at his older brother who stood wordlessly watching holding the ranger’s coat.

 

“Now for you.”  Aragorn clasped his friend on the shoulder as he moved past him.

 

The prince couldn’t help laughing as Elladan backed up slightly, wary of the human’s approach.

 

“What is this Estel?  Where are we going that we can't be known as elves?”  Elladan took a step farther back from his brother as the man grabbed the coat and held it out for the elf to put on.  “I am not putting that thing on.”

 

“Yes you are.  Because I need you and Legolas and unless you want to attract a crowd of gawkers you can't go into the Inn of the Prancing Pony looking as you do.”  Aragorn stepped forward, smiling to himself as he remembered Legolas’ very similar reaction many years ago.

 

Elladan stepped back.

 

“The what?” The elf pressed the ranger away from him as Aragorn tried to drape the coat over the elf’s shoulders.  “Why would I want to go there?”

 

“It is a local spot and there will be local people gathered there tonight who will be more than happy to talk all about the goings on in the barrow downs.  By this time they have had sufficient amounts of mead and ale to loosen their tongues.  Now come on.”  Aragorn stepped forward again effectively trapping the twin between himself and the firepit, holding out his long-coat for the elf to wear.  “Put this on.”  His voice held no room for debate.  “I’ll not have anyone questioning you or Legolas and I don’t need to attract any more attention than necessary, but I do need those ears of yours and you *are* coming.”

 

“I think I hear Halbarad calling.” The elf frowned, looking for any way out.  “I should probably make sure he’s all right.”

 

Dropping the coat to his side Aragorn tipped his head and glanced at the elf, they were running of out time.  The men’s tongues soon would be loosened by the mead they were drinking and the ranger wanted to reach the pub before the drink went to their heads and made the over exaggerate, or worse pass out. 

 

“You aren’t afraid are you?”  Aragorn pulled out the childhood taunt.  It worked every time one of them proposed a dare that the other did not want to follow through on.

 

Roughly grabbing the over coat out of his brother’s hands, Elladan quickly shrugged into the leather jacket, his nose wrinkling slightly, “This smells like...”

 

“It smells like me!  What *is* it with you elves?”  Aragorn glared in mock indignation, silencing the giggles from the prince who stood across the fire.  They had had this conversation before.  Almost exactly.

 

“I told you that thing needed a good airing out.”  Legolas confessed innocently.

 

“Legolas!”

 

“My, this is better than when the Sackville-Bagginses and the Brandybucks get together to discuss the proper methods for the growing of pipe weed.”  Bilbo smiled, reminiscing to himself.  “Say,” He leaned over next to Elrohir and lowered his voice, “are they always like this?”

 

“Worse.”  Elrohir glanced at the hobbit out of the corner of his eyes, “This is pretty good for them actually.”  He whispered back.

 

“Fine!” Elladan buttoned up the leather coat concealing his elvish attire.  “Fine!  Let's go then.”  He frowned at his brother, his irritation showing through slightly.

 

“Wait, you aren’t quite ready.”  Aragorn stepped closer to his brother reaching behind him and grabbing the folds of the hood that lay against the elf’s back.

 

Legolas turned away, walking a few paces into the woods, unable to stifle his laughter.

 

Gently Aragorn pulled the large hood up and over his brother’s head, tucking the wayward strands of dark hair back in around the elf’s face.

 

Crossing his arms irritably, Elladan glared at the human as Aragorn pressed the elf’s hair around his ears, fully concealing them and stepped back to admire his handiwork.

 

Nodding slowly he smiled at the twin, “The glare is good too, it’ll keep any of the curious away from our table.”

 

“I’m going to have to bathe when we are through.” Elladan growled.

 

“You look lovely.”  Aragorn taunted, quickly touching the sides of the elf’s face and planting a kiss on his forehead. 

 

The teasing had reached Elladan’s limits of toleration and he shoved his brother back.  “I swear Estel; I will make you pay for this.” He growled, stepping towards his brother threateningly.

 

Aragorn moved back in close to the older elf. “Oh! Really?  Seems to me I remember a time you dressed me in that outfit of mothers when I was younger *against* my will.  And then, convincing me the house was empty, you dared me to run into the Hall of Fire where father was in actuality having a council meeting that you knew full well all about?  Hmmm?  Yes, let us talk about revenge shall we?”  The ranger glared back at Elladan, “Glorfindel excused himself to escort me out when I tripped on the edge of the dress trying to get out of there.  It took me weeks to come out of my room after that!  At least I have dressed you like a man.”

 

“Not much of an improvement.”  Elladan mumbled darkly but the smile that tugged at the corners of his lips offset the slur.

 

Legolas stumbled back into the circle of light, his giggles inhibiting his breathing as he spoke.  “Really Elladan, this isn’t the bad part.  *This* my friend is the easy part.  I’ve been where you are.”  The elf smelled the collar of the coat he wore, “Actually I prefer the way Estel’s jacket smells, I’m used to it.  Would you like to trade?”

 

“Stop it!”  Aragorn was laughing now as Elrohir nearly fell off the log he sat on; the conversation having taken such a light bent, the elf was consumed with laughter.  “No you can't trade coats!  Although I’m sorry my friend I hadn’t thought about the smell for you.  We need to get going.  We have no time to waste; Bree is a one half of an hour away and already night is well upon us.  The gate guard may not allow us access as it is.”  Aragorn started to head towards the town fully expecting the elves to follow him.

 

Sounds behind him alerted the ranger and he turned to find that Elladan had quickly shrugged out of the leather coat and was holding it out to Legolas.  Aragorn simply rolled his eyes as the two elves traded jackets.

 

With a laugh Elrohir rose from his seat and helped Elladan conceal his ears and long braided hair once more beneath the hood of Halbarad’s coat this time.

 

“This is much better.”  Legolas smiled impishly at the ranger as he quickly pulled the familiar overcoat around his shoulders. 

 

“Elves.”  Aragorn growled at Legolas as he turned and led his companions away from the camp.  He threw a brilliant smile at the youngest twin as he walked passed the Hobbit and elf.

 

 

Chapter Text

___________________________________________________________

 

~*PART FIVE*~

 

 

 

The gate of Bree loomed tall before the three travelers, blocking their path.  Aragorn turned and stopped the elves, his focus on Elladan.  He and Legolas had been in this same situation many times, entering a town of men who were not frequently exposed to the firstborn.  Most humans were suspicious and wary of the fair beings.

 

The ranger was not worried about how his elven friend would fare, Elladan could more than take care of himself.  It was his brother’s reactions that concerned him, and the risk of losing their cover.  Elladan was not uncomfortable or wary around humans as Legolas had once been.  However, he was used to cities of men who were friendly and accepted the elven brothers’ comings and goings.  Their dealing with the rangers and Beornings had made the twins somewhat innocent to the workings of humans on a greater scale.  Here they would find no welcome.

 

“Elladan listen, when we get in there...” Aragorn’s admonitions were cut short by his brother.

 

“I have been among humans before Estel.  You worry far too much.  El and I have ridden with the rangers since long before you were born I’ll have you know.”

 

Pressing the two elves back into the woods behind them, Aragorn continued the conversation at a safer distance from the city so as not to be overhead by the random passerby.

 

“I know you have.  And you are older and wiser in the ways of this earth than I am...”

 

Elladan grinned.  “Correct.  Estel, it’s not as if this were the first time I’ve seen Bree.  I don’t see the need for all this.”  He gestured to the coat hiding his features.

 

“I know it’s not, but there’s a difference between riding by or passing through, and actually trying to mingle.  These men are not like the men you have known.  They are not bad, but they are a suspicious and superstitious lot.  Many have never even seen an elf, for elves do not frequent these places and they are more used to the evil things and the wilds than they are to something they consider myth.”  He raised his hands in a pleading gesture when Elladan tried to interrupt again.  “Please brother, I do not question you or your abilities, it is the ones we will be among that worry me.”

 

Aragorn glanced to his right, smiling at the prince, “Legolas is used to this atmosphere, but it has not been without trial and error that we discovered how best to conceal ourselves.  Let me do the talking.”  He spoke the last sentence slowly as though speaking to a very small child.  “In all likelihood we will not be challenged or even engaged in conversation by anyone.  We are here to listen and see what we can find out.”

 

“I do not like this.” Elladan answered softly.

 

“I know.”  Estel placed his hands on the elf’s shoulders and stared up into the blue-grey eyes that watched him.  “Do this for me, I need your help.  Besides, it won’t be that bad.”

 

The elf nodded once.  It was enough for the ranger, who tugged playfully on the edges of the hood and turned silently leading them back to the large wooden gate.  He rapped on the timber that made up the huge door and waited, pounding again when no answer was forthcoming.  Sounds of shifting and grumbling issued from behind the barricaded doorway and an irritated voice finally answered the repeated knocking.

 

“Who calls so late at night?” A thin voice called to them.

 

“Open the portal.”  Aragorn glanced behind him shaking his head.

 

A small square window set in the door cracked open and yellow light spilled out from the lantern that the gatekeeper held up eye level so he could view the travelers without.  It was late.  Later than any one usually came calling and he wasn’t too indisposed to opening the large barricade.  It was cold out and he was sleepy.  His irritation with the intruders showed through.

 

“What do you want?”  He questioned again grumpily.

 

Aragorn stepped up, blocking the man’s view of the elves.  “We would like to come in.  We’re headed for the Prancing Pony.”

 

“Well it’s a might late.”  The small door cracked open wider as the old gatekeeper glanced around the ranger.  “There’s talk of wights about.  The townsfolk don’t like the gate opened any more after sundown, it’s not safe.”

 

“Do we look like wights to you?” Legolas stepped forward into the shaft of dim light, allowing the man to view him more fully.  When he spoke his voice was lower and deeper, not as soft as it normally was. 

 

Aragorn glanced at his friend out of the corner of his eyes.  Rarely did the elf speak when they entered human towns, but his time in Harad and with the Gondorians had made him bolder, more used to dealing with humans and concealing himself among them.

 

“Well...” The older man behind the barricade eyed the elf hard, “Not to me you don’t, but then I ain’t one that’s seen them devils.”  The small window slammed quickly and forcefully shut.  In moments the doors of Bree opened slowly and the threesome were allowed entry.  “Now don’t let me hear of you starting no trouble in town.  I shouldn’ta let you in but...”

 

“You’ll not hear of us causing any stir.”  Aragorn promised, waiting as Elladan stepped inside the doorway.  He followed the elves up the street to the local tavern.

 

“See that I don’t!” the care taker called after them.  Something still felt wrong about him letting the strangers in, but he had seen the ranger before, so he was less inclined to keep them out.  Shaking his head he stepped back into his small house adjacent to the gates and lit his pipe once more.  Everyone was just too on edge lately.

 

The lights from the Prancing Pony spilled into the dirty streets of Bree, their cheerful yellow cast belying the goings on within the Inn.

 

Aragorn pushed the door open and waded into the sea of humanity just on the other side. Men were pressed up against the bar, drinking pints of ale as they bemoaned the day’s labors.  Others were gathered about circular tables, telling each other tales some of which were true and some that were suspect.  The smoke from pipes hung thick about the middle of the room choking the air and the small confines smelled from the closely pressed bodies that occupied the tavern.  Many found it a welcoming, cheery place, and Aragorn himself was no exception.  However, the ranger knew from experience that while comfortable to men and Halflings, elves did not take to these settings particularly well.

 

Elladan stopped on the threshold of the door, catching his breath as the sounds and smells assaulted him.  Half in, half out of the bar he stopped, taking it all in.  There was something disturbing to the elven senses about the clamor and disorderly atmosphere.  If it hadn’t been for Legolas’ hand in the small of his back he might have stood there all night until someone pushed him out of the way.  The gentle pressure from the elven prince caused the twin to refocus on the sight of his retreating human brother and he stumbled into the bar. Making his way to the table in the corner that Aragorn had chosen he dropped stiffly into the chair that the ranger kicked out for him.  Estel was right; the atmosphere here was entirely different than what he was accustomed to, even in his many dealings with the mortal race.  It was just a building full of humans, he didn’t know why it made him so hesitant, but it did.

 

Legolas seated himself on Aragorn’s right and immediately began to look over the tavern.  As usual the ranger had chosen a well-placed section of the bar to sit in.  They were at a round table, out of the way towards the back of the room, with a good view of the door and all the occupants.  Only one small corner to Legolas’ right was obscured by the brick firepit that smoked away, heating the already too warm room. 

 

The elf prince felt no reservation about these settings anymore, he had long ago learned to tune out the elements of chaos that were initially disturbing and see beyond them.  The Prancing Pony was actually far more pleasant a place than some of the seedy, cutthroat little pubs he had seen in the south.

 

“You all right?”  Aragorn softly asked his brother, his voice not even audible over the din in the tavern.  Only an elf would have heard the question.

 

Huge, dark eyes fastened on his own and Elladan nodded slightly, “Yes.” He answered, although it was not the entirely truth.  He had never in his life entered an establishment like this, not even in the company of the Beornings or the other rangers.  It was an unsettling place.  Nothing he couldn’t handle, but unsettling.  More than anything it irritated him that his brother had been right about how unnerving it was.  He supposed however he would get over it... but it would involve thinking up something clever to do to Estel for dragging him in here. 

 

The ranger read the single word reply as it passed across the elf’s lips before redirecting his attention to the bartender who was moving in their direction. 

 

A knowing glance passed between Legolas and Aragorn and the human kicked his chair back casually, balancing on the back legs as he liked to do and affecting an air of disinterest as he began watching the occupants of the room.

 

“What’ll it be?”  The bartender squinted at the three men, sizing them up.  He was a large man in stature and girth and the shadow of a beard colored his face.  Unkempt dark hair spilled into his eyes where his locks were too long, he was definitely in need of a hair cut and a good bathing, but his eyes were quick and bright as he glanced over the newcomers.  He was drying an ale cup with the edges of the apron he wore.  The garment was stained and filthy and Elladan grimaced as he watched the man from the shadows of the hood that concealed his features.

 

“House brew.”  Legolas replied simply, his shoulders slumped, his voice rough as he threw the answer offhandedly at the man.  He broke eye contact and glanced casually over at a small brawl that erupted in the far corner of the establishment.

 

Elladan was quietly intrigued by how very little Legolas actually resembled the elf he knew him to be at the moment.  Just what exactly had his brother and the prince been up to over the years?

 

“Damn that Braxt.  You give him too many and this is how he acts, every night.  You think I’d throw him out when he shows his face in here.”  The man turned back to the patrons in front of him.  “Sister’s husband.” He answered the question no one had asked nor cared about.

 

The ranger he recognized and didn’t bother to ask what the Dunadan wanted, he already knew, but their hooded companion hadn’t spoken.

 

“And you?”  The bartended pointed the cup he held at Elladan.

 

Once again the elf froze, not knowing quite how to respond.  He didn’t drink the foul mead that men did and was certain they served nothing he would recognize.  Startled, he turned towards Aragorn.

 

“He’ll have a house brew, Jansit.”  Aragorn answered the bartender causally.  “Now where’s that son of yours, young Barliman?  How come you haven’t got him working down here with you?  Seems you could use the help.”  The ranger eyed the four men that had just noisily spilled into the bar, demanding ale.

 

“Now you just don’t take no nevermind to my son.” Jansit Butterbur frowned at the man, ignoring the new customers, “I know you rangers, Strider, making off with people’s kids to help fill out your ranks.  Well you’ll not be getting mine!  He has a future!  All this here’s gonna be his one a these days.”

 

With a laugh Aragorn let his chair fall back down onto all four legs and leaned across the table fixing the bartender with a devilish grin, “Where *do* you get your stories Jansit?  I can’t believe you listen to those old biddies gossiping.  You put enough of that brew of yours in them, you can get them to say anything about a body, you know that.”

 

With a snort of derision the bartender turned and walked away, “You’re all getting house brew tonight,” He called over his shoulder, “and I’ll not hear nothing to the contrary!”

 

Aragorn laughed and patted Elladan on the arm.  “That was good.”

 

“Estel *what* am I supposed to be doing?  Why have you dragged me here?”  The elf locked his gaze on the human as Aragorn tipped back in his chair, once more relaxing into the atmosphere, letting the patrons around them forget they were there.  He could tell his brother was anxious and tried to put him at ease.

 

“I want you to listen.”  He glanced casually at the elf out of the corner of his eyes, slowly moving his head until he was staring straight at his brother.  The action was deliberate and off handed - it garnered little attention.  “At first you may find it hard to do.” His voice was barely audible over the noise in the room, but he kept it down, teaching the elf by his example how to concentrate on one voice at a time, “Just like you are listening to me, listen to each of the conversations.  Hear what they are talking about.  We are looking for any tips on the doings of the wights in these parts.” 

 

Aragorn glanced up as Jansit walked back towards them and deposited three mugs of ale onto the middle of the table, the thick mead sloshed over the sides.

 

“Drink up boys.”  He muttered as he walked away wiping his hands on his apron.

 

Leaning forward Aragorn grabbed a brimming mug and took a deep draught of the drink.  His focus turned suddenly outward as he began scrutinizing the men around them, weeding out the braggarts and the obviously drunk.  Someone here just had to have information, and in a group this large and diverse someone would be willing to talk.

 

It had been sometime that they had been sitting at the table with no results when Legolas reached over and gently touched Aragorn’s arm with the tips of his finger.  His gaze caught the ranger’s and redirected the man’s attention to a table in the far corner.  What looked like a group of farmers were trading stories animatedly among themselves, most of them talking around the tips of pipes shoved into their mouths that they chewed on as they spoke.

 

Elladan tuned into the conversation when he saw Aragorn’s sudden interest.

 

“What are they saying?”  Aragorn whispered.

 

Legolas shook his head slightly, shushing the man with the motion; he had missed out on what the older grey haired man had just spoken.

 

“The old farmer says that it’s the Curse of Angmar, come back to haunt them.”  Elladan replied, whispering as he concentrated on hearing through chaos of the room.

 

“Nah Fildred, you’ve been out there working in the heat too long.” The younger farmer at his elbow replied causing his companions to laugh and jostle one another good-naturedly.

 

“You mark my word Tilden.”  Fildred replied, unruffled by the taunting, “It’s the work of the curse, stirring them up again.  Why we haven’t had so much trouble with the wights since the flood of 2941.  Over ran their homes the water did and haven’t never seen anything so mad as they were.  Livestock and people gone missing.  Some never heard from again.”  The older gent chewed on the end of his pipe letting his words sink in.

 

“Old wives tales, didn’t never happen,” another of their companions snorted.  He was more or less ignored. 

 

“Old Breidy, he lost him a good horse two nights ago.  Got stuck riding past the downs after dark.  Cart threw a wheel stopped him up good.”  A farmer across the table spoke up.  “Said it was terrible frightening.  Claims they came from out of nowhere.  Says the thing wasn’t alone.”

 

“Ain’t nothing good goes on in them barrows after sundown.”  Chimed another fellow.

 

“Never heard of wights working together.”  Tilden commented quietly.  “Nor leaving their barrows.”

 

“Me neither, but from what Breidy said they weren’t in no mood to tolerate him.  They set up a fierce wailing all about and the horse bolted, never saw him again.  When he tried to get away, said there was a loud sound and a lot of light.  Devil’s fire!  Springing out of the earth or maybe called down out of the sky, he weren’t sure which.  Knocked him senseless it did.  Woke up over near the Brandywine with nothing but his breeches.”  The farmer speaking glanced at Fildred and they both nodded knowingly, “Hasn’t been outta his house since then.  The missus says it threw him mighty good it did.”

 

“It’s the curse I tell ya.”  Fildred repeated, pulling a deep breath on his pipe, and holding the sweet smoke in his lungs before exhaling slowly.

 

Talk turned from the barrows to the weather and deteriorated from there.  Legolas tuned the conversation out and turned back to Aragorn.  Elladan had relayed everything he had heard and Legolas quietly filled in the parts the elven twin had missed.

 

“Sounds like our wights alright.”  Aragorn leaned forward over his pint, resting his chin on his hands.  “But I’ve never heard of wights doing what these do.  And what is this curse of Angmar?  I am not very familiar with the legend or our evil friends.”

 

Elladan glanced at Legolas but the elf shrugged, he had heard of Angmar, but most of the history on this side of the Misty Mountains had not been the subject of dinner talk around his family table nor included in his training.

 

With an understanding nod, Elladan moved closer to Aragorn and proceeded to tell him what he knew.

 

“Father has spoken of them a few times.  You know that the barrows were originally burial chambers used by the men, your ancestors Estel, in ancient days when Arnor was young.  Later, after the wars with Angmar and its final destruction, the barrows were used by the Cardolan and the Dunèdain to bury their dead.  Great men were laid to rest there and it was a good place.”

 

Aragorn nodded, this much he had heard.  He loved sitting near his father and hearing the tales of old. 

 

“Angmar was the domain of the Witch King, chief of the Nazgûl, and he did not accept his defeat well.  Bitter over his losses and still warring with the remnants of Arnor, he sent evil spirits to inhabit the Barrows and they became a place of horror, avoided by all who traveled through downs.  The wights themselves are rumored to inhabited the bodies of the deceased men who had been buried there, fostering a multitude of tall tales and untruths that begin circulating, only adding to the fear and confusion.”

 

Legolas felt involuntarily chilled at the mention of the ringwraith’s name.

 

Elladan continued, oblivious to the prince’s reaction, “They have ever been in opposition to all men, in accordance with their master’s wishes, but they are never hesitant to take whatever poor soul happens by and enslave that one to their own will, binding them up and covering them with the sleep of the dead.  To some, the wights became known as the Curse of Angmar and they exist to this day.  No one has been able to overcome them.  There are rumors and old wives tales of the wights walking through the Shire and the outlying regions, but they are unconfirmed.  From what I know, wights do not leave their barrows but wait for unsuspecting souls to pass close enough to catch them in their snares or lure them in with the promise of treasures.  Many a gold seeker has walked the barrows and never been heard from since.  What they do with their captives no one really knows for no one has ever escaped who was caught.”  He paused thinking hard, “At least not that I have heard of.”  Elladan shrugged and glanced about them, finishing recounting what he knew of the ancient history of these parts. 

 

“Well that would make a lovely tale to tell around a dark campfire some night...” Aragorn murmured.  “I’m surprised you and Elrohir never told me about that when I was young and you delighted in trying to scare the daylights out of me whenever we were out in the woods alone.”

 

Elladan chuckled.  “There are some things brother, that even El and I wouldn’t joke about.”  Sitting back in his seat the elf glanced up as Jansit walked back over to their table.

 

“Another round perhaps?” The bartender questioned.  He carried four brimming mugs with him.

 

The bar was beginning to clear out and those not leaving were sleeping loudly where they had fallen.

 

Strider shook his head, downing the last of his drink quickly.  He started to rise but stopped as Jansit set the pints down on the table and seated himself across from the ranger.

 

No one spoke for a few moments.  The local bartender rarely joined any of his patrons at their tables and the look on the man’s face was not a jovial one.

 

Breaking the silence, the ranger spoke up as the last of the conscious but inebriated men pushed each other out the tavern door.  It swung back heavily on its hinges and clanged shut.

 

“What can I do for you Jansit?” Strider asked warily.

 

The rotund man glanced between the strangers on either side of the human that sat across from him.  He didn’t trust them, but despite his low opinion of the rangers, it was undeniable that they at least were usually willing to poke their noses in where sane men feared to venture.  Jansit’s desire to confide in the other man finally overcame his hesitancy.

 

“Why are you here Strider?” He answered the question with one of his one.  “I haven’t seen you in years.”

 

“Passing through.”  The man answered casually.  Although his outward appearance affected a manner of disinterest, his curiosity was heightened.  Jansit never carried on much of a conversation with him other than the usual pleasantries; but tonight the bartender seemed anxious and worried.  “The wilds get tiring.  We wanted some of your house brew.  Why do you ask?”

 

“I think there’s more.”  Jansit glanced first at Elladan and then at Legolas.  “Your drinking company makes me think there is for one.  Not your usual fare.” 

 

Elladan stiffened, but Aragorn gently touched his thigh with the fingers of his left hand.

 

“What of them?  I thought you didn’t care who you served.”  The ranger’s voice took on a hard edge and the tone wasn’t lost on the Bree-lander as he shifted uncomfortably under Strider’s scrutiny.

 

With a sigh the bartender leaned forward and lowered his voice even though the patrons left were sleeping, dead to the world.  He needed to confide in someone and he was hoping that his suspicions were correct. 

 

“There’s talk about.  The wights are stirred up so they say.  My Flossie came home late two nights ago.  I thought she was already in-city before the gates were closed or I’da been out there looking for her.  Said she was attacked by...by things that glowed.  They tried to catch her but she’s not one for giving in easy and she made it to the gate, but not ‘fore the wits were scared out of her.  Said there was some sort of explosion and light and noise, almost made her loose her bearings.  They made off with the new milking cow she had just purchased.  Poor beast bolted on her.  She’s made of stern stuff my Flossie, but she’s still getting over the shock.  Barliman’s stayin’ home with her full time ‘til she gets back on her feet.”

 

He paused and glanced between his listeners.  Strider leaned forward and nodded, encouraging him on.  “I’m not thinking it’s the wights.  My family has lived here for years.  The wights haven’t been this active since my great-great grandfather was alive if the stories be true.  And what would they want with animals eh?  ‘Twas always people they wanted in the old tales, not goods.  But all the peoples’ been left so far.  Doesn’t make sense no if you’re asking me.”

 

“And you’re thinking...” Legolas prompted the man when he stopped.

 

“I ain’t so sure it ‘tis the wights, if you catch my meaning.  That’s all.”  Jansit took a swallow of the mead and leveled his gaze on Strider.

 

The ranger didn’t speak or answer the unspoken question just yet. He was thinking about all that he had heard and just how much he should tell the bartender.

 

“You are here to look into it aren’t you?”  Jansit’s tone was cautiously inquiring, but his eyes were practically begging.  “I mean it’s an awful coincidence.”  He motioned at the elves on either side of the ranger, “And coming with friends as you have...”

 

Elladan looked at Strider, his face hidden from all the others by the hood, but his brother could see the elf’s eyes.  “Tell him.  He’s afraid.”  The twin mouthed the words.  Aragorn barely nodded, it couldn’t hurt to have someone in town helping them out.  Before he could speak, and to his great surprise, Elladan slowly slid the hood off of his head and stared at Jansit.

 

The man sat up a bit straighter, pushing back slightly from the table.  “Well I’ll be.”  The bartender glanced around them quickly but they were alone in the tavern.  “An elf.  Haven’t seen the likes of your kind here in... well ever really.”  The man relaxed a bit and squinted at Legolas, “So what would you be?”

 

“A friend.”  Strider commented quickly with a wry smile.  “And in answer to your question Jansit, yes we are here because of the rumors of the wights.  I wasn’t fully convinced it was them either, but the stories we’ve heard tonight and your own corroboration is pointing to something else; something pretending to be wights.  If I had to guess, I’d hazard that you have a band of highway men camped out hereabouts.”

 

“Flossie won’t leave the town until they’ve gone for good and we are in mighty terrible need of a cow, as ours took ill last month.”  Jansit frowned and glanced down. “Anything I can do to help?”

 

“Keep your ears open.  See if you can find out anything from your patrons.  They talk and they aren’t quiet about what they know.  If you hear of anything suspicious or see anyone in town that you don’t recognize, let me know. I’ll check in from time to time.”  The ranger answered with a small nod that was echoed by the Bree-lander.  “We’ll be about and we’ll get to the bottom of this.  Give us some time.”  Scooting his chair back and standing stiffly to his feet, Aragorn leaned across the table and shook the large man’s hand.  “Give Flossie my greetings and tell her not to worry.”

 

“Think I’ll tell her after you’ve gone.  You think these men are bad,” Jansit chuckled.  Motioning with his thumb, he pointed over his shoulder at the men who were crashed across the tops of tables or laid out on the flooring sleeping, “you should hear them women when they get together!  But I’ll tell her she doesn’t have to worry so much anymore.”  Accepting the ranger’s proffered hand he shook it.  “Thanks Strider.”  The words were gruff, but sincere.  Jansit may have been leery of rangers, but having dangerous folk on your side was a good thing in dangerous times.

 

Legolas and Elladan took their cues as the ranger glanced at them.  Elladan quickly flipped the hood back over his head, tucking his hair around his ears and flashed the bartender a smile.

 

“It was good meeting you...er...” Jansit fished for a name.

 

“Another thing you can just keep between us.”  Aragorn cautioned the man with a smile as he brushed past the Bree-lander, pushing the elf out in front of him.

 

“Can’t blame a man for being curious.”  Jansit laughed as he straightened his apron, cleaning the table of the now empty mugs as Strider left the bar with the two elves in tow.  “Just ain’t everyday that a body gets to meet an elf around here.” His muttered conversation to himself was cut off as the three stepped out into the darkened streets of Bree.

 

“That was risky.”  Aragorn turned to Elladan as they walked towards the gate.

 

“He needed to know Estel.  These people are living in fear and those are no wights that are attacking them.  I am almost sure of it.”  Elladan shrugged.  “Besides he seemed honest enough and he appeared to trust you more than your appearance deserves.  Sometimes trusting is risky.”

 

“It will help to have someone inside the town watching for us.  Another pair of eyes and ears couldn’t hurt.”  Legolas commented quietly, walking on the other side of Aragorn.

 

“And you wondered *why* I asked the two of you to come with me.”  Aragorn smiled impishly as he lifted the heavy crossbar on the gates, silently letting himself and the elves out of the sleeping town. 

 

The old man who kept the gates heard them snick shut and fell out of bed, rushing to the barred wooden doors as the crossbeam fell back into place with a heavy thunk.  Cautiously opening the small window he peered into the predawn dark but saw nothing, not even the whisper of a shadow moving.  Glancing warily about him he crept back to bed hoping things would be all right in the morning.

 

Chapter Text

___________________________________________________________

 

~*PART SIX*~

 

 

Legolas glanced up at the pattern of stars overhead and grimaced. The heavenly shift in the lights told him they had been hidden on the fringes of the barrows for about three hours now and nothing had stirred.

 

“Stop that.” Aragorn whispered from his crouched position next to the elf. “You looked at the stars only five minutes ago. Five minutes, no more, have passed since the last time you checked.”

 

“We will find nothing here tonight as we have not for the past three nights.” Legolas countered fiercely, his voice barely audible.

 

“He’s right Estel.” Elladan rolled over in the grass, giving the ranger a good view of Elrohir who was seated just beyond his twin, idly chewing on the end of a piece of the long grass which hid them. The dark haired twin nodded agreeing with his brother.

 

With a sigh Aragorn sat up, giving way his position. Seeing their hiding places revealed, Halbarad dropped lightly from a tree not far off to their left. He had sent Arendur back west to see how the other rangers fared. A runner had met up with them just last night to inform the Chieftain that the source of the warg invasions had not been curbed. They needed help and badly. To his deep regret there had been none to give. What Aragorn and the elves had turned up in Bree had worried him. If they had a group of highwaymen, waylaying unsuspecting travelers it was no light business and needed to be dealt with now before their operation could expand. And if by some strange chance they truly did have a reawakening of wights on their hands... they would cross that bridge when they came to it. So he had opted to remain with the others and sent Arendur back in his stead. The lad was headstrong and prone to quick judgments, but he was loyal and nearly as stealthy as an elf.

 

Standing up slowly from his crouched landing position, Halbarad approached the elves that had seated themselves around the other Dunadan and were talking quietly. They glanced from time to time out across the barrows, but the valley was quiet. Nothing stirred. The deep night fog swirled around the dew-coated mounds that dotted the glen, but of the wights or their suspected human imposters there was no sign.

 

“What do you suggest Strider?” The older ranger seated himself on a rock and stared down at the group of companions.

 

“I don’t know.” The younger man answered, throwing up his hands in a gesture of hopelessness. “If it *was* the wights they should be out after us right now. If it is not as we suspect... then they are terribly good at hiding themselves.” He glanced over his shoulder into the valley before flopping backwards in the grass, all but disappearing from Halbarad’s sight, hidden by the long spines. He stared into the night sky fixing his gaze on Eärendil before it was blocked from sight by an inquisitive elven face.

 

Legolas parted the leafy fronds and stared down at the human, “Estel?”

 

“Oh lets just call it a night. I’m tired.” The ranger mumbled.

 

Next to him Elladan sat up straighter and glanced at Elrohir, “Did you hear that El?”

 

Legolas was suddenly alert, listening to something as well that neither of the humans could hear.

 

“What? What is it?” Aragorn sat back up, instantly keenly aware.

 

“Thunder.” Elrohir whispered.

 

The two humans glanced into the clear starry night. Not a cloud glimmered anywhere over the area and from their vantage point they could see for miles in all directions.

 

“No.” Legolas leapt to his feet, gazing hard to the west. “It is not thunder. There it is again! Aragorn!” He called to the human to follow as he raced off through the woods. Elladan and Elrohir were right on his heels. The humans trailed farther behind, taken off guard by the elves’ sudden departure. It was easy to follow the gently glowing shapes as they dodged through the woods, ducking branches and leaping lightly over fallen limbs. Though the way was more difficult for the humans to traverse, they easily kept up.

 

At the outskirts of the Old Forest the three elves halted and walked more slowly. They picked their path cautiously now and hesitantly entered the thick woods. It was silent and deathly still beneath the dark canopy. Here the winds held a slightly sulfuric scent and Elrohir stopped. Turning, he backtracked their path. Aragorn joined him, reading the signs in the earth by the glow of his soft light.

 

“Here.” Strider dropped to the ground and gently fingered a square of charred blackened earth. “Elrohir, over here.”

 

In moments the ranger was surrounded by three softly glowing bodies. Their combined light aided his tracking skills but the patch of raw earth confused him. Here the smell of sulfur and fire was strongest. The tips of the leaves above their heads were singed black as though a great fire had reached up and touched them before immediately going out. Nothing save for the ground beneath the ranger’s fingers and the trees above bore the marks of what had transpired and the earth underneath his hand was still warm.

 

Pushing the elves back farther away from him and silencing their curiosity, Strider began searching the dew-covered ground for more clues. It was obvious that whatever had been here was no wight for there were boot tracks all over the small area where they stood, only a few feet from the road that led up to Bree. Someone had run into the woods to hide.

 

Aragorn pressed his fingers into the deep indentations of a man’s bootprint.

 

“He ran in here. Towards this place.” The ranger whispered quietly, not at all confident they were alone. “And this is where he stopped as well. But there were others. Many. It is hard to tell.” His hand swept over the grass gently moving it, trying to read the impressions.

 

“Strider!” Halbarad called softly, pointing to the ground in front of him a few feet from where Aragorn crouched. “Here. I think they went through here.”

 

The younger ranger dashed over and knelt where Halbarad had indicated. Indeed it was as the older man said. The footprints here were heavier than anywhere else and they led towards the edge of the Baranduin River.

 

Quickly they followed the tracks, the sounds of the river growing ever louder as they approached.

 

Legolas’ gasp alerted Aragorn first. The keen elven eyes had seen through the dark what it took the ranger a split second more to see - the form of a man lying on the ground.

 

Darting forward Strider dropped next to the prone figure. The man lay on his stomach, his shirt and shoes had been removed. A nasty spreading bruise near his temple cause Aragorn to draw his breath in sharp hiss. It was obvious this was the victim of whatever had happened back near the road. A black powdery substance coated one of his arms.

 

Gently the ranger turned the man over and quickly examined him for any broken bones. Legolas dropped down next to Estel and glanced at his friend.

 

“Does he live?” The question was spoken in elvish.

 

“Yes,” Aragorn answered softly, gingerly touching the man’s bruised temple, “but I have a feeling that he will wish he had not when he awakens.”

 

“We should get him to the town and quickly.” The elf whispered, trying to listen to their surroundings.

 

Legolas glanced up as Halbarad approached them. “There is no one in the woods. They have left. Garnering whatever this poor soul had that was worth taking.”

 

“Tracks?” Aragorn shifted the unconscious man into a sitting position and tucked his shoulder into the man’s chest. Aided by Legolas he stood, lifting the man with him and easily carrying him over his shoulder.

 

“Oh there are plenty.” Halbarad replied with a snort of disgust “And they have been trampled and crisscrossed and completely marred.” He shook his head and glanced around them as though looking for answers in the trees themselves, “Whoever it was, was smart and they covered their tracks well. There will be no following them tonight.”

 

“Very well.” Aragorn shifted his burden gently and followed Elladan and Elrohir out of the forest. Legolas walked beside him, watchful if the human should need help. “Let us go.”

 

The trip back to Bree took twice as long since Aragorn could not run under the weight he carried.

 

When they reached the wooden gates of the town, Strider cautioned the elves to remain hidden in the woods. The Bree-landers would be wary and when they realized what had happened once more. They would be suspicious of anything out of the ordinary, and to the men in these parts, elves were highly out of the ordinary.

 

Stepping up to the doors, Halbarad banged his fist hard against the small portal making the gates jump.

 

“Open up! We have a wounded man here!” The ranger shouted. His deep voice carrying through the night and cutting straight through the gatekeepers sleep.

 

“What?!” The sound of the old man’s sleepy voice brought a smile to Aragorn’s face. He could hear the gatesman fall out of bed and stumble towards the door, cursing softly as he groped for a light. “What do you want!? It past midnight, you may not enter!”

 

This was not the same guard who had admitted the ranger and his friends several days ago. Aragorn did not recognize his voice.

 

“We have one of your townsfolk, I believe. He was waylaid near the old forest and is in need of medical aide. Let us in.” Halbarad glanced back at his younger companion, stifling a smile as they heard the gatesman’s clumsy attempts to light a lantern. “Hurry up!”

 

“You’re going to give him a heart attack.” Aragorn shifted uncomfortably under the weight of the man he carried. “He’s old you know.”

 

At this Halbarad did laugh, turning back to the gates he prepared to pound on them again for it had grown strangely quiet behind them. When Aragorn gasped and dropped to the ground, he spun around startled. His charge was waking.

 

“Halbarad!”

 

Gently he laid the man on the path and quietly spoke to the confused Bree-lander as he regained consciousness.

 

“Where am I?” the man slurred.

 

“Shhh...it is well. We have brought you to Bree.” Aragorn held the man’s head firmly between his hands giving the human a bit of stability as his vision swam. He sucked his breath in quickly and held it as his body began to register pain.

 

“Where does it hurt?” The ranger’s voice was calm and soothing.

 

“My head right now mostly.” The man whispered tightly, “But I ache all over.”

 

“I bet you do.” Aragorn turned as the gates were thrown open and four men spilled out holding torches and brandishing farm tools; more than likely the first thing they could grab at such short notice.

 

“Stay still, help is here.” The ranger soothed. Obviously the gateskeeper had gone for others, fearful of opening the doors at such a late hour.

 

A fifth man brushed through the others, roughly parting them as he finished tying off a robe around his waist. “I’m the doctor. What’s going on here?” Behind him, the gateskeeper peeked around the edge of the doors leery of the strangers.

 

“We found this man near the Baranduin. It seems he has been waylaid by bandits.” Halbarad explained as the short, round man knelt next to Aragorn. Large spectacles sat across a pinched face, but the doctor’s eyes were kind and the ranger smiled at the sleepy man.

 

“Bright light... like lightening,” the semi-conscious man murmured. “So many of them... glowing...”

 

“Shhh, rest now. He was unconscious when we found him.” Aragorn turned back as the murmuring around them increased.

 

“That weren’t no bandit doings.” One bystander commented darkly, “Sounds like them wights.”

 

Comments to the affirmative could be heard and they were no longer listening to Halbarad as he tried to calm them.

 

Leaving the Bree-lander with the doctor, Aragorn rose to his feet and joined the other ranger. “Here now, it was no wight. Listen to what Halbarad says.”

 

“What do you know of the goings on around here?” The gatekeeper called out, “And when have the rangers ever been up to any good anyway? This been happening regularly. It ain’t nothing natural, you hear! His clothes is gone ain’t they? And all his possessions? And the smell...” the men were beginning to get fearful, agreeing with the older man’s assessment, “That ain’t no natural smell that lingers with him. It’s only about the wights’ victims! You heard him! Glowing? No human round these parts knows how to call lighting down but I’d bet you those wights do.” The weathered man nodded, agreeing with himself, glancing around them cautiously as though expecting a wight to appear at any moment.

 

“Now stop this at once!” Aragorn raised his voice against the growing assents. “You have a man out here that needs help. He was robbed by other men. I saw the footprints myself.” The ranger glanced from face to face and written on every one of them was doubt and fear.

 

“It doesn’t matter what attacked him.” The doctor’s voice cut through the chaos, injecting a note of reason. “We need to get him inside. It’s Brans, and his wife is going to be worried sick. Someone send for her straight away and meet us at my house.” He ignored the wounded man’s protests as Aragorn helped the doctor get him to his feet. Another from the crowd stepped forward when the man was made known to them and took over for the ranger guiding them back through the growing throng of onlookers.

 

“Go back to your beds.” Halbarad spoke above the crowd, “You will have nothing to fear from further tonight. Whatever it is, it is gone for now. Try not to be out after dark. Go now, off with you all, this isn’t helping anything.” The ranger turned the men at the front of the crowd around placing his hands on their shoulders and gently pushing them back inside the doors. Aragorn was quietly reassuring others and motioning them back inside.

 

As the gatherers dispersed and the street quieted only the gatekeeper remained.

 

“That was foolish.” Halbarad reprimanded him. “What were you thinking? You could have had a riot on your hands. You needed only to open the gates and let us in.”

 

“How was I to know you weren’t the wights or bandits yourself?” the older man voice cracked as he questioned the rangers. “You think this an easy job do you? Eh?” He glared between them both, “Well it ain’t.”

 

“We meant no disrespect.” Aragorn calmed the man easily, “We are in the area and if we should come to the gates after dark we will tell you next time that it is us. Your partner, the other gatekeeper, he knows me, you can ask him. I am Strider.” He touched his hand to the other ranger’s shoulder, “And this Halbarad. We are here to help you and to serve you, not make your job harder.”

 

“Well then next time see that you call out your names.” The gatekeeper slowly closed the doors, stopping when they were barely open, “You could stop a fellow’s heart banging on the doors like that.”

 

“My apologies, I meant no ill to you.” Halbarad confessed.

 

A moment of silence fell between them before the gatesman answered, “My name is Ralmit. You...you didn’t want in tonight did you?”

 

Aragorn smiled easily, “No Ralmit, we’ll be on our way.”

 

They left the gatekeeper and walked back towards the woods where their elven companions were hidden.

 

Legolas stepped forward to greet them, pulling Aragorn into the deep shadows of the forest. He glanced behind the rangers as the gatesman slowly closed the portal to the large wooden doors. From his vantage point the older man could not have seen the elf but the prince had seen him and heard the entire conversation.

 

“Are you both all right?” Elladan asked quietly.

 

With a smile Aragorn turned his brother back into the woods, his hand on the elf’s shoulder. It always felt safe when he was with his oldest brother. “Yes, we are fine Elladan.”

 

“It is good we did not accompany you.” Legolas spoke in hushed tones as he stepped lightly next to Strider. “You were right about the townsfolk.”

 

“Rarely have we seen men act like that.” Elrohir commented softly, matching his tone to Legolas’. Something about the forest seemed to be warning him to silence.

 

“Well you just haven’t lived long enough, that’s all.” Aragorn taunted, moving closer to Legolas as his brothers took offense to the slight. His laughter was infectious and in short order the elves had forgotten their nervousness and were easily teasing the young ranger.

 

“However do you stand one another?” Halbarad asked, laughing at the four of them, “You must surely drive Lord Elrond to insanity.”

 

His comments only caused further mirth and the older ranger simply shook his head, following in their wake as a new round of taunting took over, having to do with Mithrandir warning them all about rangers.

 

“Will you never grow up?” Halbarad, playfully questioned. His inquiry tickled the elves who turned their teasing with force upon the youngest member of the group. Only Aragorn was no longer listening.

 

Stopping mid-step, Strider turned back and watched the forest behind them. They were nearing their camp on the outskirts of Bree but the ranger got the distinct feeling that they were being shadowed.

 

Elladan glanced at his younger brother, still jesting, “Oh Estel, come now surely you didn’t take that personally?”

 

The younger human’s actions tipped off Halbarad who melted quietly into the forest on the ranger’s left.

 

“What is it Strider?” Legolas questioned softly, walking back to stand next to Aragorn.

 

“There is someone out there.” The Dunadan barely whispered.

 

Whatever else the elf had been going to ask was cut off as they heard Halbarad’s voice from the woods ahead of them. “Why there you are! We’ve been looking...Hey!” the ranger’s easy going tone was cut off in surprise.

 

Aragorn rushed forward, meeting the older Dunadan as he stalked back to his companions.

 

“Halbarad! What was that?” Aragorn took the man by the arm and pressed the ranger behind him towards his brothers.

 

“It was that Bilbo Baggins, is what it was.” The man replied sourly. “Didn’t want to stay in camp apparently. He’s been following us. One moment he was there and the next moment he was simply gone. I think I must have startled him. But for the life of me, Strider, I have never seen a hobbit move that fast.”

 

Elladan glanced around them curiously, “Bilbo is odd, even for a hobbit.”

 

“I take exception to that!” A small indignant voice piped up from behind the group.

 

“You were supposed to Master Baggins.” Elrohir chided as the small being stepped from the foliage, “But it’s true, you are not like most hobbits. Ah, ah, ah! Don’t argue.” The elf cut the little being off as he began to protest. Elrohir was slightly perturbed with their uninvited guest. “Exactly *what* were you doing shadowing us like that? I thought you were going to wait for us in camp tonight.”

 

Bilbo glanced around the ring of elves and men and stood up a little straighter, pushing through them he began walking down the path to their camp. “I *was* waiting for you. You’re all late. When you didn’t return I was worried, I thought you might have run into trouble so I went looking for you.”

 

“Bilbo, that was brave but foolish.” Aragorn walked next to the Hobbit and frowned down at him, his words softened by the smile on his face, “You know there are highway men about.”

 

“Exactly,” the little hobbit commented seating himself next to the dead fire pit when they reached their destination. “I thought you might need some help. A hobbit can come in handy now and again, they can.”

 

Aragorn laughed as he passed Legolas his flint. The elf struck a flame to the tower of logs the man had stacked in the center of the ring.

 

“That they can,” The younger ranger replied as he seated himself next to the hobbit, accepting back the flint as Legolas sat on the other side of him. “Your concern is appreciated.”

 

The elves were still not pleased that the hobbit had been so able to approach them as he had. It disturbed Legolas greatly that the small being was so stealthy. Something about it didn’t seem at all natural, but he supposed he was just surprised to have found someone who could actually be as quiet and invisible as an elf.

 

“So how did it go?” Bilbo attempted to change the subject.

 

With a sigh, Strider gazed into the sparking fire. He was beginning to grow frustrated with their attempts thus far.

 

“We have no way of knowing when or where the ‘wights’ will show up. Waiting for them is useless,” Aragorn shook his head. “All we can accomplish is to continue to arrive after they’ve already left.”

 

“You have another plan?” Elladan raised an eyebrow.

 

Aragorn nodded grimly. “Perhaps. Rather than waiting for their next strike, let’s plan it for them.”

 

“Bait!” Legolas caught the idea quickly. “We lure them with something they cannot resist and then we see what manner of creatures we are up against.”

 

Aragorn smiled. “Yes, we have already seen their mode of operation. Living or spectral, these attackers go after goods: livestock, money, gold, jewels. If they were to hear that one lone person was traveling through the downs, with quite a lot of money on him... I’m sure it would be too much temptation to resist.”

 

Elrohir nodded thoughtfully. “Yes... of course it would have to be someone who was already rumored to be in possession of that kind of wealth so that they would believe it...”

 

Halbarad caught their thread and smiled. “Someone they wouldn’t even think of being afraid of.”

 

“And someone who was good at being quiet and going unseen wouldn’t hurt either, as they would be out of the way all the easier when the trouble starts...” Legolas’ grin was impish.

 

Bilbo swallowed as he realized they were all looking at him. “Surely you’re not suggesting...”

 

“Bilbo it’s perfect,” Elrohir shook his head. “You know what the local people have said about you since you came back from the Lonely Mountain. Everyone believes you’ve got a whole horde of gold stashed away somewhere. It won’t take anything at all to play it up a bit.”

 

“W-well that’s all very easy for *you* to say, you’re not the one who has to be bait!” the hobbit stammered slightly. “I’m getting too old for this kind of thing.”

 

“We won’t let anything happen to you, I promise,” Aragorn swore seriously, resting his hand lightly on the hobbit’s shoulder. “We would never ask you to do it if we thought you would be in any real danger. We would be with you the entire time, not more than a few lengths away. As soon as our interloping wights show up we’ll be right there and catch them in the act.”

 

“Well that’s all very well if they’re actually something that can be caught...” Bilbo murmured, but his tone suggested that he was not really as hesitant as he seemed.

 

“You don’t have to do it; it is entirely up to you.” Aragorn shook his head. “But if you do, I swear to you on my honor I will keep you safe.”

 

The hobbit nodded slowly. He did want to help and he trusted the elves and the ranger. Besides, even though he would never admit it aloud he was always up for a good adventure. There hadn’t been anything really interesting happening in these parts in quite some time and the Took-ish part of Bilbo was stirred by the prospect of something a little out of the ordinary. “All right then. Where ought we to start?”

 

 

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

 

 

It had taken a day or two to start the rumors, but Jansit had been very helpful on that count and now that everything was in place the time had come to put their plan into action.

 

A rather nervous Bilbo Baggins set out from Bree in the morning after having stayed a few nights at the Prancing Pony. The hobbit seemed to be alone and was headed west towards the Shire... a course that took him directly towards the Downs. What no one could see were the two rangers and three elves that followed quietly and unnoticed some distance away, blending into their surroundings like expert chameleons.

 

The day went uneventfully, but as the evening shadows lengthened everyone became alert and on edge. Night mists began to rise from the earth, hanging a low-slung vale over the darkening hills. Then as the sun began to set they heard it for the first time... the low, unearthly wail that they had heard so many times described but never experienced for themselves.

 

Aragorn froze, dropping down and scanning the area around them intently, but there was no movement, no sign of life save the one lone hobbit who had stopped very still some hundred yards away. Bilbo had apparently pulled his sword, and although none of them knew it the fact that it was not glowing in the pale moonlight was a good sign. At least no orcs or goblins were near.

 

The wail came again and Aragorn felt Elladan’s hand close on his shoulder. “That is no wolf, nor warg, but whatever it is there is more than one out there or else it moves very fast,” the elf whispered quietly in his younger brother’s ear. “I feel no cloud of evil on my heart, but the cries are chilling to the bones. This is a strange mystery we have here.”

 

Aragorn nodded, trying to decide the best course of action as the howls came again, this time more than one, seeming to come from far away and near at hand at the same time.

 

Suddenly a bright, flaming shape zinged by Halbarad’s head and a burning dart stuck quivering into the tree beside them, lighting up their position like a beacon flare in the semi-twilight.

 

Aragorn swore as they all drew their weapons and dropped to the ground, only just in time to avoid a silent hail of flaming arrows from somewhere behind them. One caught the ranger’s cloak and he had to roll quickly to put it out. “Blast! They know we’re here!” he called to the others as they scrambled backward on their stomachs. “We’ve got to get to Bilbo!”

 

Legolas twisted around on his stomach, trying to see where the shots were coming from, but even his sharp eyes could not pierce the darkness and the thick, growing mists. Another flaming arrow struck the ground near his face, throwing up a burning spray of flaming oil and sparks. The elf flinched and jerked, rolling swiftly away from the rising flames and smoke which only added to the night fog. His cheek burned and he wiped at it furiously with his hand, but that didn’t seem to make the burning go away, rather it simply transferred it to his hand as well. Citing a few highly colorful items of vocabulary, Legolas rubbed his hand and his cheek quickly in the dirt below him, wiping away the burning oil as best he could.

 

Crawling swiftly to the other side of the tree where they had at least some cover from the flaming barrage, Aragorn jumped to his feet and scanned the area desperately for Bilbo as he drew his sword. He had promised to keep the hobbit safe and he could not fail in that trust.

 

“Bilbo? Bilbo!” he called out, but the hobbit was no longer in the middle of the moon-lit dale. In fact, he was nowhere to be seen.

 

Legolas came up beside Aragorn, an arrow notched and ready on his bow strings. “Where’s the hobbit?” he asked urgently, looking around. It seemed as if their trap had backfired on them.

 

“I don’t know,” Aragorn shook his head, ducking and dancing away as another flaming arrow struck too close. They could see nothing now but the flames that were springing up in the grasses and trees around them. The earth was not dry, but there seemed to be some kind of oil on the arrows that burned on its own power and spread like molten fire across anything it touched. Legolas’ throbbing cheek was a painful reminder of that.

 

The strange wails came from all around them now, and yet they were still some ways off, scattered, taunting.

 

“Split up! We’ll make less of a target than together!” Aragorn called out to the others as their position was once again assaulted by another flaming volley. “Halbarad, go with Elladan and Elrohir, try to get to those trees and work your way back to where these arrows are coming from. Legolas, you’re with me, we have to find Bilbo!”

 

Everyone sprung into motion instantly, accepting Aragorn’s leadership without question. If there was one thing that being in the Gondorian army had taught the ranger, it was how to take charge and make snap decisions.

 

Legolas followed his friend swiftly through the tall grass, watchful of further assault. However the arrows seemed to have stopped for the most part and the smoldering fires behind them began to subside, smoking black and thick up into the moon-lit night.

 

They reached the open road where Bilbo had last been seen in a matter of moments. Aragorn scoured the ground as best he could in the pale light, but he saw no recent tracks save that of the hobbit and those did not go very far. In fact they really seemed to have gone up to a certain point and then vanished, but it was hard for Aragorn to be sure in the scant moon light and with his eyes still stinging from the smoke.

 

Legolas stood guard while his friend searched, bow drawn taught and ready. The ranger straightened up, meeting the elf’s questioning gaze and shook his head. “I don’t know what I’m seeing here Legolas. No one’s been here but he’s gone.”

 

“Not too gone yet,” Bilbo’s voice spoke up from behind Aragorn and the ranger started and whirled around.

 

Legolas blinked several times. He had been looking straight in that direction a moment ago, until he looked up at Aragorn. He had no idea where the hobbit could have come from.

 

“I hid when all the fire and the voices started,” Bilbo explained quickly, his hand twitching somewhat nervously in his waistcoat pocket as if fiddling with something. “Where are the others? Is it wights?”

 

“I don’t know,” Aragorn turned slowly around once more, scanning the darkened landscape as another low howl broke out. The fire from the arrows had all but died down and there was no sign of either their attackers or the rest of their party.

 

The dark earth was uncannily still. Not even the birds or the crickets sang.

 

Aragorn and Legolas traded uneasy glances as the unearthly wail came again, nearer at hand. Bilbo looked fit to faint although his hand rested firmly on the hilt of the small sword at his side. The other hand remained in his pocket... just in case.

 

“I don’t like this,” the elf whispered.

 

“Neither do I,” the ranger glanced warily around the mist-shrouded plains, speckled in cloudy moonlight. “Perhaps we should not have split up... if they wanted to lure us apart this was a good way to do it.”

 

Legolas nodded. “We had better find the others.”

 

The three of them made their way cautiously towards the woods that the rest of their party had made for. The air was cool but disturbed. Thunder rumbled in the distance but none of them could be sure if it was the friction of the coming storm that charged the air or their own tension that made the hair on the backs of their neck stand on end.

 

“Perhaps I should go for help,” Bilbo suggested quietly. “I won’t be much use to you in a fight if it comes to that.”

 

Aragorn admired the bravery of the offer, but could not allow the risk. “Too dangerous. Alone they could easily pick you off.”

 

“If they could see me...” the hobbit murmured quietly, but kept the rest of his thoughts to himself as the woods pressed in close around them.

 

The trees made dark and imposing shapes amid the night mists as they moved warily along, calling softly for Halbarad and the twins.

 

Legolas’ fingers tensed on his weapon. Something was close. Something was very close... all around them it felt like, but he could see nothing.

 

Aragorn sensed it too and shifted uneasily. “Bilbo,” he whispered. “If we run into trouble and you have the chance, run. No, don’t protest,” the ranger waved off the smaller being’s indignant retort. “I’m not casting doubt on your courage, but I don’t yet know what we are up against.”

 

Suddenly, silently, as if called by mention of the unknown, the trees came alive with white, glowing shapes. The almost translucent, frightening apparitions seemed to appear out of nowhere amid the tree branches and with a trilling yell they dropped down in a thick circle around the elf, the man and the hobbit. There was a frightful flash and a deafening boom that shook the ground, nearly knocking Aragorn and Legolas off their feet.

Chapter Text

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~*PART SEVEN*~

 

 

Glowing spots and after-trails of the small, but searing explosion wavered before the elf and the ranger’s vision, partially obscuring their attackers who were already on them.  Legolas realized with a start that they were far too close for his bow to be much good, but stabbed quickly at one of the apparitions with the arrow in his hand before drawing his knives.  The arrow cut through the white, gauzy substance covering the being and a red stain welled up around the injury.  Whatever their assailants were, they were not supernatural in nature.

 

“Aragorn, they bleed!” Legolas said hurriedly as he was forced to defend himself against several attackers at once.  The ambusher’s weapons and the skill with which they were being wielded with was also very real. 

 

Aragorn rolled under the sweeping blow of one and crossed blades with another.  He heard Legolas’ words and found the news heartening.  At least flesh and blood they could fight.  He glanced over and saw that the elf was holding his own, but when the ranger sought the whereabouts of their other companion, he found that Bilbo had once again disappeared.  Blast!  He was sure he had seen him right there a moment ago.  That hobbit was the hardest being he had ever tried to keep track of!  He hoped that Bilbo had followed his instructions and managed to run away in the confusion of the attack, he hadn’t seen any of the attackers leave or break off, so it was unlikely that he had been carried away.

 

The elf and the ranger stood back to back, each covering the other’s back as they moved as one in a tight, unbreakable knot of deadly grace.  They had not fought side by side for so many years without becoming quite a formidable duo.  Their time literally bound to one another in Mordor not so very long ago had only strengthened that working relationship and they moved as one. 

 

Legolas’ sharp ears picked up on a soft noise that at first sounded like the crackling sizzle of something burning, but he smelled no smoke.  Their attackers seemed to be pulling back, which was strange because the white-clad beings still had them heavily outnumbered and at the disadvantage even if they couldn’t break through the duo’s defenses. 

 

Suddenly a small, square, box like object, no bigger than a man’s hand was thrown by one of the white-clad attackers and landed between the elf and the ranger.  It did not seem very threatening, but some voice of warning shouted loudly in Aragorn’s mind. 

 

“Legolas, look out!” he yelled, grabbing the elf’s arm, throwing them both backward, away from the odd object.  Only half a moment later the small box exploded outward in another blinding flash of light accompanied by an ear-splitting bang.  Not even remotely clear of the blast area, Aragorn and Legolas were flung roughly forward, the shock of the reverberation seeming to push all the air from their lungs. 

 

Legolas hit the earth hard before he even realized he had left it.  Aragorn’s weight slammed down on top of him a second later, driving him hard into the ground.  The elf felt a jab of pain stab across his forearm but it took him a moment to realize that it was because he had fallen on his own knives.  He was lucky it hadn’t been worse.  His ears were still ringing as he struggled to extricate himself from his friend’s dead weight.  The fact that Aragorn was not moving on his own sent a thrill of panic through the prince.

 

Aragorn, having placed himself between Legolas and the explosion, had taken the worst of the blast.  His head swam and consciousness wavered uncertainly.  He couldn’t hear anything over the ringing in his ears.  What on earth was that?  What had they come up against?  Surely this must be the ‘devil’s fire’ that the townspeople who had encountered the supposed wights had spoken of, but if their attackers were not in fact supernatural, what in the blazes was it?!

 

Before they had even had half a chance to recover themselves, Aragorn was jerked roughly up and off of Legolas, strong hands closing around his wrists as he was dragged to his feet.  The ranger’s legs were unsteady however, and refused to hold him.  He sagged to his knees and his captors allowed it, twisting his hands behind him and leveling the tips of their blades warningly against his heart. 

 

Legolas was pulled roughly to his hands and knees, but not allowed to look up.  The tips of several different swords pressed into his back and sides, silently warning him about what any unapproved movement would cost.  A hand slid down and placed the tip of a dagger against the underside of the elf’s throat.  Effectively trapped between different sets of blades above and below, Legolas remained very still on his hands and knees, trying to blink the lingering effects of the blast from his head and his eyes.  His injured arm trembled slightly below him as it supported his weight.  Blood seeping slowly from the vertical gash he had inadvertently created pooled between his fingers. 

 

The prince gasped slightly as a heavy weight leaned down on his shoulders, forcing him to press a little harder on the blade below and making his injured arm protest violently at the task of holding him up.  The man holding the knife had leaned casually upon the elf’s shoulders.  “You wanted to find the Barrow-Wights mate, well you found ‘em,” the being’s voice hissed in Legolas’ ear. 

 

The elf struggled but felt the razor edge of the blade press sharper against the underside of his chin. 

 

“You are no wights, you are flesh and blood, I feel you!  I saw you bleed!” he threw back at their captors, trying to turn his head enough to see Aragorn, but he could not.  The ranger had not spoken and Legolas was worried.

 

“Surprise, surprise,” the man holding the prince down had an obvious smirk in his voice.  Removing his weight and his knife, the man, for man it was, allowed his companions to pull Legolas to his feet.  “Everyone else was pretty fooled so far, it’s too bad you had to get so nosey.”

 

Aragorn was blinking hard as full consciousness slowly returned.  His vision was still blurry however.  “Legolas... are you all right?” he asked softly when his roving, wavering gaze was unable to find his friend.

 

“For the moment,” Legolas’ captor replied in an almost cheerful tone.  “And it might stay that way if you two want to tell me why you’re looking for us?”

 

Now that he had a good view of them, Legolas could see that these were indeed all men, but they were dressed in strangely shaped white costumes that covered every inch of their bodies, all the way down to the ground where it billowed and folded onto the grass, hiding even their boots.  Whether it was the stuff it was made of or something that had been done to it, the white fabric of their eerie robes glittered and reflected the moonlight dully, lending them an other-worldly air even though it was now plain to see that they were nothing more than a band of thieves with creative attire.  They all looked more or less the same, except for the one who was doing most of the talking, who had a garish red smile painted upon his ghostly, masked hood.  There was something nonsensical about it and it almost ruined the effect if seen up close, almost. 

 

“You’ve been preying on the locals,” Aragorn started to shake his head but quickly decided against it when he found out that he felt as if he had a rather large hangover.  “Stealing, waylaying, killing...”

 

“Ah, ah, ah,” the man in the painted hood, who seemed to be some kind of leader, waved his hand in correction.  “We haven’t killed no one.  Not yet.  And as for stealing... you must be mistaken... that be the wight’s doing... and us here, as you said, we’re just humble men like yourselves.” 

 

“There aren’t any wights in this scenario, just a bunch of thieving humans using the superstitions and fears of their own kind against them,” Legolas said coldly. 

 

“And I suppose you ain’t afraid of nothing...” one of the men holding Legolas from behind chuckled evilly, twisting the elf’s injured arm.  Legolas blanched but made no sound.

 

“Hey, enough of that,” the lead man shook his head disapprovingly.  “But now I seem to have a problem.  Namely, what do I do with you two?  And your friends once they’ve all joined us.”

 

Aragorn’s ears perked up a little at the mention of Halbarad and his brothers, and, he supposed, Bilbo, wherever the little hobbit had got to.  Obviously this had indeed been a trap, as he had suspected too late.  He hoped that his brothers fared better than they had. 

 

“I say we kill them now and drain their blood.  That ought to keep anyone from wanting to poke around after us,” one of the men holding Aragorn growled with an almost hungry blood-lust in his voice.  Many of the others murmured in support of this idea. 

 

The lead bandit tipped his head to the side as if thinking.  “That’s messy,” he shook his head.  “Besides, the instant you start killing people everyone begins to take it personal-like and you get the dratted heroes out in force.  There’s nothing more disruptive than someone stupid enough to not care about themselves, looking to rid the world of evil.”

 

“Then what do we do with them?” someone else shouted back, obviously not pleased with their leader’s decision on the subject.  “They can’t go free to tell everyone we’re a hoax!  You told us they were a threat, that’s why we did this.  Now we have to deal with it.”

 

“How *did* you know?” Aragorn asked.  “How did you know we were looking for you?”

 

“We have our contacts in town and they ain’t blind nor deaf.  Besides, little something I learned long ago.  If something seems too good to be true mate, it probably is.  It’s a might suspicious that any of the little folk would be traveling alone around here now, what with all the hoopla going on.  And one that happened to be known as eccentrically wealthy... well... it only took a little looking around to see what was really going on.  Don’t feel too bad for underestimating us friend, you’re in good company.  We thrive on the misperceptions of others.”  The man gave a mock bow.

 

Aragorn couldn’t see their captors’ faces, but the tone of the lead man told that he was grinning.  The ranger had to admit that it was true; these bandits had been far cleverer than he’d given them credit for. 

 

“Where did the little pip-squeak go anyways?” the man looked around as if considering this for the first time.  “Bolted I suppose.  Probably halfway home and blathering mad with fright.  You should have all seen the looks on your faces when we came out of the trees!” the man laughed out loud.  “Priceless.”

 

Neither Aragorn nor Legolas were very amused. 

 

Actually neither were the other bandits.  The plan had been that they would still get the hobbit and anything he was carrying, as well as the people who had laid the trap, but now it looked like they had gotten nothing out of this night but trouble. 

 

With a cry one of the bandits fell, clutching his leg which inexplicably had an arrow protruding from it.  Everyone started. 

 

“What the-” one of the thieves holding Legolas started, but never got to finish.  The elf prince grabbed their moment of surprise to swiftly bend forward and fling the man holding him over his back directly into the bandit who had been speaking a moment ago. 

 

The men holding Aragorn tensed and tightened their hold against his trying to jump up, but the ranger surprised them by doing the opposite of what they expected and dropped *down* closer to the ground.  Unprepared, the thieves lost hold of him as he rolled away from them. 

 

Elladan and Elrohir appeared on either side of the camp, wading swiftly into the sudden fray, followed by Halbarad.  Blood stains on Elladan’s tunic told that they had already seen some action somewhere else, but there was no time to wonder at the details right now, or to whom the blood belonged. 

 

The fake wights quickly decided that this situation had gone beyond their comfortable control and it was time to beat a tactical retreat.  They began pulling back, but the elves and the rangers pressed them hard, following after and not allowing them to escape. 

 

Legolas’ knives had been left on the ground where they fell, but they were back in his hands now and flashed as he dodged under one man’s swinging strokes.  However in the darkness, and with his senses still half-clouded, the prince’s foot caught on something, either the hem of the man’s robes, or a hidden tree root, the elf did not know and it did not matter.  The end result was that he could not pull out of his roll quick enough and ended up sprawled on his back for a moment with his defenses completely down. 

 

For a suspended instant, Legolas found himself staring up at the bandit with the red smile on his hood.  The man had his sword in hand as he nearly stumbled on the elf in his hurry to leave.  He had only to thrust his blade down to give a killing blow, and there was no way Legolas could stop him in time from his position.  The prince realized in the sickening half-instant he had to register what had happened that this tumble had just cost him his life. 

 

The bandit’s sword went instinctively up and forward... but he hesitated.  Rather than complete his swing into the elf’s unprotected chest he simply turned aside, vanishing into the trees and the chaos. 

 

Suddenly there was another loud explosion and Legolas covered his ears, closing his eyes this time now that he knew the after-effect it could have.  When he opened his eyes again an eerie peace had fallen over the woods, as if the blast had blown all the fighting away.  Picking himself up, Legolas saw Elladan doing the same not far away.  Halbarad was shaking his head to clear the ringing and Elrohir was sitting in the long grasses gingerly pressing his hands against the sides of his head, a grimace on his face as he tried to rub the pain out of his eardrums. 

 

All of the bandit-wights were gone, having used the opportunity of their last diversion to vanish without a trace. 

 

When Legolas realized he didn’t see Aragorn he scrambled fully upright and looked around a little harder, stumbling to keep his balance.  He was momentarily relieved when he heard a small moan a little ways off through the trees and caught sight of motion.  He hurried over to it, but what the elf found was not what he expected.

 

A crumpled heap of white, luminescent fabric, looking for all the world like a discarded rag-doll, moved sluggishly on the forest floor.  The mask with the red smile on it had been twisted around by the blast until it was on sideways, giving a very ridiculous effect. 

 

Legolas quickly knelt, placing his knife against the bandit’s throat this time.  Pulling the man’s hood off in one quick motion he revealed a deeply tanned, oval face framed with long, disheveled ebony hair matched by two dark eyes.  The hair was pulled back from the human’s face in a multitude of finger-width braids that looked like they had not been redone in a long time.  The braids were in turn kept out of his eyes by a dark green scarf wrapped around the bandit’s head. 

 

The man flinched and raised his hand against the sudden infusion of moonlight, faint though it was.  He seemed singularly undisturbed by his present situation for the most part, but Legolas couldn’t be sure that that was not because of shock from the blast they had all been caught in for the second time that evening.

 

“Great...” the bandit muttered, “I can have a hangover with none of the benefits... ouch, easy there!” he protested when Legolas dragged him upright. 

 

“Who are you?” the elf demanded. 

 

“Kaldur’s the name, Kaldur DeCahr, friends call me Kal, and other people call me things I wouldn’t repeat...”

 

“What are you doing here?” Legolas cut him off.

 

“Well how-do-you-do it’s nice to make your acquaintance as well,” Kaldur carried on a mock conversation with himself since Legolas seemed unwilling to oblige.  “What do you think I’m doin’ here?  Picking daisies?  Obviously someone’s aim was a little off on that last fireball.  Don’t think they expected you to put up such a fight.”

 

“I guess we’re not the only ones to underestimate someone else,” Legolas said quietly as he guided the prisoner to his feet.  The bandit was at least a head shorter than the elf and the prince easily pulled the smaller man upright, pushing Kaldur ahead of him.  Without the hooded mask it was easy to see that the human was a little younger than Aragorn and slighter in build than the ranger.  He wore a thin mustache and the shadow of a beard on his face, lending to the overall scruffiness of his appearance.

 

“So it would seem,” the bandit agreed ruefully.  “Although I mark that I’ve *over* estimated the accuracy of some of my men.  People should watch where they’re throwing things...  Look, I think this is all a big misunderstanding,” Kaldur smiled ingratiatingly at the elf.  “There’s no reason you want little old me hanging around you...” he looked pointedly at the knife the elf was still holding close to him. 

 

“You’re a thief and a highwayman, I see no misunderstanding.  Now quiet,” Legolas shook his head as they made their way back to the others.  The elf was trying to listen to the night and catch any sounds of their fleeing attackers, but the constant babbling at his side was making it difficult.  Nor was it helping his headache.

 

Kaldur could not seem to take a hint.  “But no real harm’s been done here.  Why, all we did was dress up and have a little chat with you gentlemen!”

 

“Quiet.”  Legolas repeated the command, beginning to become irritated. 

 

“But I ask you, did I take anything from you?  No. So where’s the thievery in that?” the man protested.  “Now I don’t really want to go back to wherever it is you want to take me to get my neck stretched or my blood boiled by a bunch of superstitious fobs, and I’m sure you don’t want to have to be stuck with me for any longer than you have to, so why don’t we just-”

 

“Shut up!” Legolas snapped, his temper not improved by the night’s events, nor the painful pounding that was building between his temples from having been too close to too many explosions. 

 

The bandit clamed up with an innocent shrug.  “Why don’t we just be quiet then,” he finished amiably. 

 

Legolas rolled his eyes in disgust as he tied Kaldur’s hands behind him with the trailing end of the man’s own, torn costume.  Forcing the bandit to sit down he did the same to his ankles.  “Move, and I’ll kill you,” the prince warned calmly. 

 

“Elrohir, you all right?” Legolas asked when he saw that the younger of the two twins was still holding his ears and looking a little dazed.   

 

“What?”  Elrohir shook his head, wincing.  His voice was louder than usual and a disturbing red trickle of blood ran from his right ear down his neck. 

 

“I asked if you were all right,” Legolas repeated. 

 

Elrohir’s brows furrowed. “What?  Legolas, I’m sorry, I can barely hear you, my ears are still ringing.”

 

Legolas let his breath out slowly.  That answered his question then.  Elrohir was definitely not all right.

 

“Estel!” Elladan’s voice calling his brother’s name caught Legolas’ attention.  “Estel!”

 

Legolas looked around, realizing that he still did not see Aragorn anywhere.  A thrill of panic shot through him for the dozenth time that evening.  “Elladan, where is Strider?”

 

“I don’t know,” Elladan was obviously disturbed and worried. Turning quickly back in the direction he had been headed he pointed to a stand of thick trees. “He was fighting over there last I saw him, but that was before that last blast of devilry.  ESTEL!”

 

“He’s not here,” Halbarad reappeared from somewhere in the woods, although they had not marked his leaving.  The ranger’s voice was grim.  “He’s not anywhere in these woods.  It’s too dark to be reading signs, but if I could take a guess I’d say our friends in the bed sheets somehow managed to take off with him.  I found this,” he dropped Aragorn’s unsheathed and bloodied sword on the ground at the elves’ feet.  “On the ground outside the trees.  There was blood out there too, but it’s impossible to tell whose.”

 

Legolas and Elladan looked at one another, dread gnawing at their hearts. 

 

“What?  What did he say?” Elrohir’s face paled as he saw the expression on his brother and his friend’s face.  It was terribly frustrating only catching murmurs and whispers and every other sound; especially for one used to very acute hearing. 

 

The captive bandit lounged sideways against the tree, looking as much at ease as a man could when trussed up as tightly as he was.  “He said your friend is with my friends, just like I am with you.  Kind of puts the shoe on a whole new foot, doesn’t it?”  The man seemed considerably more relieved and cocky now that he knew this. 

 

Elladan stooped and dragged the bandit partway up by the front of his shirt.  “Nothing had better happen to my brother, do you understand me?!  Nothing!”  The elf shook the human roughly. 

 

When the elder twin did this Legolas saw his back for the first time and realized that the blood he had first seen on Elladan’s tunic when they jumped into the fray must definitely be the elf’s.  The back of Elladan’s tunic had been badly burned and shredded by something... Legolas assumed he must have been caught pretty close to one of those exploding boxes before they even got here. 

 

Tonight had not gone well; not by any stretch of the imagination.  Almost all of them were wounded in one way or another and they were missing two of their members, one of whom looked to have very probably been captured by their attackers... that thought made Legolas feel sick.

 

“Calm down friend,” the bandit pulled back a little from Elladan’s grip.  “Blowing a gasket ain’t gonna help no one.”

 

“I’m not your friend,” Elladan growled, releasing the man with a small shove.  Worry for his brother consumed him. 

 

“See that’s the trouble with the world today, no one wants to befriend anyone...” Kaldurlamented mournfully.

 

“Shut up!” Three sets of voices spoke in irritated chorus.  Elrohir did not speak because of course he still could not really hear what everyone was saying to begin with. 

 

“Fine, if that’s the way you feel about it then...” the man mumbled under his breath.

 

“We’ve got to find him, get him back,” Legolas said decidedly.  “Halbarad, could you tell which way the trail went?”

 

The ranger wrested his gaze away from the captive bandit, shaking his head regretfully.  “Not in this light.  Maybe you will see something I’ve missed though.”

 

“Not likely...” Kaldur muttered quietly.  All eyes turned toward him.  “What?  Oh, I know, I know, shut up, right?  Fine.”

 

Legolas dropped down onto one knee before the man, meeting his dark eyes evenly.  “Where will your people go?  Where will they take my friend?  Tell us.”

 

“Oh so now you *do* want me to talk.  I do wish you’d make up your mind...”

 

“I am tired of playing games!” Legolas pressed one of the knives still in his hands sharply against the captive’s throat.  “Where do your men hide?  Where will they take him!?”

 

“What you going to do with that lad?  Eh?” the man looked down at the knife at his throat, getting slightly cross-eyed from trying to see it.  “Going to kill me?  Then you’ll never find out where they are, *and* you’ll have nothing to bargain for his return with either.  So go ahead and kill me, it’s your friend’s funeral.”

 

Legolas’ knuckles tightened on his knife handle in frustration.  Unfortunately, Kaldurwas right.  Infuriating human. 

 

“What do we do now?” Halbarad asked quietly.  The question was directed at no one in particular, but merely voicing what was on all of their minds.

 

“Very good question,” Kaldurspoke up helpfully.  “Now if you think about it logically for a minute you’d realize I *would* die before I gave up any of my people to you or anyone else.  So if you were to ask my opinion, I would say your best course of action is to make camp somewhere nearby and keep a close eye on me so I don’t escape.  Then my men will come to you looking for me and you can trade me for your friend, and everyone goes home happy, clear ‘nough?”

 

Elladan leaned against a nearby tree, resting his head sideways against his arm.  The gesture was less than casual.  His injuries were catching up with him.  He sighed slightly.  He didn’t like Kaldur’s suggestion but he was having difficulty seeing an alternative. 

 

“Legolas?” The elder twin looked to the prince for input and suggestions.  The wood-elf shook his head.  He had neither. 

 

“Perhaps when daylight comes we shall be able to better track them,” Was all Legolas could suggest.  “Until then, we *will* keep a close eye on you, don’t worry,” he assured Kaldur grimly. 

 

Halbarad left the decision up to the elves because he had no viable alternatives to offer either, although the thought of Aragorn in enemy hands did not sit any better with him than with the others.  He moved over to guard Kaldur, freeing Legolas to go to the twins. 

 

Elladan had moved to his brother’s side, worry lining every feature.  Elrohir was still kneeling quietly although he had stopped holding his head.  By now he realized that something was wrong and had stopped trying to hear what everyone was saying, trusting that his friends or his brother would fill him in soon.  Unease at his own impairment made the younger twin’s brows furrow.  At first when consciousness had returned he had been able to hear a little bit although the sounds were muffled and distorted.  But as he had been given time to recover, his hearing had grown worse rather than better and now he sat in a world of utter quiet, unable to even hear himself.  It was frightening and that fear numbed his mind.

 

“Elladan, where is Estel?  What’s going on?” Elrohir begged his brother to explain to him the things he was missing as Elladan knelt down next to him. 

 

Legolas joined them as Elladan directed his twin’s face towards his own with gentle pressure from the back of his hand.  “Estel has been taken.  We will get him back, I promise.”  The elder twin tried to speak very clearly, moving his lips more than necessary and making hand motions to illustrate. 

 

Elrohir nodded, catching the meaning, if not the words.  His gaze dropped for a moment and when he looked back up, uncertainty edged his eyes.  “El...” he whispered.  “I can’t hear you.  At all.  I can’t even hear me.”

 

Elladan closed his eyes painfully and pulled his brother’s head to his shoulder.  “It will be all right El,” he promised softly, even though he knew his brother couldn’t hear him.  At least Elrohir could feel the vibrations of his brother’s words as his head rested against his twin’s chest.  “We’ll get you back to father soon, he will be able to help you, he has to be.”

 

Legolas caught Elladan’s shoulders supportively as the elf wavered slightly, trying to support himself and his twin. 

 

“You need some help too Elladan,” the prince said softly.  For once it seemed that Legolas was actually the least injured of the three elves.  “Halbarad,” the wood-elf turned his searching gaze upon the ranger who was the only other mostly-uninjured person.  “We must make camp, but not here.  Somewhere safer, but close.  Elladan and Elrohir need attention and we must try to find Bilbo, if he was not found and taken with Aragorn.”

 

Halbarad nodded in compliance as he got Kaldur to his feet while Legolas helped the twins.  There was a lot to be answered for this night.

 

 

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

 

 

Aragorn blinked slowly.  It was the second time that night he felt himself slowly coming back to consciousness after having been knocked out or almost out of it by one of those strange explosions. 

 

He tried to put his hand to his aching head, but he couldn’t.  He could feel someone near, but in the darkness and with his vision blurred he couldn’t see them. 

 

“Legolas?” the ranger murmured somewhat thickly, trying to find his friend as the moments leading up to the last blast came back to him in shattered glimpses and chunks. 

 

“Nope, guess again,” a hard and somewhat amused voice spoke close to Aragorn’s ear, making the man jerk.  The ranger quickly became aware of the feeling of rough rope digging into his wrists as he tried to move away from the unknown presence. 

 

A torch was nearly shoved in his face and Aragorn winced, trying to draw his head away from the painfully sudden light.  Unfortunately he found that he was lying on his side on the ground, bound tightly and he could not move away.  A host of dark shapes hovered round him, half-obscured by the bright torch that was illuminating him and hiding those who held it although he assumed they were more than likely the same brigands who had attacked them earlier.

 

“Who are you?  Where am I?” Aragorn demanded, trying and failing to clearly see any of his captors around the blinding glare of the torch by his face. 

 

“You’re in the land of the un-dead friend,” the voice close to him responded cryptically.  “And you’re ours.”

 

Aragorn felt a shiver run up his spine as the bandits laughed; the hard tones of their mirth echoing threateningly on the night air. 

 

Chapter Text

 

~*PART EIGHT*~

 

 

 

Legolas expertly wrapped his own arm with his good hand.  The cut was not deep or dangerous, and although it stung it would not seriously hamper his ability to use his arm, or fight, if necessary. 

 

Elrohir moved around his brother’s form quietly.  He had insisted on tending Elladan’s burns and cuts himself.  As soon as Legolas had his own injury bound up so that he was no longer trailing blood everywhere, he was going to lend Elrohir a hand.  

 

The younger twin seemed to be coming out of the semi-shock he had been in, although his hearing had not improved.  That worried Legolas.  They had all experienced ringing in their ears after the blast, but it seemed to have done something worse to Elrohir. 

 

“You might want to tuck that edge in,” Kaldur remarked as Legolas twisted the bandage around his arm one last time.  “You’ll leave an opening for the air otherwise.”  They had removed the bandit’s ghoulish costume and unbound his feet to ease their traveling, but his hands were now securely bound in front of him.  Dark tangles of unkempt hair fell about his face lending more of a wild unpredictability to the thief’s appearance.  The man wore an overlarge ill-fitting white tunic held in place by a brown suede vest.  His dark colored breeches were secured about his waist with a tattered sash.  He smiled up at the elf through locks and braids of hair that obscured his eyes.

 

Legolas leveled the man with a look that seemed to inquire who had asked his opinion, but Kaldur was un-phased and the elf was beginning to realize that the man’s somewhat irritating detachment from reality had nothing to do with the effects of the explosion. 

 

“Just a suggestion,” Kaldur shrugged and went back to quietly sing-songing nonsense verses to himself.  Legolas was beginning to think that the human was insane; either that or somehow unexplainably drunk.  With another warning glare at Kaldur, Legolas scooted closer to the other two elves. 

 

Elladan hissed silently through his teeth as Elrohir spread salve across the burns on his back.  The injury was not severe, but Legolas was sure it was very painful.  He had had more than a fair share of burns in his life, including the one on his cheek from the flaming arrow, which he had almost forgotten all about until Elrohir offered him a dab of the salve he was using on his brother, gesturing at the prince’s face.

 

“Strider and I were attacked by surprise, the strange fire bursts threw us off guard.  What happened to the three of you?” Legolas asked as he rubbed the ointment over the reddened area on his cheekbone.

 

Elrohir did not hear him and did not look up from his self-appointed task, so it was Elladan who answered.  “Much the same thing.  I think one of the blasts must have gone off right behind me.  I don’t know how they do it, but those things are dangerous.”

 

“So I have noticed,” Legolas turned a hard eye on Kaldur who was watching them all with interest from across the fire.  “Kaldur, what are those small devices that your people use?”

 

“What devices?” Kaldur’s dead-pan was impeccable, although he obviously knew exactly what they were talking about.  Legolas and Elladan both glared at him.

 

“Oohh, right, *those* devices,” the bandit pretended to catch on.  “Well I’d be glad to tell you what was in ‘em, but I don’t know me self.  Got them from a dark fairy up in the mountains who eats fire and lives on the essence of the souls she’s corrupted... demanded a pound of flesh from each of us in return.  Oh you should a heard the howling and the-”

 

“Please,” Elladan cut him off, looking disgusted.  “Spare us the drama and don’t take us for idiots.  What are they really?”

 

“Dredged up from the bottom of the sea in distant lands... the play things of the water gods...” Kaldur easily spun a new and equally unbelievable story for them with a wide grin. 

 

“Oh never mind!  We’ll get nothing useful out of him,” Legolas saved them from another fanciful flight of imagination on Kaldur’s part. 

 

“That’s the ticket, now you’re catching on!” the thief grinned irritatingly. 

 

“Catching on to what?  That we should have put a dart in you when we had the chance?” Halbarad said somewhat tersely as he entered camp from the north side, dropping down into a crouch to talk with the elves. 

 

“I can find less trace of Bilbo than I found even of Aragorn, but it seems that he went away alone, to the north.  However, if he was picked up later I could not say because I did not follow the trail far,” the ranger reported. 

 

“We can’t leave him out there alone,” Legolas said quietly.  “Strider promised to protect him and I know he would want that promise fulfilled even in his absence.”

 

Halbarad nodded uneasily.  He knew the same thing, but he feared what that meant.  He did not wish to leave with Aragorn’s fate uncertain.  “Any of you could track him just as well as I can, probably better...”

 

Elladan read the hesitation in the man’s eyes.  “Halbarad you’re the only one fit to be out there alone right now.  Besides, Elrohir has got to get back to father and I cannot send him off by himself.  I thought he could go with you...”

 

Elrohir had been following the conversation visually, although it made little sense without sound.  When thought he saw his brother say his name however, he quickly touched Elladan’s shoulder.  “What?  What did you say?”

 

Elladan sighed slightly, knowing his twin would protest.  “Elrohir, I said I want you to go with Halbarad.  He’s going to find Bilbo and then go back to Rivendell.”  The elder twin lightly touched his fingertips to Elrohir’s temple, using the other hand to gesture as he spoke.  Whether it was that they had inherited latent traces of telepathic ability from their mother and father, or simply the bond of their twinship, Elladan seemed at the moment to be able to make Elrohir understand him better than anyone else could if he stopped and focused in on his brother when he talked, making physical contact as well as eye contact. 

 

Elrohir was already shaking his head.  “No, I will not leave.  You cannot make me El; I am not a child for you to send away.  I am not going anywhere until we get Estel back.”

 

“El...” Elladan’s gaze was worried.  “There could be something really wrong with you.  Don’t you understand that?  We have no idea what the matter is, what if you lose your hearing forever because we didn’t get you help in time?  I can’t allow it.”

 

Elrohir just smiled and started packing up the salve and bandages he had been using, easily pulling away from his brother’s hand and any chance of attempted communication.  “I can’t hear you El, and you’re talking too fast for me to follow,” he said somewhat smugly.  “But that’s all right; I agree.  It is best for me to stay here to help you two.  After all, there’s no way you could force me to go if I didn’t want to anyway.” 

 

Kaldur laughed loudly.  “By gol, I think I like him!”

 

Elladan looked fit to burst.  “Stars Elrohir!  You’re getting as frustrating as he is!” he shouted at his brother, which didn’t help because Elrohir still couldn’t hear him. 

 

“Shh, wait, losing our tempers won’t help anyone.”  Legolas laid his hand on Elladan’s arm, attempting to diffuse the rising controversy.  “Maybe Elrohir’s right.  I don’t want to see him hurt either, but we have the prisoner to think about guarding and if Halbarad runs into trouble hunting Bilbo he may not be able to return to Lord Elrond any quicker than we can.  If Kaldur knows his men as well as he thinks he does, they should be getting in touch with us soon and we’ll proceed from there, agreed?”

 

Elladan did not look pleased, but he nodded.  “All right, agreed.”

 

Elrohir smiled.  “Good!”

 

Elladan looked at him sharply.  “I thought you couldn’t hear us *brother*.”

 

Elrohir shrugged with a grin.  “I can’t, but I can tell from your look that you lost.”

 

“Thanks a lot,” Elladan muttered. 

 

Legolas actually chuckled softly at them. 

 

“I will either return or send someone once I have any word of Bilbo,” Halbarad said quietly, hating to go but knowing he had better start as soon as possible.  “I know that if I cannot help, at least I could leave Strider’s safety in no better hands.”

 

Legolas nodded, rising and following the ranger to the edge of camp.  They had settled themselves securely in small, rocky dell, steeply enclosed on two sides by rough rock walls, and the two of them had to climb up a little to get out. 

 

The elf respected the man’s devotion to duty.  Legolas wasn’t sure that he could have done the same this time if it was required of him.  Not after everything he and Aragorn had been through... after the lengths that Aragorn had gone to save the elf prince, both from the shadow of Mordor and his own despair.  “Go with the blessing of the Valar, Halbarad.  I do not know you as well as the others, but I hope you know that I would trade my life for Aragorn’s, if it came to that.” 

 

“I think I do know it,” Halbarad nodded.  “And from the things Aragorn has said of you I believe it.”

 

The ranger left then and Kaldur grinned ingratiatingly at Legolas as the elf dropped lightly down the rock wall and re-entered the camp.  The thief rose to his feet with some difficulty since he did not have the use of his hands.  “Well, that’s all settled then.  So what do we do now?”

 

Legolas glared at the insufferable human and gave him a small push backward.  “*You* are going to remain *silent* and not leave this circle of firelight.”

 

The thief blinked and tilted his head to the side as Legolas turned away.  “Why would I want to do that?”

 

The elf prince turned back slowly.  “Because if you do not, I will shoot you.”  He said quietly.  “And enjoy doing it, so take care.”

 

“Well if you feel that way about it...” Kaldurgave an injured look as if hurt by that statement and flopped back down onto the ground.  As soon as Legolas’ back was turned he made a face, miming the elf’s motions to him a moment ago.  “I will shoot you and enjoy doing it, so take care,” he mimicked almost silently, raising his voice and exaggerating the prince’s gestures. 

 

Elrohir saw and clapped his hand over his mouth.  He tried not to laugh, but it didn’t work. 

 

Legolas sensed something was wrong and spun quickly around, but Kaldur quickly dropped his act and pulled one knee up to his chest, resting his bound hands and chin on it and looking up at the elf very innocently, although his smile was anything but blameless. 

 

The elf prince shook his head and stalked away to the edge of the firelight, peering out into the night.  He hoped that Aragorn was all right. 

 

 

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

 

 

Aragorn was sitting up now and more fully aware of his surroundings.  He was in a well-provisioned cave that seemed to be hidden somewhere in the hills around the Barrow Downs, although his captors had made sure he didn’t know where and could not find out from where he was seated.  Torchlight illuminated the cave and members of the bandit clan were still drifting in after the night’s foray.  There were only about nine or ten of them that Aragorn could count and he was slightly surprised when he began to realize that was all there were.  It took a lot of brains and a certain amount of luck to pull off the things these men had been doing with such a small number.  Most all of the men had removed their costumes by now and were dressed in normal clothes, although a few of them still wore random pieces such as gloves or a sash that they had yet to remove. 

 

Aragorn was sitting next to the pile of glimmering robes and leaned over for a closer look.  They were just ordinary fabric, but now that he was up close he smelled the distinctive mineral smell of a certain kind of phosphorous stone that could sometimes be found up in the mountains.  He remembered his brothers showing it to him when he was young.  Oftentimes the twins would bring some home with them from their outings and entertain young Estel by using Elrond’s tools to create a thin paste from the stones which could then be painted on just about anything to make it glow faintly in the dark. 

 

The ranger smiled.  Yes, it could be put on *anything* and since this was he and his brothers using it, it *had* gone on just about *everything*... sometimes much to their father’s chagrin.  Aragorn pulled himself back to the present.  At least this explained part of the mystery.  Looking around he tried to determine what other pieces of information he could pick up.

 

In a shadowy corner the ranger saw several of those dangerous little exploding black boxes stacked on a work table along with various components that must have been used to create them, although he could not divine the function or purpose of any of them.

 

A little ways behind him, a fire built in a naturally venting alcove burned brightly upon the floor and the ranger could feel the warmth on his back. 

 

The bandits seemed to be arguing amongst themselves and it was getting pretty heated.  Aragorn remained quiet and listened, hoping to hear something useful.

 

“I did *not* hear Kaldur or any body else bloody call for that last explosion.  Nearly took us out with them!  I want to know who got fire happy, we can’t just go wasting these things, you all know how hard they are to make and we ain’t got much of the stones left!” one of the bandits was saying angrily. 

 

“We got away didn’t we?  So it doesn’t matter who did what.  It worked!”

 

Aragorn recognized the voice of the man who had spoken to him when he first woke.

 

“Not all of us Losmir.  There’s no doubt about it now, those blasted elves have got the boss.  Bentith saw ‘em with his own eyes.  They’re probably holding him in exchange for this one,” the man speaking jerked his head towards Aragorn. 

 

“They’re holding him to bait us into the open so they can grab us all!  That’s been their intention since coming out here, don’t you see?  Kaldur had no idea what he was doing leading us after them, we should have just left well enough alone and let them chase shadows.” Losmir fumed. 

 

“Well then what are we going to do?  We can’t just leave Kaldur to be turned over to the townspeople alone,” a young man with wavy dark hair and a youthful face protested. 

 

“Would you rather hang with him Thil?” Losmir’s voice was cutting.  “Oh, but I forgot, everyone hereabouts has it in their heads we’re some kind of mythical monsters, so they won’t hang us if they catch us, oh no, they’ll burn us alive to make sure we’re really dead like they did that poor sap everyone was convinced was a wolf-man!”

 

All the bandits blanched. 

 

“We can’t let ‘em do that to Kal,” Thil protested, shaking his head. 

 

“Let Kaldur worry about himself I says!” Losmir thundered persuasively.  “Do you think he’d risk his neck for any of us?  You know the way it works.  If you can’t pull your own weight you’re cut, that’s it.  We ain’t no bloody charity.  Kaldur knew the risks.  We don’t *need* him.  Who brought you the fireboxes, hm?  Was it him?  No!  It was me.  But who was it that let those trouble makers live to cause us grief when they should have died right away?  That was him.  He had his usefulness, but now he’s getting soft on us.  We’ve had enough of his rules and his so-called ‘honorable thievery’ if you ask me.  It’s time to take what we want, any way we want.  We have the power!  Besides, do you really think there’s any way we can let this one go from here alive?”  It was Losmir’s turn to gesture to Aragorn.  “He’s seen our hideout!  He and the others, they know what we are... they can’t take that knowledge away with them.”

 

The bandits were listening and obviously supportive as Losmir played on their greed and their arrogance.  Whether any of them could see it or not, it was obvious to Aragorn that the one called Losmir held no love for their leader, this Kaldur, who apparently was being held by Legolas and his brothers.  The ranger realized some kind of coup was underway.  The implied threat to his friends’ safety was also very clear and he listened intently, slowly edging himself backward, towards the fire behind him.  He had a feeling he was going to need to get out of here, and soon. 

 

“Then what exactly *are* you suggesting we do Losmir,” someone else asked a trifle skeptically. 

 

“One big blast.  They’re camped over in pebble gulch, Marik tracked them to where they’re holed up tonight.  One good blast on either side’ll burry ‘em deep.  And then a landslide killed them, see?  No inquiries, no vigilantes seeking justice... it was just an accident.”  Losmir seemed overly pleased with his own plan.  “*And* that way they never know we’re there.  So if they’ve got some more surprises hidden up their sleeves, they’ll never have a chance to play ‘em.”

 

“That’ll kill Kal too,” Thil felt inclined to point out quietly. 

 

Losmir’s gaze darkened and he almost looked ready to slap the younger man.  “It’s better than the alternative of him being brought in alive to face the town, now isn’t it?  And we don’t need him anymore, he’s just becoming dead wood to us... another portion of our loot we don’t need to share.  Does anyone have a problem with that?”

 

No one seemed to, except perhaps Thil, but even he did not speak up.  It seemed that a decision had been reached.

 

Aragorn was now sitting on one edge of the fire ring.  Holding his bound hands out behind him a little, he attempted to get the ropes near the fire.  The heat singed his hands and made his back uncomfortably hot, but the ranger didn’t pull back.  He had to get out of here and warn the others. 

 

As abruptly as it had started, the bandits’ meeting seemed to end and Aragorn was not pleased to see several of them, including Losmir, heading his way. 

 

Losmir dropped down next to the ranger with a wicked grin on his face.  “Well friend, I wouldn’t want to be you right now...” he remarked, pulling the dagger from his belt and slowly running his thumb suggestively up the edge of the blade.  “Because I’d be thinking I was a dead man, and I’d be right.  But I’d also be wondering how they were gonna end it, seeing as they might just want to have a little fun in the process.”  The bandit’s grin turned vicious. 

 

Aragorn glared steadily back at the men that stood around him, his eyes not betraying the cold knot of fear forming in his gut.  “You’re fools you know.  My friends will not be killed as easily as you think and you will have betrayed your leader for nothing.”

 

Losmir smirked, running the blade lightly along Aragorn’s chin line, letting the flat of the knife brush smoothly over the ranger’s stubble.  “But you’ll still be dead, won’t you?” he whispered with dark amusement.  “And don’t tell me you’re not afraid because you are... I can smell fear.”

 

Aragorn could think of a few choice words about what the man was smelling, but kept them wisely to himself as Losmir pushed him backwards, placing him even more uncomfortably close to the fire.  Despite the pain, Aragorn thrust his hands back a little farther, forcing the ropes into the flames.  Twisting his wrists hard he could feel the singeing rope beginning to weaken, popping free a few strands at a time... but so slow!

 

“You heard what the townsfolk’d do to us... maybe we should do the same for you.  Turn about is fair play after all.”  The bandit smirked, pushing Aragorn further back, almost into the fire.  “What do you say boys?  Should we burn him?”

 

A rousing cheer to the affirmative answered his question and Losmir leered down into Aragorn’s tense face and pained grey eyes.  He swung around until he was kneeling over the ranger, straddling Aragorn’s legs and holding the front of his shirt so that he could pin and press the other man further into the fire.  “Too bad for you.”

 

Chapter Text

___________________________________________________________

 

~*PART NINE*~

 

 

Aragorn felt the hot flames leap up against him as Losmir shoved him back and down. He cried out as the searing tongues licked up around him hungrily, but at the same moment the singed ropes around his wrists finally gave way and snapped.

 

Circling his arms swiftly, Aragorn grabbed Losmir by the front of the shirt and lifted him enough to bring his knees up, catching the bandit in the stomach with his boots and propelling him over Aragorn’s head. Losmir was flung clear over the fire and slammed into the stone wall behind with an audible thud.

 

Quickly rolling out of the flames, Aragorn leapt to his feet. There was not a moment to lose. All the bandits were now upon him, trying to bring him down. Aragorn was unarmed, but he thought quickly. Grabbing a handful of the small black boxes off the table where he had seen them before, he threw them into the fire that had a few moments ago been meant for him. He didn’t really know what, if any, effect it would have, but he hoped... and he hoped right.

 

The bandits scattered in terror when they saw what he had done, knowing better than Aragorn did what would happen in a few moments.

 

The ranger used the opportunity to join the mad scramble to the exit. He had a moment half in, half out of the cave mouth to take in the rolling, rocky hills of the Barrow Downs with its jagged, teeth-like stones protruding out from the eroding earth before a huge explosion from behind shook the ground, sending rocks, sparks and debris flying everywhere. Thrown forward, but expecting it this time, Aragorn landed hard and rolled. A second explosion followed the first, and it seemed that not all the boxes had gone off at once. Dust billowed into the grey, pre-dawn air but Aragorn did not care to wait for the dust to settle enough for any of the choking, stunned and enraged bandits to find him. Taking swiftly to his heels, the ranger disappeared into the jutting rocks and ancient burial mounds.

 

Dew from the thick night mists that were now mostly passed clung to the grass and the dripping, moldy stones making Aragorn have to be wary of his footing. The craggy Barrows all around held all the eeriness and none of the peace of a normal graveyard, but the ranger tried to pay them as little mind as possible. He had very real enemies to be concerned with at the moment; he hardly needed to worry about slumbering phantasms.

 

The ranger slipped backwards on the slick grass and had to catch himself on his hands and knees when the earth under his feet shook with another distant explosion. There was loud creaking and grinding of stone as the earth shifted in response to the tremors. Further back on the hill next to him, the ranger saw one of the crumbling stone Barrows topple over from the strain of the shock and collapse in on itself.

 

Amidst the grinding of settling stone, Aragorn swore that he heard a low, rending groan or growl which seemed to shake the earth itself yet again and the fading night mists thickened slightly. For a brief moment the ranger felt the shadow of a dark and terrible terror fall across his heart, one that had nothing to do with the bandits and his narrow escape.

 

Then the first rays of the rising sun began to peek across the eastern horizon, burning away the mists as it slowly began to light the sky.

 

Scrambling quickly to his feet once more Aragorn hurried on as fast as his legs would carry him. He could hear the shouting and cursing of the bandits behind him as they tried to figure out which way he had gone. He had no desire to be there when they discovered his path of escape.

 

 

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

 

 

Legolas crouched on a ridge overlooking both their camp and the valley on the other side as he watched the first inklings of the dawn begin to grow above the misty mountains in the east. But his heart could not feel much joy at its beauty today. He was too worried. They had heard no word at all through the long night about Aragorn, and although he supposed that didn’t necessarily mean that the bandits *weren’t* going to contact them, he was still uneasy.

 

He had taken the first watch, letting Elladan and Elrohir sleep, but had never bothered to wake them and stood guard all night. The prince knew that Aragorn would probably chide him for that if he were here; the ranger often took issue with Legolas’ tendency to avoid sleeping when the prince was troubled or distressed, although Legolas’ strong elvish constitution made it perfectly all right for him to do so on occasion. But Aragorn was not here, and that was in fact the reason for the elf’s restlessness. Not long ago he had heard strange sound from a far distance off, like thunder coming from the direction of the Barrow Downs. That had only heightened his unease, and as the sun rose he found himself becoming more agitated at the lack of knowledge about his friend’s fate.

 

Elladan and Elrohir slept on, despite being usually early risers, and Legolas let them rest. He knew their healing bodies needed the extra time. Kaldur however, was already awake, much to Legolas’ annoyance.

 

The bandit had been amusing himself by walking along the perimeter of the camp, intentionally going just to the edges of the now fading circle of light cast by the fire, but never crossing over it.

 

Legolas watched the human from where he sat, his bow resting on his knees and a quiet, irritated glower on his face. He had just about had enough of the human’s testing and taunting. The fellow refused to be a proper prisoner at all, acting as if they were all one big happy party and it was only incidental that he was bound and being guarded. There was something supremely unnerving about that.

 

Kaldur stretched as much as he could with his hands tied and yawned. “I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m about ready for breakfast. Don’t you think they’ve been sleeping long enough?” he nodded towards the twins. “It’s the early bird gets the worm they say.”

 

Legolas’ expression did not change although he shifted his grip on his bow. “No, I do not think they’ve slept enough considering they are still recovering from injuries that you and your people gave them. If the early bird gets the worm, then you may feel free to partake of that breakfast.”

 

Kaldur laughed as if it was a good joke, which in a way it was, although it had not particularly been meant with much humor. “Ah, you’ve got a sense of humor under all those frowns after all friend!” He clambered easily up the rock face and flopped down so he was sitting on the stone right next to Legolas, leaning casually against the prince. The elf shifted away a little. Kaldur grinned.

 

“You don’t like me,” the human observed pleasantly.

 

“I don’t know you,” Legolas corrected. “However you are not inspiring an overwhelming desire in me to change that situation, if that’s what you’re asking.”

 

Kaldur made a face. “Gol, how can you *talk* like that this early in the morning? Does it come natural or have you been thinking it up all night? Oh, oh there you go. Now you’re giving me the angry eyebrows again,” he sighed over-dramatically when Legolas frowned at him.

 

Legolas didn’t bother trying to make sense of the man’s motives for his words anymore. It was a waste of time since he didn’t seem to have any. “Why didn’t you kill me?” the elf asked instead, as much from actual curiosity as to try to give the conversation some real direction since Kaldur seemed intent on having a conversation to begin with.

 

“Like I told the men, too messy,” Kaldur waved the question off easily.

 

“No,” Legolas shook his head. “Not then. Afterwards. In the fight. You could have easily killed me, why didn’t you?”

 

The bandit tipped his head to the side. “I’m not a killer mate. I told you both that last night and it’s true. However, if you take me in ta face those townspeople all by me self I may be regretting it, eh?” His light attitude did not change, despite the momentary sparkle of real fear in his dark eyes but for one brief moment the elf was gifted with the rare chance to see the real man behind the irritating nonchalance. The bandit’s dark eyes held more than his idiotic act betrayed. These were not the eyes of one as young as he looked, they held a world-weariness, a knowledge of things that a soul so less in years than Legolas should not have had.

 

This one who sat next to the elf had seen much in his short life span and though he oft acted the imbecile there was a quickness, a smartness that marked a liveliness to his very being that hadn’t been quenched by the life he had lived thus far. Kaldur was more than he seemed Legolas realized with mild surprise. The curtain fell just as quickly as it had been allowed to be unmasked and the dark haired man smiled impishly at the elf once more.

 

Legolas looked away. Humans could be so complicated... they could go through so much in their short lifetimes that it sometimes boggled the elf and made him wonder how they survived it all.

 

“But no fear of that, right?” Kaldur said cheerily. “Because you need your friend back, and my friends need me back. So it all works out in the end, don’t it?”

 

Legolas’ sad, distant expression did not change. Kaldur seemed so confident that everything would be all right, but he could not be that sure. He could not help feeling that he was simply sitting there and doing *nothing* while who knew what was happening to Aragorn.

 

“Look, if you’re worried about your friend, don’t,” Kaldur shook his head, his jesting manner sobering somewhat. “The boys play rough sometimes, but they aren’t stupid. I know what you’re thinking. A prisoner among bandits... but I don’t let my people get away with scuttle like that.”

 

For some reason Legolas honestly believed the thief on that. He had seen as much last night when Kaldur kept the other men from hurting the elf just for sport. However that did not ease the prince’s mind. “Yes,” he said softly. “But you’re not there, are you?”

 

“No, I’m here,” Kaldur said quietly. Then his smile brightened roguishly again. “But we could always remedy that, couldn’t we?” he turned his bound hands towards the elf. “Cut me loose and I promise I’ll send your friend back to you safe and sound.”

 

Legolas snorted slightly. “I don’t think so. I’m not the insane one here.”

 

Kaldur chuckled and shrugged. “Well you can’t blame a body for trying, can ye?”

 

Suddenly the elf froze and put a finger to his lips, gesturing for Kaldur to get down, behind the rocks they were sitting on.

 

Kaldur did at once. “What’s happening? Someone coming?” he asked hopefully.

 

“I don’t know, quiet,” Legolas hushed him, trying to pick up on the sound he had heard before. Now however there was nothing, and he strained to decipher any clues... when suddenly something moved directly behind him. Legolas spun around, an arrow notched and ready to fire... only to find his arrow tip placed up against the chest of a familiar ranger who had his arms up and a grin on his face.

 

“Hathol-dad! Easy Legolas!” Aragorn grinned at having been able to surprise the elf prince like this. “You are becoming far too easy to creep up upon my friend.”

 

Legolas froze for a moment in shock, before quickly dropping his bow and clasping the ranger’s arm tightly, his own smile widening. Then he gave his friend a small, sharp shove for the overly satisfied look on the human’s face. “You had us worried mellon-nín, what took so long?”

 

“Oh a little of this, a little of that.” Aragorn shook his head. “Give me *some* credit Legolas, it’s not that easy to escape an entire den of bandits out for your blood, especially when your only way out is through the Barrows and the land of the dead.”

 

“Well I suppose I shall let it go this once,” Legolas conceded, although his eyes spoke his true joy at his friend’s safe return. “But the next time you return from the dead or anywhere else I expect you to be a little more punctual.” Legolas ran his long fingers over the collar of the ranger’s singed tunic and the sooty ash that clung to the man’s neck and face. The elf smiled wryly, although his eyes were concerned. “You look terrible.”

 

“Thank you. I’ll keep that in mind and try not to be so late next time,” Aragorn chuckled, pulling the elf’s hands lightly away from him. “I’m all right.”

 

Suddenly, to Aragorn’s surprise, Legolas whirled around, his bow flashing back into his hand, and fired an arrow.

 

The arrow stuck quivering in the dirt near the edge of camp, next to a now very still Kaldur who had been in the process of sneaking out during the friends’ reunion.

 

“Where do you think you’re going?” Legolas stalked over.

 

Kaldur regarded the arrow beside his foot with a slightly nervous look. That had been too close for comfort. He knew the elf had only missed him because he *meant* to miss him... this time.

 

“Just wanted to give you a little privacy... reunions with old friends and all that...” the bandit protested innocently as Legolas dragged him back to the center of camp and sat him down on a rock where he could keep a better eye on him.

 

“Your consideration is so touching,” the elf’s voice was dry.

 

“You must be Kaldur,” Aragorn noticed the man for the first time. “I heard your men speak of you.”

 

“So nice to be recognized,” Kaldur grinned in his uniquely ingratiating manner. “Well now that you’re here all safe and sound, there’s no need for me to stick around, I’ll just be going and not trouble you anymore...” he started to get up but Legolas’ hand on his shoulder pushed him back down.

 

“You’re not going anywhere, relax,” the elf said firmly.

 

Elladan and Elrohir were stirring now and Aragorn quickly slipped around behind them, motioning for Legolas to keep silent. Legolas smiled and shook his head. These humans... what could you do with them?

 

Elladan rubbed the sleep out of his eyes and looked around, a little surprised by the morning light. “Did we sleep all night? Legolas you were supposed to wake us. Has there been any news of Estel?”

 

The dark haired elf was puzzled when the elf prince just smiled at him, as if something were incredibly funny...

 

“There has been indeed,” a familiar voice spoke up behind Elladan and the elf started upright and spun around.

 

“Estel!” The elf hugged his little brother tightly and Aragorn hugged back, but quickly eased up when he heard Elladan give a slight gasp at the pressure against his healing back. Concern flickered through the ranger’s grey eyes. His brother was hurt.

 

Elrohir was shaken all the way awake by his twin’s abrupt movement and sat up slowly. His head still throbbed a bit and he felt dizzy. He ran his hand over his face. “What’s happening El?” he asked, but didn’t turn yet because his balance was off and he felt that his head might roll from his shoulders if he moved too quickly.

 

“The camp is under attack and you’re too sleepy to know it Elrohir,” Aragorn chuckled from behind him.

 

Elrohir did not respond, but rubbed his face again, stretching. “El?” he asked again, hoping his brother would come around to face him so he wouldn’t have to turn just yet, turning his head made him feel sick to his stomach. “Is everything all right?”

 

Aragorn’s eyebrows furrowed in confusion and Elladan and Legolas exchanged sad, troubled looks.

 

Elladan placed his hand on Aragorn’s shoulder. “He can’t hear you Estel,” he said softly. “Something’s happened to his ears.”

 

Aragorn’s heart pinched tightly. Quickly the ranger came out in front of Elrohir; putting himself in his brother’s line of sight and dropping down to give the elf a welcoming hug.

 

A huge smile cracked Elrohir’s face. “Estel! You’re here!” He chuckled as he pushed the ranger back to arm’s length to look him over. “You look a little worse for the wear brother, but I guess we’ll still take you back.”

 

Aragorn laughed, but his eyes were still hurting. “I’m sorry El, I’m sorry to all of you that I led you into this.”

 

Elrohir mock-scowled. “Estel, in case they haven’t told you I can’t hear you, but it looks like you’re getting into one of those blasted apologetic fits that you and Elladan are so prone to. Don’t. I have a headache and I’m in no mood to try to convince you that whatever you think is your fault isn’t. Legolas, try to talk reason to him, all right?”

 

Aragorn couldn’t help laughing as he hugged his brother again. “Well I see your mouth isn’t giving you any trouble.”

 

“Pity,” Elladan rolled his eyes.

 

Rising, Aragorn looked around. “Where’s Halbarad? And Bilbo? Did he ever turn back up?” his expression was once again one of concern.

 

“Halbarad went looking for Bilbo,” Legolas told him. “Although if he was not captured with you then chances are that he is perfectly all right and simply took your instructions to run very seriously.”

 

Aragorn nodded. “I hardly blame him. But now... we have decisions to make as to our next course of action.”

 

Kaldur smiled and waved somewhat uncertainly when all eyes turned back on him. “I don’t suppose my suggesting that you cut me loose and we forget the whole thing ever happened is going to do much good?”

 

“We can’t do that,” Aragorn shook his head. “Besides, it’s not safe for you to go back to your men even if we let you. They’ve turned against you Kaldur.”

 

Kaldur shook his head. “Not possible friend, but I thank ye for the concern.”

 

“It is possible,” Aragorn insisted grimly, lightly rubbing the burns on the back of his neck. “A man named Losmir convinced them that they don’t need you anymore. Kaldur, they tried to kill me, they had no intention of ransoming you.”

 

Legolas eyes registered shock and anger at this revelation of how close they had come to losing Aragorn.

 

Kaldur’s normally playful eyes flashed darkly. He obviously didn’t believe the ranger. “They wouldn’t do that.” Suspicion crept into his face. “You want to know where else they’d go, now that our hideout is known, since I assume you did escape from there. You want me to sell them out so you’re lying to me. It’s not gonna work mate. I thought more of you than that, I really did.”

 

“I’m not lying Kaldur, but I won’t waste my breath trying to convince you of it,” Aragorn shook his head sadly.

 

Kaldur was sulky and silent for a bit while they struck camp, which to Legolas’ mind was something of a relief. Presently however, he was back to singing and talking to himself as if he hadn’t a care in the world. He perched himself on the high rock ledge that Legolas had sat look-out on earlier, balancing with apparent ease between the short drop back into camp on this side, and the steep drop down into the rocky valley below on the other.

 

When Legolas tried to get him on his feet so they could move out, the bandit wouldn’t stand. He’d let the elf pull him up, but refused to use his legs and would simply fall back down again, grinning all the while and humming as if it were a game.

 

Legolas opened and closed his fists, his face wearing a clear expression of irritation. Stalking across the now packed-up camp, he grabbed Aragorn’s shirtsleeve and pulled his friend close so he could speak to him privately. “That man is going to drive me to insanity!” he hissed softly. “DO something with him!”

 

Aragorn resisted the urge to laugh, because in Legolas’ present state of mind that would clearly not be good for the ranger’s health. It was true that Kaldur could be irritating beyond belief, but it was humorous how quickly he managed to get under the elf’s usually impassive skin.

 

“Look, come on, get up,” Aragorn tugged the bandit upright, only to have Kaldur sag forward and fall against him before sliding back to the ground and starting another chorus of some incredibly tone-deaf song. “Come on, you’re not drunk, stop acting like it,” the ranger reigned in his own irritation as he pulled the bandit up again.

 

Kaldur flopped against Aragorn’s chest once more, grinning up into the ranger’s face. “Ah but I am drunk! Intoxicated by life you might say, drunk on staying alive... and I mean to keep it that way.”

 

Suddenly Kaldur jumped back. Aragorn’s dagger flashed in his grip and the ranger’s hand went automatically to his side only to find that of course, it was no longer in his belt where it had been.

 

In one swift move Kaldur cut the ropes binding his wrists and jumped backward, throwing a parting smile to his former captors. “So nice to know you all, take care!” The thief’s backward jump took him right off the edge of the ridge they were standing on. He fell down into the valley below with a rolling tumble, picking himself up quickly and dodging into the rocks where not even an archer as good as Legolas could pick him out.

 

Legolas, Elladan and Elrohir were by Aragorn’s side in a moment, but Kaldur had already disappeared from view.

 

“Should we stop him?” Elladan asked quickly, swinging over the lip of the ridge, prepared to scramble down the steep incline.

 

“No,” Aragorn put out his arm and held his brother back. “We should let him get a head start and then track him. I’ll take any odds that he’s going to run straight back to the rest of his group.”

 

Legolas nodded, swinging his bow back over his shoulder. “We follow him, we find them... but is that a good idea?”

 

Aragorn hesitated. “There aren’t that many of them... still, I do not advise we try to take them all on ourselves. Rather, let us find out where their other hiding places are, and then we can devise a plan from there. Besides,” he sighed, “things could become interesting. I was telling Kaldur the truth about his men’s shifting loyalties.”

 

Legolas nodded. “I fear he is more loyal to them then than they are to him...” a strange shadow crossed Legolas’ face as he flung his attention outward, toward the Downs looming before them. “And that is not all I fear,” he murmured. “Though I do not know what shadow troubles my heart about the road ahead.”

 

 

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

 

 

Legolas crouched silently on top of a large cairn of stones that overlooked the Barrow Downs. He had remained motionless for so long that a passerby might have thought him part of the stones themselves.

 

Aragorn of course knew otherwise, but he did not interrupt until Legolas straightened and dropped gracefully off the rock, back down to where his friends were waiting.

 

“You are right Strider, he’s still going around in circles out there. I don’t think he knows for certain we are following him, but he’s taking no chances.”

 

Aragorn smiled wryly. “He’s smarter than I gave him credit for yet again, but I’ll wager he has never had to deal with the tracking skills of elves and rangers before.”

 

They had been trailing Kaldur DeCahr at a discreet distance almost all day. Aragorn had had no difficulty picking up the bandit’s trail, even though it was obvious that Kaldur was doing a pretty good job of attempting to cover it.

 

They could have retaken the bandit at any point, but they wanted him to lead them to the others. Therefore, they would play this little game of hide-and-seek for as long as was necessary.

 

Aragorn looked up quickly when he realized that Legolas was still speaking.

 

“There is more, someone else approaches. He is staying hidden, I cannot make him out, but he seems to be following the same trail we have. He is very close now.”

 

The ranger’s attention was immediately captured. Someone was following *them*? Who?

 

“We should rejoin my brothers,” he said quietly, looking around as if his gaze could penetrate the hills around them. They had left Elladan and Elrohir to watch the other end of the valley.

 

“Strider...” Legolas’ word was a whisper. “Our mystery man is here.” The elf didn’t move visibly, but he gestured with his eyes in the direction he meant, behind and to the right of Aragorn.

 

The ranger whirled around quickly, his sword flashing into his hand... only to drop it back to his side a moment later as both he and Legolas smiled.

 

“Halbarad! We have got to stop meeting like this,” Aragorn shook his head, re-sheathing his sword.

 

“It is good to see you with us again Aragorn,” the other ranger smiled.

 

Legolas’ brows furrowed slightly. Halbarad was alone. “Halbarad, where is Bilbo?”

 

The ranger’s face turned heavy. “I did not find him,” the frustration in his voice was evident. He was unused to losing his quarry. “I followed his tracks for some distance, they were heading towards the Shire, but I lost the trail in the Old Forest. I’m sorry, I have never seen anyone harder to follow.”

 

Aragorn nodded, he had found out that curious fact about the little hobbit as well.

 

“I hope no ill befell him,” he said softly. This was not good news and it weighed on their hearts. They still had a job to do however.

 

Away in the distance, a lone bird trilled, its call floating softly on the cooling evening air. Legolas’ head came up attentively, as did Aragorn’s, for they knew at once that it was no bird. It was a signal from Elladan. Kaldur was on the move again.

 

“Come Halbarad, we will fill you in on all that has happened since you left as we go,” Aragorn gestured for the other man to follow as they slid quickly and quietly along to where his brothers were waiting for them.

 

 

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

 

 

Night was drawing on once more. Kaldur had spent most of the day intentionally going around in circles and hiding in the hills to throw off anyone who might have tried to follow him. Now the bandit crept quietly up to the grassy mound near the barrows that his men had found and turned into a hiding place at the outset of their stay near the Downs.

 

It had been Losmir’s idea when the company had stumbled across an empty tell just inside the woods on the outskirts of the shallow valley that held the barrows. They had excavated the buried ruins and found the crumbling shell of a stone and brick house inside. It was nothing more than four walls, only the span of ten paces apart from one another, but it had served them well. What it had once been and how or why the home had become abandoned in such a way was never a concern for the thieves. It was the perfect hideaway. No one would ever suspect it so close to the Downs themselves and rarely did anyone visit this part of the woods. Those that had, had gotten a taste of the wandering wights that the men had devised to scare the people from becoming too curious.

 

It was smaller and slightly more cramped than their other cave on the far side of the Downs; but that that hideaway had been destroyed by the cave-in the ranger had created yesterday. It was a good thing they had opted to never put their eggs all in one basket and maintained this second hide-out as well.

 

This particular location had never been Kaldur’s choice of places to stay, there just seemed something wrong with breaking into the mound and occupying it, but the logic behind Losmir’s arguments had won him over... Unlike the words he could now hear as he stealthily neared the hideout.

 

“I say we hit as many of the houses in one fell swoop as we can tonight and take all we can get. This place is a wash out.” Losmir argued angrily. “What do we have to show? Cows, chickens, a few sets of new shoes and some trinkets. We haven’t even come into any good sizes of money.”

 

“People could get hurt that way Losmir.” It was Jalif that replied, his voice of caution calming the others. “We wasn’t never supposed to be hurting nobody and you know it.”

 

“He’s right Losmir. Kaldur didn’t want no one getting hurt, it was the first rule.” Thil added.

 

The sounds of a soft scuffle reached Kaldur’s ears as he listened in on the conversation.

 

“Kaldur isn’t in charge anymore. I am.” Losmir growled, his sword tip scraping the underside of Thil’s chin. He had knocked the younger man off of his seat near the fire and stood over the thief, threatening him. “Now if you’re smart, and I’m thinking you might be, you’ll be doing yourself a favor to remember that.”

 

“Don’t know mate, sounds like bad advice to me.” Kaldur stepped into the doorway and threw aside the covering that disguised the entry into the interior of the tell. His eyes narrowed as he pierced Losmir with a hard stare. “I’d be releasing the boy now if I were you. You got no argument with him, but its sounding like you got one with me.”

 

Slowly sheathing his sword, Losmir backed away from Thil and reseated himself by the fire as Kaldur stepped lightly into the house. The ringleader of the bandits walked idly around the small quarters as though reorienting himself to the place, all the while carrying on a one-sided conversation.

 

“Seems to me that attacking the townsfolk while they sleep is a fool’s idea of getting rich. You think they aren’t on edge? That’s what we’ve been trying to achieve this whole time, that’s what we’ve been building up to. We want them wary, we want them to run, and we want them to get desperate enough to even start leaving the area so we can waylay them and relive them of their valuables on their way out of town.” Kaldur ran his fingers lightly across the dusty sill of a window that looked out to the hard packed dirt of the tell. His actions seemed random and without a point at all, but it was not so.

 

“You go attacking them in their homes and they’ll know we ain’t no wights now for sure.” The small-statured man continued, “Their men will scour the countryside looking for us and there will be nowhere left safe for us to run to. They’ll not give us a moments rest.” Kaldur’s soft musings and his idle wanderings had taken him to the far side of the fire ring where Losmir sat. “That’s what I’m thinking.” He whispered, throwing a casual smile at his second-in command.

 

With a swift, unexpected move he kicked Losmir’s chair out from under him. Spinning on his bootheels and barely catching himself on his hands Losmir leapt to his feet. His short sword was in his hand but, his attack was too late. Kaldur grabbed the off balanced thief by the neck, his fingers digging into the soft skin under his chin. Using the full weight of his body he slammed the traitor hard against the brick wall at the man’s back and pressed against his throat, knocking the blade from Losmir’s fingers. Kaldur’s own blade flashed in his hand and he pressed the edge against Losmir’s throat as he moved closer to the thief.

 

“You know that ranger told me you had tried to turn the men against me.” Kaldur paused, his open gaze causing Losmir to shift his eyes nervously about the room. “I called him a liar.” The words were whispered and his tone was lethal. “Do you have any idea what I am going to call you?”

 

“How about dead?” Thil piped up from across the room. The men were enjoying this test of wills.

 

With a smile and flourish of his knife Kaldur turned back to the others and pointed the tip of his blade at Thil, “That’s exactly what I was thinking.” He tapped the knife against his temple, “You know what they be saying about great minds...”

 

“They’ll be saying its too bad Kaldur DeCahr did not have one.” Losmir growled as he forcefully shoved the smaller robber away from him.

 

Trying to escape the fury of their leaders, the other bandits stumbled into one another, scrambling over each other in their attempts to gain the entrance of the tell. Losmir had grasped his sword once more and leapt at Kaldur. The confines of the house were small and the dark haired leader tripped backwards over a stool, falling hard to the ground near a stack of the small explosive boxes they had stored in the corner.

 

With a shout Losmir dove after him, hefting the chair like a weapon and intending to bring it down on Kaldur’s head. But the leader of the thieves was too swift. Turning over onto his belly he scooted out of reach as the stool splintered on the stone floor behind him where he had been seconds before. Grabbing two of the explosive devices he shoved them into his tunic and rolled onto his side, deftly avoiding a jab from Losmir’s sword that would have run him through. Kicking out at his attacker, Kaldur caught Losmir in the shin and the man dropped to his knees. Scrambling back from the enraged thief, Kaldur found himself pressed against the stack of boxes near the refuse bin. It hadn’t been emptied from the previous night. A small bag of soot and ashes that had been swept from the fire pit rested on the top of the trash heap and Kaldur quickly snatched it up throwing the sack into Losmir’s face as the man regained his footing and came after him.

 

The powder and soot exploded in the robber’s face, momentarily blinding him while Kaldur scooted away and edged for the door. Jumping to his feet he placed a well-earned kick to Losmir’s backside, shoving the man into the far corner of the house where he fell entangled in the legs of the chairs that occupied that space.

 

“You’re outta the band mate. Best you not show your face around me again or you’ll get more than a kick in the seat of the pants to show for it,” Kaldur threatened before stumbling out of the tell into the deepening moonlight. Rounding the grassy knoll he found his men standing just inside the downs, waiting to see who had prevailed while animatedly discussing what they should do.

 

“Losmir’s a smart man, good second but, I’m with staying with Kaldur. He’s never led us wrong.” Bentith argued.

 

“And what does Losmir know?” Jalif shouted over his friend, brandishing his knife and pointing at the tell, “He weren’t never no smarter ‘en me. Grew up with him I did, never could keep outta trouble he couldn’t. I say we follow Kaldur.”

 

“I don’t know,” Thil hedged slightly, “maybe its time to end this charade and move on. Things aren’t looking so good no more. You know what I am saying?”

 

The men hemmed and hawed amongst themselves, mumbling about the right thing to do under the circumstances. They quieted quickly when their captain sauntered up casually.

 

“You should do what I tell ye to.” Kaldur recommended, walking into their midst. He clasped Bentith on the shoulder and gently pushed Jalif’s hand down, forcing the man to re-sheath his knife. “If we stick together well make it through this. Thil’s right though, it might just be time we pulled up stakes and set for other places. What say you men?”

 

“But,” Bentith glanced around the small group, “you said yourself we had the town right where we want them. Why not stay and finish what we’ve started?”

 

“Things ain’t going to get no better round here Bentith, that ranger’s still on us and we can't afford to be caught.” Kaldur started his men walking through the darkened Downs, heading away from the Shire.

 

“Why worry about being caught when you’ll be dead?” Losmir’s question stopped the band of men in their tracks.

 

Whirling around Kaldur watched in horror as Losmir exited the tell, several of the small boxes tucked under his arm. The one in his hands was already lit, the wick burning quickly down to the incendiary device.

 

“It’s only you I want, Kaldur. Make this easy and none of the others will get hurt.” He called to his fellow robbers as he tossed the box at his former leader’s feet.

 

The men scattered, running through the Downs, trying to escape the explosion they knew was coming. Kaldur dove behind the nearest mound and pressed hard against the grassy hill. The force of the blast shook the area and pushed him closer to the knoll as the shockwave ripped through the downs.

 

Kaldur pushed himself carefully up and searched the surrounding area for Losmir. Smoke and dust rose from a black scorched area on the ground where the box had exploded fifty feet from where he had taken shelter. The pungent smell that the burning stones left behind wafted through the Downs on the evening breeze.

 

“Looking for me?” The sound of the voice came from directly behind the robber.

 

Barely giving his attacker a glance, Kaldur threw himself around the barrow and rolled out of the way, covering his ears and pulling himself into a small ball as the ground rippled underneath him from the second blast.

 

A keening wail pierced the night and set the thief’s teeth on edge. The unearthly howling crescendoed and the earth shook, but the quaking was not from another blast this time... it was the wights. The real ones.

 

The ground beneath Kaldur’s hands trembled as he raised himself up and he stumbled back, losing his footing as a black doorway in the barrow before him opened. The front of the hill seemed to dissolve into the inkiness within and a nameless, baseless fear he had never known struck his heart. Scooting back from the yawning opening he scrambled to his feet and glanced about him. All the mossy green hills were coming alive as doorways appeared within them.

 

They had awakened the wights in force, and the ghostly hoard were not pleased at being stirred.

 

Bentith jumped slightly as the barrow next to him opened up. Jalif shook his head, backing away but the other thief reached out to touch the spreading darkness that had materialized in the small hill. His fingers brushed the blackness and a cool chill raced up his arm, like when one thrusts their hand into icy water. He turned, glancing over his shoulder with a smile at his companion.

 

“You should feel it.” Bentith commented brushing his fingers over the opening once more. He squinted into the dim interior. “Hey... look at this, there’s a king’s ransom down here!”

 

They heard Kaldur yelling for them to get back, away from the barrows, but it was too late. Jalif stared in shocked horror as a bony hand reached out, grabbed Bentith by the wrist and jerked him screaming into the mound. The black door disappeared; in its place the dirt and grass that had been there before rematerialized. Save for Bentith’s cries from the inside of the hill one would have never known that there had ever existed a way inside. When the cries finally stopped, Jalif was shaken free of the fear that had held him in place and fled through the hilly meadow, making for the opposite side of the glade.

 

Kaldur was shouting at his men to leave the field and climb to the small surrounding hillock that bracketed the burial valley. Yet it wasn’t as easy as it should have been. A thick blanket of mist had risen up from nowhere, clouding the moon-lit air and confusing their movements as they tried to get out. Kaldur watched as two more men were sucked into the interiors of the evil mounds. He was half way through the field himself when shouting from the far side of the glen arrested his attention, stopping him mid flight. He skidded to stop on the long wet grass. Five men rushed into the glen, swords drawn. He recognized the ranger and the elf that had caught him before. He watched as his men fought the newcomers, but they were easily taken, their fear of the barrows having shattered their courage and urging them only to flight.

 

The battle spilled back into the interior of the Downs as the rangers and the elves slowly took the remnants of the thieving band captive.

 

Unwilling to be caught himself, Kaldur turned left, heading for the thick woods. His path was impeded as his legs were tripped up by the flat edge of a long sword. Rolling to a stop he leapt into a crouch and froze as he stared up the length of the blade that Losmir held pointed straight at him.

 

“You have done nothing but lead us into trouble from the moment we joined up with you, and now this? When I said you weren’t needed anymore, what part of that didn’t you understand?” Losmir questioned him darkly.

 

Slowly slipping his hand to his boot Kaldur kept his opponent off guard, speaking nonchalantly as though nothing were the matter between the two men. “You’re forgetting one thing. You can't kill me.” He smiled irritatingly at his second in command.

 

“You think you can't die?”

 

“That’s right. I’m Kaldur DeCahr.” With a flick of his wrist Kaldur produced a small knife from his boot-sheath and tossed it at the man in front of him, catching Losmir high in the shoulder. The man stumbled back, screaming in rage as he pulled the tapered blade from his shoulder and ran after the retreating form that dodged through the burial mounds.

 

Aragorn raced to Legolas’ side and kicked the legs out from under the man that was fighting the elf. He pressed his knee down hard into the small of the thief’s back as the prince quickly bound the man’s hands behind him. Calling over his shoulder to Elladan he showed the elf where the fallen robber lay.

 

Leaning down hard against the thief, Aragorn ran the edge of his hunting knife along the man’s cheek, “Move and I’ll feed you to the wights. Now stay put until my brother comes for you. Understand?” He pressed down harder when the highway man’s answer was not forth coming. The slight nod that the actions garnered was enough for him. These men were terrified, more intent on escaping the barrows than escaping their captors. Legolas’ voice jerked his attention from the thief and he jumped lightly to his feet, following the elf.

 

For a moment Aragorn’s gaze through the mists enough to see the yawning mouths of a dozen open barrows, the terror of them catching at the back of his throat. These idiots! They had stirred up the real Barrow Wights, and now their would-be captors were going to have to save the thieves from their own folly.

 

“Strider! It’s Kaldur!” The prince pointed with his bow as he raced through the vale, heading for the two fighting figures in the center of the Downs.

 

Losmir easily caught up to Kaldur. Swinging his blade down with a cry, he sliced through the air as his captain stopped up short and sidestepped, bringing up his own sword and catching the edge of the weapon on his blade.

 

“You’re not up to this Losmir. You can’t beat me.” Kaldur spun left out of the way as his second in command twisted to the right trying to catch the dark haired thief on the tip of his blade, “I’m better than you are.” He smacked the flat of his blade alongside Losmir’s head in warning but the thief was far too enraged for any thoughts of restraint.

 

With a cry of rage Losmir charged forward, his sword screaming through the air in a side sweep strike. Running up the slope of the nearest barrow, Kaldur vaulted in a backwards summersault over the arc of the blade and thrust at his opponent, raking his sword across the man’s upper arm.

 

Legolas reached the fight first and stepped underneath Losmir’s wild swinging. Deftly flipping the elven knife in his hand so that the blade pointed towards him, Legolas rammed the pommel of his weapon into the thief’s face knocking Losmir back.

 

Kaldur danced out of the way, jumping backwards as Aragorn brushed past him. He was outnumbered and he didn’t even try to run as the ranger flashed him a dangerous look and pointed the knife he held at the thief. Kaldur raised his hands, affecting an innocent gaze, and stepped out of the way. He rather fancied watching Losmir taken down by the elf.

 

Aragorn however was more worried about their proximity to the barrow behind Losmir. Legolas’ blades flashed in the moonlight, drawing a fine red line across the highwayman’s cheek and knocking the sword from his hand. Stunned, Losmir stepped back frighteningly close to the open barrow, his footing unsteady as the elf wore him out.

 

“Legolas, the barrow!” Aragorn called out, stepping in between the two combatants and pulling the thief from the threshold of the dark doorway.

 

Blinded by rage and shocked by the repeated blows the elf was dealing him Losmir spun, twisting wildly in the ranger’s grasp and spinning them both around. Striking out, his fist connected with the underside of Aragorn’s chin.

 

Stumbling backwards, unbalanced by the unexpected blow from a man he had been trying to help, Aragorn flung his hand out behind him to steady himself, but there was nothing to stop his fall. His groping hand met only air.

 

The world swirled into a blackened field and the light of the stars seemed to be sucked up as through a portal that closed around him. He fell with a hard thud against a dry dirt floor. Disoriented, the ranger rolled over onto his hands and knees, pushing himself up. The ground beneath his fingers was gravel and hard. He was not on the Downs any longer; he had fallen into the barrow.

 

With sickening fear Aragorn lurched forward, his hands coming into contact with the hard compacted earth of the interior of the mound. Here there was no sound and no light, but something moved in the darkness - more of a feeling than anything else and his heart pounded wildly. He had to get out.

 

“Legolas!”

 

In the split second it had taken for Aragorn to fall through the doorway Legolas had taken Losmir down, tripping the man and forcing him roughly to the ground, his knives held at right angles to one another under the man’s chin.

 

Kaldur stared open mouthed at the mound, waiting for the ranger to reappear. He did not. They could hear him calling for the elf.

 

“Legolas!” the cry was desperate, but strangely distant, as if coming from farther away than it really was.

 

“Strider!” Legolas’ gaze shot to the barrow; even now the doorway was disappearing. The elf felt his heart jolt as a cold stab of fear squeezed his lungs. “Strider! Get out of there!”

 

“I can’t! The door is gone! I can’t find it!” The panic in the ranger’s voice heightened, sounding all the more desperate because Legolas had rarely ever heard that amount of fear in his friend before. “Legolas I can’t see! Get me out of here!”

 

Rushing forward, Kaldur knelt on Losmir’s back, wrenching one of the elf’s blades from his hand. “Go!” He motioned to the barrow. The prince stared at him, undecided. He couldn’t leave Aragorn to the wight and he didn’t trust the thief. “GO! I’ve got him; get your friend out of there before he’s lost!”

 

Legolas jumped up and threw himself through the disappearing doorway just as the wight sealed the portal to the barrow closed. It was the only thing he had time to do, the only thing he could do. But it was like jumping into a sea of dark ice and as the blackness closed like water over his head, the elf felt a terrible dread fill his heart.

Chapter Text

___________________________________________________________

 

~*PART TEN*~

 

 

 

~~~~~~~~
Cold be hand and heart and bone,

and cold be sleep under stone;

never more to wake on stony bed,

never, till the Sun fails and the Moon is dead.

 

In the black wind the stars shall die,

and still on gold here let them lie,

till the dark lord lifts his hand

over dead sea and withered land.

 

-- JRR Tolkien
~~~~~~~~

 

 

 

Kaldur stared at the spot where the door had been; where both Strider and Legolas had disappeared.  It was covered with grass and dirt like the rest of the hill now, completely invisible.  He shuddered involuntarily and hoped there was someway they could escape.  Thinking quickly Kaldur pulled a small black knife from the back of his belt and flung it into the grass near where the entrance to the barrow had been moments before, marking the hilly mound.  He had a feeling he wasn’t getting away this night and the two beings trapped inside were going to need help if they were going to get out. 

 

He held the elf and ranger no malice; they seemed a decent sort, as far as honest people went.  Perhaps he could even trade his knowledge of where they were for his and his men’s freedom.

 

Losmir bucked underneath him, throwing the smaller man off of his back and slamming him into the side of the barrow.  He whirled around, sword in hand once more and leveled the tip at his former employer.  Shouts from the elves and the ranger behind them drew their attention as one of the two identical brown-haired elves, followed by the other ranger Kaldur remembered from the night before, came racing in their direction.

 

The two thieves were out of time.  Their band had been taken and their adversaries were upon them, they could waste no more time on their own differences.

 

“You’ll pay for this Kaldur; I’ll find you wherever you go. I will hunt you down.” Losmir threatened.

 

Unwilling to accept defeat and still attempting to evade capture, Kaldur smacked the sword blade away from his face with the flat of Legolas’ blade and jumped to his feet.  Slashing out with lightning speed Kaldur slashed at Losmir’s wrist, causing the man to recoil and drop the sword he held.

 

Halbarad reached the two thieves first and tackled Losmir, wrestling the robber to the ground, surprising him by the suddenness of the attack.  He tied the man’s arms behind his back and hauled him to his feet.

 

The robber was seething.  He couldn’t turn enough to see Halbarad behind him, so he glared at Elladan as he approached them, hatred flaring in his eyes.  “You’re not taking me anywhere you elvish filth!  You’ll regret this, you all will!  Let me go!” he struggled to no avail.  “I’ll kill you, I swear it!”

 

Halbarad twisted his arms tighter behind him, putting a little pressure on the bandit’s wounded shoulder to cut off his ranting.  “Quiet!”

 

Elladan ignored the other bandit as he walked up slowly, his bow trained on Kaldur. The robber raised his hands, carefully allowing Legolas’ blade to drop into the grass near his feet.

 

“Kick it over here.”  Elladan instructed darkly.  “Now move over there with the rest of your company.”

 

When the highwayman started to object the elf bent the bow a little more, increasing the tension on the string.  “Do it.  Now!”

 

With a sigh Kaldur walked towards the small group of men.  Elrohir stood with a length of rope, ready for the thief.  Patiently, Kaldur held his wrists together in front of him and allowed himself to be tied up and led away towards where the other bandits were being held captive, on the outer edge of the Barrow Downs.

 

“I think...” Kaldur’s words were cut off as Elladan turned towards him again, a scowl darkening his features.  He had retrieved Legolas’ knife and passed it off to his brother, who sheathed it in his quiver.  The elf was disturbed to have found the bandit wielding one of the prince’s weapons, especially since Legolas was nowhere to be seen.  As a matter of fact, neither was Estel.

 

“I don’t want to hear another word unless I speak to you first, is that understood?” the elder twin growled.

 

The highwayman raised his hands in a sign of defeat and sat down in the grass, crossing his legs beneath him, and dropping with an audible sigh.  He gazed out onto the glen, searching through the mounds, trying to remember exactly which one Legolas and Aragorn had disappeared into, but it was no good, from this vantage point they all looked alike.

 

“Where is Estel?” Elladan asked, glancing between the ranger and his twin.

 

Halbarad’s face instantly clouded and he looked around.  “I don’t know, he was with Legolas.”

 

Elladan quickly ran further up the hill for a better view, his keen eyes scanning the darkened, misty landscape... but nothing moved.  Nothing living stirred amidst the hulking shapes of the barrows.  Most of the doors had been closed by now, but the thick mists persisted, making everything difficult and confusing to decipher. 

 

They seemed to have all the surviving bandits accounted for, but there was absolutely no trace of the prince or his brother.  A small shiver of fear that Elladan didn’t understand ran down the elf’s spine. 

 

His jaw was tense and his eyes clouded as he stalked back down the hill towards the others, his gaze lighting on the single knife tucked carefully in his brother’s quiver.  He rounded on the bandits.  “Kaldur, where is Legolas?  Where is Strider?”

 

Any answer was cut off as a booming voice questioned them, “What is going on here?”  A stooped figure emerged from the trees on their right, walking slowly.  The glow of a crystal set in the man’s walking stick illuminated the ground before him, shedding light on the darkened vale. “The Barrows are no place to be this late at night.  It’s not safe even for a son of the firstborn.  Did not your father teach you more wisdom than that?”

 

“Gandalf!”  Elladan cried, stepping forward to wrap his arms around the old wizard.  Elrohir turned as his brother rushed passed him, his eyes lighting up as he recognized the newcomer.

 

With a smile the twin stepped forward, “I’m so glad you’re here Mithrandir.  I think we shall need your help.”  Elrohir glanced back into the valley behind them. He had not seen his brother fall into the barrow, nor Legolas follow him in, but the fact that neither had returned yet worried him deeply.  “Estel and Legolas are missing.” He said quietly.  Gandalf was speaking to Elladan and did not hear him. 

 

When he turned back Gandalf was frowning deeply, staring in his direction and speaking.  The elf sighed and tried to catch the words that the wizard was speaking.  “You asked me what?”  He questioned the old man.

 

“See, it is as I said Mithrandir.  Elrohir cannot hear you.  We came to the Barrows after word was sent through the rangers that the wights were stirred up and attacking the villagers at night.  They asked our help in getting to the bottom of the strange goings on.  What we found instead was not the wights but a group of highway men terrorizing the area.”  He cast a glance back at their captives.

 

“They used some sort of device that explodes with bright lights and loud sounds to disorient their victims and then they take all the poor unsuspecting souls have, even their clothing.  It was one of these devices that the robbers used that hurt Elrohir.  It exploded too close to him and he has not been able to hear since.”  Elladan walked over next to his twin and gazed into the blue eyes that watched him so carefully, trying to understand what he was saying.  “We tracked them to their hideout and caught them in Downs here tonight.”

 

The wizard glared at the gang of thieves tied and seated on the side of the gently rolling hill they stood upon.  “I wondered at the ‘thunder’ that I heard on the road through the Old Forest.”  He cast his gaze to the clear night skies.  “Odd.  I didn’t think that men possessed the knowledge to create such things.  Makes one wonder.”  He chewed thoughtfully on the inside of his lip as he let his gaze pass slowly over the men.

 

“That’s it, I’m going to make Estel teach me how to lip read when we get home.” Elrohir commented wryly. It was beginning to bother him that he could not hear what was being said, knowing that the conversation in part was about him.  He had never really given his hearing much of a thought before all this happened.  For a being who was so used to relying on his senses it was terribly frustrating to have lost one of them like this; especially his sense of hearing.

 

Pressing his staff into the soft ground so that it stood on its own, Gandalf walked towards Elrohir, talking as he moved nearer the elf.  “It seems my coming is timely then.  I too heard of odd goings on near the Shire and intended to see what was about.”  He smiled slightly.  “I had actually intended to seek out a certain hobbit I know out this way, but instead I ran into him on the road here.  He was looking for someone who wasn’t too afraid too help, even if it meant making his way all the way back to your father’s house.”

 

“Then Bilbo is safe,” Elladan sounded very relieved.

 

The wizard gently placed his hands on either side of Elrohir’s head and tipped the elf’s face one way and then the other, inspecting the area around his ears and temples.  “Yes, he is safe.  I sent him home with strict instructions about staying put there, but you know how hobbits are.” The older man chuckled to himself, quietly amused by his own words, “He said that he feared for your safety and he knew that there were robbers still about because of the ‘thunder’”.  He emphasized the last word with another glare at the captives.  A few of the men shrank back, their gazes dropping to the ground under the wizard’s piercing stare. 

 

All but one.  A slightly-built man with long dark hair watched him openly as though trying to size the older man up.  Kaldur was intrigued, he had never met a wizard and he carefully followed everything the man said and did. 

 

“Well young one,” Gandalf smiled at Elrohir, “we’ll have to let your father take a look at your ears.  I imagine he will have some sort of idea of how to aid your healing.  Although I have the feeling the damage is not permanent.”  The wizard frowned once more as he glanced about them.  He realized with a start that not everyone was here that should have been.

 

Halbarad and Elladan had moved away from the group and were talking quietly together, glancing furtively out onto the plains.  The ranger had wandered off searching for Aragorn and Legolas while Elladan had explained their reasons for being so near the Shire.  He had found no trace of the friends and was even more worried than before.

 

“Elladan?”  The Istar called, walking towards them.  “Where are your brother and Legolas?”

 

“They were in the Barrows only moments before.  Now however, they are nowhere.  I do not know Mithr...” Elladan’s response was cut short as Kaldur cleared his throat.

 

“I might know something about that.”  The leader of the robbers stood carefully to his feet as he approached the group of beings.  A small smile crept onto his face.  “Perhaps we can trade.”

 

“Trade?” Halbarad pushed Elladan behind him and met Kaldur halfway.  “You are in no position to speak of trading.  Tell us what you know!”

 

“Free my men and I’ll show you where your friends are.”  The highwayman tipped his head, gazing up at the tall ranger, his smile infuriating Halbarad.

 

Elladan forced his way forward, grabbing Kaldur by the collar and lifting the slight man off the ground, “You tell me *now*, or so help me there won't be enough of you left to imprison with your men.  Where are they?”

 

“You know, you really have to work on your temper mate,” Kaldur observed in a slightly choked voice as he found himself pinned by his shirt collar for the second time since in their short acquaintance. 

 

“Elladan, put him down.”  Gandalf retrieved his staff and approached the thief.  “What did you see?  Perhaps if you share what you know it may go better for you *and* your men.”  The wizard spoke calmly but there was a force to his words that set Kaldur on edge and he stepped back a pace.  He did not think the older man would bargain with him, there was something in the wizard’s quiet words that sat uneasily with the thief.

 

Undaunted by the robber’s silence Gandalf moved in closer until he towered over the captive, intimidating the man with his presence which actually seemed to grow visibly.  “Now, what do you know?”

 

Kaldur gazed out onto the fields and felt something inside him give way.  This was right, no matter the outcome.  He had never wanted people hurt.  Yes they were bandits; yes they robbed and took all they could, haunting the merchant trails and the main highways.  But never had anyone been seriously harmed because of them.  So far things had gone easily enough.

 

Until now...

 

“All right.”  The thief whispered.  He walked to the edge of the knoll and motioned with his head into the valley.  “Strider was pushed into a barrow by one of my men and Legolas followed to try to help him get out.  The mound sealed up behind them and they were trapped inside.”

 

“Are you sure?  Were they the only the two lost in this way?” Gandalf glanced quickly about them, his heart darkening with apprehension at the words.  This was ill news indeed.  How long now had they already been trapped while precious time was wasted?  He knew as well as Elrond the dangers of crossing a wight.   

 

“Yes, I am positive, I saw it happen.  And no, they weren’t the only ones.  Three of my men were taken by wights but I don’t which barrows they are in anymore.”  Kaldur stared across the plain, a pang of guilt wrenching inside of him before he shoved it away and glanced over his shoulder.  It was no use agonizing over what couldn’t be changed.  “I marked the one that the ranger fell into.”

 

“Which barrow?”  Elladan asked, panic devouring his heart.  “Which one holds Strider and Legolas?”

 

“Elladan what’s going on?  What is wrong?”  Elrohir stepped closer, trying to see what everyone was looking at, trying to in vain to understand what they were saying.  “Is it Estel?”

 

“Yes.”  Elladan mouthed the word to his brother. Switching to elvish to conceal their conversation he explained what they were discussing, speaking his words slowly although his heart and mind were racing.

 

To his surprise Elrohir found it easier to read the words in elvish than common and he replied in kind. “They are IN a barrow?  We have to get them out!  Estel can't be taken by them, he is human he will not be able to withstand them!”

 

“I know. I know.”  Elladan turned as Halbarad shoved Kaldur down the hillock.

 

“Find them!” he ordered the thief.

 

“Halbarad,” Elladan called to the ranger, stopping him from following the bandit, “please stay with Elrohir and watch the captives.  Make sure they do not try to escape. I do not trust them.  I’ll go with Gandalf, we’ll find them.”

 

The ranger nodded curtly and walked back up the hill as Elladan quickly explained the situation to his twin before running down to join Gandalf and Kaldur who had moved out to the edge of the field.

 

 

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

 

 

The instant Legolas stepped into the barrow he had to catch his breath.  It was like stepping into a shocking lake of ice.  He didn’t hear the door seal shut and disappear behind him as he stumbled forward into the gloom, but he felt it.  It reverberated in his chest like the strike of a hammer driving the last nail into a coffin. 

 

“Strider?” he called out, a little disorientated.  The elf’s faint glow illuminated himself alone and he could see nothing else for a few moments as he moved blindly forward, one hand stretched out to the side, his fingers keeping him anchored to the wall of the barrow.  That felt better somehow than bumbling blindly forward into a yawning abyss he knew nothing about.  Cold shivers were running up and down his spine.  Evil was heavy here.  Suffocating. 

 

His boots clanked on something and he looked down, realizing with a start that he was not walking on gravel anymore, but a rough bed of pale golden coins, layered so thick you could no longer see the earth beneath.  As his eyes adjusted to the dark, Legolas could see that crowns, necklaces, jewels and arm-rings written upon in dead languages lay strewn about and heaped in corners.  None of it stirred any fire of delight or beauty in the heart to behold.  Somehow it all looked disturbingly dead and eerie, like a shadow of greed that seeks to possess beyond the grave that which cannot be taken from this world.

 

“Strider!” Legolas’ call was louder this time.  He did not want to stay here.  He had the urgent feeling that they must get out.  The barrow hadn’t *looked* very big from the outside, and Aragorn had fallen in only moments before he followed, where in the name of heaven was he?

 

Legolas’ searching hand met what was probably the back wall of the barrow at the same time that he heard his friend’s voice. 

 

“Legolas?” A skittering sound of someone moving across the carpet of treasure accompanied the voice and Legolas turned towards it as his friend’s shape pulled itself out of the darkness. 

 

“Legolas is that you?” Aragorn’s voice was hushed and his breathing rapid.  Terror clung to the inside of these walls like fog clinging to a darkened hillside. 

 

Legolas reached out and grasped his friend’s hand in the dark.  “Im sí,” the elf nodded, feeling compelled to whisper although there was no cause.  “I am here.  Fuin sui haudh nedh sí...” the prince’s voice was slightly ironic.

 

Aragorn shuddered at the comparison his friend drew.  “Can we please not talk about graves?” he hissed quietly, although Legolas was right, he now had a whole new appreciation for the meaning of the phrase: ‘dark as a tomb’. 

 

Legolas’ hand tightened in his.  “This is no place for the living; we have to get out, now!  I feel the evil growing... we will not be alone for long.”

 

The friends followed the circumference of the mound that had become their prison, but found no break in the hard-packed earth, no escape.  It was as if they had been buried alive and the darkness pressed in heavily around them, like the earthen walls of their prison. 

 

They were trapped. 

 

Aragorn heard Legolas’ breathing accelerating beside him as they realized that there was no way out of this dark hole.  He knew how the elf felt about being underground.  And here, in this place... If the clammy horror that was making his own palms moist and his heart race were any indication of what his friend was going through as well, then Legolas must be terrified. 

 

He was. 

 

Garechor...” Legolas whispered, his voice trembling more than he would have liked.  “Trapped...”  The elf stiffened suddenly.  “Something comes.”

 

Aragorn stiffened as well.  Legolas was right.  A change was taking place around them, heralding the approach of a nameless dread.

 

The dark fear that flowed like a current around them was increasing.  The temperature in the small enclosure dropped so fast that even Legolas felt the chill sweep through into his bones. 

 

Terror.  Terror so thick it made one choke permeated the air, fit to drive a man mad.

 

Legolas’ faint glow seemed almost swallowed by the gloom, sucked into its vacuum.  For a moment all the pair could hear was the rapid, shallow sound of their own breathing and the pounding of their hearts. 

 

Then they heard it: a soft, rasping sound of something moving across the pale mounds of gold in the darkness beyond them. 

 

Aragorn backed up unintentionally, only to bump into the wall of the barrow.  The feeling of being trapped increased a hundred-fold, building to a screaming panic in his head that wanted only to run, to escape, to flee the terror approaching them, hidden in the dark.  He groped for his sword, but found it missing.  Whether he had lost it inside or outside the barrow when he fell in he did not know.  It hardly mattered, there was little that such weapons could do against the foes they now faced. 

 

Legolas felt the icy black tendrils of evil finger through his consciousness and wrap around the base of his spine.  A familiar type of evil, too familiar... the elf shuddered.  Mordor.  It felt like Mordor in here, as if he were no longer in the fair lands of the west, as if he had never escaped that nightmare that held him for far too long.  He couldn’t move, he couldn’t breathe... it was all still a little too fresh.

 

An eerie, unnatural green light had been growing in the darkness around them, although it didn’t seem to make things any brighter, in fact it actually seemed to *increase* the darkness.  The dead glow crept slowly out across the pale mounds of cursed treasure, casting it all in a sickening hue.  Then... they saw the wight.

 

It appeared something like a twisted, skeletal monster vaguely resembling human form, but whether that was its true appearance, or merely the long-forgotten corpse of this barrow that the wight had taken as its corporal form they knew not, nor did they care.  All they knew was that when its dead, empty eyes fixed on them, all reason fled like storm clouds chased on a gale before the force of the sheer terror flowing from that dark presence.

 

The apparition approached slowly, reaching towards them with cold, boney fingers. 

 

Looking into those dull, dead eyes Aragorn felt frighteningly like he was falling as the dark shadow spread over him, seeking him, wanting him...

 

Legolas saw his friend’s face blanch and pale at the silent assault.  The prince could feel the evil, but it did not affect the elf in quite the same way as the human... not yet.  The immortals had a natural guard that aided them; unfortunately, Legolas’ had been greatly weakened by his recent time in Mordor. 

 

“No!” with great effort, Legolas tore his feet free of the horror holding him and put himself between the wight and his friend, holding his own hand out in a gesture of rejection and denial.  “Daro!  Stop!” 

 

The wight paused, seeming to momentarily recoil a pace at the command of the firstborn.  It didn’t speak so that you could hear words, but somehow they seemed painfully aware of its thoughts.  It was angry at the elf’s interference, unpleased at finding an immortal in its home. 

 

The full attention of the creature’s wrath turned on the elf and Aragorn felt his knees weaken as if an unseen hand that had been holding him clenched in its grip had loosened its hold.  He sagged slightly against the earthen wall, his lungs aching as he inhaled deeply, his head clearing for a moment.  He used those moments to gather his resolve and his strength of will; he had a feeling he was going to need all he possessed.  Aragorn was much stronger than most mortals, yet these wights had an ancient power that there seemed to be no escape from, and the ranger was afraid that he could not resist the raw force of their evil for very long when there was no way of escape.   

 

Legolas felt the wight’s fury fall on him like being pierced with a thousand points of ice.  He winced and sucked his breath in, but continued to hold his ground, staring the evil being down. 

 

Le ú-innas gar-ín!  Darad!” he ordered, struggling to breathe around the suffocating assault on his body.  “You will not have him!  Stay back!”

 

The wight laughed, a bone-chilling sound that made every hair on the back of the prince’s neck stand on end.  “You cannot stop me elf...” it rumbled in a voice as harsh as nails grating upon stone. 

 

The apparition drew a step nearer, its darkness reaching forward to test the strength of Legolas’ light.  A quiet hiss of surprise and satisfaction issued from its twisted, shadowy lips.  “You have been touched, I can feel it... you are one of ours, you have walked in our world, seen through our eyes... you belong to the same master.”

 

Legolas felt the air leave his body in a rush as the wight enveloped his consciousness.  For the second time since entering the barrow, he felt an almost paralyzing jolt of familiarity flood him.  Yes, he had walked in this horrible twilight world under the control of the Witch-King, and even after all the years in between, the feeling, the taste, the deadness... it came back with a sickening rush, as clear as if it were yesterday.  A few moments of blind panic gripped the prince.  Elrond had assured him he was untainted by the darkness that had controlled him, even after his near surrender in Mordor, could the elf lord have been wrong?  What darkness was in him that this creature could see? 

 

Aragorn saw Legolas flinch and stagger as he stood between the human and the wraith and his mind screamed for him to do something, only he didn’t know what.  He reached out and squeezed Legolas’ shoulder. 

 

Legolas forced his eyes open, not realizing they had closed.  The wight was glowering at him, thinking it had won.  The evil being was in for a surprise however when the elf’s gaze rose up to meet him and a cold, hard smile played on the immortal’s lips. 

 

The prince felt Aragorn’s hand on his shoulder, and it was a soothing touch against the hot ache that the wight had once again reawakened there.  It seemed that old wound would never fully leave him, but that was all it was, a wound, and all the pain was, a memory.  He was scarred by the evil that had tried repeatedly to claim him and he did not deny it; that was what the wight saw in him.  But the bone that has been broken re-grows stronger than before and scars are only weakness if they are not turned into strength.  The elf’s pale blue eyes hardened into blazing points of ice.  He had already faced this battle in Mordor, he had already stood against that dark claim to ownership.  This wight was wasting its breath.  If it had breath.

 

The prince smiled despite the oppressive evil, his eyes flashing in defiance.  “If you think that, then you do not see half as much as you suppose you do dark one!  *I* have *never* served your master!  You cannot have me and you cannot have him!”

 

The frustrated howl of the wight’s anger shook the air around them, making both ranger and elf cover their ears. 

 

Legolas stumbled sideways a pace, falling to his knees when the invisible hands wrapped around his chest and head suddenly discarded him, almost literally throwing the prince aside.  The wight knew it could not win against the elf, that damnable race had too much strength, too much light in them.  Even looking too long at the elf’s faint glow hurt the twilight creature’s eyes. 

 

But the human... ah, the human... he could be handled.  True, there was incredible strength in him, an almost elven glow about his spirit if not his body, but he *was* mortal.  Any mortal could be taken given time, and they had plenty of time.  If nothing else, it would spite the elf.

 

Aragorn bit his lip as the wight’s focus shifted back to rest upon him, trying to crush him.  He could feel it worming its way inside him, attempting to freeze his heart and pull him into the deep sleep of the dead.  He fought back with everything he had, but the wight was undeterred.  It simply pressed back even harder, pummeling the ranger’s defenses until eventually it knew they must fall.

 

The human balled his fists, sinking to his knees and holding his clenched hands against the sides of his head as if he could block out the intrusion.

 

“No... never!” he grit out through his teeth.  “Legolas...” the last was a semi-desperate plea as he felt the wight relentlessly pealing away his defenses no matter how fast he tried to pull them back up. 

 

Legolas scrambled to his friend’s side, the hard coins beneath them digging into his knees.  He could see Aragorn’s struggle and his pain; it infuriated and scared the elf. 

 

Lasto beth-nin Estel!  Maeth ha!” the elf urged, grabbing his friend’s hunched shoulders.  “Listen to me Aragorn!  Fight it!”

 

Im ú-caro...” the ranger murmured, pressing his head against Legolas’ shoulder, trying to find an escape from the waves of pain and mind-shredding dread that were tearing up his consciousness under the wight’s assault.  “I cannot...”  The alarm of that realization spread through the Dúnadan’s body.  He *was* fighting, but it did not make a difference.  He was up against an evil too old and too dark for him to conquer. 

 

Horror raced up Legolas’ spine, turning his stomach.  “No!  You have to mellon-nín!  You have to!” 

 

Hunching around the human and shielding Aragorn’s head in his arms, Legolas tried to protect his friend, tried to fill the space between them with enough light to harbor Aragorn as well as himself. 

 

The darkness around them intensified and the wight’s dead eyes flashed.  “You don’t have enough for you both, child of the west...” the disembodied voice of the wight hissed through their minds like tendril of shadow.  “If you try to protect him, I will have you both...”

 

“Legolas...” Aragorn weakly tried to push the elf away, not willing to let that kind of sacrifice take place.  It would not be the first time the elf had put his own survival on the line by linking it to the ranger’s, but Aragorn remembered all too well his elven father’s warnings.  //Do not let him over-exert himself...// 

 

The ranger’s heart twisted as he tried to remove himself from his friend’s arms.  Legolas could not do this, his friend was not strong enough yet, the strain would be too great!

 

Legolas clung to the human even more firmly, resisting Aragorn’s struggles and pulling the ranger to his feet.  Without releasing him the prince dragged the human backward, away from the wight and towards the far side of the barrow. 

 

“No, no my friend, do not listen to him,” he hushed the ranger, keeping Aragorn’s back hugged up against his chest.  Legolas knew in his heart that the wight spoke true, he could not protect them both... but he would try. 

 

Aragorn moaned at the pain in his head, Legolas’ presence helped, but it could not keep the wight out of his mind and body, it could not completely halt the vicious attack that was sapping his strength and making him tired... so tired...

 

Legolas held the human tightly, but he could not back the wight down entirely.  His will was keeping the dark creature a little at bay for the present, but it would not last forever.  The prince wondered if anyone even knew where they were and even if they did... what could be done? 

 

The elf realized that the hopelessness pulling at him was emanating from the wight, pulling at him, wearing at him... Legolas’ jaw tightened.  No.  It would not have them.  It would not!

 

“He is mine...” the evil voice hissed as the wight drew closer once more, cornering them.  “Mine... mine... mine....” it became almost a chant, hypnotic and deadly. 

 

Aragorn felt his breath coming short.  The sharp pain dulled seductively, replaced by a huge, dark weight pulling at the human’s spirit, tugging him down...

 

Legolas felt his friend begin to relax against him and alarm flashed through him.  “Estel?  Estel fight, stay with me!”

 

Aragorn’s face was pale when the elf turned it towards him.  “Legolas...” he whispered the word.  The ranger’s eyes rolled back in his head and he slumped forward against his friend’s chest. 

 

“ESTEL!”

Chapter Text

___________________________________________________________

 

~*PART ELEVEN*~

 

 

~~~~~~~~
But it’s not the way it used to be right now
You’ve come so far to just let this go my friend
The same way you did the last time
You’ll break if you fall
Don’t make the same mistakes
You’ve got to believe in yourself this time

 

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

 

 

 

 

Kaldur stood, looking wildly about him between the various barrows.  He had been taken some distance away from where the elf and the ranger had been lost and all the craggy mounds appeared alike in the moonlight.  His breath frosted on the air before him with each pant as he tried to calm his breathing and remember.  Closing his eyes he settled the fear rising in his heart.  He had to remember.  A small smile crept onto face but the terror of the place held him fast and he raised his hands slightly as if trying to ward it off while he concentrated.  They were here, he knew it, he could feel it.

 

“Which one!” bellowed Gandalf.  He had run out of patience and his heart was warning him that they had very little time left. 

 

“Shh... no yelling, that’s not going to help me remember now.” Kaldur whispered touching his finger to his lips as he locked his gaze on Gandalf.  Walking to the edge of the man-made hills, Kaldur took a deep breath and spun around, turning back to look at them trying in his mind’s eye to remember where he had passed.  He ignored the tall wizard who had moved next to him and was glowering down at the bandit.

 

“You must be the one who taught Legolas how to frown like that. Why is it all you people have that same look going on?  Must have taken years to perfect that glower.” Kaldur spoke aimlessly, filling the unearthly quiet with the sound of his voice before Gandalf interrupted him.

 

“If you do not tell me which one it is, the right one this...”

 

“There! That one!”  Pointing to their right Kaldur scrambled back down into the low valley and ran towards a particularly tall barrow.  He dropped to one knee and scanned the area, his fingers brushing through the cold wet grasses.  It was difficult, bound as he was but a few feet behind him the bandit was rewarded for his diligence as his hand touched a cold hard object.  The blade.  It was the small blade that he had thrown down to mark the barrow with. 

 

“Yes this is it!”  The highwayman stood holding the marker and pointing with it towards the barrow.  “This one!  Hurry up get them out!”  He patted the side of the grassy mound dropping the knife quickly into a pocket of his long vest.

 

Gandalf had gained his side, Elladan close on the wizard’s heels.  The Maiar simply pushed the smaller human out of the way, glaring at him sternly.  Kaldur danced just out of reach but stopped when Halbarad cleared his throat, shaking his head when the bandit laid an innocent wide-eyed gaze on the ranger.

 

Elrohir stood off a bit, not getting too close.  The dread of the evils that inhabited the barrows filled his heart and without his sense of hearing he felt vulnerable and defenseless.  He did not like the Barrows, he never had and now that feeling was worse than ever.  The younger twin moved away from Halbarad and stood in front of the captive bandits, watching intently as Gandalf placed his hand on the sealed-over entrance to the barrow.

 

“Told you I’d find it I did!  Never forget a thing I don’t.” The highwayman tapped the side of his head with his forefinger, “See?  Old old Kaldur still comes in handy.  Good thing you had me here to help you out.” The bandit carried on behind Elladan until the elf turned a glare upon him.

 

“Keep quiet or I will feed you to the wight myself and then you won’t have to worry about the villagers.” The twin threatened softly.

 

Kaldur’s eyes grew wide as he raised his eyebrows at the thought of being handed over to a wight and he ran his fingers across his mouth with a flourish as though sealing it shut with the motion.  The threat however didn’t wipe the grin from his face as Elladan simply shook his head and turned back to see how Gandalf was faring.

 

“Get back up the hill with your men.” The elf twin motioned the thief away from them.  When Kaldur finally moved off, encouraged by Halbarad’s motions to join them, Elladan turned back to see how Gandalf was faring.

 

The wizard was pressed against the mound of dirt, listening intently.

 

“Strider?  Legolas?  Can you hear me?” Gandalf called, his voice so commanding that it seemed even the layers and layers of earth dare not try to block him.

 

“Mithrandir?” Legolas’ voice came back to him muffled, faint and filled with fear.  At first the prince thought he was hearing things, but then he knew he was not.  He did not know how the wizard came to be there, but he did not care, his and Aragorn’s only hope rested in the Istar’s hands.  “Mithrandir!  We must get out of here!  I’m losing Estel!”

 

The wizard’s expression turned even graver at the hint of panic in the elf prince’s usually collected voice.  “Is Strider alright?  Legolas listen to me and calm down.  Is Strider conscious?” Gandalf spoke slowly and loudly as he leaned against the now firmly closed off door.

 

“Come on, get up here.” Halbarad met Kaldur part way up the hill, motioning the robber in his direction.  Taking the man by the elbow he escorted the thief back to where the others were still sitting on the slope.  “Now stay put.” The ranger commanded darkly.

 

Once back up out of the valley Kaldur moved slightly away from his men, choosing to stand on the far side of his companions where he could get a good view of what was going on below.  Halbarad glanced over at the highwayman a few times, contenting himself that the man would not try to escape.

 

Losmir was not as patient in biding his time as his leader, and he had been constantly working the knots on his bonds.  His hands were nearly freed when Kaldur glanced back him, his eyes narrowing as he watched his men.  Something was wrong; they were antsy and watching Losmir closely with furtive glances.

 

The small stirrings behind him caught Kaldur’s attention and he turned to glance back at his captured crew once more.

 

Breaking free of his captivity, Losmir lunged forward, kicking an unsuspecting Halbarad in the back of the knees and dropping the man to the ground.  As the ranger fell the thief pulled Halbarad’s sword from his sheath.  He tossed the sword into the air so it spun end over end and grabbed the hilt, bringing it down hard against the ranger’s skull.  Even with the injuries he had recently taken, Losmir was still a formidable foe.  Caught by surprise while his attention was fixed on the frightening scene in front of him, Halbarad crumpled into the grass and did not move.  He hadn’t even had a chance to cry out.

 

With the ranger out of commission, Losmir set his sights on escape.  The only thing standing between him and freedom now was the deaf elf that stood with his back to him a little further up the hill.  Losmir heard Kaldur yell his name but was too intent on escape, he would deal with his traitorous leader another time.  First he intended to get out of here... his hand tightened on the hilt of the sword.  Kaldur he would hunt down at his leisure, but right now, his anger would sate itself with the lifeblood of the elf who was in his way.  He could not tell the twins apart, nor would he have cared if he could have.  All he for cared was they would pay, just like he had promised.  Losmir always kept his word in these matters. 

 

Elladan spun around at the sound of Kaldur’s shouted warning, but the elf who needed it most could not hear call.

 

“No!” the anguished cry was the only reaction Elladan had time to give as his mind registered in a flash that, as far away as he was, he could never reach his brother in time to save him. 

 

Kaldur was already running up the small hill on Elrohir’s right.  The elf, still unaware of his danger or what was going on around him, stood watching Gandalf intently, worried for Estel and Legolas.  He frowned as Elladan turned towards him.  The look on his twin’s face was one of surprise and horror but he did not understand the reason behind the warning.  Had something happened to Estel?

 

Kaldir slid behind Elrohir, shoving the elf out of the way as Losmir swung out with the sword he wielded.  Stepping into the blow, Kaldur raised his bound hands and used the down swinging arc to sever the ropes that held him.  The momentary surprise that his actions won him were all he needed to outsmart his former second-in-command and he ducked low under the next swipe of the sword.  Swinging upward, Kaldur slammed his fist into Losmir’s midsection, doubling the robber over and sending him off balance.  The sword fell from his hands as his captain danced out of the way of his clumsy attempts to defend himself.  Losmir stumbled forward under the impact of Kaldur’s fists as they connecting with the small of his back sending him sprawling.

 

Tumbling down the grassy incline Losmir bumped up against the mound of a barrow, its blackened doorway, one of the few still open, yawned like a mouth behind him.  A low, groaning moan escaped from inside the tomb and he tried to move away but was prevented from doing so as Kaldur’s foot pressed down against his chest.  The tip of a sword scraped the underside of Losmir’s chin forcing him to glance up into Kaldur’s eyes. 

 

Elladan left Gandalf and ran to his brother’s side, but Elrohir was all right and still didn’t even know he’d been in any danger so Elladan stooped quickly to check on Halbarad, leveling warning glares at the other bandits who looked as if they would like to use the distraction to try something. 

 

“Don’t even think about it!” the elf warned, swiftly drawing his bow to keep them covered.  The elder twin glanced over his shoulder down the hill were Kaldur and Losmir were fighting.  The two bandits were going to have to work their own problem out; he had his hands full up here and at the moment he couldn’t bring himself to care very much if they killed each other. 

 

“Why are you helping *them*?” Losmir sputtered, shifting uneasily under his former leader’s intense gaze.  “We have to get out of here!  You had the leverage we needed but you’re too soft to use it.  It’s why we never made the big hauls, it’s why you would have lost the lot of them.  They’d have sided with me over you given a chance to really think about it.”

 

Kaldur held the sword tip dangerously close to Losmir’s jugular vein.  “What *we* Losmir?  Maybe I’m helping them because as of yet *they* haven’t betrayed my trust and tried to stab me in the back... Although I’m sure your first thought was going to be to get the rest of us free, not just run off and save your own hide...” his tone suggested that that was actually not at all what he thought.  “Of course maybe,” he smiled.  “I just don’t like ye.  And neither do the men if they’ve got any sense.”

 

“Traitor!” Losmir spat.

 

“Well ain’t that the pot calling the kettle black?” Kaldur laughed.  “You’re a fine one to talk... You really thought you could lead them, didn’t you?  You thought you could cross me and I would simply disappear?” Leaning down harder Kaldur’s eyes narrowed as he whispered viciously, “You were wrong mate.” 

 

Out of the corner of his vision Kaldur saw the ghostly form of a bony hand reach outside the darkened barrow opening.  Slipping the sword up the side of Losmir’s chin he kicked the man towards the doorway, backpedaling quickly as the wight grasped Losmir’s foot and pulled the unwilling victim into the barrow with him.  The screams of the trapped human echoed in the unearthly wail of the evil that inhabited the ancient tomb.

 

Before the doorway could seal itself properly, Kaldur reached inside his long vest and brought out one of the small black boxes he had pilfered from his own hideout earlier.. Striking his blade against a small piece of flint embedded into the top of the box, he lit the device and tossed it into the barrow. 

 

“Get down!” Running back towards his men, he yelled a warning.  Elrohir was standing a small distance away, where Elladan had moved him to keep him out of danger.  He was quite near, but looking around in semi-confusion as he knew things were happening and it was frustrating him that he didn’t know what.  Of course he could not hear Kaldur, but the bandit knew that and purposefully set his course so that he slammed into the younger elven twin, bodily forcing him to the ground.  “Get down!”

 

Kaldur’s hands covered Elrohir’s already damaged ears and he instinctively curled around the elf, shielding him from the debris as the barrow exploded. Shards of stone and splinters of wood shot through the air as the mound collapsed upon itself.  The groaning of the earth was coupled with the shrieking wail of the angered wight as its haunt was destroyed and its spirit displaced, forced to flee back to Mordor, seeking out its master.

 

The dark of night seemed to deepen as the wight passed out of the valley and the terror of its presence was like a heavy weight on the living inhabitants as it fled.

 

Silence fell in the small meadow as though every living thing was holding its breath.  A slight wind had picked up and slowly dispersed the cloud of dust that hung in the thick summer air.

 

Carefully, Kaldur rolled off of Elrohir and glanced down at the elf to see if he had survived the blast.

 

“Fool!” Gandalf thundered, stormed towards the bandit captain.

 

Kaldur flipped over on his back and tried to move away from the imposing form of the tall wizard.  His head was still ringing from the explosion and he didn’t have his balance quite yet.

 

“What were you thinking?!  Do you want to bring every wight in this place down upon us?!  Have you no sense at all?” Gandalf followed the small man as he backed away.  “I have never met anyone as entirely without intelligence as you seem to be.”

 

“I’m sorry I can’t hear you.”  Kaldur smiled irritatingly up at the wizard, “My ears.  The explosion and all.”  He pressed his pinky finger into his ear and moved it around, “They’re not working.”

 

“Neither is your brain.” Gandalf bent over and glared at the bandit.  Through whatever magic he used the wizard darkened the night around them and appeared to grow even taller as the bandit stared at him, “If you so much as move from this position or speak even one word I will take care of you myself do you understand?”  The Maiar’s words were soft and lethal as he spoke and the bandit below him pressed farther back against the wet grass.

 

“Do you!?”

 

“Yes.”  Kaldur smiled up at the wizard his sense of inane humor overcoming the situation, “Crystal clear, no questions about it.”

 

“Good, then keep quiet!”  Gandalf turned and stalked away.

 

Sitting up, Kaldur rubbed the back of his neck and twisted his shoulders trying to work the kinks out of his back.  The blast had hurt more this time than the last one, he was getting too old to be playing with explosives at such a close range.  It surprised him when Elrohir came and sat quietly next to him in the grass.

 

The elf didn’t say a word, just watched as Gandalf stalked back to the barrow they were trying to free Aragorn and Legolas from.

 

After a few moments Elrohir spoke up, “Yes.  He always talks like that.”  He said quietly.

 

Kaldur chuckled softly, “How did you know I was thinking that?”

 

“Probably wondering how I knew you were thinking that aren’t you?”  Elrohir glanced at the bandit a slight grin on his face.

 

Kaldur nodded, his own grin widening.  It was humorous having a conversation with someone who couldn’t hear him. 

 

“Everyone asks that, the first time they meet him.” Elrohir spoke quietly, not needing to explain further.  His eyes riveted to the barrow that held his adopted brother.

 

With a nod, Kaldur pulled his knees up to his chest and rested his head on his arms, watching the goings on below him.  He was incredibly tired.

 

Halbarad had recovered from the surprise attack and Elladan had joined him to keep an eye on the rest of their captives when he saw that Elrohir was still fine.

 

On the inside of the stone and earth mound before them however, things were not as well. 

 

Legolas pounded on the walls of the barrow.  Dirt rained down on him coating his hair and getting in his eyes, he blinked rapidly trying to clear his vision.  The hounding terror had not left but he tried desperately to ignore it.

 

Beside him Aragorn leaned hard against the concave wall, the will of the wight was winning and he could barely stay awake.  He was trying to for Legolas’ sake, but every time he lost to the wight it was harder to fight his way to back to consciousness.  His breathing grew shallower and shallower as deadly cold sleep seeped into his mind covering his thoughts like a dull, numbing blanket.

 

“Legolas?”

 

The ranger slipped sideways, resting against Legolas again, the dead weight of his relaxed body forcing the elf to catch him and lower them both quickly to the ground.

 

“Mine.”  A low hissing voice sounded in the darkness behind him.

 

“He is not!  Not yours!”  Legolas pulled Aragorn in front of him, shielding him with his own body and propping him against the dirt wall.  By this point he was frantic with fear.  Gandalf seemed to have left and there was no way out.  The elf had just about expended as much of himself to keep them safe as he could and he felt the dark, pervasive evil clutching at his trembling defenses.  The muffled sounds of an explosion from somewhere close by was followed by a rain of dirt that showered down on them.  The very structure of the barrow itself seemed compromised.  Panicked, the elf tried to dig through the burial mound.  It should have been an easy task but the dirt stuck fast to the walls and never crumbled free.

 

A thrill of terror passed through the elven heart, nearly stopping it as the wight brushed Legolas’ shoulder with its cold, boney hand.  “You are mine.” It whispered.

 

Turning swiftly the prince whipped out one of his elven blades and forced the glow around him to brighten slightly although it took almost everything he had left inside him. 

 

“I am not!”  The elf stepped back, tripping on Aragorn’s still body.  Legolas threw his left arm back, steadying himself against the cave wall as the wight flinched away from the pure light that emanated from the elf; more deterred by that then the weapon in his hand.

 

“Legolas?”  Gandalf’s voice sounded far away and muffled.

 

Holding his blade out to ward off the evil presence, Legolas half turned towards the call.  “Gandalf!  You must hurry, Aragorn is lost to it.  I cannot wake him!”

 

The desperation in the elven voice alarmed the Maiar.  The wight was very powerful and every spell and command the wizard had used thus far had been fully countered by the evil within.

 

“Enough of this.”  Gandalf muttered.  Waving his hand over the glowing crystal set into the top of his staff, he elicited an even brighter gleam.  Glancing over his shoulder to make sure that everyone was far enough away he placed the tip of his staff against the barrow and called out to the occupants inside.

 

“Legolas move to the far side of the barrow!”

 

“I cannot! The wight blocks our path!”  The elf’s voice was hedged with a nearly palpable fear.

 

“Listen to me firstborn, and do as I tell you!”  Gandalf took a deep breath, knowing just how hard it would be for the elf to obey him.

 

Legolas closed his eyes and sagged down next to his friend. “Aragorn, by the Valar I swear to you now, I will never go underground with you again in my immortal life.”  Taking a deep breath he grabbed the ranger by the tunic and shifted the human over his shoulder.

 

“If it opposes you, simply walk through it.  It cannot own you; you are not mortal.  Trust me on this young one.”  Gandalf pressed closely to the barrow hoping that the elf could overcome the fear that choked him.

 

“I will Gandalf!  Whatever you are going to do, do it now!”  Legolas pushed away from the earthen wall and ran towards the opposite side of the cavern.

 

The fingers of the wight caught in his clothes and snagged in the tangles of Aragorn’s wavy locks, but the elf did not stop until he reached the far wall.  Dropping to the ground he covered the unconscious human with his own body, his face buried in the ranger’s hair.

 

The air around them seemed to compress, becoming heavier, weighing heavily and pressing the two beings down.  An electricity played through the stale atmosphere inside the barrow and built till it nearly hummed inside the elf’s head.  Legolas covered his ears and stifled the gasp of pain.  He was aware of nothing but the aching pressure in his lungs and head.

 

The wight screamed in anger, its piercing cry shooting through the elf’s heart.

 

“GANDALF!” Legolas barely recognized his own voice. 

 

With a burst of power, the walls of the barrow exploded outward.  A shimmering white bubble around the Maiar protected him from the flying debris that raced after the ripple of light moving outward in a perfect circle away from the middle of the downs.

 

The wight, seeing what it was up against, shed the corpse that it had been using and fled quickly, leaving a trail of fear and terror in its wake that rippled like the waves on a pond across the meadow.  The bandits cringed as the ethereal spirit blew past them, leaving the land of the free peoples on its way back to its master.

 

In the center of the field two figures lay illuminated by the moonlight, wrapped tightly around one another and as still as death.

 

Kaldur jumped to his feet but Elrohir grabbed the smaller man and pulled him back down.  “No, wait.”  His own fears ate at him, but he knew they should let Gandalf deal with this situation first.  He watched intently as the wizard walked slowly towards the unconscious companions.

 

Elladan was already running into the meadow, he was not prepared to wait.  Halbarad glanced anxiously back at the men he was guarding, this would be the perfect opportunity for them to make a run for it.

 

“You all stay put or you’ll join Losmir.  Don’t be giving that ranger any trouble now you hear me?”  Kaldur called to his men, noting the ranger’s concern.  He smiled casually at Halbarad.  He really wasn’t fond of the man but he didn’t want any more of his men killed or injured.  They were a good lot and followed orders well, they just got a little led astray sometimes.  He hadn’t given up hoping that they were all going to somehow get out of this... they just had to avoid doing anything stupid.  After that last little display of the wizard’s power, he decided that trying anything with these people right now would definitely classify as stupid.  His gaze drifted back to the meadow as Gandalf and Elladan crouched down next to Aragorn and Legolas. 

 

The elven twin gently pulled the elf prince off of his adopted brother.  Soot and dirt covered them both. 

 

Aragorn was barely breathing, still trapped in the death sleep brought on by the wight. 

 

Gandalf wrapped one of his large hands around the younger man’s head, his thumb touching Aragorn’s right temple, his index finger brushing the left.  It was hard to hear the words he spoke and Kaldur was positive he wouldn’t have understood a one of them, but whatever transpired had worked.  The ranger took in a deep breath, releasing it in a soft moan.  He glanced groggily around him as Gandalf pulled him slowly to his feet. 

 

“My word...” a soft voice breathed, and Kaldur looked up with a start to find that there was a hobbit standing quite close to him, although he was certain there had been no one there a few moments ago.

 

Legolas had recovered somewhat as well and was being led away from the destroyed barrow by Elladan who carefully walked the partly conscious elf around the chunks of dirt and stone that littered the meadow.

Legolas held Elladan’s shoulder tightly for balance, but his senses seemed to be slowly coming back to him. 

 

Gandalf, guiding Aragorn, gave a sharp look of surprise when he saw Bilbo standing near Elrohir and Kaldur and his brows furrowed. 

 

For a moment, Bilbo looked equally surprised, as if he hadn’t expected to be noticed.  He half-glanced down at his hand in his pocket before his fingers found the smooth, round object that must have slid off his finger without him noticing it.  That was happening more and more often of late and it troubled the hobbit.  But his gaze was unconcerned when he smiled somewhat sheepishly at Gandalf.  “I was worried.  We Baggins’ don’t run out on our friends in trouble.”

 

Gandalf shook his head, a small smile touching his lips.  “So I see.  Well since you decided to *not* heed my good advice, come and make yourself useful.  I should have known he’d never stay behind...” the wizard muttered the last part half to himself and half to Aragorn as he eased the younger man down onto the ground.  Bilbo hurried over to help, although Aragorn was a bit too large of a man for him to be very useful. 

 

The ranger was still trembling lightly in a state of semi-shock, but his eyes were beginning to clear and focus once more as he came back to himself, shaking off the last remnants of the cold darkness that had tried to swallow his soul. 

 

“What *was* that?” Aragorn whispered softly as he was guided to a seat on the cool grass, some distance away from the barrows.  Legolas was seated next to him and Gandalf draped a blanket over the elf’s shoulders.  Bilbo took a second one from Elladan and wrapped it around Aragorn’s shoulders as well, getting to it before Gandalf could.  The wizard looked amused and Aragorn smiled a shaky thanks to the hobbit.

 

“It was evil,” Legolas was staring at the grass in front of him, his fingers knotted tightly in the blanket around his shoulders although he did not physically need its warmth.  “It was evil... like Mordor,” the last part was barely a whisper.  “Like *him*.”

 

The elf bowed his head and breathed slowly, rocking slightly back and forth.  He was healing well, but as he had told Aragorn earlier in their journey, some things took time to forget.  Legolas’ experiences in Mordor were one of those things.  The evil they had just faced was too close, too near to the oppressive darkness and terror he had experienced there.  Wights held far too much in common with wraiths for the elf’s comfort.  He had withstood the evil creature, but the mental and emotional cost had not been light. 

 

Aragorn, beginning to come out of his own daze, caught his friend’s words and looked over sharply.  Scooting closer he instinctively wrapped his arm around the elf’s shoulders, drawing the shivering being partway into the folds of his own blanket with him, although he knew that it was not cold which was afflicting his friend. 

 

“But you bested it Legolas.  It couldn’t have you and you didn’t let it have me,” he whispered back.

 

Legolas allowed it when Aragorn pulled him closer, letting the ranger rest his arm around the elf’s strangely chilled shoulders.  He sighed and gave a small chuckle as he looked up to meet his friend’s somewhat bleary, but concerned gaze.  He knew that of everyone here, Aragorn alone understood what he meant; understood what facing that evil again so soon after having almost been broken by it did to the elf’s spirit.  And yet, just as when he had faced down the wight, although his body felt drained to the last ounce of strength, his spirit came away stronger from this encounter.  It seemed that healing truly did come in very, very strange ways sometimes. 

 

Legolas gripped the fingers of Aragorn’s hand on his shoulder lightly and gave them a squeeze.  “No mellon-nín, it shall never have either of us.” He spoke quietly in elvish.

 

Gandalf, standing behind them, smiled and laid one gnarled hand on the side of each of their heads.  “You two lead a charmed life, I hope you realize that.  I warrant you keep the powers above working overtime on your behalf.”  There was a smile in his voice, and the burden of care that the evil left behind lifted from their hearts at his touch. 

 

Pressing forward, Elladan and Elrohir hugged first Aragorn, and then Legolas, and then Aragorn again, so great was their relief. 

 

“Aragorn, when we heard you were inside the barrow... I thought my heart would stop brother,” Elladan confided in elvish as he held the ranger tight. 

 

Aragorn smiled and gave him a playful squeeze.  “You just didn’t want to face father after coming home without me.”

 

“Well that too...” Elladan smiled.  “So sorry father, we lost the hope of mankind today...” he deadpanned and Aragorn punched his shoulder lightly, causing Elrohir to laugh.  The younger twin didn’t say much anymore since his hearing loss, but his grin was huge. 

 

Gandalf shook his head at them, amused.  “Hush, speak not too many words about your brother thus in open company,” he chided.

 

The younger beings obeyed, but thought no harm of their words since they spoke in the elvish tongue, which would be completely unfamiliar to any of the prisoners present.

 

Bilbo, however, caught the entire exchange, having learned the higher tongue many years ago.  He said nothing, tucking the information away in his mind as he brought Aragorn and Legolas some warm mugs of tea that he made over the small fire Halbarad had started.

 

“I’m glad you’re all right,” Aragorn nodded at the hobbit as he wrapped aching fingers around the warm cup.  “You had us very worried.  I’ve never seen anyone who could vanish quite as fast as you can,” he smiled. 

 

Bilbo smiled back, the discomfort that flittered across his face so fleeting that it was unnoticeable.  “Yes, well, we hobbits are good at that sort of thing.  I’m sorry I ran out on you both in the woods, but I didn’t think I’d be much good so I went for help.”

 

“And help you found,” Gandalf laid his hand on the hobbit’s short, curly head in a fond, friendly manner.  These two were obviously very old friends.  “Even if you *are* a troublesome hobbit who doesn’t listen to good advice...”

 

“And no better help could we have asked for than you Mithrandir, thank you,” Legolas nodded, feeling very tired.

 

Gandalf nodded.  “I think it would do both of you good to rest now.”

 

Halbarad and Elladan were getting the prisoners securely bedded down for the night and the elf prince was tired, but...

 

“Is it safe here, so close?” Aragorn voiced Legolas’ unspoken thoughts. 

 

Gandalf smiled.  “It is safe.  Fear not my friends; no creeping wraiths shall stir us this night.  Not while I am here.”

 

Chapter Text

 

~*PART TWELVE*~

 

 

 

Morning dawned clear and fair with birdsongs in her golden wings as the small troop began their way back to Bree, prisoners in tow. 

 

Kaldur watched the landscape pass by them with dark eyes devoid of much of their usual sparkle.  The six surviving bandits walked in a small knot, their hands tied tightly behind their backs, carefully guarded by the watchful elves and rangers. 

 

This was a bad situation.  Kaldur knew that he and the others would not last five minutes in Bree, or any of the local villages.  They were all dead men as sure as he was standing there.  The only small mercy in that thought was they would likely be dealt with immediately, sparing them any time in prison.  The others might not have cared much about that, but Kaldur knew he could never see the inside of another set of bars and remain sane... well, as relatively sane as he was anyway.  Still... that was small consolation to the fact that they would all likely be lynched or worse before suppertime. 

 

Next to him, Thil looked around uneasily, seeming hesitant to meet the elder bandit’s eyes.  “Kal... I’m sorry I didn’t stand up to Losmir when he started his nonsense.”  The younger man had almost let himself go along with a plan to kill his friend and mentor the other night and that did not sit well with his conscience.  He didn’t know how much Kaldur knew about what had happened the night the ranger escaped them, but he felt he needed to get it out in the open.  If they were going to have to die, he didn’t want anything left lingering between himself and the older man.

 

“He wanted to kill you along with the rest of these people and... I did nothing,” Thil sighed, glancing sidelong at his friend to judge his reaction.  “I should have.  I should have from the start, when he began messing with the ranger and talking about not ransoming you, when I realized that he let them take you on purpose.  Maybe if I had we wouldn’t be in this mess now.  I guess... I guess I... was scared.”  The younger man swallowed roughly, obviously ashamed of that confession.  “I still am... I don’t want to die Kal.  Not... not like this.”

 

Kaldur considered Thil for a moment.  How close he had come to perishing at the hands of his own men surprised him a little and renewed the small sting of the fact that he had been betrayed by people he would have died to protect.  Still, he knew Losmir could be very intimidating, and didn’t blame Thil for looking to his own interests.  Wasn’t that what Kaldur had always told him to do?

 

“Shh, none of that talk,” the bandit leader shook his head, smiling at the boy to cheer him up.  “Nobody’s going to die.  Have I ever let anything bad happen to ye?”

 

Thil chose not to answer that.  “What are we going to do?” he asked quietly instead. 

 

“Wait for just the right moment lad, and grab it when we see it,” Kaldur returned quietly.  Silently, he hoped there would be such a moment. 

 

Gandalf walked with Bilbo and Aragorn in the front of the party while Halbarad and the three elves walked perimeter to guard the prisoners. 

 

Gandalf glanced over his shoulder before turning slowly back to Aragorn as the borders of Bree became apparent on their horizon.  “You might want to consider your choice of options Estel,” the wizard said calmly.  “What exactly do you intend to do with these men now that you have them?”

 

“Turn them over to the town leaders for justice, and be sure that any superstitious nonsense is laid to rest.  I mean to see that they are treated as men, not monsters.”  Aragorn looked questioningly at Gandalf.  By now he knew the wizard well enough to know that for some reason, the Istar held a different opinion. 

 

“Ah,” Gandalf nodded.  “A good thought.  But can you be so sure justice is what they will receive?  How far do you think the word of a ranger will go in Bree?  One who travels with elves and...” the wizard chuckled.  “Crazy old men.”

 

Aragorn looked troubled.  Some of the same misgivings had been weighing on his thoughts as well, but Gandalf’s voicing of them gave him even more cause for concern. 

 

“Thorongil...” Gandalf used Aragorn’s discarded human name with the hint of a smile.  “You are not in Gondor anymore, not a captain whom people must respect.  Remember the foibles, as well as the beauties of your home land.  There is no superimposed system of justice here.  These people will do as they see fit, and mob rule is just as effective as any other.”

 

Aragorn’s troubled look deepened.  It was true, the habits of a decade or more were not easily put aside, even if it was a past which he wanted no part in at the moment.  He had much to remember and re-learn about his own home.  “You are right Gandalf, we cannot simply enter and expect no trouble... but my mind is divided.  What then should we do?”

 

Gandalf kept walking, ignoring Aragorn’s questioning scrutiny for so long the ranger thought he was not going to answer.  “Whatever you decide to do,” the wizard said finally.

 

Aragorn actually stopped walking, clenching his fists in exasperation.  “Why does everyone insist on thrusting some sort of leadership upon me?  Can they not see I do not wish for such, nor am I equipped to deal with it?  When the wise are present, do not put the choices on an ill-chooser.”

 

Gandalf’s smile in the face of Aragorn’s frustration was patient and understanding.  He laid his weathered hand on the ranger’s shoulder, keeping the younger man walking as they talked.  “Because my dear boy others see in you what you cannot.  Have you learned nothing in all these long years?  I trust to your wisdom.  So should you.”

 

Aragorn had the irritating feeling that Gandalf was trying to teach him some kind of lesson by all this, but wasn’t sure he wanted to figure it out.  The ranger was still bothered by the trouble he felt he had led Legolas, Bilbo and his brothers into these past few days.  He had simply assumed the lead without being asked, having become used to a command position.  His friends were all more than ready to give that task to him, but had it turned out very well?  Surely someone else could have done better than nearly getting them all killed, trapping he and Legolas in a barrow and perhaps dooming Elrohir to live his entire immortal life in a silent world. 

 

Legolas had observed the change in his friend’s stance and manner and knew something was wrong.  Sliding away from the others for a few minutes, he moved up to join Aragorn, Gandalf and Bilbo. 

 

The little hobbit was looking around for something to take his attention and apparently trying to keep his nose out of business that he knew did not concern him; Legolas spared him a quick smile before turning to his friend. 

 

“Is everything all right?” the elf inquired quietly of the ranger. 

 

Aragorn sighed.  “Yes and no.  Gandalf and I were discussing the wisdom or peril of taking our captives into Bree.”

 

Legolas nodded slowly, falling into step with Aragorn and Gandalf.  Bilbo intentionally trailed away a little to give them some privacy, although he could still hear everything quite clearly. 

 

“I see.  The same question was on my heart.  When I spoke with Kaldur a night past, he suggested that the Bree-landers and other folk in this locality might have a rather severe reaction to them because of the supernatural nature of their charade.  As much as I would see justice done... I do not think the majority of these men deserve death,” the elf admitted.  “And it would not sit lightly on my conscious to take them to it.” 

 

In the past few years Legolas had learned all too well that even when seeking justice, people could sometimes unintentionally do grievous harm. 

 

Aragorn regarded the elf thoughtfully.  He knew Legolas was thinking of his own experiences as a captive in Gondor.  He had seen that in the prince’s eyes this morning when he insisted that the prisoners, bound all night, be untied for at least a few minutes before they set out, so that their hands did not completely stiffen.  Legolas had rubbed his own wrists lightly, unconsciously... but Aragorn had seen and understood.  As he had understood when Legolas made sure that the prisoners shared in their morning meal, under guard, but free.  Halbarad and Elladan had been more than a little unsure about that, but Aragorn had supported Legolas.  It was perhaps an over-compensation, for the bandits would certainly not come to harm from being bound up for one day or missing one meal, but Aragorn would let his friend have his way in these matters, knowing that some parts of Legolas’ mind and heart were still tender and healing.

 

The prince’s captivity in the name of justice had been hard, and Legolas was obviously unwilling to replay that travesty upon anyone else, even if they were truly guilty parties. 

 

Legolas took a cold front with the prisoners themselves, and Kaldur particularly seemed to delight in attempting to drive the prince to insanity.  The ranger wondered if the bandits realized how much of an advocate for them Legolas really was.  He doubted it.  Legolas would not have wanted it known.  Aragorn doubted that even his brothers noticed Legolas’ actions as unusual in anyway, for the prince was excellent at masking his feelings.  But Aragorn could see through that mask, just as Legolas could see through the walls and pretenses that the ranger often presented to the world.  Perhaps that should have been an uncomfortable thought... but it was not. 

 

“Nor would it sit well on mine,” Aragorn agreed with a sigh.  “The question is, if we *don’t* turn them over, what do we do?  What of all the pain they wrought and the damage and loss they wreaked?  And what of their victims?  Do they not have a right to expect these men to pay for their crimes?”  

 

“Of course they should.  But how... I don’t have any answers for you Estel,” Legolas shook his head. 

 

Aragorn resisted the urge to feel annoyed.  Implied in that statement was again the implicit thought that *he* should be the one to make the decision.  The ranger had been the unconscious leader of their party from the beginning, it was actually a role that he filled quite easily, but now that his attention was being called to it, as well as this difficult situation at hand, he felt distinctly uncomfortable.  Although he supposed he should be complimented that all these beings whom he respected so highly, thought that highly of him in return.

 

Right now however, that was little comfort because it still left the whole mess in his lap. 

 

“The decision may not be yours to make much longer,” Gandalf murmured.  “Look.”

 

Up ahead, a small knot of angry-looking townspeople and farmers were coming their way.  Aragorn had a sudden flashback pertaining to a small town called Strayton, earthquakes, and accusations of river and chicken theft.  Perhaps he *had* forgotten how rural justice sometimes worked out here, considering that once, long ago, he and Legolas had very nearly been hanged for ‘stealing’ the Bruinen when an earthquake dammed it up.  These Bree-landers were good people, just as the villagers of Strayton had been, but as soon as something they did not understand took place, reason could become a little muddied. 

 

“Tell them to keep the prisoners back and quiet!” Aragorn quickly instructed Legolas as the small knot of men drew near.  The elf obeyed instantly. 

 

The small party, which looked to be made up of hunters and farmers, slowed and drew to a halt as they approached the ranger, hobbit and wizard.  They were provisioned for a hunt, but the determined set of their faces suggested they were not after meat or hides. 

 

Legolas had Elladan, Elrohir and Halbarad form a small circle around their prisoners, moving them off of the road and hanging back a little from the rest of the group.  There was no chance of staying out of the hunters’ sight, but they could at least act as inconspicuous as possible until they knew more about these people. 

 

“Who are you?” the lead hunter, heavily armed with a bow, hunting knife, axe and cudgel asked without preamble, sizing Aragorn and Gandalf up with a critical eye.  He discounted Bilbo as big folk often did the little people who were their neighbors.   

 

“Just weary travelers passing through your hospitable lands,” Aragorn returned, more graciously than was warranted by the rude questioning.  He noted that these men were not just well armed, they were *over* armed.  You wouldn’t need this many weapons to go after the most ferocious of man-eating bears. 

 

“Most of us are from the north, near Strayton and Rivendell, but some,” he glanced at Bilbo, “Hail from the Shire.  I am a Dúnadan, a ranger, these are my friends, Gandalf the Grey and Bilbo Baggins of Bag-End.”  He hoped that giving them enough familiar and yet unfamiliar names would put them off of thinking over much about the rest of the party lingering behind them. 

 

“Where are you all off to?” the ranger glanced over their weaponry with pretended appreciation.  “You look ready to take down a giant!  Trouble with wolves going after the livestock?  Or a bear?  I certainly hope that it’s not the hill trolls again, I should not like to meet any on our road.”  All of those were options that had troubled this area in the past, but somehow Aragorn felt sure that none of them were the reason behind this particular party.

 

The lead hunter seemed to rethink his brusqueness when met with the friendly talk, and someone who was obviously familiar with the area and therefore more or less ‘from around these parts’.  The man stepped his suspicion back a pace and relaxed a little. 

 

“Neither.  Worse.  Wights have been terrorizing the countryside, but now folks are starting to think there’s no wights at all, but devil men, calling on the evil powers of the wights to give ‘em superhuman abilities.  So a bunch of us are going out there to put a stop to it!”

 

A ripple of murmurs ran all around the crowd. 

 

“We’ve had enough of them terrorizing our women and children and making off with our hard-earned goods,” the man finished firmly.  “We’re going to send them back to whatever underworld they came from!”

 

Aragorn nodded slowly.  He had actually expected as much.  This was no doubt the twisted result of his and Halbarad's trying to convince the villagers that the wights were not to blame.  Amazing how things could become so reinterpreted so quickly.  “I see, do you think that’s wise?”

 

The hunter’s jaw clenched grimly his steely eyes reflecting determination.  “We may not all come back, but we’re going to burn us a few devil men before this is all over!  Right boys?!” the man mustered their courage and was again met with a ripple of support, several of the men proudly brandishing ropes, weapons and torches. 

 

Aragorn resisted the urge to bite his lip.  These men were only doing what they thought was right by their families and their town, and, in their own eyes, being quite brave to attempt anything at all against what they thought was out there.  Aragorn remembered vividly the terror when he and Legolas were trapped in the wight’s barrow last night and could not blame these men for the wish to destroy such creatures.  If it truly were some kind of morgul devilry going on out there, then he would most likely do the same thing... only perhaps with a little more preparation and a great deal more knowledge. 

 

Kaldur and his men however, were not such creatures.  They were criminals certainly, but you could not equate them with the sheer evil of a wight, no matter what game they had played. 

 

From where they stood, Kaldur could easily see and hear the men up ahead talking with Aragorn and felt his blood start running cold.  Not yet, not yet!  He hadn’t had a chance to work on a plan yet, to figure out how to get them out of this!  Now it was too late. 

 

Half consciously, half un-consciously Kaldur moved in front of Thil, as if blocking the younger man from sight would keep him from the harm they all knew was coming.  He had seen a man burned to death once... the memory haunted him. 

 

Legolas was watching the understandably nervous prisoners carefully, but the other half of his attention was firmly fixed on Aragorn and the hunters. 

 

“We wish you luck then,” Aragorn nodded to the men, giving the impression that their conversation was drawing to a close so everyone could move on about their business. 

 

“And who are they?” the hunter nodded towards the elves and the prisoners, obviously not ready to let Aragorn end their conversation just yet.  “What’re ye doing carting people around trussed up like that?  Has there been trouble?” the man asked warily, a hint of suspicion creeping back into his tone and showing that he was not quite as unobservant or inept as Aragorn would have liked in this instance.

 

“Halbarad is a ranger, like myself, and the elves are our friends from Rivendell, as I mentioned earlier,” Aragorn chose to answer the easy part of the question first, his mind working quickly.  “The rest of these men... are wanted in Rivendell, we are taking them to Lord Elrond.”  It wasn’t exactly a lie, the bandits were considered wanted men in Rivendell and they had been sent out to catch them.  Aragorn knew that the minute he brought the elves into it the townspeople’s interest would wane.  No one in these parts wanted to intrude into the elves’ business. 

 

Predictably, the hunters looked them all over one more time, decided it was none of their affair, and began to move on.  “Well then, there’s a lot of ground between here and the mountains, you be careful,” the lead man cautioned by way of parting.  “And you be sure to tell us if you run across any of those devil men!”

 

“Oh we will,” Bilbo nodded with a dramatic shudder and such an innocent smile that Aragorn had to keep from laughing. 

 

The hunters did not have as much restraint and went on their way chuckling. 

 

Bilbo’s grin turned somewhat smug as soon as they weren’t looking.  Big folk were always ready to not take hobbits seriously, sometimes that was an advantage. 

 

Aragorn glanced side-long at the hobbit, knowing he had intended to send the men off on a light note, causing them to forget any lingering doubts they might have had.  Gandalf had often told him that there was more about the shire folk than met the eye, and he was beginning to agree, if Bilbo were any indication. 

 

Kaldur didn’t understand what had just happened.  He had more than expected the ranger to hand them over.  After all, these people’s ‘civic duty’ had been fulfilled, they could walk away pleased with themselves for a job well done, isn’t that what they wanted?  Oh, he liked the ranger and his elf friends all right, they were an okay sort, if only they hadn’t ended up on opposite sides in this game, but they were the noble kind, and that kind usually trusted too much to the justice of those not as noble.  The bandit’s respect for these people went up a notch as he realized that maybe they weren’t as predictable as he thought.  The fact that he and his men had just been saved from a grizzly death didn’t hurt matters either.

 

“Smart bit about Rivendell there, did you see them VISIBLY lose interest?” Bilbo remarked with a smile to Aragorn once the men were out of earshot.  “That’s quick thinking my lad.”

 

Gandalf chuckled at the assessment and Elladan nodded in concurrence as the small group re-gathered themselves. 

 

“It’s true.  But what *are* we going to do with them now Estel?” the elder twin inquired. 

 

“Personally I’m for letting them all go so everyone can live happily ever after,” Kaldur put in helpfully with one of his trademark grins.

 

Everyone ignored him; they had become good at doing that. 

 

Aragorn shrugged.  “We’ll do as I said we would.  Take them to Rivendell.  They’ll get no real justice in these parts.  Lord Elrond can judge them for what they have done, and I am certain that even here no one would dispute his wisdom in such matters.”

 

“Especially if they find out about it after the fact,” Legolas’ smile was wry.  He knew that if Aragorn had told those men that now, they would never have let them peacefully take the prisoners to Rivendell, but if word was brought later that the ‘devil men’ as they called them had been captured and the Lord of Rivendell took care of it, then the Bree-landers and everyone else would simply be relieved that a menace had been removed and go on about their lives not caring who took care of the threat, so long as it was gone.  

 

“Exactly,” Aragorn nodded, sharing the smile.  The ranger looked up when Gandalf put his hand on the younger man’s shoulder.  

 

“There, you see?  Was that so very difficult?”  The wizard’s gently teasing words were met with a playful scowl. 

 

Ignoring him for the moment and bending down to Bilbo’s level, Aragorn glanced upward at Gandalf.  “My brothers tell me you’ve known him much longer than I have, tell me, how EVER do you put up with him?”

 

Bilbo could not help laughing; despite the glare that Gandalf was now leveling on both of them.  “It’s not easy sometimes... but um, it’s a lot safer than not,” the hobbit quickly added when he saw Gandalf eyeing him from under the wizard’s foreboding, bushy brows. 

 

“Since you are figuring everyone’s problems out so brilliantly brother,” Elladan shook his head with a smile, “Perhaps you will tell me how we can be sure that those poor hunters who walked right by their quarry do not snag some other unfortunate innocents by mistake?  It has happened before,” the elf was thinking of Legolas and their friend Moranuen, both of whom had been severely beaten when they were mistaken for a rouge elf that had terrorized the countryside years ago. 

 

Aragorn’s face clouded as he realized that his brother had a very good point.  This time however, it was Gandalf who answered. 

 

“Well since the dear Dúnadan has been so good about answers thus far, I believe it is our turn to help out.  Bilbo and I will continue on to Bree and then from there back to the Shire.  I was on my way to see him and how things fared in the four farthings after all.  Rescuing elves and rangers from the jaws of evil has merely been an added benefit,” he said with a merry twinkle in his deep, wise eyes.  “While in Bree and the lands around which we shall cross, we will be sure to spread the word of what happened in the barrow mounds last night.  If anyone wants proof they have only to go out there and see the collapsed mounds and blasted earth.  It will be easy to impart that the wights have retreated back to their dark mounds and that any humans masquerading as wights,” his keen gaze landed on Kaldur who smiled innocently.  “Have been dealt with by the rangers and the elves.  Things should begin returning to normal very soon.”

 

“It has been a pleasure having your company Mithrandir, and you Master Baggins,” Legolas said.  “It grieves us to see you leave so soon, but I believe your plan is the wisest.  We would not want any innocents falling victim to a wight-hunt.”

 

Halbarad had been very quiet this whole time but Aragorn fixed him now with his gaze.  “I fear that you must also be taking your leave of us Halbarad, is that not true?”

 

Legolas looked slightly surprised, but Halbarad did not. 

 

“You read my thoughts my friend,” the other ranger sighed.  In truth he had stayed longer than he intended already.  “I sent Arendur to do a man’s job, but he is still young and in my charge.  My heart urges me that now that this situation is resolved, I should hasten to join him as I promised.  Although I hate to diminish your numbers further, for I thought Gandalf would travel with you a while yet and now I am even more loath to leave.”

 

Aragorn had seen the hesitation growing in the other ranger’s eyes for some time now.  “Of course you must, if I were free I would go with you, but I know that the cities to the south could ask for no better help than yours.  Do not fear for us, I believe that Legolas, Elladan, Elrohir and I are more than capable of handling this lot,” he tossed a warning smile to bandits.  “Go with the blessings of the Valar Halbarad, and may we meet again soon.”

 

Halbarad nodded, stepping forward to clasp Aragorn’s forearm in farewell.

 

“Well since everybody’s leaving we’d be more than happy to go our way as well...”

 

Aragorn closed his eyes.  He wondered if Kaldur actually expected them to ever agree with him or if he just talked because he could. 

 

The side of Halbarad’s mouth quirked upward.  “I don’t envy you your task or the company Strider,” he whispered with a chuckle. 

 

“Thank you so much,” Aragorn glared ruefully at the other man.

 

When Aragorn turned to say farewell to Bilbo he found that the little hobbit was busily scribbling something on a scrap of paper with a small pencil stub he must have kept in one of his many pockets. 

 

“Half a moment, apologies,” Bilbo said as he finished; folding the small, but tidy little piece of paper in half.  “I had a bit of something starting to run about in my head since last night and had to get it down before it ran completely off again.  It was good to make your acquaintance Legolas, Dúnadan,” he shook both of their hands.  “Perhaps I will be able to see more of you in Rivendell in the future.” 

 

Aragorn smiled.  “I hope you will see much more of me in Rivendell for a time now.”  He intended to stay close to home for a while. 

 

“Good then!” Bilbo smiled.  “SOME of my friends simply wander around too much for you to ever count on being able to get a decent visit,” he glanced meaningfully at Gandalf who merely smiled. 

 

“Some of us have better things to do with our lives than spend it paying social calls to hobbits, however wonderful the company, food and the pipe-weed may be,” he retorted with his usual soft-edged crustiness.

 

“I suppose so,” Bilbo nodded with a sly grin.  “Although I daresay I can’t imagine any.  Elladan, Elrohir, take care, tell your father hello for me, I will be out that way again in a few months if all is well.”

 

“We will warn Celboril!” Elladan chuckled.  “He can start hiding all the seed cakes now!  Good-bye Bilbo!”

 

Elrohir waved when his brother waved, but turned a slightly puzzled and peeved expression on his brother afterwards.  “You know El, anytime you want to tell me what is going on would be appreciated...” he commented quietly, for his brother’s ears only.  “Where are Gandalf and Bilbo going?  And is Halbarad leaving as well?  Are they coming back?  Who were those men?”

 

Elladan smiled and pretended to smack his brother lightly, but made careful to not actually hit him.  He acted like it was funny for his twin’s sake, but it wasn’t.  The fact that Elrohir had to rely almost solely on him to even understand what was going on around them sometimes made Elladan’s heart ache. 

 

Lightly touching his twin’s temples, Elladan explained everything slowly and quietly, since Elrohir didn’t need to hear him, he just needed to *see* what he was saying. 

 

Halbarad had already left and Gandalf was taking his leave.  Bilbo paused to shake Aragorn’s hand one last time, before hurrying off to catch up with the wizard.  This action surprised the ranger, but more so when he found that Bilbo had left the small fold of paper he had been writing on in the Dúnadan’s hand. 

 

Unfolding it, he read the verses that were written across the paper in a somewhat thin and spidery script.  What he found caught him off guard and he jerked his head up in surprise, looking to the retreating form of the little hobbit as he dwindled into the distance beside Gandalf’s larger and more distinctive profile.

 

Looking back down at the paper he read the salutation again. 

 

For Aragorn.

 

That one line was surprising enough.  The fact that the hobbit had managed to pick up his true name showed that Gandalf was right, he and his brothers had not been nearly careful enough.  But then, Gandalf had called him that this morning, also in Bilbo’s presence, now that he thought about it.  Yet even more intriguing than the header were the verses beneath.

 

All that is gold does not glitter,

Not all those who wander are lost;

The old that is strong does not wither,

Deep roots are not reached by the frost,

From the ashes a fire shall be woken,

A light from the shadows shall spring;

Renewed will be blade that was broken,

The crownless again shall be king.

 

--B. Baggins

 

Aragorn stared for a moment, dumbfounded, then he started to chuckle.  Bless that little hobbit’s hairy feet!  There was MUCH more to him than met the eye indeed!  How many of Elrond's books and scrolls had Bilbo been into?  His verses showed an understanding that shocked the ranger. 

 

Legolas and his brothers were staring at him now, so he brought the note over for them to see, keeping it carefully away from any other prying eyes. 

 

“Our dear Mr. Baggins has indeed been spending a lot of time in Rivendell, apparently where many tongues wag freely,” he glanced with amused accusation at the twins. 

 

Elladan and Elrohir both held up their hands in innocence.  “Nay Estel, we spoke of you as our brother but nothing more and I doubt father would have said anything.”

 

Aragorn believed them.  He also believed that somehow Bilbo had simply figured it out on his own, pieced together from his long study of lore, many visits with Gandalf and to Rivendell, and most likely their own conversations the past few days.  The ranger hoped he wasn’t being that transparent to everyone.  Whether he wanted his heritage or not, it was still dangerous.  But Bilbo was a friend of Gandalf’s, a *close* friend, so Aragorn was willing to trust him, since indeed it seemed he had no other choice.

 

Legolas was still looking at the words.  Elves appreciated good prose, and Bilbo had a nice meter to his style, but that wasn’t what he was thinking about. 

 

“It is *you* Aragorn,” Legolas said softly in Elvish.  He placed his hand lightly against his friend’s chest with a smile.  “Not all those who wander, or who choose to wander, are lost.”

 

Aragorn’s smile gentled slightly as he folded the note and tucked it away, catching Legolas’ eyes.  “Well these deep roots may not have been touched by frost, but they have been very cold of late,” he said with equal quietness.  It was true, the essence of the poem had spoken to his heart and he wondered if somehow this was the hobbit’s answer to what he and Gandalf had been speaking of earlier, and the unspoken doubts and questions still plaguing the Dúnadan’s own mind. 

 

“However, I’m not so sure about that last part...” the wry glint returned to the ranger’s eyes.  “I think he’s in league with Gandalf.”

 

“With him it’s wiser to be in than out!” Elladan shook his head and they all laughed.

 

“Excuse me, not to interrupt if you’ve forgotten all about us, which mind you, I think is a grand idea, but it’s getting a little hot out here.  You think we could move on *before* we all grow roots?” Kaldur spoke up, disappointed that although the four guards were occupied with their own private conversation, their watchful gazes never left the prisoners long enough to make any escape attempts plausible.  He remembered how fast the elves were with those bows.  Suicide.  Definite suicide.  And since the alternative no longer seemed to be getting roasting alive like a pig on a spit, he could afford to be more patient. 

 

“You’d be a lot hotter if we’d left you with those hunters,” Aragorn pointed out with a patient, but meaningful look as Legolas and his brothers connected the bandit’s bound wrists together with additional lengths of rope, stringing the prisoners out in a long line and making them easier to guard since the company was now down to just the three elves and the human again. 

 

“Point taken,” Kaldur smiled as they adjusted their course towards Rivendell and started walking once more.  “Thanks friend.  Now we just have to work on this whole prisoner situation...”

 

Legolas, walking beside Aragorn on the bandits’ left while Elladan and Elrohir took the right, rolled his eyes.  “Do *not* encourage him Strider.  I may soon begin to envy Elrohir.”

 

Aragorn laughed. 

 

 

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

 

 

They had a surprisingly easy time for the first few days of the return journey.  The sky was clear and aside from one ill conceived escape attempt by a few of the men, which, knowing what a useless idea it was, Kaldur hadn’t even bothered to take part in, there had been no trouble. 

 

Unless you counted the fact that the bandits were a *vocal* bunch.  Once they realized that their captors were not going to beat or mistreat them for complaining, the whining grew frequent and increasingly irritating.  They complained about the rigorous pace, the long hours, the tight ropes, and just about everything else until finally Elladan had lost patience and threatened to bind their mouths shut for the rest of the journey unless they shut up.  That had silenced them at least for the time being, for which Aragorn and Legolas were grateful; they had both begun to envy Elrohir his blissful ignorance. 

 

Night was coming on and a campfire ahead drew the small party with wary curiosity.  Elladan advanced cautiously to check it out, and returned to inform them that all was well.  The camp belonged to a hunter, his wife and some of their companions.  They had welcomed the elf and his party to join them if they so desired. 

 

“*Real* hunters,” Elladan had assured quickly when met with Legolas’ dubious look.  “Ones after food and pelts, not people.”

 

“Are they aware of our situation?” Aragorn waved at the line of prisoners strung out between them. 

 

Elladan nodded.  “I told them, but they said it mattered not, any elf from Rivendell was welcome in their camp.  I will admit I was a little surprised Estel, we are not always met with such warmth.”

 

Aragorn could see suspicion written all over Legolas’ face and knew that an overly friendly welcome aroused the prince’s wariness.  “I don’t know if that’s a good idea, we don’t know anything about them.”

 

“And the less we have to do with humans we don’t know, the better?” Aragorn asked mildly, the corners of his mouth twitching up slightly.  He understood why Legolas would feel that way; heaven knows the prince had a right to after everything he had been through in his life. 

 

“I didn’t say that Strider, you know I didn’t say that,” Legolas shook his head, his lips depressing in a slight line as they did when he was irked.  He wasn’t really irritated with Aragorn; he was more frustrated with his own heightened paranoia when it came to strange humans.  Gondor and Umbar had left him a little over-sensitive he supposed, but it would pass, he knew that.  It had done so before.

 

Elladan shrugged indifferently.  Aragorn had been right earlier; the Noldorian elf did not share Legolas’ experiences or heightened wariness of human kind.  He was ready to take the hunter at his word, but not if it made the prince uncomfortable.  “I really do believe he was being sincere, but if you would rather not Legolas, that’s perfectly all right.”

 

“No,” Legolas said quickly.  Too quickly.  “It will be fine.  If you think all is well, then there is no sense in being rude.  Let us just act with caution.”

 

Aragorn sighed inwardly.  Legolas’ back was stiff and his posture ridged.  The ranger knew he was only consenting because he felt he would be giving into his own fears to do otherwise. 

 

“Legolas, what I said before, I didn’t mean it the way it sounded,” he tried a soft apology as they headed towards the campfire ahead, herding the prisoners ahead of them.  Legolas had healed so well, Aragorn almost forgot sometimes that the prince’s reasons for distrusting most humans had recently been painfully refreshed. 

 

“Yes you did,” Legolas returned just as quietly.  “And you are right.  I know I can be overly suspicious at times and it is not a trait of which I am fond.  It reminds me too much of my father,” he laughed slightly. 

 

Aragorn smiled back, glad the elf truly wasn’t upset with him.  “I suppose we all have more of our ancestors in us than we would wish sometimes.  I promise I’ll be watchful, if it even looks like there might be trouble, we will leave quickly, you have my word mellon-nín.”

 

Legolas squeezed his arm.  “Estel... please, do not worry so about me.  I am all right.  If I do not face the things that make me anxious, I will never get over them, that is something you taught me a long time ago my friend.”

 

Aragorn nodded, but kept a discrete eye on the elf anyway as they entered the camp, judging the prince’s state of unease.  It was not severe, but he was not relaxed either. 

 

The camp was small, but well-stocked and it seemed that this hunting party had already done most of its work.  Cleaned pelts were tied neatly in bundles, large slabs of cured meat were wrapped in packages and more hides were stretched between pegs near the ground as they dried. 

 

There were several hunters present, most of them younger men in their teens.  The older hunter, who seemed to be in charge, was still not very old and Aragorn would have guessed early to mid-thirties, but he couldn’t be sure.  The man had been sharpening a skinning tool against a grindstone, but laid it aside when the guests entered. 

 

The only woman of the party, presumably the man’s wife, sat nearby, working some greasy substance into a buckskin to keep the curing leather supple and soft. 

 

The hunter stood to his feet to welcome them.

 

Aragorn was surprised that the younger man seemed familiar to him somehow, but he could not put his finger on the reason.  Come to think of it, his wife seemed familiar too in a vague sort of way.

 

Legolas also was struck by that sense of familiarity and his brows knitted slightly.  He studied the young woman as she looked up from her work, amber hair spilling in curly waves around her shoulders.  She was younger than her husband, only in her twenties perhaps, if that much.  She smiled shyly at the elf staring at her, but there was no flicker of recognition in her eyes to tell him where he could possibly have known her from. 

 

The hunter however, was another matter.  As soon as he locked eyes with the new arrivals, a large smile lit up his face.  “Strider?  Legolas?  Is that really you?  By the stars but neither of you have aged a day since I last saw you!”

 

Aragorn blinked several times.  When the other man smiled he looked younger and Aragorn could see past the short beard and the matured features. 

 

“Garith?  Young Garith?  My WORD but you make me feel old!”  he laughed, returning the younger man’s welcoming embrace.  “Last time I saw you, you were still a half-grown pup tagging along on Taradin’s heels, now look at you!”

 

Garith laughed.  “I haven’t seen you in forever Strider, not even with the rangers, Taradin and I thought you died.  I’m glad you did not.”

 

“No, I’ve just been... away,” Aragorn avoided saying any more on that subject.  “Garith, you remember Elladan and Elrohir?  Lord Elrond’s sons?” 

 

Garith nodded, now he did remember them, although before he had not.  He remembered Strider and the blonde elf better. 

 

“And let’s not forget the faithful tag-alongs,” Kaldur put in as if he actually had a reason to be speaking.  “The infamous bandits-on-a-string at your service...” he shook the line keeping them all together ruefully. 

 

Garith raised a questioning eyebrow and Aragorn just rolled his eyes.  “And *this* is Kaldur DeCahr, whom you may please feel free to ignore.  We are taking him and his men back to Rivendell for sentencing by Lord Elrond.”

 

“Well you do get all the fun jobs Strider, no mistake,” Garith shook his head.  “But you are welcome here for the night, longer if you wish.  We’re waiting for Taradin and the rest of the group, but it could be a few days or a week, depends on how the hunting was.”  Taradin was actually late already for the rendezvous, but that was not unusual and no one was concerned.  

 

“We can only stay for the night, but thank you,” Aragorn accepted when Garith led them further into the camp, showing them a safe place to deposit their prisoners around the fire before taking seats themselves.  Aragorn glanced at Legolas and noted with relief that the elf seemed much more relaxed and at ease now, although he was still stealing curious glances at Garith’s wife.  “How is Taradin?”

 

“Healthy as a boar and STILL holding the title for the most pelts per winter,” Garith smiled as he sat back down next to his wife.  “And this is my wife, Estelle.  Estelle, these are some old friends of mine, Strider, Legolas, Elladan and Elrohir.”  He introduced the pretty young woman sitting next to him. 

 

A small flash of understanding crossed Legolas’ face and his smile widened slightly.  “Estelle... that’s a beautiful name,” he complimented with a small twinkle in his eyes.  He had not seen her since she was a wee babe, but she looked enough like her mother to be familiar. 

 

“Thank you,” the girl smiled back.  “It is different, I know, but my mother tells me it is an elvish name; that it means hope.” 

 

“It does.  How is Maraen?” Legolas couldn’t help asking.  “And Erron?” 

 

The girl blinked, obviously surprised.  Of course she would not recall the elf prince that delivered her into this world and saved her and her mother’s life before she was old enough to remember, but she guessed rightly that this elf, who looked no older than she, must somehow know her mother and father. 

 

“They are well, thank you sir,” she replied politely.  “At home with my three youngest sisters.  My brother is with Taradin’s party.”

 

Aragorn and Legolas smiled at one another.  This certainly was a night for reunions and chance meetings.  It was unexpected, but somehow... unexplainably *nice*, to be walking back into all these old memories.  Into these parts of themselves that had seemed so long ago, but now felt not quite so removed and distant as they had before. 

 

Legolas had not thought he would be able to sleep in a strange human camp that night, but to his surprise he slumbered easily and his dreams were light and as free as the night birds soaring above the darkened trees in the moonlight.

 

Chapter Text

___________________________________________________________

 

~*PART THIRTEEN*~

 

 

 

Garith did not want them to go when morning came.  He tried to get them to stay until Taradin returned at least, but the four friends knew they could not linger, as pleasant as that may seem.  They had the prisoners to consider and Rivendell was still a long ways off. 

 

“All right, but if you do insist on going, be careful, all right?” Garith bid them farewell once he saw that their minds were set.  “Our group nearly had a nasty run in with some of those hill trolls back up the way you’re headed.  There hadn’t been any living out that way in a while so we weren’t careful, but a new group seems to have moved in, watch yourselves, and don’t travel at night.”

 

Aragorn, Legolas and the twins took his warning seriously, but smiled nonetheless. 

 

“Don’t worry Garith, there will be a hurricane in Valinor before we let ourselves get foul of a couple of trolls,” Aragorn assured as they took their leave.  “Say hello to Taradin for me!  And if your paths ever take you near Rivendell, come to see us, any time.”

 

“We will,” Garith promised, waving goodbye with one hand while he wrapped his other arm around Estelle’s shoulders.  “In another five months we’ll bring the baby with us!”

 

Estelle blushed, but smiled radiantly, giving his arm a soft thump for being so forward about them and their life. 

 

Aragorn waved one last time and turned back to find Legolas smiling and shaking his head.  Neither of them had even noticed that the young woman was pregnant.  She didn’t show very much yet.

 

“If I am not still here, then I may have to come visit you in five months Estel,” Legolas confided with a distant smile.  “I feel remarkably like a grandfather... or a grand-uncle anyway.”  It was a new feeling for the elf who was an only child, and still considered to be a young one at that.

 

Trying to think of Legolas as a grandfather drew such a ridiculous picture in Aragorn’s mind that he could not help laughing out loud.  Legolas gave him a quizzical look which simply succeeded in nearly doubling the ranger over.  “Ouch, this hurts,” he tried to stop laughing, which only made him laugh all the harder, until he had managed to attract Elladan and Elrohir’s attention as well and they were all looking at him like he was mad.

 

“And you think *I’m* strange...” Kaldur remarked.  That made Thil laugh. 

 

“I’m sorry, sorry,” Aragorn managed to gasp out after a few moments.  “It was just... I got this incredible picture of you Legolas, with a white beard hanging down to your knees like a dwarf and a bunch of little hobbit-sized children running about you!”

 

It was Legolas’ turn to laugh at that, as he flashed his friend an indignant look.  “A *beard* Strider??  Elves do not *grow* beards in case you have lived with them all these years and not noticed... unlike some scruffy humans I could mention,” he said, pointedly fingering Aragorn’s short, bristly, and at the moment none-to-well kempt facial hair.

 

“Well you know that’s not entirely true,” Elladan put in.  “There is Lord Ciridan, over in the Havens...”

 

“ONE exception, and I think that must be the Valar’s idea of a joke Elladan... the poor elf,” Legolas shook his head. 

 

“He looks very handsome with his beard!” Elladan protested, since he and his twin knew the elf in question a little better than most of the others present.  They had been to the Grey Havens in Mithlond once or twice with their father when they were younger... and of course when their mother left. 

 

Aragorn’s eyebrows shot up mischievously.  “Elladan, did you just say that Lord Ciridan *looks very handsome*?”

 

Elladan scowled.  “All I MEANT was that he still cuts a very fine figure, even with a beard.”

 

That attempt at rephrasing only made matters worse and even Kaldur, Thil and some of the other bandits began to laugh. 

 

“I do not know *what* your problem is,” Elladan muttered, placing Elrohir between himself and the others.  “Elrohir, you have NO idea how lucky you are to be missing all this.”

 

Elrohir laughed at the look on his brother’s face and because he could see that everyone else was laughing.  Even if he wasn’t sure what was funny he enjoyed being part of the joke.  He wrapped an arm sympathetically around his twin’s shoulder and gave the others a protective glare. 

 

“Have you been picking on my brother?”

 

When the laughter died down a little, Kaldur shook his head.  He was surprised at how much these people were growing on him.  Given their situation, that was ridiculous.  “You do know that you four make the absolutely sorriest group of jailers I have ever seen or ever hope to see in my entire life don’t you?” he chuckled. 

 

 

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

 

 

It had been an unusually dry summer, which was a boon to the travelers, but the good weather could not last forever of course, and on the second night after leaving Garith’s camp a heavy rainstorm broke loose.  It rained most of the night, but fortunately they were prepared and no one got too wet or uncomfortable.  The rain continued on late into the morning, but by afternoon the skies had cleared enough to allow them to move forward again. 

 

Because of the delayed start, they pressed on into the evening much later than they usually did and long dark purple shadows were stretching out across the land before they began to think about making camp.  Unfortunately the terrain they found themselves crossing was neither promising nor welcoming.  Steep hills of loose rocks and shale rose up around and before them, working their way out of the eroding earth and creating a crisscross of gullies and canyons.  Usually a thin carpet of green covered the undulating, craggy hills, but the near drought that year had left the area dusty and mainly barren. 

 

Last night’s torrential rain had slicked down the dust and turned it to mud, but the rocks were so thick here that there was not much chance of getting truly muddy.  Unfortunately, the slick rocks themselves provided another difficulty.  They were extremely treacherous to walk across because they were prone to slipping on one another and shifting suddenly under one’s feet.  This was no problem for the elves, or the ranger, but the bandits were having a hard time of it and one of the less coordinated humans had already almost sprained an ankle.  That would slow them all down in a way that no one wanted to accept, so the elves and the ranger tried to move their prisoners along with extra caution. 

 

Legolas listened uneasily as the stones shifted and complained under the clumsy tread of their prisoners. 

 

“Strider,” he walked a little closer to his friend, maneuvering with seemingly effortless grace over the jagged ground.  “I don’t like this.  These hills are not entirely stable.  It has been too dry, and now this sudden rain... the rocks speak a warning to us if we are not careful.”

 

Aragorn nodded, he didn’t have the elven affinity with nature, but these seemingly unending canyons and hills were making him uncomfortable too, not to mention the trouble they were having with the prisoners.  Although most of them other than Kaldur spoke little anymore, it was still like herding a large group of five-year-olds around: extremely trying and difficult. 

 

Eventually, they realized that having the bandits bound in a line like they were was only making matters worse. 

 

The group was trying to make it up the side of a steep, rocky hill which led to a summit that several other canyons dropped away from in different directions.  It was easy to get turned around in the bottom of the ravines, so they needed to take the high ground for a little while and find the best and quickest route out. 

 

Every five steps forward resulted in three backward however as the bandits tried to scramble up the incline, only to slip, bound hands scrabbling uselessly as they ended up sliding backwards, dragging the rest of the line with them. 

 

Kaldur had better balance and coordination than some of the others, but even so, bound as they were there was little he could do.  After a few more exhausting minutes he simply let himself flop down onto his stomach the next time someone fell and dragged them all back.  He lay there for a few moments, catching his breath. 

 

“Look, we’re really not trying to be difficult this time, see?” he panted slightly, his fuzzy black braids falling into his face and clinging to the perspiration there.  “But this isn’t working out too well if you ask me.  We’re like a bloody great lot of oliphaunts stuck on a short leash.”

 

Aragorn sighed.  “As much as I hate to admit it, Kaldur has a point. We’re going to have to cut them separate again for a little while or someone’s going to get hurt,” he said at last, wiping the perspiration off his own face with his sleeve.  He wasn’t having *THAT* much of an easier time climbing than the bandits were and he didn’t want to imagine trying to do it while bound to someone else... he could still remember the problems he and Legolas had had when they were chained together and trying to move through Mordor.

 

Elladan and Legolas concurred with him without argument.  They saw the same facts that he did, and they didn’t want anyone getting truly hurt, nor did they wish to continue the painfully slow snail crawl that they were being forced to maintain. 

 

Aragorn took hold of the rope that dangled from where Kaldur’s hands were bound behind his back to where Thil’s were bound in front of him and began working the knots.  He didn’t want to cut the rope because they didn’t have a lot to spare and would have to redo this all when they were safely out.  He knew these bandits were just waiting for a chance to jump them and run.  He didn’t let Kaldur’s friendly manner or the other bandits’ complacent attitudes fool him for a minute, they would act if they thought they had half a chance.

 

The knots were stiff and difficult, but the rope was slowly coming undone.  Aragorn really didn’t like the idea of having six separate people to worry about between the four of them rather than a nice grouped whole, but they could not camp in these hills.  As Legolas had pointed out, this area was too unstable.  However, night was swiftly drawing upon them.  He remembered Garith’s warning very well and had no intentions of being foolish.  The only answer was to do whatever it took to move faster so they could be out of here sooner. 

 

Legolas, Elladan and Elrohir were working the knots on the other connecting ropes and presently all the prisoners were separated. 

 

Elladan coiled the pieces of rope and hung them on his belt.  The thieves were still individually bound, but they would no longer be a detriment to each other’s own progress.  That should speed things up a little. 

 

“Now, it’s getting dark and anyone trying to run across these rocks in the dark could break a leg or their neck, so don’t try anything,” Elrohir warned, seeing the bandits stirring slightly as they enjoyed the freedom of no longer being bound to one another.  

 

“Like you could do anything if we did, stone head,” one of the bandits muttered with a half sneer because he knew the elf couldn’t hear his retort. 

 

Elladan did however.  The bandit suddenly found himself picked up by the shoulders of his shirt, his feet dangling above the ground while he looked down into the dark stormy eyes of an angry elf.  “Do *not* speak to my brother like that if you know what is good for you.”

 

The man nodded quickly, his eyes wide.  He gasped slightly when he was set down and Elladan gave him a good shove to get him moving. 

 

Kaldur chuckled as he worked his way up the hill, shaking his head at the unfortunate man who stumbled up next to him.  “That weren’t smart mate.”  His dark eyes caught and held the other fellow’s for a moment.  “Don’t try nothing until you know you can pull it off.”

 

The other bandit nodded slightly, silent understanding passing between them.  Kaldur had a plan, or was forming one. 

 

As they reached the top of the rise however, the opportunity to put whatever he was planning into motion was taken away from him.  Several of the other bandits, not possessing the patience or cleverness of their leader, decided that now was a good time to make a break for freedom. 

 

As soon as they saw what their companions were doing, the rest followed suit, the end result being that they all split separate ways, making a break for different gullies, spreading their guards too thin to capture them all. 

 

Kaldur cursed quietly, this was ill planned and ill executed, but they wouldn’t get another chance for anything better now, so he might as well make the best of it.  Sprinting for the drop to the right, he slithered and slid down the slope, kicking up a shower of rocks and earth as he went. 

 

Aragorn reined in the urge to find some choice words himself, and was surprised to hear Legolas sharply mutter something that sounded an awful lot like dwarvish as the prince whipped out his bow and strung an arrow, whipping it off and forcing one of the fleeing bandits to duck, slowing his flight a little.  The problem was that Legolas didn’t actually want to kill anyone, so other than keeping their heads down there wasn’t much he could do... although at the moment putting an arrow in someone’s leg or arm didn’t sound so bad.

 

The four friends scattered nearly as swiftly as their escaping quarry.  Elladan and Elrohir took off after the three who had headed down into the canyon to left while Aragorn went for the two fleeing straight ahead and Legolas raced after Kaldur. 

 

Kaldur slipped and slithered down the slope, jumping a narrow fissure and gaining a second, even steeper slope.  He could hear someone pursuing him and risked a backward glance.  Oh hang it all, why did it have to be that elf?  He tried to move faster, his bound arms a useless impediment behind him. 

 

Legolas gained swiftly on the fleeing bandit, easily leaping the rift after him and catching up with him on the second hill.  Kaldur stumbled and fell, but rolled quickly onto his back, kicking up hard and catching Legolas in the chest and chin. 

 

Legolas didn’t waste time berating himself for not having seen that coming.  Instead he dodged a second kick and dropped his weight down onto the bandit, knocking him back to the earth and preventing him from getting up.  The two of them rolled over and over on the hard rocks.  Kaldur fought like a cornered wild-cat, but ultimately he should have known he had no chance. 

 

Legolas pinned him firmly on his back with his bound arms caught under him and the highwayman stopped struggling, knowing the end of a fight when he saw one.  Legolas held a fist full Kaldur’s dirty, cream colored shirt and brown leather over-vest in his hand, placing his weight against the man’s shoulder to immobilize him as he sat on the human’s hips. 

 

Small rocks pelted down the slope around them, knocked loose by their struggle.  Not far away Legolas could hear other scuffles taking place, whether it was Aragorn, Elladan or Elrohir though he couldn’t tell, but he heard the rocks shifting and groaning and shaking loose even as they were around Legolas and Kaldur.  It was an unsettling sound. 

 

Kaldur was breathing hard, but Legolas looked only slightly ruffled, the blood in the corner of his mouth the only sign that there had even been a struggle.  Interesting, the bandit couldn’t help thinking.  These elves were a force to be reckoned with and no mistake. 

 

Legolas wiped the blood from his mouth with the back of his free hand, but although his gaze was hard and irritated, it held no maliciousness. 

 

“Now, I really don’t have to pull a weapon on you, do I?” Legolas questioned gruffly, his free hand sliding back to rest on one of the ivory handled knives protruding from the quiver harness over his shoulder. 

 

Kaldur shook his head.  “No need, no need at all.”

 

“Good.”  The elf rose, dragging the human up with him. 

 

“You know,” Kaldur commented as Legolas forced him back towards the direction from which they had come.  “This really wasn’t my idea...”

 

“Shh!” the command was sharp, but it wasn’t just irritation with Kaldur that made it so.  There was a hint of alarm in the elf’s voice that made the hair on the back of the bandit’s neck stand on end. 

 

The rocks were speaking to Legolas, trying to warn him, trying to tell the elf to get out... but where?  There was no where to escape *to*.  A moment later the audible rumbling began, along with the scuffling scurry of a hundred tiny rocks shifting and rolling out of place... and the deep throaty rumble of those rocks dislodging bigger ones. 

 

No.  No.  No... not good!  Legolas’ thoughts went racing wildly and he fairly pushed Kaldur up the hill ahead of him.  They did NOT want to be at the bottom of the ravine when this hill came down. 

 

“Move!  MOVE!”  the elf commanded and for once Kaldur complied without argument.  The two of them scrambled up the rocky hill just as its solidarity began to dissolve beneath them. 

 

Ahead, Legolas saw Aragorn appear from the other direction.  The human was stumbling and trying to catch his footing and Legolas realized that the slide that was starting wasn’t just effecting the slope he and Kaldur were on, it was effecting the entire range as one slide triggered another, and another... it was as he had feared.  This entire area was now extremely unstable and it was about to come down, carrying the beings caught atop it to destruction at the same time. 

 

The ground seemed suddenly alive under their feet, rolling, rumbling... slipping away from them.  All stability vanished, giving way to a churning downhill rush.  Rocks both large and small hurtled down from higher up the incline, moving at a pace faster than thought as they whistled through the air, striking down hard only to bounce up again and continue their tumbling flight.  Some smashed into a million pieces as they collided with one another or the hard earth, sending dozens of sharp new projectiles into the melee. 

 

Legolas struggled to dodge, to move, to stay upright... but it was as if the whole area had suddenly become a deadly enemy. 

 

He saw Kaldur stumble and fall, instantly carried out of sight by the rockslide.  The elf had a moment to feel a stab of regret that the man’s bound hands had made him more vulnerable before the struggle to survive took over his entire thinking process. 

 

He whipped his head around, looking for Aragorn again, but he couldn’t see the ranger now.  Some of the flying rocks slammed into the back of Legolas’ knees, sending him sprawling forward.  Once down amid that terrible, violent rush, things became truly frightening. 

 

“Legolas!” Aragorn must have been near and seen him fall because the prince heard his friend shout his name before the sound was torn away by the crashing of stone. 

 

The elf tumbled several times, being carried down the hill along with the landslide that wanted to burry him.  His own hair whipped around his head, throwing dirt in his eyes and half-blinding him.  The air was choked with dust now despite the rain last night as the surface rocks tore loose, sliding on the layer of damp surface mud, revealing the dry earth beneath and further aggravating the landslide. 

 

Legolas’ chest and back were slammed repeatedly against the jagged rocks as the flying stones grazed him.  His mind wanted to freeze in panic and pain, but he knew that would mean death, so he forced himself to think clearly.  Digging his hands in and twisting his body he managed to yaw to the side, giving himself a more vertical position on the hill slope and slowing his downward tumble.  Using the moment of purchase to scramble back to his feet he only just got out of the way in time to avoid a huge, horse-sized bolder that tumbled its way down the hill, pulverizing the rocks where he had been lying a moment before into mere gravel. 

 

Aragorn appeared at Legolas’ elbow, hugging one arm tightly to his chest and pulling the elf urgently sideways with the other.  Speech was impossible above the din all around them, but fortunately, unnecessary.  Legolas trusted Aragorn implicitly and followed him without hesitation. 

 

The ranger and the elf ran across the shifting, roiling ground and Legolas saw their goal: a small ledge in the hill where the natural bedrock of the moraine jutted out to create a shallow, but effective natural shield against the deadly missiles hurtling down from above. 

 

The underside of the jetty of stone was bathed in shadow, but the two friends scrambled over and dove under it without hesitation.  It was likely their only chance to keep from being killed. 

 

Something warm and far too soft to be stone grunted and wiggled away as Aragorn rolled into the shallow recess under the low projection. 

 

“Kaldur!” in the shadow of the stone, Legolas’ sharp eyes could still clearly make out the bandit’s features as he pressed himself further to the side, allowing more room for the two newcomers. 

 

“In the flesh, I *think*,” Kaldur grit his teeth slightly as he spoke.  Blood ran down his temple, but it looked to be a superficial wound only.  “Just can’t lose you anywhere, can I?”

 

Above them the crashing and shattering of the rocks was terrible, shaking the earth and sounding louder than thunder claps as the rockslide pounded the sturdy stub of earth that served as their protection. 

 

The rock above them looked old and worn; it had been here a long, long time and endured the ravages of nature for centuries.  They could only hope it would endure this one as well.

 

For what seemed like an age of breathless minutes, the landslide crashed by them, sometimes spitting stinging, biting shards of stone into their tiny refuge and causing the two men and the elf to burrow back farther into the recess.  Then, finally, the roar turned back into a rumble, and the rumble died down to a mere patter of stones skipping down the face of the newly re-designed hillside. 

 

In the ensuing stillness, the breathing of all three occupants of the enclave sounded very loud and harsh in their own ears. 

 

“Well... *that* was a might too close for comfort, wasn’t it?” Kaldur rhetorically asked himself, his voice still a little shaky.

 

Legolas shook the dust out of his hair and slid forward towards the open air, scanning to see if the danger was truly past. 

 

“It seems that everything has stabilized once more...” he turned back towards the others and stopped.  “Aragorn?”

 

Aragorn had not yet spoken or moved, and Legolas now saw that the ranger still had his back pressed against the low stone wall, the angle forcing him to be half-curled over his knees.  The human had his right arm clutched tightly to his chest, and his breathing was ragged, but deep, as if he were trying to slow it down. 

 

“Aragorn!” Legolas scooted forward, concern quickly turning to alarm as he saw the pinched look of pain on his friend’s face. 

 

“I’ll be all right,” Aragorn said slowly, scooting out a little so that he could straighten up, but otherwise moving as little as he could.  “Just give me a moment Legolas, I’ll be all right.”

 

His arm was burning and his fingers felt numb.  A rock had struck his elbow, smashing his forearm between the tumbling rock and the stone ledge he had been balancing against.  The result was agonizing, but he knew that if he gave himself a few minutes, he could get it under control.  

 

“I’m sure you will, but I still want to know what is wrong,” Legolas shook his head, visually checking the human over swiftly.  His friend looked all right, except for whatever was wrong with his arm.

 

Gently, Legolas laid his hand on Aragorn’s forearm, feeling heat radiating off of it through the ranger’s torn sleeve.  He didn’t try to move the limb, but just let his hand rest on it, sending waves of comfort through his touch. 

 

“Is it broken?” the elf asked quietly.  “Is anything broken?”

 

Aragorn shook his head.  “I don’t think so.  I can still move all my fingers at least.  The arm hurts, but I think it is only slightly fractured at worst.”

 

Legolas ignored his friend’s propensity for understatement and laid his other hand under the injured arm, his eyes meeting Aragorn’s in a silent request.  “May I?”  They seemed to ask.

 

Aragorn nodded, releasing his death grip on his wrist and allowing the elf to gently take his arm between his hands and rotate it in small, easy motions to check its mobility. 

 

The ranger sucked his breath in and closed his eyes, willing the pain away.  Right now he was hurting too much to assess his own injury objectively, so he appreciated his friend’s help.  The elf moved the ranger’s arm a little to the right and his elbow screamed in pain, causing the Dúnadan to moan slightly and press his eyelids tighter shut.  When he opened them again Legolas was squatting close, watching him with compassionate silver-blue eyes as he laid the man’s arm back upon his breast. 

 

“It is not fully broken,” the elf concurred.  His medical knowledge was limited, but as a prince and a warrior he had been taught field-care principles at least, and throughout his life had had much call to practice and refine those skills.  “However I do fear that it has been compromised, however small the fracture may be.  The structure tissue around the elbow has also taken harm.  The arm may need nothing more than immobilization, but I would feel better if Lord Elrond or one of your brothers checked it as soon as possible, just to be sure.”

 

Aragorn nodded, then his face suddenly clouded a shade further and he looked around.  Scooting forward to the edge of their little refuge he raked the rubble-strewn landscape with his sharp gaze.  “Where are they?  Where are my brothers?”

 

Legolas stood up quickly and scanned the area with his even keener sight... but Aragorn’s searching gaze found the elf’s eyes apologetic when they turned back on the ranger. 

 

“I don’t see them Estel,” the prince said quietly.  They both knew what that could mean, but both refused to accept it.  “But then, I don’t see any of the other bandits either.  They scattered much and I cannot see beyond this small valley.  It is possible that this slide did not affect any of the other canyons,” he quickly added hopefully.

 

“Then we had better find them,” Aragorn said resolutely, rising to his feet and stifling the pain-induced dizziness that swept through him at the motion.  For a few moments he had to lean against the stone ledge they had just hidden under as he regained his strength.

 

Legolas nodded, compassionately overlooking Aragorn’s difficulty, since he knew the ranger did not want to be seen as weak at the moment.  The prince glanced back at Kaldur, whom they had both all but forgotten.  The bandit was reclining on the rocky ground on his side, propped up on one elbow since his hands were still bound behind him.  When the elf’s gaze fell on him he smiled and cocked his head to the side as if to say: hello, remember me?

 

Legolas wasn’t sure what to do.  He had never had a companion he would be more glad to lose, but they couldn’t just set the bandit free, and they couldn’t very well tie him up and leave him here until they got back either, there might be wild animals about...  Stars but this prisoner was ending up being so much more trouble than he was worth. 

 

“We take him with us,” Aragorn answered Legolas’ unspoken question, pushing away from the rock and attempting to use the strap of his quiver as a temporary sling for his hurting arm. 

 

Legolas raised his eyebrows dryly.  “I was afraid of that.”  But the barb was spoken with a small amount of humor. 

 

The elf moved over to help Aragorn with his make-shift sling, padding the arm with a spare tunic that was quickly retrieved from the ranger’s pack and then using the quiver harness to immobilize the limb.  It was a crude arrangement at best, but it would have to serve for the present. 

 

Aragorn unbuckled his belt and struggled to one-handedly switch his sword from his left side to his right side now that he could no longer draw it with his usual arm.  Again, Legolas came to his assistance, and the ranger did not complain.

 

Legolas reflected for a moment, as he tied the scabbard back down around Aragorn’s right thigh, that the more gracious ease with which the ranger accepted help these days was a subtle shift in his friend’s personality.  It spoke in a certain level of acquired self-assurance that came with maturity.  When he had first known the ranger, the young human was *very* resistant to the idea that he should ever need any assistance, or that there was anything he could not handle just as well as his elven companions.  However, that need to prove himself seemed to have settled down somewhat as Aragorn grew older, for the mature ranger Legolas knew now did not need to *prove* that he was capable, he simply *was* capable. 

 

The elf chuckled.  It certainly made life a whole lot easier. 

 

Aragorn quirked an eyebrow.  “Are you laughing at the clumsy human again Legolas?” he inquired with a small smile.

 

“Nay,” the prince quickly shook his head as he rose to his feet.  “I was simply remembering our younger days.”

 

Aragorn liked the way Legolas referred to it as ‘their’ younger days, even though in truth they were only the human’s younger days, for Legolas had physically changed little or not at all over the long years of their friendship.  Still, he liked the bond, the oneness that Legolas accepted when he said things like that.  

 

“Well then that *is* cause for laughter,” the ranger said, allowing himself a small chuckle as well.  “But now we have a job to do.”

 

Legolas nodded.  “All right Kaldur, it seems the heavens have a cruel sense of humor after all and we are still doomed to one another’s company.  Come,” he summoned the bandit, who had already been in the process of rising to his feet.  “...Quietly,” he added as an afterthought. 

 

Kaldur shook the dust and gravel off of his clothes, eyeing the rocky terrain.  “Not going ta make it across there very well without me hands...” he observed. 

 

Legolas shot him a look.  After what had just happened?  The man had to be insane to think they would untie him.   

 

“You’ll manage.  And don’t try anything like that last little stunt again,” the elf warned as they set out, picking their way along the slope. 

 

“I may not have the patience to chase you again, next time I may just shoot you.”  Legolas wouldn’t kill Kaldur, and they all knew that, but Kaldur figured that if the elf were peeved enough he might just wing him intentionally.   Not a good thought. 

 

They placed the bandit between them, with Aragorn in front and Legolas following watchfully behind. 

 

Kaldur shook his head as if any thoughts of trouble were the farthest thing from his mind, keeping his balance as best he could.  “I can’t believe you still don’t trust me,” he took on an injured tone.  “WHAT have I ever done to give you that opinion?  I ask you?”

 

“Terrorized the countryside masquerading as a barrow-wight, robbed dozens of people, nearly killed my friends and I, escaped and tried to escape several times...” the elf ticked the reasons off on his fingers.  “Tried to run *again* about five minutes ago and caused a deadly landslide... Need I go on?”

 

Kaldur whistled.  “Well then that’s some memory you’ve got there, sure enough.  But what about saving you two by bringing that wizard to get you out of the barrow?  Hm?”

 

Legolas actually laughed.  The bandit annoyed him, but sometimes it was almost funny.  “Gandalf would have turned you into stone if you hadn’t.  Tell me one thing you’ve done that didn’t benefit you personally.”

 

“True...” Kaldur admitted as he walked carefully between the two.  “But I mean to ask you, what’s a body to do if they don’t look to their own concerns?  Then of course there’s those moments of insanity that overtake one, like saving your deaf elf friend from Losmir.  Had nothing to gain from that did I now?”

 

Legolas didn’t respond and Kaldur just grinned to himself.  He liked being thought of as unpredictable.  Oddly enough, he was beginning to like the infuriatingly serious elf too. 

 

Aragorn, in the lead, smiled slightly at the exchange.  Legolas rarely let people bait him that much, but then Kaldur seemed to be a... unique individual on most counts.  Then he tuned the conversation out as his attention flung outward, searching for any sign of his brothers. 

 

Silence descended as they walked down the path where they had last seen Elladan and Elrohir chasing the bandits... and each step carried a new weight of dread.  This hillside was as mangled as the others, perhaps even more so.  It was as if a giant hand had swept the area, redesigning everything. 

 

They continued on grimly as the lengthening shadows blended together into night.  The growing darkness only made their search all the more difficult, but they pressed forward slowly, calling and calling for the twins as they went.  Kaldur even started calling for some of his men... wondering if anyone could have made it alive out of this mess.

 

Aragorn and Legolas exchanged glances.  There had not been that much time elapsed from the bandits’ flight to the rockslide.  They should not have been this far apart from Elladan and Elrohir when the slide hit... where could they possibly be?  And were the answers ones they wanted to find?

Chapter Text

 

~*PART FOURTEEN*~

 

 

 

Elrohir opened his eyes slowly, the fierce ache in his chest drawing him to consciousness.  Darkness was everywhere.  Night must have fallen for when he rolled slowly onto his back the stars winked down on him dimly from above.  He found himself straining to hear if anyone else was near, if there were anymore rocks still falling... anything.  The elf brushed away the strands of dark hair that clung to his face and felt a sharp stabbing in his chest that probably meant he had broken ribs, or at the very least, severely bruised ones. 

 

He knew he moaned but he couldn’t hear himself.  It was like living in a vacuum and Elrohir had to battle down a small wave of panic as he reminded himself that he could deal with this, he had been for a while now.  That didn’t mean it was easy.  Not having his hearing was like losing half of his world.  He made a joke of it with both of his over-protective and over-responsible brothers to keep them from fretting more than they usually did.  In his heart however, Elrohir had begun to feel the crushing fear that his hearing might never come back and he would be trapped forever in this cold, silent world, despite what Gandalf had said.  That thought scared him much more than he wanted to admit.

 

“Elladan?” He groggily called his brother’s name even though he knew he wouldn’t be able to hear if his twin called back.  They hadn’t been far apart when the slide started... but everything after that point was difficult to remember.  Elrohir looked around as he slowly rolled over again and pushed himself to his hands and knees.  Soft moonlight flooded the plains, aiding his naturally sharp elven eyesight, but he didn’t recognize where he was.  It looked nothing like the gully they had been in before and he realized that somehow, he must have been swept into an entirely different canyon.

 

The dizzy nausea that had been his constant low-grade companion since his eardrum injury assaulted the elf with renewed vengeance. Elrohir stopped, resting on his hands and knees for a moment, hanging his head down and trying to put the spinning world back into focus before forcing himself unsteadily to his feet. 

 

He tried in vain to recall the last few moments of the slide.  A dull throbbing in his head dimly reminded him that a flying stone had caught him square in the temple, dazing him and making the world spin out of focus.  All he vaguely remembered after that were his brother’s arms around him, Elladan’s smooth cheek pressed against the top of his head, his twins arms cradling the sides of his face.  He could feel breath and movement against his neck as if Elladan were speaking, but of course could not hear what was said.  He felt his brother’s body jerk above him as if it had been struck by something... he realized now that Elladan must have been holding him, shielding the younger twin with his own body. 

 

Elrohir hadn’t had time or awareness to protest the sacrifice at the time.  Now his fists worked into tight balls as concern ate at him.  WHY did his brother always have to be so selflessly protective of him?  He wasn’t *really* any younger than Elladan, although his twin had a habit of treating him that way. 

 

In vain he sought the muddled recesses of his mind for what had followed after, but all he found was emptiness.  The memory splintered away in a dark, rumbling tidal wave of earth and stone moments after he felt his brother jerk and there was nothing until the present. 

 

“Elladan?” he called again, stumbling forward, trying to figure out which way his twin would have been carried.  “Estel?  Legolas?  Elladan!” he wondered if his voice sounded nearly as small and alone as he felt. 

 

A slight movement of the stones away to his right caught the elf’s attention and he carefully picked his way across the torn ground, holding his fiery ribs with one arm, the other out-flung to help keep his tenuous sense of balance. 

 

The movement had come from deep within the shadows cast by a large boulder and Elrohir approached warily.  He was painfully aware that there could be some snarling wolf in there for all he knew and he wouldn’t be able to tell until he could actually see the creature; at which point it would be too late.

 

Something dark flowed out across the rocks ahead of him, and for a moment Elrohir thought it was blood and his insides clenched, causing yellow flashes to dance before his eyes.  When the haziness cleared and he got closer however, the elf saw it was not blood, but hair that lay tumbled about on the rocks in the dim and deceptive moonlight.  Long brown hair. 

 

Scrambling forward and squinting to try to pierce the thick shadows Elrohir dropped to his knees beside the body to which the hair belonged.  “Elladan!”

 

Elladan lay on his back, one arm flung out to his side, the other lying carelessly across his chest.  His eyes were closed and a dark stain covered the front of his left shoulder, barely visible in the darkness.  Elrohir touched the darkened fabric and found it moist and sticky, just as he had feared.  When Elrohir called his name again, the other elf stirred and his lips parted slightly as an expression of pain drifted onto his face. 

 

Elrohir supposed his brother had probably moaned.  Elladan’s lips moved sluggishly and Elrohir thought it *might* have been part of his name, but it was hard to tell since his brother was obviously not doing well.  Elrohir wasn’t sure if the fact that Elladan’s faint shimmer had not been apparent to him until now was due to his twin’s lack of strength, or his own double-vision.  It was not greatly troubling however, because the twins’ natural radiance was not ordinarily as bright as some elves’ even under normal circumstances.  When they were with Legolas at night the difference was visible, but no one remarked or thought anything about it.  It did not *mean* anything, except that they were better at hiding sometimes.  Privately, they postulated that it was a birthmark of their mixed blood, although it certainly had not affected their father; but then, there were many things about Lord Elrond that were simply unique.   

 

Elladan forced his eyes open slowly, registering all the pain that came with consciousness.  He had thought he heard his twin’s voice and sure enough, a dim silhouette slowly wavered into focus above him.  “El...?” he murmured foggily as he slowly dragged himself into a half-sitting position, wincing sharply as his left shoulder screamed at him.  The pain rolled over him in a wave and he had to lay back down again to avoid passing out a second time. 

 

Elrohir’s hands quickly sought his brother’s injury, opening and pulling aside the blood soaked tunic and inspecting the nasty gash that ran from Elladan’s collarbone to his armpit.  He must have been gouged by one of the sharp-edged stones when they were caught in the slide.  The bleeding had already stopped and the wound did not look dangerous, but it was sure to be very painful.

 

“I’ll be all right,” Elladan murmured, more for himself than his brother as he held his shoulder with his right hand, pushing himself slowly back up.  “Where are Estel and Legolas?  What happened to the bandits?  What...”

 

Elrohir pressed his fingers gently against his twin’s mouth, stopping him and causing Elladan to look up sharply.  Elladan found that his twin was looking down at him with a pained expression in his eyes.  Elrohir’s hand left his brother’s lips and moved to touch his own ear.  “El... please, slower.”  The helplessness the younger twin felt showed in his face. 

 

Elladan swallowed hard, trying to focus around the pounding in his head.  “I’m sorry,” he mouthed as clearly as he could.  “Where are we?”

 

Their mental channels were scrambled from the pounding in their skulls, but Elrohir still figured out what his brother was saying, it was the same thing he was wondering. 

 

“I don’t know,” Elrohir admitted, looking around.  Everything looked so different than it had earlier and the darkness did not help. 

 

Elladan leaned against the boulder next to him.  The wound to his shoulder had begun bleeding again and he clumsily wadded his torn tunic, pressing it against the open cut.  Elrohir helped him and after a few moments the flow of blood finally eased up once more.  The elf felt weak.  Very weak.  He didn’t realize he had begun to phase out again until he felt Elrohir’s concerned and gentle hand on his good shoulder. 

 

“El?  El stay with me, you might have a concussion, you’ve got to stay awake...”

 

Elladan’s brows furrowed, but it wasn’t at his brother’s words.  His own healer’s instincts told him that in all likeliness, he *did* have a concussion, but that wasn’t what worried him.  What had his attention was the strange, gravel-shifting sound of someone or something approaching them.  Something heavy.  Far too heavy to be an elf, or even a man. 

 

Elrohir felt the earth tremble a little under them and clutched his brother’s hand tightly, fearing another rockslide. 

 

Elladan knew better.  Suddenly a dark, towering form rose up behind Elrohir’s turned back, blotting out the stars and casting them into an even deeper shadow. 

 

Elrohir saw the shadow fall and the look of alarm that spread across his brother’s face.  Elladan’s lips were moving but they were too rapid to make out so his brother did not try.  Instead he turned, following his twin’s line of vision... up into the scowling, ugly face of the hugest hill troll he had ever seen. 

 

 

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

 

 

“Strider,” Legolas’ soft call from the darkness ahead summoned Aragorn down the hill a little quicker.  Kaldur scrambled along nearby, trying to keep up with the ranger’s long strides.  In the dark, with who-knew-what lurking in these hills, the bandit leader was not so stupid as to take his chances trying anything, especially since if he did escape, all he would end up was alone, bound and helpless.  Right now the safest place for him to be was with these two warriors.  Besides, they had a common goal, they both wanted to find the rest of their missing party.

 

The elf was clearly visible even in the dark shadows at the bottom of the hill, his translucent shimmer softly reflecting the light of the moon and stars above as he crouched on one knee by the base of a large boulder. 

 

Aragorn picked his way carefully across the loose, rock-strewn ground until he reached his friend, dropping down into a crouch beside him.  They had spent the better part of two or three hours scouring the neighboring ravine where they had believed the twins and most of the bandits to have last been seen, but found nothing.  Here however, in this ravine, it was proving to be a different story.

 

Legolas pointed grimly to what he had found.  Bathed in the shadow of the rock, but still visible in the light cast by the elf, the rocks at the boulder’s base were smeared with fresh, but swiftly drying, blood.

 

For an instant Aragorn wanted to freeze, but he forced himself to keep acting rationally and not let fear take over his thinking processes. 

 

The prince watched his companion closely as Aragorn slowly reached down, touching the blood to his fingers and his fingers lightly to his tongue, testing what manner of blood it was.  A chill shot straight through the ranger’s heart as his keen senses picked out the distinctive characteristics lying beneath the normal, iron bite that all blood carried. 

 

“It’s elven,” Aragorn confirmed quietly and Legolas could see in his eyes how much that revelation hurt. 

 

The prince’s hand tightened on his friend’s shoulder.  “They are not here, so they must still have been capable of movement.  That is a good sign Estel.  We will find them.”  Legolas straightened up, firmly believing what he said.  They had to find them; they had to be all right.  He could not imagine what losing one or both of his brothers would do to Aragorn.  He knew it would crush the human’s healing spirit. 

 

Aragorn just nodded, his jaw set in grim determination.  He too, could accept no other outcome but success.  His experienced eyes sought the ground beneath them for tracks, straining to read the signs in the darkness. 

 

Legolas knew what his friend was doing and remained still so as not to disturb anything as Aragorn moved cautiously around, close to the ground.  His eyes darted about, scanning with a quickness that came from much experience and an extraordinary amount of talent.  The prince himself was very good at tracking in woods and grasslands, especially woods where the trees themselves would speak to him, but these rocky hills were not in his field of expertise, and whatever trail the Dúnadan was untangling was wholly invisible to him. 

 

Aragorn’s face was dark when he straightened up, his gaze peering away down the canyon ahead of them.  “They were not alone, and whoever they left with, they did not wish to go.”

 

The signs of a brief, but fierce struggle marked the area very clearly to his eyes.  The tracks of their attacker however, those were at the same time difficult and alarming.  Difficult because it took him a few moments to realize what he was seeing, as they were not of a kind he had had call to follow very often.  Alarming, because once he realized what he was seeing there was no doubt left about what manner of being had taken his brothers. 

 

“Trolls...” he breathed the word in shock and anger. 

 

They were too late.  They should have been here sooner!  The tracks were not old, maybe an hour or so at the most.  They had stood on the opposite ridge of this very valley near the beginning of their search, although there was no way down here from that angle.  His brothers must have been here the whole time.  He realized with a sick heart that this boulder and the way the gorge was shaped rendered this area completely invisible from the opposite ridgeline. 

 

He and Legolas had both called and called... but that would have done no good for Elrohir, or either of them if they were unconscious.  The ranger wanted to kick himself for not checking this valley first.  Even though he knew the dangers of playing the ‘what if’ game, it was hard to avoid when his family was at stake.  He could only hope that his brothers were still alive, and there was yet time to amend these errors.

 

All this was left unsaid however as he quickly began picking his way along the treacherous floor of the rift, following the troll’s distinctive trail.  Legolas was right behind him in an instant and Kaldur, having just made it down the hill, rolled his eyes slightly but hurried after them again. 

 

“What’s happened, what are we following?” Kaldur asked quietly of Legolas as he caught up, not having been privy to the previous conversation, which had been mostly held in elvish anyway. 

 

“Trolls,” the elf said succinctly, taking his eyes off of Aragorn’s back for only a moment to answer the question.  “They’ve taken Elladan and Elrohir.”

 

Kaldur’s eyes widened slightly in the dark.  “Trolls!” he said with some surprise, quickly lowering his voice when Aragorn turned around and shushed him with some irritation. 

 

“Trolls...” he repeated again, softer, but still surprised as the threesome cautiously exited the canyon and found themselves going up hill again for some distance. 

 

“How delightful.  You people run into the nicest sorts of creatures...” the sarcasm in his voice was heavy.  None of them bothered pointing out that the Barrow Wight fiasco was in fact Kaldur’s fault, not theirs; the minds of the elf and the ranger were focused on their task at hand.

 

After something over half an hour’s worth of silent running, scrambling and climbing through incredibly tortuous terrain, they caught sight of a distant glow.  Even from this far away and in the dark, Legolas was able to tell them that it was a fire, a large one.  Seated around the fire, were four great trolls.  The tolls obscured all view of anything else immediately behind them, so Legolas could catch no glimpse of the twins.

 

Fifteen more minutes brought them up to the base of a hill overlooking the trolls’ camp. 

 

“Stay!” Aragorn warned Kaldur at the bottom of the incline, before he and Legolas proceeded upward with extreme caution, crouching low to the ground as they moved.  When the crest of the hill came into reach, they both dropped down onto their stomachs and elbow-crawled the rest of the way.  Aragorn found that it was suddenly darker than before as he slithered his way along the shadowy, dew-covered grass and rocks.  Glancing next to him he realized that that was because Legolas had tamped his light down until there was only the barest hint of iridescence hidden within the prince’s pale ivory skin and caught in the waves of his golden hair; he would no longer stand out against the darkened landscape. 

 

Rocks and unkempt nettle bushes scraped at them as they forced a way through the wilderness, but they pressed on, knowing they dare not stand up and create a perfect silhouette against the starry night sky.  Trolls may not have been the most brilliant of creatures, but they were wary and could be amply observant at times. 

 

A thick strand of tall scrag grass lay before them and the pair silently worked their way through the twisted base of thickly packed stems, barely rustling the waving cattails overhead.  The weeds provided excellent cover as Aragorn and Legolas stopped on the very top of the hill, clearing pussy-willows out of their line of vision. 

 

Legolas was aware of Aragorn’s heavy breathing beside him and turned to find his friend resting his head against his clenched left fist.  The ranger’s face was pale and a cold sweat stood out on his forehead.  The elf’s face shadowed with concern as he realized what belly-climbing up this hill must have done to his friend’s injured arm, even if Aragorn was only actively using his good one. 

 

The elf laid his hand lightly on the immobilized limb, feeling again the unnatural heat there.  He didn’t ask if Aragorn were all right, he knew the ranger would only say yes, and he knew it would be a lie.  He also knew that sadly, it didn’t matter much right now whether Aragorn was feeling well or not, this disaster they were caught up in was not going to wait for them to heal.  So instead, Legolas just held Aragorn’s arm for a moment, giving the Dúnadan time to re-gather his strength. 

 

When the ranger stopped panting quite so heavily and color returned to his face, then Legolas spoke.  “Are you ready to move on?”

 

Aragorn nodded, his face still tense, but dealing with the pain.  “At least you didn’t ask me if I was all right,” he murmured. 

 

Legolas favored him with a small grin.  “I know better.”

 

Edging forward a little, they peered out of their hiding place.  From here they had a perfect view of the valley below.  Three of the four trolls were sitting around the fire on rocks large enough to be called boulders; the fourth was rising to his feet.  The creatures were huge, easily as tall as most trees.  They were basically human in shape, but their features were blunt-edged and all their proportions were boxy.  They wore ragged clothing, but their skin was so tough and weathered it was difficult to tell where their hides ended and the clothing began. 

 

Some species of trolls were basically non-intelligent, little better than huge, cunning and frightening animals.  This was not true of all of their race however.  The really dangerous ones were these, the fully sentient trolls.  Hill Trolls they were often called, simply because they lived in the hills and mountains, making their homes in caves that protected them from the sunlight that was their detriment. 

 

The creatures carried themselves in a bullying manner and had an evil, squint-eyed cast to their faces that suggested they enjoyed the suffering of those weaker than themselves... and considering their height and mass, that was just about everyone.

 

Legolas just watched for a few moments, not completely stunned, but certainly attentive.  He was seeing so many new things lately.  Hobbits... now trolls.  He had heard of trolls of course, but had never seen one before, they were not fond of forests and none had any ventured into Mirkwood or crossed his path, although he knew that many lived in the darker corners of the Misty Mountains near their borders. 

 

Aragorn had seen trolls at least from a distance before and was not put off by their surprisingly massive stature.  In some ways it was ironic that he, in his short life, had probably seen more of the world than Legolas had seen in centuries; most likely the result of the Dúnadan’s incessant wandering. 

 

Almost immediately, both friends’ attention was drawn to the far side of the camp.  There, strung up by their arms from a great tree branch easily twenty feet or more above the ground, dangled seven figures clearly visible in the light of the trolls’ roaring fire.  The large creatures had apparently found not only Elladan and Elrohir, but the rest of the missing bandits as well. 

 

Legolas looked at Aragorn and the Dúnadan closed his eyes, knowing what was coming before his friend said it. 

 

“I hope Valinor is surviving the hurricane,” the prince said dryly, unable to resist the small bit of dark irony.

 

Aragorn just scowled and shook his head. 

 

 

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

 

 

Elladan was laboring for breath, his chest heaving as he tried to breathe around the ache of his broken ribs and the tenseness in his chest that having all his weight suspended from his arms provoked.  His injured shoulder felt like it was on fire, flaming agony through his being and further robbing him of whatever oxygen he could inhale.  He twisted his wrists in their bonds, but only succeeded in getting further cut by the harsh ropes and scraped by the rough bark of the tree that his arms encircled above his head.

 

His heart wrenched when he looked at the still, limp form of his brother’s body hanging in front of him.  Elrohir’s head lolled lifelessly to the side and he could tell his twin was unconscious still.  Elladan was already too weak and had not been able to put up much of a struggle when the troll captured them, but Elrohir had, and he had paid dearly for the resistance. 

 

He and Elrohir were the last two to be caught and so they hung on the far end of the branch, furthest from the tree.  Elladan supposed the five bandits who dangled behind him must have been captured even earlier on in the night, for they had already been here when they arrived.  He worried for Estel and Legolas, although he supposed it was probably very good that they were *not* here. 

 

The trolls had been busy building up their great fire for the past half hour or so and the elf had a very bad feeling about their motives.  Now, one of the trolls rose up from his seat and walked towards them, his heavy tread shaking the tree where prisoners hung and causing Elladan to flinch against the further aggravation of his injuries. 

 

“Hey little dainties,” the troll rasped in a deep, throaty voice, talking as one might speak to a flock of chickens, or a herd of sheep, ready for the slaughter.  “How are we holding up hm?  Ready for dinner?  Eh?”

 

The creature began pinching and squeezing the prisoner’s arms and torsos, checking the meat on their bones.  The bandits visibly blanched in terror, trying to squirm away but unable to do so as the troll methodically worked his way down the line.  When he reached the last position, Elrohir shuddered and winced under the brutal prodding of his hurting body, dragged groggily back to consciousness by the pain. 

 

“Oh, little birdie’s awake,” the troll sneered, nursing the bloody gash across the side of his hand that Elrohir had given him earlier.  Before the elf knew what hit him, the troll back-handed his body sharply, making him twist and swing wildly in his bonds, nearly smacking into his brother behind him.  A short, strangled cry resulted from the abuse and Elrohir’s head sank lower against his chest, blood running freely from his mouth and nose. 

 

Elladan could tell from the rapid, desperate rise and fall of his brother’s chest that his twin had not returned to unconsciousness, but was wishing he had. 

 

“Stop it!” Elladan raged, almost shouting despite the immense pressure in his chest and lungs.  His eyes flashed fire that would have consumed the troll on the spot if it had been a physical force.  “Keep your filthy hands off my brother!”

 

“El...” Elrohir moaned, trying to warn his brother off, but it was all he was able to say as he saw the troll focus on his twin.

 

The troll laughed.  It was amusing to him that their little dinner dainties were indignant and fighting back.  He turned his malicious gaze on the elder twin.  “This little birdie has a big mouth...” he grinned, encompassing Elladan in his fist and beginning to squeeze the elf, tightly. 

 

Darkness hedged Elladan’s vision as all air was denied to his body.  The iron grip of the troll felt as though it was about to snap his ribcage like kindling wood.  He didn’t have breath to cry out, but his face twisted in pain. 

 

“Maybe you should be the first course, hm?” the troll leered, jerking the elf forward so that Elladan’s blurry vision was entirely filled with his wicked, grinning face.

 

Chapter Text

___________________________________________________________

 

~*PART FIFTEEN*~

 

 

 

Up on the hill, Aragorn started to move forward, deadly rage pounding in his heart so hard he thought it must burst. 

 

Legolas’ firm, commanding hand clamping down on his arm, accompanied by a quick, definite shake of the prince’s head, checked the ranger’s movement. 

 

Rushing heedlessly down there would only get them all killed, Elladan and Elrohir included.  Even warriors as skilled as the Dúnadan and the elf could not take on four trolls all by themselves.  Legolas doubted that his arrows, sharp and precise though they were, could ever hope to penetrate the creatures’ thick hides deep enough to do any critical damage, not unless he could find a weak spot and exploit it... but that would take time.  Time they may not have. 

 

“Legolas...” the hissed word was torn from the agony of Aragorn’s heart.

 

Iston!” Legolas’ quiet voice was almost as pained.  “I know, I know mellon-nín.”  Legolas also knew that he could not keep Aragorn from charging down there for long, consequences be damned.  Once, when Legolas had been in a similar predicament with his father captive to his deranged uncle, the ranger had told him straight out that he could not find that kind of restraint when his loved ones were threatened.  The elf could see the truth of that in Aragorn’s eyes at this moment.

 

Fortunately for everyone, the troll holding Elladan released his grip, letting the elf’s traumatized body swing back into place, thumping dully against Thil, who was hanging behind him. 

 

“Are you all right?” the young bandit whispered quietly, but the elf did not answer. 

 

Elladan’s lungs were heaving desperately for air and consciousness was blurry. 

 

“Nokk, is that spit ready yet?” the troll turned back to his companions, leaving the prisoners be for the moment.  “You’ve been working on that thing forever!” he protested when the one named Nokk grumpily replied to the negative, turning a thick, sharp-ended wooden pole over in his hands as he tried to get it to fit into he notch of the tripod he was constructing on either side of the fire.  It was exactly the kind of arrangement on which boars and venison were roasted over an open fire.  The thought made Thil sick to his stomach.

 

“Hurry up!” the troll grumbled, stomping back to the fire.  “You’ll be at it all night!”

 

“Hurry yourself up Rillen,” Nokk shot back irritated.  “You could help me instead of playing with the food.”

 

Aragorn’s breathing calmed somewhat when the trolls left his brothers alone, but he was still anxiously worried about the limp cast of both the elves’ bodies as they dangled from the branch like conies on a wire. 

 

“We have to do something, quickly,” the ranger whispered grimly. 

 

“Yes, so what’s the plan?” an unexpected voice behind them made both Aragorn and Legolas jerk, their attention having been entirely too focused on the scene in front of them.

 

Kaldur was on his hands and knees right beside them, grinning because he knew that somehow he had actually managed to take them by surprise.  The fact that the bandit had slipped through his own arms and maneuver his bound wrists in front of him rather than behind as they had been before registered only briefly in their consciousness.

 

Legolas scowled and grabbed one of Kaldur’s arms, jerking the bandit down onto his stomach and shushing him.  Giving away their presence would be a deadly mistake. 

 

“We told you to stay put!” the elf hissed.  “If you aren’t careful you’ll be joining them, is that what you want?” he gestured towards the small knot of prisoners strung up across the clearing. 

 

Kaldur’s eyes darkened slightly.  This was bad.  No two ways about it... very bad.  He chose to ignore the prince’s rhetorical question.  “You two *do* have a plan don’t you?” he repeated his earlier question.  “I mean other than just sneaking down there and trying to cut the prisoners free from under the eyes of four hungry trolls and hoping they don’t notice...” his light tone trailed off as he found both his captors staring at him in a way that suggested that that was exactly what they had in mind. 

 

“Something like that,” Aragorn’s tone was still grim, his brothers were hurt and in danger and he was in no mood for Kaldur’s verbal games.  The bandit could sense that now was not the time to be glib, so he swallowed whatever smart reply he might have formulated. 

 

“Legolas,” Aragorn turned towards his friend.  “If I provide a distraction to lure the trolls away, how fast will you be able to free the prisoners?”

 

Legolas considered quickly, sizing the situation up.  “From here, I can be up that tree and cutting their ropes in under two minutes if I am unimpeded.  But... Estel... getting them down will take longer.  We can’t just let them drop, the fall is too great, and I can only help one person back to the tree at a time.  The climb down too, will be a difficult one for a human, and perhaps for your brothers as well depending on how injured they are.  If I have to carry them down one at a time... it will take longer than we could safely hope to have,” he admitted.  That did not mean he was unwilling to try it, it simply meant that he acknowledged their need of a small miracle to actually pull it off successfully. 

 

In the back of Legolas’ mind was also the second concern of just how much the handy-cap of Aragorn’s useless arm was going to throw the ranger off.  His human friend had a habit of over-estimating how much he could force himself to endure... and the prince would not lose Aragorn to a brave, but futile gesture. 

 

Aragorn sighed, a short, frustrated sound.  His was face tense.  “And that’s *if* I could get all four trolls to follow me...” he could see the obstacles as well as his friend.  “Which is doubtful,” he conceded.  No matter how big of a fuss he created, it was unlikely to draw more than two of the trolls.  Three if they were extremely lucky.  That still left Legolas to deal with at least one, maybe two by himself and try to rescue the prisoners... honestly it was untenable and they both knew that.  But what options were there? 

 

Their keen minds worked quickly, postulating and rejecting a dozen different ideas and plans in less time than it took to blink twice.  But all of them came down to the same problem of how on earth to get the attention of all four trolls away from the prisoners for long enough to carry out a rescue. 

 

Kaldur cleared his throat.  “You’re right.  They’re not all going to leave the campsite to investigate no matter what kind of mess ye create.  If you want my opinion, you need someone insane to go down there *into* their camp as live bait to keep their attention away from the prisoners long enough ta get them free.”

 

Aragorn raised an eyebrow.  It was not an idea without merit, but it was foolhardy and probably deadly.  “You think Legolas or I should go down there and have a *conversation* with them?”

 

“No,” Kaldur shook his head.  He smiled in his trademark manner, but his eyes were deadly serious for once.  “I said someone *insane* should go.”

 

It took half a moment for Legolas and Aragorn to realize what the bandit was saying.  When they did, their opinion of him went up a notch. 

 

“What would you do?” Aragorn inquired, glancing back down towards the camp.  Nokk and Rillen were trying to get the spit to work right and the other two as yet unnamed trolls were laughing at them.  Although the quarrel was greatly slowing down their progress, they were still alarmingly near to being ready for their first victim.  Time was short.

 

“Whatever comes into me mind first, that generally works best,” Kaldur chuckled softly.  “Don’t worry none about me, these gents can’t be too much worse than a bar full of drunken ruffs what’s just discovered they’ve been robbed...” he did not elucidate on the meaning or reference of that cryptic comment and his companions did not ask.  They were sure they did not want to know.

 

The bandit was holding his bound wrists up questioningly.  At a confirming nod from Aragorn, Legolas sliced the ropes with one of his knives.  For an instant he locked eyes with Kaldur... trying to see if this were all some kind of trick to get them to set the man free... but instead he read sincerity there that surprised him.  The elf gave a small nod, acknowledging what he saw.  The bandit wasn’t trying to trick them, not at the moment anyway. 

 

“Do you know what you’re getting yourself into?” Legolas asked quietly.  “You realize you could be killed.”

 

Kaldur tilted his head to the side and smiled with a shrug.  “They can’t kill me.  I’m-”

 

“Kaldur DeCahr, we know,” Legolas raised his hands to halt the familiar line.  He actually smiled this time.  The human might be crazy and irritating, but apparently even that had redeeming qualities lurking somewhere. 

 

Kaldur winked.  “Right!  Now, I’m expecting that with both of you ta help, the rescuing business is gonna go a might quicker, clear ‘nough?  Becoming a troll snack is not high on me list of accomplishments in life.”

 

Legolas nodded and Aragorn scooted a little closer. 

 

“If you can, keep their attention fixed that way, away from the prisoners.  Legolas and I will circle around these hills to the other side and approach from there.  If all goes well, we’ll signal you when we’re done.”

 

“Right,” Kaldur nodded, then gave a wry look.  “And that’s when we all hope and pray we can run faster than a mad troll.”

 

“Try *four* mad, *hungry* trolls,” Legolas added with a certain amount of dark humor that Kaldur appreciated. 

 

“Kaldur,” Aragorn laid his hand lightly on the bandit’s wrist as the man started to wriggle away.  He had no idea what the man was planning or if it would do any good besides creating one more person that they would have to rescue, but their options were limited and time was running painfully short.  “Are you sure about this?”

 

Kaldur knew he was really asking: Can you do this?  Can we trust you?  Will it really work?  

 

The bandit spread his hands, tilting sideways a little in one of the exaggerated gestures he tended to favor.  “I’m Kaldur DeCahr.”  He said simply, as if that were his one explanation and answer for everything.  He momentarily flashed Legolas a brilliant grin, as if getting him back for not letting him finish before.  Then he turned away and began crawling along the ridgeline so that he could enter the troll encampment on the side farthest from the prisoners’ tree. 

 

“I think he really is mad,” Legolas whispered softly, but with a new respect as he watched Kaldur disappear into the tall grass. 

 

Aragorn couldn’t help but agree, yet right now their best chance lay in the thin hope that somehow the three of them could pull off one of the boldest, craziest schemes he had ever attempted. 

 

“Actually, he reminds me of you and your plans in that way...” the elf prince’s words were quiet, but wry as he turned on his stomach and began elbow-crawling back into the scrag grass which would provide the cover they needed to creep around behind the encampment. 

 

Aragorn nudged his friend in the ribs with his good elbow as he crawled up next to him.  “I *heard* that.”

 

Legolas’ quiet smirk was visible in his words as they crawled, elbows and boots scooting them along as swiftly as serpents in the dark night air.  “You were meant to.”

 

 

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

 

 

Nokk was tired off being teased about his wood-working skills, or lack thereof.  Rillen was hungry and cranky.  Their two companions, Neb and Drum had been sharing Neb’s private flask and while they were not drunk, they were just tipsy enough to not care if they made their friends’ lives miserable.  The result was that the situation was deteriorating rapidly.

 

“Hang the spits!” Nokk said with a gravely oath, throwing the troublesome wood down hard, making the ground shake slightly.  “I say we just pull ‘em apart and roast ‘em a few limbs at a time.”

 

That idea quickly gained an alarming amount of support and Drum rose to his feet, eager to do the honors. 

 

Suddenly a small figure with an unusual swagger and a shock full of unkempt braids framing his tanned face waltzed easily into the clearing right in front of them. 

 

“Hello!” Kaldur said cheerfully, looking up... and up... and up...  He couldn’t help the thrill of fear and panic that flashed through him when he took in the trolls’ frightening enormity up close.  They could quite literally squish him like a bug.  None of that showed in his face or attitude however.  “Looks like I’ve arrived just in time for dinner!”

 

Elladan blinked, trying to focus his blurry eyes.  Seeing the small human figure between the trolls, who now all had their backs turned on the prisoners, was difficult.  But the voice was familiar. 

 

//What on earth...// the elf barely had time to wonder before the tree branch they were tied to shook slightly and he tensed.  In front of him Elrohir stifled a moan.  Then suddenly he felt strong, gentle hands on his arms as a familiar face poked down from above, followed by a small cascade of golden hair. 

 

“Legolas?” Elladan rasped softly, in surprise.

 

Ahead, Elrohir could tell something was happening behind him, but couldn’t see what. 

 

“El?” his voice was alarmingly loud since he couldn’t hear himself.

 

Legolas, kneeling on the branch they were tied to, scurried forward quickly, dropping his head down so Elrohir could see him.  Swiftly but gently, the Silvan elf wrapped his hand tightly around the lips of the dark haired Noldo, preventing him from speaking again. 

 

“We’re going to get you out of here,” Legolas mouthed silently and Elrohir nodded. 

 

“Hurry,” the younger twin mouthed back, groggy pain evident in his eyes.  Legolas touched his bruised and bleeding face gently, locking eyes with him and nodding. 

 

Back where the base of the thick limb met the tree trunk, Aragorn was kneeling in the junction.

 

“Hold onto the branch,” the Dúnadan whispered to the bandit closest to him, clamping his good hand on the man’s bound wrist to help keep him from falling when the restraints were cut.  Jalif did as he was told and a few moments later he was scrambling up onto the branch with Aragorn pulling him quickly in closer to the trunk. 

 

“Can you climb?” the ranger demanded quickly.  Jalif nodded the affirmative.  He would swim like a fish and fly like a bird if it got him out of this mess. 

 

“All right, then get down and see that you don’t draw any attention.  Go over that hill,” the ranger pointed, “and find the large rock with the tree growing from it.  *Wait* there for your companions and the rest of us if you don’t want to turn into troll bait again,” Aragorn commanded quickly and firmly.  If they all scattered willy-nilly into the night then disaster would surely result.

 

Jalif nodded again, ready and willing to follow any orders that saved his hide at this point.  Aragorn let him go and crawled back out to get another one, glancing anxiously forward to see how Legolas was faring with his brothers.   

 

The ranger was almost as comfortable in a tree as an elf... *almost*.  Legolas however, remained the expert when it came to this kind of navigation and was therefore entrusted with the trickier task of rescuing the prisoners on the very end of the branch; especially given Aragorn’s current handicap. 

 

Sitting on the thick limb and hooking his feet under Elrohir’s armpits, Legolas used that leverage to pull the elf up a little, wincing apologetically at the other elf’s slight gasp at the painful pressure the prince had to apply in doing so.  Quickly slicing the ropes where they lay taught against the tree branch, Legolas let his legs hold the other elf’s weight for just a moment before he quickly took hold of Elrohir’s arms and helped him scramble up on top of the branch. 

 

Judging the dizzy, unsteady way Elrohir clung to him, Legolas knew the Noldo would never be able to make it back to the ground by himself.  Straightening up and holding Elrohir steady, Legolas carefully walked him across the top of the branch until he could place the younger twin’s hands on the firm, reassuring bark of the tree trunk. 

 

Aragorn had just freed another bandit who was now scrambling down the tree, much noisier than either the elf or the ranger liked, but it couldn’t be helped. 

 

Immediately, Aragorn took his brother from Legolas’ arms.  His grip was reassuringly firm, but tender. 

 

“Get the others,” the ranger quietly nodded his friend back out towards the branch.  “I’ll help El down.”

 

Elrohir did not protest when Aragorn began guiding him through the difficult climb to the ground.  He knew his own equilibrium was shot, making him feel as uncomfortable as a dwarf might be in the tree. 

 

The ranger winced as the elf he was supporting unintentionally held onto his injured arm, making his elbow shoot hot darts of pain up his shoulder to his head.  The human tried not to let Elrohir see the pain he inadvertently caused and only hissed softly through gritted teeth, which thankfully, the elf could not hear. 

 

Aragorn knew that Elrohir was probably in far worse shape than he was right now.  He felt the way his older brother leaned against him for support and strength, weaving unsteadily through a task that was usually as natural as breathing for the elf.  Silently, he cursed the trolls for what they had done to the already injured Noldo. 

 

The human rested his rough cheek lightly against Elrohir’s smooth one, holding his brother safely when the elf had to stop, clinging to the thick tree trunk as he gathered his strength. 

 

Elrohir’s chest heaved unsteadily and he leaned his forehead against the rough bark of the tree.  “S-Sorry,” he managed to murmur.  He felt he had been nothing but a burden to his brothers since he lost his hearing.

 

“Shh...” Aragorn pressed a gentle touch from his lips against his brother’s ear, letting the elf feel the soothing sound that he couldn’t hear.  He moved a little, so that Elrohir could see his face.  “You used to carry me up and down trees when I was little, now it’s my turn.”

 

Elrohir’s face wrinkled into a weak smile as he figured out what his brother had said.  “Hannon le, muindor-nín.  Thank you, my brother,” the elf whispered faintly.

 

Back up on the branch, Elladan was not so receptive of aid, although Legolas judged he needed it almost as much.  He accepted Legolas’ help to get to the body of the tree, but insisted that he could make it down himself, firmly sending Legolas back to help the others.  Arguing with Elladan was as useless as arguing with Estel when he was being headstrong, so Legolas gave in and let him do as he wished, hurrying back out onto the branch.  They were running short on time anyway.  So far Kaldur had done a remarkable job of keeping attention away from them, but who knew how much longer that would last?  The blonde archer hastened his movements.

 

The trolls were startled by the appearance of the human and tossed off because he seemed totally unafraid of them.  In fact, he seemed totally unaware of the fact that he even *should* be afraid of them.  They found this amusing. 

 

“Dinner eh?” Nokk laughed.  “Yes, I’d say you’re just in time midget.  Care to join us?”

 

The others laughed wickedly at this. 

 

Surprisingly Kaldur laughed with them.  “You know, I personally always thought I would taste pretty good in a lemon-wine sauce, or maybe a light butter marinade perhaps...” he said with total, unnerving candor. 

 

The trolls looked at one another and blinked before roaring with laughter once more.  This little morsel was just walking out of nowhere and *asking* to be eaten.  It was simply too rich. 

 

“Little blighter musta scrambled his brains!” Rillen chuckled, knocking lightly on Kaldur’s head. 

 

“Mmmm, scrambled, another good option,” Kaldur put in with a disarmingly idiotic grin.  “Now I just bet you have to run or fight to catch your food all the time, such a pain isn’t it?  Why is it that our meals never come up to us and say: eat me?  Eh?  I ask you?  I mean, the world would be such an easier place...” he shook his head as if it were such a shame, then his face lighted up with an idea.  “Say, I tell you what, I have a proposition for you.  Make it a bit easier for you tonight.  I’ll tell you how to make a sauce that goes just perfect with my... unique flavor, and lay right down and baste me littl’ self in it, *if* you win a bet with me first.  What do you say?”

 

The trolls were thoroughly amused, their entire and undivided attention focused on the ridiculous little human in front of them. 

 

“Sure, why not?” Drum laughed, taking another swig from Neb’s flask and passing it off to Rillen to improve the other troll’s perpetually sour disposition.  This was entertaining.  They could stand to have a little fun before dinner. 

 

Drum leaned his head down close to the bandit, poking the smaller being in the chest.  “What’s a runt like you think you can beat us at?”

 

Kaldur had to blink as the fumes of whatever was in the strong alcohol on the troll’s breath made his eyes water.  “Oh I could never beat your enormitousnesses at *anything* am sure.  No, this is something quiet different,” he assured. 

 

He tried to climb up onto one of the impossibly huge and sheer-edged boulders that the trolls had been sitting on before, making quite a comical show of scrambling up only to slide back down.  His efforts were rewarded by the appreciatively mocking laughter of the trolls.  Trolls it seemed had an attention span to match their size and remained entertained by these small antics for quite a few moments longer than Kaldur thought they would.  He didn’t know how long he was going to have to keep this charade up, so he played each part that came to him for all it was worth.

 

Finally he fell *plunk* back to the ground and sat there for a moment, rubbing his backside and staring quizzically up at the tall rock that continued to repulse him.  He glanced to the trolls. 

 

“I don’t suppose one of you gents could give me a hand...”

 

They didn’t need to be asked twice.  Neb quickly scooped the human up in his rough grip, giving Kaldur an intentionally dizzying rid through the air before dropping him onto the high point of the rock. 

 

They laughed again at the disoriented way Kaldur tripped over himself trying to get up after that.  “Well that’s some rim-ril-rib-rrrride you give,” the bandit slurred somewhat tipsily, holding his head as if to keep it from spinning off.

 

Surreptitiously, Kaldur stole this moment to furtively sneak a glance at the tree behind them all.  Three bodies still dangled from the branch, and he could see Legolas’ lithe form outlined against the starry heavens as he shinnied across the limb with grace that would put a cat to shame. 

 

Time.  They needed more time. 

 

“Now then,” Kaldur reached into one of the many inner pockets of his loose tunic, drawing out the first thing his fingers closed upon, which was a small glass vial.  He had used it to keep extra phosphorous in for their robes during the whole ‘barrow wight’ charade and although it was now empty, the inside of the glass still glimmered ever so dimly, enough to catch the trolls’ attention.  

 

Kaldur turned the little glass vessel over in his hands.  “Now, you see this?  It’s just an ordinary little glass bottle.  However, I will wager my worthless littl’ hide, that I can drop it ten lengths and it won’t break,” he held the bottle off the edge of the tall boulder he was perched on. 

 

The trolls liked those kind of odds. 

 

“All right then, do it all ready!” one of them said impatiently, giving Kaldur a little shove that tipped the glass out of his hand. 

 

The small vessel sailed downward through the dark air, its path clearly traceable even by firelight because of its small residual glow.

 

The trolls half expected the glass to be enchanted somehow and bounce when it struck, but as was predictable for an ordinary bottle, it shattered into a million pieces upon contact with the hard ground far below. 

 

The trolls smirked and leered evilly at Kaldur.  “It broke little man, looks like we get to see what your bones taste like...”

 

“Ah, ah, ah...” Kaldur held his hands up, as if completely unfazed by this turn of events.  “Now wait just a moment.  Noxx my good fellow, how long would you say that incredibly massive arm of yours is, elbow to fingers?”

 

The trolls were completely bewildered now, and Noxx stared somewhat thickly at his arm for a moment as if trying to figure it out.  “Four lengths!” he said at last, somewhat triumphantly as if it were a clever answer to a difficult question.  He held up his arm to show, and it was true, his forearm alone was only a head or two shorter than Kaldur’s entire body. 

 

“Good man!” Kaldur applauded appreciatively.  “Now, would you be so very kind as to see how many times you can place your forearm between the ground and my outstretched hand, here?” he asked with beguiling charm, holding his arm out to his side, above the dizzying drop off below. 

 

“Why?” Rillen wanted to know. 

 

“Be-CAUSE...” Kaldur smiled sweetly.  “...I asked?  You’ll see in a moment, I promise.  Indulge your entrée, all right?”

 

The trolls shrugged, curiosity driving them to give in to his strange requests. 

 

Noxx meticulously did as he was asked, the other trolls quick to fault-find and point out when he was bringing his arm up either too high or too low from the previous marker.  After much debate and quarreling, it was finally worked out that from Kaldur’s outstretched hand to the ground it was a total of at least 18-20 lengths.  Noxx said 18, Drum said 20, and neither could agree so they settled by comprising in the middle. 

 

“Well then,” Kaldur’s smile was radiant.  “It seems I *did* win this bet after all!”

 

“WHAT?” Rillen shook his head with a peal of laughter, eyeing the small being suspiciously.  “How do you figure that?  The little glass is in pieces.”  He ground his large foot against the last remaining shards of glittering bottle to prove his point. 

 

“Yes,” Kaldur acknowledged easily.  “But as you all just so brilliantly figured out, it fell at least *eighteen* lengths before breaking.  I only bet that it could fall ten.  And you have to admit, that after the first ten, it *was* still intact.”

 

“What?!” came the confused response again.  It made sense in a twisted sort of way, but the trolls were a little too thick to even quite grasp the grand joke of the whole thing, and quickly took to arguing amongst themselves about the measurements once more.  It quickly became settled upon that it was Nokk’s fault because his forearm was wrong and they should have used someone else’s arm, which led to re-doing the entire, lengthy count.  Nokk pouted and fumed about them always picking on him and wasted some more time in a brief tussling match with Rillen before Drum separated them and said they’d use Neb’s arm, because Neb had the flask and wasn’t going to share anymore if they did not. 

 

Kaldur laughed; he really couldn’t help himself, these trolls were so *dense* sometimes.  Still, an uneasy feeling in his gut told him that he was slowly but surely running out of time. 

 

“I’d like to get down now.  Hellloooo??  I’d like to get d-OW-n...” he sing-songed pleasantly, trying to get the quarrelling beings’ attention.  But if they even heard the request then they were choosing to ignore him.

 

Most of the prisoners were safely over the hill, including Elladan and Elrohir, who fortunately had not taken as much convincing to leave as Aragorn had feared.  Two of the bandits were not even able to grasp the most basic principles of tree climbing however, even with help, and Aragorn and Legolas had had to end up ferrying them down on their backs, which took an agonizing eternity of time that they both knew they could ill afford. 

 

Finally there was only Thil left in the tree and Legolas scooted quickly back up to free him while Aragorn waited for his friend on the ground, ready to signal Kaldur, and, if need be, go to his aid should things turn sour.  The bandit leader had been as good as his word; he had managed to buy them the time they needed to pull this off, which was nothing short of amazing as far as the ranger was concerned.  Privately, Aragorn also knew he did not have another trip up the tree left in him.  His arm was hurting fiercely, demanding more attention than he wanted to give it.  Ferrying Elrohir had been easy; carrying a clumsy human down the tree on the other hand, had been a lesson in misery. 

 

Suddenly another fight broke out between Nokk and Rillen.  What started it hardly mattered, the two had been spoiling to get at one another all evening, that much was plain.  The tension finally found an outlet after Rillen’s continued mocking about Nokk’s adding and his arm length. 

 

Nokk tackled the other troll and they fell hard to the ground with a thump that made Kaldur stumble and fall onto his backside up on the rock. 

 

On the tree branch above Thil, Legolas had to drop to a crouch and hug the limb lightly to keep his balance. 

 

Aragorn tensed and his good hand went instinctively to his sword hilt.

 

Nokk and Rillen rolled towards the fire, punching at one another and trying to gouge each other’s eyes.  Unfortunately however, that made Neb and Drum’s attention turn that way and they saw the nearly empty tree with the lone elf crouching on the branch and the ranger standing at its base. 

 

With an enraged shout they raised the alarm.  That shook the two combatants out of their tussle.  With surprising agility for ones who appeared so lumpish and lumbering, Nokk and Rillen sprang up quickly.  Neb joined them as they rushed towards their escaping prisoners, their heavy feet pounding the ground like a small earthquake with each step. 

 

Legolas sliced the ropes around Thil’s wrists, catching the young bandit firmly by one arm and swinging him clear of the branch.  There was no time to climb down; the trolls were almost upon them. 

 

“Strider!  Catch!”  Legolas had no time to warn the young bandit of what he was planning before he swung Thil towards where the ranger was standing on the ground and let go. 

 

Aragorn heard his friend’s call and reacted quickly, instantly understanding the elf’s intentions.  He caught Thil as the terrified young man tumbled down through the air, breaking the lad’s fall.  Aragorn stumbled back against the tree trunk under the impact of Thil’s weight, catching it with his back and half sliding to the ground before he caught himself and dragged them both upright.  His face was unnaturally pale and he hugged his injured arm to him tightly, but he did not possess the luxury of having time for the pain that was coursing through him. 

 

“Go, GO!” the ranger shouted at the young man, pushing Thil towards the hills as the trolls reached the tree.  Aragorn drew his sword. 

 

Legolas, still on the tree branch, already had his bow in hand, an arrow notched.  Quicker than thought, the arrow flew from the string and was replaced by another.  The first shot ricocheted off Rillen’s tough neck as the troll turned, but the second stuck into the softer flesh near the creature’s eye, making the troll howl in rage and pain, grabbing for his face.  

 

Legolas whipped off another arrow, but the troll was moving too erratically to get a clear shot and it broke on the creature’s stony hand.  Not far behind, Neb received an arrow in his ear, which stung like a gnat’s bite as he tried to claw it off. 

 

“Strider!  Kaldur!”  Legolas’ warning cry pointed out trouble.  From his perch he could see that not all the trolls had come after them.  Drum had stayed behind to deal with the human who was stranded atop a boulder he could not possibly climb down from, nor safely jump. 

 

On the other side of the tree, Aragorn heard Legolas’ warning and tried to go to the bandit’s assistance, but he was having his own troubles at the moment.  Nokk was trying his best to step on the ranger, but the Dúnadan rolled away between his feet, slashing at the massive ankles.  Unfortunately his sword had little effect against a creature whose very essence at its core was the stone of the mountain itself.  It irritated the troll, but did little damage. 

 

Aragorn was reminded oddly of fighting Easterlings and Haradrim in the plains of Gondor and being caught under the thundering feet of the huge war-oliphaunts.  Just as dangerous, this foe had an added amount of intelligence and reason behind it that made the troll an even deadlier opponent.  Another thundering foot drove down towards him and he rolled out of the way only just in time.  Nokk’s heel grazed his injured arm where it was hugged tight to his body.  The ranger jerked back, his head striking hard against a rock, stunning him slightly. 

 

Nokk kicked the human.  Fortunately for Aragorn, the clumsy, rapid blow did not fully connect, but enough of the force caught the ranger that he was vertically hurled a good twenty lengths or so, rolling as he struck the ground hard.  His injured arm slammed into the earth, making him cry out sharply.

 

A black and yellow dotted haze of pain swallowed Aragorn’s world and he was unable to think or move, totally frozen by the breathless agony flaming through his body.

 

“Strider!” he heard Legolas’ voice calling to him desperately, it seemed from a great distance away... at the end of a lengthening dark tunnel. 

 

Still on the tree branch, Legolas saw Aragorn strike the earth and stop moving.  The elf felt a sickening lurch in his stomach when his friend did not respond to his calls.  Nokk stamped forward to crush the human once and for all. 

 

Desperately, the prince fired a rapid string of arrows into Nokk’s face, forced to ignore the two threats closest to him for the moment. 

 

Nokk stumbled back, swatting at the stinging swarm of arrows angrily and bellowing in rage as he turned towards the source. 

 

It was with grim determination that Legolas realized all three trolls were now converging on him.  That realization came too late to save him.  The critical few moments he had had to ignore Rillen and Neb cost the prince dearly. 

Chapter Text

___________________________________________________________

 

~*PART SIXTEEN*~

 

 

Rillen was now right up to the tree, the branch that the elf stood upon coming up chest-high on the troll. The creature swept his hand sharply downward, trying to crush the elf where he stood. Legolas jumped sideways at the last moment, but the branch snapped and splintered under the assault. Caught on the end away from the tree, Legolas felt the wood jerk sharply downward under him. But before he could even have the sensation of falling it suddenly heaved up again like a sea-serpent in a roiling ocean as Rillen’s hand closed around the splintering branch and he wrenched it from the tree with one terrific yank.

 

The up-shot of the branch slammed into Legolas like a battering ram, catching his unprotected stomach and chest so hard that he felt as if his internal organs must have been permanently re-located. He tasted blood as his chin connected sharply, snapping his head first forward and then back upon impact before he could compensate. A sickening pop close to his ears flared in time with the pain that raced through his jaw at the impact.

 

The world spun around the prince and it wasn’t simply the result of the blow, the world literally *was* spinning around him. Rillen had hoisted the tree-branch that Legolas still clung to over his head like a club, waving it in rapid, deliberate strokes and trying to fling the elf off against the ground in a crushing blow that would surely kill him.

 

Legolas felt himself snapped first one way and then the other. It was like riding a bucking dragon and he knew he could not long endure the harsh punishment. His grip slipped a little more each time his hurting body was whipped around. The abuse coupled with the wild motion made the elf feel ill.

 

Rillen slammed the tree branch down against the ground, trying to smash Legolas with it.

 

Finally close enough to the earth to make a safe dismount, the elf jumped free just in time to avoid being crushed. He rolled to the side as the thick branch slammed down against the ground right next to him, cracking and splintering with a horrendous noise.

 

Aragorn pulled himself to his feet again just in time to see Legolas roll away from the troll’s attack. The prince looked slightly dazed and he stumbled as he tried to distance himself from his attackers. The elf’s lack of grace alarmed the ranger, who knew how badly his friend must be feeling to reel like that.

 

The trolls were too close, there was nowhere for Legolas to go. A glancing blow from Rillen’s swinging club caught him across the back. The elf was thrown forward sharply, and although he rose again slowly to his hands and knees, Aragorn could see blood dripping from the prince’s mouth and nose. Legolas’ arms were trembling as he tried to support himself and force his body up again.

 

Aragorn cringed to think what internal injuries his friend might be taking. Horror engulfed the ranger and heedless desperation drove him forward with a shout as another grazing near-miss flung Legolas to the side, crumpling the prince like a rag doll and tearing a cry of pain and fear from his lips.

 

Rillen was relentless, going after the elf with wild swings of his tree-branch club while Nokk and Neb tried to grab the prince as he attempted to escape the deadly blows. Down under the combined attack of three trolls, Legolas didn’t stand a chance.

 

Charging Rillen, Aragorn struck with a force born of sheer desperation and actually managed to drive his sword deep into the creature’s leg.

 

Howling, Rillen dropped his club and grabbed his leg, kicking angrily at Aragorn who scrambled quickly out of the way.

 

Back on the other side of the fire, trapped precariously on the high boulder, Kaldur was wearing out. Drum’s hand slammed down onto the rock right beside him, swatting as one might swat at a fly. The bandit was thrown forward by the impact, landing hard on his hands and knees only to have to scramble backward again just as quick to escape another sweeping slap. His side burned from where the troll’s rough fingernails had gouged him on a near-miss he had avoided only by tumbling through the troll’s thick fingers. Thus far his above-average acrobatic agility and Drum’s state of intoxication had kept him one step ahead of Drum’s clumsy, drunken attempts to squash or grab him. It was only a matter of time though, and he knew that. Already his breath was painfully short and his limbs trembled from the effort. He was too high up to jump off this isolated plateau of stone, and he could only dodge for so long. If he’d had time he would have spared a glance to see how the others were faring. Better than himself he hoped... although he feared otherwise.

 

Somehow, Legolas managed to drag himself back to his feet, even though he felt like every inch of his body had been viciously bruised, inside and out. It was no longer a joke to say that he felt as if he had been beaten by a troll and he found himself cursedly unsteady on his feet. The archer had lost his bow in the chaos and his arrows were all spread between here and the next mountain range anyway after his wild ride. He drew his knives, but the small part of his mind that he didn’t want to listen to knew just how ineffective those were going to be against their current enemies.

 

Aragorn appeared at the elf’s side, half-hunched to the right against the flaming pain in his arm, his bloody sword clutched tightly in his good fist.

 

They placed themselves back to back as the three trolls rushed them, knowing they were not going to walk away from this fight. It was horribly ironic really, that after everything they had survived together, they looked to have met their ultimate match in a bunch of thick-headed trolls not five days travel from Rivendell.

 

“Even in death we shall not be parted, believe it gwador-nín,” Legolas whispered fiercely around the hot pain in his jaw brought on by speaking.

 

Aragorn nodded, sparing his dear friend one last, final smile. Although it had been an unspoken bond for years, Legolas had never actually called him brother before.

 

Suddenly, loud, ringing cries and horn blasts filled the air; confusing the angry trolls and making them pause long enough to look up in search of the source of the disturbance.

 

Aragorn and Legolas looked up as well, and were shocked to find the hills around the valley dotted with several dozen black shapes that were rushing down towards them. The shadowed forms quickly resolved themselves into the bodies of men carrying torches and wielding bows, swords, axes and hunting spears.

 

The trolls yelled and cursed in anger as a swarming hail of arrows descended on them from all angles, accompanied by a barrage of sharp, barb-tipped spears.

 

Within seconds the newly arriving humans were all around them, thirty... no, forty strong at least, not including an unknown additional number who remained hidden in the hills, raining arrows upon the huge targets.

 

Drum left Kaldur and hurried to join his friends, sweeping his massive arms and feet, trying to scatter the humans as he went. But although the trolls could easily crush the smaller beings, these humans were too smart and too quick to let them do so very easily.

 

The elf and the ranger found themselves suddenly of little interest to the trolls who turned to respond to the new threat. The relief was great, but the danger wasn’t over, and for a few minutes the valley became absolute chaos as one of the trolls tripped, falling into the fire and scattering the flaming logs everywhere. Parts of the valley blazed, although conditions were still too wet from the previous rain for a serious grass fire.

 

The earth shook under the pounding feet of the trolls and rang with the impassioned cries of their unknown attackers. Eventually even the thickheaded trolls realized that there was nothing to be gained here. Their chance of an easy meal was lost and they were not at heart very brave nor very stubborn creatures. Taking the path of least resistance, the brutes finally took to their heels. Thumping away towards their dark dwellings in the hills they muttered curses as they departed. This was a bad place to be, nothing but trouble. They were not coming back to his area any time soon.

 

Legolas leaned forward, resting his hands on his thighs as he caught his breath and tried to still the terrible aching in his chest. Miraculously, he didn’t think he had any broken ribs, but it felt as if his insides had been forcefully re-arranged and his jaw was definitely dislocated. There was a strange, sick burning in his stomach and lungs that spoke of too much abuse. The elf pushed the pain aside, focusing on the moment.

 

Next to him, Aragorn leaned his good shoulder against a tree, his eyes pinched closed as he tried to not let the pain flaming through him make him sick to his stomach.

 

They had been snatched from the proverbial jaws of death but they had yet to figure out by whom. That question did not have long to wait for an answer however. As the chaos subsided and the unknown men re-gathered enough to see that they had taken quite a number of injuries but no fatalities, two figures approached the elf and the ranger.

 

An older man and a younger walked forward from the rest of their group. The older man’s hair was nearly completely white although his short beard retained flecks of grey, but his strong, sturdy body belied these indications of age in a way that showed he was still a force to be reckoned with.

 

Aragorn smiled as he got his pain levels back under control, but did not move away from the support of the tree just yet.

 

“Taradin, Garith, I cannot *begin* to tell you how good it is to see you,” the ranger said warmly, with a slightly rueful chuckle as recognition hit him.

 

Taradin laughed. “Should have figured that the next time I saw you, you and Legolas would be in some kind of scrape, even after all these years!” The elder hunter shook his head. “I don’t know whether I should say you’re cursed to find so much trouble, or blessed to always manage to survive it.”

 

Legolas laughed gingerly around his aching insides. “We’ll take either way that keeps us alive. How did you know to come to our aid?”

 

“Taradin and his men rejoined our party the day after you left,” Garith explained, and then easily let the elder man pick up the story from there.

 

“Garith here told me what way you were heading and I knew it was bad business,” Taradin nodded towards the younger man he had long ago taken as his son. “See, my men and I just had a run in with these beasts on the way back, that’s why we was late. Not that we didn’t think you could handle yourselves just fine mind you, but we knew those big lunks’d be angry after our little tussle and more prone to bothering travelers. So we thought we’d just come along this way to see if everything was all right.”

 

“Well we are extremely glad that you did,” Aragorn chuckled, finally able to push away from the tree, although he continued to hold his injured arm with his good one. “We are in your debt.”

 

Taradin shook his head, his eyes looking over the two friends, his memories distant.

 

“What? Nah, none of that. Perhaps you can consider it that our debt to you is finally paid.” His gaze lingered for a moment longer on Legolas who just smiled and shook his head. The elf had long ago forgiven the hunter for their initial meeting. Actually the hunter had helped them out in a number of scrapes after that, and they had done the same for him. They were already more than ‘even’ if one was counting.

 

The archer had to stop smiling presently though and winced as he rubbed his jaw. It hurt, badly. As he worked it back and forth he felt it click back into place with a sharp little jolt of pain that took his breath away. He had to close his eyes to hold back the sting of pain-induced tears, but the ache faded swiftly. Relieved, he opened and closed his mouth once or twice to check the hinge. Now properly aligned once more, it still hurt, but not quite as severely. He was lucky it had not been broken.

 

Aragorn looked at his friend questioningly, but Legolas just shook his head, rubbing his jaw lightly. His eyes told his human friend that yes, he was in pain, but he would be all right. The ranger nodded back slowly. He was still concerned that the elf might be bleeding internally from the battering he had taken... in fact it was almost impossible for him to not be, but the light in his friend’s eyes was bright, even around the pain, and Aragorn saw no immediately visible threat to the prince’s life at least.

 

“Hey, lose something?” several of Garith’s young men came over, escorting Kaldur who had somehow finally managed to get down off the cliff-like boulder. They remembered the bandit had been one of the prisoners in their camp and returned him politely, but firmly to the elf and the ranger. “He was trying to sneak off.”

 

Kaldur looked insulted. “I was just stretching my legs! Everyone’s so suspicious...”

 

Aragorn doubted that, but at this point he was willing to forgive the other man his idiosyncrasies.

 

“Thank you. It’s all right, you can release him,” he assured the two young hunters who were holding Kaldur rather tightly. The bandit had earned that much of their trust at least after tonight. “He’s not going anywhere in a hurry, right, friend?” Aragorn’s voice was genuinely companionable, although he used Kaldur’s own turn of phrase with a small glint of amusement.

 

Kaldur smiled and shrugged, hugging his side lightly once his arms were released. Those scratches hidden by his torn and dirty shirt still stung fiercely, but he didn’t complain. He knew how to take pain and keep on smiling.

 

“Where is the rest of your party?” Garith suddenly looked around with concern. “Where are Lord Elrond’s sons?”

 

“All right, I *hope*,” Aragorn glanced towards the darkness beyond. “Although I think they will need the attentions of a skilled healer, and soon. They should be waiting on the other side of these hills for us if Elladan didn’t decide that he needed to come back to try to save us.” He laughed, but he truly hoped that his brother had gotten no such foolish ideas. The twins were not in a good way.

 

Garith, with most of his party, stayed to care for the wounded and reconnoiter after the skirmish, while Taradin accompanied Legolas, Aragorn and Kaldur to find the rest of their missing group. The elder hunter left the majority of his men with Garith, but took a good number of them with him in case Strider’s friends needed help.

 

Taradin spoke quietly with Aragorn and Legolas as they walked, catching up on bits and pieces of news. Then he nodded towards where Kaldur was walking ahead with some of his men, who were laughing merrily along with something the bandit had said or done.

 

“Garith told me about these men you was guarding. Right smart thing you’re doing taking them to Rivendell. Too many good folks are just too quick to take action they regret later.” He didn’t give any more indication than that, but they all knew he was once again remembering the events surrounding their first meeting so many years ago. Taradin had been one of those men and he wasn’t proud of it. He liked to think he had grown past that quite some time ago however, and his long friendship with the man he knew as Strider and the blonde elf archer who was almost always with him was proof. “We’ll be heading back to Strayton ourselves soon, if you’ve a mind, we’ll move things up a bit and go back to Rivendell with you all. I’ve a feeling you might need a scratch of help with your prisoners, given... the way things are.” He glanced from Aragorn’s limp arm to Legolas careful movements. If Elladan and Elrohir were in no better shape than these two, handling their prisoners alone would be a near-impossible task.

 

“Thank you Taradin, your help would be most appreciated,” Aragorn replied, obviously sounding a little relieved. The same difficulty had presented itself to his mind as well.

 

Taradin nodded. “What do you think Lord Elrond’ll find to do with them when we get there? Rivendell ain’t got no prisons that I know of, unless they borrow ‘em from Strayton, which wouldn’t be so hard I suppose. The new Warden’s expanded the jail facilities considerably since the last time you two had the pleasure of viewing them.” He chuckled.

 

Aragorn laughed with him. He shook his head; he had no idea exactly what would happen when they got to Rivendell, but trusted his foster father’s justice implicitly.

 

“I really don’t know, but I’m sure whatever their sentence, it will be fair. An agreement with Strayton would be a likely option actually. I hear that they are on better terms with Rivendell than they have been at times in the past. Perhaps these men can work off the damage they caused.” His gaze strayed to Kaldur, swaggering along ahead of them. If he had anything to say about it, Kaldur’s part in aiding them tonight would not be forgotten when that time came. It did not cancel his other debts, but it proved he had a good heart underneath his act, one that Aragorn would see nurtured.

 

Kaldur’s face did not darken, nor did his laugh lose any of its luster as he joked with the hunters around him, but he heard every word that was spoken behind him.

 

Prison... prison meant bars... darkness. His heart started speeding up; old, buried fears trying to surface despite what he might wish. Work it off... they meant as a slave, wasn’t that what they really meant? He knew all about the custom of selling convicted thieves into a lifetime of servitude to pay off their debts.

 

A cold chill ran through him. He couldn’t do it again. He wouldn’t.

 

 

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

 

 

Aragorn’s heart stopped when they got to the large rock with the tree growing out of it and found no one there. Not his brothers, not the bandits... no one. Where could they be? What could have happened? His over-wrought thoughts could come up with plenty of explanations, all of them dark and dreadful.

 

Legolas squeezed his good arm lightly, looking around with just about as much confusion. “They were supposed to wait here...”

 

“And they did,” a voice came from further up the hill on their right. Jalif’s voice. Slowly the bandit emerged from the rocks and they could see the others clustered behind him.

 

Against his chest Jalif was holding Elladan. The dark haired elf’s eyes were closed tightly against the painful pressure that the man’s grip placed upon his hurting ribs. The elder twin’s hands were bound behind him and Jalif had his blood-caked shoulder in a painful grip, twisting his arms slightly to keep him submissive. He wasn’t *trying* to hurt the elf, but he wouldn’t let him go either.

 

“Estel!” Elrohir’s soft voice trembled slightly and Aragorn’s horrified gaze was carried a little further up the hill to where two of the bandits had Elrohir kneeling between them. The men held his arms firmly, but Thil was kneeling gently beside the elf, quietly supporting his head. Elrohir seemed incapable of holding it up himself, which was alarming.

 

Elladan and Elrohir had been too injured to fight this latest set of captors when the bandits’ intentions became clear. What weak resistance they could offer at this point was easily overcome. The thieves had not hurt the twins; the rockslide and the trolls had done a fine job of that already, but they were going to use this to their advantage if they could.

 

Aragorn’s gaze turned dark. He had not thought of this, he had not prepared for it; he had not realized the danger he inadvertently sent his injured brothers into.

 

“Let them go!” The stab of betrayal was palpable. They had saved these men’s miserable lives, nearly at risk to their own, and this was how they repaid them? The ranger moved forward a few steps, physical pain forgotten as his eyes fixed on Elladan’s, which opened slowly at the sound of his voice.

 

“Sorry Estel... my form’s... a little off...” the elf rasped slightly, trying to smile but ending up with his voice choked off by painful, wracking coughs. It was hard to breathe. His broken ribs were giving him difficulties now that the adrenaline had left his system.

 

Jalif pulled back when Aragorn advanced, dragging Elladan with him and placing the elf’s own dagger warningly against the twin’s throat. “Look, we’re grateful for what you all have done; we don’t want to hurt nobody. We just want to leave. Tell your friends to lower their weapons, now!”

 

Aragorn gestured for Taradin and his men, who stood with weapons drawn and ready, to stand down. He believed they didn’t want to hurt his brothers, but he also knew these men were desperate and he didn’t want to push an accidental tragedy.

 

“Send Kaldur up here,” Jalif nodded to his leader, tightening his grip painfully on Elladan’s shoulder when they didn’t comply fast enough.

 

Elladan winced and bit his lip to keep from crying out.

 

“Stop it!” Aragorn snapped, grabbing Kaldur’s arm and shoving him forward, showing their compliance. “Please, talk sense to them!” he quietly asked the bandit. “They won’t make it twenty miles out here before they’re retaken and that will only make matters worse for everyone involved. Besides, there are still four trolls out there as well as entire villages full of people who would like to burn you alive, this is madness!”

 

Kaldur turned to look at him, an unreadable expression in his eyes. “And what is your solution Strider? To go with you to Rivendell to face heaven-know-what? Do you honestly think I can get them to buy that?”

 

Aragorn had no idea, only desperation as he heard Elladan’s labored breathing rasp and rattle painfully. “You’re Kaldur DeCahr,” he thrust the bandit’s own logic back on him with only a hint of a jest. The plea in his eyes was clear: I trust you. I don’t care what you do, don’t let them hurt my brothers, they have already suffered too much.

 

Kaldur held his eyes for a moment before turning away and heading up the hill. “Yes,” he said quietly. “I am.” His tone was frighteningly different than anything Aragorn had heard from him before.

 

Kaldur’s mind spun as he walked. He knew what Strider and Legolas believed was the right thing, what his nagging conscious *told* him was the right thing, but he couldn’t ask his people to walk into a trap. The trust in the ranger’s eyes burned his heart, but he would not follow Strider or anyone else to prison or slavery. What kind of fool did they take him for? After everything they had just been through together... how could they still want to do that to him? How could anybody want to put another human being into a lifetime of being owned and possessed by another? The ranger and the elf weren’t the only ones who were feeling betrayed at the moment.

 

His gaze lingered painfully on Elladan and Elrohir’s bloody faces. He wouldn’t hurt them, he wouldn’t let any harm befall them... but he couldn’t go along anymore either. If Taradin and his men now accompanied them all the way to their destination, there would be no further chance for escape. Not with numbers like that to contend with. Once in Rivendell it would be too late. After what he had seen of elves, he doubted even he could find a way out of an elvish stronghold. Their chances were getting too slim. If they did not act now, they condemned themselves.

 

Strider wanted to take them to the Lord of Rivendell; he said he was a fair judge... but Kaldur had been taught early in life just how twisted people’s definition of ‘justice’ was. Besides... his gaze again took in the badly injured elves before him... these twins were the Lord of Rivendell’s sons. What kind of verdict would there be for the men partially responsible for bringing them home three steps from deaths door? It was a frightening thought.

 

Reaching Jalif, he silently held out his arms and the other man released Elladan to him, along with the dagger.

 

Elladan’s cloudy eyes caught and held his with silent accusation. “Sorry friend,” Kaldur said quietly, and he meant it. Almost tenderly, the bandit leader gripped the elf to him, lightly replacing the knife against the pale neck.

 

“I’m sorry,” he called down to Strider. “I promise no harm will come to them, you have my word! But we’re leaving, and we’re taking them with us to make sure no one follows. Don’t try to stop us mate, don’t push me that way. I *don’t* want anyone to get hurt,” the bandit spoke with a dead seriousness that was unusual for him.

 

The thieves were getting edgy as Taradin’s men eyed them, obviously waiting only for an opportunity to act.

 

“Kaldur don’t do this!” Legolas shook his head, dismayed by the man’s choices. “You’re making it a thousand times worse on yourselves!”

 

“Look, Kaldur, please,” Aragorn walked slowly forward, keeping his good arm up where the bandits could see it. “Elladan and Elrohir are hurt, badly. You can see that. They need a healer and they need one now. I believe you won’t hurt them, I do. But if they don’t get help that’s not going to matter, they could die!”

 

Kaldur backed up, shaking his head. “Strider, I like you, I like them, don’t push me... please... don’t push me...”

 

Aragorn kept coming, now aware that Legolas was following a few paces behind, although Taradin and his men wisely hung back and maintained their positions, not wishing the bandits on the hill to panic.

 

“This is madness, how far do you think you’ll get? If you need a hostage, take me,” Aragorn offered. “Let my brothers go!”

 

There was a desperate, cornered look in Kaldur’s eyes, the look of a man at war with himself. He laughed, but it did not hold his usual careless mirth.

 

“I’m not a fool. I can’t handle you Strider. I know that. I don’t want to hurt them, don’t make me... just let us go!” He had gone too far. He had taken the one step he couldn’t reverse. If he gave up now he was sure his head was destined for the execution block, or worse.

 

“Kaldur...” Thil’s voice was soft but worried. Elrohir had started shuddering convulsively against the young human as he supported the elf. “Kal, something’s wrong, we’re losing him!”

 

Elrohir’s body had taken too much abuse lately and was sliding into shock.

 

Kaldur flashed a worried look behind him, but his tight hold on the knife remained wary. No, no... he didn’t want anything to happen to them, he didn’t! Yet...

 

Aragorn started to rush to his brother, but was checked when the other bandits moved in front of him threateningly, keeping them apart.

 

Elrohir was trembling, his breath shallow and rapid, and his eyes rolling back in his head as his injuries took over. The men holding him looked anxious and unsure, but weren’t about to release the elf of their own volition.

 

Elladan gasped painfully when his broken ribs were shifted again as Kaldur nervously changed grips on him. “El...” he moaned his twin’s name in heart-wrenching alarm.

 

The situation was quickly spiraling out of control towards an outcome that no one there wanted.

Chapter Text

___________________________________________________________

 

~*PART SEVENTEEN*~

 

 

 

~~~~~~~~~
If I smile and don’t believe
Soon I know I will wake from this dream
Don’t try to fix me I’m not broken...
Hello?  I’m the lie, living for you so you can hide
Don’t cry...

Suddenly I know I’m not sleeping
Hello?  I’m still here...
All that’s left of yesterday.

--Evanescence
~~~~~~~~~

 

 

“Kaldur!” the ranger snapped in urgent frustration, seeing Elrohir go limp in the arms that held him and begin to convulse spasmodically despite Thil’s desperate, but inexperienced attempts to help.  “Let me to him!  I swear if he dies because of you, hell will not hold a pit deep enough for me to put you in!” there was a dangerous look in the Dúnadan’s eyes.

 

Kaldur’s hands trembled on the knife he held and Legolas was struck by the haunted look in his eyes.  It was as if the bandit *could* imagine a pit as deep as the one Aragorn spoke of, and it was exactly what he feared. 

 

“I won’t belong to someone else!  I can’t be a slave again!  I won’t wear chains and be put in a cage...” Kaldur ground out between his teeth, his own breathing rapid and strained.  “There’s some things a man can’t do, and I can’t do that again mate, I can’t...”

 

Legolas felt a dart through his soul.  Those emotions, so clear in Kaldur’s panicked eyes... he knew them.  He had lived them.  “Kaldur, that’s not what’s going to happen,” he said quietly, willing the man to believe him.  Kaldur couldn’t.  People lied.  They always lied. 

 

Thil knew he could not help Elrohir.  He didn’t know what was wrong.  He had a moderate aptitude as a healer and a natural empathy that served him well in that realm, but nothing that would help him in a situation like this.  He didn’t even know if elven physiology was the same as a humans, but he *could* tell the elf was in trouble.  He wanted to go free as much as the next man, but not if the elf’s life was the price that had to be paid.  Shouldering his two surprised comrades out of the way, the younger man pulled Elrohir up, supporting the semi-conscious elf as he walked him forward, towards Aragorn. 

 

The others were too surprised to try to stop him until it was too late.  “I’m sorry Kal, forgive me...” Thil choked slightly as he let Aragorn take Elrohir from him, knowing the betrayal he enacted.  “You always said we weren’t killers, I can’t have this on my conscience.”

 

The other bandits looked to their leader to see if they should react, should stop what was happening, but Kaldur gave them no sign as Aragorn laid his brother down tenderly on the grass, checking the trembling elf with rapid, urgent care. 

 

The bandit leader’s breath heaved rapidly.  It was over.  It had been a stupid move from the start and he knew it.  He had gambled and lost, because, as Losmir had accused him, he just didn’t have the callousness to use the leverage when it was in his grasp.  After all these years he would have thought he’d learned the terrible price of letting his heart do the thinking, but apparently that was a flaw in his character that he was stuck with. 

 

Kaldur let his hand fell uselessly to his side as he allowed Legolas to take Elladan from him.  He couldn’t do this anymore than Thil.  He couldn’t follow through on threats against people he didn’t wish to harm, he wasn’t sure whom he had been trying to fool.  All he had managed to do now was assure that he was never going to see the light of day again for the rest of his life. 

 

That thought terrified him.

 

Almost instantly, Taradin and his men had the small handful of bandits surrounded.  Jalif looked at Kaldur as their hands were bound again behind their backs.  The lead bandit dropped his head and looked away.  He knew he had let his men down, he had let himself down, he had let Strider, Legolas and the twins down... it would be a shorter list to think of someone he had not betrayed tonight. 

 

Legolas supported Elladan, guiding the dark haired elf to a seat on the ground, but as he did his gaze turned to follow Kaldur for a moment as Taradin’s men led them away to somewhere where they could be more carefully guarded.  The prince could not forget what he had seen in the human’s eyes a few moments ago.  It haunted him strangely. 

 

“Elrohir...” Elladan was trying to turn towards where Aragorn was administering emergency care to his twin. 

 

“Shh...” Legolas soothed the distressed elf, smoothing Elladan’s tangled dark hair back from his face and carefully checking his injuries.  “Estel is with him, he will not let him come to harm.  Be still, you are not well.”

 

“You can... say that again,” Elladan found barely enough breath to joke.  “I feel as if someone built a fire inside...”

 

“And slow roasted your innards with it, I know,” Legolas acknowledged ruefully, one arm still curled lightly around his own internal aches as he eased himself down to sit on the grass next to the Noldo.  “I shudder to think what your father will say if we cannot all make it into Imladris under our own power... these are *not* exactly the ‘old times’ I wished to relive while I was here.”

 

Elladan chuckled as much as he could around his injuries.  “And to think... it has been so boring without you and Estel.”

 

Several of Taradin’s company approached them now, bringing bandages and medicines as would be needed. 

 

“We haven’t got no decent healers in this lot right now,” Taradin apologized as he crouched beside Aragorn, handing him the herbs he had requested.  The elder man’s concerned gaze held Elrohir’s pale face.  “He going to be all right?”

 

Aragorn nodded, unable to truly express how relieved he was to be able to say that.  Elrohir was in trouble, but it was not as serious as Thil, who had had no experience with elves, had thought.  “Valar willing, yes.  He is not well, but it is not as bad as I feared.  His body is in shock, but it is strong.  He needs rest and tending, but he will recover.”

 

Elrohir moaned softly and Aragorn laid his hand gently on the elf’s forehead, trying to smooth away the lines of pain written there.  The elf was not conscious enough to see him, and he knew that without sound his brother would not even know what was going on around him.  Therefore, the ranger tried to simply infuse as much love and care as he could into his touch, hoping that the elf could *feel* his presence and his love if nothing else. 

 

It seemed to work, for Elrohir quieted and stilled beneath his touch.  “Rest muindor-nín,” Aragorn said quietly as he worked.  “I will let no more hurt befall you, I swear.”

 

 

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

 

 

Aragorn sat on the ground, a little ways away from the campfire, leaning wearily against the tree behind him.  It was almost morning.  Elladan and Elrohir were now slumbering peacefully and without pain; their hurting bodies induced into a deep, healing rest by a healthy dose of the concoction the ranger had mixed up for them.  It was what the brothers had come to affectionately term ‘Lord Elrond’s favorite tea’, but for once the twins at least accepted it without protest, welcoming the small, healing respite it offered to their pain. 

 

Most of their problem was simply the *amount* of injuries they had sustained, not necessarily the seriousness of any individual hurts.  Thankfully, broken ribs and severe internal bruising seemed to be the worst of it.  Elladan’s shoulder injury was painful, but not dangerous.  Elrohir’s continued hearing loss, which they could do nothing for, and Elladan’s broken ribs, which were stabilized, seemed the most severe problems, everything else was simply hampered by a sheer, system-wide pain-stimulus overload.  The trolls’ rough treatment after the hurts taken in the rockslide had been a bit too much for both the twins.  Hopefully they would be feeling a little better when they awoke from their long, healing sleep. 

 

Aragorn closed his eyes for a moment.  His and Legolas’ injuries had also been tended.  His arm still ached like the dickens and he was acquiring a very nasty bruise across his side where the troll had kicked him, but the pain had dulled down to reasonable levels, helped in a large part by the numbing herbs with which he had dosed Legolas and himself. 

 

As if summoned by being thought of, Legolas appeared next to him.  The elf moved with a stiffness that was unusual for him as he slowly sank down to sit beside his friend. 

 

Aragorn eyed his companion. 

 

Legolas smiled wearily as he settled the mug he had been carrying into the nook of a tree root beside him.  “You don’t look any better,” he informed, accurately reading the look in the ranger’s eyes. 

 

Aragorn knew that deep, dark bruises covered most of Legolas’ back, chest and sides; bruising from the inside as well as the outside.  Elrond had taught him to know the difference between surface bruises and the discoloration that came from hidden inner injuries.  The elf prince had both, but his elven strength was holding up well and Aragorn knew that the damage would heal, if only Legolas gave it the time to do so and did not stress himself any further. 

 

Aragorn was good at functioning around injuries and even hiding them from the casual observer, but he sometimes felt his friend had it down to an art.  The stiffness in Legolas’ movements was the only indication of his battered state; just as his friend’s soft speech was the only clue to his healing jaw.  They were indeed a matching set the two of them, but they were all of them alive.  The ranger had learned in life you had to be grateful for the good things, not just curse the bad. 

 

Wounds healed, pain was forgotten with time, but losing a loved one out there tonight... that would have been too much.  That would have been a wound that did not heal... his gaze darkened a shade as it drifted over to where the bandits were tied up for the night only a few yards away.  They all looked fast asleep.

 

Kaldur was not with them.  He was further away, on the other side of the fire.  He was tied to a tree, with his own personal sentry.  Any man who could bluff his way through the guard of four trolls as well as the careful emotional defenses of people as watchful and guarded as the elf and the ranger deserved extra caution.  That was why he was kept separate. 

 

After tonight the bandits had conclusively proved that not only could they not be trusted, but they could also pose a serious threat.  Something Aragorn knew he should have learned in the beginning, after the fiasco on the Barrow Downs, but he supposed Kaldur was right and he *was* one of the worst jailers ever.  He had come to actually trust the bandit far too much, and was still a little raw from the betrayal.  He couldn’t believe he had read Kaldur that wrong.

 

Legolas followed his friend’s gaze.  Kaldur did not look like he was sleeping either.  His body was slumped against the tree his hands were bound to, but he was un-relaxed and his face turned up to look at the stars as if memorizing them for the last time.  Another expression that was eerily too familiar to the prince. 

 

“He didn’t really want to hurt your brothers you know,” Legolas said quietly; quite unexpectedly offering a defense of the man who he had earlier said drove him mad. 

 

Aragorn looked away.  “I know, but he did... or he could have.  And it would have been my fault as much as his; my lack of character judgment.  I don’t understand where I made the wrong call on him,” the ranger admitted.  He wasn’t going to waste a lot of time blaming himself for things that were past and could not be changed, that at least he had begun to learn a little as he grew older.  However, he honestly did want to know where he had turned right when he should have turned left in this instance.

 

“You didn’t make the wrong call,” Legolas said presently.  “I don’t understand what I saw in his eyes tonight... but I recognize it Estel.  He was scared, terrified... couldn’t you see it?”

 

Aragorn looked down at his hands.  “I’m afraid Legolas, to be perfectly honest all I could see were my brothers hurting, my brothers maybe... dying.”

 

The elf nodded.  Not surprising.  “I know... I saw that too.  It was wrong Estel, they shouldn’t have been hurt, and they shouldn’t have been threatened like that either.”  Legolas leaned his head back against the tree, resting his folded hands on one knee as he turned his head to look at his friend next to him in the fading moonlight. 

 

“What do you think your father will do with these men now?” he asked quietly.

 

“I don’t know,” Aragorn let his head sink into his hands.  “I’m so torn between trying to understand their reasons, and wanting to just lock them up and throw away the key that I can only hope he has more wisdom than I do.”

 

Legolas laughed softly.  “He does Estel, don’t worry.”

 

Aragorn rolled his eyes at what should have been a backward insult, but wasn’t really.  “Legolas... what are you thinking?” he knew *something* was going through his friend’s head.

 

Legolas sighed and took his time answering.  “I don’t know Estel... I’m just... haunted.  Ghosts, you know,” he waved his hand dismissively around them, his voice wry.  “Ghosts of the past.  Did you hear what Kaldur said on the hill?  ‘I can’t do it again’... the look in his eyes...” the elf was unconsciously rubbing his wrists with small, distressed movements.  “He seemed to feel so trapped.  Like he’d do anything rather than go back to... to whatever he feared.”

 

Aragorn caught and held Legolas’ eyes.  Laying his good hand atop his friend’s, he stilled their agitated movements.  “Legolas... you’re projecting again.  You’re putting your feelings and your experiences into his life,” he said gently.  They had had this conversation before, when they first began their journey and Aragorn had seen the way the elf prince was identifying with their captives’ situations.

 

“I know,” Legolas sighed softly, wearily.  “I know I am.  But you asked what I was thinking,” he pointed out with a small, tired grin.

 

Aragorn nodded.  “I’m not saying you’re wrong though...” the ranger plucked a stalk of grass, rolling it between his fingers and looking out at the lightening horizon where the sun was trying to wake up.  “I didn’t want to see it at the time; I was too worried, too angry.  But he was scared, and I have no idea why... no idea what we ever did to cause that.”

 

“Don’t you?” a soft voice made the two friends start and look up from what they had thought was their private conversation. 

 

The bandits nearby had appeared to all be sleeping, but Thil’s eyes were now open and he was watching them intently in the predawn gloom.  The young man twisted his arms around so he could sit up without pulling against the stake that held his bound hands anchored. 

 

“Kal’s a good man,” Thil said simply.  No one had probably ever told him it was impolite to eavesdrop on other people’s conversations, so he made no apology for overhearing words not meant for him.  “But there are some things a body never gets over.”

 

Both Aragorn and Legolas understood that very well. 

 

“Look...” Thil shot a somewhat nervous glance towards Kaldur, across the camp.  He wasn’t turned in their direction, which seemed to make the young man a little more comfortable.  “Kal would literally kill me if he knew I said anything.  I think you’re good people... but... do you swear to me that you’ll never use anything I tell you against Kal?  Ever?”  The boy’s loyalty was as obvious as his desire to try to explain his mentor’s actions.

 

Aragorn and Legolas nodded.  “You have our word,” the ranger said softly.  He wanted to understand this puzzle.  There were too many pieces that just didn’t make sense. 

 

Thil sighed.  He had already probably broken his leader’s trust forever tonight by his actions with the elf; a little more couldn’t do more damage now.  He wanted these people to understand Kaldur the way he did. 

 

“Kal was born a slave, in the south.  Alls he knew was his parents were sold to pay for a debt, condemning them and all their offspring to that fate.  But if his parents were still living by the time he was old enough to remember, he must have been sold apart from them, cause he was raised an orphan.  I don’t know much about it, but I guess it was a pretty rough life.  The only person who meant anything to Kal was another slave, an old woman who practically raised him.  When he was about fourteen, she was accused of stealing something and was beaten... it killed her.  Kal went berserk.  He nearly strangled the master who ordered it, but they pried him off...” Thil’s voice was hollow at the retelling.  It hurt him to think about it as a reality, and not just a story. 

 

“They beat him bad enough to leave scars that he still carries, then they put him in a cage.  At first in the center of the courtyard where everyone could see...” the young man’s voice became tinged with bitter anger.  “Then they moved it down to the cellars and locked him away from the world like a rabid dog.  They said he was mad.  Three years.  Three *years* they kept him caged up in the dark and barely subsisting on whatever scraps they chose to fling him,” the boy swallowed hard, remembering the night he had inadvertently pried the whole story out of his older friend.  Kaldur had been dead drunk and made a joke out of everything, but Thil hadn’t found it a laughing matter.  He still didn’t. 

 

Horror at the cruelty of what they had just heard was etched on Aragorn’s face.  Beside him, Legolas had pressed his face against his knees.  A slave was worth less than dirt; he knew that well.  To be imprisoned in the dark... never knowing if you’d ever get out, never knowing when your tormenters were going to come to sport with you... no wonder he knew what he had seen in Kaldur’s eyes.

 

“Who could do that to a child?” Aragorn breathed sadly.  He could see the dead-honest truth in Thil’s eyes and knew that what he told them was fact. 

 

“He went in a child, but he lost that in there somewhere I think.  He came out a man.  He came out...” Thil tipped his head to the side, indicating he meant Kaldur’s mind.  “*Different*.  He talked to himself, turned everything into one big joke, he seemed incapable of understanding pain or taking hurt anymore... they decided he really must be mad now and were tired of keeping him, so they took him out to dispose of him.  He escaped.  He ran and he never looked back.”

 

Thil studied his audience for a moment.  “Kaldur’s not really crazy you know.  Well... maybe a little,” he smiled faintly.  “But mainly he’s just... unique.  And... he’s not incapable of feeling pain either, despite what he says.  Mind you, he never wanted a soul to know any of this.  I only found out because he was too drunk to know what he was saying and I’ve kept his secret, like I’m asking you both to keep it.  I just... I just wanted you to understand.  To know what it would mean for Kal to go back into any kind of prison.  I honestly think he’d rather die than lose his freedom again.”

 

Silence hung between them for several long minutes, but no one spoke.  No one knew quite what to say.  Presently Thil lay back down and rolled over, watching the sunrise with tired eyes.  He had had his say and there was nothing left for him to do.  He wasn’t sure what good telling them all that would accomplish, but if they really wanted to know what was going on in his friend’s head tonight, now they did. 

 

Aragorn closed his eyes and then slowly opened them again.  That explained a lot about the strange but uncannily strong defenses Kaldur had built against the world.  If you didn’t care, didn’t take it seriously, it didn’t hurt.

 

Aragorn laid his hand on Legolas’ shoulder and the elf slowly straightened back up, shaking off the sorrow of the tale they had just heard.  When you had a past like that you couldn’t live in it, Legolas knew that and apparently Kaldur did too.  However that wasn’t to say that it did not occasionally rear up and smack you in the face. 

 

Legolas smiled slightly, leaning his head against the tree once more as rosy dawn spread across the heavens above.  “You know what Strider?” he murmured quietly.  “I’ve had a good life.”

 

Aragorn blinked, wondering what brought on that comment.

 

Legolas grinned at his friend’s confusion.  “No, truly, I have.  Not because there hasn’t been pain, or horror, or hurt... but because I have always come out the other side a better, stronger person for it.  Because I have always had family, and friends, like you, by my side.  Have you never wondered Estel, why when we hear stories like that, the kind that make you want to weep for all the injustice in the world... have you ever wondered why is that we sit there and ask: Why did it have to happen?  It’s a natural enough response, that’s true, yet in a world stained by evil, evil things will happen.  But then, why do we take for granted the blessings in our lives?  Do we ever stop to wonder ‘why’ about them?  Why, in a world this cold and full of suffering, Ilúvatar chooses to light up our lives with the many bright spots we love so dear?”

 

The elf prince stopped himself and laughed heartily at the bemused expression on his friend’s face. 

 

“I lost you, didn’t I?” Legolas shook his head.

 

Aragorn chuckled, his voice tinged with exhaustion.  “Forgive me my friend, I *think* I agree with you, but some of us are not up to playing the philosopher at this hour of the morning.  I will tell you what I know though.  What I know, is that I love to see you smile mellon-nín... gwador-nín.

 

“Well then we should get some rest I think,” Legolas yawned.  “Even if the sun does wish to rise, we do not need to join it this morn.”  Picking up the mug he had set aside some time ago he held it out towards Aragorn with a suddenly devilish smile. 

 

Aragorn realized that it was a mug of the ‘special tea’ he had made earlier for his brothers.  He cast a suspicious look at the elf, remembering how at one time they had kept a running tally of whose turn it was to drug the other in this manner due to the many scrapes they encountered in their youth. 

 

Legolas, it seemed, had not forgotten either.  “So...” the elf said with a grin.  “I forget, whose turn is it?”

 

 

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

 

 

Aragorn rolled over stiffly, a soft moan escaping his lips as he woke up slowly.  It was dark in camp and the distant haze of red that stained the mountain peaks to the west let him know that the sun was just setting.

 

Soft sounds of someone moving nearby caused the ranger to slowly open his eyes and glance to his left.  Legolas was seated near him quietly talking to Taradin.

 

“So do you awaken finally?”  The elf’s soft voice teased.

 

Moving carefully into a sitting position, Aragorn rubbed his fists against his eyes, trying to wake up fully.  The motion set his arm to aching and he grimaced.  “How long did I sleep?” he mumbled, his words slightly slurred.

 

“All day long.”  Taradin glanced about the camp, “You and that motley crew that you’ve been dragging with you.” The older man motioned to the prisoners with the mug he held in his hands as Legolas carefully inspected Aragorn’s arm.  The elf fitted it gently back into the sling draped around the ranger’s neck.

 

“Elladan and Elrohir?”  Aragorn questioned once Legolas released him.  He slowly stretched his legs as he glanced around them.  Tangled strands of dark hair fell into his eyes and he pushed them away from his face as he watched the camp for a few minutes.

 

“They awoke a few minutes ago.” Legolas followed Aragorn’s gaze to the far side of camp where his brothers were being tended.  Elladan was slowly sitting up, aided by someone, but the ranger could not see clearly who it was.

 

He started when he realized that it was Thil who was working gently with the elven twins, now helping Elrohir hold a mug of tea as he sipped it carefully.

 

Legolas restrained Aragorn when he protested and tried to rise.

 

“Easy Strider.”  Legolas watched the robber carefully.  The young man’s movements were deliberate and slow, and he made sure to keep himself in Elrohir’s line of sight so the deaf elf could understand him.  “He has some abilities with healing and he offered to help.”

 

“My men and I are not skilled with medicines the way you are Strider, but that one there has promise.  He gave his word he only wanted to help so we figured it couldn’t hurt to let him.  There’s nowhere he could go with my men all about like this.”  Taradin watched the young robber.  “Wouldn’t mind having someone of his skills working with us all the time actually.” He muttered quietly.

 

Aragorn relaxed and sat back down, his eyes roaming the camp.  The rest of the thieves were being tied up again after they had been fed.  There was no resistance from them.  They knew they were outnumbered and their leader, who was obviously their ‘creative’ influence, had been removed. It made no sense to try anything again. 

 

The ranger glanced at Kaldur.  The thief sat tied to the tree like he was last night, but something about the man troubled Aragorn.

 

“What of Kaldur?”  The Dúnadan glanced at Legolas.

 

The elf simply shook his head.  It was Taradin that answered.  “I can’t figure that one out.  Yesterday you couldn’t get him to shut up, but ever since last night... He won’t eat.  He won’t drink.  He won’t speak.  He just sits there and stares off into who knows where.  He ain’t with us if that’s what you’re meaning.  He don’t give my men no trouble, but tain’t natural,” the older man shrugged. 

 

“I’m thinking he has injuries from your troll scuffle yesterday, but he won't let anyone touch him either.  Some of my men were a bit rough with him last night, just a *bit* mind you and I put a stop to it right quick like as soon as I saw,” the hunter assured swiftly.  “But now he puts up an unholy fit if anyone lays a finger near him.  Only blasted time one gets any reaction out of him whatsoever.”  Taradin sighed, he had tried to help, but nothing seemed to be getting through the prisoner. 

 

Legolas stared quietly at the ranger.  He knew that it was Strider’s call, but he hated that Kaldur had retreated, it reminded him too much of himself. 

 

Aragorn uneasily dropped Legolas’ gaze.  A small sigh escaped him. “All right I’ll go talk to him.  Do you still have his meal?” he asked Taradin. 

 

“Don’t know, but there has to be something we can scrounge up for him, if you think you can get him to eat it.”  He gestured to one of his men near the fire.  “Markess, is there anything left of supper?”  The other hunter nodded and went about quickly preparing a plate.

 

Standing slowly to his feet and straightening with a small groan, Aragorn accepted the meager meal and made his way over to where Kaldur was seated.  His actions caught Thil’s attention and the young thief eyed the ranger carefully.

 

Dismissing the guards Aragorn sat down next to Kaldur and placed the meal on the ground.  The robber didn’t move or acknowledge his presence; he simply stared off into space blinking slowly every once in a while.

 

Removing a small knife from his boot, Aragorn cut through the bonds that held Kaldur’s arms behind him around the trunk of the tree.  The small freedom brokered no visible response but the thief slowly moved his arms in front of him, massaging his wrists.  His head dropped down to his chest and he lowered his gaze.  There were bruises on the side of his face and the ranger could only wonder if that was from the trolls yesterday, or the ‘bit of roughness’ that Taradin had mentioned having to break up. 

 

Aragorn pushed the plate of food towards Kaldur.  “You need to eat.  They tell me you haven’t eaten or drunk anything.”

 

Pulling his knees to his chest the smaller man didn’t answer.

 

“Are you hurt?”  Aragorn tried again without success.  He sighed in frustration as the robber pulled more tightly into himself.  “Look, you can trust me.”

 

A small snort of biting derision answered him.  “Trust you?”

 

“You think you can’t?  It’s me who should be second guessing trusting you.”  Aragorn spoke quickly, his words a little harsher than he wanted.  He glanced up as Thil approached them cautiously, only to be blocked by some of Garith’s hunters.  “No it’s all right.  Let him go, he can come near.”  He leveled the young man with a stern gaze.

 

Thil knelt in the grass in front of his employer and tried to look into the man’s eyes, “Kal, come on, you gotta eat.  Please.  We need you healthy.” 

 

Tired, dead eyes stared out through the tangle of fuzzy braids at the younger robber.

 

“Thil, go back and tend the elves.”  Kaldur whispered quietly.

 

Dropping his gaze to the ground the young man reluctantly did as he was told.  When the boy was sufficiently far away Kaldur turned his attention on the ranger that sat near him.  “It’s not your fault really.  I made the critical error.  I misjudged ye.” 

 

The gaze the thief laid on him stabbed through Aragorn’s heart; total distrust and fear radiated out from the small human.  There was no light or buoyancy in his eyes and without that it was like looking at a different man. 

 

“I broke my own rules mate; I actually started to believe in somebody honest.  I thought you would be fair.  I can't believe I thought wrong.  Usually I’m a better judge of character than that.”  There was a trace of the familiar careless flippancy in his light tone, but a faintly acidic back-bite replaced his usual joviality. 

 

Aragorn didn’t speak for a few moments.  He was relieved of answering when Kaldur’s soft words floated to him again, mildly accusing. “I heard everything you said back there on the road.  I know what you’re planning for us and I’ll not go with you.  You may as well kill me now or leave me tied up here and let me die, because I’m not going.”

 

“You don’t have a choice.”  Aragorn said quietly. 

 

“You don’t think so?” Kaldur lifted his gaze and pierced Aragorn hard with it, his lips twitching up into a grin.  The unpredictable gleam was back in his dark eyes, but it was hard-edged and crystallized. 

 

“What a minute.  What is it you think we are going to do to you?”  The ranger could see he would get nowhere arguing Kaldur’s logic.  Few could.  Aragorn’s brows furrowed.  No, Thil was right, Kaldur wasn’t insane.  Highly creative yes, but not mad... not yet.  There was something of the past though, there just behind his eyes; something, whether true or not, that said he feared he could be pushed over that edge.  Something that knew how dangerous he would become if he ever gave up; if he ever really let go of the indomitably resilient buoyancy that he held close to his soul. 

 

“I *know* what you said.  I heard you talking with the others.  You said we could work off what we’ve done.”  Kaldur strove for levity in his tone, but his eyes were haunted as he continued, “That translates slavery in any language, and you know it as well as me.”  He was shaking slightly now.  It had been two days since he had food or water and he hadn’t slept at all in that time either.  He honestly wasn’t sure if he were intentionally trying to starve himself or not... sometimes even he didn’t understand everything that went on in his head. 

 

“Strider... don’t be dense, it doesn’t become a bright mind like you mate.  We took the Lord of Rivendell’s sons hostage, they could ‘ave died because of us.  How do you think he’s going to treat us when we arrive there?  Do you honestly think we will get any of your so-called ‘justice’ from him?”

 

Aragorn noted the trembling that had set in Kaldur and as much as he didn’t want to, he understood the man’s fears. 

 

“Yes, you will.  I know the Lord of Rivendell.”  With a sigh Aragorn let his guard down one more time, cursing himself even as he did so.  There was just something in the hauntedness of the thief’s eyes that reminded him too much of the hopelessness he had seen in Legolas’ not so long ago.  Understanding breeds compassion.  “Kaldur... I understand that you probably haven’t got much reason to believe me, but this is not going to be like anything that has happened to you before.  I’m willing to promise you that.”

 

Kaldur looked skeptical.  “What gives you leave to be making free with promises like that friend?  Don’t say what you can’t keep.”

 

Aragorn sighed.  “The Lord of Rivendell is my father.  He adopted me when I was young.  I was an orphan and he raised me as his own,” the ranger confessed, hoping the singular similarity in their pasts would help him.  “When I call Elladan and Elrohir my brothers, I am not being figurative, they *are* my brothers.” 

 

To all outward appearances what the ranger had just said didn’t seem to have a bearing on the highwayman at all but inside a tiny spark of hope and interest had flared.  It was a little easier to believe good of someone if the speaker doing the convincing actually had call to know what they were talking about.  Kaldur listened carefully, his fingers lightly grabbing the piece of bread that Aragorn broke in half and offered him.

 

“Elrond.  His name is Elrond and he is very wise and very just.”  Aragorn poured water from a flask into a mug that had been handed to him with the plate of food and he passed it to Kaldur who drank deeply from the cup, wiping his mouth on his sleeve.  His hunger had been provoked and he readily ate as he listened to the ranger.  He still wasn’t fully willing to believe him just yet however; he had no reason to.  Yet even so, Kaldur wasn’t the type to simply roll over and give up. 

 

“My parents were slain by orcs.  Although I was young at the time, I saw the whole thing.”  Aragorn passed the man a fork and a spoon that Garith brought, handing them down to the ranger along with his pouch of herbs.  No one else could hear the quiet conversation but everyone in the camp was secretly watching.

 

“I don’t think a person ever gets over something like that.”  Aragorn continued, “But Elrond, my father, helped me.  Kaldur, whatever he does he will not sell you.  He detests slavery, as do we all.  I was a slave once.  It has now been quite a few years since, but I have not forgotten it.  Even Legolas knows the bite of a whip and has cause to fear small, dark places.”

 

Kaldur had stopped eating and was watching the ranger closely.  His open gaze belied the fact that he identified with what the man was saying.

 

“None of us would see you or any of your men enslaved, nor mistreated.  What I was speaking of was working *with* the townspeople of Strayton.  In their fields, with their animals, alongside their blacksmiths as helpers, as coworkers, until your debts are paid.  Taradin has even shown interest in giving young Thil a job with his outfit.  He’s impressed with the boy and he’d be a good employer for him.  In fact should you wish it you could stay on and live there in Strayton and make an honest life for yourselves.”  Aragorn tapped the edge of the metal plate again, indicating he wanted the man to continue eating.  The slight smile he was rewarded with encouraged him.

 

Kaldur picked up a piece of cheese and pointed with it at the ranger.  “And you think, this elven lord...your father would let us do this after all that has happened?”

 

“Do you think it any small thing what you did back there with the trolls?  Or with Losmir?  Or your men on the hill last night?”  Aragorn smiled as the robber cleaned his plate of food.  “All those things will be brought out in your favor.”

 

“I can't live behind bars.”  Kaldur’s voice was soft.

 

“Then we’ll work it so you won’t be.”  Aragorn was grateful when the thief did not flinch away from him when he moved near.  He took the empty plate and set it aside.  “Now you have wounds, they need tending and you need to sleep.  We still have a good five days walk ahead of us.”

 

Pouring out more of the water into the now empty mug, Aragorn mixed some of the herbs up in it and allowed them to steep for a few minutes before handing it back to the other.

 

“What is it?” Kaldur wrinkled his nose when took a deep smell of the concoction.

 

“It’s good for you.” Aragorn laughed eliciting a smile from the small man, “Drink it, it will help you heal.”

 

“On your word?”

 

“You have my word,” Aragorn tapped the bottom of the mug, “on everything I have said.”

 

With a nod Kaldur drank the tea down quickly and passed the mug back to Aragorn.  When the guards came back to tie the robber up, the ranger waved them off.

 

“Let him be.  It’s alright, he needs to sleep.”  Aragorn was watching as Kaldur fought the drugs in his system.  “Don’t fight it.  Just rest.  You’ll be safe.”

 

Thil walked over with a blanket and knelt in front of his employer, a small smile on his face.  Wrapping the thief in the warm cloth Aragorn gently forced Kaldur down wading up his coat and placing it beneath the man’s head as darkness drew him down into sleep.

 

“I’ll see to his wounds if you would, please.”  Thil offered.

 

Aragorn nodded and stood slowly to his feet, gazing at the sleeping man.

 

“Did you mean what you said?”  Thil asked quietly as the ranger turned to leave.  “I mean the part about me staying on here with the hunters and all and not selling us?”

 

Turning back towards the robbers Aragorn glanced down into the large eyes fixed on him, “Every word Thil.  You have my promise as a ranger.”

 

When he rejoined Legolas the elf was smiling up at him.

 

“What?”

 

“You.”  Legolas laughed lightly, “You’re such a soft touch.”

 

“Look who’s talking.”  Aragorn elbowed his friend gently, careful of his healing.  “Seems like you’re the one who got me to go over there.” 

 

The hunters had a roaring fire going and Elladan and Elrohir were just seating themselves around the ring. 

 

“Come on let's go join the others. I can think of some really good stories to tell them about you.”  The ranger smiled.

 

He helped the elf to his feet and the two of them walked stiffly towards the fire ring and the sounds of easy banter among the beings seated there.

Chapter Text

___________________________________________________________

 

~*PART EIGHTEEN*~

 

 

 

They had stayed camped with Taradin and Garith’s men for two more days before beginning the journey towards Rivendell.  Taradin only brought along a dozen or so of his men to help reinforce guarding the prisoners as anymore was a waste of effort.  Garith and the rest of the hunters traveled with them part way and then headed towards Strayton with their catches.  They had enough to supply the town for the entire winter by the time they parted company.  A few of the more wounded men journeyed on to Rivendell at Striders suggestion.  The lord of Imladris wouldn’t mind the extra patients to care for.

 

Once in Rivendell, Taradin also had in mind to ask Elrond for the thief they called Thil.  He had taken a liking to the boy, who reminded him a great deal of Garith when he was younger, and he knew of Strider’s intentions to farm the robbers out to make them work off their debt.  Markess had commented to him not long before they parted with the rest of their company that the lad would make a nice addition to their party if he was willing to come under authority and work with them.

 

The path back was taken very slowly as the travelers were collectively in no shape to be hurrying anywhere.  A journey that should have taken five days ended up taking eight.  And so it was on the eighth day that the company of men and elves straggled into the courtyard of Imladris near dusk.

 

Elrohir lowered Elladan down on to the flag stone steps.  He had been helping his twin walk down the steep winding path towards their home.  The older twin eased down with a small groan.  He nodded quietly as Elrohir crouched stiffly in front of him.  The twins had alternately been taking turns supporting one another and both of them were exhausted. 

 

Taradin cordoned off the prisoners in a corner of the courtyard, his men eyeing them suspiciously.  The robbers had become sullen and quiet through the whole last leg of their journey, knowing that the time for their judgment was nearing.  Kaldur had returned to his normal self after his talk with Strider but even he was quiet and apprehensive as they drew near the elven home.

 

Celboril came running out of his room, having seen the weary travelers straggling through the gates.  Moranuen was fast on his heels, calling out to the household servants.  In moments the courtyard was teeming with elves seeing to the wounded and calling greetings to their guests.

 

The large wooden doors of the house were thrown open and Elrond walked out onto the steps.  Aragorn had knelt down next to Elrohir who was now seated on the stairs as well and was trying to explain all that was being said to his brother.  Moranuen had already examined Elladan and discovered the broken ribs and the deep cut to the elf’s shoulder.  Concern was written all over his face when he turned to gaze at the elf lord.

 

Elrond’s smile faded, turning quickly to a scowl as he took in the wounded elves and men that were gathered in his courtyard.

 

“What has happened?”  He eyed the men in the far corner that were tied up, quickly shifting his gaze to search out his sons.  Moranuen was helping Elladan to his feet.  The elven twin was moving slowly and with pain.  By now the beating he had taken from the rockslide and the trolls was showing itself in the black and blue bruises that decorated his face and his arms.  He smiled slightly when he heard his father’s voice.

 

“Ada.”  He whispered breathlessly.  It was still hard to breathe, let alone draw a deep breath.

 

Elrond descended the steps quickly and wrapped his arm around Elladan’s waist, easing his son’s weight onto his shoulders.  “Moranuen?”

 

“Estel has returned from Bree.  Apparently you were correct and the wights were flesh and blood.” The elf pointed out the prisoners. 

 

Kaldur couldn’t understand the language that the elves spoke but the look the elf lord laid on he and his men bode ill for them.

 

“And what happened to Elladan?  Where is Elrohir?”

 

“It is well father. I only have a broken rib.  But I need to speak with you about...” Elladan’s explanation was cut short as Moranuen interrupted him.

 

“Only?  You look as though you have been a play toy for trolls!”  The other teased.

 

“We were.”  Legolas answered.  He mounted the bottom steps and bowed customarily to the elf lord; his right hand touching his heart before sweeping out in a gesture of peace and respect.  “My lord, we were beset by hill trolls on our return trip and our escape was not an easy one.”

 

“Where is Elrohir?”  Elrond’s worry mounted.  Everyone was talking at once, elves rushed about with blankets and bandages and the chaos was overwhelming.  He couldn’t hear what Legolas’ had just said.  As of yet no one had given him an answer that made any sense only bits and pieces of a story that seemed rather shocking.

 

“Silence!” the elf lord roared, bringing an immediate quiet to the courtyard.  The prisoners flinched visibly and Kaldur easily placed himself in the forefront, blocking his men from the elf’s wrath and backing them all up a pace.

 

“Now.  Please, let one person tell me what has gone on and where are Estel and Elrohir?”

 

“We are here father.”  Estel still crouched in front of Elrohir, holding the elf’s face with his good hand, his other restrained by the sling.  He was speaking slowly for the twin to understand.

 

Taradin moved aside, brushing his men out of the way as Elrond descended the steps, followed more slowly by Elladan who was unwilling to remain behind.

 

Aragorn glanced up as his father towered over them.  Elrohir followed his gaze and smiled into the face of his father. 

 

“Ada.” The twin spoke softly, “It is good to see you again.  Elladan is not all right no matter what he says.  He has broken ribs.  He needs rest.  And Estel is wounded as well.”

 

“That I have discovered.  But how are you my son?  You look no better than your brother.”  The elf lord knelt next to Aragorn as he spoke, eyeing the sling with suspicion.

 

Elrohir opened his mouth to answer but he was unsure what to say.  His father had switched to speaking common out of courtesy for the humans and the twin had had a hard time following what he said.  Suddenly afraid of what their father would say and not sure how to tell him Elrohir locked eyes with Aragorn and begged him softly, “Estel?”

 

Pulling his brother against him, the ranger winced and fought back his own tears that mirrored the twins.

 

“Estel what is it?”  Elrond reached out and placed a hand on both of his son’s shoulders.

 

“Elrohir cannot hear father.”  Aragorn answered softly. 

 

The elven twin gently placed his hand on Estel’s heart, the vibrations letting him know that his brother was speaking.  “I’m sorry.” He whispered.

 

“It was not his fault lord Elrond.”  Legolas stood behind Aragorn.

 

“It was an accident.”  Elladan spoke up quickly.  “It happened in the downs when we were tracking the robbers.”

 

“There was an explosion.”  Aragorn cut into the story, his gaze searching his father’s, “Elrohir was too close.”

 

“I cannot hear Ada.”  The elven twin commented softly as he sat back and stared at Elrond.  Tears streamed down his face.  All the fears that had haunted him through the entire trip were released now that they were home and he faced the horrible fact that he might not ever get his hearing back.  He was tired and he ached and no longer had the will to fight back the fear.

 

“Yes but Mithrandir said that he believed it to be temporary.”  Legolas spoke up quietly, his hands rested on Aragorn’s shoulders.

 

Elrond glanced at the elven prince, one eyebrow raised at this latest information.  “Gandalf was with you?  Did you have need of his assistance?”

 

“Well when Aragorn and Legolas fell...” Elladan’s explanation was quickly cut off when Estel cuffed him lightly.

 

“Ada doesn’t need to hear about that right now El.  There’ll be plenty of time for the details later.”  He ground the last sentence out like a warning.

 

“I’m sure there will be and I will want a full accounting of them all.” Elrond stared hard at his human son.  Legolas would not meet the elf lord’s gaze at all.  There was much that would need to be discussed then.

 

“First off let us get the wounded inside.  That means you as well Elrohir.  We’ll tend to your human companions first.”  Elrond glanced over his shoulder at the wounded hunters.  “Celboril, Moranuen would you be so kind as to help the staff prepare the guest quarters?”

 

“Father.”  Aragorn tugged on the elf lord’s sleeve as he made to rise.  “Can we please house Taradin and his men as well as the prisoners in some of the guest rooms?”

 

It was an odd request, but there was something in his sons eyes that made the older elf hesitate to refuse.  He glanced back at the humans and nodded slowly.  “As you wish Estel.  Will there be a problem with that?”  Elrond addressed his question to Taradin and the men who were bound behind him.

 

“No my lord.  There’ll not be any trouble from them at all.  A few of my men will stand guard at the room.  Mostly they are too tired out to do much of anything let alone put up a fight.”  The old hunter answered.

 

“Very well then.  I will not tolerate any disturbances.”  Elrond gave the prisoners a stern glare as he stood to his feet pulling Elrohir up with him.  “Let us all move inside.”

 

Aragorn glanced back to Kaldur and nodded once, letting the highwayman know they would be well taken care of.  Legolas helped Estel slowly to his feet.  The small stifled moan was not lost on the elven ears and Elrond called out to him over the renewed chaos.

 

“Estel you can be qualified among the human, I would see you first my son.”  His words were masked in the elvish language and Aragorn missed the smile that pulled at the older elf’s lips as he groaned.

 

“Yes Ada.  Legolas and I will be in my room.  But I need to see to the prisoners first.”

 

“As you wish, but make it fast.”  Elrond turned on the threshold and shot the human a warning look.  He wasn’t kidding.

 

Legolas and Aragorn got the hunters and the prisoners settled down, separating them into three groups.  The wounded men were taken to another part of the house, closer to the pantry where Elrond could easily access his medicines.

 

“Kaldur, you follow Moranuen, he’ll show you to your room.”  Aragorn pulled the thief out of line and gently pushed him toward the elf that stood waiting for him.  It was still safer to keep the bandit away from his men.  When the robber glanced hesitantly at Strider the ranger walked him down the hallway.  The bandit had no idea of what to expect and old fears rooted him in place until Strider’s hand on his shoulder moved him forward.

 

“Moranuen will keep watch over your room tonight.” Quickly pulling out his hunting knife Aragorn cut the man’s bonds.  “Don’t try anything all right?  Just enjoy the comfort.”  He wanted Kaldur to realize that he had told the truth and that there would be no bars or cells or cages.  It was important to him and he knew it was even more important to Legolas that the men were treated with dignity even if they did not deserve it.

 

“Wait! I want to go with Kal!”  A small struggle ensued as Thil tried to follow them.  He was stopped by Taradin.  The man’s large hands easily held the youth back.

 

“Don’t give them no grief Thil!” Kaldur called back down the hallway, he didn’t want any of his men hurt and the new arrangements made him leery despite Strider’s assurances.

 

“Thil,” Legolas walked over calming the boy, “You’ll be staying with Taradin tonight.”  He led the two men away down the hall in the opposite direction.

 

The room that Aragorn led Kaldur to was small.  Unlike most of the rooms in the large house of Rivendell it had no large open verandas on it. Only a small window set into the wall that looked out on the valley below.  The window opened to a straight drop down into the gorge.  It would be impossible to escape from this room.  A large bed dominated most of the living space and it was here that Kaldur dropped down onto with a sigh after closely examining the entire room for another way out.  He crossed his booted feet and placed his hands behind his head, stretching out on the soft mattress.

 

“Be good Kaldur and don’t give Moranuen any trouble.  He’s an expert marksman.”  Aragorn warned, as he placed a stopper at the base of the door to hold it open.  No locks, no cages, but also no way for Kaldur to avoid Moranuen’s watchful eye.  The fear and hopelessness in the man’s eyes a few days ago still haunted Aragorn and he found himself more lenient with the thief than normal.

 

Turning to his elven friend he smiled warmly and spoke to him in elvish, covering their conversation, “Don’t listen to a word he says.  Just show him your weapons if he gets out of hand and whatever you do don’t let on that you understand him or he will never shut up.”  Aragorn glanced back into the room.  Kaldur lay on the bed, his eyes closed.  Whether he was asleep or not the ranger had no idea but he smiled anyway. “And please be kind to him... as much as is sanely possible at least.  He helped save all of our lives.  We owe him that much.”  Aragorn clapped his friend on the shoulder, “Thank you Mora.”

 

“I’m glad you made it back Estel.”  The elf called to his friend as the ranger walked slowly back down the hallway.

 

Aragorn glanced in at the robbers who had been bedded down on extra mattresses that had been brought in for them.  Taradin’s men slept in the doorway, forestalling any escape attempts.  In the room just next to them, Taradin was talking quietly to Thil as he stacked wood in the fireplace.  Aragorn left them alone, knowing the old hunter was explaining his proposition to the young man.

 

As the men settled in and the wounded were seen to, the house began to finally quiet.

 

Legolas was waiting for Aragorn at the base of the stairs after seeing to the wounded men from Taradin’s party.  They quietly mounted the staircase.  Legolas’ room had been commandeered by some of the household staff who had been displaced for the night, so the two friends drug themselves into Aragorn’s room. 

 

Legolas flopped back on the bed next to Estel.  They hadn’t bothered to turn the lights on or even remove their boots.  Aragorn had dropped wordlessly onto the mattress, relaxing into the soft comforter that lay atop it.  When Legolas dropped down next to him he hadn’t spoken, simply readjusted his position, making room for his friend and lying quietly next to the elf.  In moments they were both fast asleep.

 

Elrond had actually ended up seeing to the twins first as they appeared to have sustained the worst injuries of both parties.  They had chosen to stay together in Elladan’s room and left Elrohir’s open for others who might need it.

 

Elladan lay on the bed, his shirt removed and his chest wrapped tightly in fresh white bandages taking some of the pressure off his broken ribs.  His shoulder had been cleaned and dressed and Elrohir had helped their father spread a soothing ointment over the worst of the twin’s bruises.  In moments he had fallen deeply asleep, his eyes closed, attesting to his overly tired state.

 

Elrohir sat on the edge of the bed, gingerly removing his shirt.  His own chest was decorated by a collage of bruises.  Elrond gently held the young elf’s head in his hands.  He felt the twin’s temples and the area around his ears.  Turning Elrohir’s face gently from side to side, he held up a candle and looked into the interior of first one ear and then the other. 

 

Elrohir watched as his father started speaking.  The elf lord turned away to a small table next to the bed and began mixing a potion of herbs and oils, talking all the while.  The frustration in the deaf elf mounted until finally he could take it no more.  Reaching out Elrohir stopped his father, covering the older elf’s hands in one of his own.  With his other hand he turned Elrond’s face towards him and gently touched the elf lord’s lips.

 

“Speak *at* me, slowly Ada, in the high tongue and I will be able to understand you better, please.  I don’t know what you are saying.” Elrohir spoke quietly, searching Elrond’s face with his gaze.

 

The elf lord sighed and closed his eyes.  How foolish of him that he hadn’t thought of that, it should have been a natural assumption.  Gently he pulled the young elf into his arms, holding the twins ear against his heart. “Forgive me Elrohir.” His son nodded against his chest, knowing what his father was saying without needing to hear it.  He smiled as Elrond pulled back and spoke directly to him.

 

“I think that Mithrandir was correct.  Your hearing loss is temporary only.  Your eardrums were ruptured but they are already looking better.  I’m making a poultice; it should aid their healing although you may have troubles for a while even after your hearing returns.  Did you understand what I said?”

 

The answering nod brought a smile to his face and he proceeded to gently pack Elrohir’s ears, covering them with clean bandages.

 

The young elf laid back stiffly on the bed next to his brother while their father rubbed the cooling ointment into his bruises.  His son’s soft noises of pain caused the elf lord to be extra careful.

 

“It must be some tale you all have to tell me about this whole trip.”  He smiled down at the elf as he packed the ointment away.

 

“Ada, you will not believe all we have done and seen.” Elrohir answered quietly.  With his ears packed and bandaged against his head he could almost imagine that he heard his own voice from very far away.  With a smile he touched one of the bandages.

 

Elrond caught the hand in his own and placed it gently across the prone elf’s chest.  “Well I will hear of it all tomorrow.  Tonight you will rest,” he whispered, knowing the younger elf could not hear his voice anyway.  Running his fingers lightly over the bruised face that smiled up at him, Elrond kissed Elrohir lightly on the forehead before turning out their light and closing the door.

 

Elrohir glanced at his brother next to him with a small smile.  Rolling over and pulling the blanket with him, he rested on his side next to Elladan, relying on his sense of touch to alert him should his twin awaken.  It felt good to be home.  “Good night Elladan” He spoke out loud before falling soundly asleep.

 

Elrond stopped on the threshold of Aragorn’s room.  The glow globe he held gently illuminated the room and he smiled when he saw the two friends asleep on the bed where they had fallen.  As much as he would have liked to allow them to them to remain asleep they had wounds that needed attention and he had questions that desperately needed answers.

 

When Elrond gently touched Legolas’ shoulder the elf started and shied quickly away.

 

“No!”  Legolas gasped slightly, blinking rapidly in the low light as he focused on the person who stood over him.

 

“Legolas, it is I, Elrond.”

 

“What! What is it!?”  Aragorn was quickly awake, bolting upright in bed and glancing about them wildly, his hand protectively on Legolas’ shoulder.

 

Elrond stepped back so that the light fully hit his face and stared down at the two friends.  “It is I Estel.”  Without further explanation the elf lord pulled the large chair over and sat down.  “You two have some explaining to do.”

 

Legolas sat up slowly, one hand over his heart as he caught his breath.  He eased his legs up onto the bed and crossed them underneath him.  “Forgive me lord Elrond.”

 

“Oh I thought you were...” Aragorn stopped his train of thought realizing he was speaking out loud.

 

“I know, so did I.” Legolas agreed quietly.

 

Elrond sat quietly watching the two younger beings.  He steepled his fingers and waited them out.

 

Legolas’ gaze redirected Aragorn’s attention and he stared guiltily at his father.  “Ada.  You startled us.” The human smiled slightly, trying to lighten the moment.

 

“And why my son, would my touch startle either of you, here in your own home?” Elrond raised an eyebrow and waited.

 

Legolas would not look at the elf lord and Aragorn suddenly found the sheets beneath his hands interesting.  In truth Elrond was slightly amused at their reticence, they both acted like beings so much younger than their years at times.

 

“Estel?”

 

The softly spoke question laced into his name broke through Aragorn’s hesitancy and he glanced up into the dark eyes that watched him closely.

 

“We thought you were the wight.”  He admitted softly.  “I’m afraid our dreams have been rather... haunted by that memory of late.”

 

The confession startled the elf lord but he held his questions in check.  Standing from his seat he moved forward and held out his hand towards Aragorn’s wounded arm.  “Why don’t you start by telling me what happened while I look after your wounds.” 

 

With a nod Estel began to explain what they had discovered in Bree.  Legolas took over the story, allowing Aragorn to concentrate on relaxing as Elrond manipulated the human’s broken arm, gauging how deep the fracture was and how much it had healed in the week’s time since it had been injured.

 

They quieted as Legolas spoke of entering the barrow after Estel and his voice became nearly a whisper.

 

Elrond gently laid Aragorn’s arm back in the sling they had made for him as the prince stopped talking.  He had re-bandaged the arm so that it was not allowed a full range of movements.  Aragorn scooted closer to the elf and encircled the prince’s shoulder with his good arm.

 

“It’s all right.” He reassured the elf, “You did well.”  Aragorn turned his attention back to his father, “Legolas saved me from the wight.  He put himself between me and the evil and helped stop its assault on me.”

 

“It was not enough.” Legolas shivered slightly with remembered dread.

 

“It bought us enough time until Gandalf could free us.”  Aragorn countered.

 

Elrond stepped forward and placed his hand gently on Legolas’ forehead.  Closing his eyes he carefully touched the young elf’s soul and listened, reading it nearly as easily as he could read Estel’s broken arm.  There were traces of icy cold fear that ran in erratic patterns through Legolas’ consciousness but the small pockets that remained where darkness had touched him deeply were slowly giving way to the light that permeated the elven soul.  He was healing.  It would take time yet to be complete, but strangely enough he was actually less troubled than before they left.  The deep shadow that had hung over him since his return from Mordor had begun to dispel.

 

With a sigh, Legolas slumped back as Elrond moved away from him.

 

“You are well on your way to a full recovery young one.” The elf lord answered their unspoken question.  He sat back down in the chair and gazed at Legolas for a few moments.

 

“I can see that you bear bruises and scrapes but were you seriously injured else wise, other than the touch of the wight?”

 

“No.”  Legolas looked up into the elf lord’s eyes.  “Nothing that sleep and rest won’t heal.”  He smiled slightly.

 

“Very well, I have liniment for your bruises, that should ease the pain.  But pray tell perhaps you can both explain what it was that you came up against *after* the wight.”  Elrond smiled as the two friends exchanged a glance.  Aragorn started to laugh softly first which contagiously wrapped the elf prince and he began to smile as well.

 

“Would you believe hill trolls father?”  Estel asked quietly.

 

“Knowing the two of you, it would not surprise me one bit.”  The elf lord retrieved a small jar and pushed the young human down upon the bed, helping him to unbutton his shirt.  “You take your own shirt off, I’ll be with you in a minute.”  Elrond spoke lightly to Legolas who was laughing as Aragorn’s fingers got caught in the button holes as he tried to help.

 

“Start talking.” Elrond admonished the younger beings as he began to rub the ointment across Aragorn’s chest, lathing the bruises in the cooling gel.

 

Legolas slid his tunic over his shoulders slowly, his arms and back protesting the motions.  He started telling the elf lord all that had transpired after they awoke in the downs amidst the rubble of the broken barrow.

 

Elrond listened intently as he finished working over Aragorn’s bruised back.  The ranger had fallen back asleep listening to Legolas soft explanations.  With the ointment easing the tightness and burning in his chest it had been easy to find rest.  Carefully the elf lord covered his youngest son with the light bed sheet, pulling the comforter up to the human’s waist.  He moved around the bed and stood next to Legolas’ side.  The younger elf gazed up into the blue eyes of the elf lord quietly as he lay down on the bed.

 

“Are you certain there will be no lingering effects?” He asked the same question he had asked years ago after returning from the enslavement of the wraith.  After what the wight had said to him in the barrow, he just had to be sure. 

 

“Yes young one.  You are whole.  Your spirit will always remember what happened and you will always be marked by it, but it doesn’t in any way control you.  You have resisted it utterly, and that has made you stronger.”  Elrond spread the soothing ointment across Legolas chest.  The elf tightened slightly and sucked his breath in as the gel cooled across his bruised and aching abdomen.

 

“What of Aragorn?”  Legolas glanced at the sleeping ranger.

 

Elrond stopped and watched his son sleeping, a small smile brushing his lips.  “He is free as well, thanks in no small part to you Legolas, Thranduilion.  I know what you risked in protecting him and not for the first time you have my undying gratitude.”  The elf lord’s smile widened as mirth tugged at Legolas’ lips.  Closing his eyes the prince slowly relaxed.  “I thank Ilúvatar constantly that he led you two to become friends.”

 

“It has always amazed me as well Lord Elrond.  If it were not for Estel, I would still be living in the shadows of Mirkwood and our peoples would not be as reunited as they are.”  Legolas’ eyelids felt heavy and he knew it was only because of the weariness tugging at him.

 

“Aragorn was aptly named.” Elrond spoke softly, noticing the difficulty Legolas was having remaining awake, “Turn over for me young one before you slip away. I would see to your back as well.”

 

Legolas groaned as he forced himself over onto his stomach, his face turned towards Elrond, “Yes my lord, Hope was a good name for him.”  The prince answered quietly before he fell deeply asleep. 

 

The first rays of morning were barely touching the far side of the valley rift when Elrond finished tending Legolas.  The elf Lord quietly closed the heavy drapes that bracketed the picture window, sending the room into a deep, midnight darkness.

 

“Sleep well my sons.”  Elrond gently closed the door and walked back down the hallway to his own room, checking on Elrohir and Elladan before reaching his bed.  He closed the twins’ curtains as well, giving them a few more hours of sleep.

 

When he entered his own room the elf lord was slightly surprised to find Celboril curled up on his bed.  Apparently the elf had given up his quarters for the night and had accidentally fallen asleep in the only place he could find empty.  Undoubtedly he had only meant to lie down for a moment, but the Elf Lord was not about to wake his exhausted friend. 

 

Elrond laughed lightly as he left the room, not at all unhappy about being unintentionally displaced.  Sometimes one had to be flexible when emergencies arose and last night had been just one of those times.  Stealing back into the twins’ rooms, Elrond eased himself down on the couch that bracketed the far wall and pulled the blanket draped over the back around his shoulders.  It had been a wearying night, he had a feeling that no one would stir too early this morning.  With those thoughts on his mind he fell deeply asleep.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

~*PART NINETEEN*~

 

 

 

The occupants of the house woke slowly and late.  The sun had already ridden a third of the way into the sky by the time anyone stirred under the beams of Rivendell.

 

Estel stumbled down the hallway, peeking in on the prisoners.  They were sprawled on the floor and the mattresses snoring loudly.  A couple of Taradin’s men looked up from where they were waking and nodded groggily.  The ranger frowned as he advanced down the hallway.  Someone was singing horribly and the words made no sense.  It was this awful noise that had roused him.  He had a sinking suspicion he knew exactly who was responsible.

 

Moranuen stood in the hallway, his sword drawn and a glower on his face.  “Estel shut it up now.  If you don’t, I will.  He hasn’t quieted since he woke earlier and he is driving me to insanity.  He speaks nonsense and he *cannot* sing!”  The tall elf pointed into the room where Kaldur was being kept.

 

“Say, tell me, did Legolas teach you that glower?” Aragorn could hear Kaldur interrupt his own song and ask from the interior of the small room, “You know he has it down pat, taught it to that tall fellow with the scary walking stick too.”

 

Moranuen rolled his eyes and stepped out of the way as the man laughed at himself and took up his off tune song once more. “Estel.”

 

Aragorn stepped onto the threshold trying to get the thieves attention.  If he didn’t shut up he would wake the entire house. “Kaldur.”

 

The robber leaned on the window sill staring out into the gorge, his song hitting a high note really badly.

 

Aragorn winced, “Kaldur!” He called louder.

 

“Estel, shut him up!” Legolas padded quietly down the hallway after the ranger.

 

“KAL!” Aragorn yelled loudly, finally garnering the others attention.  Briefly he wondered why they always expected *him* to do something with Kaldur. 

 

The highwayman spun around, a smile on his face.  The change in the robber from the previous day was nothing short of amazing and Aragorn wondered if Kaldur truly believed he would come out of this all right or if this was just another act to cover his nervousness for the coming day. 

 

“Oh there you are mate!  And how are we this morning?  That wing of yours feeling any better?” Kaldur stepped up onto the bed and crossed it in a jump, landing lightly next to Aragorn.

 

“Quiet! The house sleeps yet.” Strider pushed the robber back into the room, with his left hand. “If I didn’t know you better I’d think you’d stolen down into the wine cellars already this morning.  Sleep well did we?” He asked sarcastically.

 

The response garnered a quick laugh, “Like a drunkard on the bar bench.” Kaldur answered patting the bed affectionately. 

 

Legolas grimaced and turned away, walking back towards the dinning hall.  His stomach was growling and he could not put up with the highwayman’s antics this early in the morning.

 

“So what’s the grand plan for today Strider?” The slightest hint of sobriety and anxiety touched the bright eyes that watched the ranger and Aragorn was instantly, acutely aware that the act was simply covering up the thief’s anxiety.

 

“Well, now that you’ve woken the house, I would say breakfast for starters and then we’ll see what Lord Elrond has to say.” The ranger glanced back down the hall as Taradin and Thil exited their room followed by the other hunters and the thieves they were dragging along with them.  He smiled as Celboril met them at the head of the hall and directed them to the dinning room.

 

Kaldur leaned against Strider, trying to see round the doorframe, “You know, I was thinking. Don’t suppose he’d be willing to trade anything... say for letting us walk out of here on our own, now would he?”

 

With a lopsided grin Aragorn glanced at Moranuen who rolled his eyes and looked to the far wall, muttering in elvish. 

 

“Of course *you* had to save the insane one and bring him home.  Why couldn’t you loose him along the way?  Fost him off at Bree, feed him to a wight?  I am sure there were lots ways Estel, lots of ways to lose one like this.” 

 

It took all of Aragorn’s restraint not to break out laughing when he glanced back at Kaldur.  Some of Moranuen’s suggestions even started to sound appealing as the master thief began to talk again.

 

“What did he say?”  Kaldur asked, leaning harder on the doorframe and glancing around Strider at the tall, dark-haired elf.

 

Pushing the man back into room, Aragorn tried to talk some seriousness into him.  “Look Kaldur, the best thing you can do for yourself and your men right now is to say nothing.  Let Legolas and I do the talking.  You ever heard that saying ‘seen and not heard.’?”

 

“Maybe once or twice...maybe.”  He held up his hand weaving it back and forth in feigned indecision, “Never believed in it.”

 

“Obviously.” Moranuen growled from his position behind Estel.

 

“You know, I was thinking that this tall fellow might be related to that blonde elf friend of yours Lega-whats-his-name.  They got that same glare thing going on.  You ever noticed that? Or is it just an elf trait?” Kaldur pointed at Moranuen, a grin spreading across his lips as he moved his hand in front of the elf’s face indicating the deep scowl that Mora wore at the moment. “See?  That whole eyebrow thing.”

 

Aragorn batted the man’s hand away and had to look back down the hallway to collect himself and keep from laughing.  Quickly, before he lost what composure he had, he changed to a deadly serious tone and fixed the thief with a hard stare. 

 

“Look Kaldur, I am not kidding.  Silent as a grave do you hear me? Do you understand?  It’s important, for you and your men.  I cannot stress that point enough.”

 

Kaldur ran his fingers across his lips as though locking them in place and with a flourish of his wrist pantomimed throwing away the invisible key.

 

“We’ll see how long that lasts.” Moranuen growled as he stepped away from the door, ordering the prisoner out. “Follow me.”

 

“Not long I can assure you.” Kaldur laughed as he obeyed, leaving the room as Aragorn stepped aside, “Shall I walk like you too?” the robber affected an air of haughtiness and stepped in line with the elf.  Kaldur did an incredibly passable job of miming Moranuen’s exact movements, only in an exaggerated fashion.

 

“Estel!” Moranuen growled, turning just as Strider grabbed the small robber and pushed him behind his back.  “Easy Mora, lets just get through this morning and Mr. DeCahr and his men will be leaving our house, all right?” He smiled weakly, trying hard not to laugh. It was amazing how quickly the small man got underneath the calm elven exteriors.  Moranuen’s anger dissolved as he watched the thief glance over Aragorn’s shoulder with one wide eye, watching him carefully.

 

With a shake of his head, Moranuen turned and walked towards the dining hall.  “The humans and the prisoners will be eating in here.”  He informed them.

 

The room was full and only one seat remained for Kaldur.  Aragorn walked him in and pressed the thief down in the chair, giving him a stern look that was returned with an irrepressible smile.

 

“Lord Elrond is on the veranda and has requested that you and Moranuen dine with him.” Celboril called quietly from a door set in the far wall.

 

“Come on Mora.”  Aragorn reached behind him and pulled the elf with him, pressing the warrior out in front of him as they walked on to the veranda.

 

As they passed out of the dinning hall Kaldur called out, “Hey, you’re a human.  How come you don’t have to eat in here with the rest of us?”

 

Aragorn turned around glaring, “Silent as the grave.” He pointed at the dark haired man threateningly.

 

“Right.” Kaldur sat back down meekly, “Right.” He smiled ingratiatingly and pressed the palms of his hands together bowing slightly in feigned repentance when Taradin pointed his fork at him.

 

“It’s going to be a long morning,” Moranuen elbowed Estel, who started laughing, no longer able to control his mirth. 

 

Aragorn almost wished he could keep Kaldur around here for a little while; it was highly amusing to watch his elven friends become so swiftly irritated.  However, the ranger had a feeling that such a ridiculous idea would endanger not only Kaldur’s life but his own for suggesting it.  That very thought set the human to laughing again.

 

 

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

 

 

Elrond leaned forward, resting his chin on his steepled fingers as he listened to the elves and Aragorn while they talked around the breakfast table about what should be done with the prisoners.  The deeds of the bandits had been brought out into the open as well as their many bumbling attempts at escape and the resulting danger they had caused.  Various thoughts on forms of punishment had been bandied about, but it was Aragorn’s idea of having the prisoners pay off their debt by working with and for the people of Strayton that gained the most support.

 

“I am still inclined to agree with Estel.”  The Elf Lord broke into the conversation again.  “Although I am not favored towards these men for the pain and suffering they have caused the peoples of Breeland, nor yourselves as you have informed me,” He held up his hand stopping Legolas and Aragorn from interrupting him, “But as Prince Legolas has pointed out, they have also acted in ways that show they are not totally irredeemable.”

 

Elrohir was watching his father closely, picking up nearly everything that was being said.  His long dark hair covered most of the bandages that were pressed against his ears and for some reason their presence comforted him, blocking his healing eardrums from the air and the vibrations that often caused them to ache.  Elladan touched his hand questioningly and he nodded, quietly answering the unspoken query, “Yes I understand all that has been said.  And I agree.” His eyes were locked on his father’s as Elrond stopped and looked at him.  Of them all, Elrohir had suffered the most as a result of the robbers’ actions.

 

“You believe they will be able to change if they are given this clemency my son?”  Elrond asked the younger twin quietly. 

 

“I do not think we can know for certain, but from what we have seen I would say that it is likely that at least some of them will.  I think that if they are given the chance and choose to try, they can become good citizens of Strayton, if the townspeople will have them.”  Elrohir looked thoughtful.  It was a little difficult putting across everything he wanted to say when he couldn’t really hear it, but he was learning to work around that. 

 

“There really are no guarantees that they won’t simply go back to their old ways when their sentence is done, but at least they will have been given the chance, and I think that is all we can do,” he continued, smiling slightly.  “Thil was very kind to me, even when they took us captive and he helped me greatly.  Taradin should be allowed to take the boy with him if Thil will have it, I get the feeling that a change of company is all he really needs.”  The deaf elf looked around the table at the others.  Most were nodding in agreement even though he could not hear their murmured assents.

 

“Then it is decided, Taradin and his men will take the thieves into Strayton.  The prison warden can decide where they can best work off their debts and who would be wisest to help these men integrate into a useful lifestyle. And Taradin can keep Thil in his employ if that is what he desires.” Elrond glanced at Aragorn, the ranger was uneasy.  “Estel?  Do you disagree? This was your idea and I found it to be the most just.  What troubles you?”

 

“It’s just... well, Kaldur.”  Aragorn glanced at Legolas; their knowledge of the man’s background led the ranger to believe the solution would never sit well with the head thief; neither would he long remain in such a situation if he could help it. 

 

There really was no way to avoid the fact that once turned over to the Warden, the prisoners were out of Rivendell’s control and completely under Strayton’s jurisdiction.  Elrond could and would mandate certain terms, but after that it was out of the elves’ hands. 

 

They all knew that the captive bandits would most likely be lodged in the prison as a matter of safety; at least until their work programs were established.  Possibly even after that as well, although they would only be returning there at night.  That was by no means an unreasonable situation for most... but for Kaldur... Aragorn suspected that his wounds went a little too deep in that direction for him to submit peaceably.  The Prison Warden would not be able to make him useful against his will, and if in the end he attempted harsher measures to keep the irrepressible bandit under control... Aragorn would have broken his word in more ways than he cared to count.  Yet on the other hand, Kaldur’s disruptive presence would only hinder the progress with the other bandits and inflict on the good people of Strayton a headache that they did not deserve. 

 

“I think something else should be arranged for him,” Aragorn said quietly. 

 

“He will serve his time like the others.” Elrond replied coolly.  After learning all the trouble the man had gotten them into and the fact that it was indeed partly Kaldur’s fault that Aragorn and Legolas had ended up in a barrow in the first place, let alone his responsibility for Elrohir’s hearing loss and the beaten state of the twins, the elf lord was not kindly disposed to the obnoxious human.  “I understand your reservations about his past, but Estel, I will not bid the people of Strayton do anything that would endanger their own citizens, he must be kept in the prison with the others, at least at first.  There is nothing to keep any of them there otherwise.”

 

Aragorn nodded.  “I know Ada, but...” his voice dropped lower.  “I gave him my word.”

 

Elrond fixed his son with a steady, searching gaze, as if trying to understand what Aragorn had seen in the other man that he would make such a promise when keeping it appeared to be counter-productive, not to mention difficult. 

 

The ranger feared his father’s displeasure with him over this, but Elrond’s eyes were not upset, they were simply questioning. 

 

“Estel went to Kaldur at my request Lord Elrond.  I do not deny he has caused no end of trouble, but his heart is not evil.  He did save us.” Legolas put in quietly, breaking the uncomfortable silence that had fallen. 

 

“More than once.” Aragorn continued. “Who has ever heard of a man distracting four hill trolls at one time?”

 

“Insanity, that’s what it was.” Elladan spoke up with a slightly dry smile.  “Although it *did* work.” He added quietly as he rubbed his still sore wrists.

 

“Ada, please?” Aragorn asked softly.

 

Elrond sighed.  “What do you propose?”

 

“It would be better if you did not know.” Aragorn didn’t flinch from the hard stare the elf laid on him at those words.  He knew that Elrond would not openly agree with his plan. It would be better to discuss it with the elf lord later, when they were all in much better health.

 

Elrond narrowed his eyes and watched the human for a few moments.  He did not know exactly what his son was planning, but he trusted him and could see that Estel felt strongly about this.  It was good to see Aragorn feeling confident enough in himself once more to want to do whatever it was he felt was right, even if his father was dubious about what that entailed.  Elrond knew he could not prod Aragorn to accept his destiny one moment, and then treat him like a child the next.  If the human were someday to be a king and a leader, he had to be allowed to follow his own judgment.  The elf lord smiled wryly when he found that that thought touched off a small wave of resistance.  Was that the father in him that wanted Estel to always remain his child, his charge?  He could have laughed at himself.  Certainly you would think an elf as old and as wise as he would know better. 

 

“Legolas and I will take him and deal with him ourselves.”  Aragorn knew now what he needed to do.  He had not discussed it with the elf, but the ranger was confident that his friend would agree with him.

 

“As you wish then.  I trust you Estel, and I trust your judgment.  But I want you to impress upon him the error of his ways so that he will not forget.” Elrond cautioned as the elves began to push back from the table eager to send the hunters and prisoners on their way.

 

“He will know Lord Elrond.” Legolas nodded, glancing sideways at the ranger.  He had no clue what Estel was up to but he was willing to go along and trust Estel to tell him later. 

 

As they exited the room, Aragorn pulled the elf close, and directed them out away from the others.  Quietly he whispered his intentions to the prince.

 

Elrond watched them both go.  He saw the surprised look on Legolas’ face and the smile the elf turned on the human.  Aragorn’s questioning gaze dissolved into relief as the prince readily agreed to whatever it was that the ranger had whispered to him.  He chuckled silently.  Oh Estel, did you not know he would agree with you on anything? 

 

The guests were informed of the decision to leave for Strayton and were quickly assembled on the steps of the courtyard after their mid-morning meal.  Moranuen and Celboril followed a few moments later with supplies and food for the daylong trip.  Two horses were provided for the wounded men that could not travel easily and the prisoners were once more tied up and strung together on a long lead rope.

 

Aragorn stepped down into the courtyard, smiling at his father as he moved around the elf lord.  Elrond was overseeing the whole affair and gave his human son a covert glance.  He knew the ranger was up to something, just what he was sure he did not want to know.  He had put the matter in Aragorn’s hands and he would let it go at that.  He *did* trust his son, and his son’s judgment. 

 

Legolas followed close on the ranger’s heels, two black strips of cloth in his hands and a wicked smile on his face.  He trailed Estel as the ranger quietly cut the rope that connected Kaldur to the end of the string of prisoners and pulled the man out of line.  The prince stepped lightly behind the thief and placed one strip of cloth quickly over Kaldur’s head, using it as a gag and tying it off in place.  When Legolas used the last strip to blind the thief, Kaldur panicked, his breath coming in quick, short gasps.

 

“Legolas?” Aragorn turned back to the elf who laid his hands firmly on the robber’s shoulder and pulled the smaller man back against him.

 

“Be still and trust us.”  Legolas whispered, “Strider is keeping his promise to you.” Slowly Kaldur’s breathing eased but he remained tensed under the elf’s hand.

 

“Hey!” Thil had turned and watched in horror as Kaldur was separated from them and further restrained, “No, you promised!” 

 

Taradin stepped near the young man and quieted him, “Let Strider be. He knows what he is doing and he won’t hurt your friend.”

 

Stepping down into the courtyard Lord Elrond fixed the prisoners with a stern stare and a weighty silence descended. 

 

“You are being released into Taradin’s custody.  He will take you into Strayton where you will work off your debt in the employ of the people of the town.  It is not slavery and you are not being sold to anyone.  You are to work where you are placed for the next three years and part of what your labor earns will be sent to recompense the people of Bree for their losses on your account.  After that, if you so desire, you may remain in Strayton and make an honest living for yourself there.  Consider this your second chance at life and use it well.  If you will not cooperate you may serve your time in jail, it is your choice.” He turned to Thil, “Taradin has asked for the opportunity to retain you with his company for your allotted sentence.  He believes you have skills in healing and from what I have heard, I agree with him.  If you wish, you may remain with him.”

 

“What of Kaldur?” The youth asked quietly, his eyes seeking out his former employer once more.  The lad was distressed over the handling of the man who had treated him like a younger brother for the past few years.

 

“He will be dealt with by Strider and Legolas, he will not accompany you.  His fate is for him alone and not up for discussion.”  When Thil glanced back at the elf lord, Elrond nodded once to the youth, his eyes softening slightly as he took in the boy’s distress, “Now your decision is before you.  What will you chose?”  The older elf asked more softly.

 

Thil glanced back at Taradin. The hunter smiled down at the boy encouragingly, stepping up behind him.

 

“Are you willing?” the old hunter asked, “The work is hard and the days are long.  You’ll stay in my house and you’ll be like one of my own. But you will work off what you owe and you’re welcome to stay on after that.” 

 

The young man smiled up into the bright eyes of the old trader.  He’d always wondered what it would be like to be part of a real family.  “I’d like that Mr. Taradin.”

 

“It’d just be Taradin, son.”  The hunter corrected as he cut the ropes binding Thil to the line of thieves. “Now off with you, over there with Markess.  He’ll be showing you part of your responsibilities. You do what he tells you and I’ll be with you in moment.”

 

“Thank you lord Elrond.” Thil whispered as he moved toward where Markess stood.  Half way cross the courtyard he stopped and turned, running full out towards where Aragorn guarded Kaldur. 

 

The ranger motioned the startled elves away, keeping them from blocking the young man as he approached the bound highwayman.  Wrapping his arms around Kaldur Thil hugged the older thief. “I don’t know what’s going to happen from here, but I ain’t never going to forget you.  Thank you Kal.  I owe you for everything.” He whispered through the dark, tangled braids that fell around Kaldur’s face.

 

“I’m right proud of you lad, don’t never forget that neither,” Kaldur whispered back roughly around the gag as best he could.  Thil understood.  //“You prove yourself with them people; show ‘em what I know you can do.  You won’t be getting no better chance then this.”// Kaldur added mentally what he was unable to physically as he felt Thil’s arms tighten around his shoulders in one final farewell.  He was glad the lad was getting a new start somewhere he’d be able to flourish.  Thil was one heck of a sweet kid, but he made a lousy bandit. 

 

Stepping quickly away and nodding slightly to Aragorn, Thil turned and headed back to stand near Markess.  He had to believe that somehow the ranger was going to keep his word and Kaldur would not come to permanent harm, whatever fate held for him.  Markess draped his arm around the boy as the lad wiped his eyes on the sleeve of his tunic, giving him a gruff, but comforting squeeze.

 

“That’s done then.”  Elrond nodded to the hunters. “Taradin, you are welcome in the halls of Rivendell anytime you pass this way.  It has been good to have you here and quite... interesting, under the circumstances.  Perhaps the next we see you, your stay will be longer.  May the Valar protect you on your way home.”

 

The hunters started the climb up, out of the valley, trailing their prisoners and the wounded who brought up the rear.  They headed for the southern pass, wending their way back towards town.

 

When they were sufficiently out of sight, Aragorn motioned with his head to the north passage and Legolas pulled Kaldur with him, careful to keep the man walking on the steep path that led away from Rivendell towards the distant mountains.

 

Legolas kept his hands on Kaldur’s shoulders, guiding the blinded man so he did not stumble.  He could tell Kaldur was tense and unsure about all this, but he would find out soon enough what was going on.  The bandit could stand a little bit of uncertainty.

 

Nearly an hour later, they had reached the top of the grade and Aragorn called a halt to their travels.

 

“It’s rather nice traveling with him so quiet.” Legolas taunted lightly as he pulled Kaldur to a stop at Aragorn’s signal.  “I could get used to this.”

 

“You are enjoying yourself far too much Legolas.”  The ranger chuckled quietly as he slipped his elven blade from its sheath.

 

Kaldur heard the sound of a blade leave a sheath and his whole body tightened.  He really did not know what to expect.

 

Taking Kaldur’s hands in his own, Aragorn deftly cut the rope that bound them while Legolas slid the blindfold and the gag over the man’s head, releasing him.

 

“What was that all about?”  Kaldur objected.  “There was no call for that, I wasn’t going to try anything!”  He was obviously troubled by the treatment and slightly disoriented.  He stepped away from his two guards, stumbling backward a bit.  He kept his hands out to the sides a little, palms outward as if showing he wasn’t trying anything, worried about what exactly they intended to do with him now. 

 

“Calm down.” Aragorn quietly reassured him, “It was for the sake of your men so they would be frightened enough to think the worst was planned for you and so you couldn’t follow them where they are going.”

 

“They have a new life ahead of them, without you around they may actually make it.” Legolas eyed the man with a raised eyebrow.  “I do *not* suggest your going back for them.”

 

“Besides,” Aragorn smiled slightly.  “Lord Elrond said we should make sure we did something you’d remember.”

 

“Well I don’t know about the others, but you frightened *me* good!”  Kaldur stepped a bit further back from the elf, suddenly aware that he was no longer restrained in anyway.  “But if you’re not intending to take me out here ta slit me throat, then...?” 

 

“You’re free to go Kaldur.” Strider commented quietly.  When the thief cocked his head to the side and questioned them with a silent inquiry, Aragorn laughed at the quizzical look on the man’s face.

 

“Come again mate?”

 

“You saved our lives more than once.” Legolas answered.  “We don’t forget that.”

 

“Even though you endangered Elladan and Elrohir’s lives.” Aragorn put in with a pointed look.  “Honestly though, we wouldn’t have made it home alive without you.  You told me one time I was a horrible warden, well for your information, you’re a terrible highwayman.”

 

At this Kaldur burst out laughing, “That I am mate, that I am.”  Extending his hand, he vigorously shook Aragorn’s, “And I thank you, both.” He eyed the elf.  “I’ll miss our little talks together.” He laughed at his joke when Legolas rolled his eyes.

 

“Kaldur, you won’t get many second chances,” Aragorn tried to warn the dark haired man.  He was not so foolish as to think Kaldur was about to change his ways, but he hoped the other man would at least be more careful. 

 

“Ah but mate, they’ll have to catch me first.” The thief smiled warmly at the two friends.

 

“Well it was pretty easy for us.” Legolas replied flatly.

 

To which the robber curtly answered, “Yes, but you’re an elf and he,” Kaldur eyed Strider soberly for a moment, “he’s nearly one as well.  I won’t be for makin’ that mistake twice.”

 

“I should hope not.” Aragorn chided as the three of them began to descend the pass.  The ranger and elf accompanying the newly freed prisoner through the rough terrain as much for his protection as for their own desire to spend one more day with the infuriating, and yet strangely engaging man.  Besides... they wanted to make sure he wasn’t going to circle back and go after his men. 

 

“What will you do now with no men and no brilliant plan to sweep the local city into a panic?”  Aragorn teased, more than curious as to the robber’ intentions.  Strange as it seemed, he almost hated to see the man go.  He had a feeling their paths might not cross again.  The sun was fleeing the sky and soon night would be upon them.  The path they were on would eventually lead to the dwellings of the Beornings, across the mountains. 

 

“Don’t know.”  Kaldur glanced across the vista they were afforded by the plateau they walked across.  Ahead in the far distance twinkled the lights of some small mountain village.  “Might be something interesting I can scrounge up in that town there yonder.  Who knows what sort lives down there, or what legends they pass around at night.”  Kaldur laughed as he feigned terror at an imagined foe.  He glanced at Aragorn out of the corner of his eye, quickly sobering.  “You’re a man of your word Strider, the first I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet.  Ye can be sure that’s one thing I *won’t* forget.  Thank ye.”  He stopped and the two companions knew that he was bidding them farewell.

 

“Keep out of trouble Kaldur.” Strider laid his hand on the smaller man’s shoulder. “We can’t come and bail you out every time you know.”

 

“Me?  Always.”  Kaldur answered with a flourish as he danced backwards, out of reach.  “Hey, I’m Kaldur DeCahr.”  His smile was infectious and he waved to the two friends as he turned and strolled away.

 

Curiosity got the best of Legolas and he called after the man before he got out of sight, “Kaldur... what exactly *were* in those boxes anyway?” It was a question he had had for a long time but had not asked.  The only part of the whole mystery that yet remained unresolved.

 

Turning back to the friends, Kaldur walked backwards a few steps as he answered. “Stones.  Just... stones.  But they smelled mighty queer.  I honestly don’t know what they were.  ‘Twas Losmir who introduced ‘em to us, but even he didn’t know what they was, only what they did when you put ‘em in something and lit it.  Said he stole a sack of ‘em by mistake from a dark store house of a crazy wizard he worked for once away to the south...”

 

Legolas laughed and shook his head, holding up his hands.  “All right, all right Kaldur, never mind.  You don’t have to invent stories for us anymore.  You may keep your secrets.”

 

Kaldur laughed as he waved one last time and turned walking away into the growing night.  “That one weren’t no story this time friend,” he chuckled to himself and started singing one of his off-tune songs to himself.

 

“You think whoever lives out there is safe?” Legolas asked quietly as he and Aragorn turned to ascend the path and head for home, Kaldur’s singing floating to them on the night air.

 

“Not a chance.” Aragorn laughed, “I think I’ll send Elladan and Elrohir to check in on them once they are well enough.”

 

The lights began to sparkle in the darkening sky as the song of Kaldur DeCahr ghosted softly on the warm evening breezes.  The slight chill in the air spoke of the onset of fall when the forests shed their greenery and rested for the winter.  The promise of rest spoke to the hearts of the friends, calling them home to Imladris.  It would be good to relax in the healing halls and let the calm of winter soothe the wounds that summer had incurred.

 

“Do you think we did the right thing?” Legolas asked quietly after a few moments, although his own heart already provided the answer.

 

Next to him, Aragorn nodded.  “I doubt Kaldur will ever change, he’s bound to create more mischief wherever he goes, but ultimately... there are worse threats out there.  I would fear more how captivity, when merged with a past like he carries, might twist that genius of his into something darker and more ruthless.” 

 

“My father would give you what I believe Kaldur called ‘the angry eyebrow look’ over a sentiment like that.  But I for one, agree with you,” Legolas said lightly, glad that this was not Mirkwood and he did not have to contend with the responsibilities of his royal title at the moment.   

 

The ranger smiled.  “One of the small advantages to not really being in charge.  You are freer to... interpret the rules as you see fit.”

 

As the two friends walked slowly back towards the waiting welcome of the Last Homely House, Legolas turned a small, wry smile upon his friend. 

 

“So... speaking of fathers... How exactly are you going to explain to Lord Elrond what we have just done?”

 

Aragorn shrugged.  “Easy.  It’s all a matter of timing.”

 

“I see...” the elf eyed his friend.  “And *when* pray tell do you think would be a good time?”

 

Aragorn seemed to be considering this.  “Oh, I’d say about... ten years after I’m dead.”

 

Legolas laughed and gave his human friend a small shove.  “Oh Strider...”

 

 

The End