-Cell Number Eight-
Look at your eyes,
The haunted black circles of your plight.
But you can get by,
Oh and killing you might take one more night...
Cause you’re a famous monster,
You’ll do whatever they offer,
You tie their noose around your neck,
And they throw you over,
Cause you’re a famous monster.
Sunlight, bright and warm, streamed in around the dark iron bars set in the tiny window high above; a reminder that the world was bigger than this one, cold little cell, and that although darkness may triumph for a time, it can never have total victory.
The bright rays shone down on tangled and dusty golden hair. Splashing its fleeting radiance across proud shoulders that were pulled forward and slender limbs made clumsy by the weight of chains much heavier than should have been placed on any living thing.
There was weary acceptance in the exhausted form on the cell floor; but no hint of hopelessness or capitulation showed in the fair, blue eyes that turned upward, seeking the sky beyond the bars. If only you looked at him, the slave’s piercing stare and clear gaze instantly marked him out as different from the rest of the hopeless, helpless, rage-filled, broken refuse of humanity that were housed here in the many small cells of the great arena cages of Rahzon.
Caged up like animals and treated worse, these slaves were forced to fight one another for the amusement of others and kill, or be killed. No honorable warfare this; these were not the kind of tournaments one might see in Gondor, nor even the barely respectable gladiatorial style games often practiced down in Harad, these were vicious, primitive blood-baths, no better than dog fights.
Yet the one with the unbroken eyes in cell number eight needed little to distinguish him from the masses of slaves who came and went here, because he already stood out. He was the only elf amid the crawling mass of humans.
Legolas Greenleaf, prince of Mirkwood, was a very long way from home, and at this moment he missed it with every fiber of his being. He knelt quietly on the floor of his small cell, his face upturned to catch the golden rays of the rising sun. Once the glowing orb climbed too high, it would move out of sight of his window and this tiny nine-by-nine square hole would be dipped back into the dusky gloom that was its natural state. But for a few hours in the morning each day, the sun rose in the east and painted even this miserable speck of blood-soaked earth with the celestial radiance of light and hope.
A dear friend of his had once told him that there was always hope, and longer ago than that, in another dark and painful cell, another wise elf had told him that hope could be enough if only one held on to it. Legolas clung to both of those truths right now, because without hope, there was no reason for his heart to keep beating here in this inhuman place of death and pain.
Three months. He had been here for three months. It was a lot longer than most slaves ever lasted in the blood pits and even to an immortal those months felt like an eternity.
Legolas heard the heavy, barred grate behind him being pulled open. It must be time for another fight. That was the only time his prison was opened up. Ever.
The elf did not rise or turn, but neither did he attempt to resist when the two pit-guards dragged him roughly to his feet and led him out by his chains. Resistance was useless, escape was not possible and the results were horribly painful, he had already found that out.
So now they would take him out again. They would lock he and some other unfortunate slave in a huge iron cage suspended in the center of a large, open-air arena and they would be forced to fight one another for the pleasure of the spectators. Only one could leave the cage alive.
The elf prince lifted his chin and followed his captors with a surprising air of unquenchable dignity. They could take many things from him, but they could not take everything. Inside, Legolas steeled himself for what was to come.
The elf prince stumbled slightly and fell to his knees when the guards thrust him roughly into the cell once more. Legolas winced in pain, his breathing was quick and shallow as he pulled himself into the corner and drew his knees up close to his chest. Bright red blood ran down his arm from a cut to his shoulder and three long crimson scratches cut across his abdomen. Blood that did not belong to the wood-elf drenched his leggings and stained his hands.
Legolas pressed his eyes closed, more disturbed by what he had been forced to do than by his own injuries. Making himself breathe deep and slow, the elf slowly stilled the slight trembling in his limbs. He hated this place. He hated it! He was a warrior and he was not afraid to kill or to die, but the cruelty of the pits was unbelievable. To have to kill for the pleasure of the bloodthirsty crowds was sickening and he hated himself for it.
The crowds loved him; he was a spectacle, a novelty, a freak. He made his owners insane amounts of money, because no one had ever survived as long as he had, or won as many matches.
Morosely the fair elf looked down at his bloodstained hands. Caged like animals, treated like animals, what was to keep one from becoming an animal here in this light-forsaken place? What if he already was? That he feared more than anything. Always, he had fought for a cause; he had killed and killed efficiently, but never without the conviction that he was doing the right thing. Here, all that had been stripped away from him and the act of taking life became a cruel perversion of everything he believed in. He didn’t have a choice... or did he? Was he fighting because they made him do so, or because he was slowly becoming what they wanted him to be? Valar, he hoped not.
Legolas’ breath shuddered slightly as he pulled it in and let it out. He wanted to be home... Ithilien, Gondor, Mirkwood, anywhere else but here. He wanted so badly to see a single instance of beauty or a single ray of hope and kindness. His whole body ached with the despair that was settling down on him and it was trying to crush his spirit. He let his head fall into his gory hands and freed his mind to wander under the green trees of Mirkwood and through the beautiful vales of Ithilien. What he would give to be back there now, with Raniean and Trelan and all the others who had moved thither. The land was finally beginning to respond to their tender care and spring was here... surely the buds would be blooming and the birds would sing high up in the waving branches of the trees... if Legolas had not been far too proud and too stubborn to cry, he would have.
The prince barely even remembered how he had gotten here half the time, and when he did, it was too painful to dwell upon. He remembered nothing of his journey after he was taken captive and had no sense of how far away from Ithilien he was now. His first clear memory after capture was waking up in the auction house. The tremendous fight he had put up, even half-drugged and suffering a major concussion, had quickly caught the attention of a blood-pit master. After that... after that there had been nothing but this brutal, inhumane hell.
Raniean and Faramir expected him to be gone for quite some time, knowing that he and his party were off inspecting the progress down in southern Ithilien where the shadow had done some of its greatest harm. Did they realize that something was amiss? Were they even looking for him yet? Would anyone ever know what had happened? He feared not.
Legolas closed his eyes, blocking out his ugly reality as he tried to find escape in letting his heart wander through the trees of home in his mind... but his heart found no peace there. The beauty surrounded him, but it was remote, remembered, and unreal. The trees were silent, they no longer spoke to his heart in the deep way that he craved. Birds wailed over head, drawing at his spirit with a cry more compelling than the whisper of the wind through tree boughs... gulls, they were calling... they were calling him. He could taste the sea air on his lips, remember the deep rolling blue-green of the ocean as seen from the shores of Pelagir... the elf’s breath hitched. He had seen the sea only once, but it haunted his dreams and ever held a small part of his heart captive to its call. In Ithilien he could ignore the pull, burry the ache under the enjoyment of all the work to be done, but here... ai Valar, his every fiber craved the sea, wanted to fling himself into its depths and let the water close over his head, not caring if he ever came up again. Wanted to...
The prince stopped and held his breath as the repressed desire squeezed his aching heart tight.
He wanted to follow the path that his mother and father had already taken, that every elf on Middle Earth was destined to take someday. He wanted to sail, wanted to find Valinor on the other side of those alluring breakers... wanted it so badly it hurt.
Legolas balled his bloody fists. He could not leave, not yet. He had promised Aragorn, he had promised Gimli... so many promises... but the longing did not recede, and in this dark hell it only burned ever brighter in his consciousness until his heart throbbed in time with the remembered crash and roll of the waves. To sail... to be free...
Soft sounds pulled the Prince from his painful reveries and made Legolas lift his head wearily.
A tiny little boy with huge grey-blue eyes and a curly mop of dark hair was standing just outside the bars of the elf’s cell, uncertainly clutching a pail of water and a rag; regarding the prince with unconcealed terror. The child couldn’t have been more than three or four years old.
Legolas wondered what a child so young was doing in a place like this until a barked command from down the hall made the little one flinch and hurriedly put the water pail past the bars of Legolas’ cell, following it through. The boy was so small that he was able to easily slide between the narrow slats of the elf’s cage, which was exactly why he had been put to this job.
The slaves’ cages were never opened except for when the inmates were taken out to fight, it was too dangerous any other time and besides, none save the men who owned the slaves had the key to their tiny prisons. So the arena masters employed small slave children who could fit through the cage bars to tend the combatants after a fight. Legolas understood the practice, although this particular pit had not had a ‘cage brat’ for most of the time that he had been here.
The little boy was new, and obviously terrified out of his mind by the situation he found himself in. Fixing large, frightened eyes on the elf, the child pressed himself back against one wall, clutching one arm to his chest as though it hurt and watching carefully as if expecting the bloodied elf to bite him.
Legolas smiled softly despite himself. “I won’t hurt you little one. It’s all right...” he knelt and reached his hand out to the tiny human child. The boy looked uncertain, but edged slowly closer, knowing he had to do as he had been told or he would be punished again. He was still smarting from the last time he was punished.
Hesitantly dipping the rag into the bucket, the little one screwed up his courage to gently brush the soft cloth across the elf’s bloody arm, washing away the gore and dirt.
Legolas winced when the cold water touched his injury, but did not move away from the boy. There was an innocence in the child’s eyes and a gentleness in his touch that reached to the elf’s shadowed heart.
“Hurts?” the wide, questioning eyes looked up at Legolas with compassionate curiosity as he continued to gently mop the elf’s injury. Despite the natural clumsiness of his extreme youth, the young one’s touch actually had a somewhat calming or healing quality to it that surprised the prince. Had it really been so long since he was touched gently, or by any hand not meant to harm, that the halting contact of this mere babe should have that effect upon him? He supposed so.
Legolas nodded honestly. “Yes, but it will pass. And you? Does your arm hurt?” He noticed that the boy was still favoring one limb.
The child nodded back, hesitantly pulling up his grubby little sleeve and showing several long, dirty scratches that were flushed and inflamed.
Legolas winced at the sight and took the rag from the boy’s other hand, dipping it back in the cool water. Gently holding the small arm, he washed the boy’s wound. “How did it happen?”
The little boy stuck his lip out but otherwise made no sound at the pain of having the infected scratches cleansed. “Big man with lots’a hair two cells down. He said he was gonna eat me!”
Legolas would have laughed at the youth’s round-eyed look if he had not known that the threat had not been delivered in a light-hearted manner. Many of the fighters in the pits behaved little better than the animals they were treated as.
“Did they give you any bandages little one?” Legolas asked quietly.
“Oh!” The boy clapped his hands at being reminded and scurried out between the bars for a moment before quickly reappearing and slipping back in. “I forgot,” he apologized somewhat sheepishly.
Legolas just smiled softly as the boy tried to unroll the long ball of bandaging and end up getting tangled in it instead. Just what exactly they expected little ones this young to be able to do with the scanty tools given them was beyond the elf, but Legolas gently relieved the boy of the task, binding first the child’s arm, and then his own. That done, Legolas treated the rest of his wounds himself, washing away as much of the blood from his body as he could.
The child was watching him seriously. “Did you kill anybody?” he asked quietly, showing that he understood more of what went on here than he should have for one so young.
Legolas dropped his gaze, staring at the water in the wash-pail, now stained a deep red; his own feelings of taintedness coming back with a vengeance under the child’s innocent gaze. Certainly, as a warrior, he had taken many lives in countless battles, but that was different... he had been fighting for a cause or to protect others... not just the twisted amusement of the onlookers.
“Yes,” Legolas whispered. He didn’t want to answer the question but somehow felt compelled to do so.
The elf almost started when the little boy touched his cheek gently. “You didn’t want to.” It wasn’t a question, it was a statement.
Legolas shook his head. Smiling softly again as the little boy petted his cheek in an obvious attempt to make the elf feel better.
“It makes you sad. I sorry.”
Legolas ruffled the boy’s thick locks fondly. “You are a very perceptive child, you know that?”
The boy cocked his head to the side. “What’s precip – precept- what’s that mean?”
Legolas laughed, the first time he had done so in weeks. “Never mind. What’s your name little one?”
The child looked uncertain about trusting the stranger with this information and pulled his chin back a little, studying the elf.
“My name’s Legolas, it means Greenleaf in the language of my people,” the prince offered, prodding slightly.
“Dari,” the boy finally confided. “It means...” a thoughtful look crossed the little one’s face as he tried to recall if his name had a meaning. “It means me!” the boy smiled.
“So I see,” Legolas grinned. “And where are your parents Dari?”
Dark clouds fell immediately across Dari’s face and tears welled instantly in his large silver-blue eyes. Legolas realized too late that that must be a painful subject for the young one. The child didn’t speak but scrubbed at his eyes as the tears spilled down onto his cheeks, his breath hitching as he nearly dissolved into tears.
“Shh, shh, it’s all right, don’t cry Dari, I’m sorry,” the elf tried to sooth, unsure what to do or say to help the sobbing child. He was not well used to dealing with children, especially human ones. The most contact he’d had recently was with Aragorn and Arwen’s infant son several years ago, but he’d never been left *alone* to figure out what to do with the baby.
Suddenly a loud voice shouted Dari’s name from down the hall and the boy jumped almost visibly. “Dari? Where are you, you little brat?!”
A large, burly man stormed down the hall, stopping before the barred door to Legolas’ prison. Hetsupa was a quick, evil-tempered man; he was the overseer of this cage block and also Dari’s master.
The little slave boy was still crying, but visibly cringed in fear when Hetsupa’s bulky form stopped outside the cell. “Get moving brat! This isn’t a social call! You had better get the rest of these cages seen to in *less* than no time or I’ll give you another whuping, got it?”
Dari hurriedly grabbed the bucket, cloth and bandages and slid out between the bars, casting one last, teary-eyed glance at the elf.
Legolas watched him go with a pain-filled gaze. He would have liked to wring Hetsupa’s neck for treating the little boy as he did, but he would only have gotten Dari in trouble if he acted up. That was the way things were here.
“What’re *you* looking at arena-bait?” Hetsupa clanged his fist against the bars of Legolas’ cell.
Legolas pierced the man with his hard stare before settling back into the corner, crossing his arms over his knees and turning his face to look back out the window.
Hetsupa scowled and gave the bars another kick. “Freak,” he muttered deprecatingly. One good thing about the perpetually locked cages was that the overseers and guards couldn’t actually mistreat the slaves as much as they would have liked to.
Legolas ignored the hateful man, his eyes locked on the blue patch of sky that was his only touch of freedom. The pale, blue-grey expanse reminded him of Dari’s eyes.
Dari should be free. He should be free. They all should be... The elf steeled his shoulders so they would not shake. They did not belong here... no one belonged in this place.
Chapter 2: Chapter Two
Darkness had fallen and tonight the cloudy heavens obscured the stars. Legolas sighed softly in the darkness as he lay on the cold stone floor. He was weary but could not sleep. He missed the stars on the nights in which they did not shine, missed them more than he wanted to admit.
The soft sound of quiet, padding feet in the corridor behind him fell upon the elf’s sharp hearing and Legolas rolled over, towards the door of his cage.
A small, dark form appeared on the other side of the bars and even in the gloom Legolas’ keen eyes told him it was Dari.
The boy hesitated uncertainly outside the cage, looking around fearfully.
“Dari?” the elf whispered quietly, leaning slightly up on one elbow.
That seemed to be all the invitation the child needed because he quickly wriggled through the bars and sat himself down with his back against Legolas’ stomach, curling in tightly on himself and hugging his tiny knees to his chest.
Legolas felt the small, warm body trembling against him.
Gently the elf prince pulled the small human child up against his chest, wrapping one arm comfortingly about the boy and propping his own head up on the other. The child remained tense in his arms, the tiny body now shaking with quiet sobs.
Legolas thought his heart would break. “What are you doing here Dari? What’s wrong?” he coaxed in a quiet whisper. Surely the child should be in bed at this hour.
“Scared,” Dari whispered back. “Had a bad dream.” Hetsupa had beaten the child last time he had woken the overseer because of his night terrors. With no one to turn to and nowhere he felt safe, the little boy sought out the one person who had been nice to him in the whole three hellish days that he’d been in this place.
Legolas brushed the little boy’s hair with his fingers soothingly. “It was just a dream Dari, it’s all right now.” The elf wished that were true. Unfortunately he knew the grim reality that this place was a living nightmare and they were all trapped here.
Dari snuggled back into the prince’s arms, resting his little head on the floor as he lay down with his back firmly pressed up against Legolas’ chest. The little boy couldn’t explain it, but he felt safe with the elf. Safety he had not felt since the last time he was held close in his father or his mother’s arms. Dari was young and trusting, so he required no explanation. His only feeling was one of relief that there was somewhere in this darkness that he could still go for refuge. Someone who would hold him and not hit him.
Legolas curled around the child a little, offering the warmth of his body against the night chill, since the slaves were given no blankets or other comforts. To the elf that mattered little, but Dari’s tiny body was still shivering from fear and cold, so Legolas held him close. Pillowing both his and the child’s head on the arm beneath him, the elf wrapped his free arm around Dari, humming softly to the boy in the darkness.
The elf’s heart was heavy and ached with the burden of their situation. He wanted to be comforting for the child, but it all seemed so hopeless.
Dari turned restlessly in the elf’s arms at first, having difficulty settling down and falling asleep again after having been so badly frightened by his dreams. “You sad Leg’las?” he asked after a few moments, peering up questioningly into the elf’s face.
Legolas was surprised by the question, he stopped humming. “Yes, Dari,” he was truthful. “Maybe a little.”
“Why?” came the quiet question in the dark.
Legolas took a deep breath. There were a million answers to that question, but he finally chose a simple one that the child could understand without being too distressed. “There are no stars tonight, I miss them.”
Dari seemed to consider this. “They aren’t gone, jus’ behind clouds so we can’t see them,” the child said pragmatically.
Legolas chuckled. “Yes, Dari, you’re right. I simply miss their presence on nights when they do not shine. The stars give me hope, little one.”
Dari nodded slowly. “I like the stars. But I like the sun too, it makes me happy when ev’thing’s bright.”
Legolas nestled his chin atop Dari’s small head. “As it should,” he said with a small smile. “Humans woke first with the rising of the sun, but Elves awoke with the stars. Their light was the first thing that those original elves saw when they wakened from the deep sleep of creation, and the love of them has always remained in our hearts. But you little one, are a child of the sun, born to love the light and the joys of daytime.”
Dari was slowly relaxing. He liked listening to Legolas talk, it was soothing. “I think I like the ‘tween hours best,” Dari’s voice was starting to sound tired again. “When it’s not quite night, and not quite day.” The boy whimpered slightly, still a little frightened by the menacing shadows about them that acted as reminders of his nightmares. “I wish it was then now.”
Legolas kissed the downy little head gently. “Sleep then, little child of the twilight. I will let no harm befall you. Morning shall come soon.”
Dari slid one small hand under his shirt, hugging something tightly against his chest. He felt safe and protected in the elf’s arms, but wished he could do something for his new friend like the elf did for him. He was too young to understand all the reasons why Legolas was hurting inside, but he could almost feel the inner ache radiating from the elf holding him, and it made the little boy sad for his new friend. Dari had a very big heart for one so young. On a sudden impulse, he pulled the object he was clutching out from under his shirt, sliding it off over his head. Turning to Legolas he pushed the wadded up treasure into the elf’s hand.
“Here,” Dari said quietly. “It’s a star. It fell down and got stuck in a river. I found it when I was little. You can keep it for when the stars are gone, so you aren’t lonely.”
Legolas kept his amusement over Dari’s reference to ‘when he was little’ to himself and looked in surprise at the object in his palm. It was a small, milky-white stone threaded upon a thin leather cord. The little pendant had a naturally smooth, polished surface as one might expect from a river stone, but was otherwise unadorned and had not been shaped or molded by a craftsman. Indeed, the only thing that seemed to have been done to it was the little hole that had been drilled in one end to allow the thin leather cord it hung upon to pass through. It looked quite plain at first glance, and that was doubtless the only reason the child’s masters had not taken it away. Yet in the elf’s hand, it almost seemed to glow slightly, sparkling in the dim light very much like a faint little star as the stone reflected the elf’s inner light. Legolas imagined that it would probably do the same thing if subjected to the direct light of the moon, which was doubtless why the child thought it was a fallen star.
The elf prince was touched by the gift, but did not want to take one of the child’s only possessions. “I can’t take this Dari, it’s yours,” he tried to put it back around the little boy’s neck, but Dari shook his head, snuggling deeper into Legolas’ embrace.
“It’s for you. Now you don’ have to miss the stars.” Dari murmured. He wanted to make his gentle new friend happy.
Relenting, Legolas slid the thin cord around his neck, letting Dari’s stone hang against his breast as he cuddled the child close. The elf started humming softly again to fill the expanding silence between them and slowly Dari’s restlessness began to fade.
“Leg’las?” Dari’s sleepy little voice murmured after a while.
“Hm?” the elf whispered into his hair.
“I not so scared now.”
“That’s good. You just rest little one, just rest...” Legolas soothed quietly.
Slowly the little body in the prince’s arms relaxed. Legolas continued to hum softly to him long into the night, until the slowness of Dari’s breathing told the elf that the child was asleep. Resting his chin lightly against the boy’s head, Legolas smiled faintly.
There may not have been any light in the sky right tonight, but a light of hope was even now slumbering in his arms. The empty ache in the prince’s chest eased slightly. Not everything was dark; not everything was ugly and twisted. There was goodness and beauty left in the world still, and it was worth the effort to find it.
Legolas smiled faintly before he too, fell asleep. He dreamed as he had for many nights now of the stars in the heavens shining down upon the glassy surface of the murmuring ocean. Glimmering lights of small ships sailed ever across the face of the water, going always away to the west and never coming back.
The elf stirred in his sleep, his arms tightening slightly around Dari’s small form as one might hold to an anchor to keep from being pulled away across the deceptively gentle, but unrelenting waves that dominated both his sleeping and waking dreams.
After that first time, Dari spent almost every night with Legolas in his cell. He could not sleep unless it was in the elf’s arms. Legolas soon came to look for the soft footfalls in the dark that heralded his little friend’s approach.
He tried to return the boy’s necklace, but Dari truly didn’t want it back. The child seemed to prefer the elf keep it, as if it was one small thing he could do for the friend that he was quickly coming to look to as his guardian, his protector... and, Legolas realized with a small amount of surprise, his surrogate father.
Legolas had never really considered being a father. He had protected children before, he had taken care of them and seen them safely along their path, but none had passed so deeply into his life as Dari. Legolas had been many things, he had been a son, a nephew, a friend, a mentor, a guardian, a warrior... but a father’s role, although combining different elements of the others, was new to him. Yet he found it was not so hard. All he had to do was love Dari with his whole heart, and that he found, was incredibly easy.
The elf wondered if Dari realized that the real gift the child gave was himself. Holding the tiny body close and giving comfort as well as receiving it in the very act of giving was as good for Legolas’ sad and weary heart as the stars. On the nights when they did not shine, Dari was his star. His tiny ray of hope that kept him grounded as surely as he was the beacon that kept the child’s gentle spirit from withdrawing completely in the face of the cruelty around him.
If Hetsupa or the other overseers knew about the child’s nightly sleeping arrangements, they did not seem to care. So long as the little brat did not bother them, they were happy.
Legolas was dragged out to the arena nearly every other day, so Dari was often in his cell, dutifully lugging along his bucket and bandages. To the child’s credit, he actually seemed to have some skill at healing, if only because his heart was so kind that he wanted to do anything he could to help. Even when he was not there in his ‘official’ capacity, Dari began spending a good deal of time in cell number eight. A naturally quiet child, he talked very little, but seemed to simply want to be near Legolas whenever possible.
The other inmates still frightened the child out of his mind and Hetsupa inspired surpassing terror, but so long as he could slip in and out of Legolas’ cell when he was not working, Dari seemed to be holding onto his trusting, innocent nature. For that, Legolas was eternally glad. It would be horrible to see one so young become scarred and jaded by the terrible situation the little slave was forced to endure.
The blood pits were reaching new, fevered levels of brutality as they entered into what they considered to be their championship phase. Legolas was forced to fight more and more often as he passed through the championship matches undefeated.
It would have been so easy. So easy to simply lower his guard in the cage, to just let the other slave kill him and end this horrid existence. He had the opportunity almost every day now...
Yet even with this higher level of gruesome activity, the elf found the will and the strength to endure, because every time he went out there he looked down at the simple little pendant around his neck and remembered why he was fighting. If he died, then Dari would have no one, and Legolas could not allow that. Love for the child had given him a reason to fight that his conscience could accept. Dari had given him something to live for.
Rapid footfalls sounded down the hall and Legolas looked up, recognizing Dari’s footsteps easily since the child had more or less moved in with him for the past month or two. But today the footsteps were agitated and stumbling. Besides, it was midday; Dari should have been at work in the kitchens above, not down here with the fighters.
Dari didn’t even pause when he reached the cell, having become quite accustomed to sliding in and out between bars. He hurled himself into Legolas’ cage and crumpled into the elf’s arms. His face was streaked with tears, but he seemed too scared to cry now.
An ugly red welt ran across Dari’s bare back, shoulder to waist. The very sight of the cruel mark on the soft, tender flesh made the elf’s blood boil hot in his chest. Yet before Legolas could even ask what had happened, Hetsupa’s voice boomed down the hall as his heavy feet pounded down the stairs from the upper level. “COME BACK HERE RIGHT NOW BRAT IF YOU KNOW WHAT’S GOOD FOR YOU!!”
Dari trembled. “I didn’t mean to trip him I didn’t!” the little boy pleaded with Legolas in quiet hysteria. “Don’ let him hurt me please don’ let him hit me again!” the words were almost too jumbled and panicked to even make out. The panic in the child’s wide eyes made the elf feel sick. It was so familiar. Legolas wanted to kill the person who had taught Dari these emotions, but he knew that there was nothing about their fate and wellbeing that was in his hands to control.
“Shh, shh Dari...” Legolas held the little boy tightly, looking around his small, empty cell in desperation. There was nowhere to hide... wait. Yes, there was.
Hetsupa stalked in front of cell number eight and stopped, glaring at the infuriating golden-haired slave champion inside. “Where’s your little friend? Did he come in here? You better tell me the truth, freak!”
Legolas, sitting in the corner as he usually did, gestured around at the obviously empty cell. “Do you see him?” the prince asked with biting disdain.
Hetsupa just swore and stalked off down the hall, still calling Dari’s name.
Legolas remained still until the overseer had gone. Then he moved away from the wall and let the little boy who had been hiding behind his back scoot out of the corner. “You can stay with me, in here, for a little while, all right Dari?” If he followed true to form, Hetsupa would be too drunk by evening to remember that he’d even been angry with Dari earlier. For that at least Legolas was glad.
Dari nodded gratefully, scrubbing his dirty little face with his hands.
“I sorry,” the boy murmured, hiccuping through quiet tears. “I didn’t mean to be bad. Please don’ make me go away ‘cause I’m bad.”
Legolas hugged the shaking child gently, brushing away Dari’s tears. “Dari, Dari... you aren’t bad and I would never make you go away. Dari, when Hetsupa hurts you, it’s not your fault. You know that, right?”
Dari snuggled tighter into the elf’s arms but didn’t speak for a moment.
“If I wasn’ bad he wouldn’t have ta hurt me,” the small voice almost broke Legolas’ heart. “He said so.”
The elf closed his eyes. *That* was familiar. “No, child,” Legolas’ voice was loving, but very firm. “That’s not true. People like Hetsupa... they do not hurt you because there is anything wrong with you, but because there is something very wrong with them. They are... hard and sick inside and they don’t know it’s wrong to hurt other people. But it isn’t your doing. Promise me you won’t ever believe it’s your fault, please Dari?”
Legolas knew just how badly that kind of thinking could tear a young heart to shreds and he tried to speak the words he wished he could have heard when his Uncle first started abusing him as a child. He felt hopelessly inadequate, and wished there were someone wiser to help Dari, but there wasn’t, so he offered the best he could.
“’kay,” Dari sniffed uncertainly.
Legolas rocked the child for a while until he stopped crying.
Slowly, Dari got over his scare and began to watch the little crawling insects that made their way across the floor. Wriggling down out of the prince’s lap, the child followed the bugs around on hands and knees with great interest. Legolas couldn’t help but think the boy was incredibly resilient for one so young.
“Tell me a story,” Dari looked up from his play and requested.
Legolas nodded. “All right, I will tell you a story about a very good friend of mine.”
“Was he an elf?” Dari interrupted. Usually a very quite child, this was a talkative mood for him.
“No, he was a human, like you. When he was little they called him Hope, because he brought hope back into many lives...” Legolas stopped to smile at the child. “You remind me of him very much you know.”
The little boy just smiled at the compliment and continued playing. He liked being thought of as the elf’s friend.
“Well, one time he and I were together and we found a map leading to an ancient treasure...” Legolas told the tale in simple language so as not to lose the child and Dari enjoyed it greatly.
The child laughed lightly at some of the more humorous portions of the tale. “Tell me about the plant again! The one that wanted to eat you!” he asked, snuggling up into the elf’s lap and resting in his arms as he listened.
Legolas laughed gently and launched into the telling, humorously exaggerating at Aragorn’s expense, but his friend was not there to hear him, so he figured it mattered little. The elf hadn’t thought he’d mentioned that particular escapade yet, but his mind had been wandering back across those years as he must have spoken of it without thinking. So much of his and Aragorn’s early years together were forever etched upon his heart, it was more like tracing its pattern with the fingers of his mind than truly telling a story.
Before they reached the end of the tale however, there was a clatter of footsteps in the corridor and several of the guards rushed by. They seemed on edge and alarmed. A general clamor was going up and Legolas rose to his feet, setting Dari down gently. Going to the door of the cell he peered out, trying to see what was happening and what the reason was for the sudden increase in the levels of fear he was sensing around them.
“Khelekir! Khelekir!” many voices were shouting far away and the instant the prisoners heard it they took up a horrible wailing cry of distress and fear.
“What? What?!” Legolas tried to make himself heard above the din. Turning his attention on the wild, bearded man who was throwing himself against the bars of the cell beside him, he tried again, focusing on the human and trying to get him to calm enough to talk rationally. “What is going on? What is the Khelekir?”
“Not what, freak, who!” even the other prisoners regarded Legolas as some kind of monstrosity, but he was used to that and shrugged their disdain off easily. At the moment he was more concerned with information than etiquette.
The man gave another wail and shook the bars hard, screaming to be let out. Legolas knew that wasn’t going to happen, so he pressed for information yet again. The fellow prisoner snarled, but did eventually answer.
“The Khelekir live over the hills. They are bitter enemies of our people and condemn the pit fight practice as insufferable.”
Legolas grinned without mirth. //We agree on something then// he thought dryly. He wondered that the man could still call these creatures who did this to them his people.
“They used to leave us alone, but they’re on a killing spree now the guards say. They raided a village over the hills not many days ago. It was a clean sweep, ‘rid the earth of them’ that’s what they say. Women, children, everyone, dead. And us slaves...” the human spat in fury and fear. “We’re especially fortunate. They think we’re animals and they kill accordingly. Over in Anond they made a bloodbath of the arenas. Six dozen souls killed right in their cages. We haven’t got near as many here, should go a lot quicker for them, curse them!”
Legolas moved back away from the bars, sitting back down on the floor with Dari who looked like he was trying to decide if he should be alarmed or not.
“Leg’las, is something bad happening?” the child inquired uncertainly.
“Yes, Dari, but it will be over soon,” Legolas hoped he spoke the truth. The savagery the other prisoner spoke of was almost as bad as the pits. It seemed that no one out here had any idea of mercy. “Perhaps you had better go.”
“No!” the boy protested quickly. “I want to stay with you!”
“I know Dari, but I’m not sure that’s a good idea,” Legolas reasoned gently. He didn’t want to frighten the child, but he didn’t want him in the cages if something should happen.
Just then however, the guards came stumping back in, looking decidedly less afraid and more irritated. From what he could overhear, Legolas quickly decided that it must have been a false alarm triggered by some over-edgy sentries and he relaxed a little. Hetsupa was still in a sour mood so Legolas kept Dari hidden in his cell with him for the rest of the day until all the guards were so drunk they could barely remember their own names.
Dari left only long enough to carry out his duties before running back to the safety of cell number eight and cuddling up to the elf who had become his protector and comforter.
It became apparent that the events earlier in the day had disturbed the child more than Legolas first thought because Dari had trouble sleeping. Legolas rubbed the little back gently, trying to ease the young one to sleep, but Dari was restless and rolled onto his back, laying in Legolas’ arms and playing absently with the ends of the elf’s long blond hair where it fell down against Legolas’ shoulder next to him.
“Leg’las... you won’t leave me, will you?” the little boy asked at last. “They won’t take you away from me like...” he stopped, seeming to not want to follow that train of thought any further. “Will you? Promise?”
Legolas heart ached. So much trust, so much pain in one so young. He wanted nothing more than to erase all the hurt behind those innocent eyes but he would not make the child promises he was not sure he could keep. Such a thing could scar Dari deeply if... if anything should happen.
The elf didn’t answer right away but stroked Dari’s hair absently, letting his fingers tangle in the curly dark locks much the same as Dari was doing with the prince’s.
Legolas regarded the child seriously, but tenderly. “Dari I promise that I will never willingly leave you for as long as you need me and I am able. Beyond that young one, none of us can say. But do not fear, all right? You see? I am here and so are you. Neither of us is going anywhere tonight.”
Dari was not entirely satisfied, but it seemed to be enough and he snuggled close to Legolas again, finally finding enough peace to fall asleep.
Rest found Legolas slower. He lay awake for a long time trying to think of some way he could get himself and Dari out of this situation. There had to be a way, but he could not come up with any. Sighing he laid planning aside and tried to decide what he would do when and if they did escape. He would never leave Dari behind of course. The prince’s greatest wish was to somehow be able to find the child’s parents and in so doing erase that pain behind the young eyes... but the more he learned, the more it seemed the child had no family to which the elf could return him. Gently, so as not to wake him, Legolas pulled Dari closer. If that were indeed true, then Legolas swore he would become the boy’s family. His best friend had been a human adopted by elves and he was not afraid of the prospect. Aragorn would help him, Raniean, Trelan, Elladan and Elrohir would help him... Legolas chuckled. Those last two would just love to have another young human to dote on no doubt. Maybe he should keep Dari away from their influence if the stories Estel told had any truth to them.
With these pleasant thoughts on his mind, sleep finally overtook the elf. And for the first time in a long time, the specter of the rolling ocean swells did not haunt his dreams.
The next day there was a fevered excitement in the air. It was the big day, the championship. Legolas was being matched against the champion from the next village over and huge amounts of money were being wagered.
More than the clamoring excitement though, Legolas felt something different today... something disturbing. This conviction was deepened when his owner came to take him out of the cell. Most often, the pit guards escorted him to and from a fight, even if his master were present to give them the key and then take it back again. That the man who owned him had come to take his prize fighter out of the cage himself was not entirely unusual, but it was still another mark that there was change in the air today. Hetsupa was also there and he leered at the elf as Legolas’ master pulled him from the cage, making a slicing motion across his throat with a gloating grin.
“Your day to die, freak,” he promised with a dark smile when the other human wasn’t looking. He was paid good money to watch over the pit slaves by their various owners, but he did not like the elf because the creature unnerved him. He was going to be glad to be rid of the pointy-eared warrior.
Legolas did not like the implications of these statements, but he was given no time to think about it before they were pulling him away.
Dari watched quietly from down the hall, his little lips pinched tightly together as he said the same silent, simple but heartfelt prayer that he said every time they dragged Legolas out to the arena. He prayed that cell number eight would not be one of the empty cages he cleaned tonight.
Chapter 3: Part Three
~Killing you Might take One More Night~
You lean on your pride,
The only friend that would never let you down.
You look at the signs,
Look at the way they stop and stare,
They’re watching you die...
And when you’re gone its like you weren’t even there.
’Cause you’re a famous monster.
Pain. Intense pain. Legolas thought it was going to choke him. He couldn’t move, couldn’t think. All he could do was hurt.
Unforgiving hands pulled at his arms, his hair, his chains, dragging him down the passage roughly. His skin scraped and tore painfully across the rough stone floor but his body was unresponsive and he could not protest or move to ease the situation.
The elf moaned softly as he was dropped to the hard floor, his head impacting with a painful jolt. He was only barely aware when the guards heaved him in through the doorway of his cell.
His side was on fire. The deep, gaping wound that sliced just below his ribs was bleeding freely and the elf had left an ominous crimson trail down the passage through which he had been dragged. It was not his only injury, but it was the worst, the one that part of Legolas’ foggy mind knew was going to kill him.
A hard boot kicked the elf in the ribs and Legolas cried out, unable to do otherwise as his injury was torn at afresh. A harsh voice that Legolas knew was his owner was cursing at him. Did the elf know how much money he had lost today? He was supposed to lose! Supposed to lose! Why was he still alive? How could he have survived that?? No one should have survived that!
Dimly, Legolas agreed as he felt lucidness beginning to return, as unwelcome as it was. The way they had stacked the odds against him no one should have been able to survive.
He remembered the smell of the arena and the roar of the crowd when they dragged him to the pit. It had been like every other time, until they stopped just short of going outside. His owner stepped back, watching as one of the guards grabbed Legolas’ chains and slid around behind the elf, holding him from behind. The other guard took Legolas’ right arm in his hands. The elf had not suspected that his owner would let these men try to harm him; they wanted him to win did they not? But he knew the instant the human touched him that something was amiss; he could feel it coming from the other’s contact on his skin. He started to struggle, but it was too late and he was held too well. A sudden, painful jolt shot up his arm and the elf had to catch his breath as the guard roughly twisted and yanked his captive arm in a manner that showed he had far too much practice at what he was doing. The elf’s elbow and wrist joints protested agonizingly as they received one more vicious twist before the arm was dropped back to his side.
Legolas hugged the injured arm to his chest tightly as soon as he was released. He knew a move like that might have broken some men’s bones. His were not broken and, thank heaven for small mercies, they were not too badly dislocated either. However, some important soft tissue had apparently been torn; the elf could tell right away because he could not move the arm without great pain and his fingers were still tingling sharply.
He looked uncomprehendingly to those who had hurt him so, unable to understand why this had been done to him... and then he saw in their eyes that what Hetsupa had said was only too true. He was meant to die today; they intended it, they were ensuring it... or so they thought.
They put him in the pit weaponless and injured against a heavily armed and armored foe. It was a fixed match and that was painfully obvious. His own owner had bet against him, figuring to make a killing since the odds were so overwhelming in the elf’s favor.
Yet somehow, Legolas had survived and his opponent had not. The humans had made the fatal mistake of underestimating an elf. Unfortunately it seemed it was going to be fatal for Legolas because he had by no means escaped unscathed.
The boot kicked him again and Legolas moaned sharply, curling in on himself and trying to twist away.
“You are through!” his angry owner was still shouting at him, adding to the disconcerting buzzing in Legolas’ head. One more painful, solid kick to his bleeding body and the man finally seemed done, stalking out of the cage in disgust. The key was turned harshly in the lock.
“Let him rot! See that no one touches him again unless it is to remove his filthy corpse!” Legolas heard his owner command in anger before his footsteps receded down the hall. Then all was quiet and still.
Legolas wanted to pass out; he wanted to return to comfortable oblivion, even though he knew he might never wake from it again. Willing or no however, it would not come. He lingered in a painful twilight between sleeping and waking, but could not seem to break free in either direction. Slowly though, he knew the shadow must surely win as the air chilled around him, harkening the slow approach of night. The last night the elf knew he was likely to see in Middle Earth. He hoped there would be stars tonight. He wanted to see them one more time.
Legolas lay curled on his side on the cold stone floor, much as he had been left. His breathing was ragged. He could feel the icy tendrils of shadow reaching for him now. With proper care he might make it... but obviously his owners did not intend to afford him that. He had failed them and for that he would pay with his life. Left on his own he did not have the strength to fight. Truth to tell, he didn't want to fight.
His body was burning up around him and his throat was swelled shut with thirst. He was dehydrating swiftly from blood loss. The prince did not make the effort to ask for water. He knew he would not be given any, even if anyone was around to hear, which was doubtful. The last remnants of his pride would rather suffer in silence than let others gloat over his fall.
Against his lightly heaving chest, Dari’s star-stone was a small, comforting weight. It was stained with his blood, but twinkled faintly, almost sadly, against the skin of the dying elf. Legolas touched it lightly with stained fingers that had begun to tremble. Oh Valar, Dari... he hated to leave the child this way.
Evening shadows lengthened. Everything was very quiet outside the cell. The huge festival surrounding the championship match must still be going on and even the guards seemed to be away. Delirium sucked at the elf’s consciousness. He tossed and rolled on a violent and roiling grey sea... but he wasn’t sailing this time, he was drowning. The water closed over his head, but he stopped fighting it, stopped kicking back to the surface. All roads would lead him home, over the sea or under it... it would end, he could rest, the pain would cease.
Stuck in his twilight state between this world and the next Legolas was not aware that anyone else was near until a soft, gentle hand touched his face. Cool water dabbed his hot, dry lips giving welcome moisture. The elf’s body responded even before his mind could, cracking split lips to let the moisture in, accepting the dipper full of water that followed without question and gulping greedily to slake his burning thirst. The water revived him a little and he felt the fog begin to clear from his mind somewhat.
“Leg'las?” a small voice said with concern. “Leg'las?”
“Dari?” the elf's eyes fluttered open and he could see a blurry picture of the child's face a few inches from his own. A deep, worried frown creased the cherubic countenance as Dari let the water dipper settle back into the bucket he had dragged into the cell.
“Dari... you shouldn't be here,” Legolas said softly, his voice unable to go above a whisper. He knew his master intended for him to be left to die, he did not wish for Dari to get in trouble for disobeying his orders to stay away, nor did he want the young one to be there when he left this world behind. Dari didn't need that kind of emotional scarring.
“You're hurt,” the little boy shook his head simply, mopping the elf's brow again with the wet cloth in his hand. Dari had apparently gathered up his cleaning supplies himself, including the herbs that Legolas had taught him to carry around. Hetsupa had told him not to go near the elf again, but as soon as the big man was gone Dari had wasted no time in disobeying.
Lifting Legolas' hand from his side, Dari tried to see where the blood was coming from. For one so painfully young he had taken to his forced duties as cage brat incredibly well.
Legolas winced and caught the little ones probing hands, pulling them away from his wound. He captured Dari's eyes with a gentle gaze. “Not this time, Dari. You need to leave, little one.”
Dari shook his head, tears spilling down his cheeks. “Hets'pa... Hets'pa said you gonna die.”
Legolas closed his eyes tightly. The child shouldn’t have had to hear it that way.
“Don’t go,” Dari shook his head, washing the cuts and bruises along the elf’s exposed arms. “You promised. Don’t go...” the first time his voice was demanding, the second time it was pleading. “Please... stay with me...” Dari’s hands trembled before he finally gave up and just buried his small face against the elf’s shoulder. “Don’t leave me too!” he sobbed into the elf’s torn and soiled tunic.
Pain, more sharp then that in his side, passed through the prince’s heart. Struggling to sit up, Legolas pulled Dari close with one trembling hand. He felt so weak and lightheaded that it was almost impossible to stay upright, but somehow he managed. Legolas didn’t know if he had the strength to hold on, and if by some miracle he did he knew the arena master would only kill him in the morning so that they could have the cage space free for fresh blood. But for Dari... for Dari he would hold on as long as he could, even if it meant continuing to endure this pain a little longer. He would keep his promise to the last and not leave the boy until he truly no longer had a choice.
“I-I wish... Dari I told you I couldn’t promise...” his breath caught as his injured ribs spasmed sharply and the elf doubled forward with a moan of pain.
Dari took Legolas’ face between his thin little hands, resting his forehead against the prince’s in a way that Dari remembered his father doing often when comforting he or his mother, what now seemed ages and ages ago.
“Try,” he entreated in a small voice. “Try. Look...” the young voice was choked as he pointed up at the tiny, barred window, turning the elf’s face in his small hands. “Th’ stars are out Leg’las. You’re always happy when there’s stars.”
Legolas smiled faintly. “So they are, little one. All right Dari, I’ll try,” he nodded, running his hand gently over the boy’s downy head. “For you my, little star. I’ll try.”
Dari looked pleased although still concerned and wiped his eyes, trying to stop snuffling. “Look, I brought th’ leaves you told me ‘bout...” he showed Legolas his little cache proudly. “They’ll help you feel better!”
Legolas was almost too weak to try to dress his own wounds, but Dari was a willing helper, doing everything the elf told him to do. The herbs did help dull the elf’s pain a little and once he was washed up a bit Dari crawled into his lap and snuggled back against the elf’s chest, comforted by the heartbeat under his ear. He was too young to know that the erratic pounding was too sluggish for the elf’s good, too young to understand that his friend was in serious trouble.
Legolas leaned heavily against the wall behind him, letting his hand rest on Dari’s back as the child lay with his chest against the elf’s stomach. Night had fallen and darkness swathed the little room. The stars twinkled on overhead and Legolas was glad they were there. He wished they could comfort Dari as much as they did him. He could not bring himself to imagine the point when the child would realize that the elf holding him had ceased to exist in the realm of the living. Legolas did not have the strength to cry, but one tear slipped down his cheek. Not for himself, but for Dari, for the future he could never help the child to have.
Everything was very quiet. No noise drifted in through the window, not even the sounds of celebration. “You should go Dari, you’ll get in trouble...” he murmured faintly, but he had no real strength or desire to make the child leave.
“Hets'pa and the others all gone away...” Dari didn’t budge. “They were scared. Lotsa men were yelling ‘bout an army. Khel-Khelekir or something... they kept sayin’ it and sayin’ it. Like the other day, only longer this time and they didn’t stop. They said must have been scouts the other day though they thought it was nothing. Lotsa people running or going to fight.” The child reported with anxiety, although he didn’t really even know what he was afraid of other than that everyone else had been. Such things made little sense to him.
Legolas stiffened in the dark. That was it then. That was why no one was about, not even celebrating. They weren’t at the feasts as he had thought, but rather they were either running to defend the town, or just running. All the things he had heard about the Khelekir ran wearily through his mind, but the elf felt no fear. His hours were numbered as it was. Whether the people of Rahzon won this fight or lost it... it mattered little to him. Dari should leave... but where would the child go? No one here cared about him, no one would look out for him, what hope did he have?
Legolas sighed and just held the little boy close, resting his chin on the top of Dari’s head, floating in and out of reality. Dari had no one else. He had nowhere to go. Maybe it would be better for whatever end found them to find them together. Legolas hoped that wasn’t a selfish thought. He wanted Dari to live, but he did not know how to make it happen. His own life was slowly slipping out of his grasp.
Away in the distance sounds of battle began to reach their ears. The ringing of metal on metal and the distant shouts of men filtered in through the window. Dari tensed and huddled back tighter against Legolas. He had heard those sounds before. The last time he saw his parents.
// “Shh, quiet little one, we’re going to play a game. You’re going to hide here and not let anyone find you until I come back. Just be brave Dari, be brave my little star.” //
Dari liked that Legolas had unintentionally picked up his mother’s nickname for him, but remembering the last time he saw her brought nothing but loss, confusion and fear to his young heart. Would Legolas disappear too? Would he be left alone again among strangers like the last time?
Legolas felt the little boy trembling against him. Gently rubbing soothing circles on the child’s back, the prince began to sing softly in elvish, blocking out the distant clamor with the sweet, albeit weak, sound of his voice.
Dari’s body relaxed and his tension seemed to ease as the beautiful, lilting words comforted him.
i elenath deliatha
I tinu na le
i calad gerich
os-mín galatha helch
i elenath ú-thinnatha
ir vi hin-lín...”
// Morning comes
The stars will sleep
In my heart
I’ll always keep
The star that is you
The light you hold
Even as the world
Around us grows cold
Don’t stop the song
Love never dies
The stars will not fade
Not the ones in your eyes... //
Legolas sang for as long as he had breath, and when that failed him he continued rocking Dari softly, humming.
The sounds of battle were closer and louder now. Obviously, things were not going well for Rahzon. The stars outside the window were now obscured by the red glow of firelight and smoke carried on the chilly air. The town was burning.
Dari looked up at Legolas, his eyes wide in the dim light. “Ú-daro...” the child pleaded in whispered elvish. “Don’t stop...”
Legolas started softly and gazed at the boy in surprise. “Man pedo le? What did you say?”
“I-I’m scared,” the little boy cried softly in the dark, reverting to the common tongue and Legolas wasn’t sure if the child had really understood what he said, or if the boy had merely picked up a word out of the song.
The prince had never spoken to the child in elvish, assuming he wouldn’t understand, but now, hearing Legolas sing in that beautiful tongue had opened a floodgate of emotion in Dari’s small heart and made him incomparably homesick. “Leg’las, I’m sacred... I miss Nana and Ada! Why did Nana never come back? Why didn’t Ada find me? I want to go home...”
Legolas held him close in the dark, trying to comfort the child and puzzle this riddle out. Dari had never spoken of his parents before, starting to cry whenever they were brought up. So Legolas had stopped asking. But now that the child finally did speak of them, why did he use elvish words? How could a human child this young possibly know even a little of his tongue? Perhaps Dari had been taken from Gondor or one if its provinces that still had a distinctly elvish influence, but it would still be rare indeed to Legolas’ knowledge that even in Gondor a human family would use the elvish words for mother and father.
Dari was crying hard now and Legolas didn’t have time or strength to try to figure this puzzle out. “Hush... hush little one...”
“I don’t wanna be here!” Dari sobbed. The smell of smoke was getting thick as the fighting got closer.
Legolas stroked the boy’s hair. “Then let’s be somewhere else, all right?” he whispered softly. “Close your eyes.”
Dari complied, still snuffling sorrowfully in the dark.
“That’s right...” Legolas soothed, pushing back the dizziness that was trying to take him. His body hurt dreadfully but he ignored it. “Do you know what I do when I’m afraid, Dari? I remember my favorite places to be and then it’s like I’m there. I’ll take you with me.”
“Where?” the child asked in a tremulous voice. Outside the window a man screamed in either rage or pain. Dari flinched and huddled closer.
The other slaves in the cages had begun to clamor and yell for release, as futile a request as they knew it was. All of them remembered the stories they had heard of what the Khelekir did to the blood pit slaves.
“Well, there’s a hill near my home with a tall tree,” Legolas soothed gently, willing the child to listen to his voice and ignore everything else. “Close your eyes and we’ll go there now. See it Dari? When sunlight catches its leaves it turns them gold. I like to climb up in the tree and watch the birds fly in and out of the branches, especially in the spring. There is a family of squirrels that live in a big hollow in the trunk and sometimes if I have a treat for them they will come and sit in my hand...” the elf prince wove the enchanting tale quietly. He had little breath left and even less strength, but thinking about happier times and the beauty that existed far beyond the walls of this dreadful little prison calmed his hurting body as well.
“Do their tails tickle?” the boy asked curiously, his hitched breathing slowing a little.
“Oh yes, they tickle a lot...” the elf’s gentle smile was obvious in his voice. Legolas knew his time was drawing near, but he fought to stay with Dari as long as he could. “Especially when they crawl up onto your shoulder and under your chin,” Legolas tickled Dari lightly under his chin in demonstration and the little boy giggled.
Above them, they could hear footsteps running here and there in the formerly quiet upper structure.
Dari flinched and whimpered as he was dragged from the peaceful place Legolas’ words created for him.
Legolas hugged the boy tightly. The elf’s body was beginning to tremble. “There’s another place that I go as well. Come on, close your eyes, I’ll take you there. Nestled in a beautiful valley, there is a house I call my second home. It’s a wonderful place Dari, where a hurting heart can truly find rest and healing. In that house there is a big room with a roaring fire that is kept always burning. Outside through the windows the stars look in, making you feel peaceful. There’s feasting, music, stories and song... but the best is simply being with the people you love. The room may be full of many friends or hold only a few, but it always feels like home...” Legolas recounted the Hall of Fire in Rivendell with a faint smile. So many happy memories of swapping stories around that fire, of the light and laughter and love... Legolas would miss that.
“I like it...” Dari said softly, wistfully. “Will you take me there someday? For real I mean?”
Legolas closed his eyes. He wanted to. Wanted to with all his heart. “Maybe someday, Dari,” he whispered around the choking lump in his throat.
Doors slammed in the upper rooms. Dishes and cookware crashed and smashed in the kitchens where Dari usually spent his days working. The end drew near for all of them now.
Legolas doubled forward slightly, pressing against Dari who was still sitting on his lap as a sharp stab of pain shot through him. Sweat beaded on his pale brow and he grit his teeth to keep from moaning. He felt so drained... so drained...
“Leg’las? Leg’las!” Dari’s voice brought Legolas back. The elf was spent; he couldn’t seem to find the strength to talk much more, so he squeezed the little boy’s shoulders.
“Your turn, Dari,” he whispered somewhat hoarsely. “Where will we go now? What’s your favorite place?”
Dari seemed thoughtful, then his face lit up. “The tower!” Settling back in Legolas’ arm he closed his eyes and imitated the way the elf had spoken to him. “Close your eyes,” he glanced up to make sure that Legolas had. “We’re on the *very* top of the WhiteTower... it’s nighttime. Ada and Nana don’t know I’m not in bed, but the stars are so pretty I had to go see. From the top of the tower you can see the *whole* city an’ watch the guards in the courtyard standing by the big tree. It’s so funny that they guard a tree, even in the dark. I thought it was ‘cause the tree might get lonely, but Ada says the tree is fine, the guards just like to watch it ‘cause it’s trad-tradsh... tradition.”
As the child spoke, a sudden chilling shiver ran up Legolas’ spine. The WhiteTower... that was in Gondor... as was the only tree that Legolas had ever encountered that had its own guards.
“I can’t see over the wall ‘cause I’m too short, but Uncle Elr’hir found me and didn’t even scold me for being up! He put me on his shoulders so we could see the whooooole city and watch the shooting stars... we even saw Nana and Ada smooching in the garden!” the child laughed at the memory. “And Uncle Elr’hir and I both said ‘ewwww’, jus’ like that!”
Legolas felt cold and it had nothing to do with his injuries or the temperature as his arms tightened around the child on his lap. “Elrohir?” he whispered in soft, ragged disbelief. “Your uncle’s name is Elrohir?”
Dari nodded. “Elr’hir and Elladan. They’re funny! They let me do things Ada doesn’t... well, ‘Ro does anyway. Like wading in the stream where we found my star,” Dari patted the lightly twinkling stone against Legolas’ chest. “Uncle Elr’hir said it was one of the stars we saw falling that night from the tower. Ada put it on the cord for me after I showed him, so I had a necklace like the one Nana gave him that he wears.” Thinking about his family obviously raised Dari’s spirits at the moment, since he was not recalling whatever tragedy had separated them. The sudden wellspring of information was almost too much for Legolas to absorb. Dear heaven, why had the child never said *any* of this before, how could he have missed who Dari really was?
“Ai, Elbereth...” Legolas murmured, looking at the child in a new light. It had only been two years or so since he had seen the little prince of Gondor, but two years brought a lot of change in this stage of life for a human. The entire mystery suddenly came together before his eyes and Legolas was staggered by the shock of the revelation. No wonder this boy had reminded him so much of Aragorn! No wonder Dari knew elvish like a second language. No wonder his healing touch, young and inexperienced though it was, remind him both of Aragorn and Elrond. No wonder he knew parts of stories before Legolas related them... Why hadn’t he seen it before? Yet it still did not make sense, what was the child doing here alone? What...
Footsteps echoed loudly down the stairs and the slaves whose cells were near the front started screaming loudly in terror. There was a rattle of keys and a grinding of rusty iron. The cage doors were being opened. The masters would never have come back for the slaves. The only explanation had to be that the masters were dead and the keys had been taken from them and now the Khelekir had come down here to do their bloody business with the slaves.
Legolas was not afraid for himself, but as Dari flinched at the sounds and buried his head against the elf’s chest the prince felt his panic rising for the little one’s sake. Now that he knew who he was... he could not bear to think of the child meeting his end here. It would kill Aragorn and Arwen to lose him... if indeed something tragic had not already befallen them for their son to be here in the first place. That thought hurt more than Legolas’ hurting body could handle, so he tried to push it aside. It seemed the whole world was ending tonight and nothing made sense.
“Dari, you have to go now,” Legolas eased the child off his lap and pushed him towards the bars of the cell. The elf was too weak to move any more than that. Dari refused, trying to cling to Legolas and curl back onto his lap, but the elf firmly pushed him back towards his only chance to live. “Dari please!” the prince begged. “I need you to do this for me, all right? You have to go, slide out the back staircase.”
Dari hesitated tearfully. “I come back...” there was a question in his words.
Legolas closed his eyes. “No, child, you can’t come back. You mustn’t. Not ever, do you understand me Dari? You have to get home...” the hopelessness of such a small one trying to do that on his own stole Legolas’ words away. “You have to try, all right? Tell your father... tell your father I’m sorry.” The elf held out small hope that the boy would ever reach his father and felt the sharp sting of being unable to protect Aragorn’s child burn into his fading consciousness. “Please, Dari, go! Go now!”
The clanging of cell doors was moving closer, Legolas knew they had only a little time before whoever was out there rounded the corner and Dari would have no escape.
Dari was crying and Legolas found that soft, salty tears were falling down his own cheeks as well. He knew he was asking a lot of the child, but it was the boy’s only chance. He would not see the son of his best friend and heir to the throne of Gondor perish here... he would not see the little boy he had come to love perish at all.
Dari slid out between the bars, but turned back, looking into the gloom of the cell one last time.
“Go, Dari!” Legolas pleaded again and to his relief the little boy turned and fled down the hall, away from the approaching footsteps. “Run, tinu, little star...” the elf whispered as he slumped sideways against the wall, what little strength he had left slowly ebbing away. “Take my love with you.”
Legolas’ heart froze when a few moments later he heard a small voice raised in an alarmed and angry wail. “Pu’ me down! Pu’ me down!” Dari was shouting at someone, his voice muffled as it came through several layers of stone walls.
The prince dropped his head into one trembling hand. No... no... not Dari... no please... A rough sob shook his shoulders. He had failed the one he wanted most to protect and in so doing he had failed not only Dari, but Aragorn, Arwen and all of Gondor in the process.
A bunch of keys rattled outside the barred door of Legolas’ cell and the door scraped open.
Legolas was hidden in the dark shadows of the corner but he knew that would not protect him. If he had the strength to fight he might have been able to take these people... but he had no such strength. He didn’t even look up as footsteps rang across the stone, but remained sitting where he was, his head hanging down, his right temple pressed against the stone wall. The glint of fire glow reflected off a drawn sword, already red with blood. The elf breathed in deeply, stilling his racing heart. He knew it was over.
He was going to die and he couldn’t even save Dari. After everything he had been through, everything he had survived and accomplished in his life, it was a cruel knowledge to take to Mandos with him.
Chapter 4: Part Four
The footsteps stopped as the person entering the cell finally got close enough to see the shadow-shrouded form in the corner. The sword in the human’s hand lowered suddenly and he pushed the torch he was carrying further forward so that its light illuminated the form of the elf, whose natural radiance had all but faded away.
The elf’s head jerked up at the familiar and totally unexpected voice.
The King of Gondor had already dropped down on one knee next to his long-time friend, horror and sorrow fleeting across his face as he took in the elf’s state. He had never expected to find this. Not in a dozen lifetimes! The horrible surprise left him breathless and reeling.
“Legolas, what are you doing here?” Aragorn breathed in shock. Dropping his sword he gently brushing the elf’s tangled hair back from his face, seeking the prince’s pain glazed eyes. Legolas was hurt, very badly hurt and fear knifed through the King’s heart like the sharpest of blades. “I thought you were still in Ithilien. I didn’t even know you were missing! How...”
Legolas was trying to speak, trying to interrupt his friend. “Aragorn... Aragorn, you’ve got to...”
But at that moment another soldier appeared in the doorway of the cell, dressed in the black and silver of the Gondorian palace guard. “Your highness?” The man seemed to be struggling with something. It was Dari.
The boy was trying his best to wiggle out of the soldier’s grasp, still clamoring to be put down.
“Yes, Jonath?” Aragorn turned just in time to see the captain of his guard lose hold of the bundle in his arms. Dari hit the floor running and fairly flung himself into the King’s arms. “Ada!”
“Dari!” Aragorn hugged the boy fiercely, lifting him off his feet and into the king’s strong arms. “Oh, Eldarion, I thought I lost you my son. I thought I lost you...” he whispered, tears of joy streaking silently down his face. “Are you all right?”
“I’m ‘kay,” Eldarion nodded. “But Leg’las is hurt! I tried to fix him, but I can’t. Don’t let him die Ada, please! He’s my friend. He keeps me safe from the bad men and doesn’ let them hurt me.”
“He has a habit of doing that.” Aragorn cupped the side of Legolas’ face gently in his hand. Reluctantly setting Eldarion down, the King was already moving to check the elf’s wounds. “Don’t worry Dari, we won’t let him die, will we?” The human’s eyes locked with Legolas’.
Legolas smiled weakly. “Not if we can help it. It is good to see you mellon-nín,” he added quietly as Aragorn assessed his injuries with efficient expertise.
Eldarion stayed close to his father, clinging non-obtrusively to Aragorn’s tunic as he stood beside the older man, watching the King try to help the injured elf prince.
“You’ll be okay, Leg’las, my Ada can fix anything,” Dari assured, glancing up at his father with complete trust and love in his young eyes.
“I believe that,” Legolas rasped quietly, eliciting a wry glare from his old friend. A faint grin played across the elf’s lips.
“I know, I’m late.” Aragorn smiled softly back. “But this time *you* look terrible my friend.” The elf’s wounds were serious, but if Legolas had the spirit to fight, then Aragorn thought that with some immediate care the elf had a good chance of pulling through. Dari continued to cling contentedly to his father’s arm, handing him things when he asked for them as the king did some emergency medical care.
Legolas chuckled at the old joke between them. “Not as terrible as I might... Your son is already following in your footsteps, Estel. He has a healer’s heart. However, I would like to know how you let him get here!”
Aragorn smiled warmly at his small son and then back at Legolas. “Now you sound like Elladan! Believe me I never, never intended...” the King stopped, rubbing the side of his head gently against the top of his little boy’s to assure himself that Dari really was there and safe. “Well, I think we both have some tales to tell one another, my friend.”
I’ll spill my soul to you
Hold it open, let you swim inside
Whatever you do
I trust somehow you’ll make it right.
I always tell you everything.
I feel like you should know...
But what I can’t say is deafening
the ache inside, it won’t let go
Won’t free my tongue to say
What’s really hurting me...
So listen without words
Hear my heart plea
Don’t give me answers
Just listen to me.
Legolas rested easily beside the fire, staring up at the stars. He was still very weak, but if he did not try to sit up or breathe too deeply, he could cope with the pain. It was good to be outside in the open again, with friends. It seemed a life age since he had been anywhere other than cell number eight and the killing fields of the arena.
He imagined he could smell the tang of salt water on the breeze, but he knew it was only the soldiers cooking, because they were too far away from the ocean for it to be anything but his imagination. Part of him wished that were not true. A small but vocal corner of his heart harbored the strong desire to ask Aragorn to take him to the coast, just to see the sea, to watch the billowing waves as they crested under the siren call of the gulls... just to be there in reality as he had been almost every night in his dreams since being committed to the blood pits.
Legolas drew his breath in slowly, pushing the longing back down into the aching pit of his stomach. He could not go there, not now, no matter how strong the wish. He knew Aragorn would do anything he asked him, but... he dare not make such a request. Legolas knew he was too weak, his heart too weary. If he gave in to his desire to see the ocean now, he would never be able to tear himself away again, no matter how desperately the other half of his heart desired to remain on Middle Earth.
The prince pulled his mind back to the moment and to Aragorn, who sat across the fire from him. Or at least he *had* been sitting across the fire from him. Now, Legolas suddenly found that his friend was actually kneeling beside him, watching the elf with worried eyes.
The King of Gondor wore his tunic only partially fastened, dividing the White tree on the front neatly in half where his under tunic showed through from underneath. The Gondorian jerkin seemed to be the extent of his concession to military dress at the moment, as the rest of his attire was distinctly more reminiscent of his ranger days than anything else.
“Legolas, do you feel all right? Did you even hear me?” Aragorn’s voice was soft and not upset at having been ignored. He was concerned, however.
Legolas realized with a start that he had not and gave his head a small shake. “Forgive me. I-I did not. What did you say?”
The King of Gondor smiled. “Never mind. You’re tired, I should let you rest. Forgive me for keeping you up so long my friend. I have missed you and it was selfish of me.”
“No,” Legolas suddenly reached out and gripped Aragorn’s arm, not letting him leave. He was weary, but he did not want to sleep. He would only be tormented by visions of the sea again, for in this matter he no longer had control of his dreams.
Aragorn saw the conflict in his friend’s face, although he did not understand its source. His dark eyes searched the pale blue ones before him. “Legolas, what is it? What’s haunting you? Is it because it was men...?”
Legolas shook his head quickly. “Aragorn, I do not fear men, and their cruelty darkens my heart no longer. Those are things that have healed mellon-nín.”
Aragorn could see his friend spoke the truth, but that didn’t explain what he still saw. “All right, then what?”
Legolas did not answer. He rolled onto his side with some effort. “I would not see you go yet, if you’re willing.”
Aragorn nodded slowly and settled down across from his friend once more. He knew enough to know when Legolas didn’t want to talk about something. “All right, but if I weary you, you must promise to tell me. You have me worried for you, my friend.”
Legolas smiled. “Then I’m sorry, for such was not my desire. But I have so many questions... things that do not make sense. Why did the people of Rahzon think you were the Khelekir? And what brought you to Rahzon? Were you looking for Eldarion?”
That had been puzzling Legolas since he had been conscious enough to consider the question.
“Yes, and no,” Aragorn shook his head. “I have been searching for Eldarion, but it was not that that drew me to Rahzon actually. As for the Khelekir, that is what those people call us in their tongue. We have been trying to eliminate the illegal slave trade here and the games that fuel it. Don’t worry,” Aragorn saw the look of confusion pass over his friend’s face and quickly set him at ease. “If you heard those wild stories they tell about us supposedly killing everyone in our path and being bloody murderers, it’s not true. Although those poor terrified slaves in the cages certainly seemed to be whipped up into quite a terror about it until they finally understood we were giving them their freedom. It’s just something that the warlords made up to frighten the people into hating us more, so they would fight us to the death without even thinking of surrender.” The King’s eyes were sad, thinking of how many might have been saved had instead been lost because of lies.
Legolas smiled faintly and nodded. “Like the poor hill men after the battle of Helm’s Deep, convinced we were going to burn them alive or eat them or something similarly horrible...” He shook his head.
“Yes.” Aragorn returned the smile. “Like that.”
“Ada...” a small voice took Aragorn’s attention as Dari pulled lightly at his sleeve.
Aragorn smiled gently at his child as he lifted the boy into his lap. “Here’s someone else who should be in bed, yes?” he asked gently, smiling down into the large, sleepy eyes.
“Nooo,” Dari shook his head in protest, wiggling deeper into his father’s embrace. “Not sleepy.”
Aragorn sincerely doubted that, but let it pass. Arwen was the bed-time enforcer at home, not he. The King was of the mind that when Dari was tired, he would sleep.
From across the fire, Legolas watched the father and son with a small smile. It did his heart so good to see Dari back with the father he had never thought he could return him to, and he got more than a small share of enjoyment from watching his old friend with the child, who undoubtedly was very like Aragorn himself when the ranger was young. Having been like a parent to Dari, even for just a while, made Legolas envy Elladan and Elrohir having been able to watch Estel grow from childhood into the man he was now... although it also gave him a little understanding of why sometimes they still seemed to be so protective of him. In their hearts, Aragorn would always be their baby brother.
“Sing to me Ada,” Dari pleaded with a sleepy voice. “Sing the hope song...”
Aragorn blinked. He didn’t understand what the child meant. “The hope song, Dari?” he queried.
“He means he wants you to hum him the Haradrim slave’s lullaby,” Legolas supplied the explanation quietly. “I used to sing that to him to help him sleep; I told him it was a song about hope living in the darkest of places... like in slavery.”
Aragorn smiled softly at the old memories. Harad... it was appropriate in an ironic way, considering how and why the child had almost been lost.
“Please, Ada?” Dari entreated in a small voice.
Aragorn nodded. “Of course ion-nín. Let’s see if I can remember it...”
Quietly, Aragorn began the old, familiar melody.
Legolas closed his eyes. So many memories, so much life, laughter and yes, even pain... such a rich history he and Aragorn had formed together over the years. The memories seemed at the moment sweet, but also sad as they receded into the past. He found himself suddenly considering what life would be like without his dear friend and the ache of the thought was almost too much as it added to the swelling pain that throbbed in his heart.
For the first time in his life Legolas truly felt old, and it wasn’t a feeling he particularly relished. Yet it wasn’t one he could ignore either - the world-weariness of a soul who had heard the summons to leave, but was not ready, or willing to heed it yet. Valinor was calling him to the sea; the promise of peace and the end of all earthly sorrows... and yet in leaving Legolas knew he would find his greatest sorrow because he would have to leave Aragorn behind if he went now. No. He wasn’t ready for that. Yet... the unfulfilled longing hurt so much.
By the time Aragorn fell silent, Dari was fast asleep. For a moment the King thought that Legolas was too, until he saw the lone tear slide from under his friend’s dark lashes. The human’s brows creased. Something was wrong. Something inside Legolas was torn, anguished... and Aragorn could not seem to understand the cause, or how to help. This hurt and frustrated the ranger, but he did not speak, unsure if it would help or harm Legolas to know that his inner pain was so outwardly apparent.
Presently Legolas realized that Aragorn had fallen silent and felt the former ranger’s eyes on him even before he opened his eyes. A weak, but genuine smile met the ranger’s concerned, inquiring gaze.
“Is Dari asleep?” the elf asked quietly, trying to banish the thickness of emotion from his voice.
Aragorn nodded, stroking his child’s soft, dark curls with the reverence of one who realizes they might have been denied that pleasure forever had things come out differently.
“Thank you, Legolas,” Aragorn said quietly, looking back up to meet his friend’s gaze. There were tears in the human’s eyes and that nearly undid the elf, causing Legolas to have to blink rapidly to remain self-contained.
The joy and pain that mingled in Aragorn’s eyes ran deep. “People call me hope, but I had almost lost hope that I would ever see my son again. I thought...” one of the tears glittering in his eyes slid down the man’s weathered cheek, but he didn’t bother wiping it away. He was not ashamed of his feelings for his family and friends. “I thought he was gone. Legolas, he would not have survived in that place alone. Many times you have saved my life, but what you did for Eldarion I consider a debt beyond hope of repayment. I don’t think Arwen and I could have... we couldn’t have lost him...” the human swallowed hard, cradling the small body in his arms even closer.
Legolas shook his head. “If I saved him, then we are even. It is I who owe him, Estel. Truly, he carries a part of you inside, for he was my hope, my light in the dark that kept me struggling on when giving up would have been much easier...” Legolas touched Dari’s pendant, still around his neck, “My star, in the starless night. Without him there Estel, I would not be here now.”
Aragorn saw the truth of that statement in his friend’s eyes. “Then we should thank Ilúvatar, for knowing better than we do,” the human’s voice was soft. “Only he could have used two such horrible events as yours and Eldarion’s capture to bring about a happy ending for both of you.”
Legolas nodded slowly. That was very true. Either event happening by itself, would likely have ended only in tragedy. The elf smiled faintly, attempting to pull himself back from the edge of the depression eating at his heart as he dwelt on happier things. “Very true. You know, if Dari was not your son, and had he been orphaned as I thought, I would have adopted him if we could have ever escaped together,” the elf admitted. “I expected,” the prince’s grin widened, “That you would help me. Little did I know the truth.”
Aragorn smiled back. “He could not have asked for a better foster-father at need.”
Legolas rolled his eyes. “Oh yes, he could have. You fill the parent role much better than I mellon-nín. I am very relieved. Although still confused on many things... I cannot believe I never once suspected he was yours. He never mentioned you until the end, and his name...”
Aragorn laughed quietly, so as not to wake the sleeping child. “Eldarion cannot pronounce his real name yet. He’s been Dari since he was old enough to talk... but then you haven’t seen him since then, have you?”
Legolas shook his head. “What happened, Aragorn? Is Arwen all right? Dari seemed truly convinced that his parents were gone forever.”
Aragorn sighed deeply. “In a strange way this all happened because of a treaty with Harad. Peace with our southern neighbors is something I’ve wanted ever since I took the throne and we finally had a breakthrough not very long ago. There have been centuries of enmity between our two peoples, it was time for it to end.”
Legolas nodded in understanding. It was no surprise to him that Aragorn felt that way. He had been cared for and adopted by a Haradrim family during a very stressful and frightening time of his life, many years ago. That memory and that tie with those people, even sworn enemies of Gondor though many of them were, had never faded.
“Did you know that Sircyn’s youngest son is now one of the leading Warlords? Well he is, although that was a surprise for me to learn as well. He convinced most of the other major tribes that at least talking about peace was a good idea, and they finally agreed to meet with me.”
Aragorn smiled. He distinctly remembered the hostility with which he had been greeted by most of the tribal leaders at first. He also remembered their shock when the King of Gondor addressed them fluently in their own tongue and observed all the proper customs of their people during the meetings. Slowly, the opinion that this foreign King could not understand or respect them and their ways had softened in the minds of many of the delegates. Even so, a number had remained unmoved, but the majority was eventually won over and a peace agreement was declared.
It was a time of great celebration. The Warlords brought in their families to prepare the feasts and out of respect for their customs, and the importance that this held for the future of Gondor, Aragorn sent for Arwen and Eldarion to join them as well.
The celebration ceremonies had gone smoothly, and Dari was endlessly fascinated by the new people and creatures, especially the Oliphaunts.
When it was over, Aragorn remained to finish up business with the chieftains afterward, sending Arwen and Eldarion home under the watchful protection of the Gondorian army.
On the way back, disaster struck. The party was attacked by a ruthless band of the Haradrim who did not approve of their leaders’ decision to ally themselves with their former Gondorian enemy. Vastly outnumbered, the Queen and the little Prince were intentionally separated from their protectors.
What the attackers had not counted on, was finding a vicious elf warrior hidden beneath the queen’s dainty robes. Spurred by the maternal instinct to protect her child and aided by her elven heritage, Arwen killed many of the enemy, but eventually took grievous hurt trying to protect Dari. When it became clear she could not defeat them all, the Queen hid Eldarion in the deep hollow of an ancient tree, desperately bidding the old oak to watch over her baby.
//“Shh, quiet little one, we’re going to play a game. You’re going to hide here and not let anyone find you until I come back. Just be brave Dari, be brave my little star.” Arwen whispered, soothing her child’s fears. “And if I do not come, wait for Ada , he will find you ion-nín. But you must be silent.”
“Nana, you’re hurt...” Dari was worried over the large crimson stain drenching the sleeve of Arwen’s pale grey dress and spreading down her side.
Arwen pressed a kiss tearful against her child’s forehead. She did not expect to live to see him again, but she hoped beyond hope that Aragorn would somehow find him and forgive her the sacrifice she had chosen.
“Whatever happens ion-nín, my love will always be with you, for the rest of your life,” she promised. Tears stained her face as she tore herself away, hearing the approaching enemy closing fast upon them. “Remember that, and wait for Ada to come!”//
In a last, desperate attempt to keep at least Eldarion safe from harm, Arwen led the attackers away on a wild chase deep into the forest. Dari waited and waited for her to return... but she did not come. Neither did Aragorn.
When one of the injured soldiers came limping into Aragorn’s camp the next day the King of Gondor thought his heart had turned to ice. He left so fast his guards could barely keep up with him, but there was no way by then he could have arrived in time.
//The horse’s dark body was flecked with foam and lathered with sweat as he gave his all for his master. When Aragorn reined him in, the creature pulled to an obedient halt. It didn’t matter how fast the horse stopped, Aragorn was swinging out of the saddle before he stopped moving. All around the King’s feet lay a gruesome maze of bodies, the bright helms and white trees of Gondor on their uniforms stained and tarnished with the blood of death.
There were only Gondorian dead here, as the Haradrim had removed their own before they left.
Aragorn’s heart, which had been pounding up in his throat since he first received word, sank to his stomach and froze into a solid lump of ice as he surveyed the carnage. Ai, Elbereth... he knew these men, all of them, they were good people, they did not deserve to fall this way with their bodies left for carrion... yet that was not the most terrible thought in his mind.
“Arwen! Eldarion! ARWEN!” he walked around the glade, scanning the gory and trampled ground desperately for any clear tracks that would help him, any indication at all of what fate had befallen his wife and child. He could find nothing. Then, his roving eyes landed upon something that made his frozen heart shatter.
Trampled into the mud and only faintly flickering in the fading light of evening, the Evenstar pendant lay forlorn and alone on the forest floor. Its chain had been snapped and an ominous red stain darkened the silver petals along one side.
Aragorn had slipped the precious necklace that he almost always wore around Eldarion’s neck when they said goodbye. The child had not wanted to leave his father, so Aragorn gave him a piece of his heart to carry with him until they met again.
Tears filled the King of Gondor’s eyes as he fell to his knees, crushing the broken necklace to his breast.
“No! Dari! Arwen!” his anguished cry echoed mournfully through the trees. Jonath and the other soldiers finally arrived only just in time to hear the sad sound.
It was with breaking heart that Jonath walked quietly to his liege’s side. He softly bid his soldiers to begin caring for the dead and scouting the area, and then just laid his hand on Aragorn’s shoulder, wishing with all his heart that he could take away the horrible toll of this day.
Aragorn remained on his knees in a heart-sick daze for several minutes until Jonath’s gentle urgings brought him back to reality and he struggled to his feet again. Arwen and Eldarion’s bodies were not among the dead numbered here. If he did not have proof of their death there was still a chance they were alive. The small, stubborn flame of hope that was Estel refused to give into complete despair without a fight. He would get them back, he had to... if he did not it would destroy him.
“Estel...” the voice was faint, he almost thought he had imagined it from the deep desire of his heart except that Jonath’s head perked up at exactly the same instant.
Spinning quickly, Aragorn saw a sight he would never forget as long as he lived.
Arwen stumbled out of the trees towards him, her face marred with blood and soot. Her dress was torn and crusted with blood, he could not tell how much of it hers, and how much of it not. A stained sword dangled limply from her fingers and she wavered unsteadily.
Aragorn was at her side in a instant, gathering her slim frame into his arms, cradling her head against him like one might a child as he embraced her in love, joy, relief... and surpassing fear.
The slender elf woman, looking now less like a warrior and more like a wounded doe, collapsed, sobbing into her husband’s strong embrace. Aragorn could tell at once that she was badly wounded, but that did not seem to be the source of her distress.
“Eldarion is gone! He’s not where I left him... I lost him, I lost Dari...” the distraught mother cried in heartbroken sorrow as Aragorn held her tight.//
They combed every inch of the woods, they searched for days, weeks, months, even as hope dwindled and the reality of despair set in, but Eldarion was not to be found.
Long nights found Aragorn alone in his study, chafing away and dying inside because his duties had finally recalled him from the search and he could hardly bear leaving it in the hands of others, no matter how capable. Arwen’s body healed, but Eldarion’s loss ripped a large whole through both their hearts. One little boy, alone... there was no hope he could still be alive, was there?
//“Stop it meleth-nín!” Arwen grabbed Aragorn’s arm, her voice half plea, half demand, halting his incessant pacing. Outside the city, bells rang early morning. Aragorn had not slept. In days.
“Stop it, you’re killing yourself. It... It won’t bring him back.” Her voice quavered and broke. Aragorn held her close and buried his face in her soft, dark hair. To him, being a father was even more important than being a King... with Elrond as his only reference, he set very high expectations of himself and his self-perceived utter failure was crushing.
Arwen softly caressed the Evenstar, which hung once more around the King’s neck on a new chain. “You know,” she said softly. “Father had this made for me when I was a little girl. He said it reminded him of the necklace his mother wore for a time, with the Silmaril. He told me how her little brothers had been lost... abandoned to die in the woods and never seen again...” her shoulders shook with silent sobs. “I always thought it was sad, but I never knew... Estel I should never have left him!” sobs choked her and she could not go on.
Aragorn laid a finger against her lips, kissing away her tears. “Melethril, my love, it was not your fault... please darling, please don’t. We’ll find him, Arwen, we have to.” He willed his voice to be strong for her, to convey more surety than he possessed.
“Estel,” she murmured through exhausted tears. “Always hope.”//
For many excruciating months, hope was all they had to go on, very thin hope at that. When a vague report of a child matching Dari’s description having been spotted somewhere to the far east came bundled with other tidings of slaver raiding on Gondor’s borders, it offered precious little optimism, but a little was better than none, and when more and more reports came, telling of the rampant raiding and upsurge of forced slavery from many outlying Gondorian provinces, any action had seemed better than idle torment.
It was only after talking with Dari that Aragorn was able to begin piecing together an idea of what had happened to the child after the fateful attack. Apparently Dari had waited until dark, but his mother did not come back. Hungry, thirsty, frightened and fearing for his Nana, the boy had wandered away from the safety of his hiding place. Nighttime alone in the woods scared him and he ran blindly through the darkened forest for a time, until the lights of a campfire drew him in like a moth to a flame. Unfortunately, the fire belonged to a roving band of Rahzon slavers on their way home from a raid; perhaps even the same group who had taken Legolas weeks earlier. Dari had been taught to trust adults and went with them without a fuss when they said they would get him home. It was not until days later that the child began to realize these men were not taking him back to Gondor, or his parents. He tried to run away but was easy to catch and after that Dari would not speak of anything that happened until he met Legolas. It was as if it were too traumatic for his little mind to remember or dwell upon. The slavers had no idea who the child was, thinking him merely some boy who had the misfortune to be lost in the woods. His addition to their lot of slaves for the arena had been an after thought because they knew that cage brats were in demand... they never knew that they had kidnapped the Crown Prince of Gondor.
By the time Arwen had lost her pursuers and been able to make the long trek back through the forest to find him, Eldarion had already been long gone.
The little prince in question gave a soft, gurgling snore and shifted slightly in his father’s arms, drawing the eyes of both the elf Prince and the Gondorian King to rest upon him once more as they considered the horrible what-if’s that had fortunately not come to pass.
Despite his own inner battles, seeing Dari happy again mended a small part of Legolas’ heart. So long he had yearned to give Dari back the parents he seemed to miss so much... realizing now who those parents were made the prince all the more glad things had turned out as they had. He shivered involuntarily as his thoughts drifted back to the night he was freed. He had not wanted to die there, locked away in a cage, the thought had been more horrific than he realized at the time. It could have all ended so differently.
It very nearly had.
Seeing his friend shudder, Aragorn immediately called Jonath over and passed the sleeping child to his second in command as he swiftly moved back to Legolas’ side once more. So lost in dark memories was the elf, that he did not notice when Aragorn stopped speaking. The frightening reverie of the past months was broken as a heavy blanket was draped around his shoulders and a gentle hand cupped his now tear-stained face.
Legolas realized two things with a start: first, and much to his mortification, that he had been crying and not realized it; and second, that Aragorn was next to him once more, speaking softly as he dried his friend’s tears. As Legolas looked up at Aragorn, an agonizing bolt of longing shot suddenly through his heart, nearly taking his breath away. That surprised the elf even more. By the stars, what was wrong with him? Here he was with his best friend in the whole world, and he felt so wretchedly lonely. It wasn’t right... he was free now, everything should be fine, what was wrong with his heart? Why did he have no control anymore? The elf tried to pull back as the gentle touch startled him, an automatic response he had learned eons ago when touched by other men. The fear was gone, but the reactions remained when hurting and confused as he was now. He was so wretchedly confused, he wished the earth or the sea would swallow him up... the sea... curse its beautiful expanse, he wished he had never seen it, never fallen under this terrible spell.
“Saes...” The prince whispered shakily, some part of him pleading for Aragorn to make these feelings go away, as illogical as he knew such a request might be.
“Legolas, it’s all right now.” His friend’s voice echoed like gentle ripples across the face of the turmoil of the prince’s thoughts and emotions.
Aragorn pressed his forehead against the elf’s left temple as he knelt by the prince, trying to calm the tremors that chased through Legolas’ soul. The elf he held breathed in deeply, closing his eyes against the pictures that flashed through his waking memories. Blood, death... all those helpless, hopeless people he had had to kill... even the memory threatened to make him ill. With a sigh Legolas leaned against the King and worked to calm his breathing. He swiped at the tears that still rolled down his face in embarrassing trails. His time in the pits had marked him more than he had realized... and more than he wanted to admit.
“I’m sorry. Dari recovers so quickly and I feel as if I were the babe and not he,” Legolas whispered softly. “I just...” His voice trailed off and he stopped speaking. How could he explain? How could he ever paint a picture dark enough to describe what life in the blood pits had been like? How could a mortal ever understand what the call of the sea was doing to him... and how could he ever think to tell Aragorn, when he knew the pain that the very idea of him leaving would cause?
“You protected Dari so he could keep his innocent resilience. There was no one to protect you. Give yourself time.” Aragorn’s words were barely a whisper but he held the elf’s head against his chest now, letting the prince hear his voice. “No one should have been subjected to what you have been through. No one.”
The moments stretched out long and silent. Neither man nor elf moved. Jonath had taken Eldarion and bedded him down for the night in Aragorn’s tent. He and his men kept a quiet watch from the edges of their own fire ring, giving the King and the elf the space they needed. The night patrol checked in and the next party was sent out. Only the sounds of the fire and the woods about them broke the peaceful stillness.
“Wait until Arwen finds out where Dari was,” Legolas finally whispered, trying to turn the subject away from himself.
Aragorn felt the elf smile against him and he shook his head, a soft laugh accompanying his answer. “She will have someone’s head, probably mine because I’m handy. But beware my friend, when she learns who it was that protected our little one all these long months, she will pamper you and mother you until you are sick to death of it. I have learned that Elladan has nothing on Arwen when it comes to being motherly.”
The quiet chuckle that answered his jest brought a smile to the human’s face. He sat back. Releasing the elf, he seated himself on the ground by his friend.
“Oh, joy.” Legolas answered sarcastically; “Can we tell her it was all Jonath’s doing? Or better yet just stay here until I am well enough to travel? I can return to Ithilien and she will never know.” It was only a joke as they both knew well.
“Jonath won’t keep any more secrets for me. He’ll tell her. Then we’ll *both* be in trouble.” Aragorn glanced secretively at his second in command who was glowering openly at his king now.
Changing the subject, Aragorn quietly asked the question he had been harboring the past few days, “Legolas, tell me how *did* those men capture you? Eldarion I had dared hope that we might find out there somewhere... but we had not heard that there was trouble near Ithilien.”
The elf swallowed hard, averting his eyes from the gaze of his friend. “I...” He stopped speaking and sighed deeply, remembering back to the day so many months ago.
“I was checking the progress on the south-eastern border lands of Ithilien and only had two others with me. Raniean and Trelan stayed behind to oversee the work we have started. It must have been before Dari was lost, for I remember hearing that there was some kind of peace negotiations underway with Harad. I knew it had to be all your doing. We encountered a rather large group of men. Strange men they were to us, more like the Easterlings than anything else. They said they were merchants, and they had many pack animals and goods with them. In my heart I did not trust their large smiles and fair words, but my companions saw less amiss than I and I second guessed myself, thinking that old prejudices still wanted to have their way with me. So we welcomed them and gave them kind greetings. We remained wary... but not wary enough...”
//Legolas shook his head, rubbing his temples. His body screamed that something was wrong, but his mind responded sluggishly. This was not right, he should have noticed something wrong earlier... but it was fast becoming too late.
In alarm, Legolas looked around, only to see his two companions also rubbing their heads, eyes leaden and glassy. The smiling faces of the men around the fire had hardened into something alarming.
Fear surged through Legolas’ body and he shot to his feet, trying not to stumble. The elves had consumed only their own food and wine and nothing that belonged to the strangers, so the prince did not know how it had happened, but they had been drugged, that much was clear.
The slavers did not expect resistance from their pray after having been so heavily sedated, but they had not counted on the resilience of elves.//
Legolas bid the memories away even as he retold them, wishing to not see his two friends fall yet again. He had been there, and yet been unable to stop what had happened. He had not been able to save them. That still burned and would take time to heal.
“They attempted to drug us with only partial success. I still do not know how they got their foul potion into our food, but somehow they must have. When this was realized, a fight broke out. I killed nine of their men that day, but my companions were also slain. I don't really know what happened after they fell. I do not remember being hit by poisoned darts, but I was told when I awoke in my cell that that was how they had secured me. And apparently how they kept me unconscious for most of our journey, of which I remember nothing.
“I was supposed to be gone for several months at least... in all probability neither Ran nor Trey would have thought anything of my prolonged absence until recently, perhaps. They have become used to me disappearing at will for longer than expected.” Legolas stopped telling the tale. He closed his eyes shaking his head, collecting his thoughts and dreading his next words. They had lain heavy on his heart and he had not wanted to give into them, but they needed to be spoken aloud, and here with Aragorn, he was safe to speak all.
“I should never have trusted them Estel. My time with you and other men took away the edge, dulled that warning in me that might have saved us. I heard it but ignored it; I thought the fault was in me, in my old misgivings. I thought that was in the past... it was truly foolish of me, but I suppose I may even have thought that ignorance, intolerance, and cruelty were gone, or at least fading. But I suppose those things will always exist in an imperfect world and am ashamed to admit that for once I was not prepared for such.” His voice was soft, the conversation kept between the two of them only.
Aragorn’s heart ached. He had finally come to understand why Legolas had kept his heart closed for so long when he first met him. Legolas was by nature either closed or open. If he gave himself over to trusting, he did so with his whole heart, and that left him vulnerable to worlds of hurt. “Legolas...” Aragorn’s apology was cut short as the elf finally met his gaze.
“No. Do not apologize. I did not say that to mean it was your fault... the fault was mine, I just...” the elf sighed.
Aragorn worried his lower lip with his teeth. There seemed to be so much going on inside Legolas it was like a balled up knot that confused him, and he wasn’t sure where to start untangling in order to reach the heart of what was really troubling his friend. “We all make mistakes. The cruelty and greed of men are not your fault. I’m just sorry I did not come sooner... or that I did not even think to send word to Faramir asking if all was well in Ithilien as I usually would have. There were a lot of duties I fear I failed after Eldarion’s disappearance.” The King admitted softly. He had his own guilt to carry over everything that had happened, and it went deeper than the elf realized at the moment.
“Aragorn, you couldn’t have known...” Legolas started to say, but Aragorn shook his head insistently, his eyes etched with a deep, painful remorse.
“No, Legolas, listen to me, because I need your forgiveness...” he dropped his gaze. “There’s more. I... I sent word to you after Eldarion was lost. I wanted your help, I needed your support. I didn’t ask you to come, but I thought you would. Raniean sent word that you were away, and he was forwarding the letter on immediately, but I never received an answer from you. I should have known something was wrong... instead I just felt hurt,” Aragorn whispered hoarsely, unable to meet his friend’s eyes. He hadn’t wanted to tell him this, but he felt he must. He had to trust and hope that Legolas could forgive him, even if it would take him longer to forgive himself.
Legolas was surprised, and saddened that his friend thought he might have acted so cold at a time when Aragorn was obviously hurting and in need of him. He was also a little shaken that Aragorn could have found out earlier that something was wrong, and hadn’t. “How long ago?” he whispered quietly.
“Two months at least.” Aragorn pried his gaze from the ground and lifted it to his friend’s face, knowing that Legolas deserved that much, no matter how it hurt to see the ripples of pain and surprise chasing across the fair features.
“Two months...” Legolas echoed softly, trying not to imagine how different things might have been had anyone realized he was missing that long ago.
“I’m sorry,” Aragorn breathed quietly around the painful lump in his throat. “I assumed you were just too far away to be reached, or too busy... I didn’t pursue the matter. I didn’t imagine in my wildest dreams that you were... I’m sorry.” He turned his face away, sickened by the knowledge that Legolas had spent those long months wondering why no one had come for him. Crushed by the idea the he could have done something and did not. Silent tears he did not wish the elf to see escaped his eyes.
Legolas took a deep breath. He could have felt hurt, if he allowed it, he could have wasted his time imagining what-if... but he did not. Aragorn meant more to him than engaging in imagined possibilities. Their friendship was more important.
“Estel, your son was missing, your wife injured. No one thinks clearly at times like that. Raniean must have forwarded your letter on to my last known location to wait for me, and if he was not concerned, why should you have been? They would have had no cause for alarm and neither did you. You didn’t know there had been slavers as far into Gondor as Ithilien, did you?” The elf was ready to forgive without question, but a small corner of his heart needed to know that his own defense of his friend was true and that the human had truly not been given a cause to worry.
“No.” Aragorn whispered. “We thought all was well, else I would have been more concerned at your silence. Raniean warned me in his response that it might take some time for the message to reach you as you were off on one of ‘those’ trips again. If I had heard there were raids there, if I had known the smallest thing seemed amiss...” He shook his head, his gaze open, allowing the elf to search his soul for any shade of deception. “Legolas, I swear I would not have stopped looking until I found you. You know that.”
Legolas nodded almost imperceptibly. Yes, he did know it; he had just needed to hear it spoken. “How *did* you find out?”
“That you were taken? I found out when I stepped into your cell and found what I thought was my worst nightmare come true,” the King shook his head in regretful horror. “Word reached me as we were traveling to Rahzon that an elvish envoy had come to Minas Tirith. I thought it was you, and that you had finally received my message. I sent word back to have you stay there and wait my return. Since then we have heard nothing from the WhiteCity, there hasn’t been enough time. I assumed all was well. Now I am sure that the envoy must have been Raniean and Trelan, no doubt beginning to worry about you and perhaps hoping that you had detoured straight to Gondor without checking in with them first. Had I known...” Aragorn was not quite ready to let go of the guilt that he had suspected nothing while Legolas was being held captive in such hellish circumstances.
The statement fell quietly between them before the human picked up the tale once more, “The slavers were easy to find but they kept us at bay for a while. It was a difficult battle. They had clans of orcs and wargs that worked with them and it took us a week to break through their defenses. The night I found you was the first time we had breached Rahzon itself. My forces have been divided since Eldarion’s kidnapping. Half my men are leagues from here scouring the cities and outer ports near the place where Eldarion was lost. Part of Jonath’s contingent has stayed at Arwen’s disposal, protecting her in my absence.”
“There was so much chaos the night you came... it felt like the world coming to an end...” Legolas admitted. Haunted eyes turned back to gaze upon the man who was now a king.
“I know. We had hoped for a peaceful ending once the city was breached and it was obvious they could not withstand us, but their leaders had the people so whipped up they would fight to the last man before surrendering.” Aragorn broke off the contact and stared into the fire, letting its hypnotic weave and dance settle his heart. The images from that night were burned into his memory. “Even the slaves in the cages fought us at first. I regret all those who would not understand or believe that we came only to free them. The power of lies can be so destructive! Many of them were already wounded so severely that some of them died before we could get them help. I feared when I entered your cell that you would have been one of those. When I saw it was you...” Silver eyes locked onto the blue ones, “Legolas, I swear my heart stopped beating. I am so sor-”
Legolas raised his hands to his friend’s lips, cutting off yet another unnecessary apology. “No, Estel, let it go. There is nothing to forgive. I am simply glad you came.” The smile that graced the prince’s fair features was erased a moment later as an aching wave of pain rolled through him and he caught his breath, waiting for the tightness in his chest to lessen. His wounds would not be forgotten easily.
Aragorn was in motion before his mind registered what he was doing. His old worn pack was beside him and he dug through it, quickly seizing the small jar of ointment he constantly carried. Placing his left palm against Legolas’ forehead he quietly bid the elf to relax and gently unbuttoned the prince’s shirt, lathing the cuts and wounds with the thick lotion and numbing the pain. In moments Legolas was breathing easily again.
“I need you to relax, your body has not yet caught up with your spirit.” Aragorn instructed softly as he placed new bandages against some of the deeper cuts.
“My spirit is hardly better,” Legolas murmured quietly, garnering him a hard look from his friend. “I wish your father was here.” Legolas said louder, “Although you learned well from him.”
“I know. I do too, but... he is here.” Aragorn smiled softly. Long had he harbored the same desire, ever since his father had left for the undying lands. “A part of him is in you, and in me.” The king gently laid his hand on the elf’s chest above his heart, careful not to apply too much pressure for fear of hurting his friend.
Legolas nodded. Aragorn’s eyes were searching him again, still trying to see what it was the elf was hiding, what it was, despite all their words, that he wasn’t saying. It felt as if they had talked themselves in complete circles and covered many issues... but not whatever illusive one it was that the elf was refusing to go near. It was frustratingly like a journey on an unknown path that had no apparent direction.
The dull ache in Legolas’ heart deepened, increasing his feelings of loneliness. He was with his best friend, but the pain he could not share for fear of hurting one he held so dear left him feeling isolated and alone. Could Aragorn even understand what he was going through? As much as the prince loved him, the King was still a man, and would perhaps never feel the call of the sea or know the way it was now making him suffer. Yet if he couldn’t tell Aragorn what he was feeling, who could he tell?
“Estel...” Legolas ducked his head under the human’s intense, searching gaze. His brows furrowed, not sure what to say, how to start...
A tiny voice interrupted their quiet conversation. “Ada, I want Nana.” Eldarion called out from the door of the tent.
Chapter 5: Part Five
~Help My Heart Heal~
Aragorn turned, his hand never leaving his friend. “*You* are supposed to be sleeping.” He remonstrated softly, but with a gentle smile.
“I can’t.” The small child shook his head, creeping slowly forward. Once out of the shadows and into the glow of the firelight, they could see the glistening tear tracks that wet the boy’s small cheeks. “Hets’pa is there,” he whispered, obviously frightened.
“Oh, Dari,” Aragorn reached for the boy with his free hand and wrapped the prince in a strong hug when the small body slammed into him. Eldarion’s tiny fists gripped the king’s tunic, unwilling to let go. His little body trembled against is father’s strong chest. Slowly however, the child’s taught frame seemed to relax a bit under the comforting feel of Aragorn’s heart beating a calming rhythm against his own.
“That man will never hurt you again, do you hear me? He is gone.” Aragorn promised.
A small nod answered his question. “I sleep with you.” A tiny voice stated. The comment was not a question, not a request, but a statement. The child was unwilling to sleep alone. Dari was coping well, but it would take time for the nightmares to fade. Waking up alone in the dark was not going to be pleasant for him for quite a while.
Kissing the top of Eldarion’s head, Aragorn gave in easily, “Yes, tonight you will sleep with me, but tomorrow Dari, I am sending you home to Nana with Jonath.”
“You come too?” Eldarion looked doubtful.
Aragorn hesitated, obviously torn. The thought of letting his son out of his sight again for any reason was frightening and he wanted so much to be near the child at all times... but one look at Legolas told Aragorn that he was not a well elf and until he could be sure that the prince’s problem was not physical in nature, he did not know how wise it was to move him. The wound to the elf’s side had barely even begun to close although it had been several days now. That was unbelievably slow healing for an elf and it worried Aragorn. Yet Dari needed to go home to his mother and Arwen needed to see her son, Aragorn knew what the loss had been doing to her. Torn between staying and leaving, the King had a hard choice to make, but in the end, he knew that he could not play games with Legolas’ life; it would be ill repayment indeed for everything his friend had done for him and his family.
“I will come very soon,” Aragorn promised gently. “But not right now. I am not convinced that it is safe to move Legolas yet, it might hurt him more, you understand? But you need to be home, your mother has missed you greatly.”
“No, no, don’t wanna go.” Eldarion pleaded, his soft protests drown out by the King’s second in command.
“My Lord,” Jonath approached the fire ring and crouched down across the fire from his king, “I should remain with you; Draecyn can take the prince home to the queen. As soon as I find him.” The last part was muttered almost under the soldier’s breath.
The guilty smile that stole across the king’s face drew a frown from the warrior. “My lord?” He questioned darkly as Aragorn glanced quickly to Legolas looking for help.
“Well, I don’t think that will work very well. You see... We were both up early this morning and I sent Draecyn back to Minas Tirith to inform the queen and the elven envoy that we had found Eldarion and Legolas.” Aragorn answered, his gaze drifting back to the warrior across the fire pit. “I forgot to tell you...”
“That is why I have not been able to find him? Why no one knew where he was?” Jonath stood from his seat, running his hands back through his tangled hair, a gesture he often repeated when frustrated.
“...or anyone else for that matter.” The king continued quietly. He tried not to smile as he watched the captain of his guard fume quietly. He really hadn’t meant to cause a problem. The soldiers were his to command and Draecyn had been more than happy to go. If Aragorn had not had quite so much on his mind, he would not have forgotten to inform his captain that he had commandeered his first lieutenant, but as it was, he obviously had.
“Looked for him everywhere.” Jonath muttered, “Did anyone know where he’d gotten to? No of course not! I was ready to site him for desertion!” Turning back to his liege, the soldier pierced the king with a glare that would have sent any underling scurrying. It had the opposite effect on the man he was supposed to protect. Aragorn had to resist laughing for fear of mortally offending his chief guard.
Jonath’s scowl deepened. “My Lord, please, I mean no disrespect, but I cannot be useful to you when you continually leave me uninformed. We really must talk about our communication.”
“Or *lack* of it, to be more exact.” Legolas taunted quietly, glad to have attention turned on someone else’s problems for a little while and enjoying the chance to smile about something.
“You’re not helping me here, Legolas.” Aragorn grimaced at the elf, shooting a glare out of the corner of his eyes.
“He is right, my lord! I must know these things, you cannot do everything yourself without informing *someone*.” Jonath remained respectful, but spoke his mind. Aragorn had told him to do so since the beginning and so he was freer with his opinion around his King than he would have been a few years ago.
Disentangling himself from Eldarion, Aragorn rose to his feet trying to pacify the soldier, “You’re right. I just...things got out of hand and then Legolas and Eldarion and...” He walked around the campfire and stared into the dark eyes watching him, “It was an unforgivable oversight. I’m sorry. Truly I am, but Dari needs to get home and I trust you to do it.” He spoke only for the man’s hearing, although he knew Legolas could hear him full well.
“No, Ada!” Eldarion raced after his father, grabbing onto Aragorn’s leg and refusing to let go. “No, I stay, please.”
“I swear he has his mother’s ears.” Aragorn muttered, throwing a glance at Legolas as he unlatched the small child and picked him up. Eldarion wrapped his arms around his father’s throat and held on tightly, still protesting.
“Don’ leave me again, Ada,” he whispered, whimpering.
“Shh, I won’t leave you Dari, I won’t,” Aragorn soothed. He didn’t know what he was going to do, but there was no way he could make the boy leave now, not when it so obviously distressed and pained him.
“Perhaps Arwen should be brought out here. I am sure she’d love to see how you live the other half of your life.” Legolas pointed the stick that Aragorn had been using to stir the fire at the king, noting with raised eyebrow the clothing that he wore, “Say for instance, your attire.” The elf teased laughingly, grateful for the change in conversation. Sometimes he would simply rather forget the ache, sometimes it just felt good to laugh and pretend it didn’t exist because for those few moments, it did not.
“There is nothing wrong with my clothes!” Aragorn shot back at the elf, making a belated attempt to straighten his rumpled leather jerkin. The effort was useless. He was trying to quiet Eldarion and ignore Jonath’s muttered grumblings while carrying on a conversation and it was starting to wear on his nerves. “Besides, it’s not as if Arwen never saw me when I was a Ranger, you know. I put up with the frills when it matters, but those clothes I have to wear constantly when I am at Minas Tirith are no elf-make I’ll have you know. Most of them are tight and uncomfortable. Restricting that’s what they are!” He patted Eldarion’s back comfortingly and glared at Jonath who stalked away griping about not knowing where his own second in command had been sent off to and how a kingdom should and should not be run.
Shaking his head in frustration, Aragorn circled back around the fire and set Eldarion down before seeking out the old worn pack that he still took with him. “In fact,” he continued as he dragged the pack back with him and untied it, “Arwen thinks she threw away my overcoat!” He pulled the rumpled leather jacket from the sack and triumphantly held it up. “She couldn’t be more wrong. I had an attendant dig it back out.” He smiled playfully as he shrugged into the familiar garment with a contented sigh.
Legolas had to laugh at the sudden eruption of happy humorous chaos that had claimed the camp. It was a welcome respite from their serious conversation and the elf half suspected that Aragorn was doing it intentionally.
“My lord!” Jonath had heard the entire conversation and knew that the queen desperately wanted to be rid of that coat. “You cannot wear that, you are the king!”
“Which is exactly why I *can* and *will* wear it, my dear Jonath.” Aragorn laughed along with the elf that reclined next to him. “It’s mine!”
“Well you can wear it until Arwen finds out at least.” Legolas teased.
With a shrug Aragorn rolled his eyes, “It will take us days to get home, or her days to get here. I’m safe for now. Aren’t I Jonath?” He taunted the warrior.
His second in command threw his hands in the air, turned and walked away. They could hear him call back as he stalked towards his own tent, “Why would I tell her? I don’t even know where my second in command is, how could I possibly know what my lord is wearing, let alone thinking?”
“You know I love you, Jonath! What would I do without you?” Aragorn called after his personal guard. The teasing and totally irreverent statement elicited a snort of derision before Jonath entered his tent. He was devoted to his King, but the man *would* refuse to be a proper sort of dignitary every occasion possible.
“You are going to drive him to an early grave, you know that don’t you?” Legolas chuckled. “And if the clothes really bother you for goodness sake have some elven ones made, you know you have only to ask anyone...”
Aragorn shook his head with a small smile. Legolas was laughing, that was what he wanted. “I know, it really isn’t that much of a problem. I suppose I just miss the way Nathroniel always made my ceremonial clothes in Rivendell. Middle Earth lost its best seamstress when she went over the sea. You remember when Ada had her and her husband make clothes for you in the fashion of the wood-elves when we returned from Mordor?” Aragorn’s eyes were distant, bittersweet emotion playing across their silver depths. The world was changing, so much that had once been had now ceased to be.
Legolas did not miss the look in his friend’s eyes. The longing. In a way it was very familiar and he found himself wondering if maybe Aragorn could understand him better than he thought. Outwardly, the elf just smiled and nodded. Yes, he did remember the time of which Estel spoke. It had meant a great deal to him at that time to be able to be clean, healed and dressed like himself again, not in borrowed clothes after everything they had gone through in Mordor, although he had never admitted as much to Aragorn. Truly, Nathroniel and her husband had had a magic touch with fabric and the clothes they made him had remained some of his favorites to this day.
“Ada, don’t make me go home.” Eldarion had not given up his quiet pleading and took the moment of silence to return to the subject that was foremost in his heart. He had nestled back in his father’s lap as soon as the king sat back down near the fire ring, his tiny hands playing with the frayed edges of his Ada’s worn overcoat.
“No, we’ll all go back together I suppose.” Aragorn turned to Legolas. “If you do not mind, I think it would be best. I will be able to treat your wounds better there as well. I will have a larger supply of medicines on hand... if you feel it will be all right for you to travel so soon.”
Aragorn more than expected the elf to agree immediately, since Legolas always thought himself capable of anything. When the elf hesitated, the King became worried.
“I... suppose so, Estel,” Legolas smiled bravely, trying to push down the swell of depression that the thought of going back to a stone city brought to him. He liked Minas Tirith, it was beautiful and his people had helped it blossom again even as Gimli’s had restored the stone work to its former glory... but it was still a human city enclosed in wall upon wall of stone and right now it was not what his heart desired. Of course he could never say such a thing however; he would not be that selfish. Aragorn needed to be home with his wife and his son. Legolas tried to use that to push away the ache, but it did not leave.
Aragorn froze. Legolas was obviously saying yes just for him, and that both surprised and concerned the former ranger immensely. “Legolas, if you do not feel well we will wait, I did not mean to push you, I just thought...”
“No, I am healing well, you are right” Legolas interrupted quickly, feeling guilty for his reticence. Of course Aragorn wanted to go home, didn’t they always want to go home after something like this? Only... Minas Tirith was not home for Legolas. He didn’t know if anywhere on Middle Earth was anymore. “I’m sorry Estel, I’m just tired. Of course, we can leave tomorrow.”
Aragorn did not believe a word of it, he knew Legolas far too well. “No, Legolas, you are *not* healing well and that has me worried. If you do not wish to go to Gondor I will understand. Would you rather return to Ithilien? We can remain here a little longer and then *if* I think you are well enough in a few days, I could send for Raniean and Trelan, or send some of the men to take you back...”
“No,” Legolas shook his head quickly, decidedly. “I will stay with you.”
Aragorn frowned. Something seemed very wrong. “What is it mellon-nín, where do *you* wish to go?”
“The sea,” Legolas blurted out entirely without meaning to, his voice hoarse with emotion. He flushed a moment later, horrified at having let out what he never intended to say in such an abrupt manner. The shocked look that crossed his friend’s face made Legolas drop his gaze and look quickly away. Valar, why had he said that? He had promised himself not to burden Aragorn with this struggle!
“The sea...” Aragorn was obviously trying not to let his voice crack. He cleared his throat. “You mean Pelagir... or the Havens?” he asked quietly, his eyes compassionate but aching as he knelt down to level himself with his friend’s gaze. Valar knew he would never hold his friend back, but...
“Neither!” Legolas shook his head in anguish. The elf would not meet Aragorn’s intense gaze. He buried his face in his hands. “I didn’t mean to say that. I don’t want to go there, I *cannot* go there. Please, forget my foolish words... just... let’s just go to Minas Tirith and forget...” the elf’s shoulders betrayed him with a shuddering shake.
Dari had fallen silent, watching the two adults he loved in quiet somberness, as if he could tell something was wrong.
Aragorn did not understand the sea longing, and realized that perhaps he never could, but he had seen how it effected Legolas, although never more so than now. And the pain he saw at this moment in the elf’s eyes... that he did understand, it mirrored the growing pain in his own heart as he considered having to say goodbye to Legolas as he had already done with so many other dear ones.
“Legolas,” he said very seriously, his voice gentle as he reached out and touched his old friend’s shoulder gently. “You know I love you. You also know that I want you to be happy, whatever that means. I will take you anywhere you ask me to, my friend, and I promise I will be happy for you, and with you.”
Legolas’ eyes filled with tears at the kind words. He had underestimated his friend’s ability to understand him and the ache in his heart now was both happy and bittersweet. “You would come with me?” he rasped slightly. Aragorn had not gone all the way to the havens even with Elrond, but had stopped short at Rivendell; beyond that would have been too hard for the human, too painful a goodbye. Yet he was willing to do whatever Legolas needed of him without question. It meant more to the prince than he could express.
Aragorn blinked back tears of his own as he squeezed Legolas’ hand, entwining their fingers tightly together. “Yes, mellon-nín, I would take you to the ends of the earth if you asked me to,” he promised, his voice thick. The suddenness with which this had come up was breathtaking. When Thranduil left almost unexpectedly along with half of Mirkwood a few years ago, he had expected Legolas’ quandary then, but now... it was hard. Some part of his mind had always known that he would have to say goodbye to Elrond someday, but Legolas... Legolas he had always seen as part of his life, forever. Yet he would never ask the elf to stay at the cost of his own health and happiness.
“Then...” Legolas swallowed hard and tried to smile. “I would like to go home, to the only place that still feels like it might be home.”
Aragorn’s brows knit and for a moment he did not understand. Legolas had confided that Mirkwood no longer felt like home with his father and so many of his people gone, and somehow he did not think the elf was speaking of Ithilien...
“I want to visit my room Estel, and see if it’s still there waiting for me,” Legolas’ voice was wistful.
The meaning behind the words continued to escape the man but he could tell it was very important to Legolas, so he just stared quietly at the elf for a few moments.
Seeing his friends confusion Legolas tried to explain himself, slightly embarrassed by his request but needing his friend to grant it, if only one last time. It was the last place on Middle Earth that he could think of that might hope to draw his aching heart back from the lure of the sea. Or at least, so he hoped.
“You were right, your father is still with us. He left us a legacy of love and memories we will never forget.” Legolas smiled at the young boy cradled in Aragorn’s lap, “You will be that kind of father for Dari too, I know it. He needs you to stay with him now, and Arwen will need you too and I know it is not my place to take you from them...but...” Legolas glanced down his gaze drifting to the fire, his voice slipping slightly lower. He hated to be so selfish as to desire any corner of Aragorn’s time like this, but he felt like he was going crazy inside and if he could not turn to Aragorn for help, then there was no one he could turn to. “But... mellon-nín, I need you as well. I need to be near you for a time, but not here, and not in Minas Tirith. Let us go home Estel, once more, please. We always went home, didn’t we? I think we could both walk this time, even if I am hurt...” his voice trailed off. It was a childish request. It wasn’t really even his home as it had been Aragorn’s. What was he thinking? And yet... yet he dared ask anyway, trusting that his friend would not think ill of him for doing so.
Blue eyes locked onto the silver ones that watched the elf intently. Aragorn shushed his son’s soft questions as the child tried to keep up with the conversation. Slowly, realization dawned in the man’s mind and he stared open-mouthed at the elf. He might have expected to make such a suggestion, but he hadn’t expected Legolas too. He didn’t realize how deep the elf truly meant it when he used to call Rivendell his second home.
“Yes.” Legolas answered the unspoken question, “Home. I want to sleep in my room and be at peace again. Ithilien is healing but it is still disturbed by the evil that lived near it for so long and the White City never fully sleeps. I shall always love Mirkwood, but since my father left...” he swallowed. “It holds only the empty call for me to follow him over the sea. Too many places do. Mayhap Rivendell will be the same, but I have to know if even with Lord Elrond gone it is as I remember it. I know the fires have gone out in the Last Homely House, but I long to sit in those halls again. The peace still lingers there from your father’s reign. The valley simply sleeps. Let us return once again, send word to your wife and your brothers. Ask Raniean and Trelan to meet us there. I am sure it is they who await word in Minas Tirith, they could escort Arwen. Mayhap Gimli will come as well, if he is able. You, Arwen and Dari need to be together to heal your hearts as well, I know this... could it not be just as good for you there? I... I need it Estel. It’s where we always went to heal. Maybe I could find that peace again there. If I cannot...” he swallowed hard. “If I cannot, then there truly is no peace for me left here, and I will simply have to live without.” The admission was quiet, and free of self-pity, but very sincere. Legolas would fight his way through this inner turmoil somehow. He would not abandon his friends here on Middle Earth, Aragorn, Gimli, Arwen, now Dari... but his heart ached and he was weary. He wanted to heal, but his own heart was not allowing it as the terrible sea longing sought to split him in two.
The quiet pleading in the elf’s request nearly broke the human’s heart. It had been years since he had visited Rivendell. Decades since he had set foot in those halls. There were nights he missed it so much it felt like a weight on his heart; but his life had changed. He had duties, responsibilities, a kingdom to run – and so he had silenced those inner longings, pushing them away, aside. Until now. For half a moment, Aragorn thought maybe he did understand the sea longing after all. If it was anything like the strong, bone-aching tug of longing that wound around his heart at the thought of seeing Rivendell again, then it was no wonder Legolas felt torn.
Slowly Aragorn nodded, his eyes fixed on Legolas’ unwavering gaze, “As you wish gwador-nín, we will go home.”
“Home?” Eldarion echoed sleepily.
“You,” Aragorn turned his attention back to the child momentarily, “will go back to bed. And tomorrow we set out for Imaldris. You have never been there ion-nín, but I daresay you will find it quite an adventure. *But* only if you go to sleep now!” He tickled the child, eliciting squeals of delight from the little boy. “Now off with you, Uncle Legolas and I will be in shortly. You can leave the flap open so you can see us. Go!” He set the child down and gave him a push towards the tent he was sharing with Legolas. For nights after they had found the elf, Aragorn had feared he was going to lose the prince and had kept Legolas in his own tent. The elf had remained with them even after Legolas had improved, just so Aragorn could keep a close eye on him... and because Dari could not yet quite stand to be parted from the elf through the night. The child slept best with Aragorn on one side, and Legolas on the other, and so they had humored him since Legolas also drew comfort from the proximity.
When Eldarion had returned to the tent and finally bedded down again, Aragorn turned his attention back to Legolas. The elf was watching him with a haunted, open gaze and the man was able to see into the prince’s bared soul. Legolas was afraid.
Softly the prince spoke, “I’m sorry. I fear I am terribly selfish to make you do this. But I feel I need time away from prying eyes, from mothering kinsmen and even from most humans for awhile; somewhere where I will be safe until the nightmares are gone, Estel.” He swallowed hard as he admitted more of the truth to his friend.
Scooting closer, Aragorn gently leaned over Legolas and kissed the elf’s forehead. “You’re not selfish Legolas, I think it will be the perfect place for Arwen, Dari and I to rest after all this as well. Dari seems well, but he cannot stand being alone. There are fears there that must be healed. So that is where we will go...until the nightmares are gone, for everyone.” He grasped Legolas’ hand in his own and squeezed it carefully. “I knew Dari was not the only ones having them, you should have told me sooner.”
“I could not.” Legolas sighed deeply trying to even out the emotions that chased through him. “But are you sure you can leave for an extended period of time such as this? The kingdom...”
Aragorn laughed softly, brushing Legolas’ hair away from his face as he sat back up. “Can take care of itself for a few months. I certainly have more than enough council members and advisors to keep things going, and Faramir is always a more than capable Steward in my absences. The kingdom could practically run itself honestly. I have been in Minas Tirith for a long time now, and things are going smoothly. Besides,” He smiled down at the elf, “I need a vacation, and I think Arwen will enjoy returning there since she cannot bear entering an empty Lorién anymore.”
“Then I suggest you get on Jonath’s good side, we will need his help.” Legolas laughed quietly, a blessed, if brief relief finally replacing the tense anxiety that had gripped him the past few days while he tried to keep the longings of his heart bottled up.
“Jonath, is already making preparations.” A deep voice called softly across the camp.
Aragorn started and turned, surprised that the man had heard their conversation. Glancing back at the elf he smiled conspiratorially, “I think he inherited Arwen’s hearing as well, if it’s possible!”
“I heard that!” Jonath countered.
“I am sure you did!” Aragorn turned towards his guard with a smile. “Can you send word back to the Queen that we will meet her in Rivendell? Ask her to come with a limited contingent, please. She will understand.” Aragorn did not like leaving without her, as he knew she would be desperately eager to see Eldarion again, but the plea he had seen in Legolas’ eyes was of the most desperate kind. The elf was obviously losing his own inner battles, battles that Aragorn barely understood, and that frightened him. They needed to start moving now, and he could only hope and pray that his wife would understand and forgive him the apparent oddness of his actions when he could explain it all to her. He ached to see her again, for them to all to be together, but he would just have to have a little patience.
“As you wish my lord.” Jonath bowed slightly, “My king?”
When Aragorn nodded the soldier continued, “Shall I send the main companies home as well?”
“Yes.” Aragorn’s smile widened, “We’ll take no more soldiers with us than we need, you and your contingent should be plenty. The road to Rivendell is a safe one. My brothers still see to that.”
With a nod, Jonath left the light of the fire and moved off into the darkness to rouse a party of soldiers to convey the king’s wishes.
“He is good for you.” Legolas commented softly.
Nodding slightly Aragorn knelt next to the prince and eased his hands under the elf’s arms. “He is that,” He answered, “Someday he may actually make a proper King out of me. He is a good friend, but I already have a gwador.” He whispered as he helped Legolas into a sitting position and then slowly shifted the elf up to stand next to him. “And this gwador needs sleep.” When Legolas started to protest, Aragorn warded off the argument, “And if he does not sleep on his own then I will drug him.” He smiled wickedly as the elf glared at the man.
Wrapping his arm around Legolas’ waist, he slowly walked the elf back to their tent.
“You wouldn’t.” It was more a jest than a real statement. Legolas knew very well that his friend would, he had often enough. Yet he knew it was the expected response and there was some real tinge of remembered joy in his voice when he said the familiar words. He had had a good life, such a good life...
“Oh yes, I would. I still have father’s special brew.” Aragorn laughed. “He passed all his secrets on to me before he left you know.”
“I do believe that it is *my* turn to drug you, not the other way around.” Legolas protested.
“Oh no, I haven’t lost count. It’s my turn...” Aragorn bent down, supporting the elf’s weight as they entered the tent.
“I am positive you are wrong.” Legolas countered with a smile, enjoying the opportunity to shrug off his cares, at least for the moment, and laugh with the friend he had been laughing with for what now felt like so many years.
“Well, after I drug you tonight, *then* it will definitely be your turn.” Settling Legolas down on his mat, Aragorn pulled the tent flap down. “And if you fight me on it, I *will* make a scene and force you to drink it!”
The age-old argument with its well-worn threat set the elf to laughing, a musical sound that carried through the camp, infecting the King of Gondor who began to laugh as well.
Jonath quietly took up his position outside his liege’s tent, a smile breaking across his face. Long had it been since he had heard his king laugh, and the sound of it warmed his heart. He thanked Ilúvatar again for giving him the position he had as the king’s personal guard... even if he did occasionally want to throttle the man.
Things were returning to normal, the royal family was safe as was the King’s best friend. With a sigh of contentment Jonath glanced towards the night darkened sky and sought out Eärendil as he had unconsciously learned to do from spending so much time with his King. The quiet conversations and laughter coming from the tent behind him brought a smile to his face.
Inside the tent, Legolas lay down next to Dari who was tossing somewhat restlessly. Although he was still asleep, the child immediately scooted over as soon as the prince laid down so that his back was pressed against the elf’s chest as he had done so many times over the past months. Legolas’ arm instinctually curved around the small body, hugging him close.
Aragorn covered both with a blanket and lay down beside them. Dari’s still restlessly groping right hand found purchase in the loose folds of his father’s sleep shirt and fell still at last. The small body finally seemed to truly relax, his other fist pressed up to his face, his thumb in his mouth in a way that made him look even younger than he was.
Aragorn laid his arm over his son’s sleeping form, just above Legolas’, marveling softly at the beautiful, babyish curves of his son’s face. How had something so perfect, so painfully innocent survived such an inhuman hell as he had been through with so little damage? He was grateful for it, but still very amazed. Oh how he loved this dear little boy. He looked up, and his eyes met Legolas’ over Eldarion’s sleeping form.
“I am glad we’re taking Eldarion to see Rivendell. It is a good place for children... something I want to be part of his early memories,” the ranger whispered quietly.
Legolas nodded in the moonlight. “Do you know what I am glad for mellon-nín?” The elf smiled faintly as sleep began to pull at his consciousness. “I am glad to have a friend like you,” he answered his own question softly before sleep took him.
Aragorn smiled tenderly at the visage of the elf prince, cuddling his little son, surrounding them both with a golden halo of tresses that glowed dimly in the darkness. Dari’s moon-stone glowed faintly around Legolas’ neck, pulsing slightly with his heart-beat. There was a protective aura around them, like a blanket of safety that Aragorn was also included inside now.
That was how Dari had made it through, Aragorn knew. Even spent and emotionally torn as he was, Legolas always gave and gave freely. He had kept Dari’s little heart and mind safe enough to survive the horror and be able to find peace again on the other side. Quietly, Aragorn promised that he would do as well by Legolas. Somehow, he *would* help his friend find the peace and inner healing that he needed to weather the mental and emotional storms that had him floundering.
“I promise mellon-nín,” he whispered quietly, his hand sliding up to rest atop Legolas’ on Dari’s gently rising and falling side. “I promise I will bring the smile back to your face and the joy back to your heart, just give me time.”
In his slumber, Legolas stirred and smiled slightly, as if moved by a pleasant dream.
Aragorn returned the smile unconsciously before closing his eyes and surrendering his own battle with sleep. Outside the stars rose high in the firmament and the twin orbs that would lead them to Rivendell winked down protectively over the little camp as the watch fires slowly burned down and peace settled like a blanket over the darkened earth.