Twenty-three

Legolas surged into the clearing, a whirlwind of vehement fierceness.

Sirk never knew what had hit him. He lay unconscious in a matter of seconds.

Attacking without hesitation or restraint, Legolas moved from Sirk, to Nirk. But that man had enough warning to prepare for the attack and Brigus had surged to his feet with a roar of rage and joined the fight.

The two men met him head on, knives flashing, fists flying, anger and hate flaring high in their eyes like a stoked flame. On the other side of the glade, Legolas caught a glimpse of Prem jumping Jasper from behind and knocking him to the ground. Grateful that in his wounded state, he would not need to fight three at once, Legolas hoped the younger man could hold his own. There was nothing he could do to help Prem at the moment.

Ducking and twisting, Legolas avoided Nirk's knife, but he felt the move rip open the wound that had just begun to close on his shoulder. He sank deep within himself to that place he delved as a warrior, the place that blocked out pain and let him fight despite it.

A blow to the shoulder from Brigus intensified the agony, and he felt blood begin to flow from the injury again. He gritted his teeth, letting the pain fuel his anger and purpose.

Even as Legolas raised his knife to block a blow from Brigus, he landed a well-placed elbow into Nirk's ribs that sent the man tumbling to the ground. He gave Brigus a shove, and the man tripped over a stone and sprawled onto his back.

But Nirk had scrambled to his feet and launched another attack. Legolas caught arm wielding the knife and twisted without mercy until the bone snapped.

Nirk screamed and retreated, holding the arm to himself. He glared at Legolas, but showed no sign of continuing the fight.

Brigus regained his feet and lunged in again, bringing his blade around and down. Legolas twisted to avoid the blow, but winced as the wound in his shoulder pulled, making him unable to complete the move. The blade bit into the flesh across Legolas's thigh, his warm blood welling up from the cut and spreading in a dark stain over the green material covering his thigh.

The man pulled back, sneering in satisfaction, "That's just the beginning, murderer!"

Legolas inhaled sharply at the new pain. With Nirk having pulled back and refusing to rejoin the fight with his broken arm, and Brigus gloating over the wound, Legolas retreated, taking respite where he could. The new wound would not help him defeat these men and he still had to deal with Jasper and possibly Sirk, if that man regained consciousness.

He fixated on the bragging Brigus, and the man's words.

"That's just the beginning, murderer!"

So Brigus thought he had killed Torel. No wonder the man was in a frenzy. Despite Brigus's foolishness and selfishness, Legolas had seen that Brigus did care about his brother. He had strange ways of showing it, but the connection was there, vague but real, in his twisted, selfish way.

Then Brigus was moving back in, and Legolas stepped back. His leg nearly collapsed beneath him. He stumbled, and a powerful kick to his chest sent him tumbling to the ground in the dirt. He gasped, finding it difficult to breathe.

Get up!

His father's words echoed in his head, as they had when he had been a novice in training.

Get up or you are dead!

Legolas rolled to his feet, forcing his body to obey, forcing his leg to work, his shoulder to function. He fixed the dark man in his gaze and spoke, his tone that of disbelief.

"Murderer? I am no murderer! You are the one who held us captive and were in the process of disgracing a lady!"

"You murdered my little brother!" Brigus screamed, pausing in his advance, his rage and grief evident in both his eyes and voice, which came out almost in a sob. "He was a good kid! All he did was speak up for you! He was trying to help you!" The man's voice turned to ice. "And you slit his throat!"

Behind Brigus, Legolas saw Jasper was on his feet and moving towards Prem, who was holding his ribs and backing away. Blood seeped through his fingers.

But despite the boy's wound and Jasper's advance, Prem had heard what Brigus had said.

"I don't believe it," Prem shouted. "The elf didn't do it!"

Legolas saw Brigus glance at the boy, a flash of doubt in his eye. But then he shook it off, as Jasper raised his good arm to strike at Prem again.

"Leave him be, Jasper! He's not the one who needs a beating!"

Brigus turned his gaze back to Legolas, who was starting to piece together what had happened when he and Caeri had escaped last night. He watched the men with wary eyes, and when Brigus advanced, Legolas halted him in his tracks with his words.

"Never have I killed any innocent in cold blood! Nor did I kill your brother, Brigus!" he declared.

Brigus just stared at him, shaking his head.

"Your brother had honor!" Legolas continued. "Unlike you. Unlike these men!" He gestured at Jasper and Nirk. "Jasper slit Torel's throat even as he moved to free us. Your brother did nothing to deserve the death bestowed upon him by that monster. Would that I had killed that vile creature behind you then!"

Brigus froze, locking eyes with Legolas. There would be no mistaking the truth in his eyes.

Brigus made no move or sound for a long moment, then a new fury burned to life in his eyes. He whirled around, eyes landing on Jasper, but that man, seeing his story unravel, lunged at Prem with his knife.

Prem jumped back, avoiding a serious blow. The knife glanced off the arm cradling his chest, making a long, but shallow cut across his forearm. Prem continued to back away from Jasper, fear and pain evident in his hazel eyes.

But he was no longer the target, for Brigus had turned on Jasper.

"You? You killed Torel? You murderous orc!" He lunged with remarkable speed and began to engage Jasper in a deadly dance, leaving Legolas and Prem standing on opposite sides of the fight, transfixed as the two men dueled.

Then Prem shouted, his eyes focused behind Legolas.

"Lass!"

Legolas's head whirled around, and he found Nirk was no longer cowering near the tree line with his broken arm. Instead, the man had bound the arm with a length of cloth and was moving to attack while Legolas was distracted.

With Prem's warning, Legolas managed to dodge the advancing Nirk. His fist made contact with the man's jaw, snapping his head back.

Nirk gasped, raised a hand to rub his chin, then he lunged back in, landing a kick to Legolas's wounded thigh.

The searing pain almost doubled Legolas over, but he had lived too long, fought too many battles to curl up in defeat here.

Instead, the pain lit a fury within him, focused his mind. Everything other than his enemy faded from his sight. Skill from centuries of fighting the dark creatures of Dol Guldur took over.

His pain blocked by his determination to live, Legolas attacked on pure instinct, blocking a blow with his left arm, using the impact to spin himself around, and with satisfaction, his knife sank into flesh, plunging deep into Nirk's chest, piercing the man's heart.

Even as the man fell, Legolas's vision widened back to the clearing, taking in the scene of Brigus and Jasper raging against one another. His gaze fell to the dead man at his feet, and he lamented that it had come to this.

So pointless, the death being handed out here in the cleansed wood. And all for what? Some trinkets the elves might have left behind?

Legolas stood, his chest heaving from his exertions and loss of blood. He could feel the drip from the bandage Caeri had tied around him as well as from his leg.

Caeri!

In the heat of battle, he had forgotten her. His eyes searched the clearing, finding she had managed to pull herself to the fallen tree and was huddled behind it. She was safe for the moment.

He looked for Sirk, finding that man still down, showing no signs of regaining consciousness. And Prem still stood transfixed at the life and death struggle in the clearing.

Brigus and Jasper landed heavy blows upon each other. They clashed, grunted, the ring of steel as knives contacted. Brigus shirt was drenched in blood from a wound Jasper had landed. Jasper had a new gash on his arm to add to the one Legolas had given him the first day.

The men fought on, oblivious to everything but each other.

Brigus was younger, in his prime, stronger of the two. But Jasper was lithe and lean and clearly far more experienced. The older man saw an opening and lunged in, knocking both of them to the ground.

They sprawled there for a moment, then Jasper pulled himself off, sneering down at the younger man.

Legolas just shook his head. Jasper's knife was buried to the hilt in Brigus's chest.

Jasper leaned forward, grinning in satisfaction. "You were gonna die before this was over anyway. Just too bad I had to kill both you and your brother before we ever found the treasure…or got to use the girl."

Prem cried out at the man's confession and lunged forward. He tackled Jasper to the ground next to Brigus, a fist landing solidly on the man's face.

Jasper screamed in rage, striking out madly and Prem went flying back, his head hitting against the rock he had sat against earlier. Then he went still.

Jasper stood snarling at the young man, then turned towards Legolas. But to Legolas's surprise, Brigus was not done yet.

Somehow, the man had regained his feet behind Jasper and removed the knife from his chest. He reached out, and wrapped an arm around Jasper's chest, pulling the man back against his own. The knife came around and up, deftly slicing the older man's throat.

Brigus released the man, who sank to the ground gurgling in the blood pouring from his throat.

Fitting, Legolas thought.

Their eyes met for a brief moment, and in Brigus's gaze, Legolas saw something he did not think to see: remorse.

A moment later, the tall man sank to his knees. His head tilted towards Torel's grave. He reached a hand out towards it. "Forgive me, little brother," he managed to rasp softly as he sank to the ground and breathed his last.

Legolas moved to the dark haired man, kneeling down and closing the eyes with a long fingered hand. Sorrow filled the elf's heart at such unnecessary death.

Why did such evil abide in the hearts of men? Why did they give in to such hatred and anger? What loss or hurt turned boys into men such as these?

But deep down, Legolas knew it was not just the race of Men who were capable of such violent and greedy acts. The elves also had a history that included such deeds. Had not his own grandfather fled Doriath from the sons of Fëanor?

All races were capable of such evil if they chose to walk a dark path. Each person has a choice in what they become, their actions define who they are, and each one must live with the consequences.

A sudden warning flared in his mind. Legolas spun painfully on his knees into a crouched position. Above him stood Sirk, the man he had knocked unconscious first. The man's hand was descending, a dagger aimed for Legolas's chest.

But the blow never landed.

The knife fell from loose fingers, and the man collapsed facedown on the ground, a dagger imbedded in the back of his neck, severing his spine.

Legolas lifted his eyes to see who had thrown the knife, and found Caeri standing behind the log, her eyes locked on the form of the fallen man.

Then she collapsed in a heap.

Legolas could not fathom how she had made that throw, until he remembered she had told him her brother had taught her to defend herself and to throw a dagger. She could even hunt with a bow.

He limped to her, his heart clenched in his chest as her sobs filled the clearing. He hoped the entire ordeal had not injured her soul beyond healing.

Stiffly, he knelt by her side and placed an arm around her. He drew her to his chest and let her weep.

Finally, it was over.

o —

The morning sun shone brightly down on the forest of Eryn Lasgalen, warming the air from the coolness of the late spring night. The light filtered down through the trees, glinting off of deep brown, red and silver coats.

Gimli stared ahead, trying to see what Aragorn swore was there. The girl had returned at some point after dawn, urging Aragorn that they needed to hasten. Or so the man said.

Gimli walked along as fast as his legs would take him after weeks of riding.

In their renewed haste, Móroch had stumbled and fell, banging his right knee on a log. In minutes, the brown horse had begun to favor the foreleg, and Gimli, having spent enough time with the elf and his ways with horses, had dismounted and continued on foot, worried that even without his weight, continuing might injure his horse more.

Aragorn had assured him the injury was minor. Gimli chose to walk anyway, taking no chances with his four-legged companion.

So, now he walked, following Aragorn on Halruin. Daehul and Móroch followed him obediently, yet snatching as many mouthfuls of grass as they could along the way.

The urgency of their errand was felt by all.

Daehul eyed Gimli from where he walked alongside Móroch. Gimli gave the horse a pat, and continued placing one foot in front of the other.

Gimli was tired. He walked on determinedly, but his eyes kept drifting closed against his will. He shook his head, trying to drive away the weariness.

Ahead of him, Aragorn looked more alert, yet he must be just as tired as Gimli as he chose their path through the trees.

Gimli sighed. While he trusted the man with his life, he could not help but feel skeptical about what his friend had seen.

Aragorn led them onward in the same direction they had traveled since leaving the Halls. The man's description of the child vanishing the night before disturbed Gimli greatly, as did the explanation as to just who that 'child' was.

Gimli's eyes began to drift shut again as the thoughts plagued him, bringing him to no conclusion, but lulling him closer to falling asleep on his feet.

Something nudged his arm, and Gimli snapped his eyes open, finding large, dark eyes, full of concern, upon him. Daehul stepped in front of him and stopped, lowering his head and nickering softly.

Gimli smiled and reached up to scratch the grey head. "You miss the elf, do you? Or are you just making sure I do not fall asleep on my feet?"

In answer, the large grey horse knelt before him, turning his head to look at his withers, then back at Gimli expectantly.

Gimli chuckled, "Thank you, my friend. I think I will take you up on the offer."

He crawled up on the horse's bare back, entwining his fingers in the long silver mane. Then he let his eyes close, relieved at the opportunity to rest.

From up ahead came a deep chuckle. Gimli chose to ignore it.

To Be Continued…

Author's Note: Thank you for reading! If you are enjoying the story so far, can you please review? Thanks!

Also I will not be able to update again until October! But I have NOT abandoned this story!