This is the third day and the following night. We are still following the timeline of the movie. Unknown to the company, this night the Uruk-hai camp by the Fangorn forest and meet the Rohirrim. Which means, Eomer is coming up in the next chapter. Actually did you ever check the map to see the distance between the Fall of Rauros and Isengard? It is a LONG way. I don't care if they run or DRIVE there - in my opinion it would take much longer than said. And I have no idea why the Uruk-hai are not running directly to Isengard, but following a rather needless path by running towards Fangorn Forest. But alas, we'll remain true to the movie.

On the third day, they were still running towards the borders of Rohan, home of the horselords. And yet the chase continued - although they were gaining on the Uruk-hai and that fact alone gave them speed.

"I have to grant Saruman credit for those beasts," hissed Irulan. "He did a fine job!"

"Something is at play here," was Aragorn's mumble of a reply. "Something gives these creatures speed."

"I sure hope so. Otherwise I will begin to doubt myself! We have been running and walking and yet running again for the most part of the past three days and yet the distance is astonishing!"

At that moment Legolas passed by her and after throwing a warm glance in her direction, jumped ahead on some larger boulders. Irulan felt herself blush again. That elf was really beginning to get on her nerves! Little did she know that Legolas had barely begun with the process! Even now, she was feeling quite uncomfortable of constantly meeting his gaze or finding him next to her. At least now she was not jumping at that as much as she used to - for she very much suspected that he would be near. His attitude had changed drastically since the night before, after... Irulan blushed again. 'I have to tell him not to EVER kiss me again! I don't care if he dies or not, that HAS to stop!' she thought bitterly. All this intimacy was really too much for her. And too fast. She had a mission to concentrate on, damn it all! She was here for a reason! Besides, no matter what Legolas believed, the risk of her death in the upcoming days was just too great and probable. And if that wasn't enough, Irulan was having the dark feeling that Aragorn and Gimli, too, were looking less and less like a threat to her life. They were the only ones whom she could trust to kill her now, and yet...why was she feeling like they had as much intention of doing that as Legolas did?

"Three day's and night's pursuit! No food! No rest! And no sign of our quarry but what bare rock can tell!" protested Gimli behind her. A smile crept up her lips - to tell the truth, the dwarf had turned out to have much more stamina than she thought he would.

She glanced back at Aragorn, who was leading the group. She had not gotten the chance to talk to the man again and his pain was gnawing at her own heart. Irulan knew how much Aragorn and Arwen loved each other. As a matter of fact, she had admired that love so much that she found it hard to believe that it had ended now. And most probably for some stupid reason too! That love was a sign that there were things in Middle Earth worth fighting for! That love existed in the first place! That the Darma Druid interpretation of the world was very likely to be wrong!

'Oh, so those are your REAL sentiments about the issue!' whispered an amused voice in her head. Irulan's heart sank. That voice, the dreams, Legolas and Sauron were just going TOO FAR! However, once again, she was brutally ignored. 'So you feel mad at Aragorn for doing that to Arwen, but you are perfectly comfortable with what you are putting another elf through? Is it me or are you just plain blind to the parallelism here?'

'That's different,' whispered Irulan back mentally.

'I don't see a difference.'

'Well...all right. First off, Aragorn and Arwen both love each other truly and deeply and madly. Legolas loves me...or so he says. I will take his word on this, although I still find it a little hard to understand how a creature like that could possibly love me. But you see...' she meant to go on, but suddenly did not know how to finish. A frown settled on her features.

The voice in her head chuckled. 'Let me guess...but you don't love him.' Irulan remained silent. The confusion in that area of her mind was just too overwhelming. It was like a jungle with strange beasts and foreign fauna. She dared not walk in there looking for answers. 'Then I assume that it's compassion that makes your heart explode when he kisses you? It's probably friendship that burns your skin when he touches you? And most certainly you only feel like fainting under his gaze because you are so concerned for him!'

Irulan gritted her teeth and ran faster, unconsciously wishing to outrun the voice. She had no answer and she did not want one. She was running so fast, she almost ran into Aragorn. Seeing him at the last moment, she quickly stepped aside and prevented them both from falling on their faces. Aragorn gave her a very surprised look. Irulan deftly smiled back. "How are you feeling?" she managed to say a moment or two later.

He did not answer for a while. Aragorn had always been reserved. But in time he had relented to the warm atmosphere of the Fellowship, and ever since the breaking she had sensed that he had truly tried to pry open his shell to revive the dark atmosphere that had settled on the four of them. Their past was painful, their future clouded. It was obvious that nobody needed dark thoughts concerning the present. But since their embarrassing realization concerning Arwen and Legolas yesterday, Aragorn had once again shrunken back into his shell. Although she could see no reason as to why, Irulan felt oddly guilty and ashamed about that. She was so caught up in her own thoughts, she almost did not hear his reply: "I don't want to lie to you, Irulan. So don't ask."

Irulan cast him a sidelong glance and swallowed softly. He was pushing her away! He had never pushed her away before. "Aragorn, we can still prevent it. You can not give up now!"

Once again, his answer was reluctant. "We have other things to think about at the moment."

True as it was, she knew that he was lying and pulling a distance between them. She glanced at Legolas who once again was sprinting ahead. All right, maybe the tactics of the elf that involved never quitting and never stepping back, were worth a try. "Don't tell me that!" she snapped, and the man gave her an astounded look. "I know it as well as you do! And I have even a few extra things to think about on top of that!" She felt a satisfaction at his confused expression. Aragorn looked taken aback by that. He frowned and tore his gaze from hers. "But," she continued in an urgent, yet softer tone, "this is a part of you, Aragorn! If you make this mistake, you will have it on your conscience forever and you will be unhappy till the ends of your miserable life. And being unhappy like that, you can never be the person you will have to become for the good of all. So...if you won't do it for yourself, do it for the future of Middle Earth, king of kings!"

Irulan exhaled in relief. She had no idea where all that had come from. And her habit of calling him 'king of kings' was probably not a good move at a time when it would only remind him of his future responsibilities. But things just seemed to be slipping out of her mouth uncontrollably more often with each passing day.

Aragorn actually slowed down and so did she. They once again resumed a walking pace. After all, they were only human and how long can anybody in this state run with the same pace? They had been tracking Merry and Pippin for three days now, without decent rest or food and it was obvious that -even though they were gaining on those creatures- the exhaustion was catching up with them. Silence hung between them. Legolas was a long way ahead, Gimli was still trying to catch up.

" still have a chance," was his sudden statement. A very grave expression was on his face, as if he was not talking about a trivial matter that concerned Irulan's private life, but a critical battle. "Use it. Use it wisely."

Discomfort washed over her and Irulan hastily looked away, not wishing to meet his piercing gaze. "So have you," she said finally, trying to divert the issue back to him.

Aragorn shook his head in reply. "Arwen is probably on her way to take the ship," was his late comment. "She is beyond my reach now." A long silence prevailed. Then he suddenly added "I only wanted to spare her the suffering! I was stupid to think I could do so by ending it at this point. I was stupid no to see that it was too late to turn back."

Irulan pursed her lips for a moment, giving his tired profile a good look. His sadness and regret spoke books to her. "Arwen won't go," was her soft reply. "I know her. She is not like that!"

Aragorn only looked back with a very sad smile. "Then you do not know Elrond," he said with a low voice that spoke of loss of hope.

Unconsciously her eyes tore away from his. Elrond! He would most probably do anything in his power to send Arwen away! He loved his daughter dearly - his concern for Arwen was so great that even Irulan -who was not really an expert in reading elven expressions or sentiments- had observed it. And such an open display of emotions was not a common thing amongst the Firstborn. But Elrond was half human. Although he had chosen to remain an elf, his human side could not be completely erased. Many said it was his human side that made him weak. To Irulan there was no weakness in his actions.

"Aragorn, you truly are stupid!" was her final burst of anger. The rangers's head snapped around at that and Irulan almost winced. 'Call him king of kings and then call him stupid! Very good move, Irulan!' But the man needed to wake up, for Heaven's sake! Aragorn slowed even further, his eyes never leaving hers. "Did Elrond approve of your relationship with Arwen?" She did not wait for an answer (not that he looked very conversational at the moment anyway). "No! Did anybody else approve? No! And did Arwen give up because of that? No!" He frowned for a moment and it was this sort of confusion she had been waiting for. Irulan decided not to give him the chance to cloud his mind again: "In all your time with Arwen, what exactly makes you think that she will give in now?"

The silence that followed held hope for her. But his reply was not what she had been expecting. "Because this time I, too, have rejected her!" The tinge of anger in his tone made her swallow softly. Not to mention that his reply was rather...plausible. 'Damn!' she thought, feeling her attack too easily blocked.

Not that she had any intentions of giving up at this point! If she did, Aragorn would think that it was truly hopeless and she would never give him that satisfaction. "Like she doesn't know what sort of a brainless man you are!" she snorted. A part of her wanted to fall to her knees and beg Aragorn for forgiveness. She admired him! She adored him! He should never think that she really meant to insult him! But another part of her, the woman part especially -which also happened to be Arwen's friend- was very fearless of the consequences at the moment. Besides, she only had to think about the revelation of Aragorn and Gimli yesterday to go on further with the harshness: "But are a man. You don't understand women." Making sure that she the last sentence sounded overly dismissive, Irulan finally looked away, pretending to have lost interest.

Aragorn was silent for moment again. Then spoke up and the tone of anger in his voice had disappeared. "What do you mean, 'we don't understand women'?"

Suppressing the grin of satisfaction that threatened to bloom on her face, Irulan kept her gaze on the horizon. "You know Arwen much better than I do," she said instead, with a shrug. "You know elves much better than I do. Yet, you obviously do not understand the most basic thing: Arwen is a woman. She will NEVER give up on you. She will NEVER give in to others. I don't care whether it's Elrond or Galadriel or the Dark Lord himself. I trust her judgment. She will do the right thing."

"And what might that right thing be?" was the slightly amused question.

"' be...with you, of course," she said, having an eerie feeling where this conversation was going to.

"Are you saying that to choose love above everything else, no matter what, is the right thing to do?" asked Aragorn, scratching his chin. That damnable twinkle was back in his eyes again!

Irulan almost groaned. To say "yes" would be her doom, for she was sure that Aragorn was planning to give her a long lecture concerning Legolas after that; but to say "no" would make her deny everything she had been saying about Arwen and Aragorn. "I have better things to do than strolling here, repeating myself to you," she groaned finally and began to run ahead.

"Like what?" he said from behind her, picking up the pace as well.

"Like saving Merry and Pippin," was the dry reply, spoken without looking back at him, in fear that he might see her discomfort.

Suddenly Aragorn was not running by her side any longer. She turned around in time to see him kneeling and picking up something from the ground. It was an elven brooch like the one she had pinned on her cloak right now. Unconsciously her hand went up to touch it. 'It must belong to one of the hobbits!' she thought, her heart beating faster. They were obviously leaving a trail - although with such fabulous trackers such as Legolas and Aragorn in the company, the quartet had successfully tracked the Uruk-hai party for the last three days. "Not idly do the leaves of Lorien fall," he said softly, holding it up.

"They may yet be alive," Legolas suddenly said from behind her. She had no idea since when he was standing there. He was constantly running ahead and then falling back to them. His energy was tiring to watch alone.

"Less than a day ahead of us now," Aragorn groaned and without further conversation, resumed the chase.

"Come Gimli, we are gaining on them!" shouted Legolas to a Gimli who seemed to be falling behind further and further.

Irulan was really starting to feel bad for him. Running around with all that heavy armor and on such short legs must indeed be cumbersome to say the least! She sighed and turned around to join the ranger once more and halted right before she ran into Legolas. He was standing with a very amused look on his face, smiling down at her. Giving him an uneasy glare, Irulan tentatively walked around him and began to jog at an easy pace. It was not very surprising that the elf kept perfect pace with her, still not diverting his gaze. It went on for several moments before Irulan mumbled an annoyed "What?"

Legolas smiled back in reply. "Nothing. You look very beautiful today, Irulan."

Irulan rolled her eyes. This sort of thing was most irritating. Especially when it was not true - at this moment she she was sweating like crazy, tired and dirty. But she didn't dare to object, afraid that it would give him the perfect opportunity to go on with the complimenting. Besides, he was dying! As annoying as he was becoming, Irulan would not give in to the urge to yell back at him. At least for now.

"I can not decide whether your hair looks more beautiful under the light of the Moon or the Sun," he said, reaching out and parting a strand and gliding his fingers down it. Irulan quickly took two steps to the right to evade him, not slowing down her running pace. Legolas, though, only smiled and moved gracefully next to her again, keeping the pace. 'How come he doesn't even need to look where he is stepping?' she thought bitterly.

"The braid is coming apart," he continued, unaffected by her uncooperative state. "We will have to braid it again."

Irulan stiffened to that. "I think I will keep it unbraided for a while," she said.

"But it looks beautiful on you," was the soft reply.

Irulan rolled her eyes. "Yes, but I grew tired of it."

"You are right," said Legolas matter-of-factly and since that was the least expected response, Irulan's head snapped around to him. "I know exactly what to do. It is a little more intricate but it will look perfect on you. As would anything else, of course."

Irulan stubbornly resisted the urge to moan. "Legolas, I think..."

"We'll do it tonight when we camp," he cut her off and ran ahead. Her eyes shut with the need to keep the desperation as well as the string of curses inside and naturally Irulan stumbled on the terrain, almost falling on her face. She quickly resumed her balance and decided to slow down a little to fall back with Gimli. Not to mention, to put distance between herself and that accursed elf! 'Oh no! Not another braiding session!' was all the terrified thought she could muster at the moment. 'There is NO WAY I can endure that! Especially with this new Legolas!'


"What?!" boomed Gimli, looking up at her, "Are you serious?"

Irulan shook her head with irritation. "I'm not exactly in the mood of playing around here! Unlike SOME, I have better things to do in life!"

"Why, that cruel Aragorn has not spoken a single word about this to me!" he protested.

"Under normal circumstances, I should do the same thing. It is kind of...private after all. But...I don't know what to do!!" she almost yelped.

Gimli slowed down and so did she. "Don't know what to do!" he scoffed. "I know what you can NOT do - you can't let him die!"

"Well thank you very much for the help. I KNOW that already you dwarf!"

"I am not finished! Which have to do what he wants you to!"

"What?! Are you insane?"

Gimli looked up with impatience. "I am on this quest with the lot of you, am I not? Yes, I am insane. Grow up already, woman! This is getting tiresome by the day!"

"Gimli, you have to help me!" she whimpered, not caring how desperate that sounded right now. "He is always around, always looking at me in that frustrating way, like looking into my soul!" she whispered with urgency and hastily looked around, lest Legolas might be close nearby. "He is touching me for the most stupid reasons! He is always making up some excuse to be with me!" She threw up her hands. "I have had some very persistent admirers, but this is beyond me! I understand that he means to help...but I did not ask for this kind of help!"

The dwarf was looking up at her with a blank expression. "What's the matter with you woman?" he said finally, and it sounded much softer than his usual tone. "Why, although he is an elf, the lad is a dashing sight. He is a good man, too." There was an annoyance in his tone for saying such things about an elf, but it was easily dampened. "What is the matter?"

"I DON'T KNOW!" she yelled, then hastily lowered her voice. "I don't know! I wish Chemarit was here. I have no idea what is going on! I am a complete stranger to myself! And I can't talk to Aragorn cause...well...he has some of his own problems in that area. I'm so lost!" She covered her face with her hands, letting out a frustrated exhale.

Gimli sighed. Irulan was so young! She was going through this for the first time, obviously, and being surrounded by a handful of warrior men was not helping much. "Irulan, why won't you let him help you? Is that such a bad thing?"

"No..." she whined. "And yet...yes. Everybody seems to keep forgetting that I am doing my very best to focus on the mission at hand. And that I...that I will most probably...die soon enough."

"All the more reason to loosen up, if you ask me!"

Irulan sighed with desperation. She felt so torn! Everybody seemed to make so much sense, yes, and yet...she felt this resistance in her, and she did not know why that was. In fact, it was the frantic survival instinct of her shell. But unfortunately Irulan had no knowledge of that.

"Don't you trust him?" said Gimli suddenly.

"Of course I trust him," she replied with a tinge of impatience.

"Then you must trust him to do the right thing for you."

"But what if he..."

"Irulan, listen to me," grunted the dwarf, his voice betraying a sudden insight. "We dwarves have a very, very old custom. It used to be a test of some sort."

"A test?" Irulan had always been a childishly curious person. Always. It had been this curiosity that had made her an annoying little girl and a child that had known no fear. The same curiosity had planted the seed of longing inside her when she was merely a young woman and had made her desire things that were denied someone of her age, gender or status. Over the years many things changed, but her curiosity remained and dragged her from the Darma Druids to the men of Gondor, from the life of a housewife to the deeds of a warrior in disguise. And no matter what, it would always remain with her till the end of her days, and stir to life with the slightest nudge or push. A nudge such as the one that Gimli was performing this day.

"Yes. Only for those willing to take it, that is." He sighed for the sake of sharpening her interest even further, then cleared his throat leisurely. "There is a very intricate maze of caves in the Misty Mountains....In old times, before the marriage, the couple to be married would be lowered down to this maze with ropes and left there to find their way out in the far end of the maze." Gimli waited a moment. She looked at him and it was obvious that he was lost in memory, recalling probably the very maze. He continued a moment later, his voice soft and distant: "It is utterly dark in there and very dangerous, Irulan, for the rocks are hard and sharp. And it is unique, for it can only be traveled by two. One person alone can not find the leverage to climb out the recesses, to jump over the large distances or to haul himself up to the higher parts that will lead him or her out that cave." He turned and looked up at the young woman who was was watching him with deep interest.

"It is a very old custom. Most dwarven communities do not practice it any longer, and the young fail to see the wisdom in it," he continued several moments later and sounded almost sad. "But I believe it holds true value. Because, imagine Irulan...there you are, in the darkness! Surrounded by probable falls and cuts and breaks...and you completely depend on the other person to lead you out, as she does depend on you!" Irulan bit her cheeks and tried to imagine such a state. It sounded utterly terrifying. Not only would you have to trust the other person with your life, but you would also risk HIS life by making a mistake yourself.

"Many couples have failed and died down there. And yet, others would try anyway. Because it's not actually coming out of there that means anything. It is the willingness to go in there with another! It means for you to put both your own and his life in danger. But it also means that you trust your union enough to overcome the task. And believe me, my young friend, when I say that such a journey makes a huge difference! I was lucky enough to meet a couple who had walked through the maze, many years into their marriage. I tell you, it means a lot, that sort of trust."

Irulan turned and looked into the distance. 'Would I let them lower me down to a maze like that with Legolas?' she thought suddenly. And to her utter demise, she realized that she would. Even though she would most probably regret it about ten minutes later and torture herself till the end of the incident, constantly thinking they will never make it (probably more because of herself than him)...yes, she would. She shook her head slowly. 'I don't understand myself anymore,' was the frustrated thought.

"The Walk of Love," sighed Gimli, lost in memory. A moment passed before his head snapped to lock eyes with her. "I tell you, I do not care if I survive it! If I find a dwarven woman who would take my hand to go in there, it would be worth the death!"

Irulan held his gaze, and underneath all his pretense anger and excitement, she saw the sadness in his eyes. Who knows what stories Gimli held in bay in the matters of the heart? A sudden urge to hear those tales bloomed in her. She knew, of course, that her desire was foolish - Gimli would never share such things. Unless he was in the proper mood and very, very drunk, like Chemarit. 'Maybe one day we'll see to that,' she thought with amusement.

"Forget about death or survival, Irulan!" boomed Gimli, taking a hold of himself again, "Just walk through the damn maze and make sure to have a good time, I say!"

Irulan laughed out loud at that, and it was the best thing either of them had heard in a very long time.


"The Uruks are turning northeast. They are taking the hobbits to Isengard!" said Legolas from where he was poised.

"Saruman," whispered Aragorn, and her heart took a leap. Of course, where else?! After all, they were HIS creation. Istari! There was no way they could free Merry and Pippin once they reached their destination. Even Gandalf was defeated by the White Wizard - to think that three mere hunters with no magical powers stood the slightest chance, was nothing but folly. She had never seen Saruman, but she imagined him to be a man of terrible power. After all, he was considered to be the most powerful of the five Istari.

Irulan turned an Aragorn whose worry mirrored her own. "How much longer to Isengard at this pace?"

"It is still a good distance away," he sighed after a moment of contemplation. "We should have caught up with them a long time ago...but obviously Saruman is speeding their voyage.

She looked into the distance again and then bowed her head, panting. 'I can't run any further,' she thought in frustration. 'Heavens, I have to, but I can't! They should just leave me and go!' The sun of the third day was setting on them. Her eyes wandered back to the ranger. He, too, looked terrible. But then, Aragorn always looked terrible, but somehow always found the strength to continue.

"We are closer than we ever were," he added. "No matter what evil force is at play here, we are gaining on them. And we will catch them." His eyes fixed the horizon once more. "But not today. Legolas, run ahead and look for a camping spot. The night is setting swiftly and we can't run on this terrain in the dark."

Irulan felt instantly glad and then a heartbeat later ashamed for feeling so. She thought about Merry and Pippin, but no matter how much her heart reached out to them at the moment, she failed to find the strength to continue the pursuit. She simply lacked the physical stamina. Even if she continued to run and reach them, she knew that she would never be able to fight or Shift against the Uruk-hai in that state. And she suspected that the others were not too different. 'Just a little more time!' she thought with desperation. 'A couple more days!' The frustration released itself with a sigh before she turned to their leader once more. "At least we know now that they will not harm the hobbits until they reach Isengard. The man merel nodded in agreement.


Irulan's heart sank when she saw Legolas walking towards her. 'Oh darn!' she thought. 'Just please, please, please don't!' But of course she wasn't blessed with such luck and the gods cared nothing for her fears or her wishes. Her eyes followed his approach and finally met his when he came to stand before her, a fabulous smile on his lips. "Come Irulan, let me braid your hair," he said softly.

"Legolas, does the word 'tired' mean anything to you at all?" she moaned.

"The river is nearby," he replied without missing a beat. "You will only have to sit still."

She looked over to Aragorn and Gimli, silently pleading for help, but her so-called 'friends' just grinned back. 'I'll be damned!' she thought ruefully, 'How the hell am I supposed to reject him without breaking his heart?!' A sidelong glance at the elf revealed a man that didn't seem too fragile, truth be told. As a matter of fact, ever since Legolas had revealed his true feelings to her, he seemed to have receded back to this odd distant state. He looked completely unaffected by anything that she did or said.

"I'll...I'll have to...mend that water bag!" she finished with obvious relief. It was true after all - the bag was torn.

"Don't worry about it," said Aragorn, "I'm on it."

Irulan's eyes widened and it required a considerable amount of control on her behalf to keep her mouth shut. Why, that snake of a man! Her hand flew up her face, eager to massage the frustration out of it as she breathed deeply to calm herself. Aragorn was sad. Legolas was dying. 'All right Irulan...Take it easy. Breathe and let it go,' she thought.

"Legolas," was her final reply, several moments later, "I swear I can't." It was only true. As a matter of fact, she felt so tired, she had turned down the meal, knowing she wouldn't find the strength to chew. "You could possibly NEVER imagine how truly tired I am this very moment."

"Oh....." was the soft reply, his voice betraying both disappointment and confusion. The elf glanced over his shoulder to the oher man for a moment and Irulan was naive enough to think that he would understand and step back. She almost shouted out loud with surprise when merely seconds later he swiftly picked her up with ease and began to walk. "Very well," was his calm statement, "I'll carry you."

"Legolas! Let me down this instant!" she hissed, and tried to push herself off him. Argorn and Gimli broke into amused chuckles. Irulan's head snapped around to glare at them as she tried kicking herself free - but note to nature of elves: they were much stronger than ordinary humans. Which meant A LOT stronger than a human women. "Aragorn! Gimli! Do something, damn it!"

"Don't hurry, Legolas!" shouted Gimli. Irulan's mouth dropped open at that. BETRAYER! That dwarf would pay so dearly for this!

"We won't wait up for you!" came Aragorn's laughter and he did not sound sad AT ALL.

"Legolas! I'm serious! Let me down!" she squirmed again, but the elf had already put a good distance between himself and the camp and was leisurely standing on an overhang, trying to determine what route to take.

"Irulan, you can't walk on this terrain anyway. It's too slippery and dark."

"I don't care! Let me DOWN!" she screamed and the Legolas she knew would instantly lower her down and take a step back in unease. However, Legolas gave no reaction whatsoever, and having found his route, began his descend to the stream.

"We're almost there," he said softly, as if she had not said anything at all. Irulan just moaned and put her head on his shoulder. Then realizing what she was doing, quickly snatched it back and once again began the torturous task of trying to free herself.

"What you are doing is very, VERY rude!" she yelled finally, failing again.

He looked at her, slight amazement on his features, and because their faces were so close when he did that, she turned her head towards the river that was lazily running under the dull glare of the moonlight. "But you said you were tired," was his soft question, betraying his confusion.

Irulan moaned again and once more laid her head against his chest and once more quickly took it back. There was simply no point in arguing. She might as well save herself the energy. After what seemed like centuries to her, Legolas found the 'perfect spot' and gently lowered her down. She instantly took a step back from him and was about to say some of the things that had come to her mind during their descent to the river just moments ago, but in her hastiness, stepped on a wet part of the boulder and almost fell back into the river. If Legolas had not snatched her by the waist, she most certainly would have, too. And as a matter of fact, she would have preferred that option.

"Are you alright?" was his gentle and amused question.

"I'll be better if you let me go," she seethed and broke his embrace. This time she LOOKED back first, and finding a dry and rather flat boulder, stepped back on that. Just as she was turning around to give him that said piece of her mind about the whole issue, Legolas darted by her like a swift shadow and grabbing her hand during the process, tugged her along.

"Good. Let us wet your hair then."

Irulan put her free hand on her face. 'This is so WRONG!' her mind shouted. 'How can he be so rude and keep dragging me around?! I swear, one more incidence, and I'll just tell him off no matter if he dies or not!' The thought hit her like a slap on the face and strong shame echoed in her as a reply. 'No! NEVER say that again, you stupid woman! I'm not going to give up that easily!' It took her a moment to suppress the red hot embrassment that she felt for being so selfish. 'Gimli was right,' was the calmer addition. 'The few days I have left, I might as well be nice to him.'

Thinking in that line was definitely an improvement. Why, she was not doing it for herself! She could refuse his advances any moment, if she wanted to. But she had to resist the temptation. For Legolas, mind you, not herself!

Legolas was surprised when Irulan walked the last few steps without much resistance and crouched down by the water. He watched her remove the hairpin and try to unbraid the little intricate braids that were holding the hair back. "Let me do it," he said when she failed at her attempt and took a graceful step behind her. To his joy, she did not object.

Legolas, of course, knew very well how discomforting this intimacy was for Irulan. But that was EXACTLY why he had no intentions of changing his ways. She had to overcome that discomfort! She had to stop running away from herself and her feelings, and face them. He was not expecting Irulan to feel anything for him. She would probably never love him. And yet, her state would prevent her from loving anything and anyone else for the rest of her life. He would not allow her to shut herself off like that from the rest of the world.

Besides...try as he might, he could not make himself turn away from this path. This whole issue of breaking her shell had given him the perfect opportunity for minimizing the distance between them and not feeling selfish about it. Being with Irulan was a pleasure like no other - even if it meant dragging her, forcing her and facing her sharp anger. For the first time, Legolas had a task that seemed to be both worthy and immensely pleasant. Why, he would willingly serve her in this matter for the rest of her life. Although she would probably overcome her limitations and fears a long time before that, and would no longer need his assistance. He felt a sharp pain at the thought. Eventually Irulan would leave him behind and ride off. It was only natural and Legolas had to remind himself one more time that he was only a pasing stage in her life. A terrible feeling of emptiness and frustration hit him at the thought, but he forced it down, not wishing to cloud his precious moments with her with future concerns.

"Are you angry with me?" he sighed finally, and, having removed the braid, crouched down by her side to look at her face. She looked back at him with a tinge of anger, but a moment later waved it away. "No, not really. I'm just really tired."

Legolas smiled warmly and gently lowered his hand into the water, then brang it back up to run it down her hair. Irulan looked down, not wishing to meet his gaze. It became oddly silent and she began to feel uncomfortable again and decided to fumble with the hairpin. The elf stood up and knelt behind her, repeating the process. "I could do this every day," was his almost inaudible murmur.

"You know...considering the delicate nature of the matter, I think it's not really a good idea for you to braid my hair," was her amused comment. The mock anger in her voice helped to hide the unease she was feeling at the moment.

"Why? Would you rather kiss?"

Irulan stiffened instantly and he broke into chuckles before he took her hand to lead her away from the river. "No!" she stammered, "I think the elvish way is...better," she finished with a whisper. She sat down on a boulder, dangling her feet as he resumed his place behind her and a short moment later began to comb her hair. A silence issued between them and it was not an unpleasant one.

"What will you do when this quest comes to an end?" he said finally.

"Well I..." Irulan stilled for a moment. The idea of saying 'I don't think I'll make it that far,' suddenly bloomed in her, but she swiftly stuffed it away. The truth was, she had been so convinced that she would die before the end of this quest that she hadn't spent too much thought on the other option. "I don't know, Legolas," she added a long moment later. "I guess I'll be doing what I like doing most - traveling through Middle Earth."

"You mean not to return to your kingdom?"

"No." She had thought about that many times and finally come to the conclusion that she had no desire to resume her duties as a princess. "I might visit my family, but I would not stay."

"Very well. There are a lot of places I have not seen in Middle Earth, yet. As a matter of fact, I have seen very little of this world. But this journey has sparked the desire to travel in me. I wish to see so much more. Where would we go first?"

"WE?" was her horrified and amused yelp. "Legolas, I don't know about any 'We'. I said *I* will be traveling."

"Then I shall just come along."

"No you can't!" she protested with irritation.

"I will take you to Mirkwood if you let me travel along," he whispered slyly.

"No! Er...Mirkwood?"

"Yes," was his lofty confirmation. A grin spread on his lips but Irulan didn't see it, since he was sitting behind her. "You would never be allowed to pass the border as a stranger. But I could take you into the heart of the city. And Dol Guldur. And the mountains of Emyn Duir..."

"Oh..." was her late and uneasy reply. A silence followed.

"Of course, you might be reluctant to come...Considering we might run into giant spiders."

"Giant spiders?!" That damnable curiosity again! She remembered reading about them, but she did not think Legolas had really seen any. "There are giant spiders in Mirkwood?"

"Too many, actually," was his mock frustrated reply as his grin broadened further.

"Oh..." she said again and another silence stretched. "Well...I always wanted to see Mirkwood," was the reluctant addition.

"Then it is a deal?"

"I don't know. You look like the cheating type."

Legolas laughed a beautiful laugh at that. "What do you mean?"

"I mean you are pretty vile and sly for an elf. I don't want to agree to travel with you and then end up getting married or something!" Irulan stopped and swallowed. 'Whatever you do, under no circumstances whatsoever, never ever slap yourself on the forehead now!' she seethed silently.

Legolas had stopped combing her hair and stood perfectly still behind her. A long moment passed as she did not dare to move a muscle and he remained unnaturally silent. "You would marry me?" he said finally.

"No, of course not!" she yelled.

Another long moment passed during which Legolas resumed to comb her hair and began the braiding process. "Why not?" he said finally.

"Legolas..." she groaned.

"I just want to know what makes me so repulsive in your eyes."

"Repulsive? You are not repulsive you fool of an elf!"

"But you detest me."

"I do NOT!" she yelped.

"But you do not like me."

"I DO like you Legolas."

"But you do not love me."

"No, I love you!"

"But you are not IN love with me."

"Of course I am!" she said without thinking. Barely an instant later Irulan had jumped up and quickly turned around. She took another small step back and remained standing at the edge of the boulder. Legolas was sitting where he had been. He had the most peculiar expression o his face, but Irulan did not look long enough to come to a conclusion. She swallowed hard and took a deep breath. "Legolas," she began, her voice raspy and hoarse, "I think I will go now."

Very slowly he rose to his feet and took a few steps towards him. Irulan glanced over her shoulder, and realized that there was no room for her to step back. She inched further back and remained standing, looking towards the river and not knowing what else to do.

He came and stood in front of her. He was looking at her, she could tell that, but she refused to meet his gaze. "Irulan," he softly began, "I am no fool. I know you did not mean it. Please...don't leave." Her head snapped around and she could not help locking eyes with his crystal blue orbs. A gentle smile was on his lips, but for the first time since their rather unpleasant conversation at the beginning of the journey, when she had broken his heart and a cold war between them had followed, he looked sincerely hurt and sad.

Irulan felt awful. She wanted to say something, but she had nothing to say. Legolas was going to die. Because she was a horrible person and she lacked the simple talent of being kind to him. Because she failed the strength and courage to walk through that jungle and see what her feelings for him really were. Because, against her all might and skill, Irulan was still a simple, worthless coward. And a weakling on top of that! Because, behold, she was on the brink of tears again!

This whole quest was pressing down on her. It was constantly pressing and pressing. Everything demanded her attention and her involvement, but she failed to juggle so many things at once. She had expected it to be so much simpler. She would come out here, fight, lead them to Barad-dûr, fight some more and then die. Nothing, NOTHING went the way she had expected it to! And it looked like every other step she was taking was only bringing more failure for the ones around her. Aragorn should have let her go by the River Anduin that day. No! Gandalf should have sent her back to Rivendell right at the very beginning!

"Why are you crying?" whispered Legolas, deep confusion and concern etched into his voice. He did not understand her, but he was sincerely afraid that he had brought this upon her.

Irulan just shook her head and wiped her tears. She slowly walked up to him and leaned on his chest. He was so confused that it took him a moment to slowly embrace her back and then another before her pressed her to himself. "What is the matter?" he whispered, true worry blooming in his heart. She just shook her head in reply and leaned further into his chest.

A moment later Legolas gently picked her up and went back to sit on the boulder with Irulan in his arms. He continued to caress her hair and her back until she slowly began to relax. 'This is so frustrating!' he thought, 'I do not understand mortals! How can I help her when I don't understand her?'

"Legolas?" she sniffed a long string of minutes later. He looked down at her. Her head was resting on his shoulder and given a chancee, Legolas would have chosen to remain like this till all eternity. He gently brushed away a strand of hair from her cheek. "I think this whole braiding thing is not good for me."

He sighed as a deft smile of amusement tugged at the corner of his lips. "Indeed. We should go back to kissing."