Disclaimer: For full disclaimer, please see chapter 1.


And, once again, we've reached the last chapter. I still can't really believe it, since I always reach the point where I am absolutely sure that I will _never_ be able to end the bloody thing! *g*

First, great to hear that you enjoyed Rashwe's little heroic, selfless, charitable deed so much, I guess deep down that demon horse has a human, uhm, elven-horsish heart after all! *g* I am also glad that you understand my motives for not killing Adruran. I felt pity for him for having had to put up with Geran and Co. all the time, and yes, he may appear in a later story, but certainly not in the next one; he'd be suicidal to be in that one, and, as we know, he is a _reasonable_ man...

Which brings me to the next thing: The next story. As I said, I will indeed write a sequel to this, BUT it won't be out for at least a month. I know that that is evil and cruel and all kinds of other things, but a. I don't have time for writing another story now and b. I really need a break to replenish my 'creative energies' which have not exactly been depleted, but which will deliver much more amusing and evil results if given some time. I hope you understand, but before the end of October there's not much of a chance, I'm afraid. *hangs head* Sorry. For more details about the story read more after the chapter.

I have to announce that neither Elrond nor the twins will make an appearance in this chapter, but come on, they are on the other side of the Misty Mountains and it's winter, so there. Sorry though, and I'll try to put them - or one or two of them - into the sequel. Promise.

Very well then, on to the last chapter, which is, once again, too long, but I guess that's nothing surprising anymore... *g*
We see various annoyed healers of various races,
a little bit more of the dwarves, have some serious discussions between Aragorn and Legolas, I decided to put in Anardir who we last saw in Lake-town (if you can still remember who he is), and, finally, they get back to Mirkwood, something which doesn't please them all that much. I don't know why either... *evil grin*

Enjoy and review, please!

Chapter 26

Five days later, Legolas felt almost alive again, and he suspected that it was owed to equal parts to the fact that his wounds were slowly healing now that they had been tended with something else than water, and to the fact that, three days ago, they had been brought from Erebor to Dale, mainly because Celylith and he had threatened to escape and take Aragorn with them if the dwarves didn't let them go.

The elven prince had to smile. He could still remember the small dwarven healer's face when they had threatened not only to leave their beds themselves, but also to take the young ranger who still hadn't had regained consciousness then since they had left the humans' camp. Dofur had glared at them so darkly that Legolas had been eerily reminded of Hithrawyn, the master healer at his own home, but in the end he had been forced to relent when he had seen that the two elves were perfectly serious and intending to carry out their threat.

They had taken their leave from the Lonely Mountain, accompanied by a small escort, the relieved sighs of its population and King Dáin's promise that he would visit Dale three days later when they were planning to travel home to say his goodbyes to them – or rather to Aragorn, as Legolas and Celylith suspected, since the king hadn't appeared overly saddened to see them go.

King Bard had been most helpful as well, insisting that they stayed in the palace and offering the help of his best healers. This time, Legolas had not objected, and so they had spent the past days resting, visiting King Bard's gardens and generally enjoying the fact that they were no longer cooped up under a mountain. Both he and Celylith just hadn't been able to stand the small, cave-like rooms in the dwarven king's halls anymore, and Legolas was sure that the dwarves hadn't been so unhappy about their departure – they would probably have thrown them out a long time earlier had it not been for Aragorn.


The fair haired elf sighed. That human had to be the worst, most annoying, thick-headed patient any healer had ever seen, and the fact that he had very nearly died shortly after their arrival in Erebor had apparently done nothing to change the ranger's attitude. Legolas himself hadn't been conscious then, for he had woken up almost a day after the battle, but from what the dwarf king, his advisors, Celylith and that other dwarf, Frór, had said, it had been a very near thing. The young man's strength had been exhausted by blood loss, dehydration and his wounds up to the point where his body could hardly withstand the fever that had set in with a vengeance shortly after they had left the humans' camp, and for a long while they had feared for his life until the fever had gone down.

Legolas let his gaze wander over the snow covered roofs of the town of Dale, enjoying the fresh air and watching the sunrise. He was sitting on the roof of Bard's palace, something that would have caused his healers to wring their hands in horror, so it was essential that no-one found him here. The poor humans did enough of that already, he mused with a small smile; he had yet to meet a healer, be he or she dwarf, elf or human, that did not wring his or her hands when caring for his human friend.


Celylith's soft voice made the prince turn half around, and with a quick look at their surroundings to make sure that they were not being observed he motioned the silver haired elf to join him. The other moved slowly and carefully, wincing once in a while when his back protested, but finally he had made his way over to his prince.

Legolas studied his friend's face closely as the other elf settled down next to him, noting to his relief that the cuts and bruises were all but healed and that only faint marks remained that would disappear soon as well. When he had first seen the arrow wound on Celylith's back his first, rather powerful reaction had been to wish that Geran was still alive so that he could kill him again, and that he could take his time with it this time. He knew that only Celylith's stubbornness had enabled him to walk at all, a fact about which Dofur had not been happy, by the way. Since Celylith had been unconscious as well when they had been brought to the mountain, Legolas had been present when Dofur had given his childhood friend a piece of his mind a day later, and the dwarf's booming voice that had lectured him on recklessness, keeping one's promises and general elven stupidity was something that neither of them would forget in the near future.

"You look better," the elven prince stated quietly, smiling at the other elf. He was still so glad that Celylith was alive that he found it hard to stop smiling when he saw him at times.

"I feel better as well, thank the Valar," Celylith retorted, one hand unconsciously holding the large bruise he had sustained when Geran had kicked him five days ago. "Though I have to admit that feeling worse than I did the past few days would be near impossible."

Legolas shook his head, his smile widening.
"Everything is possible when one is travelling with Aragorn, that is something I have learned the hard way. Absolutely everything."

Celylith gave him a wry grin and nodded.
"Aye, my lord, I have to agree. How the two of you do it will forever remain a mystery to me."

"Has he woken already?" Legolas asked, returning his eyes to the peaceful scene in front of him.

The silver haired elf snorted, merriment shining in his eyes.
"Oh yes."

Legolas raised a questioning eyebrow and so he continued, a grin spreading over his face.
"Yes, he woke up a while ago, and I am sure he has driven at least one healer to madness already. They are still trying to convince him that he isn't fit to travel yet, but you know him. All he does is nod politely once in a while and continue packing his things, almost falling over in the process I might add." He gave Legolas a furtive look. "I thought you had come here to escape that?"

The elven prince frowned as he shook his head.
"No, not really. I came here to refrain from taking hold of him and shaking some sense into that stubborn human."

Celylith raised a dark silver eyebrow, amusement in his eyes.
"That wouldn't work. You tried that yesterday."

Legolas gave him a dark look and smiled finally.
"I know. He says he wants to get to Mirkwood as soon as possible, and I cannot say I disagree with that."

At the mention of his home Celylith looked at his prince, a wary expression stealing over his eyes.
"Have you … informed … the king already?"

Legolas winced openly, one hand beginning to fiddle with the bandage that wound around his left arm. The healers in Erebor and then here in Dale had consistently stated that the bone had been set correctly to begin with, but that the blow he had received during the fight had done considerable damage. None of them could say if his arm would fully heal, and Legolas knew that was yet another reason for Aragorn to return to Mirkwood as soon as possible, so that elven healers could tend his arm, even though the man tried to project an air of optimism whenever Legolas was around. The elven prince shortly closed his eyes. Only time would tell, but he had to admit that, deep in his heart, he was frightened that his arm might not heal, more than a little bit.

Realising that Celylith was still waiting for an answer, he blinked and turned to face his friend, a wry grimace on his face.
"King Bard and King Dáin both informed him of what happened here, and I added a small note saying that we were all fine and would return as soon as possible." He stopped shortly and took a deep breath. "His answer got here this morning with a carrier pigeon. It was very short."

Celylith winced. It was never a good sign when his liege gave curt answers; usually it was a sign of impending doom.
"What did he say?"

"That he informed your father that you were well and," Legolas gulped, "that he also sent word to Rivendell. And that he is expecting us back in a few days."

Celylith closed his eyes and shortly contemplated jumping off the roof; this way it would be over soon at least. It was worse enough that King Thranduil had told his father what had happened, but he had also informed Lord Elrond…

"A Elbereth!" he muttered quietly. "That was all?"

Legolas nodded, swallowing hard. He knew as well what it meant that his father's message had barely been longer than two sentences.

Celylith's face paled and he shook his head hopelessly.
"We're doomed."

"We are," the other elf agreed, not being able to think of a single thing he could say that would indicate otherwise. Their fathers would kill them once they got back, that was as certain as the sunrise in the morning.

His companion shook his head, forcefully taking his thoughts off his liege and his father. There was nothing they could do about that now anyway, he decided, and frantically searched for something he could talk about that wouldn't remind him of the fate that awaited them in the dark woods of their home.

"Has the leader of the men been found?" he asked his prince, his hands balling to fists next to his body. He had seen what these men had done to Legolas, and only his own weakness and King Dáin's – admittedly reasonable – words had stopped him from killing the four men that had survived the battle. None of them would speak or even tell them their names, and the only thing that could be gathered from them was the fact that they were so afraid of their lord that they would rather die than betray him, judging by the terrified expression in their eyes every time someone asked them a question.

"Adruran? No," Legolas shook his head slowly. "He just left and disappeared, it seems."

"Why?" Celylith shook his head. "I cannot understand it! He could have killed Estel! You two destroyed their plans and yet he let him live?"

The elven prince smiled slightly, a somewhat dark smile when he remembered the short conversations they had had with the human captain.
"It would have been unnecessary to kill him," he explained softly. "It wouldn't have changed anything; there was no reason." He narrowed his eyes when he remembered the words Aragorn had used when he had told them what had happened after Hanar's death. "It would have been … unreasonable."

Celylith's eyebrows rose and he blinked at his prince before he shook his head slowly.
"I will never understand edain. Never, as long as I live."

"Neither will I," Legolas shook his head as well, a real smile spreading on his face. "But that makes the thing interesting, doesn't it?"

Celylith grinned and was about to retort something when they heard hurried steps that quickly drew closer, and they turned in time to see a female healer approach whose face was contorted with a mixture of anger, worry and annoyance. She sighed when she stepped onto the balcony beneath them, her voice exasperated.

"Prince Legolas, Lord Celylith, have you seen my patient? Mr. Strider has escaped again … what are you doing on the roof?"

She stared at the two fair beings' innocent faces, noting for the first time that they were in fact sitting comfortably on the roof. She placed her hands on her hips, eyes blazing, and gave them a look darker than the interior of a dwarf cave.

"My lords, I must insist that you come down immediately! I will not allow you to break your necks or tear my colleagues' stitches on your last day in my care! If you insist on leaving and dying because you're too weak to stay on a horse, you are very welcome to do so, but you will not do it here and now!"

The two elves exchanged a somewhat chagrined grin and slowly began to climb down from the roof, dropping one by one sure-footedly onto the railing of the balcony, acting as if the narrow wooden construction was in fact several feet wide. The elderly woman continued to glare at them, but couldn't resist the charm of two innocent elven smiles that seemingly outshone the morning sun and slowly began to shake her head.

"We are sorry, my lady," Legolas said with a small bow. "We were not trying to make your arduous duties even harder on you. Speaking of which," he slowly walked the healer back into the palace, hoping that she had already forgotten about the small incident, "when did the ranger disappear?"

The woman shook her head, deciding in an instant that elves definitely were the worst patients she had ever had; she never seemed to be able to stay angry with one of them. Or with the young ranger, for that matter…

"About ten minutes ago, my lord," she answered, scowling slightly. "He had just finished packing his things. I stepped outside just a few seconds to get some fresh bandages to have a look at these cuts once again before you left, and when I came back, he was…"

"Gone," both elves echoed, a long-suffering expression on their fair faces.

"Precisely," she nodded, her eyes narrowing slightly in annoyance. "This is already the third time, and I have never even heard a thing! I really need to have a look at him again, he is still far from healed and weak from the fever." She turned imploring eyes on the two elves. "Do you know where he could be? I was half hoping he would be with you."

Legolas pursed his lips and suppressed a tired sigh. Aragorn could at least tell them when he wanted to escape… He turned back to the healer and gave her a reassuring smile.
"Do not worry, my lady, we will find him and return him to you, and if we have to drag him back."

The woman smiled in relief, curtsying before the two elf lords.
"Thank you, your Highness. I will be waiting for you in the healing wing."

With that the healer turned on her heel and walked off, mumbling under her breath about insufferable rangers and very painful things that could happen once she got her hands on them. The two elves looked after her for a moment, smiling slightly when they heard the very interesting things she was threatening their human friend with before they looked at each other, both raising an eyebrow.

"Where could he be?" Celylith asked, frowning in thought. "I am not chasing him through the palace again!"

"Neither am I," Legolas agreed grimly. "Let's split up. We will find him, he cannot have got far."

Celylith nodded and disappeared round a corner while the fair haired prince headed for the nearest staircase.

"Oh yes," Legolas grumbled as he slowly descended the stairs, not wanting to aggravate his healing back or ribs. "We will find him, and may the Valar help him when I get my hands on that thick-headed little human."

Legolas eventually would find his human friend, after enough time to make sure that he was thoroughly annoyed by the time he did. It took the elf far longer than it should have, but it appeared that Aragorn had nearly perfected the art of disappearing off the face of Arda and avoiding all healers on the way.

After he had searched all rooms the human could somehow got access to, the courtyard, the stables and even parts of the cellar, Legolas sat down on a conveniently placed barrel in the wine cellar and thought long and hard. He wasn't very familiar with the palace and its layout, but then again, neither was Aragorn.

He had the vague feeling that he knew why Aragorn had sought solitude, for he had been quiet and rather withdrawn ever since he had woken up. And if he was right, then he would be someplace where he could think and that would calm him…

So it came that Legolas quickly made his way over to the royal gardens that were situated next to the palace, or at least the part that was already planted. The palace was not finished yet, and only parts of the spacious parks were finished. In the most secluded part he found his human friend, next to a small stream that was not frozen over since the water was used to heat the palace.

Legolas smiled slightly when he looked at the young ranger. Aragorn sat on a wooden bench that was beautifully carved and still so new that the wood seemed almost white in the morning sun. The human wore a thick cloak – at least he had thought a little, the elf thought with some exasperation – that hid the numerous bandages Legolas knew adorned a large part of his body, but the slashes in one of his cheeks and the large bruise on the other were plain to see for everyone that had eyes to do so.

The young man was still pale and looked thinner than he had before, both due to the fever that had raged in his body only a few days prior. Legolas hadn't been awake for the first day of their stay in Erebor and had therefore missed the time when the fever had been so high that it had caused the human to hallucinate so that he called for his family and spoke with and of things that only he could see, and the elf was rather thankful for it, especially considering what Celylith had told him, a worried and slightly haunted look in his dark blue eyes.

Legolas' smile disappeared when he saw the almost tormented expression on his friend's face, and he stepped closer, making sure he made enough noise that Aragorn could hear him in his preoccupied and weakened state.
"Good morning, my friend."

Aragorn turned quickly, gripping the bench tightly when the fast movement made his head spin softly, a rather forced smile on his lips.
"A good morning to you, Legolas! Let me guess: That dragon that calls herself a healer has sent you to drag me back to the healing wing so she can force even more of her evil concoctions down my throat." When the elf merely shrugged, he moaned in mock terror. "Ilúvatar, why me?" Narrowing his eyes suspiciously, he added, "How did you find me?"

At that Legolas' smile made a reappearance, and he shrugged, motioning at the softly rippling spring.
"I thought you would be seeking solitude, mellonamin. And this is the closest you can get to Rivendell in this place."

"You know me too well, Legolas," the man sighed, dipping the fingertips of a bandaged hand into the lukewarm waters. "I miss the sound of running water, yet I don't notice it anymore when I'm at home." He looked up again, looking closely at the elf. "How are you?"

The elven prince grimaced slightly, thinking about that question himself. After a moment he looked back at the man, shrugging.
"As well as can be expected, I think. I will heal." He was rather convinced that it would take him quite a long time to so, but that was nothing he would tell his human friend now. "How are you?"

"Fine," Aragorn said a little too quickly, apparently not even really listening to the question. "Now that the fever is gone I will heal as well, I suppose."

Legolas did not comment on this, mainly because he didn't want to call his friend a liar, and merely sat down next to the man, eyeing him furtively. There was … a shadow on his friend's face, as if he was struggling with something and was trying to hide it from him. The elven prince sighed inwardly. They were not doing that again!

"What is it that is bothering you, my friend?" he asked after a few minutes, knowing full well that Aragorn would not volunteer any information. He looked at the man with narrowed eyes, already preparing his arguments for the very likely case that Aragorn would refuse to tell him. He was not waiting for weeks again for him to share his thoughts with him, watching how the problem was eating at his friend. Definitely not.

Aragorn looked up, quickly hiding the guilt that was laying itself over his features.
"Bothering? Me? Nothing, mellonamin, I was just trying to escape the healers for a bit, that's all…"

Legolas would nearly have thrown up his hands in exasperation, the bandage that was tightly wrapped around his left arm and shoulder preventing it at the last moment. Never before had he met such an insufferably stubborn person!

"You will tell me," he informed the dark haired human quietly, blue eyes boring into grey ones. "Now, or I swear by all the stars in the heavens that we will stay here for another week – which we should anyway, by the way – so you and the healers can find out which one of their potions is the most disgusting! And believe me, they are more than in the mood for it!"

Aragorn looked into the elf's serious eyes, and when all he could see there was concern and quiet determination to carry out the threat he had just made, he lowered his head with a sigh. After a moment he somewhat wobbly rose to his feet and took a few steps away from his companion, looking at the waters that noisily flowed down the small channel and disappear round a corner a few dozen yards in the distance.

"Have you ever hated what you are?" he began slowly, one hand pressed against his temple as if the thought pained him. "No," he continued, shaking his head, "You would not, how could you?"

Legolas looked at his friend's back, clearly worried now.
"What do you mean, Estel?"

Aragorn took a deep breath and slowly turned around to face the elf, silver eyes dark and haunted.
"What do you see when you look at me?"

The elf wrinkled his brow, concern shining brightly in his eyes. Nevertheless he answered, speaking slowly and clearly, hoping to permeate whatever emotions had wrapped themselves around his friend's heart.

"I see Estel Elrondion, brother of Elladan and Elrohir, the young human who brought joy and laughter back to the halls of Imladris. I see Aragorn, son of Arathorn, the one of his line that will claim the throne of Gondor for his own and be a great King of Men. I see Strider, the chieftain of the Dúnedain of the North; I see the man who has stood by me in more dangers than I could count. I see my friend I love like a brother; I see … I see you."

The comfort Legolas had tried to give the man with his words did not seem to have reached him, for he only closed his eyes and shook his head.
"A man. Yes, that is what I am."

The elven prince looked at his friend helplessly, wishing that Aragorn's brothers or father were here at this moment. He knew of his problems concerning his human heritage, and he was aware of the fact that this last experience would have done little to increase his estimate of the human race, but he simply did not know what to tell him at the moment.

"There is no reason to be ashamed of what you are, Aragorn. Your ancestry is a proud and noble one, the Men of Númenor…"

"…fell to the Shadow, as all men seem to do!" Aragorn exclaimed heatedly, contempt on his face. "The more I see of the way of Men the more I begin to despise them, and I hate myself for it, but I cannot help it!"

Legolas opened his mouth to speak, but the human raised his hand, effectively silencing him.

"Look at what Men brought upon us once again! Celylith and you were almost killed, and for nothing more than some gold! Not even the dwarves are as obsessed with it as humans, and they are not as willing to kill for it either!"

Aragorn shook his head slowly, hopelessness on his face.
"You are right, I am a man, and a man's heart beats in my breast. The heart of Men, Legolas, is weak, that is what we have both been taught. Weak, greedy, easily corrupted and spiteful. What can you do when you see this with clear eyes and yet can not fight what you are? Cannot fight these things that war in your chest, struggle for domination over everything else? Power and money, my friend, are things all men crave. And I am but a man, as much as I sometimes wish to deny it. I am human, like they were."

He stopped for a moment, looking at the speechless elf with dark eyes before he continued, his voice barely above a whisper now.

"And I am even worse than these men could ever be, for they have only condemned themselves while my ancestors whose blood flows through my veins have condemned all of Middle-earth to the encroaching darkness. Yes, I am a man. And sometimes I hate myself for it."

Legolas just sat on the wooden bench, so surprised that he could do nothing but stare at his human friend. Elbereth, he hadn't known his doubts and self-reproach ran so deep; he hadn't known how torn his friend was between the world of his childhood and the world in that he had to walk to fulfil a destiny he had never wanted…

Finally he seemed to tear himself out of his trance, springing to his feet so quickly that his body didn't even have time to complain about the sudden movement. He grabbed the human by the shoulders, resisting the urge to shake him to make him see reason.

"Stop it!" he demanded somewhat harshly, locking eyes with his friend. "You know that what you say is not true!" Aragorn obviously wanted to retort something, but Legolas shook his head almost angrily. "No, now you will listen to me, dúnadan!" He took a deep breath, briefly contemplating what in Elbereth's name he could say to convince his friend that his words had not been the truth.

"Yet I agree with you to a certain degree: The heart of Men is weak."

The young ranger looked at the elf's face in surprise. That was something he definitely hadn't expected him to say. Legolas tightened his grip on the man's uninjured shoulder, looking at him earnestly.

"It may be true that humans are weaker than the firstborn, but we are not without fault either! Look at Celebrimbor and the other Mírdain who trusted Annatar and forged the Rings of Power with his help, even though the High King and your father warned them against it! Had their thirst for knowledge and perfection not driven them to accept the Dark Lord's offers, this world would have been spared much, much darkness! Or look at Celebrimbor's grandfather Fëanor and the terrible oath he and his sons took to reclaim the Silmarils, the oath that resulted in the Kinslaying of Alqualondë and other dark things!"

The elven prince looked hard at his friend, willing him to understand.

"Elves fail as well, Aragorn, as do the other races that populate Arda. We are not above hate and greed and fear, and sadly there are many examples that prove that. And even if you are right and humans are weak, I know that you are not. Neither your race nor your ancestry define you, son of Arathorn, only your actions do. I know that you do not desire power or money, and so do you." He smiled, shaking his head slightly. "Not all humans are alike, and there are some who are truly different, and you are one of them. Your heart is not weak, and neither could it ever be corrupted. I trust in you, Aragorn, and so should you. You are a good friend – and a good man. Never allow yourself to think differently."

He looked into the slowly brightening eyes of his human friend and added after a second, playfully,

"Or I will tell your brothers and allow them to beat some sense into you."

At that a true smile spread over the other's cut and bruised face.
"They would relish that chance, that much is certain." Aragorn looked at his elven friend with almost fearful eyes. "You mean what you just said?"

"I do," the fair haired elf confirmed. "Your family and friends love you for what you are, Estel, not despite of what you are. These men killed and hurt many others out of greed, yes, and you are right, their hearts were cruel, treacherous and spiteful, but you are not one of them, and you never could be. You will see that in time as well, and until then you will have to trust in my word. Do you?"

"Do I trust you?" the ranger asked surprised, the haunted expression in his eyes slowly diminishing. "You know that to be a foolish question, Legolas. Of course I trust you, with my life and that of my family, and I always will."

He reached out and carefully placed a hand on his friend's uninjured shoulder, silver eyes serious and dark.
"Thank you, my friend. How is it that you always know what to say to give me peace?"

Legolas smiled smugly, deciding to keep a close eye on the young ranger in the near future. He hoped that Aragorn had indeed understood what he had been trying to tell him, but if he knew the man at all, he would brood over it for the next few days. Or weeks. Or months.

"I am an elf," he announced haughtily as they slowly walked back into the direction of the palace, leaving the stream behind. "I am far older and wiser than you, young one."

Aragorn scowled at the elf when he heard the hated term, unconsciously narrowing his eyes.
"Oh, are you now? Why did it take you so long to find me then?"

The elf suppressed a wide grin and forced a grimace of arrogant annoyance onto his face.
"Do not overestimate your importance, human! I was in no hurry to find you."

"You were not, elf? That is most peculiar, for I distinctly remember overhearing some servants that passed through the gardens that mentioned a nearly frantic elf that was turning the whole palace upside-down looking for someone."

Legolas huffed, grabbing the man's elbow and steadying him when he threatened to lose his footing on the ice covered paths.
"They must have confused me with Celylith. I was nowhere near 'nearly frantic'."

Aragorn was about to shake off his friend's arm, but realised that he would end up on the ground if he did and reluctantly allowed the elf to steady him.
"If you say so, o mighty Prince of Mirkwood, then it must be true."

"Indeed," the elven prince agreed, deciding to ignore his human friend's tone of voice that was positively dripping with sarcasm. A wicked grin spread over his face when they reached the small gate that would lead them back into the courtyard, and he turned back to the human who had wrenched his arm out of his steadying grasp now. "Let's get back to the healing wing then, shall we?"

The young ranger's face blanched slightly. Gilthoniel, that healer would kill him!
"Uhm, my friend, I really have to look after my horse if we want to leave today, I haven't seen it for days and I'm quite sure it's worried by now…"

Legolas grabbed the man's dark coat just in time to prevent him from disappearing round the corner of the kitchen building, displaying reflexes that were still a bit slower than normal but for a human still lightning-fast. The elf ignored the pleading expression on his friend's face and grabbed his arm again, careful not to press down too hard, afraid to aggravate any of the human's wounds.

"Oh no," he shook his head as he steered Aragorn into the direction of the main building, "Don't even try it. I promised that charming lady to bring you back, and that is what I'll do."

Aragorn snorted, eyes fixed on the palace as if he was dragged through the Morannon itself.
"Lady? Charming? She's dragon, believe me…"

Legolas' evil grin even widened.
"Oh, I know, Strider," he told the man. "But you deserve it."

Before Aragorn could reply, Celylith joined them, glaring darkly at the young human. He turned to his elven friend, a dark silver eyebrow raised mockingly.
"So you have found him! Let me guess: He was in the gardens near the small spring."

Legolas' mouth fell open, and he quickly closed it again when he heard the barely suppressed snicker from Aragorn's direction. He stared at his elven friend, both his eyebrows moving up his forehead seemingly on their own account.
"Yes … how did you …"

Celylith gave him a smug smile, suppressing the laughter that was building in his chest. Eru, to see his usually so composed prince like this was priceless!
"Why, my lord, it was obvious, was it not?"

"Obvious? Obvious?? It took me an hour to find him! Why didn't you say something!?"

"You did not ask, my prince."

"I did not ask?"

Aragorn looked from one elven face to the other, deciding that they would hardly miss him if he left now. He was just slowly inching backwards, doing his best to become part of the stone wall, when two pairs of hands grabbed his cloak, and he looked up, straight at two stern elves who had apparently forgotten their argument. His eyes wandered back down to the fists that had taken a hold of the thick cloak he wore. He had known he shouldn't have taken it with him!

"A nice try, Aragorn," Legolas smiled friendly at him, beginning to turn the man around to drag him up the stairs that led to the healing chambers.

"Not bad at all," Celylith nodded approvingly. "I would almost have missed it."

"One of these days, I will get away from the two of you. Count on it," the young ranger muttered darkly, allowing his elven friends to pull him up the stairs.

All he received for an answer was the pealing, soft sound of elvish laughter, and he once again asked himself why he insisted on travelling with a pair of insane, evil mother hens. When he was dragged round the corner of the room where the healers were waiting, he decided that he would get back at them. He would tell Hithrawyn about every single injury the two of them had sustained since they had left Mirkwood, and then he would sit back and watch how they were dragged away by the master healer and his assistants, begging for mercy.

A wicked feeling of anticipation grew inside of him, making it easier for him to ignore the female healer's tirade. Oh yes, that was what he would do. They could see how they liked it then.

Three hours later Aragorn and the two elves were standing in the courtyard, ready to depart. It had been three very hectic, very busy hours, and all of King Bard's healers and several members of his serving staff would later swear that they were among the longest of their lives.

But finally, all of the provisions had been made ready, all bags packed and all weapons collected, and the three young beings were ready to say their goodbyes. Legolas stood next to his two friends, consciously suppressing the urge to take out his bow again to make sure it had not been damaged. It had been returned to him after the battle by a young dwarf named Nabur, who had found it in one of the tents, therefore earning himself the unending gratitude of the elven prince who even smiled at the smaller being, something that still surprised both of them.

Aragorn had been equally glad to have his sword back, not even daring to think about what his brothers would say if he lost their gift somewhere on the Lonely Mountain. That thought brought him back to the image of what his father would say or do when he received word from King Thranduil about what had happened here, and he suppressed a wince. He was quite happy that, right now, the mountain range of the Misty Mountains separated them whose passes were blocked with tons of ice and snow. The young human grimaced. He really hoped that they would stay that way until his father and brothers had calmed down a little…

The ranger suddenly felt someone stare at him, and he turned slightly to the right, already knowing what he would see. It was as he had thought: Rashwe was standing behind Legolas with the other horses, looking at him with a smug, patronising look on his face. Aragorn suppressed a tired groan, knowing full well that the healers that were still crowding around them like she-bears around their cubs would take it as a sign of pain and would drag him back into that prison they called a healing wing before he could even say "I'm fine". The physicians had accepted that elves healed quickly and left his friends alone most of the time, even though they didn't stop stressing that they really should stay here for a few days longer, but they refused to believe him when he said that rangers healed faster than normal humans as well.

Aragorn turned his attention back to the white horse behind him, shaking his head in dismay. He had known from the very beginning that Rashwe would never let him live the whole thing down, and he had been correct. The animal had missed no opportunity to let him feel that he was in its debt, and Aragorn was beginning to dread the journey that lay ahead of them.

Legolas' laughing voice drew him back from his thoughts.
"I told you Rashwe liked you."

"Please, my friend," Aragorn shook his head with a small snort, "It does not like me, and it never shall. It saved me to be able to torment me, that is all."

The elf looked at him, giving his horse that was gazing back at him innocently a brief look.
"Torment you? Come now, Estel, I think you exaggerate a bit…"

"No," the man said with quiet conviction. "Believe me, I am most glad that Rashwe decided to intervene – if he hadn't I wouldn't be here, in fact – but I still say that that animal relishes fear and chaos."

The fair haired prince shook his head and was about to retort something when three small figures broke away from where the Kings of Erebor and Dale and most of their advisors were deeply immersed in conversation the middle of the courtyard. Aragorn leaned against his own horse, still feeling a lot weaker than he wanted to admit even to himself, but a smile spread on his face when he recognised who it was that was quickly coming their way: Ori, Nori and Frór, who had apparently decided to say their goodbyes in a more private matter.

Legolas gave the approaching dwarves a short look, mumbled something along the lines of "I-am-sure-Celylith-just-called-me" and disappeared so quickly that the ranger's still a little muddled mind couldn't really tell where he had gone. A second later the three small beings stopped in front of him, each of them wearing equal expressions of concern and reproach.

"So," Ori finally said.

Aragorn resisted the urge to grin broadly.
"So what, Ori?"

"So how do you feel?" Nori asked, eyeing the young man he had met the first time more than ten years ago. "Are they treating you alright here?"

"Do you get enough meat?" Frór chirped in. The blonde dwarf was firmly convinced that all anyone needed to heal quickly was a good portion of red meat and lots of ale. More than once he had told the young man that it was a miracle that he had grown as tall as he had with the food he was eating.

Aragorn shook his head, the grin plain to see now.
"Yes, Frór, I do. More than enough."

The dwarven warrior grumbled, folding his arms across his chest.
"These elves know nothing about what a young lad like you needs to recuperate! You should have stayed in our mountain, boy, then those wounds of yours would've healed already."

Ori seemed to pick up the subject, for he took a step closer to the ranger, looking him up and down.
"How is that shoulder and your burns doing, Estel? Dofur ordered me to report him should anything be amiss."

The man would almost have thrown his hands up into the air and was inwardly cursing Legolas for leaving him alone with three over-protective dwarves.
"I am fine, thank you. I am no longer the child you met twelve years ago, I can look after myself."

The sound of gruff dwarven laughter was rather embarrassing, and Aragorn waited not so patiently until the small beings had calmed down again. Frór wiped tears out of his eyes, feeling through his chest armour for his heart.
"Oh, yes, lad, you can. We've seen that."

Aragorn scowled at the dwarf, deciding that he sounded far too much like his father and brothers, a rather disconcerting idea now that he thought about it. Desperately trying to lead the conversation away from his state of health, he turned back to Ori and Nori who were just trying to hide the broad grins on their faces.
"What about the treasure? Has there been any progress?"

The three dwarves' faces turned serious immediately, filling the young ranger with a certain sense of achievement. One only had to know how to deal with them…

"Not much," Ori shook his head. "When that Lake-man set the entrance to the tunnel on fire, the struts that supported the ceiling were burnt and the whole cave collapsed. It will take a long time to dig through all that rubble, and even if we manage to do that, there's still the question of whether there's anything left intact to find."

"Have you found out how it got there?" Aragorn asked, interest in his grey eyes.

Nori nodded, a grim smile on his lips as he remembered an event long past.
"Yes. We think it was part of Smaug's hoard. The worm must have hidden some of it in his fear that someone would come to reclaim what he had stolen."

"Smaug!" the young man exclaimed. "You are sure?"

"As sure as we can be," the elderly dwarf nodded. "We were hoping to find a certain stone there, a beautiful gem that was lost along with the Arkenstone when the dragon descended on the mountain, but alas, now it will remain lost, I fear."

Aragorn nodded, barely noting the sadness in the other's voice. So that explained it, he thought to himself. That had been the reason why Adruran and even the 'Fox's' men had been so anxious and afraid when they had discovered that Legolas and Celylith were elves: They had feared that they were acting in the name of King Thranduil and that the woodland king would demand a share of the treasure as he had done twelve years ago.

"Well," he quickly said when he realised that the dwarves were still waiting for an answer, "I really do hope that you manage to find it. It would be a small compensation for what you've lost."

The small beings' faces darkened somewhat. While the losses they had suffered during the battle had been light since they had only lost two warriors, even though several had been severely wounded, they were still having a hard time coming to terms with the fact that the king's nephews were indeed dead.

The Lake-men Legolas had freed hadn't got very far before the dwarves had caught up with them, and once they had been returned to the camp the small warriors had got quite close to killing all of them in their rage, even though they knew that the humans were not directly responsible for the young ones' deaths.

"It will take some time," Ori shrugged, "But Durin's folk are patient. If there's something to discover, we will find it. Besides," the dwarf added, renewed light shining in his eyes, "we discovered a whole new network of tunnels that are simply fascinating. In all my years I've never seen masonry this elaborate and precise…"

Aragorn listened patiently for the first few minutes, honestly trying to find some interest for tunnels, caves and things like that, yet he found it hard to accomplish. His experience with the bear had done little to make him forget about his dislike for small, enclosed spaces, and tonight he had even got rather close to a nightmare again.

When the dwarves showed no sign of tiring and were just about to describe the tunnels' floors to him, he decided that this was enough to serve courtesy and interrupted them, looking over their shoulders to look at his broadly grinning elven friends who seemed to enjoy his predicament immensely.

"I am sorry," he told the dwarves, inclining his head to hide the small smile that was visible on his face, "I am afraid that Prince Legolas and Lord Celylith are asking for my presence." He looked at all three of them in turn, serious. "I thank you for all your help, again. Without you my companions and I would have died and these men escaped. We are deeply in your debt."

Nori waved his hand dismissively.
"That is alright, Estel. I and the rest of Thorin's company who are still alive are forever in the debt of Lord Elrond, who most graciously welcomed us to his home. Without him we would never have deciphered the runes on Thorin's map and most probably would have died these twelve years ago. The least we could do was to make sure that his foster son doesn't get himself killed with two stiff-necked elves."

Aragorn smiled warmly at the smaller being.
"Still, I thank you. May Aulë keep you and yours in peace and prosperity."

Frór nodded his head, carefully reaching out and giving the man what he thought was a light pat on the arm, nearly knocking him into his horse in the process.
"The same to you, lad. If you ever are near the mountain again, do not hesitate to visit us; there will always be a place for you at one of our tables. Even," the blonde dwarf added, swallowing hard as he made a huge admission, "Even if you have them elves with you."

The smile on the young ranger's face broadened.
"I will certainly remember that, Master Frór. Please give my regards to your brother."

Frór nodded and assured him he would definitely do that, and a few minutes and many more goodbyes and good wishes later, Aragorn managed to escape to his elven friends, secretly wondering what it was about rocks that was so fascinating to the dwarven race. He looked up at Legolas, glaring darkly at him.

The fair haired elf raised an eyebrow, looking so innocent that it was almost unnatural.
"Don't what, dúnadan? I didn't want to do anything."

"Maybe," Aragorn grumbled. "But you wanted to say something, elf, do not deny it."

Celylith grinned at his two friends, furtively eyeing both of them to ascertain whether they were really strong enough to travel. Both of them had insisted that they were fine, which would be 'fine'-fine in this case; besides, Aragorn and Legolas would still insist that they were 'fine' when they were being crushed by a troll that had mistaken them for a cushion.

"Most assuredly," he nodded, ignoring his prince's scathing glare. "That was the impression I had as well, Estel."

Legolas narrowed his eyes and was about to say something when a soft, tentative voice interrupted them.
"Pardon me, Strider, my lords?"

The three of them turned to look at a blonde man that stood in front of them, cuts and bruises on his face that were already healing. On one of his hands was a large, rather ugly-looking burn while the other one was bandaged.

Aragorn inclined his head, giving the man a small smile.
"Master Gwemyr. You are ready to leave?"

Owaeran's brother had only suffered a few minor cuts and burns he had sustained while he had been trying to light the fire as quickly as possible when he had returned to the humans' camp, and while his companions had already left for Esgaroth, he had insisted to stay behind. He didn't want to leave before he had made sure that the ranger and the elves who had saved him and his friends would be alright, and so they had agree to travel back to Lake-town together. The two men had spent quite a lot time talking in the past days, even if Gwemyr was still rather uncomfortable around the two elves. Aragorn had found that Owaeran had been right: Essentially, Gwemyr was not a bad man. He was lazy, reckless and somewhat naïve, but he had never intended to hurt anyone. This led to the possible conclusion that he was slightly stupid as well if he had really believed that the two dwarves had had an accident for example, but the ranger wasn't sure about that yet.

The other man nodded and gave the two elves a slightly nervous glance, but neither Legolas nor Celylith felt any inclination to leave; they still hadn't forgotten the role the man had played in all this. When it became apparent that neither one would move in the near future, Gwemyr gave a small sigh and turned back to the ranger, pulling a small packet out of his pocket and fiddling nervously with cord that tied it up.

"I … I have something for you, Mr. Strider," he began slowly, keeping his eyes to the ground. What the other man had told him when he had saved him from Bleon's abuse still weighted heavily on his mind, and he had begun to regret a great many things he had done and not done in the past. "Well, when I came back to that cave – and I'm still sorry that it took me so long – I needed some time to kindle the fire, and … well, I had some time to have a look around."

Legolas and Celylith exchanged a slightly exasperated glance. Men and gold.

"I … I didn't have much time," Gwemyr quickly continued, speaking faster now, "So I only took two things before getting out of there as quickly as possible. One is a little necklace for Seveawen, my niece, to make up for not saying goodbye to her, and," the man swallowed quickly, "and this." He all but shoved the small package into Aragorn's hands. "Here, I don't have use for it and I thought you deserved it after what you've gone through to help me and my companions – all of you," he amended with a quick look at the two elves. "So, please, keep it, I don't think that the dwarves will miss it. It just caught my eye and … I'll wait for all of you over there at the main gate," he hastily finished and turned around, grasping his horse's reins and disappearing into the direction of the gate so quickly that all the young ranger could do was stare after him open-mouthed and blinking in confusion.

"That was … surprising," he finally managed, still staring after the other man.

"I agree," Legolas nodded, slightly baffled himself. He hadn't expected Owaeran's brother to do anything like this.

"Well, yes," Celylith nodded his head, eyes fixed on the parcel Aragorn held. "So, aren't you going to open it?"

"Now?" Aragorn countered, a small smile lurking in his eyes, "I think we should bid King Bard farewell first, it appears that he and Dáin have finished their discussion…"

The silver haired elf rolled his eyes and scowled at the man. Somehow it had been easier to deal with him when he had been feverish and on the brink of unconsciousness.
"Yes, ranger, now. I want to see what it is!"

Both he and Legolas drew closer to the man as he slowly began to untie the ribbon that kept the parcel closed, causing Aragorn to grin widely.
"Get back a little," he admonished them when Celylith stepped even closer to peer over his shoulder, "You're like elflings that can't wait to open their presents on Yentarë, honestly…"

His voice trailed off and he gasped when he looked at what had been in the parcel Gwemyr had given him. Even Legolas who had seen many a treasure in his days had to consciously stop his jaw from dropping when he looked at the object Aragorn held in his hands as gingerly as if it might turn into a bat and flap away.

On top of the ranger's palm sat the most beautiful gem any of them had ever seen, and Aragorn knew instinctively that this was the stone Nori had mentioned. Many words came to his mind to describe its beauty, and yet none seemed to be enough to depict the fire and radiance that seemed to light the jewel from within. It was a rather large stone of a beautiful pale colour, worked until its many facets reflected the light that fell on it, making it resemble stars in the night sky, or the moon's light on a still pool, or polished silver that yet gleamed with an inner, mysterious fire. Aragorn swallowed hard, his throat parched all of the sudden. This stone had to be worth more than the entire valley of Dale and its inhabitants put together.

"O dear Elbereth…" he mumbled, not being able to form a more coherent thought.

"My thoughts exactly, mellonamin," Legolas agreed when he had found his voice. He gave the dwarves that stood a few dozen yards away a quick look and turned back to his human friend. "Aragorn, this stone is…"

"Magnificent," Aragorn nodded. "Nori told me about it; in its beauty it is only second to the Arkenstone that lies now buried with Thorin Oakenshield beneath Erebor."

Legolas blinked slowly, his eyes once again returning to the stone. He had never seen the dwarves' most prized possession and had always believed that the tales had been exaggerating its beauty, but if the Arkenstone was even more beautiful than this, then he was beginning to understand why Thorin and his companions had been ready to die and kill for it. And why his father hadn't been entirely uninterested in it either…

"What are you going to do with it?" Celylith asked, always the practical one.

"I?" Aragorn looked at his elven friends with wide grey eyes, quickly covering the jewel. He was rather sure that it would come to a war after all if either King Dáin or King Bard saw this jewel. "What do you mean, I?"

"Well," Legolas began slowly, looking hard at his friend, "Gwemyr gave it to you. It is yours, unless you want to walk up to the kings and see how quickly they manage to go to war for this."

The young ranger didn't look happy at all about these developments, in fact, he looked downright terrified.
"Mine? No! It's not mine, and I cannot keep it either! Here," he wheeled around to the elven prince, thrusting the wrapped gem into his hands before he could react, "You take it!"

"I?" Legolas spluttered, looking about him wildly, but Celylith had already moved safely out of reach. "What should I do with it?"

Aragorn looked at him, obviously thinking hard, before his face lit up happily.
"I know! You give it to your father! He might not kill us if he's busy admiring it!"

The fair haired elf narrowed his eyes, wanting to retort something, but closed his mouth again when he realised that his friend's reasoning was not so far from the truth after all. His father might be distracted indeed by this stone, anyone would be, and it would also help him accept that his son, one of his captains and the son of the ruler of an allied elven realm who also happened to be his guest and therefore his responsibility had had to accept the help of the dwarves, and would in fact have been killed had it not been for the naugrim.

"Hmm," he only made, eyeing the small package with renewed interest. "You might be right…"

"Of course I am," Aragorn commented, apparently hugely relieved that he had got rid of his unwanted burden. "I am sure he will appreciate it. Think of it as payment for all the bandages and medicines we need all the time."

"And to hire a replacement for Hithrawyn," Celylith chimed in. "I don't think he will make it past our arrival with his sanity intact."

"Indeed not," Legolas mumbled, putting the stone safely into the inside pocket of his leather vest. This was actually an invitation for them to get robbed, he mused, beginning to feel exceedingly nervous. That'd be just their kind of luck, to be robbed the one time they actually had something of value with them except for their weapons.

The elf looked up, noting the way the King of Dale and the King of Erebor were looking into their direction, and he put on a friendly smile that was even heart-felt for the main part. He was very glad to leave this part of Rhovanion behind, and he wouldn't shed a tear if he didn't return for a few centuries. Too many things had happened or nearly happened to his friends and him here, things that he would and could never forget.

"Come then," he told his friends, still smiling friendly at the two kings, "Let's say our goodbyes. I am sure especially King Dáin's heart will bleed to see us go."

"Definitely," Celylith mumbled under his breath, moving into the direction of the large group of men and dwarves. "As will Dofur's, I am sure about it…"

Legolas let his elven friend precede them and slowly followed him with Aragorn, eyeing the man closely. He was still of the opinion that the ranger was not well enough to travel, but he had insisted that he was fine, and had somehow managed to annoy both him and Celylith so much that they had agreed on leaving today. None of them was in the mood for a long-winded argument, besides, Aragorn would probably use their own arguments against them if they gave them enough time. That human was nearly as bad as Elrohir.

"You know," he began softly, giving the man a long look, "Quite a few people would call giving away such a treasure folly."

"Quite a few people would," Aragorn agreed, seriously. "Yet I do not wish for treasure or even that particular gem. We have seen what desires these kinds of riches awake in Men, haven't we?" He stopped shortly, giving his elven friend a hesitant smile. "You were right, I do not desire such things. There might be many things to corrupt me with, but money is not one of them."

Legolas smiled back at the young ranger, once again deciding that, one day and Ilúvatar willing, Aragorn would make a great king.
"So I was, my friend, and I hold to my words. You are a good man. A little reckless perhaps, yes, but a good man."

The ranger shook his head slightly and gave a short laugh, but his eyes were serious and dark when they fastened on the elf's face.
"Thank you, mellonamin. And while I may be a reckless man, you are the best friend one could wish for." He stopped shortly, eyes sparkling with mirth. "A little stubborn perhaps, but a very, very good friend."

Legolas shook his head as well and took up his walk again, deciding that they had let King Bard and Celylith wait long enough already. He waited a second to give Aragorn the chance to catch up with him, and together they crossed the short distance between them and their hosts.

"Well, at least I don't get myself very nearly killed on a daily basis," the elven prince mumbled to his human companion a second before they reached the kings and their respective entourages.

Aragorn fought in vain to keep the unbelieving grin off his face, causing him to nearly suffocate with suppressed laughter.

"Whatever you say, Leafie, whatever you say."

Anardir was shifting in the tree he had chosen as a vantage point, in vain trying to find a comfortable position. For the entire day he had had the feeling of impending doom and destruction, and he had fully expected to meet a horde of orcs, a pack of wargs, one or more of the Nine, a spider colony or something similarly sinister.

Nothing had happened though, and his watch had been quiet, uneventful and actually rather dull – something that filled him with trepidation and a choking sense of dread. This was simply too good to be true, and if he had learned anything during the millennia he had already walked this world, it was that such things never lasted.

Besides, he had already exhausted his luck, since he had returned from Esgaroth two weeks ago, bearing Prince Legolas' letter and firmly convinced that he wouldn't live to see another new moon. But he was still alive, to his own substantial surprise. His liege's reaction had been … very interesting to say the least, just as he had thought. King Thranduil had not been happy about the fact that his son had spontaneously decided to visit Dale and would be gone for an indefinite amount of time.
It had been so bad that Anardir had asked, no, in fact pleaded his captain for an assignment as far away from the palace as possible, now that the Forest River was unnavigable and he wouldn't be able to travel to Lake-town until the beginning of the warm seasons. It wasn't that he was afraid of his lord, but every time the king saw him, Anardir, he was obviously reminded of his absent son, since a vein on his temple started throbbing nervously and his face darkened until everyone in his presence sought excuses to escape his company. And Thranduil wasn't exactly a cheerful elf to begin with, so it was really quite bad.

Anardir leaned back against the bark of the tree, humming a small song both to please the tree that had so graciously allowed him to climb it and to calm his own slightly frayed nerves. If the population of Mirkwood had thought that their lord and king had been in a bad mood before, they had been shown how very wrong they were when, eight days ago, a carrier pigeon from Erebor had arrived. That alone would probably have been enough to put the king in a bad mood on a good day – and apparently Thranduil hadn't had a good day in a long, long time – but this time had been exceptional.

After the king had calmed down a little and sent a reply, wild rumours began to spread, one more unlikely than the last. Anardir's favourite was the one in which Prince Legolas, Lord Celylith and young Estel had been taken captive by some unknown men for unknown purposes, had – of course – nearly been killed and then had had to be saved by the dwarf king and his men. The golden haired elf snorted. That was in fact a most ridiculous story, and he honestly couldn't see how anyone could believe such nonsense. But tales of a lost treasure and Prince Legolas' imminent return persisted to be told when the king was not around, and so Anardir suspected that a bit of truth was to be found in some of the rumours.

While the elf was still pondering this, the sound of hoofbeat could be heard, and he straightened himself quickly and gave a low whistle to alert the rest of his patrol. He slowly reached for his quiver and fitted an arrow to his bow, jumping down onto the lower branches of the tree to have a better view. Three or four horses were coming his way, and it might be what he had been dreading all the time…

When the horses finally came into view, Anardir found himself wishing for an orc horde, a dragon, a balrog or any other demon Morgoth Bauglir had ever created. 'Anything,' he thought desperately, 'Anything is better than … Prince Legolas.'

It was a rather unusual thought for him, for he was loyal to his prince and would have died for him without a second's hesitation, but to be the one who brought him home half-dead was not an enviable task. Well, half-dead might have been a slight exaggeration, but his prince didn't look well, that much was certain. Faint traces of healed bruises and cuts that only an elf's eye could see were visible on his face, and his left arm was tightly bandaged up to his shoulder. He also held himself more stiffly than usual, Anardir decided with a frown of concern while he was swiftly climbing down the tree, as was Celylith, even though the silver haired elf bore no visible marks that might have shown that he was injured. That Strider was not well was obvious, since there were cuts and bruises on his face, was definitely too pale for a mortal and seemed exhausted and thin.

Valar, why him? Again?

Anardir's feet touched the ground and he slowly walked up to the three horses that had stopped some distance away from him, half-hoping that his liege's son and his companions would disappear when he didn't acknowledge them. When no such thing happened, he sighed inwardly and gave a bow when he had reached the animals.

"Greetings, my lord," he greeted Legolas, the beautiful Elvish words being in stark contrast to his dark mood. "It gladdens my heart to see you return to us so soon."

Legolas smiled at the elven warrior, deciding to ignore the tired undertone in his voice.
"Greetings, Anardir. It is good to see you, my friend." He looked at the golden haired elf, obviously trying to find enough courage for his next question. "My father is awaiting our arrival?"

Anardir smiled darkly, deciding that this was the perfect time to pay the other back for making him deliver that accursed letter of his.
"Oh yes, my lord. He is expecting you with anticipation." He paused for a second, feeling wicked glee at seeing the other elf cringe. "With much, much anticipation."

"Oh," the prince made faintly, swallowing hard. "I thought as much." He gave the other members of the patrol that had materialised out of the woods a nod, and announced after a few moments, "We should not let him wait then, should we?"

A few minutes later, the group was already travelling on, and still the elven prince couldn't shake off the nagging feeling of dread that had settled over his senses. The gleam in Anardir's eyes had been anything but reassuring, and the fact that the golden haired elf had still been smiling darkly at them when they had ridden on just couldn't be a good sign.

Even though he had had five days to get used to the idea of returning to his father, ever since they had left Dale to be precise, it was still hard to accept that they were, in fact, home. The journey had been uneventful for once, and they had reached Esgaroth two days after they had set out from the valley of Dale.

The reunion between Owaeran and his family and Gwemyr had been heart-warming, and had been worth some of the trouble they had gone through. They had stayed with the trader and his family for the night, and had left the day before, leaving behind a happy family that was more than a little surprised to see any of them alive. Misien, Owaeran's wife, had tried to convince them to stay a bit longer since they were all looking far too thin and weak, especially the poor young boy (this time she had meant Aragorn), but Strider, Celylith and he had been far too eager to get back to the palace as soon as possible.

Legolas had to suppress a small smile when he thought of the short visit, especially of Seobryn and Owaeran's young daughter Seveawen. The two of them seemed to be on rather … friendly terms, and he could have sworn he had seen the two of them sneak off into the stables and return ten minutes later, looking slightly out of breath and decidedly dishevelled.

On one thing he agreed with Misien though: Aragorn was looking exhausted and too thin, and that was what he had been trying to tell that insufferably stubborn human the entire journey. He was very glad they were almost home, because he was rather sure that he would have to pick the ranger off the ground before soon otherwise. Travelling for five days had taken its toll on the young man who hadn't been anywhere near well when they had left Dale, and so Legolas was secretly wishing for Hithrawyn and the other healers who could simply drug Aragorn if he refused to co-operate as he had done so often these past five days. Besides, there was still his own arm they they could have a look at...

The journey back to the palace seemed to take no time at all, and all too soon they reached the broad alleyway that led up to the large, magically sealed stone gates that guarded the home of the wood-elves. There was no other elf in sight, nor had they met anyone since being greeted by Anardir and his patrol, and Legolas was beginning to suspect that they were either hiding or trying to find places from where they could watch how his father killed all of them.

As if on cue the three of them stopped their horses, looking with wide, frightened eyes at the open gates that could be seen some hundred yards in the distance.
"Well," the elven prince said, looking at his companions wryly, "Who wants to go first?"

Celylith and Aragorn traded a quizzical look and turned to look at the fair haired prince, giving him an identical stare that very clearly said that there was no way one of them was crossing the gates before Legolas. Legolas sighed, hanging his head.

"Aren't you supposed to be my friends and protect me?"

"Oh no," Aragorn said quickly and shook his head, deciding that he was actually looking forward to seeing Hithrawyn again. He was feeling quite miserable, and he had indeed overstrained himself, but that wasn't something he would admit to his elven friends.

Celylith shook his head as well, eyes round in his fair face.
"Not if the matter involves your father, my friend. I will stay in the background and hope to become invisible."

Legolas snorted softly and urged Rashwe forwards, Aragorn and Celylith trailing after him.
"You may succeed with my father, my friend, but I fear that no force on Arda could make your father overlook you."

Celylith simply gulped, eyes darting nervously to the sides. The way he saw it, his father would respectfully wait until the king had killed Legolas and would then take him by the ear like a disobedient elfling and drag him to their home to kill him in a more private manner. The silver haired elf sighed as they neared the gates, ignoring the greetings the guards called out, all sounding much too smug in his opinion. He was truly envying Aragorn at the moment, who would have some more time to come up with a reasonable explanation for all this until he had to face his father.

Before he could even think of proper words to greet his liege and his father – dear Elbereth, especially his father – they had passed the gates and were in the huge courtyard, and only a second later they stopped in front of the large marble steps that led up to the main building.

The three of them dismounted, and Celylith moved over to the young ranger to steady him when he stumbled, weariness and exhaustion finally catching up with the mortal. A few seconds later he finally found the courage to look up, and swallowed nervously when he saw the group of elves that had assembled on the bottom steps of the stairs.

In front stood the king of course, calm and regal as always in his dark green robes, but there was a dangerous sparkle in his blue eyes that usually warned all who knew him to seek cover, and to seek it now. Behind him he could see Hithrawyn, whose face was twitching slightly and had assumed a purple colour Celylith had never before seen on another being's face, some other healers, some high ranking advisors and friends of the king and … Celythramir, his father.

Celylith suppressed the urge to turn and run away, telling himself that this behaviour would be more than a little undignified, and in addition to that he wouldn't get far anyway. He once again returned his gaze to his father, who looked much like him, for his hair had the same silver colour as his, even though his eyes were not dark blue, but green. Lord Celythramir was one of the king's advisors who was in charge of Mirkwood's defences, a most responsible position indeed, and he also was one of the best warriors at the king's court, even though he seldom strayed from the palace of late. But, right now, everybody could believe that he could kill a dozen orcs just to warm up a little, considering the expression on his face that bordered on positively dangerous.

The silver haired elf hung his head. He was doomed.

Next to him, his companions had just come to the same conclusion and Legolas took a step forward and bowed before his father and king, having decided that if he had to die, he would die in proper style.
"Mae govannen, adar."

A flash of emotion could be seen on the golden haired king's face, too quickly to be identified.
"Mae govannen, ion nín."
He looked at the three of them, taking in their numerous half-healed injuries and added in a slightly softer voice, "Anna i-'ell nin beriannen telich dan na var vín."

"Thank you, ada," Legolas said and nodded his head, noting that his back still wasn't happy about things such as bowing and straightening up. "We are sorry we're a little late."

Thranduil arched a golden eyebrow, wondering once again from where his son had got his opinions about the meaning of the terms "a little", "not much" and "fine". Certainly not from his side of the family.
"A little? Our agreement was two weeks!"

Legolas winced, and he could almost see how his friends behind him tried their best to become invisible.
"Ah, we go involved in something unanticipated and things simply … developed from then on…"

"So I've heard," Thranduil agreed silently, giving his son a long look. "I've been informed about that and many other interesting things by the King of Erebor." He paused, and then clarified, "The dwarf king of Erebor."

The elven prince resisted the urge to close his eyes. Great Manwë, all he wanted was a quick death…
"Lord Dáin was indeed most helpful." He stopped, terrified. Had he really just said that? Why had he said that? He almost turned to glare at his human friend. Aragorn must be rubbing off on him…

"I see." Thranduil's voice was barely above a whisper, and the dangerous sparkle in his eyes grew even brighter. "We will discuss this, my son. After all of you have spent as much time in the healing wing as Master Hithrawyn sees fit."

Under any other circumstances Legolas would have protested, but right now he was too tired and feeling too relieved that his father hadn't ripped off his head yet to argue about it.
"Yes, my lord."

Hithrawyn and the other healers rushed forwards, attracted to the swaying, bruised and pale figure of Aragorn like bees to honey, and Thranduil stepped closer to his son, his eyes travelling over the bandages on Legolas' arm to finally come to rest on his face.

"Are you alright, my son?" he asked, in a softer tone of voice. When the younger elf nodded soundlessly, he reached out and brushed a strand of fair hair out of his son's face, allowing his hand to linger close to his face for a moment. "Why do you insist on scaring me thus?" he added, the rare public display of affection making Legolas feel even more miserable and guilty than he already did.

The elven prince looked at his father only to lower his eyes again, abashed.
"I am sorry, ada, I didn't mean to. I would never do it on purpose, but it was unavoidable." He raised his head, quiet conviction on his face. "I couldn't just return home and let these men get away with what they'd done to Aragorn. I couldn't."

The golden haired king smiled at his child. The young one was so stubborn, and still so protective – just like his mother. Every time Thranduil looked at his son he saw his wife reflected in these silver-blue eyes of his or in his easy smile, and he knew that that was the reason why he was so afraid for him. He wasn't only afraid to lose his only child, he was also afraid of losing the last bit of his beloved queen he had still left.

"I know," he shook his head slightly, taking Legolas' arm and following Hithrawyn and the other healers that had already descended on the young ranger and Celylith and were marching them off to the healing chambers. The young man looked quite happy to let them have their way while Celylith was smiling nervously at his father, who was walking next to him, and was trying to look innocent and as healthy as possible.

"I know," he repeated. "In fact, I would probably have been disappointed if you had."

"You would have?" Legolas asked, enjoying being home so much that he could even forget about the lecture that was waiting for him.

The Elvenking smiled fondly.
"Aye, my son, I would have. I would have been very surprised had you returned in one piece as well. You never manage to."

Legolas looked at his father in indignation, noting with some dread that they had almost reached the healing wing.
"That is not true! I managed to come back unscathed when we delivered that message to the Lady Galadriel when the Easterlings came close to invading Wilderland again!"

"Oh yes, I remember. That was nearly 240 years ago."

"Oh," Legolas said faintly and smiled. "That long?"

Thranduil shook his head as he delivered his troublesome child into the waiting hands of a healer.
"Yes, Legolas. That long."

He was still shaking his head when he turned around and slowly began to make his way over to his study to compose a message to Lord Elrond to let him know that his human son had returned to Mirkwood alive, inwardly thanking the Valar that all three of them were safe. No, he decided after a moment, "alive" didn't sound so good, he would write "in one piece", even though it wasn't exactly the truth.

There was no reason to put the other elf lord through the same he had been through ever since he had received that letter from Dale these few days ago, after all.

Many, many hours later Legolas soundlessly sneaked into his human friend's room, inwardly thanking the Valar that it was a junior healer and not Hithrawyn himself who was supervising the healing wing at this time of night.

The elven prince wasn't sure where exactly the master healer was, even though he strongly suspected that the other elf was right now packing for his trip to the Grey Havens. Hithrawyn had not been happy about their respective states of health, and had voiced his feelings openly and, in his opinion, more often than necessary. Equally unnecessary and to him incomprehensible was the healer's decision to keep all of them in the healing wing for the night; Celylith and him until tomorrow and Aragorn for several more days. While their wounds could not be helped by keeping them in the halls of healing – Legolas was very happy that the other elf had seen that as well – Aragorn was not in the condition to go anywhere, something which everyone agreed on except the man in question of course.

Legolas grinned slightly when he remembered the indignation on his human friend's face when Hithrawyn had informed him, admittedly with a smug expression on his face, that he would remain here for at least three or four more days until his body had sufficiently recovered from his injuries and the strain of their recent journey. The prince still felt rather guilty about the man's poor health, but Aragorn hadn't wanted to see that travelling was too strenuous for him, so there had been nothing he or Celylith could have done save drugging him or chaining him to the wall of his room to hold him back.

The fair haired elf quickly scanned the room Hithrawyn had ordered Aragorn to stay in under pain of death, but his keen eyes could find no trace of the man. He frowned slightly as he stepped further into the room. Surely Aragorn was not stupid enough to try to escape yet? Hithrawyn was not in a very good mood right now, and the ranger just might find himself in the dungeons for a few days if he was caught during such an attempt.

Legolas stopped next to the bed and looked at the rumpled sheets, the only indication that the young ranger had spent any time in this room at all. Where could that stubborn human be? Well, he was not with Celylith, that much was sure since Legolas had just been in his room to make sure that he was resting comfortably – and to ascertain that he was still there and had not disappeared. He knew it was ridiculous, but a small part of him was still afraid that his silver haired friend would vanish and leave him behind once more.

But Celylith had done nothing of that sort, and when the elven prince had left him a few minutes ago, he had been sleeping peacefully, and there had been no-one else in his room. Legolas' eyes wandered through the dark room, and when he saw the curtains that moved slightly in the night's breeze, he shook his head, suddenly knowing where Aragorn was. Sighing softly, he grabbed the top blanket and made his way over to the softly swaying cloth and, pushing it aside, stepped out onto the balcony.

As he had suspected, Aragorn was there, sitting on the railing with his legs dangling over the edge of the balustrade, wearing only a shirt, a robe and his numerous bandages, of course. Legolas shook his head. How had this young one managed to survive for nearly two dozen years? Suddenly he understood Lord Elrond's and the twins' protective behaviour a lot better; sometimes it seemed to him that Aragorn wanted to contract all illnesses he possibly could.

"Are you planning to stand there all night?"

The soft, smiling voice of the man brought Legolas out of his thoughts, and the elf stepped closer, a reproachful expression on his face.

"You are going to catch your death for sure, Aragorn! What are you thinking?" He quickly climbed onto the railing, wincing slightly when his freshly bandaged back protested, and draped the blanket he had brought over the human's shoulders. "Just imagine what Hithrawyn will say when he finds you here!"

"Exactly!" Aragorn grinned, raising a dark eyebrow.

"Estel!" Legolas exclaimed in mock horror. "Are you planning to drive that poor elf insane?"

"No," the man shook his head, "It's just an interesting side effect." He turned serious again, looking at his friend earnestly. "What are you doing here? How are you? What about Celylith, and what did your father say?"

Legolas smiled, beginning to count on his fingers.

"What did my father say? Well, a lot, most of which I shall try to forget as soon as possible. But you were right, he suddenly grew very quiet when I presented him with that stone, but I think that is only a short delay." He fell silent for a second. "It is truly beautiful, but I think what pleases him most is the fact that it looks so much like the Arkenstone that is now lost to the dwarves as well." He shook his head, tearing his thoughts away from the jewel that was now safely in his father's treasury. "What about Celylith? As far as I know he is asleep, after having convinced his father that the both of us are to blame for everything and he is completely innocent, traitor that he is. How am I? I am well, and Hithrawyn bade me tell you that you set my arm most professionally. He says that it will most likely heal, even though that last blow was anything but helpful. And what am I doing here? Well, I could easily ask the same of you, could I not?"

"I see," Aragorn mumbled, letting his gaze wander over the moonlit palace gardens. Slender, leafless branches stretched towards the heavens like the fingers of giants, and their grace and beauty astonished the man anew every time he saw them. "I am glad to hear that I did no additional damage when I set your arm. I am very relieved to hear it."

Legolas shook his head slightly. He was still avoiding his questions, that stubborn human!
"That is well, but you did not answer my question." He studied the emotionless face of the man next to him. "Are you afraid of going to sleep?"

The young man looked at him, clearly surprised.
"Oh, you mean am I having nightmares again? No," he shook his head, "Nothing worse than usual." Legolas raised an eyebrow, and he hurried to continue. "I have bad dreams once in a while, yes, but there is nothing to be done about that. They are just normal nightmares, nothing like the ones I had before." He smiled at the elf. "Those are gone, thank Ilúvatar."

"Then what is it?" Legolas asked, touching the ranger's shoulder lightly. "You need to rest; you have clearly overstrained yourself, reckless human, just as I told you."

"Nothing," Aragorn shook his head, "Truly, I was just thinking."


"And I have come to the conclusion that you were right, of course. Not all humans are alike; there are many who are true and honest and kind. Owaeran and his family for example, or Seobryn, or, from what my family tells me, my human parents and many of the ranger that yet remain."

He paused, fiddling with the edges of the blanket Legolas had thrown over his shoulders. "What we've been taught is true, Legolas. The heart of Men is weak, and many of the second born are narrow-minded, treacherous and false." Aragorn raised his head and looked at the fair haired elf with serious grey eyes, reminding the prince very much of Lord Elrond all of the sudden. "But there is hope yet for Men, my friend. There is hope yet."

Legolas smiled at the young human who was sitting next to him, dark blue bruises contrasting starkly against the pallor of his skin, a large blanket draped over his shoulders, and inwardly shook his head at the twists of fate. Ilúvatar's will was a most wondrous thing indeed.

"Yes, Estel," he agreed softly, "There is hope yet. More than you may realise."

The ranger smiled back at him, and as one they turned back to the dark, peaceful gardens beneath their feet, enjoying the quiet serenity of the night.

They sat there for a long time side by side, and when the stars began to dim and fade in the dark sky, making way for the sun that would rise above the horizon soon, Legolas looked at the calm face of his friend and smiled softly when he saw nothing but peace and contentment in Aragorn's eyes.

All would be well.

The End

edain - humans, men
mellonamin - my friend

dúnadan - 'Man of the West', ranger
Mírdain - the jewel smiths of Eregion who were under the lordship of Celebrimbor
naugrim - 'Stunted People', dwarves

Mae govannen, adar - Well met, father
Mae govannen, ion nín - Well met, my son
Anna i-'ell nin beriannen telich dan na var vín - It makes me glad that you have returned to our home safely
ada - father (daddy)


A few hundred miles to the East, a servant was standing in front of a pair of dark oaken doors. The man was clearly nervous, and he was eyeing the wings of the door with a fearful expression on his face that was very close to terrified.

He needed to go in there. If he didn't go in there his lord would be most displeased that he hadn't received the information he was waiting for right away, and it was never a good idea to displease his lord. The only problem was that the news his lord was waiting for wasn't good news, it was in fact news so bad that only the term "appalling" satisfied.

Bad news made his lord unhappy. It was never a good idea to be around when his lord was unhappy.

The servant took a deep breath, plucked up all the courage he still had and raised his hand to knock. People had been killed for delivering much better messages, and he fully expected to follow them soon, in a most unpleasant and violent matter in all likelihood.

His knock was answered by a voice that was as cold as the unheated and dark corridors, and the last of the man's hopes were dashes as effectively as a troll's foot squashed a beetle. He gripped the door handle and carefully opened the door, his eyes instantly darting to the tall figure by the window. The servant patiently waited for his liege to turn around, studying the other man's costly, dark clothing, firmly convinced that it would be the last thing he would ever see. When the dark-clad man finally turned to face him, he found himself praying that the message his lord had received a few hours prior had been a good one, if not, his death might prove to be even more painful.


The servant swallowed, his throat suddenly dry and feeling as if filled with choking sand.
"We have news from Dale, my lord."

The other man drew back a little so that his face was hidden in the darkness that lay heavily upon the room, but it was obvious that his interest had been kindled.

The servant hung his head, but decided to get this over with as soon as possible.
"The rumours were true, sir. They … have failed." He averted his eyes and studied the carpet under his feet, talking faster now. "The reports are still confused and rather vague, but it appears that Adruran and his men were captured before they could get to the treasure. There are only a handful of survivors; Adruran and the other officers were killed and the gold destroyed, it seems."

"You are sure about that?" the soft, menacing voice interrupted the silence that weighed on the room.

"Yes, my lord. It is not yet clear how it happened, but our men are dead."

This statement was only met with silence, something that even increased the servant's fear, something he would have thought highly unlikely until now. After what felt like an eternity, the figure at the window nodded his head, the movement only to be suspected in the darkness, his voice level and calm.

"Very well. Arrange for the survivors to have some 'accidents', of course without attracting any unnecessary attention. They must not be allowed to talk." He gave the cowering figure of the servant a dark look and turned to the dark wooden table that stood in the one corner of the room, lit by two heavy candlesticks and covered with papers. "You're dismissed."

The man gave a deep bow, and, hardly daring to believe his luck, exited the room. This had never before happened, he thought as he all but fled from his lord's quarters, never before had someone been the bearer of such horrible news and lived to tell the tale. His liege took the saying "to kill the messenger" quite literally. But then again, he decided as he disappeared round a corner as quickly as possible, he wasn't complaining. No, not at all.

Back in the dark room, the man slowly sat down on a carved, beautifully decorated chair and leaned back, shortly closing his eyes. So Adruran had failed; he had indeed not expected it. He would have to gather as much information as possible on this and find out what had caused his best operative's demise. Adruran had never before failed him, so this time the obstacles he had faced had to be trying ones indeed.

He opened his eyes again and looked at the paper that lay on his desktop, the edges pinned down by small metal weights to prevent the heavy parchment from coiling up again. Ever since his captain's reports had suddenly stopped nearly ten days ago he had been suspecting something had been wrong, and when the first rumours had reached his ears, rumours that told about treasure, conspiracies and fights in Dale and Erebor, the suspicions had turned into certainty. His men had failed, and he wouldn't get what he so urgently needed: Money.

The man took up a paperknife, turning it over in his hands. Money, such an essential thing, and, in the quantities he needed, extremely hard to amass. On any other day the news that his men had failed and were dead (whereas the first was a lot worse than the last) would have been a disaster, especially now that time was beginning to run out. On any other day he would have fumed and killed at least the servant who had delivered the catastrophic news, but the paper that lay in front of him changed all that.

He once again leaned forward, studying the clear letters, letters that had clearly been drawn by the hand of a scribe. What interested him more than the font was what it said, naturally, and that was interesting indeed. In short, it was an offer. A very surprising, most welcome and rather suspicious offer, an offer that presented him with a chance of fulfilling his plans after all. The person who had signed this letter offered him as much money as he needed, for whatever purposes he may have in mind, and he was asking for nothing in return.

He leaned back in his chair, his face marred with a frown. There he was back at that again, money. He had very early understood what many other rulers realised far, far later, if they realised it at all, that was: Money was everything.
Many who sought dominion over others thought that money would materialise as an added bonus to the power they craved, but he knew better: Money was power. Money gave you the power to buy yourself support, obedience and ... soldiers. Money enabled you to buy yourself an army, an army that would ensure that you acquired even more money, and more power.

And money was what he would need to finally take back what should be his, what would have been his if it hadn't been taken away from his ancestors by an evil fate. Vast sums of money, money he had hoped to acquire in form of the treasure that had been rumoured to be buried somewhere in the foothills of the Lonely Mountain, forgotten ever since the dragon had been slain.

The man ran a hand over tired eyes, looking back at the parchment. He was no fool; he realised very well that whoever it was that was making this offer had other aims and objectives to which he very likely didn't want to attract any unwanted attention. This mysterious person was probably hoping that he would disctract this part of Middle-Earth long enough so that he could press ahead with his own plans, and to be honest, he didn't care in the slightest. Had there been any being in a radius of a few hundred leagues that was powerful enough to make this offer, he would know about it, and the rest of the world did not interest him in the slightest.
He didn't want to rule all of Middle-earth, he didn't even want to rule all of the North; all he wanted was what he was entitled to, and for that he needed gold, and a lot of it. Gold this person was willing to provide.

The dark-clad man watched how the candles burnt lower and lower and the light in the room grew even dimmer. The messenger who had delivered the letter was still here, all he needed to do was draft an answer and send him back to his Master. It would be so easy … and yet it held so many dangers whose magnitude could not yet be calculated…

As it grew darker his eyes returned to the parchment, once again wandering over the words to come to a stop at the bottom of the document where only a single letter could be seen. That by itself would not have been so extraordinary, since he really didn't expect the author to sign with his entire name, but the fact that it was a single elven rune was slightly unusual. It was the letter whose elven name was Silme, starlight, standing for the letter 'S'.

He mulled over this for some time, but try as he might, he couldn't think of anyone who could have made this offer, and certainly not of anyone whose name began with 'S'. It didn't matter anyway, he decided as the flame of the remaining candle began to flicker, whoever this person was, he was not from anywhere near his realm, and it could hardly be of interest to him what he was planning. He could do whatever he wanted in his part of Middle-earth; all he wanted were these lands, nothing more…

The man remained where he was for a long time, not even noticing when a servant timidly opened the door in the middle of the night and promptly closed it again when she saw her motionless lord, eerily lit by a single, flickering candle.

He was still sitting there when the second candle died down, plunging the room into sudden darkness, and in the moment the tiny light source was extinguished and the blackness of a starless night filled the room, he began to smile.

*g* Those who can guess who made the offer get a Celylith clone! Yes, I know that he didn't die after all, but since Alisha B stole his DNA while he was unconscious, I can make them after all! Yay! Plus, it's not that hard to guess, now is it? And I DO know that there are lots of questions unanswered! *evil grin* What about Legolas' arm? Who the heck is this evil guy? What will Elrond say once he gets Thranduil's letter? Will poor Hithrawyn journey to the havens? Lots of questions that unfortunately will be answered in the next story - just to make sure you read that one as well!

Okay, once again I want to thank a few people.

First, all those who have prodded me to write a sequel to "An Eye For An Eye", which I hadn't really contemplated, really. So, without you guys this story would never have been started!

Second, again, my little sister and her boyfriend, for coming up with the most interesting ways of killing/torturing/maiming and generally hurting various people, including, sometimes, our favourite elven prince and ranger. She is at least as bad as I am!

And last but certainly not least, all my lovely reviewers for supporting and encouraging me. I got over a thousand reviews!! *sits stunned* Every time I was stuck or just couldn't think of a way to get them out of _that_ mess, your wonderful ideas and suggestions helped me get out of the corner I had written myself into. Thanks to you the cage in the cellar in which I keep the plot bunnies is starting to burst at the seams, but that's a small price to pay for your wonderful support. Your reviews were funny, helpful and just made my day more times than I can count! Thank you all VERY MUCH!!! *huggles the lot of them*

I really hope you enjoyed my weird little story, believe me when I say that I enjoyed it enormously! Legolas and Aragorn wouldn't agree, but what do THEY know? *g*

Okay, so I would appreciate a last review telling me what you think now that the whole thing is finished (*Nili's alter ego gives readers threatening looks*), and I will see all of you in a month or a little bit longer when I start posting "To Walk in Night", story number three. I don't do previews, sorry, but I guess most of you have an idea what it's going to be about, right?


Additional A/N:

Aratfeniel -
Hm, the Redwall Series? Never heard of those... To be honest, I don't read fantasy - if that IS fantasy at all! *g* - except for everything LOTR related of course. But otherwise I think it's a little bit too ... unreal. I know, I know, that's rather strange coming from someone who writes stories about elves and dwarves and orcs and stuff... *g* Your sister nominated Gollum to be what? Sorry, I think I missed something there...
TrinityTheSheDevil - Yes, I updated! Seriously, why does everbody act so surprised? It's not as if I never update or anything.. *walks off grumbling under her breath* I saw some pictures of what wee little Isabel did, I do hope you're okay? Even a power cut can be rather nasty... *g* Well, I guess you had at least fun in that closet of yours with Aragorn, and no, I will NOT ask what you two were doing in there. Not. *g*
Andboriel Swann - *hangs head* Okay okay, it was not a cliffy, I admit that. No real cliffy anyway. It's great you liked my weird little story, thank you a lot for your reviews!
LOTRFaith - *g* It's okay, it's quite easy to get confused sometimes - I for my part am always having a hard time remembering the names of people's OCs - it's horrible! Even if the story's 20 chapters long I can't remember who's who! It's very embarassing... *g* The family thing was more or less because of my brother, and since he's no longer living at home, it wasn't really solvable, which is what made it so futile! *sighs* Family...
Lita of Jupiter - Wow, only the second review and already so long! Thank you! Okay... This is taking place in the winter of the year 2953 (TA), making Estel 22 3/4. Something like that. *g* LOL, an evil badger bent on universal domination? Okay, that IS an interesting image... *snickers* The Noldorin side of the force? *gives her odd looks* Okaaaayyy, if you say so... I don't know if Estel's already met Galadriel and Celeborn, and to be honest, I cold never really make up my mind about it. I will probably have to decide one of these days, but right now I simly don't know... And you tell me about it! Healers are indeed horrible creatures! 4/5 of my family are doctors, so I really know what it's like...
Gwyn - Oh, we do indeed know that. That they're not THAT lucky, I mean, where would be the fun if they were? *huggles Legolas* You're right, he is a little hero, isn't he? A bit too much for his own good, actually... I'm very glad you liked the last chapter, and thank you very much for all your reviews!
Maranwe1 - Don't glare at me! Honestly, if you're not on the list I didn't get the review, I always check everthing twice - and yes, I am insane because of that... I'm very sorry, your review probably got lost in the chaos that is FF.net. *shrugs* Sorry. *nods* Yes, Legolas and Aragorn and Celylith really are doing a few 'super-human feats', or superelven, whichever you prefer. Well, it would be boring if it were differently, and you know what people say: If you're fighting for your life you get awfully motivated and can do amazing things... The whole fic is 449 pages long now, and yes, that's too much. It's a blody novel, for crying out loud! Ending a story with a cliffy - yes, in fact, I have heard of one, or two. HaloGatomon, for example, she is EVIL. LOL, yes, I remember school only too well, and I'm glad my humour is rubbing off on you. There can never be too many sarcastic people... *g*
Strider's Girl - I know! Rub it in, will you!? I know they're awfully long, this on is too long again, but it seems that I can't get them to _shut up_... *seethes* Okay, I'm calm now... *g* Great you liked the little reunion, it was rather hard to write because I didn't want them to 'overreact'. They may be elves, but they're still males, right? Thanks for all your reviews!
Nilbrethiliel - Trish! Hey! Ich dachte schon, auch du seist in der Versenkung verschwunden! *knuddelt* Schoen, dass dem nicht so ist; ich hatte schon angefangen, dich zu vermissen! Und Recht hast du ja, von allem was ich hoere siond Vordiplome nicht gerade 'ne Menge Spass... LOL, Legolas, der mit einem oszillierenden Lächlen durch die Weltgeschichte' kriecht? Ich gebe zu, dieser Vergleich ist mir noch nicht gekommen... *g* Toll, dass dir die Schlacht gefallen hat, das ist naemlich nichts, was ich uebermaessig gerne schreibe - aber wen du's mochtest, dann ist ja gut! Danke fuer die Review!
Mouse5 - Well, in fact I update when it's evening/night here, so I posted the last chapter at 2 am. That's day over in Australia or wherever you are? Cool... *g* And you really called your husband and asked him to send the chapter to you? Wow, that's .. obsessed, I guess. *g* But it's very flattering as well... Great you liked the fight - I hate writing torture and fight scenes, really! Thanks a lot for all your kind words and compliments, and for your faithful reviewing! *huggles*
XsilicaX - It's all too long, much too long if you ask me! The whole story is 449 pages long - that's a bloody novel! *evil smirk* Yes, I did the switching from one fight to the other on purpose, and yay, it worked! Cathy hates me now! *g* Your idea about melting the snow is very good, but you're right, they would have needed time for that - which was the one thing they didn't. Oh, and a good plan, that was something they didn't have either... *g* Okay, the 'malicious intend' was like 'safe' and 'save', I always get things like that mixed up, and it's hard to find such tiny mistakes when proof-reading. And the who/that thing really confuses me, to be honest. I _know_ who is for persons and that/which for things, BUT one of my English teachers once said that that could also be used when who could be used, like "the man that's over there' or things like that. So, if you're right - and please tell me - then that person was wrong and everything I learned in 8th grade was wrong. *sighs* Thanks for pointing it out though, and thanks so much for all your wonderful reviews!
Leggylover03 - *g* Once again, I don't know how to tell you, but nobody will go anywhere near Rivendell in the sequel, and that is also the reason why Elrond very likely will not be in the next story. BUT they get back to Mirkwood this chapter, so that's something, right? Right? *g*
Cestari - Well, 'soon' is a matter of definition, is it not? I mean, I think end of October is rather soon, hm? *evil grin* Then again, I guess you'll disagree with me... And yes, their father might get rather close to feeding them to balrogs or similarly big and evil things! *g* Great you liked the chappie, thanks for the review!
Sirithiliel - Hmm, that is a very good question ... I guess they put them on their ponies, or they take Aragorn and Co.'s own horses. I mean, I guess they wouldn't let their riders out of their sights in the near future! Oh, and you _will_ see Thranduil's face, believe me. *evil snicker* Oh yes, you will...
Imbefaniel - Climbing over pergolas? Really? I nearly broke my neck falling _off_ one once, it was all rather nasty, lots of blood and all that - head injuries bleed a lot! *shrugs* I deserved it, I guess... You want to add pirates to an elf fic? Uhm, okay, that sounds interesting, to say the least. *g* Hope you're better and didn't have a fever, thanks a lot for al your reviews!
Zinnith - *g* I guess, the worst thing possible is a grandmother who is also a doctor/healer! I mean, that would be positively terrifying! I'm SURE you would LOVE to take care of Aragorn for a while, but since he's mine and MINE alone there's absolutely no way. Plus, I still need him for this chapter, and after that he is going to take a vacation, a very long vacation. To get well again so I can torture him in the next story... *evil grin*
Carrie - Eek, an eye operation? I hope it's not too bad, I'm mortally afraid of hospitals, doctors, medicine and things like that, and an eye operation sound terrible! Great you agree with me on Adruran though, I thought he was too clever to let himself be killed or get captured. And I liked him! *huggles resisting captain* As I said in the A/N, no Elrond or the twins in the next chapter, but a few of them might turn up for the next story. Oh, you're studying for a MA? From what I've heard it's VERY hard work - a friend of mine who's at the LSE in London is thinking about doing it right now, but it's not sure yet because of all the work... Thanks for aöö your reviews, I greatly enjoyed them!
Fliewatuet - Yes, they're alive, far from well, yes, but definitely alive. Even if they just might die after all when their respective fathers get their hands on them... *evil grin* And don't worry about the hugs, I've already hugged them half to death - it's so much fun! *nods* You're right! Adruran is far too clever to die like this, and I liked him too, from the very beginning to be honest. He's not just black and white, he's grey, and that makes the whole thing interesting, right? *g*
Shaz1 - It was my pleasure to make you smile by announcing a sequel! *g* Great you liked the last chapter, thanks a lot for the review!
Halo - *watches her whack Geran and Hanar with the inflatable hammer of DOOM* Well, if you're having fun, go on... *g* And yes, if you want to go to Mandos and ask him to keep them there for a while instead of letting them journey on - I'm sure he'll be happy to oblige! Glad you liked the reunion, and I'm STILL waiting for an update! This is getting slightly ridiculous, you know... *evil look*
Tapetum Lucidum - Great you liked the length, this one is about the same length so you should like it too! Great you liked the batte and all, it's always very hard to write, at least for me. Torture and battle scenes are nothing I enjoy... Really! Stop laughing this instant! As mentioned in the A/N, we won't be seeing Elrond's reaction, but we WILL see Thranduil's. That's better than nothing, right? *nods* Right.
Firniswin - *g* 'Sweet in a manly sort of way'? Well, I guess you could say that, and it sounds cute, too... Well, as I said, no, ther sequel won't come out next week, and not in the week after that, sorry, but I do have a RL, sometimes at least... *g* And no, I won't stop writing, not for a bit, anyway. So, at least one other story!
Coreinha - Uhm, I didn't say you were allowed to keep them, I merely said you could have them back after the last chapter. See ... *takes dwarves, Aragorn, Legolas and Celylith out of Cor's pocket* ... I need them for this chapter, and after that they need a little vacation to recuperate so I can torture them in the next story. Deal? *evil grin* That's what I thought...
Itheilden - LOL, I really liked your ideas! I liked the second one better though, sounds a lot more humiliating... *evil grin* Perhaps I'll do something like this, we'll see... *g* I do in fact not enjoy writing torture, not one bit, but the things I do for you guys... *sighs* Okay, great you liked it, and thanks a lot for reviewing!
CrazyLOTRfan - *g* Yes, Geran's indeed dead, deader than dead, actually... Great I managed to make you smile! No cliffies anymore I'm afraid, but you can't have everything, I guess... Thanks a lot for all your wonderful reviews!
Nikara - I can just imagine Freud trying to analyse someone like Sauron or Thranduil... *snickers* I guess Sauron does all the things he does just because he never had a real mother or something like that... Well, it wasn't update on Sunday but update on Monday, that's something too, right? *hangs head* Sorry...
Jazmin3 Firewing - Okaaaayy, then I won't huggle you. It's more of a saying anyway ... you do realise that I can't really huggle you, right? *g* Huh, Geran really WAS unpopular - I never thought you guys hated him that much. But I kinda liked his little invention, just from the professional point of view, of course. I don't like to torture my characters after all, noo... *g*
Critternut - Well, in fact I would LOVE to keep torturing them forever, but I really don't have the time. Unfortunately. *g* Well, I do like the dwarves in fact, I think they're quite elvish, in a way, even if you shouldn't tell them that, I guess... But Legolas' father will find out about this, believe me, oh he will... *evil grin* It wouldn't be half as funny otherwise, right? I hope you're better now and that he room has stopped spinning, and thanks a lot for reviewing anyway!
Firnsarnien - LOL, yes, everyone's hurt, it wouldn't be fair otherwise, right? And don't worry, no-one has noticed that you drool when thinking about elf pain ... what? Oh, I guess I shouldn't have said that... *g* Well, if Celylith would have done even a third of what you proposed, this story would have turned into Slash all of the sudden - and we can't have that, right? No, I don't write Slash, and I never will, Ilúvatar help me... *blushes* Thanks a lot for your very very nice compliments! Great you liked it so much! *huggles*
Alex Mistress Squirrel - *grins smugly* Yes, I am the Queen of Suspense, and everyone must bow before me! On your knees, underlings! *shakes head and pushes alter ego back to the back of her mind* See what you've done? She's cracked now, and it's all your fault! You've given her delusions of grandeur! *g* Great you liked the chapter, thanks a lot for all your reviews!
Vampy2k - Well, yes, I'll admit that Celylith is not very good at looking after the two of them, but you have to cut him some slack, I mean, he was unconscious most of the time! Perhaps he'll be better in the next story ... *thinks about it* .. Nah, I don't think so... *evil grin* Well, as I said, no-one will return to Rivendell in this chapter, and neither will they in the next story, I'm afraid. Sorry about that; and thanks a lot for reviewing!
Amelie - I know. All computers are like that, they're evil and vengeful and EVIL, and did I mention evil? And mine hates me, I'm sure about that... *g* You're a sneaky little thing, going online only when your mother is away - understandable though. When I was still a bit younger my mother was just the same... Still is, to be honest, but since I am grown-up and 4 or 5 inches taller than her, it's not really that bad anymore... *g* You have just given me a rather good idea with your suggestion that Crlylith runs into Adruran in the next story - maybe I'll use it. Thanks! Congrats! That sentence was rather good. Well, there're a few mistakes in it, so it should be "Ich wünschte mir ich könnte Deutsch sprechen, weil ich dann nicht den dummen Übersetzer würde verwenden müssen." It makes perfect sense ans I'm very proud of you, sine German really is a hard language to learn - not like English which is rather easy. Well, thanks a lot for all your reviews! *huggles* Thanks!
TigerLily713 - Well, yes, it was rather long, and so is this one. Literally long enough for two chapters, but I don't want to have 27 chapters in the end. 26 is much nicer. Don't tell me, I'm mad, I know... *g* Thanks a lot for all your compliments, and thanks a lot for your faithful reviewing!
Zam - Awww, poor Zam is stressed out, poor baby... *fights in vain to keep a straight face and dissolves into giggles* Mhahahahah! You're stressed and I am not right now, life is good... *evil grin* LOL, your little fight with that man somehow reminded me of Spaceballs, you know, with Lone Starr and Lord Helmet... *giggles* So Lina is confusing poor Celylith? That's evil! Tell her she's an evil little thing for doing that to an innocent, helpless, injured little elfling! And I agree, Nabur is sweet. You know, if you're very nice and friendly next review I just might put him into the next story. Yes, I might... *evil grin* Adruran is indeed cool, that was why I let him live. Cool people survive, boring ones don't - Nili's Theory of Evolution! *g* And yes, you're right, they will go to Erebor, and there will be dwarves, and they will get lectured. You're right, calm down. *huggles Zam* Thank you for all your reviews! They were always the highlight of my day, and I truly hope that you and Celylith will get married and be happy! *short pause* I doubt it though... *g*
Carrie5 - LOL, you're right Trish would have loved to give the Kiss of Life to poor ickle Celylith and was rather disappointed I wouldn't let her. But I didn't want to give the lad a heart attack, so.... *g* You want to do what? Found a Kill Nili Foundation? I would think twice before doing that, mate, or I just might lose all interest in writing and you'll NEVER find out who that Evil Dude is... *threatening, evil look* It takes you 'a little longer' to post? A LITTLE? You call that LITTLE? *seethes* Little, I'll show you... *mumbles under her breath* And I don't know why the chapters are so long either, this one's about 30 pages long! That's insane! *sobs* It's horrible, I can't make them shut up... Okay, I hope your exam goes well, and POST! Update! Whatever you want to call it, just do it! *glares*
Aurienia - You! Squeeee! *latches onto her and huggles her* I missed you! I thought I had written something that upset you! But now that I know that it was just your RL I am very glad! *grins broadly* Thank you, btw! I am quite proud of a few of the cliffies myself - I love writing cliffies, did I mention that? *g* And yes, I think Celylith will be in the sequel, but not as much as in this one, I'm afraid. Great you liked the story after all, thanks a lot for reviewing!
Lisette - Aha! A lurker! Great to see you de-lurking, it's always nice to hear what people think of my insane little story! To be honest, I missed the twins and Elrond in this one too, but they really needed to get back to Rivendell. And we will still see Thranduil's paternal reactions, never fear... *evil grin* Thanks a lot for all your compliments, but I have to admit that Legolas is not really my favourite elven character, on my fav elves list the poor boy comes fifth. And you're right, people are always concerned about Legolas' welfare because he is, after all, the heir to the throne. He had millennia to get used to that, but I still think it's quite hard on him, since you never know if people are concerned about you or about the Prince of Mirkwood. I imagine it's like someone falling in love who's very rich, you can never be sure if you're loved because of who you are or because of your money... *re-reads sentence* Ookaaaayyy, just ignore me, will you... Also great to hear that you agree with me on letting Adruran live, I kinda like him, and he was to smart to get killed like that. Thanks a lot for letting me know what you think, it really helps!
NaughtyNat - Yes, the twins will be in the sequel, though not as much as in "An Eye For An Eye", I'm afraid. But they will be there, as will Glorfindel, I think. You did what? Expect Hanar to stick out his tongue? *gives her odd look* Riiiiiight... Great to hear that you liked the fight and everything, battle scenes are always wuite hard to write - for me, that is. Thanks a lot for all your reviews! *huggles*
Marbienl - Wohoo! You did it! You beat FF.net! Well done! *shakes her hand* Great you're back home safe and sound, and I hope it wasn't too stressful... *sighs* Rashwe isn't a coward, he's a plot device, and therefore has to do what I tell him. I couldn't have him save our heroes too soon, now could I? LOL, now that you mention it, I guess that Estel really looked like a traffic light when Geran brought him back to the camp.. *giggles* Rather interesting idea... And yes, I had planned an infection, but your begging certainly helped, because I made it worse than I originally wanted to. So, in a way, the infection was your fault. *g* *sarcastic* You love ranger pain? Really? Who'd have thought? I would NEVER have GUESSED... Okay, that was enough sarcasm for one sentence... *g* And yes, the head-on-the-wall-thing was your idea, and I think that os another reviewer. I use your suggestions! *g* Hmm, no, Estel's horse doesn't have a horse yet, and I mean, it's not really his either. It's a Mirkwood horse, his should be safely in Imladris. LOL, I can imagine the 'Pirate.' 'Elf.' thing. It would've been rather funny... *snickers* *g* No, Frerin doesn't consider him to be his nephew, and I thought him to be about 100-120 years old, so Strider is quite young compared to that... *huggles Marbienl* Thanks a lot for all your wonderful, LONG reviews! I enjoyed every single one of them!
Alexa - Yeah, I guess it would have been 'easier' to go to Rivendell, but the thing is that it is winter, and all the passes are blocked. I guess you could travel through the Gap of Rohan, but that'd take ages, so Mirkwood is the only place to go. And his bone was set by Aragorn, but they're not quite sure if it was done correctly. And now it would be too late anyway, since you need to set bones a few hours after breaking them, and five or more days later it doesn't really matter anymore. *shrugs* Poor elfling. Great you enjoyed the chapter, I hope you'll like this one as well!
Alilacia - 'Long time no see'? That's all you can say? I waited for days and nights, praying for a sign that you hadn't forgotten me, and what do I get? Nothing! *sobs brokenly* Nothing! *g* No, it's perfectly alright, somtimes RL demands a littel bit attention, especially when you're moving, I've done lots of THAT, too... *g* Yes indeed, the dwarves have come, and Legolas isn't THAT happy about it, no... *evil grin* What kind of an enemy lets people love? *g* A reasonable one, my friend, a reasonable one... *g* And I agree, they WILL have their trouble explaining all this to King Thranduil. Oh, they will... *evil grin*
Aron - I know. FF.net hates me. It doesn't tell people that I've updated, I deletes my reviews, it doesn't let people submit their reviews... *sighs* It's evil, that's what it is.UFI? That's interesting, I think I will become chairman! LOL, Legolas the squirrel-elf-droid? That's good, a very nice idea... And yes, that's what Legoals is: Brave, but incredibly stupid. And I don't think Celylith will ever tell ANYONE he wished he had listened to a dwarf, I don't think he would survive the humilation and teasing. Nope, definitely not. *g* To be honest, I'm not yet sure if I want to kill Adruran at all. He's kinda cool, and I like him. Well, he won't be in this story, so it doesn't matter for a while... Great you liked the little reunion, it was very hard to write. I didn't want to overdo it, since they're males after all, and I have yet to meet a male (who is not gay, but that's another story) who shows lots and lots of emotions and liked to talk about his feelings. *shakes head* Men. Thank you for all your wonderful, long and funny reviews! I enjoyed all of them very much!
Eva27 - Oh, you have to move? I'm really sorry about that, not only because I'm going to lose your wonderful reviews, but also because I know how much fun that can be. I mean, it is fun when you're moving and staying in the same city, but moving to a whole new city isn't that much fun, I've been through that once or twice myself. I'm glad you enjoyed my weird little story though, and I promise I won't hurt them too much. *crosses fingers behind her back* Okay? I wish you the best of luck and hope you find new friends and everything soon, and thank you very much for your reviews!
Seveawen - *huggles* I am very, very sorry to hear about your friend. I don't really know what to say, so I guess shutting up would be best. It's very sweet of you to review though, thank you very much. Once again, I am truly sorry.
Reginabean - The Whack-a-Nili-machine? Oh, I was soooo hoping you had forgotten about that abominable thing... *sighs* I know what you mean, RL can be most annoying sometimes, and it comes for you when you least expect it. *shrugs* I try to ignore it, but it doesn't really work... *g* Okay, I hope you won't be needing the machine for this chapter; thanks a lot for all your reviews! *huggles* Thanks!

Well, you know what I'm about to say but I'll still say it again. Thank you very, very much for all your reviews, I enjoyed every single one of them and the really helped me a lot. Thanks!