Hey, sorry no new chapter - I've been out of the country for the past 2 months and have been unable to work on this, but I just got back and I noticed FF cut off part of this chapter, so I'm reposting the full one. Sorry about that! I hope that's the only time that has happened... Anyway, a new chapter will be coming within the next month

Chapter 24

The Puppetmaster

Like distant ships, the stars above sailed across a rich, velvety sky, darkened by her infinite depth and singed with the fiery willowy tendrils of a new sun rising in the far distance, competing against the waning glow of the moon. For hours, Legolas soared through this empty ocean, an infinite vacuum of stars and dust. His mind raced with the memories of the past few days and all he had learned.

The memories tugged and taunted his troubled mind, teasing it with a slew of dizzying, impossible decisions and burning images.

The foamy waves quietly lapping against Velsiur's cold body. Vacant enslaved eyes staring helplessly at him, beseeching him for help, threatening to lure him in. I have abandoned them. I ought to go back! Save them, give them back their hope!

But how!, his mind yelled. He could barely stand in the presence of Rómen, let alone offer any real challenge to whatever magical influence he held in these lands. Alas, it is not even Rómen who holds influence, but some other, far more powerful being I fear. He did not even know what nefarious spells he was up against! The poison that taints this world runs in many streams, in many colors. So many evils had yet to even be discovered.

What am I, but merely an elf with a bow?, Legolas drove his horse to a halting stop as he thought this, shutting his eyes against the swirling desert surrounding him, allowing the gentle laps of the Celduin at his side to entrance and soothe his chaotic thoughts.

Tell me, Ilúvatar, guide me! I know not what I ought to do! Show me my place, Legolas silently prayed. But the cool wind ignored his prayers for Ilúvatar's songs traveled not to these forsaken lands. Hesitantly, Legolas turned his horse around and stared out into the soulless desert from which he came. A slight tremble shook his lithe body. "He is here," Legolas breathed. His eyes inadvertently darted to the direction of Mordor at this thought and again he shuddered as his entire body absorbed the evil that permeated more and more of Middle Earth. His being has conquered these lands. It all begins here.

"Show me my place!" Legolas repeated, this time aloud as he continued to gaze at the distant lands around him. "What would you have me do? What? What would you have me do, Ada?" Legolas yelled to the empty winds surrounding him. When only the whipping sandstorms around him answered, he gulped and turned around again, setting his elven gaze on the distant borders of Mirkwood. "What would you have me do, Mithrandir?" he whispered, as his eyes leapt from one dune to the next. "What would you have me do, now that I am alone, now that we are all alone, with nothing but our faith and our strength to sustain us?"

Ilúvatar's voice may not travel these winds, but the spirits and voices of his family indeed seemed to carry the wind herself, so strongly they echoed in the troubled elf's mind. The evil that slowly consumed Middle Earth stretched far beyond even Legolas's imagination. It would take many years still, even despite his dark past, to fully harden himself against the fight ahead – to fully understand his place in it. Though a part of Legolas begged to dive now into these grand battles that would mark the history of Middle Earth, a larger part of him knew now was not the time for history to be written. Not yet. He was not yet ready for such risks…such sacrifices.

Nay, the only battle that Legolas wished now to fight was the battle for his home. His family. For the right to not have to suffer the pain of yet another loss.

For the right to have something to fight for when the battle for Middle Earth finally began. How his mind and body ached for the songs of the trees, the lively banter of the woodelves, the sun's warm rays creeping through the emerald leaves that still graced his father's palace, his father's perturbed scolding whenever Cièdron unfairly pinned all the fault for some trivial mischief on him…Legolas smiled sadly at the memory of Cièdron's purple feet – tattoos of a time when such silly punishments actually seemed perfectly appropriate and normal – and indeed hilarious.

Now it only seemed absurd. His heart suddenly heavy with nostalgia, Legolas realized such times of frivolity were long gone. He and Cièdron could never again be the elves they once were.

Ereb's horse neighed impatiently as these thoughts consumed Legolas's mind. "Peace, my friend. It is time to take me home." With a slight pull on the mane, Legolas directed the horse towards Mirkwood and she broke into a swift gallop beside the deep turquoise river Celduin.

As the beige dunes swam swiftly beneath his horse's feet, Legolas nearly fell into a trance staring into the nothingness before him. Just as he thought for sure his mind would slip away into elvish dreams, three distant figures caught the elf's attention. Though he slowed his horse to a trot, he quickly prompted her back into a gallop as he discerned the identities of two of the three figures.

Two brothers, both in the palms of the enemy.Why did you do it, Gandalf? Why did you bring them out here? Into the hands of the enemy? Why bring more pain to this already distraught family? Why be the cause of yet more grief in this tormented wood?

Because they volunteered? Because they're among the finest archers in all of Mirkwood? Because if anyone ought to know the Enemy it is the heirs apparent of one of Middle Earth's grandest elf kingdoms?

Or was it to test them?

And what if they should fail this test? What will the cost be?

Ah, but what about the benefits should they pass? To have Oropher's spirit returned to Middle Earth. The blood of Thranduil on our side, in the wars ahead. Too many have left for the Havens and the Halls of Mandos. It is time for a new generation of warriors to replace them.

As they traveled swiftly towards the Rhûn Sea, Gandalf fell into his own thoughts, catching Aragorn's attention with indecipherable mutters.

Finally, the ranger held out his hand to signal to the wizard to stop. "Gandalf!"

Gandalf swiftly brought his horse to a halt, confusion flooding his eyes as he woke from his musings. "What is it Aragorn?" he demanded impatiently.

Aragorn pursed his lips and brought his horse closer to the wizard. "I reckon that you have been mumbling to yourself for the past three hours."

Gandalf raised his eyebrows and pensively rubbed his beard. "Three hours? Three hours, no, no, no… surely, it has not been three. Two, two and a half at the most, I would say, but not three, Master Ranger, not three."

Aragorn stared incredulously at the wizard. With a quick wink, Gandalf waved off Aragorn. "Bah, Aragorn, do not concern yourself with the muffled musings of an old man."

But before Gandalf could order his horse back into a gallop, Aragorn rode in front of the wizard, blocking his way.

"Gandalf, you and I both know even the muffled musings of the Istari are nothing to be brushed aside." Before Gandalf could respond, Aragorn held up a hand and continued. "A test, Gandalf?" he asked carefully.

Gandalf stiffened and then quickly relaxed, his head softly shaking as he released a small sigh. "You know there was more to us visiting Mirkwood than aiding King Thranduil. We must always think ahead, Aragorn. It is the greatest necessity of our time – that we never cease planning, never let the Enemy gain too many advantages. We must prepare even if we do not know what it is we are preparing for. We must find our allies and train our soldiers." Gandalf paused and looked pointedly at Aragorn. "From the moment I saw him win that archery tournament many human lifetimes ago, I knew, Aragorn. I knew, he would have some role to play in the battle that may one day consume Middle Earth – the battle that I was sent here to be a part of," he whispered.

Aragorn raised an eyebrow. "You mean he would be of use to you?" he replied icily.

A sad, strange gleam lit the wizard's eyes. "Do not make the mistake of painting the spectrum of our relations into black and white, Estel. I love him as I love all those who look to me for guidance in these troubled times, as I love all the sons of those I fought beside. But I am not a father, nor am I a protector. Mayhap, I can at least be a friend, but my ultimate duty is to something greater than all of us."

Aragorn's features softened and he heavily turned away, his eyes following the lapping river beside them.

"And what of the others?" he murmured. "What of his brother? Are they not of use to you?"

Gandalf straightened and this time, he rode in front of Aragorn, forcing the ranger to look directly at him.

"By the Valar, Aragorn, do you not understand? We are all being tested! We are all here for a reason! Not just Legolas! Legolas may be my protégé, my own experiment, but my personal choice does not diminish the worth of the fights, the valiant, fights, the valiant devotion of any of the others! I am not omniscient, I am not all-powerful – I am not the puppetmaster you think me to be in this! I am no more than another pawn in this great scheme. I do what I can with the powers I have, just as any one else would. And I will not abandon any of them – do you understand, Aragorn? We will not abandon the others!" Though Gandalf began softly, his volume increased steadily until these final words echoed loudly in the quiet desert around them.

Having forgotten about the elf accompanying him, Gandalf glanced wearily at him and with a huff turned away from Aragorn. The elf stared wide eyed at the two others. "I fear the darkness of my poor wood has affected even the strongest of minds," he finally said quietly, interrupting the tense silence around him.

Aragorn shook his head and gazed steadily at the ground. Finally he sat up and gently kicked his horse's side. "Come, if we are to reach the others in time, we must find Legolas as soon as possible," he gruffly commanded.

With a nod, Gandalf gave a hoarse command and followed Aragorn. For a few moments, they hastily followed the Celduin when suddenly, Gandalf halted and with a swift wave of his hand, ordered Aragorn to do the same. Aragorn followed the wizard's gaze and immediately caught sight of what had caused him to stop. In the distance a lone rider swiftly raced towards them. Aragorn narrowed his eyes, but could not make out the face of the rider as a dark hood covered his slender features.

Beside him, Gandalf released a small chuckle and dismounted his mare. Suspicion still held tightly to Aragorn's mind however and it wasn't until the rider finally was close enough so that he could see him that an uncontrollable grin pulled on his lips as well and he quickly climbed off his horse to greet their visitor.

"Get a little lost mellonin?" Gandalf called merrily.

Without a word, Legolas stopped in front of the two and paused briefly, taking them in as if trying to convince himself these two unruly beings truly stood before him. He then carefully dismounted his horse and stood stoically before the wizard and ranger.

Gandalf's face quickly dropped at this uncharacteristic greeting. "Legolas! Are you well?" he asked worriedly.

Aragorn moved forward and eyed the elf closely. "There is a story here. This cloak is not yours...neither are these weapons, nor your horse," he muttered. Legolas remained silent as Aragorn examined the cloak between his fingertips, noting it's delicate, linen like quality.

"Whose is this?" the ranger softly inquired. When Legolas still did not answer, Aragorn dropped the cloak and squeezed the elf's shoulder. "Legolas! Where did you get this cloak, this horse?"

Gandalf warily studied the horse and moved closer as well. "Legolas?" The wizard's voice betrayed his growing concern and he gently brought an aged hand over the elf's cheek. "By the Valar, lad, tell me they did not take you as well," he murmured under his breath.

Legolas did not remove his steady gaze from the ranger. He had wanted to give his companions a proper greeting, a greeting that displayed his immense relief to find them in these bewitched lands, to know they were safe despite the storm engulfing them. But suddenly, inexplicably, Aragorn seemed so strange, so distant to the young elf – this human, this King of men who he had known now for a few months at best, a mere blink of an eye in elven years, a mere heartbeat even in the ranger's own life measurement. How strange for him to bother himself with these matters of woodelves in these forsaken lands. How strange that our lives as elves can be as delicate as his. These thoughts transfixed the elf and he did not even realize how strange his demeanor appeared to the others.

Finally, with a small shake of his head, Legolas abandoned these reflections. Of course, these matters ought to concern others besides the woodelves! And Aragorn is one of the few, perhaps the only one of his race, who now realizes this.

"Legolas, mellonin, speak!" Aragorn fought back the rising panic by hardening his grip on the elf's shoulder and giving him a small shake.

Finally, Legolas dropped his eyes from the ranger's gaze and turned his head behind him, fixing his focus on some distant point Aragorn did not even bother trying to discern. He then turned again and rested a more relaxed gaze on Aragorn. With a small smile, he placed a hand on the ranger's shoulder. "Suilad, Estel"

Aragorn vainly struggled against the grin that tugged at the corners of his mouth. "Suilad indeed! Is it your desire to plague us with worry?"

Legolas ignored this question and turned his gaze once more to the right.

"Tell me, Aragorn, isn't Gondor to the south west of here, bordering these lands?" he queried softly.

Aragorn started at this question, taken aback by its seeming randomness and irrelevance.

Gandalf raised his eyebrows and leaned forward. "Gondor? Why do you speak of Gondor Legolas? Do you know something?"

Aragorn studied the elf to no avail and then answered carefully, "Ithilien lies between Gondor and these lands, Legolas. It is the kingdom of Rohan that borders these lands directly."

When Legolas did not immediately respond, Gandalf tightened his grip nervously on his staff and narrowed his eyes. "Legolas, do you know of any plans against Gondor?"

Legolas continued to study the distant lands, empty and vacuous as the sky above them. "Nay, Mithrandir, I do not know of any plans. But I do know their true king is on the brink of discovery." This time, when Legolas turned again, his gaze shot at Aragorn like a dart. "And the lands of men are the most vulnerable lands here after Mirkwood. My mind speaks of a growing evil that will stretch beyond Mirkwood to those even weaker than us. The plans laid in these lands are far too grand for my humble wood, Mithrandir," Legolas paused and released a small sigh that carried with it the breath of a thousand departed souls. "The black magic that has been conjured here has a far larger purpose than merely vanquishing a dying forest."

Legolas paused and faced the wizard, his eyes betraying a fusion of youthful fear and ageless wisdom.

"They took me to the Rhûn Sea where I saw a sign of what is to come. I saw both the future and the past, the beginning and the end of my kind. I saw our fate, entwined in the foam of the sea."

Gandalf eyed Legolas closely. "I have learned long ago to pay heed to the riddles spoken by elves. For it is when their speech is the most obscure that the truth is the most completely revealed. Tell me, Legolas, what is it the future holds then?"

Legolas held the wizard's gaze as Aragorn watched in silence, awed by the mysticism and majesty of these otherworldly creatures before him. A soft breeze tickled the wizard's beard as he waited patiently for the elf's answer.

Finally Legolas spoke. "War."

Gandalf sighed and turned away in order to hide his disappointment and frustration from the elf. "Aye, Legolas, this I already knew," he murmured.

Aragorn frowned and placed a hand on the elf's cheek. "And what about you Legolas. What of your fate?" he whispered.

Legolas started and turned his bright eyes on the ranger. "My own fate?" he repeated confusedly.

Aragorn nodded. "Aye, Legolas. The fate of the elves is as sad and deep as the sea herself. The fate of Middle Earth is bound in war and misery. I have no doubt of what it is you prophesy, and I have no doubt it will be the lands of men that will first fall. But it is you, mellonin, that my heart worries for now."

Gandalf raised his eyebrows at this and turned again towards the ranger and elf. You old fool, Gandalf! He comes back from Elbereth knows what agony and torture and all you care for is the information, or lack thereof, he happened to gather! Thank the stars for the keen wisdom and heart of Isildur's heir!

Legolas carefully considered Aragorn's question. "I did not give in to their seductions and trickery, if that is what you fear, Master Ranger. I did take Merionè's warnings to heart, despite everything that I saw," he answered vaguely.

"I do not doubt the strength of your will against them, but I do fear the strength of their poison nonetheless." Aragorn's eyes fell on the elf's shoulder which Legolas had unconsciously been rubbing. "Who stabbed you, Legolas?" he asked softly, his voice wavering slightly as his mind conjured a terrible fate for the young elf, a fate that mimicked that of his older brothers.

Gandalf stiffened and followed Aragorn's gaze. He then carefully removed Legolas's hand from his shoulder and lifted the cape so that he could peek at the wound through his ripped tunic. As he gingerly ran his fingers over the quickly healing wound, he shook his head. "No Aragorn, they would not do it that way. Not with Legolas. Far better to gain control of his mind and spirit than merely his blood which could be cleansed and cured of whatever poison should run through it. You escaped, did you not Legolas? Before they had a chance to bend your mind, no?" the wizard asked as he gently pulled the cloak over the elf's shoulder.

Legolas nodded slowly. "Aye, Mithrandir, I did."

As Gandalf began to turn away, Legolas suddenly grabbed the wizard's arm. "Mithrandir!"

When the wizard again faced him, surprise etched into his features at Legolas's uncharacteristic spasm, Legolas quickly removed his arm, and bowed his head in confused shame. "Forgive me, Mithrandir…I…"

"Thranduillon, there is nothing to forgive! Tell me, what is it that troubles you? What? What devil consumes your soul, Legolas?"

Legolas's eyes widened and a slight tremble shook his body. "Mithrandir, they told me they would save Cièdron!" he blurted, slowly losing all his previous control and stoicism. "They told me, if I did as they asked, if I….that they would save him!"

Gandalf exchanged an uneasy glance with Aragorn, and Legolas continued, "Many of them were there, Mithrandir. My father's soldiers, his captains - they were there, imprisoned by the Avari. Others had been let go, but they too are imprisoned…in a far worse way, I fear…" Legolas shuddered at this thought and continued, "It was Reanur who took me and Velsiur was there as well." Legolas dropped his eyes as he recalled the loyal captain. "Velsiur died…He was killed…trying to protect me…" With a quick gulp, the elf raised his eyes again. "The others however…they are lost….Merionè is lost."

Legolas's hands tightened into fists and his eyes bounced from the wizard to the ranger. "I was told I could save Cièdron, save him from Merionè …that they would make an exchange…"

Gandalf held up a hand to stop Legolas's sudden uncontrollable outburst and the elf obediently froze mid-sentence. He shifted uncomfortably and lifted his chin in slight defiance. "We must go to Dol Guldur, Mithrandir…"

Gandalf nodded and dropped his eyes from Legolas's gaze. "Aye, Legolas, we know."

Legolas stiffened and he furrowed his eyebrows in confusion. "You know?"

Gandalf sighed and placed an uneasy hand on his horse. "Yes, Legolas we know," he answered, motioning towards the lone elf they had found earlier, quietly seated upon the horse.

"Prince Legolas, you should know…you should know, that none of them…not even Merionè…none of them, betrayed you Prince," the emaciated elf whispered fearfully.

Startled by these words, Legolas eyed the lone elf that accompanied the ranger and wizard. The elf quavered in the wake of the Prince's steady gaze. "Alas how my poor heart has suffered in these lands, and how it continues to suffer at this grievous news you bring of Master Velsiur! Even so, to see you here brings me some relief at last... Mayhap, we will be so lucky with the other prince," he murmured.

Legolas faltered at these words. "Luck? Luck!" With a swift turn, he once again faced Gandalf. "Mithrandir, would you place my brother's fate in the hands of mere luck?"

Aragorn narrowed his eyes and carefully watched the irritated elf, his hands folded calmly before him as Gandalf's eyes flashed furiously. "Fool! You dare to accuse me of such frivolous means? Of pinning your family's fate on a fool's hope! On this fool's faith in luck!" As he enunciated these last words, he pounded his staff in the ground and glared angrily at Legolas. The other elf bit his lip and cowered in the wake of the wizard's wrath.

For several long, tense moments, no one spoke a word as Gandalf slowly mounted his horse. Finally, the wizard turned again and gazed down at Legolas who continued to gape incredulously at him, his eyes revealing the tension and disappointment in the wizard, while his body displayed all the restraint he could possibly muster to prevent him from challenging again the wisdom of the Istari, knowing he had already overstepped his bounds. Gandalf read these thoughts and released a small sigh. It is time he realizes even the Istari are not all-powerful – that even I may let him down.

"We had to save you first, Legolas," Gandalf continued in a calmer tone. "Alas, the decisions one must make in these situations…Alas, even I cannot be in two places at once!" Gandalf leaned into the moon's illuminating shadow, revealing the sadness and exhaustion in his wizened features. "If I had the power, I would undo all the pain suffered by you and your brother. I would take both of you home," he sighed.

Legolas's hardened gaze waned and he stepped back uncertainly.

Aragorn cleared his throat and caught Legolas's attention. The elf tentatively looked at him, fighting valiantly to conceal the aggravation, fear, bewilderment, and disillusion that gripped his mind. "You made a promise to me, Legolas, that you would aid me in all the battles yet to come. That I could always count on you to be at my side." Aragorn took a step forward and continued to steadily hold Legolas's gaze. "That was a mutual promise, mellonin."

Legolas clenched his jaw and took in a deep breath. "I did not need your help. Cièdron did," he shakily replied.

"We did not know that, Legolas," Aragorn responded quietly.

Legolas opened his mouth to respond, but for the first time in his long life, he could not find the words to match his thoughts and feelings. He knew Gandalf and Aragorn were right – that even if they did know of Cièdron's ill fate, caught in the presence of a bewitched Merionè-there was little they could do so long as he was also entrapped within these dangerous creatures' prison.

Aragorn turned and mounted his horse. "I will need your help, later, Thranduillon." With a quick glance at Gandalf, he added softly, "We both will. Don't ever think we would abandon you so easily."

Before the elf had a chance to respond, Aragorn hardened his tone and motioned towards Ereb's mare. "Come Legolas. Your brother needs us now in Dol Guldur. I wish not to stall any longer. You could tell us more of your tale on the way."

With a gulp, Legolas gave a curt nod and mounted his horse. As he gripped the dark mare's mane, he shyly turned towards Gandalf. "Mithrandir, I…"

Gandalf shook his head and once more raised his hand to interrupt Legolas. "Aragorn is right. We must not tarry any longer."

As he ordered his horse into a gallop, a mischievous sparkle lit his eye and he turned to Legolas. "Try not to wander off this time Legolas!" the wizard teased with a wink. A moment later he was off, closely followed by the elf and ranger.

As the sun fully rose above the horizon, her warm arms reached through the thick desert air of the Rhûn and the wretched, twisted branches of Mirkwood, though she could never quite reach through the storms that swallowed Dol Guldur, for even the sun could not prevail against the evil that now inhabited that lair.

TBC!

Almost there! Thank you so much everyone who reviewed!