A/N:

Hi guys!

First: I'm really sorry this is so late, but - surprise, surprise - it wasn't my fault. I _wanted_ to post a week ago, but I have had a little ... trouble with my internet connection. I have been unable to go online for *counts and shrieks* 13 days now! I have stopped being angry a long time ago and am positively fuming right now, which didn't impress the telephone company in the slightest, I'm afraid.
I've even told them that I am going to sic an elf and a ranger on them, but they didn't believe me - bad for them, I guess... *g*

Well, once again, sorry, but be assured that I suffered more than you, not to mention my family who had to put up with several rather interesting withdrawal symptoms on my part. *g*

Okay, whatever, here's my third (hmm, technically, my forth) story, all ready - at least the first five chapters *g* - and waiting for you! It's a sequel to "The Heart of Men", and this time it will probably be really easier to understand if you've read that story, even though I don't think it is absolutely necessary since I try to explain everything as I go along.

I hope you have lots of fun reading it!
Oh, and thanks a lot for all the great reviews for ch. 26 of "The Heart of Men", which were wonderful and really encouraged me to keep writing. A huge thanks also to all the people who've sent me emails telling me to "start posting already, woman!". All of them definitely helped getting this story out as fast as possible - which, admittedly - wasn't very fast in this case. *g* Thanks so much! *huggles all readers*

I really enjoy ranting far too much, so enough of it and on to the story!










To Walk In Night




By: Nili



Rating: PG-13, which really shouldn't surprise anyone by now, right?



Spoilers: Hmm, evil question. This is the sequel to my story "The Heart of Men", which in turn is the sequel to my first story "An Eye For An Eye". This time, however, I believe that it's easier for everyone involved to have read "The Heart of Men" since there are lots of spoilers for it in this story, even though I do my best to explain everything important as I go along so I think it's not really necessary. There are also some tiny spoilers for "The Hobbit" and "The Return of the King", though most people probably won't even notice.



Disclaimer: I do not own anything in Middle-Earth, every recognisable character, setting, place and so on belongs to J.R.R. Tolkien and his heirs. The rest (places, demon-horses, characters - especially Celylith, ladies, so hands off! *g*) belongs to me, and I guard everything rather fiercely, so consider yourselves warned. I do not have permission to use any of the above, but I do so anyway. Evil, hmm? And yes, this story was written just for fun, and I certainly will receive no money for it, which would be a great way to earn my living on second thought, though. Please do not use any of my original characters without asking me first. Thanks a lot.



Summary: A few days before Aragorn is supposed to leave Mirkwood to travel back to Rivendell with Elladan and Elrohir, a patrol is attacked and Legolas captured. No-one seems to know why or where he and his attackers have disappeared to, and so Aragorn must track those responsible before it is too late to save him. When the young ranger does find his friend and his captors though, both he and the elven prince realise that this time, they may be well in over their heads and that a dark force is stirring in Rhûn that may bring destruction to all of Wilderland.



Series:
Gosh, now that you mention it, this is turning indeed into something of a series. I definitely won't give it a name, but it looks a bit like one, you're right... Okay, as I said, this is my third story, after "An Eye For An Eye" and "The Heart of Men", and it's taking place about four weeks after the latter.



Additonal notes: I have decided to follow Cassia and Sio's lead and pretend that Gilraen was killed with Arathorn, and it's not because I don't like her, no. It's just that I have started this way because it was easiest since I think her to be hard to integrate into Rivendell-life, and now that I feel confident enough to have a go at writing her, it's too late. *g* I hope you - and her - will forgive me for this not so little detail.

Some people have told me that my whole concept is an AU, and I think they are correct, in a way. I totally ignore the fact that Aragorn's supposed to have met Arwen just after he had been told of his heritage, and I am aware of the fact that I am not Tolkien, and therefore do not even begin to sound like him, something that can only be commented with "Duh!" in my opinion. I could never write as well as he does, so well, you will have to bear with me.
A small note about the Elvish (Sindarin and Quenya) used in this story: I have lately started to really look into both languages, and am now deeply ashamed of the "Elvish" I used in my first and partly also in my second story. So, for example, this is the first story in which I use "mellon nín" instead of "mellonamin". There is another version, "mellon nîn", which is also correct as far as I know, but my dictionaries consistently state that the possessive pronoun only has a simple accent, so I chose this one. *shrugs* I guess you can use both.

And last but not least: Most of you will know that English is not my first language, and not even my second now that I think about it. *g* So please, tell me when you find a blatant and horrible mistake somewhere - and you will, trust me. Pointing them out to me doesn't bother me at all and really helps to improve my English. Thank you!







Chapter 1


Dawn was slowly laying her pale tendrils over the heavens, and the sun's first, tentative rays were already beginning to show on the mountains in and at which Mirkwood's palace was built. It was by no means a glorious morning; the sky was overcast and grey, and the promise of yet more snow lay heavily on the still sleeping lands.

Still, it was the most beautiful morning that Thranduil Oropherion, King of Mirkwood, had seen in a very long time, and so it came that he even broke into a little song while he was trying to decide which robe he should wear today.

No, to him it did not matter whether it snowed or rained, whether the sun was shining or whether it fell out of the sky, today was a beautiful day, and nothing could possibly happen that would be able to change that. A small voice in the blonde elf's head hissed a warning at that presumptuous thought. Was such a statement not an invitation to the Valar to teach him that something could always happen to turn this day into the worst he had ever seen?

Thranduil frowned while he fastened the many ties of the sky-blue robes he had finally chosen. Alright, so it was highly unlikely that something would happen that changed the fact that today was a beautiful day; that would do and was still close enough to what he wanted to say.

He put the thought of whether or how the Valar could already be planning his downfall firmly out of his head and placed on the same a beautiful, silver circlet that was wrought so that it resembled the wreath of leaves he wore when the seasons permitted it. It was his very favourite tiara, and it would be more than befitting if he wore it today because today was, after all, a beautiful day. And nothing would – probably, he hastily injected - be able to change that.

A rather cynic inward voice commented wryly that it was not a good sign that he kept repeating these words so fervently and probably yet another invitation for something to go horribly wrong, but Thranduil ignored it and firmly clung to his bright mood that was already bordering on downright cheerful. In fact, he was beginning to remind himself of Glorfindel, Lord Elrond's blonde advisor, and that wasn't a good thing. He would personally shoot himself before he started displaying such an overflowing, all-defining cheerfulness that only got himself and others into trouble – a behaviour most unbefitting a king in his opinion.

No, Thranduil decided, he might not be as boundlessly cheery as Glorfindel, but this was as cheery as he got, and he had good reason for it. Valar, he did indeed have good reason for it, he smirked, reaching for the piece of parchment that lay on the small table next to a beautifully carved chest of drawers. The paper had obviously been of good quality once, and the tengwar letters still shone crisp and black on the yellowish underground. Now, however, it was slightly crinkled, and it had apparently been folded and unfolded some times since it had been written.

The King of Mirkwood once again took the time to read the part of the message right under the red stain that ran from the edge of the paper nearly to the very centre, neatly dividing the sheet in half. Under normal circumstances the golden haired elf would have frowned upon the scarlet stain as if reprimanding it for daring to appear on one of his messages – if there was one thing he couldn't stand, it was untidiness – but today he didn't care in the slightest. Besides, since he himself had produced this stain by pouring a glass of wine over the letter – an action to be accredited to sudden shock – he really had no-one else but himself to blame; and in addition to that it rather helped him find his favourite part, so he wasn't complaining.

Feeling how the feelings of happiness and pleasant anticipation once again took hold of his entire being, the elven king slid the piece of paper into one of his pockets and gave the looking glass above the chest of drawers one last look. Yes, his appearance was satisfactory, he decided and quickly walked over to the large double door that led to the small study which was adjoining these chamber, and with a large smile on his lips he threw the doors open.

As he had expected, Galion was waiting for him with the breakfast, a habit he had taken to only recently. About three weeks ago his son and various other young elves or rather visiting rangers had almost managed to set their table in the Great Hall on fire where he was usually having breakfast with the rest of his court, and since then Thranduil's desire to greet the new day in the company of his son and heir had miraculously diminished.

The king's butler eyed his liege somewhat warily, a small smile on his lips.
"Good morning, my lord! Everything is prepared and waiting for you."

Thranduil returned the other elf's smile with one of his own, a smile that turned out to be much more radiant than the rising sun.
"Thank you very much, Galion. Where would this kingdom be without you?"

Galion stared at his liege as if he had just sprouted a second head and rotated both of them around their own axes. His smile faded a little, and when he had made sure that everything was to his king's liking he soundlessly retreated from where Thranduil had sat down at a small table in front of one of the huge picture windows to the doors, still close enough to be at hand if the other elf needed something, but putting enough distance between them to let the other have his breakfast in peace and private.

The butler sat down on a chair and inconspicuously began to watch the King of Mirkwood. To have his liege awake in a good mood was very rare of late, and to have him smile at you as radiantly as that was, well, very close to unheard of. Not that he blamed him, Galion decided thoughtfully, on the contrary, his respect for his king had reached new dimensions.

It had been a little more than four weeks now since Prince Legolas, Captain Celylith and young Estel had returned from Dale, and, as had been expected by many, they had returned in several pieces, so to speak. Galion was still not sure what exactly had happened, and how his prince and his companions had managed to get themselves almost killed on what had been supposed to be a simple visit to Lake-town – and from what he had heard, repeatedly – but to say that the three of them had not been well when they had made their way through the palace gates would be the understatement of the decade.

Prince Legolas had sported several rather gruesome injuries including a very badly broken arm that was still not back to its full strength, something that Galion knew bothered the younger elf immensely. The prince would of course never complain about the lack of strength and mobility in his left arm, but to everyone who knew him it was clear that he was afraid that it might never heal properly. Captain Celylith had apparently been hit by an arrow and had needed another week to fully recuperate, and Lord Elrond's foster son had had to spend several days in the healing wing to be able to walk on his own again without collapsing after a few feet. Galion had never taken the time to learn the list of the young ranger's injuries by heart; all he knew was that they had been numerous, and while they hadn't been life-threatening, it had taken the man most of these past four weeks to get back on his feet.

Well, to make it short, Hithrawyn, the master healer, had not been happy to see them. After the four days Estel had needed to stay in the healing wing and during which he had tried to escape an impressive seventeen times Galion knew for a fact that the healer had begged the king to release him from his service and let him journey to the Grey Havens. Hithrawyn hadn't been entirely serious, of course, and after a few hours King Thranduil had been able to convince the other elf to stay, pointing out that the ranger had been released and would trouble the healers no more. Galion had even then not been so sure if that had truly been such a good idea, for Prince Legolas and his friends managed to find trouble even at home.

As far as he knew, they had needed to visit the healers at least four times in the four weeks that had passed since then, and the butler was sure that Hithrawyn would truly do something drastic if he ever saw one of them again. The last time the prince and his two friends had got into trouble and had to seek the healers' assistance the master healer had almost refused to examine them, claiming that they brought bad luck to everyone who touched them, and a guard who had been treated at the same time for a minor injury suffered during a training bout had told everyone who had to listen that Hithrawyn had been very close to actually strangling the heir to the throne of Mirkwood. And, judging from the expression on Hithrawyn's face whenever one of the three young ones was mentioned, he was more than willing to actually do it the next time he got the chance.

All in all, Galion would have been more than sympathetic had his king thrown the prince and Lord Celylith into the dungeons and sent the ranger back to Rivendell where he belonged, no matter the weather. That Thranduil hadn't done that was either a sign of extreme tolerance coupled with the understanding that Lord Elrond would not be happy to have his human son freeze to death in the Misty Mountains or a sign of a mental illness in an advanced stage.

He really hoped the first was the case, Galion thought, watching the inexplicably merry figure of his liege. The king might not have incarcerated one or more of the young ones – something that about every member of Mirkwood's court would have understood, by the way – but it was common knowledge that he was not in a good mood as a rule – another thing that about every member of Mirkwood's court understood.

And with that he was back at the beginning of his musings: Why was his liege behaving so peculiarly … cheerfully today?

Galion knew for sure that today was the day Prince Legolas and his friends were leaving for a short hunting trip with some other younger elves and were planning to return tomorrow, something that should have been yet another reason for King Thranduil to be in a bad mood. "Hunting trip" was merely a different and euphemistic term for "disaster" when referring to the fair haired prince's enterprises, and when said enterprises not only included Prince Legolas, but also Captain Celylith and – Valar forbid – Estel, it was popular belief that it was to be equated with "catastrophe".

So, the elf pondered, why was Thranduil looking so happy?

The elven king was still projecting an air of happiness and quiet anticipation when Galion returned to his lord's table to make sure that everything was satisfactory, and so he decided to take advantage of the other's obviously splendid mood.
"Forgive my curiosity, sire, but would you allow me the question of why you are so … merry today?"

Thranduil turned in his chair and arched a golden eyebrow in amusement, a slightly wicked sparkle in his bright blue eyes.
"Why, my good Galion, do you mean to suggest that I have been ill-humoured of late?"

To his horror, Galion felt himself blush like a young lad, something he hadn't done in a very, very long time.
"No, my lord, of course not. I did not mean to…"

The elven king's smile merely broadened, and he clapped the other elf on the back, an action that nearly caused his butler's jaw to drop right onto his chest. Was this really his king or some kind of apparition? While Galion was still contemplating if he should perhaps pinch himself – or the king as a last resort – to ascertain whether this was merely a dream or something similar, Thranduil reached out and drew a chair up to the table, motioning the other elf to sit. When the butler gave no sign of obeying his unvoiced request and only stared at him with slightly unbelieving eyes, the King of Mirkwood placed a hand on his shoulder and pressed him into the seat.

"So you have been wondering what has put me into such a good mood, yes?" he asked jovially, still smiling brightly.

Galion nodded and, after some failed tries, even found his voice.
"Yes … sire, if that is not too … presumptuous on my part, of course. All know how … stressful these past four weeks have been for you."

A shadow seemed to fall over Thranduil's face as he remembered something, probably one of his son's little "adventures" of the past month. Galion didn't know which one – and he didn't want to, either – but it seemed to be one of the more memorable ones.

"You have no idea," Thranduil muttered darkly, eyes narrowing slightly.

For a moment, Galion feared he might have caused his liege to fall back into the dark moods he had been suffering lately, but to his relief the golden haired elf's face brightened again after a few seconds, and he reached into one of his pocket and withdrew a crinkled, and, from the looks of it, stained piece of parchment.

The King of Mirkwood began to smile again, his long fingers stroking over the paper in an oddly gentle fashion.
"As you said, Galion, the last month has been … stressful." Thranduil looked very much as if he would have liked to use a much stronger term. "But you are right, my mood is much improved, and the reason for it is right in front of your eyes."

Galion stared at his liege, his mind spinning as he tried to make sense of what the other elf had just said. For a moment he contemplated if he had been wrong and his king was suffering from a terrible mental illness after all – there were more than enough indications for that – but then he decided to give him the benefit of the doubt.

"A … letter, my lord?" he questioned softly, eyeing the king for any signs of discomfort. He didn't know much about mental illnesses, but he had heard that some were accompanied by the strangest symptoms…

Thranduil's smile grew even brighter, and he beamed at his butler as if he were a child that had just understood a very important thing.

"A letter, aye! But still, it is no ordinary letter, dear Galion!" He looked at the other elf as if he was sharing a big secret with him. "It arrived yesterday, and it is no ordinary letter since…" Here the king injected a small, dramatic pause, something entirely unusual for him. "Since this is a letter from Lord Elrond Peredhil of Imladris, my esteemed friend and ally who also happens to be the father of a young human named Estel who is – with the help of my son and his friends, admittedly – driving my master healer and myself to the brink of madness!"

The king's voice had risen when he had spoken the last words, and Galion unconsciously looked over his shoulder to make sure that no-one else had overheard the blonde elf's small outburst. Thranduil seemed to have realised the sudden increase in volume as well, for he sat back a little in his chair in an obvious effort to relax.

"But perhaps," Thranduil continued, "you would benefit from reading it yourself."

He pushed the paper into the other elf's direction, avoiding his plate and a pot of honey on the way, but instead of reaching for the message, Galion looked at his king with appalled eyes.
"My lord!" he cried, looking scandalised at the mere thought. "I couldn't!"

Reading his liege's mail was not something he had ever contemplated, and a private letter at that – no, this was too much.

The elven king merely looked at him with that elegantly arched eyebrow, a look of mild exasperation on his face.
"You have my permission to do so, Galion," he said patiently, yet there was a slightly annoyed undertone in his voice. "I do not wish to read the letter aloud, so you will have to do it yourself! Besides, you can start here, in the middle."

Galion looked at the face of his liege, and after a second he decided to comply, and be it only to keep the other from getting ill-tempered again. To serve a king who was in too bad a temper to even properly acknowledge his surroundings was not something he wanted to repeat in the near future.

He inclined his head in silent acquiescence and redirected his gaze to the sheet of paper the king had unfolded by now, one of his fingers tapping lightly on the start of one sentence somewhere in the middle of the letter to indicate where Galion should start reading. King Thranduil's butler only needed to give the script a short look to see that it had been written by Lord Elrond himself. The half-elven lord always drew every single letter precisely, as if a rushed message would somehow lessen the importance of what he had to say and would insult the letters themselves, and even the smaller tehtar symbols were placed neatly and orderly above the tengwar letters.

Galion noticed that the king's fingers were beginning to drum impatiently now, and he blinked quickly to focus on the letter. The sentence started just under the large red stain that looked – and smelled – suspiciously like red wine, Dorwinion to be exact. What a shame, he thought, such an excellent wine wasted like this…

The drumming of Thranduil's fingers quickened, and he quickly began to read, his eyes moving effortlessly over the flowing script.


"… But that is yet another matter, my friend. Now I come to what is in fact the reason for this letter, other than asking you to threaten my son with the most horrible things should he ever dare to leave your palace again. My heart is glad to hear that he and your son have recovered from their wounds, and yet I must admit that I am very much looking forward to seeing him again, and be it only to impress upon him the foolishness of his actions!

This is the point though where I have to thank you for your kindness and generosity. It was truly a noble thing to let Estel stay with you for most of the winter season, even though it seems that they find at least as much trouble in Mirkwood as they do here. I am also relieved to hear that Master Hithrawyn will not be leaving for the Havens yet; it would be a shame to lose such a gifted physician to Valinor so early.

The real reason for this letter is something else, though: As you well know, my lord, have the winter storms been not as fierce as we had first feared, even though the season has been cold enough here and, from what I hear, east of the mountains as well. Fact is that the passes are passable, even if only for the firstborn yet. Goblins should be less of a problem now, since they tend to hide in their holes at these temperatures and don't dare stray from them too far.

All these things have enticed my sons to insist upon leaving to get their brother, and I am unable to stop them anymore. Ever since your letter arrived describing what had happened to Estel and your son they have been keen to go, insisting that they have to save you from further trouble – and to beat some sense into him, I think. They refuse to admit it, but they are afraid for him and feel the fragility of his mortal life all too keenly, and to put their minds at ease I have allowed them to go and escort him back home to us.

They are leaving with a small escort as I write this letter, and while under normal circumstances I wouldn't have seen it necessary to inform you of their impending arrival so early, I had the distinct feeling that you would want to know. Besides, you might also want to warn your master healer that they are coming so he can prepare himself for their stay, short as it is supposed to be.

They should be arriving in nine to eleven days after you receive this letter, and I would of course be very thankful if you sent out search parties should they not get to Mirkwood in time. I don't think that I have to describe to you how much trouble they can get into, especially when they are in the same area as your son or my youngest…"


At this point Lord Elrond started writing about something else, and Galion abandoned his reading and looked up into the brightly shining eyes of his liege. Now he could actually see why the king's mood was so greatly improved, but he wasn't sure if the other had grasped the full implications of what was to come yet.

"The Lords Elladan and Elrohir are coming to visit," he stated cautiously, looking closely if the golden haired elf had really understood what this letter meant.

"Oh, no, Galion," Thranduil protested and waggled a finger in front of his face, making Galion resist the sudden urge to follow its movements with his eyes, "They are not coming to visit. They are coming to 'escort Estel back'. To 'get him'. They won't be staying long, believe me."

Galion pondered for a moment if he should tell his king that it was not a very good sign that he had apparently learnt this letter by heart, and then decided against it. He was right after all, this was extraordinarily good news. It wasn't that he didn't like the young ranger, quite on the contrary in fact, but he really did not enjoy having to watch him, Prince Legolas and various other elves that happened to come too close to them drag themselves back to the palace to get patched up. Captain Celylith seemed to be doing a lot of that as well lately, and his father was not happy about it either, that much he was certain of…

"No," the king continued, shaking his head. Galion's presence was forgotten for the moment, it appeared. "The twins will only come and collect the ranger. I will lock all of them in their rooms until they want to leave again, and then I will keep Legolas in the dungeons until they have left my realm. And then I will lean back and enjoy the peace and tranquillity that will follow, and by the Valar, I will think of a way to pay Elrond back for this. No grateful letter of thanks is enough for what I have gone through. I think," the fair haired king added as an afterthought, looking at his butler with bright, wickedly gleaming eyes, "I will not keep Legolas here after all. I think I will let him accompany the three of them, and he can stay with them for the summer. And for the winter as well, what about that?"

The other elf looked at his king with wide eyes. All that was missing now was an evil cackle and King Thranduil rubbing his hands together in glee, and one would be looking at the perfect picture of malicious scheming and revenge. Galion swallowed quickly, trying not to let his mounting anxiety show. All this was apparently proving to be too much for the king.
"Is that not a bit … harsh, my lord?"

"No," Thranduil retorted, his eyes still gleaming in a way that could only be described as unhealthy. "Not at all. I have aged a few centuries in the last four and a half weeks! It is nowhere near harsh. It would be harsh to allow Legolas to stay for a few years."

He seemed to seriously contemplate that for a moment, but then he frowned, obviously having come to an unfavourable decision.
"But no, I truly think that it would be Lord Elrond who would be journeying to Mithlond then, not Hithrawyn, and loath as I may be to admit that, I don't think that Arda is ready for that yet. Besides, we need the Elves of Rivendell as allies, not as enemies, and I do not think that the Lord and Lady of the Golden Wood would look favourably on us if my son drove their son-in-law to the Havens either."

Galion had to admit that that was a rather sound reasoning, and so he nodded his head and slowly pushed the now folded letter back over the table into the direction of his king.
"I imagine you want to keep this, sire."

"Oh yes," Thranduil nodded and quickly took up the letter, looking at it with almost tender eyes. "Only nine or ten more days, Galion, then they will arrive and peace will once again return to us. I only have to keep them from getting themselves killed for a little more than a week! That should be doable, don't you think?"

His butler bowed slightly and rose from his seat, careful not to let his liege see the expression on his face.
"One would think so, your Majesty. Shall I find the prince and Estel so you can let them know that Lord Elrond's sons will be arriving within a fortnight?"

"Yes, please," Thranduil nodded and put the precious letter back into his pocket. "Thank you, Galion."

The other elf bowed again and soundlessly retreated, leaving his king to the remnants of his breakfast. He gave the still broadly grinning blonde elf a last look before he quietly opened the doors that led to the corridor and slid out, closing the great wooden doors quickly behind him. He began to wander down the corridor, his mind already on his task and trying to figure out where he could find his prince at this time of day.

Galion gave the guards who were posted a few dozen feet down the hallway a small smile and disappeared round a corner, suddenly snorting softly when he remembered his liege's last question. Keeping the young ones from getting themselves killed was doable, yes, but not very probable in his opinion.

If he had learned one thing lately, it was that nine or ten days could be an incredibly long amount of time.




An hour later, two rather bemused beings closed the door to the king's study, standing in front of it for a moment as they looked at each other in mild confusion.

Both of them were tall, but while the one had broader shoulders that promised to become even more so when his body further developed, the other was lithe and slender, his movements graceful and light. He had long fair hair that surrounded his head like a halo of blonde tresses in the weak sunlight, and was thus the complete opposite of his companion, whose hair was dark and unruly and reached just a little over his shoulders.

Right now, both of them wore identical expressions of mystification that made them look very much alike even despite their obvious differences, up to the point where it was almost laughable.

"Well," the fair haired elf said, wrinkling his brow slightly, "That was … interesting."

His human companion merely snorted, shaking his dark head.
"'Interesting' is not necessarily the term I would use, my friend." He paused a moment, his eyes narrowing slightly. "Was it only me or was your father acting rather … insane?"

"Strider!" the elf exclaimed, looking at the other in mock horror. "This is my father we are talking about, my liege and the King of Mirkwood! He is not acting 'insane'!"

The man produced a low sound of disbelief in his throat as they both began to walk down the corridor, doing their best to ignore the amused glances the guards shot them.
"Then, o Prince of Mirkwood, could you please explain to me why he cackled when he told us that my brothers would be arriving and leaving with me in ten days?"

"My father did not cackle," Legolas shook his head vehemently. "He might have snickered a little, yes, but…"

"Right," Aragorn interrupted his friend, eyebrows arched high in a gesture that clearly stated that he didn't believe a single word his friend had said. "I do know the difference between cackling and snickering, you know, but very well. But do tell me, mellon nín, why he kept grinning like a cat that had just caught the biggest and juiciest mouse of its life? Grinning as if he were, hmm, let's say, insane?"

"Well," Legolas began, giving the human a rather unconvincing smile, "Perhaps he was happy that he would be seeing your brothers?"

Aragorn's eyebrows moved even further up his forehead, something the elven prince had thought impossible.
"Happy? To see Elladan and Elrohir? That would be truly insane, Legolas."

"Uhm," Legolas merely made, trying hard to think of something more convincing to say.

"Exactly," Aragorn grinned, giving his friend a sly look, "And can you explain to me why he kept petting my father's message and almost bit my head off when I wanted to touch it?"

Legolas shook his head, beginning to grin as well now.
"Alright," he caved in, "You are correct. He was behaving the tiniest bit … strange today."

"Insane," Aragorn commented. "Not strange. You know," he began, his grin even widening, "I nearly got the impression that he was happy to get rid of me so soon."

"No!" the elf exclaimed and grasped his friend's arm as he stopped his walk abruptly. The elven couple that walked behind them merely gave them a mildly annoyed look and walked around them, obviously more than accustomed to the friends' strange behaviour.

Legolas stared at Aragorn with eyes wide in mock shock, a smile lurking at the corners of his mouth.
"How did you get that idea?"

"Hmm," the man began, carefully dislodging the grip his elven friend had on his arm, "It might have been the fact that he kept whispering 'Only nine more days, only nine more days, only nine more days' or that he asked if I didn't want to start packing yet." Aragorn paused shortly, grey eyes sparkling wickedly. "Three times, I might add."

"Two," Legolas shot back, trying to lead the conversation away from the former topic.

Aragorn shook his head as they began to walk into the direction of the kitchens, a route they both knew only too well much to the dismay of the kitchen staff.
"Three."

"Two."

"Three."

"Two!"

"Three!"

"Four," a wry voice interjected.

"Two …what?" Legolas spluttered, thrown off topic by the unexpected interruption. He looked sharply at his human friend, but Aragorn merely shrugged and grinned at someone behind him, and with a sigh the elven prince finally turned, already suspecting whom he would see.

"You do not even know what we are talking about and yet you insist on barging into our conversation?" he asked the elf in front of him exasperatedly, tapping a foot in a gesture of annoyance that didn't impress the other in the slightest.

"Of course," the silver haired elf retorted, eyes sparkling merrily. "You would be disappointed if I hadn't, you can freely admit it. Besides, that wasn't a conversation. It sounded rather like two squabbling infants."

Aragorn merely snorted while Legolas drew himself up to his full height, putting on an arrogant expression and adapting the regal bearing befitting the Prince of Mirkwood.
"It seems I have to remind you of who of us is the younger one, Lord Celylith."

"Merely by eight years, my prince, a mere blink of an eye to our kind," Celylith retorted, grinning at his childhood friend. "Yet you have to admit that that human you insist on dragging around with you," he ignored Aragorn's outraged protest, "has yet to outgrow childhood."

An answering grin spread on Legolas' face, and he turned to look at his human friend, an action that was mirrored by the silver haired elf.
"You do have a point there, mellon nín…"

Aragorn resisted the urge to hang his head. The two of them were ganging up on him again, just what he needed... It wasn't really fair – which didn't bother him really, since he had long ago learnt that fairness didn't have a place in dealing with his friends or brothers – but, by the Valar, he would get back at them. He didn't yet know how, but he would, and if he had to sic Hithrawyn on them. No, he wouldn't even do that to his worst enemy, the ranger decided after a second, that was a fate worse than death if he was not very much mistaken.

"I am no child," he informed the two grinning elves, praying inwardly that they wouldn't start singing that … that song again. On their journey to Dale a few weeks prior Legolas and Celylith had come up with the single most annoying song he had ever heard in his entire life, and that meant a lot in his opinion since he had grown up in the House of Lord Elrond Peredhil where you were hard-pressed to name a time of day when you couldn't hear singing somewhere in the building. But his two friends' song was a true nuisance, not to mention highly embarrassing for him.

He ignored the raised eyebrows of his companions and continued, glaring darkly at both of them to emphasise his point.
"In the world of Men I am considered an adult, and have been for some years now."

"Ah, my friend," Legolas told him in a particularly infuriating, friendly tone of voice, "You are not among Men now, are you?"

"Unfortunately not," Aragorn grumbled under his breath. "But to be honest, I rather wish I were, Leafie."

Celylith felt Legolas stiffen next to him, and he wouldn't have been surprised had the acid look that the other elf sent in Aragorn's direction burnt a neat little hole into the human's forehead. Leafie, that was a nickname the elven prince loathed, and if it was called loudly enough and in hearing range of some of the younger warriors, it was also a fool-proof method of suicide, as more than a few other elves had found out.

Legolas didn't like to talk about how he had got it, and nobody would have believed him anyway had he said that a baby spider had decided to call him thus after she, Celylith stressed inwardly, it had been a female spider, had overheard Aragorn calling him "Greenleaf" once. Oh Wilwarin, the elf thought somewhat longingly; he really missed his spider pet. He still hadn't forgiven his prince for forcing him to abandon her, and he was really wondering how she was doing and whether she was truly happy with all the other spiders…

Aragorn interrupted his musings by taking a step closer to him and peering intently into his face, all the while smiling widely.
"Ah, thinking about Wilwarin, are we?"

Celylith shot Legolas a quick look, more or less expecting a trail of smoke to leak from the prince's ears. That was yet another thing Legolas loathed: His little ex-pet. Saying the spider's name in the fair haired elf's presence was yet another thing which most sensible beings avoided, thus proving what Celylith had been saying for months now: Aragorn was definitely not a sensible person. Not that he needed to convince anyone of that fact anyway, those who didn't think so already were on their way to coming to the same conclusion all on their own.

The silver haired elf gave Aragorn a scathing look, ignoring the smug glance he received in return, and hastily searched for a topic that wouldn't cause one of them to jump at the other's throat. The king wouldn't be too happy if they did because blood was really hard to get out of these carpets, and besides, Hithrawyn would have a fit if he saw one of the two in the near future, let alone both.

"What did the king have to tell you so urgently?" he finally asked, following his friends to the kitchens where they intended to make sure that the provisions they wanted to take on their little hunting expedition were ready. "There is nothing wrong, is there?"

Legolas looked up sharply, his friend's suddenly worried voice tearing him out of his reverie. He had been too busy imagining what he would do to Celylith's ex-pet if he ever had the fortune – or misfortune, he wasn't really sure about that yet – to meet it again to pay much attention to his surroundings, and he looked up to meet the concerned gaze of his oldest friend.

"No, my friend," he reassured the other elf, "Nothing is wrong. My father merely informed us that Estel's brothers would be arriving soon to escort him back to Imladris. They will be arriving in nine or ten days, approximately."

Celylith dropped his gaze and mumbled something, doing his best not to let the grin show on his face, and Aragorn glared at him, giving him what had been dubbed the look by a multitude of people, humans and elves alike. It was something he had learned from his father, and Lord Elrond's look of impending doom and destruction was fabled throughout Rivendell and beyond.

"I heard that," Aragorn growled and grinned in satisfaction when the elf averted his eyes under the look. "I may be human, but I am not deaf."

"Really, Celylith," Legolas chimed in, grinning evilly at the other elf, "To thank Elbereth was really rather uncouth."

The silver haired elf gave his friend a dark look, midnight-blue eyes blazing in mock fury.
"Please tell me that you are accompanying him, my lord. And that you will stay for a long, long time."

"Well…" Legolas began, long hands describing nonchalant patterns in the air before reaching out to open the door of the storage room where their provisions should be stored.

"We are working on it," Aragorn continued quickly. "We didn't think it wise to breach the subject right now. Lord Thranduil was rather…"

"Strange today," Legolas finished with a warning glare at his human friend. "He was strange. I think we will ask him after we return from the hunt."

"If you think that prudent," Celylith shrugged, turning his attention to the bags that were sitting in the one corner of the storeroom.

Legolas had just opened his mouth for a reply when a small cough interrupted him, and all three of them turned to see two members of the small patrol which would be accompanying them on the hunt stand in front of them.

"Anardir!" Legolas exclaimed, took a step forward and, after a second's hesitation, reached out with his right arm to grasp the other's forearm tightly. "I didn't know you had returned!"

'I wouldn't have had I had it my way,' a small voice inside Anardir's head commented, and the tall, golden haired elf quickly pushed it back and returned the other's greeting.

It was true that he had left the palace nearly a month ago on a patrol that had been bound for Dol Guldur to ascertain that there was nothing there that could still threaten their realm after the Necromancer had been driven out of the tower more than ten years ago, and he was surprised himself that they had already returned. It had been supposed to take much longer, but the journey had been frightfully uneventful, something that was just the precursor of certain doom, as he had learned long ago.

It wasn't that he wasn't loyal to his prince and wasn't ready to help him in any way he could, but … well, but Legolas seemed to attract even more trouble when he and Estel were together, and Anardir was too experienced to stay put if it really happened that both his prince and his ranger friend were at the same place; he had seen enough of his liege's barely controlled temper to last him a human lifetime. If he could help it, he would be as far away as possible from these two, and he wouldn't help Legolas in one of his endeavours either. He was really quite fond of the place his head was occupying right now and would like it to remain there as well, if somehow possible.

"It was a … surprise for us as well, my lord," he retorted, smiling at his friend and giving an inward sigh of relief when he could detect no overly mischievous sparkle in the fair haired elf's eyes. When he had heard that he and some other warriors were to accompany Prince Legolas, Captain Celylith and Strider by order of the king, he had seriously contemplated flight or forsaking the planes of this existence for the Halls of Mandos. Well, perhaps it hadn't been quite that bad, but almost. "I hear that Estel will be leaving us soon?"

Legolas narrowed his eyes, having been able to swear for a second that he had heard a hopeful undertone in the other's voice. After another second he shook his head, once again surprised how quickly news spread, especially apparently exciting news such as these.
"Aye, he will," he nodded curtly. "Lord Elrond's twin sons will be arriving in a few days, but I am sure that you already know that. Was it the kitchens or the warriors?"

Anardir blushed a little, knowing perfectly well what his prince was referring to. There were two networks in Mirkwood that worked better than any spy ring ever created by man, dwarf, elf or otherwise: First, the kitchen staff that somehow seemed to know everything worth knowing within seconds of the event, and second, the warriors via the guards that were posted at strategic spots in the palace and on the grounds. If one wanted to know something about someone, all one had to do was either pay the kitchens a visit or walk down to the gates and one would hear it, and a lot of other things in addition to what one had wanted to know in the first place.

"The warriors, my lord," he admitted, shamefacedly. "Most are deeply saddened by the news, of course," he hastened to add, giving the broadly grinning dúnadan who was standing next to Celylith a quick look.

Aragorn merely raised an eyebrow, looking remarkably like his foster father. There might be a bit of truth in that after all, he thought, for he was sure he and his two elven friends had proven to be highly entertaining in the past month.

"Oh, I am sure they are," the man commented dryly, idly wondering just why everyone seemed to be ecstatic with joy to get rid of him. On second thought, he decided after a second, it probably was because Legolas and he managed to get into a tiny little bit of trouble when they were together. The others were exaggerating of course, but he was willing to admit that they had suffered a few … minor mishaps since coming back from Lake-town.

Anardir chose not to answer the human and turned to his right where another elf stood who had followed the exchange with an amused smile on his lips.
"Your Highness, you probably remember my friend Galalith? He will be coming with us as well."

Legolas looked at the other elf who was giving him a slight bow. For a moment, he could in fact not remember him, but then the other's green eyes in combination with his rather unusual chestnut brown hair jogged his memory and he extended his hand, smiling.
"Yes, I do. Your father is Elvomir the artist, correct?"

"Yes, my prince," the dark haired elf nodded, returning Legolas' smile. "And from what he has been saying lately, he will kill all three of you if he ever lays eyes on you again."

Celylith grinned, arching an eyebrow mockingly.
"Now, why would he want to do that? Everyone apparently wants to do that of late!"

The dark haired elf returned his captain's grin.
"Well, sir, I think it might be connected to the fact that Prince Legolas and Strider broke that statue on the eastern balconies. He sculptured it about a thousand years ago I believe, and he was rather fond of it by now."

"That was an accident!" both the elven prince and the human exclaimed.

"He pushed me! I am a man, I do not possess the firstborns' reflexes; how was I supposed to avoid him?" Aragorn continued, looked at Galalith with big, silver eyes that reminded the elf of the eyes of a lost puppy dog.

"I pushed you?" Legolas asked incredulously, aiming a left-handed swat at the human's head that was not nearly as strong or forceful as he had wanted it to. "Do I look like an irresponsible elfling? That is preposterous!"

"Alright then," the ranger conceded. "What about a compromise: It was Celylith's fault."

"What?" the silver haired elf hissed, taking a threatening step into his direction. "I was merely an innocent bystander!"

Legolas grinned.
"A bystander maybe, but definitely not innocent." He nodded at Aragorn. "Agreed. It was his fault."

"Why that is…" Celylith began, apparently more than willing to be the one who strangled both Aragorn and Legolas now, but before it could come that far, Anardir cleared his throat, looking from one to the next with wide, slightly desperate eyes.

"My lords, Estel," the golden haired elf said quickly, noting that they had indeed fallen silent to listen to him. Encouraged by his small success he continued, inwardly deciding to leave the palace again as soon as possible after they had returned from this accursed hunt. Nine days were too long, far too long.

"We were sent here to get the provisions and make sure everything is ready," he continued, giving the bags in the corner a pointed look. "We can leave in half an hour if you're ready, otherwise it's going to be too late to hunt anything today, I fear."

Legolas shot Celylith a last, cautious look before he turned to Anardir and nodded at him.
"Of course, my friend, you are right. We will get our packs and weapons from upstairs and will meet you and the others in the courtyard in … twenty minutes, will that be alright?"

Anardir quickly nodded and grabbed three of the heavy bags that sat on the floor, pushed them into his dark haired friend's arms, snatched up the rest and backed out of the room.
"That will be perfectly alright, my prince. We will be seeing you then."

With that he turned, pushed the rather stunned Galalith out of the storeroom and disappeared so quickly that even the two other elves had trouble telling where he had gone.

After a few seconds Aragorn shook his head and slowly began to walk out of the now more or less empty room, stopping in front of the door for a few seconds to remember where the nearest staircase was located. Mirkwood's palace was vast and rather spacious, not to mention cave-like which he of course didn't tell his elven friends – too often, that was – and he had got lost more than once in his time here.

"It's contagious," he simply stated and turned to the left, Legolas and Celylith following right behind him.

"What is, mellon nín?" the elven prince asked as he was running the fingers of his right hand over his left forearm. It was still giving him trouble, but that was nothing he really wanted to think about.

"The madness. You are all insane here," the ranger stated in a serious voice, as if voicing a conclusion he had been working on for some time.

Celylith gave him an odd look.
"Only a Noldo could say something like that."

Aragorn shortly thought about informing the elf that he could hardly be counted as a Noldo since he was a man, but decided to let it be. Celylith was right after all, in a way.

"We are not insane, Estel," Legolas agreed with his elven friend. "Before you came along, everything was peaceful and quiet, and we never had any trouble. I bet you anything you want that you will get yourself into trouble during our trip."

The dark haired ranger stopped in front of the sweeping stone stairs that led to the upper levels of the palace where all three of them had their rooms.
"Alright, I accept, and I bet that you will get yourself into trouble. And not only on our trip."

"Very well," the fair haired prince inclined his head. "You have lost already, my friend."

"We'll see about that," Aragorn snorted while they were making their way up the stairs. "You and your elven stubbornness will make sure of it, believe me."

"Excuse me? And that is coming from you, the single most stubborn and reckless being that has ever been born!"

"I, stubborn? Ha!"

Celylith blocked out their bickering voices and shook his head, following the two of them up the stairs. It didn't matter who got into trouble, it would end like it always did, namely with him dragging both of them back to Master Hithrawyn. And since he tended to be the only conscious and/or lucid person around, he also got lectured by his liege and his father.

One way or the other, he was doomed. The silver haired elf shook his head again. The things he did for those two…

Unbeknownst to them, all of them were right. Trouble was already waiting for them, and it was more serious trouble than any of the three could have imagined.

And that, all of them would have agreed, meant quite a lot.





TBC...





mellon nín - my friend
dúnadan - 'Man of the West', ranger





Okay, I have just assumed that Elrond would use the Tengwar of Fëanor and not the Mode of Beleriand, which, the longer I think about it, is probably not correct, but what the heck. It's not that important anyway. *shrugs* Once again, this little bit of space here is reserved for me begging for reviews, and since I am used to it by now I'll keep doing it. *g* So: Reviews? Please? You know me, I live for 'em! So pretty please!! *g*