Third Age, 179.  Set immediately after 'Mid Winter Gifts', but not linked to that story.

Chapter One – Journeys in The Dark

The Mid Winter festival had been and gone, but the snows had only just started to fall.  Storms in the Misty Mountains closed the passes for at least two months each year, but Elrond and his family planned to stay in Lasgalen until the high paths were clear.

The first heavy snow unleashed a riot of snowball fights among the young – and not so young.  Several elves old enough to know better had been seen to fling a missile at an unsuspecting companion.

After one particularly riotous battle, all those involved were more than ready for their evening meal, and after changing out of snow-sodden clothes and bathing, gathered in Thranduil's private dining room.  Supper was late in arriving.  At length, Galion, one of the more senior servants, appeared, profusely apologetic.  "Your pardon, your Majesty," he began.  "We had a slight emergency in the kitchens.  However, supper is ready now."

As the meal was served, Thranduil questioned Galion as to the nature of the emergency.  "It was two of the younger elves, Sire.  I sent them to fetch a fresh barrel from the caverns, but – but they appear to have got lost.  I sent several of my other staff to look for them.  That is why supper is late."  He bowed, rather shame-faced.

Thranduil dismissed Galion's concern over supper.  "They are lost?  Have they been found?"

"Oh, yes, my Lord.  They appear to have taken a wrong turning, and ended up in the deepest caves.  We found them a short while ago.  They are quite well."  Galion's expression, however, told that they would not be so well once he finished scolding them for their foolishness.

"Good.  Do not be too hard on them, Galion.  Those caves are like a warren."

As Galion was dismissed and the meal began, Elrond looked across at Thranduil.  "I knew you had caves below the palace, but assumed they were simply cellars.  Do they extend far?"

Thranduil shrugged.  "It is hard to tell, they have never been properly mapped.  The main caves are well travelled, but there are some tunnels which seem to have no end.  I must have them thoroughly explored and mapped one day."

Elrohir glanced up, a gleam of interest in his eyes.  "A map?  I could help, if you wish."

Elladan sighed at his twin's enthusiasm.  "That was the wrong word to use, with El around.  He will map those passages single-handed, if you let him!"  He exchanged a look of exasperation with Arwen, both well aware of their brother's fascination with maps.

"Not necessarily single-handed.  I could also help, my friend."  Elrond, too looked interested.

"Ada!  Not you as well!"  Arwen exclaimed.

Elrohir laughed at her.  "Why not?  Come on, Arwen, it could be fun.  We could make it a competition.  You and me, against Legolas and El.  What do you think?"

Celebrían said nothing.  She knew her husband and son well.  They had been lost the moment the word 'map' was mentioned.  And knowing Elrohir's infectious enthusiasm, the others would soon be equally involved.  "If it keeps the two of you out of mischief, it must be a good idea," she said at last.  "I seem to remember hearing a tale about you riding out into a blizzard the last time you were here?"

She referred to the previous visit Elrond, Elladan and Elrohir had made to Lasgalen.  Then, goaded by Legolas into hunting for hibernating spiders, the twins had been caught unawares by a severe snowstorm, something they were unaccustomed to in Imladris.  They had been lucky to return alive, and that, too, had been thanks to Legolas.  It had been a foolish, reckless escapade, but they had all been much younger then.

"This is King Thranduil's suggestion, Naneth.  Of course it is a good idea!"  explained Elrohir patiently.  Nothing would deter him from the prospect of exploring the tunnels.  If they were uncharted territory, so much the better.  He had spent many hours with his father in the library at Imladris, examining maps of Númenor and Arnor, and the lands beyond the mountains.  This sounded like a fascinating challenge.

"If you are agreeable, then I would welcome the help," Thranduil said.  "Thank you."

"We can start tomorrow!"  Elrohir was still enthusiastic.  "Come on, El, you know you'll agree in the end!"

Elladan sighed.  "I know I will.  Oh, very well.  Why do I always let you talk me into these things?"  he asked rhetorically.  It was easier, he reflected, to acquiesce quickly, rather than  resist.  The outcome was always the same, anyway.  "What about you, Ar?"

Arwen raised one delicate eyebrow, in a perfect imitation of their father. "Why not?  And I bet El and I will map the end of our tunnel before you and Legolas!"  she finished, less elegantly.

~~**~~

They began to explore the tunnels and caverns the next day.  Outside, the sky was dark with the threat of more snow, and a bitter wind blew straight from the mountains.  No one relished the idea of venturing outdoors unless it was strictly necessary.

Armed with torches, parchment and drawing implements, the explorers set off.  The main storage caverns were well lit by torches set in sconces on the walls, and candles and tapers were located by less well-frequented routes.  But away from the main areas, paths were less clear.  Thranduil had been right, the caves were like a warren.  Passages led off unexpectedly, sloping up, or running steeply down.  Blank dark openings appeared beside them.

When they reached the furthest of the main caves, they split up.  Elladan and Legolas chose a tunnel that plunged downward into darkness, while Elrohir and Arwen followed a route that started level but quickly veered off to the left.

As they walked along the steeply sloping passage, Legolas could hear nothing but the faint sounds of their footfalls, and the slight rasp of breathing.  None of the everyday sounds of Lasgalen penetrated this far, and their voices, when they spoke, echoed oddly.  They stopped periodically to chart their progress so far, and to mark the openings they had not yet explored.

"Legolas?  Have you been along these tunnels at all before?"  Elladan was walking ahead with the torch, and he turned to look back.

"Some of them.  My friends and I used to explore sometimes, when we were much younger.  But we always seemed to run out of candles, and had to retrace our steps in pitch darkness.  In the end my father put a stop to it.  We never got as far as the deeper caves."

Before long, they reached the end of the tunnel.  A fall of rock and stone, many years old, blocked their way, and they could go no further.  Returning, they began to explore some of the side-passages, but most were little more than fissures in the rock, and were too narrow to pass through.  At length, they returned to the cavern they had started from.  There was no sign of anyone else, so they selected another exit at random and started down it.  This path twisted and turned, and it was difficult to keep track of the main route.

"My grandfather built this in the second age,"  Legolas explained.  "Part of the river ran through here and made these caves, and Oropher excavated some of the other parts.  My father sometimes tells visitors that deep, deep underground he has dungeons for unwelcome guests!"

Elladan laughed.  "It would certainly be hard for them to find their way out again!"  He stopped suddenly, and placed a finger to his lips.  "Shh!  Legolas, can you hear anything?"

They both listened intently, and could faintly hear the sound of distant voices.  Elladan listened carefully, then grinned.  "It's Elrohir and Ar," he said.  "We're going to meet up.  Shall we surprise them?"  Making sure they had candles and flint to rekindle it if necessary, they extinguished the torch and concealed themselves in one of the narrow fissures. 

They soon saw the flicker of torchlight, and could hear Elrohir and Arwen approaching, talking animatedly.  As Elrohir passed him, close enough to touch, Legolas stretched out one hand and brushed Elrohir's sleeve.  He stopped dead.  "Ar?  Was that you?"

"Was what me?" Arwen asked, several feet behind her brother.

"Something touched my arm."

Arwen shrugged.  "Well, it wasn't me.  You must be imagining things."

Very carefully, Legolas touched Elrohir's sleeve again, and brushed his hand against his hair.  Elrohir had turned to look back at Arwen, and jumped.  "There it was again!  Did you see anything?"

"There's nothing there, El!   Just you, waving that torch around.  I can't see anything the way it's flickering!"

Elladan gave a low moan, and Arwen stopped abruptly.  There was utter silence for a few moments.  "I heard something," she murmured at last.

"I know.  So did I," admitted Elrohir.  "Arwen, come here.  Stay close."  As Arwen moved towards him, he put an arm around his sister and passed the torch to her.  "Hold it up high, Ar."

With one hand on his knife, he peered into the darkness, and called sharply, "Who's there?"  Elladan gave another moan in reply, then burst out from the side passage with a yell. 

Elrohir jumped and swore, and Arwen gave a shriek.  "Balrog's balls!  Curse you, Elladan!  And you, Legolas!  You scared us to death!"  Elrohir fumed.

"I'm sorry!"  Legolas laughed, sounding not in the least repentant.  "It was his idea," he added, indicating Elladan.

"Why doesn't that surprise me?" retorted Elrohir.  "Come on, we may as well go on together.  But you two can go in front, where we can see you!"

After debating their direction, they set off along one of the side tunnels that Elrohir and Arwen had passed a short way back.  A maze of openings led off the passage, and was carefully marked on the map Elrohir carried.  Without warning, the passage opened out into a large cavern, larger than some of the main storage caves. The rock seemed different here, and high up on one side a dim gleam of light showed.

Legolas regarded the cave blankly.  "I don't think I've ever been here before in my life.  I  have no memory of this place at all."  He sighed. "I think we'd better go back."  They followed Legolas back down the tunnel they had come through, the torches flickering in the draught from the hole behind them. He soon faltered and peered down a tunnel that led off to the right. "I think that's the way we came - come on."

The cave walls in places glistened with water, and the air was chill. Their

voices echoed oddly, and outside the circle of light from the torches they could see

nothing. The tunnels and caves branched and interlinked, so soon they had no idea

how far they had come.  The new passage continued to twist on itself but eventually they saw it widen ahead. They were again in a large cave - and high up a faint light showed. "How did we get back here again?" queried Elladan.

"I have no idea," admitted Legolas.  "Come on, we should try again."  They set off again down a different passageway, but very quickly this time came back to the same cave.

Elladan sighed in exasperation.  "This is ridiculous!" he complained.  "How can we keep coming back here, but can't get away?   Perhaps it would be quicker if we climb up and get out of that exit up there."  He pointed to the glimpse of light they could see.

"Well, if we do, you can go first!" Elrohir told him firmly.  "If you fall it will serve you right!  Legolas, what do you think?"

Legolas looked around the cave, up at the distant glint of light, and back at the tunnels they had explored.  "We may as well try," he said at last.  "Arwen, do you think you can do it?"

The twins exchanged an amused glance, their animosity forgotten.  No one with any sense ever questioned Arwen's ability to perform as well as her brothers, even if it was clear she could not manage to keep up.

"Yes, of course!  Can you?"  She glared at Legolas and flung the challenge back at him.

Legolas laughed.  "All right.  We'll go that way.  It should be easy; it doesn't look too difficult, but I'm sorry I managed to get us lost!  Elladan, you go first."

Elladan jumped and caught at an overhanging rock.  He pulled himself up, finding easy hand and footholds, and scrambled up until he reached the narrow gap.  The light was temporarily extinguished as he wriggled through, then he turned to peer down.  "It's easy," he called.  "Elrohir – you next.  Come on."

With a nod, Elrohir followed his brother up the side of the cave.  The first part of the climb was easy, but at the top the rock was coarser and more crumbling.  The stone beneath his hand suddenly broke free, and he clung to the remaining outcrops tightly.  As he worked his way higher another part of the wall fell away, and the rock beneath one foot loosened.  As he placed his weight on it to inch a little higher, the toe-hold collapsed, and he dropped down, clinging to the rock with just his finger tips.

The rock crashed to the ground far below.  He could hear a gasp from Arwen and a shout of warning.  Above him, Elladan called to him, and leaned forward, reaching downwards.  Finally finding a rough ledge to brace his foot against, Elrohir pressed himself close to the rock face and paused.  He took a deep breath, trying to quell the blind panic he felt and slow his racing heart.  He was now high above Arwen and Legolas, high enough that if he fell he knew he would be probably killed, or badly hurt at best.    Yet he was not quite high enough, could not stretch that little bit further to grab Elladan's hand.

Very cautiously he twisted his head upwards to look at Elladan.  "El, I think I'm going to fall," he said very calmly.  "Tell Arwen and Legolas to get back out of the way.  The rock is crumbling, the whole lot could give way at any moment.  Tell them!"

"Elrohir, you're not going to fall," Elladan told him firmly.  "Just keep still, I'll try to reach you.  Stay there!"

Even as Elladan spoke, Elrohir felt his precarious foothold giving way.  He dug his fingers into the rock, clinging to tiny crevices, and tried to find another support, but it was too late.  Another stone beneath his foot fell, then a whole slab of rock, loosened by the other movements, broke away and crashed to the ground. 

Finally, the one remaining stone he clung to so desperately came away in his hand, and he fell.

To Be Continued