-The Light And The Darkness–

By: Trinka

Rating: R (For child abuse in the beginning chapter only, violence, and death)

Feedback: Trinkadawnhotmail.com

Spoilers: Maybe little ones from The Toy, but we all know how elves feel about caves, mines, and holes anyway, so...umm...nope.

Disclaimer: I wish I owned something of Tolkien's, but unfortunately I don't. Not a thing, nada, zilch, zip, and no permission to use it. What's mine is mine and what's his is his, so if it's not his, it's mine. That make sense? No money, nothing. Please don't use anything you don't recognize from the great Tolkien without asking first, alright? (Cause it's mine.) :o)

Summary: The whole of a person is a delicate blending and balancing of both good and evil. Simply put, one can not exist without the other. The first warning had gone completely unnoticed. The second came too late in the form of a horrible nightmare. When madness unleashes Legolas' dark side, Aragorn will have to risk everything to save him – including the crown.

Warnings: Angst (a must), torture (another must, but not bad), child abuse (written before TLR came out, I swear), and death (gasp!). Now before you raise an eyebrow and wag a finger at me, I have to say that I really do like Legolas and Aragorn (Elessar), honest! I just had to do it. :o) That said, there's a little of everything in this.

Timeline: As far as a timeline goes, this takes place roughly a few years after Aragorn claims the crown. Since I'm no expert, that's about as close as I can tell you.

Additional Disclaimers: The Gondor of this story is largely my rendition, as are its customs, ways, policies, and laws. So if you see things differently, that's fine, just know that its just my take on things and I'm in no way trying to say it's a fact. Also, don't look up LOTR maps and such for something you don't instantly recognize. You won't find it. They only exist in this story, not in Tolkien's Middle Earth. Also, please note that I have opted to use the more familiar Aragorn name, instead of Elessar or Thorongil. Other characters, yes, I took liberties with them as well. Please do not flame me for them. Any spelling errors, typos, or character errors are completely my fault and are purely accidental. I'm not an expert on Middle Earth and have never claimed to be. So please forgive any omissions that you find. What else... Oh yes... The odd spaces are to show and highlight quick double thoughts... sort of like flash interruptions to stress key words. I wanted to stress a word or words, flash thoughts... Sort of like he didn't want to think one word so he tried to steer clear of it, but it kind of popped up in his mind, you know? A sort of a double thought between the conscious mind and the unconscious mind. Like two different conversations... No, huh? Alright. (Sigh.) Oh, and one more thing (this might be the confusing part): /Some thoughts will look like this,/ and some thoughts will look like this. Just go with it and hopefully it'll make sense.

Special Dedication: To: Breann Rutledge, a fellow dreamer and sweet, beautiful soul and friend, who (I prefer to say) sailed down Anduin and so over Sea on Nov. 26 / 03. She showed me and all who had the privilege of knowing her the true meaning of courage and indomitable spirit. You fought the good fight, Bree, and though your quest has come to an end you will live on in our hearts. Go rath maith agat. (Irish for: Thank you.) This is for you, my young friend.

My Corner: Cassia: (you said that I can say whatever I'd like so...) A huge smile and thank you to my favourite author for...well...everything. (JAWS, pyramids, puppies, orc chocolate, craziness, all of your help and encouragement, the odd knock on the head and brutal kick in the butt sniff (jk), your shoulder and your ear, growling and bad days, stars and dots, coffee and chocolate, and... -- ooh look, a bon-bon... I'll arm wrestle you for it! eg Thank you, my friend. It's such a privilege. Your wonderful stories make me dream. :o)

Long, huh? I know - you're muttering, "Will you shut up and just get on with it already?"

Enough said. Let's begin...

-The LIGHT And The Darkness-

Chapter One

Moon's Hem

Part 1

The glowing orb of silver – Lover's Moon, as they call her – hung huge and low in the evening sky above the ragged hills five leagues east of Ashern and ten leagues south of Old Boomer Hollow. A chilly haze crept below her, rolling silently into the streets. Tomorrow, the old ones with the wagging tongues, superstitious minds, and second sight, would say that Lover's Moon had been dragging the hem of her skirt, then would rattle on in hushed whispers that the coming of Moon's Hem was a dark omen signalling a bad change to come. For the boy who lived here with no family but his father, Moon's Hem would indeed signal a bad change.

Sitting on the top step with his back to the door, his breath misting faintly in the still air and his face glowing with moonlight, nine-year-old Ridley stayed put as he'd been told while the Hem silently crept down the street towards him. It swirled below the step beneath his feet then rose in a gentle wave and washed over his bare toes. Shivering, he drew his knobby knees up to his chest, linked his thin arms around them, and looked toward the dying sunset with dreaming eyes.

Just as it seemed that the waiting would never end and he would most likely be sitting here all night, the four men – guests of his father – finally emerged from the house. They stopped barely long enough to glance at him. He glanced up, hopeful yet that they might go back inside.

They didn't. Without a word to him and ignoring the Hem, they staggered past and made their way down the misty road; holding onto each other for support, singing a particularly vulgar song at the top of their lungs, and happily murdering the chorus as they went. Ridley sat looking after them knowing what this meant. Life was good when father was happy. Life was bad when he was not – usually it was more bad than good – the only thing worse is being ignored. Father had sent his friends home early tonight. That meant only one thing: life was about to get bad again. The dreamy expression fell from his face. His eyes filled with silent tears; swam with them; overspilled. Twin glistening trails flowed down dirt-smudged cheeks.

Overhead, Lover's Moon drifted behind a cloud.

"In here boy. Now," his father's thick voice called from inside.

The last word was like the crack of a whip. Startled, Ridley flinched as though he'd been stung. He wiped the wetness from his cheeks with a quick sweep of his palms then made for the door, thumbed it's latch, and stepped inside; his heart thumping hard in his chest as he did. Purely out of habit, he stopped just inside the doorway and peered into the dimly lit room. Also purely out of habit, his small, sweaty palm maintained it's tight grip on the open door's latch. He wouldn't risk closing it behind him – not yet, anyway – just in case he needed to make a quick exit.

He heard the sound of thick fingers drumming the wooden tabletop – a clear warning of his father's growing impatience. Before moving he glanced up at the space on the mantle above the cold hearth. What he saw there – or rather, didn't see there – made him forget all about Lover's Moon and her ominous Hem. /It's empty,/ he thought, and bit his lip. He felt an urge to bolt, to run out the door while he still could, and restrained it.

The drumming grew louder, and the pulse in his throat instantly quickened to match it. Steeling himself, he turned to the sound and spotted his father's daunting form sitting in the shadows of the unlit kitchen. Even at this distance and in this poor light he could easily make out the half- empty jug of spirits on the table. It was no trick to spot it, just a well practiced eye from years of experience. He always looked for the jug before looking for his father. It was far safer (and healthier) to know if a storm was brewing before he got too near.

A storm was definitely brewing tonight.

"Well?" his father called, the voice slurred and thick. "Were you born in a barn? Close the damn door and get over here!"

Ridley jerked forward at the sound of his father's call. His mouth worked but nothing came out. Trembling, he closed the door and inched his way toward the kitchen. He didn't know if it was a true premonition or just his overactive imagination, but these days he smelled "blood on the wind," as the old-timers said – maybe his own; as though something bad was coming and had been for a long, long time. He wasn't exactly terrified – not yet, at least – but he was very frightened.

/Another go-round,/ Ridley thought. /Lords, but I'm tired of this. Tired to death of it all./

"Sit," his father hissed, yanking out a chair with a ham-sized fist.

The chair was much closer to his father than Ridley was comfortable with. Still, he sat obediently, laced his fingers tight together on his lap, and waited.

"Know what today is, boy?" his father mumbled thickly, his glassy eyes narrowing. Without waiting for an answer, the man wrapped a fist around the jug's neck, tipped it to his lips and half-drained it before setting it back down. He swiped the back of his forearm across his mouth then his face hardened again as his gaze cut back to him.

Ridley saw all of this out of the corner of his eye, not daring to look up. He knew better than that. He also knew better than to answer. In all honesty, he knew it wouldn't matter if he did or didn't answer because either way the storm was still going to come.

"Well?" his father grunted.

Ridley nodded as he stared at the middle of the table, all the while blinking back stinging tears that were threatening to brim once more. He knew all too well what today was. How could he forget when he was constantly reminded of it? He breathed through his mouth, not his nose, as much to calm himself as to avoid the smell that was making his empty stomach churn; the air was thick with the stale stink of alcohol on his father's breath and sour stench of sweat on his body.

"What did you say?" his father muttered, his eyes narrowing. "What's the matter with you? Can't you speak all of a sudden?" As he leaned toward him, Ridley stiffened and held his breath; sure he would vomit if he got any closer. "Who tells you to speak in silence to the man who raised a motherless boy?" his father asked, the tone of his voice enough to freeze Ridley's blood in his veins. "To the husband of that poor woman who died nine years ago today giving your worthless hide life? Get your tongue working or I'll pull it outta your head."

"I'm sorry," Ridley breathed, his voice trembling like his hands, and the next instant he was flying across the room.

If he had struck the corner of the cabinet head-first, he could have been killed outright. As it happened, his back took the brunt of the impact. He rebounded and landed in a heap on the floor. For a moment he lay as he was, groggy and gasping, a high ringing in his ears and brilliant light swimming in his eyes. Then as if from a great distance he heard his father's deep voice growl: "You miserable little whelp."

With a tremendous effort, Ridley managed to blink the light from his eyes and turn his head. Familiar, cold panic seeped into his limbs when he saw his father slowly rise from his chair. In his imagination he saw the doom the man's shadowed eyes foretold – the end of everything, and possibly the end of his life.

/Oh, Lords,/ Ridley thought, staring up at him. /Move! Move now!/

He sat up and skittered backwards into the small, cobwebbed space between the kitchen's twin cabinets. Ridley was quick; his father – drunk and slow, but with a long reach.

"Where do you think your going, boy?" He gathered a handful of Ridley's shirt in one fist and dragged him out. "Uppity fool. I should do myself a favour and still your pert tongue for good, so I should. And I should do it right and proper this time. Right and proper. What would you think of that?"

Ridley began to tremble with nerves. They were partly of fear, but mostly of shame and confusion; there was even a small, dark part of him that hated his father and always would.

Now on his knees in front of the man, Ridley made no attempt to move away this time, just stayed where he was with his hands raised protectively above his dipped head; his mind full of fear, his back smarting with pain, and his heart full of shame for cowering the way he was.

"By the Lords, you will answer me, boy, or I'll have your head!" The man pulled Ridley up and set him on his watery legs, where he swayed dizzily back and forth. The iron fist, still clamped to the front of his shirt, tightened. "Now, my pert little whelp, you're due another lesson in manners."

/He's not steadying me,/ Ridley thought. /He's readying me./

He knew the difference, all right. He was so accustomed to this ritual he knew exactly what would come next. But this time...it didn't, and that frightened him even more. Instead, he was yanked forward, right up to his father's face – so close, in fact, that he could have kissed him if he pursed his lips.

"I shoulda drowned you in the nearest stream the day you were born, so I should," his father slurred in his face; the putrid smell of his breath filled Ridley's nose and made his eyes water. "The cause of it all, you were. A black curse, you were. Nine years of looking at your face and seeing her dying is more than enough. Do you understand me?"

He shook Ridley back and forth like a rag doll. The boy burst into tears.

"Do you? Answer me!" his father bellowed.

Ridley didn't reply. He was looking at the man's eyes – at the change in his eyes. One vicious backhand across the mouth got his full attention.

"I'll have none of your uppity attitude in my house! Is that clear enough for you?"

Ridley still didn't reply. His mind was clicking over at an incredible rate as he stared into his father's eyes – analysing, calculating, seeing him as if for the first time, seeing him as he really is. Not looking, but seeing.

"Is – that – clear?" the man roared, striking him again.

"Yes!" Ridley cried. His eyes, now watery with pain as well as fear, closed for a moment. Tears squeezed out from beneath the lids and through the fringe of his lashes. He wanted desperately to believe that what he had seen was some trick of his frightened mind, but he couldn't. It was real, alright. As real as the pain he was feeling now.

/Oh it's clear,/ Ridley thought, watching the sledgehammer-fist draw back as if in slow motion. /I understand everything about you./

As so many times before, he felt an immense tiredness creep over him as his body surrendered and his mind accepted the fate to come. But strangely enough, he knew that this time it would be different. This time as he gave over, he knew he could also be giving up something else: his life. There was the usual hate in his father's grey, glassy eyes – yes – but also something else. Ridley had intuitions that were sometimes very strong. He'd learned years ago to read people very, very well. The briefest lift of a brow. The slightest twitch of the mouth. The tiniest movement of the eyes. Call it survival. Call it conditioning. Whatever the name, it was there, none the less. So, really, what was it he was reading in his father's face – in his eyes – now?

/He means to kill me this time. That's what it is./

/Then do it and be done with it,/ the distant part of his mind challenged his father silently...except it was not frightened, just truthful. /Go ahead...or someday, so help me Lords, I'll do it to you./

He had never in his life had such a thought. Nor expected to have one. But he was tired. Tired of it all. Tired of cowering like an beaten dog every time his father called him, walked into the room, or even looked at him sideways.

"Boy," the man snarled, "if I never see your murdering face again, I'll count my life as good!"

"As will I," Ridley said quietly but brassy, wondering as soon as the words were out where on earth they had come from. He heard his father gasp. Never had he said such a thing to his father in his life, but now he had a desperate need to say it; to let him know how he felt; to let him know how he felt before he died – if he was to die tonight – and once it was out, he waited uneasily for whatever explosion might follow.

None did.

"What?" his father asked in disbelief. The boldness of the words set the man back in surprise. For a moment all he could do was stare blankly at Ridley, the look on his face read as though he suddenly found himself holding an angry viper instead of a helpless child.

"You heard me," Ridley said, levelling a glare of someone far older than his years and far braver than he'd ever been before. Then he added: "And I hate you, too, father," the last word spat as though foul and filthy in his mouth.

And so, he realized, he did. A great weight seemed to slip off his shoulders at the honest confession, and with it Ridley found a power within himself he didn't know he possessed. He looked him square in the eyes. "Do your damnedest," Ridley said defiantly, "because after tonight, you'll not hurt me again."

The man heard two things in that voice: youth and truth. He paled for a moment then gave a lopsided grin.

"I'll put you in your grave, then," he snarled, lifting him one-handed into the air and shaking him again. "You're grave! Like I shoulda before!"

The last thing Ridley remembered of that night, and never forgot, was the look in his father's eyes. In that moment, the glassy anger and drunkenness was gone from his face, but what replaced it was no better – stone-sober purpose. And when it finally came – and come it did, by the thundering Lords – the force that rocked Ridley's head backwards almost broke his neck. He instantly, and mercifully, lost consciousness.

When he came too – surprised he came too at all – it was with people walking past him making no move what-so-ever to help, blood all over his face, fresh bruises on top of bruises, and shaking from the cold. He was sprawled on the frosty ground outside, the house pitch-dark behind him.

He pushed himself to a sitting position and gently fingered his fiercely pulsing upper lip. Being as painful and swollen as it was, he was more than a little surprised that he still had it, and all his teeth as well. He looked calmly back at the house, his fingers still tracing the split, his face set with defiance. He struggled to gain his feet, and failed the first time, then, though still unsteady, managed to stand. He made no move to try the door. There was no need. He knew it would be locked. His father's message was as sharp and clear as the air around him: Get out.

Lover's Moon was gone. The sun was coming up.

Part 2

As though in a daze, his fingertip traced the scar that ran from near the middle of his upper lip to just under his left nostril, and as he touched it now he reflected that 'there is always an upside to darkness,' as the old-timers said – the upside in his case is having three very valuable and well-learned lessons at his disposal. The first is the uncanny ability to read people at a moment's notice; the second is how to fight; and the third and most important is how to survive. Those three well-taught lessons had been the keys to his survival.

And he is definitely a survivor – having had to do everything and anything to do it, as well as learning all that he could along the way.

/Father had been very disappointed when he saw I had survived,/ he thought. /Very disappointed indeed. I'd have thought he'd have been happy. Go figure./

The three boisterous men at the table behind him exploded with laughter ... again, loud enough this time to dispel these memories, fresh as they were, and return him back to the present. But the noise level here in the Boar's Tusk was to be expected, downright grating even at the best of times. No better than one hundred souls were packed together in the small inn, all of them drinking hard, yet there was more noise here than five hundred rowdies could possibly make. Even so, he felt right at home here amid the noise. Preferred it, actually, over quiet. Clanking mugs, shouts, the odd fist- fight, an upturned table; these men – drunk as sin and full of spit-and- vinegar – were as potentially dangerous as lightening clouds looking for a target. Still, to Ridley, it felt...normal. Home. The Boar's Tusk, it seemed, was the mirror image of his soul.

It was also the perfect setting to conduct business.

With men of a certain type and temperament, ale and loud noise are often far more effective than quiet when it came to loosening the tongue and settling the nerves; the noise covers business talk that best remain hidden from sharp ears and wagging tongues, and the ale makes businessmen more pliable. Tonight Ridley had given up his plan for a more intimate setting with any one of a good two dozen women who sought his company to do business with Twill in this place without so much as a second thought – it was that important. He had met up with Twill in the shadowed corner of the inn, as planned, and had waved an order to the innkeeper for two ales as he took a seat. There was no sense trying to conduct business before Twill had a few stiff drinks in him, Ridley had reasoned; Twill looked more on edge than usual tonight. As they'd waited for their drinks, Ridley had leaned back in his chair and scanned the room, and had, it seemed, relived a few old memories best left old.

The dim inn was full of stale smoke and talking and grumbling and loud bursts of laughter, unfortunately most of it coming from the table directly behind him. He closed his eyes and forced his temper down. It wasn't easy. It never was. All thoughts of his past left his mind, drowned under a growing red anger. Twill, sitting across from him, could see the hardening change in his face, and shifted uncomfortably in his chair because of it.

"Someone should give them a lesson in manners," Ridley said without turning and making no attempt to lower his voice. But the second time Twill gave him that pleading 'don't do anything, please' look, he let it drop, although grudgingly.

A fresh-faced, raven-haired, buxom young woman set a heavy, mug-laden tray down on the edge of their table. He glanced up as she unloaded two mugs; placing one in front of Twill without so much as a momentary look, and the second in front of him while moistening her full lips and locking her dark eyes onto his. There was no guesswork in the sultry look. He knew exactly what she meant by it. Any fool would. And any red-blooded male old enough to know 'the look' would have taken her up on that offer in a heartbeat.

/So call me the king of fools, then,/ he thought. /Because I've no time for this right now./

But as he looked in her eyes he thought of his flash-fire temper, and was amazed at how fast and furious these emotional storms blew in – not two seconds ago he had wanted to beat the hell out of those braying idiots behind him – and how fast and furious they blew back out again. Locked in her lustful gaze, he found his anger was suddenly absent, for now.

For a moment it was as if they were holding a conversation in their own private world – the world of silent exchanges.

/Well, hello./

/Hello./

/You look bored to tears. I can remedy that boredom./

/I'll bet you could, sweet one. But sadly ... no. Bad timing and all that. I'm busy right now. My friend and I are talking over some business./

/Are you sure?/

His small smile was one of politeness, not interest. He was used to this sort of reaction from women. Had it been any other day, he would already be in the process of accepting her silent offer, being as...overly blessed by the Lords as she was. But today was not a day to mix business with pleasure. Of course, tomorrow might be a different story...

/Yes. Quite sure./

He waited, holding the smile and mentally counting off the seconds to see how long it would take her to realize he wasn't going to get up. Smart women would know in less than five. Dull-witted – more than ten. After a full fifteen, her smile drooped, but only a little. Confused at being turned down, she hoisted the tray up and backed away from the table instead of turning from it; all the while her eyes still fixed solidly on his. He watched her go, slightly flattered at the offer but not overly surprised by it.

/Some other time, perhaps?/ her hopeful eyes and single raised brow wordlessly conveyed.

He nodded (/Sure – some other time, sweet one./) and turned his attention back to Twill.

"I'd say she's a bit taken with – " Twill began.

"Not with me," he interrupted, his voice matter-of-factly as he reached for his mug. "She thinks I'm someone else. "

The men behind him exploded again.

He had been raising his mug of ale. It stopped three inches shy of his mouth. "That's it," he growled, slamming his mug down on the table. The foam splashed back over his hand, drenching his cuff. He glared dirty mad at it; preferring to drink it, not wear it.

Twill tensed. He knew exactly where this was going. They'd known each other for years. He was one of the select few who could say they knew the real Ridley, though most times he wished he didn't.

"Forget them," Twill said quickly, the usual fret evident in his voice.

He wished he could, but he couldn't. Not this time.

They bellowed laughter again.

Ridley's jaw tightened; not for the first time that night. Twisting in his chair, he turned to the three half-drunk and overly-loud men, reached over and slammed a fist down on their table. One look in his blazing eyes told them all they needed to know. They took the hint and quieted. For a moment he felt a touch disappointed that they'd given in so quickly. Frustrated to death with Twill right now, the thought of beating the void out of someone was starting to appeal to him; it might help to work out a little aggravation, so to speak; and surely they deserved some sort of punishment for driving him half-mad. A thought crossed his mind. A smirk pulled at the corners of lips as he rose from his chair.

Twill looked up and saw that Ridley had removed a stone covered with fool's gold from his pocket and was now manipulating it back and forth across the knuckles of his right hand. Light sparkled off of it as it traveled it's slow course. Twill felt his eyelids grow heavy. He forced a hard blink and looked away, fast.

"Ridley, don't – " Twill began, but broke off when it was obvious that the other was ignoring him – obvious because Ridley had already dragged his chair to their table, straddled it backwards, and was in the process of sitting down; the stone still doing it's slow dance. And it was already too late to bother finishing the sentence anyway seeing as how brows were in the process of raising at Ridley's joining them uninvited.

"You boys seemed to like a bit of fun, don't you?" Ridley asked in a low, suggestive voice. His eyes were not on their faces as he spoke but on the twinkling stone as it did its nimble journey across his knuckles...and back...and across...and back...and across...

Ridley didn't need to look over to know that Twill had trained his eyes away from the journey of the stone and the men had not – Twill was quite familiar with this game. He began to speed the rhythm up until the stone seemed buoyant above the back of his hand.

Twill had indeed looked away from the floating stone, though it took a great deal of effort for him to do so, and was now watching the spellbound faces of the men instead. Though he didn't approve of this by any means, he found the spectacle quite fascinating.

"Well?" Ridley asked in that same low voice.

"What?" one man asked numbly, his wide eyes fixed fast upon the dancing stone.

"Fun," Ridley repeated quietly. "You boys like fun, don't you?"

"Uhh... sure," said a second man, his eyes frozen to the movements of the glittering piece.

The third didn't seem to hear at all, only stared blankly at the floating stone. Below it, Ridley's knuckles fluttered up and down as smoothly and quickly as a Hummingbird's wings.

"I heard that the mountains around here are full of gold," Ridley said quietly. "It's just sitting up there waiting for someone to find it."

"Find it," one repeated tonelessly.

"Don't you want to find it?" Ridley asked in a low, smooth voice. "I think the three of you should go and find it."

The first nodded; his eyes now completely glazed over. "Yes. We should go and find it..."

"Yes, find it," Ridley said quietly. "Time to find the gold."

Without another word, the three – still glassy-eyed – nodded, stood, and left.

Ridley smirked as he watched them leave. When the door closed behind them he dropped the stone back in his pocket, dragged his chair back to the table, dropped into it, and turned his attention back to Twill. He let out a slow, deep breath, enjoying the win then leaned forward, forearms on the table. "Well?" he asked.

Silence. Twill sat staring at his mug like he wasn't quite sure what it was.

Ridley's fingers began drumming the table – the sound like an unnerving double heartbeat. He was angry and in a dirty mood and tired of these stupid games. He had wanted to get this over with as quickly as humanly possible and move on to...better things, but Twill was busy doing his usual: dragging his feet and being too damned cautious. He was accustomed to Twill's trademark hesitation and normally would have waited it out, but thanks to the men who had been behind him, his temper was in full flare and impatience was feeding the fire. If Twill didn't get on with it soon, he was not going to be able to stop himself from grabbing him and breaking him in half. He was just barely holding himself in his seat as it was.

Twill, his head low, rubbed his thumbs up and down the sides of his mug as if deep in thought. Ridley was watched him carefully, and Twill knew it. Still, he did it anyway because this was the one thing he had over Ridley – an endless supply of patience. Ridley has no patience, Twill knew. Never did. He might be able to make people do anything, but Twill, at least, had something over him, and that gave Twill a small sense of power. Still, he knew he had to time it just right or risk getting laid out flat.

/Almost... /

The drumming grew louder.

/Almost... /

And louder still.

He knew that Ridley would slam his fist on the table any second now.

/Wait. Wait. Look up just before he does. It'll drive him crazy and put him in his place at the same time. It always does. Wait for it... Wait... /

/Now./ Twill raised his head. "You have a real way with people, Ridley," he said calmly, and then frowned as he released the mug's handle and leaned back in his chair. It creaked with the shift of his weight. "I hate it when you do that. You could tell someone to walk off a cliff and they would."

Ridley shrugged but kept drumming his fingers. A tiny grin of satisfaction pulled at the corners of his mouth as he noted Twill's eyes with their 'I- won-that-round' twinkle lowering to his still-pounding fingers. "I have ... and they did," he said softly. "What of it?"

/So you wanna play games with me, do you?/ Ridley thought, amused. /Then let's play my game. Just keep watching my fingers, Twill./

As if Twill had heard his thoughts, his eyes did remained fixed on them, and his face slowly fell slack.

/Try this one, Twill,/ a voice in the back of Ridley's mind whispered as he kept careful watch on Twill's face while the grin faded from his own. /My own father was one of those I sent to walk the cliffs three years ago, and damned if he didn't deserve it. But there are so many more that deserve it as well. So many that turned a blind eye to a child's pain and torture. So many that didn't lift a finger to stop it. And so many that took advantage of it...of me... / he thought bitterly, then forced his mind away because that line of thought was a moot point. They would all get their comeuppance eventually, and sooner than they knew, if what Twill had told him was the truth.

Twill forced his eyes away then shook his head as if to clear it. "Have you really?" he asked mildly. (/Trickster,/ Twill thought. /Another few seconds and he would have had me joining those three fools in the mountains./) "Told someone to walk off a cliff and they did, I mean?"

Ridley nodded, but did not elaborate. He grinned at him and stopped the rhythmic, heartbeat drumming (for which Twill was endlessly, but mutely, thankful). "Let's get back to business, shall we? I'm running late as it is."

"Alright..." Frowning, Twill let his voice trail off, not exactly sure whether to take that as a joke or not. He decided that he would, even though he was sure it wasn't. "Where, when, and how much are we talking about, here?"

"Here, now, and you tell me. I'm done playing with you, Twill. Just hand it over or I'll get it somewhere else."

"Calm down, calm down." Twill's face pinched. "You're sure a hard man to do business with. You haven't changed a bit."

"Neither have you." Ridley paused, his lips pressing into a hard line. "Look, do you have it or not?" He pushed his mug away and stood. "Otherwise, I'm leaving."

"Sit down," Twill hissed, glancing around the full inn. Luckily no one was paying them any attention – or at least they didn't appear to be, anyway. He waved a hand back and forth between them. "You and I have to come to an understanding first."

"Like?" Ridley asked, slowly lowering back down in the chair.

"Like," Twill said, leaning forward on his elbows, "my name stays out of this. As a matter of fact, once you leave here you forget you ever knew me."

Ridley nodded. "Agreed. I wish I didn't know you now. What else?"

"I don't want to know who you're after or why." He waved a hand before Ridley could offer to speak. Not that he was going to. "Don't. Don't say a thing. I don't want to know. And I don't want to see you again after this. You and I are finished. Don't ask me for anything again. Got that?"

Ridley stiffened. He had been raising his mug of ale, again. It never made it to his mouth.

/Seems I'm destined not to have a drink tonight,/ he thought.

"Suits me just fine," Ridley said. "I already wish I'd never met you. Is that it?"

"Yeah, that's it." Twill set a small leather pouch on the table. He glanced over at Ridley, hesitated, and then let out a deep breath – almost a sigh of relief – as he pushed it towards him. "Here. Take it. It's all there."

"How much?" Ridley asked. He made no move to take it. Instead his eyes lowered to it then lifted to Twill's without so much as a twinge of change on his set face.

Twill shook his head. "Forget it. Let's call it a farewell present from me to you." There was smug satisfaction in his voice. "It's worth it to get you out of my hair."

Ridley smirked. "Aw Twill, I'm touched. And I didn't get you anything," he said cheerfully.

"Don't worry about it." Twill slid his chair back and stood. "Getting rid of you is enough present. Trust me. Goodbye, Ridley. Have a nice life."

Ridley fingered the pouch as he watched Twill walk out of the inn. As soon as the door closed behind him, he stood, tucked the pouch into his pocket, and made his own way out.

Part 3

Lover's Moon shone full in the cloudless sky; the stars that accompanied her glittered overhead as far as the eye could see. Twill usually loved the stars, but they gave him no comfort tonight. Not tonight. Not now. He had only one thought now: getting as far away from the Boar's Tusk as fast as possible.

A strange, icy haze had crept silently into the town coming down off the slopes of the mountains, and there was a rare stillness in the air. Moon's Hem, he knew, and shivered. The cold mist swirling about his legs seemed to penetrate deep into his bones. He pulled his thick cloak tighter around him as he hurried down the dark lane, but the cloak's winter thickness gave him no warmth tonight.

Moon's Hem. It's a bad omen, he knew. Then his thoughts turned to Ridley. Now there's a bad omen if there ever was one. Looking into Ridley's eyes is like staring death straight in the face. You never knew when he would strike nor what would set him off to do it. The man was about as stable as an agitated, venomous snake; the most innocent of glances or movements could cause a person to loose their life.

/And I should know,/ Twill mused. /As sad and pathetic as it is to think, I'm Ridley's best friend and he's mine./ He rolled his eyes with that thought.

/Well, we were, up until tonight, anyway,/ he corrected himself.

Even so, Twill considered him to be a vicious, humourless, pain in the rump – always did. And after insulting him they way he had (/That was not the brightest thing I've ever done,/ he thought worriedly), the only thing that would even slightly serve to warm him or comfort his jangled nerves and ease his bone-cold body tonight would be the roar of a fire blazing in the hearth, the doors and windows of his home double-bolted, and sitting with his back against the farthest wall holding a fit crossbow in his hands until he was positive Ridley had left town.

And that's exactly where Twill was heading – home.

/Thank the stars that's over with,/ he thought, forcing himself to stay at a brisk walk and not break into a dead-run like his frayed nerves urged him to do. /A huge financial loss – yes, definitely – but well worth it to get rid of a man like that. He's not all there. Supplying a hired killer, especially one as dangerous as Ridley, isn't exactly my idea of healthy liv – /

Twill heard a noise ahead and froze in his tracks. His mind instantly screamed a warning: /Ridley! Fly! Fly before it's too late!/

Or is it already too late?

He could almost picture Ridley standing in the shadows with knife, or a crossbow, or...something...watching him and waiting; his lean body tensing for the kill; his eyes locked on him; his breath slowed to mask the vapour; his hand tightening on the knife's handle or his finger tightening on the crossbow's trigger...or whatever his choice of a thousand weapons he was expert in.

Ridley had gotten ahead of him somehow, and now...

/I'm already dead!/

The hair at the nape of his neck rose and his breath stilled as he listened. Every nerve he owned fired at the same time. Purely out of habit his hand flew to the hilt of his knife. He stood stock-still like that – stock-still and wide-eyed with sweat trickling down his temples and beading on his forehead in spite of the cold – for a good minute. To him, it felt like a month.

Nothing.

/Get a grip,/ Twill, he told himself. /You're letting your imagination run away with you. That lunatic is not around every damn corner!/

His let his breath and some of his tension out into the brittle night air in a long, steady stream of vapour, then began moving again, quickening his pace. He walked with his head bent slightly forward, one hand holding the cloak closed around him and the other inside it still clutching the hilt of the knife. The few men that came toward him saw a man in a cloak with his head down against the bitter cold and walking with a purposeful stride. The few that came up from behind had nothing but his back to get a good look at, of course, and from behind he looked as anyone else would who was heading home on a cold night. But inside the cloak was a far different story: he was trembling violently and his breath was quick and raspy. His ears filled with his own determined whispers, insisting over and over again that he was alright and that he should move faster.

Twill strode along the dark lane until he passed Raesal's house. His was next. He entered the small strand of trees between the two properties and slowed with shaky relief.

/Lords, I'm getting too old for this,/ he thought bemused. And then bemusement changed to horror as he felt a strong arm slip around his neck and a hand reach around and grab his knife hand by the wrist.

"You were right, Twill. No loose ends," a voice whispered in his ear. A deep voice. A very familiar deep voice. And when Twill tried to turn his head he felt the momentary rush of hot breath on his cheek, then the arm at his throat jerked him backwards into the darkness.

Twill's mind began to shriek. It was a single word, over and over again: /No, no, no, no!/ The arm at his throat hitched tighter with each repetition, as if his horror refreshed and strengthened it. And now, with each of those hitches, Twill could feel his throat closing and his face flushing.

"And I don't take orders from you or anyone else, remember?" Ridley said softly. "Not unless they pay me to."

"Ridley," he croaked. "Plea – "

"Loose lips, Twill. Nothing personal."

Ridley twisted Twill's wrist, turning the knife's tip inward. Then he jerked the wrist towards himself, plunging the blade deep into Twill stomach. At the same time he tightened his arm around Twill's throat, efficiently cutting off the airway and any sounds that might escape.

"I just can't afford loose lips now," he said mildly as Twill went limp in his arms.

Ridley held him awhile longer to be sure, then lowered him into a sitting position against a tree and pulled the hood of his cloak up over his head. He stood back and looked over his handiwork with an experienced eye. Twill's lap was full of blood-red moonlight; Moon's Hem swirled around him like a living shroud.

/Some man sleeping it off a little short of his house?/ he thought. /No one will give Twill a second glance tonight. Maybe in a few days when he ripens a bit... /

He looked down at Twill and graced him with one last smile. He felt good. Very good.

"You got your wish, Twill," he said. "You and I are definitely finished."

He pulled the pouch out of his pocket, dropped it into his large bundle of supplies, and slung the whole thing over his shoulder. That was the last of it. Now he was ready to move.

Humming to himself, he made his way down the path and out of town, his breath smoking faintly in the still air and his face glowing with moonlight.

Part 4

It was high time for a visit and long overdue. They were close now, only days away from Minas Tirith.

All night, laying wide awake with scattered memories of the fellowship's travels, battles, and victories – no true joy found in winning with the awful price of victory being so high – images of Aragorn had flitted through Legolas' head. And now, as dawn rose pink in the horizon, he wondered if Aragorn had finally accepted his part in man's future. The ranger had been at such odds with his feelings about claiming the crown that Legolas couldn't help but wonder what his feelings were now. There had been many private moments of doubt in the months following Aragorn's (Elessar, though Legolas still called him Aragorn or sometimes Strider when it suited him), coronation where he had been of two separate minds and two separate hearts.

/Does he feel more ranger now, or more king?/ the elf wondered.

And then he questioned whether he really wanted to find out.

In the end, Legolas decided that he would concentrate on tackling one thing at a time and forget the rest. He couldn't dwell on what was or might be, only what is.

As dawn's light brightened the sky, he and Gimli packed to leave. They left early, leaving plenty of daylight to travel, and would take their slow time in doing it. Of course, that wasn't Legolas' idea – it was the dwarf's. Caves. There had to be a million caves scattered between where they were now and Minas Tirith, and Gimli was determined to see them all. Not that that came as any surprise to the elf.

They made three leagues at best before Gimli spotted what he considered to be a 'real gem.' It had potential, and made the list as one of those 'have- to-see.' Legolas couldn't believe Gimli had even found it, with it being above them and well hidden by thick trees and brush, but Gimli had followed the musty scent of old earth straight to it, as always. Of course, just because Gimli had found it didn't mean that Legolas had any intention of going in it.

"You're welcome to go in, Gimli." Legolas said, waving a hand at him while he shrugged off his pack, bow, and quiver. He stretched out on a patch of frosty grass, crossed his ankles, and folded his arms behind his head as though contemplating taking a nap. "I'll wait for you," he added, settling.

"Come on, Legolas," the dwarf urged, his eyes widening with delight at the size of the monstrous entrance before him. "There may be artefacts in there, or wall paintings, or – "

"I don't care if all the wonders of Middle Earth are in there, I'm not interested." He closed his eyes, enjoying the sunshine on his face. "Go ahead. I'll wait. I'd rather see the sun than the inside of a hole."

"Mine," Gimli corrected as he pulled his cloak tighter around him.

"Same thing," Legolas countered, grinning.

"Elves," Gimli muttered under his breath, then called: "'Tis March you know, not July. Summer might be coming, but it's not here yet. How can you enjoy the sun in this cold air?"

Legolas lifted his head and smirked. "I'm an elf, Gimli. March, July, it really doesn't matter which. Unless I'm trapped in the mountains in a blinding blizzard, I don't find much of a difference in the weather."

"So you've said, and have said a million times already."

Legolas shrugged. "Then stop asking me."

Gimli grunted a sour snort. "I will."

"Than do."

There was a long pause. Compelled to break it, Gimli heaved a sigh. "Do you always have to have the last word?" he asked gruffly.

"As long as the sun or stars are shining," Legolas said in a cheery, sing- song type of voice, layered on top of Gimli grumpily mimicking: "As long as the sun or stars are shining." The dwarf rolled his eyes and added, "I know, I know. So you've said."

Legolas shrugged. "You've asked me to go into every hole we've come across and I've always said no. Why is it such a surprise now?"

Gimli's brow furrowed. "It's not."

"Then go." Legolas waved a hand at him again and then scooted over to angle himself better so he could feel the sun's rays full on his face. "Please, don't let me stop you," he said tonelessly. "Go and have fun."

"I am going." Gimli stepped inside the mouth and turned back. "You will wait, right?" he asked. His voice echoed loudly off the stone walls as though he was fretful and had yelled, despite no change in his pitch. He soured at it's sound and reddened.

"Haven't I always waited?" Legolas answered, purposely lowering his voice to make Gimli's sound all the more loud. Without bothering to open his eyes (he knew the dwarf's face was positively glowing now) he settled again with a satisfied 'got-you-good' grin fixed on his face.

"Yes." Gimli shot him a hard look, one the elf didn't see because his eyes were closed. "So far."

"Bye, Gimli." Legolas raised a hand and gave a casual wave in the dwarf's general direction. "Take your time."

"You'll wait?" Gimli asked, the words – childish, and the tone far more hopeful than he intended it to be. His face reddened another notch, though that was almost impossible now.

"Gimli, I swear on...whatever you want. Now go."

When Gimli re-emerged an hour later, Legolas was gone.