A/N: Should I tell you that this is the last chapter of this story? Did I just do that? I'll have a lot more to say at the end.

Chapter Nine

Begrin had been contemplating the choice to be made even before Aragorn had asked his question. There were only three of them, so if they confronted Saeragar now, would they have a chance against the powerful being?

Would waiting and following Saeragar and Thranduil be any better? Once they reached the palace, there would be countless allies for the pair. All the elves there would think their king and prince had returned, and all Saeragar, as Legolas, would have to do was tell the elves that Begrin, a stranger, had corrupted Galáril and Aragorn and turned them against the royal family. The three would soon find themselves in the palace dungeons never to be heard from again. That could not be allowed to happen.

Begrin's vision refocused, when he felt Aragorn pulling on his sleeve insistently. He realized that the man had done it more than once.

When Begrin came back to the present, Aragorn was staring at him. "Well? What do we do?" he whispered.

"There would be too many allies for Saeragar, if he and Thranduil reach the palace," Begrin explained. "We have to make our stand right here."

That was the answer that Aragorn and Galáril were waiting for, but before either of them could remark, Begrin said, "We have to be totally committed to what we must do. As I've said before, Saeragar is very powerful. We cannot afford to end up succumbing to his will as the king and his son have done. We must be resolved to do whatever needs to be done to stop Saeragar. Are we agreed?"

Galáril would not have believed that giving in to the evil being Begrin talked about could happen, however, he would never have believed that either Legolas or Thranduil could now be so easily controlled, either. "We will do what we must," he said.

"Stopping Saeragar is the main goal here," Begrin informed him. "But even if we defeat him, there is no certainty that we can rescue Thranduil from the state you see him in now. It depends on how deeply Saeragar has gone into the king's mind and damaged it."

Galáril did not like the sound of that. The very word damage made him shudder.

Begrin saw the unhappy looks on his companions' faces, so he attempted to ease their minds. "Thranduil has not been under Saeragar's control very long, so the chances are good that once Saeragar dies and Thranduil is released from his hold, the king will be well." He believed he was right in telling them that. Usually damage occurred after long exposure to the kind of mind control Saeragar used.

Aragorn was glad about that but was not happy that Begrin had not mentioned rescuing Legolas. He did not question him, because he didn't want to be told yet again that his friend was lost to him. Once the evil being was defeated and freed from the prince's mind, Aragorn was sure Legolas would return to them, as would his father. He nodded to Begrin and echoed Galáril's words, "We will do what we must."

Legolas and Thranduil were passing their position and moving toward the palace. "This has to stop now," Begrin said as he watched the retreating backs of the two royal elves. "Let us go."

Each of the three sent up a prayer to the Valar to help them succeed in what they were about to do. How long it would be before they knew the answer they didn't know, because they had no idea how long the struggle to defeat the evil being known as Saeragar would last. They rode forward to find out.

"Saeragar!"

The evil being froze at the sound of the all-too- familiar voice that called his name. "Begrin," he spat. He leaned over and told Thranduil to stop his horse. The king obeyed immediately but did not react to the sound of a strange voice in his kingdom.

Aragorn, Begrin and Galáril rode up to within a few feet of the king and his son, or at least, the image of his son.

"I should have known you would show your face and put your nose into my business. You will not be any more successful now than you have ever been." He eyed the human and the elf warrior. "They cannot help you, either."

"That remains to be seen," Begrin said calmly, though he would not have liked any of the others to see how in knots his stomach was. He couldn't let Saeragar mistakenly suspect he was intimidated, nor could he let the elven warrior and the ranger suspect it. Too much was at stake, and they needed every advantage. Showing absolute nerves of steel was a step in that direction.

Aragorn was shocked as he stared at Legolas's face. It looked as Thranduil had observed earlier---contorted. The fair elven skin was darker by far, in stark contrast with the golden hair, which now seemed dull and lifeless. He looked as if he had aged, an uncommon occurrence in elves.

The elf's eyes were dark, almost the color of the inside of a deep cavern. That comparison made the ranger shudder, especially considering how much Legolas hated any cave deep enough to hide the light of the entrance. The ranger also noticed that Legolas's hands seemed gnarled, like those of a very old person who had labored long and hard all their life. Even the elf's shoulders were slightly hunched.

It all tore at the man's heart, as he searched those dark eyes, hoping to see some spark in their depths that would tell him that Begrin was wrong. The ranger had come to believe Begrin that Legolas was gone. Now, even seeing what he evil being had done to the once beautiful elven body, Aragorn could not help but believe that his friend still lived.

All elves had a place deep within their minds where they could go to find a restful peace and sometimes to escape the ravages of intense pain or overwhelming grief while they healed. Legolas retreated into a green forest of such unmatched beauty that he was sometimes reluctant to leave it. He had described it to his human friend on several occasions, regretting that the two of them could not go there together. It was to this inner forest that Aragorn believed the elf had now retreated until he could be rescued from the evil that had taken control of his mind.

Galáril had his own eyes trained on the king. Thranduil, to the elven warrior's dismay, sat so stiffly upright it looked almost painful. He stared straight ahead of him, though it was plain that he didn't really know what he was looking at. He showed no emotion nor recognition of the newcomers in his midst. Galáril's anger rose, but he knew he couldn't act on that anger---at least, not yet.

Saeragar sneered at Begrin. "Do not think that I am not aware of what you are planning."

"If you mean we plan to defeat you, you are right," Begrin replied. His voice never wavered, and his gaze was steady.

Saeragar sneered again. "You should know by now, Begrin, that you cannot defeat me. You have tried often enough in the past and always failed miserably."

"But there is something you do not understand, Saeragar. While you have been imprisoned in that black rock all these millennia, I have been roaming the earth and learning many things."

"If your vaunted Valar could not help you defeat me before, nothing you have learned will aid you now. Admit it, Begrin, you have no knowledge of how to win. You never did."

Begrin smiled, as Aragorn said, "If the Valar didn't help him all those millennia ago, how is it you ended up spending the time form then until now imprisoned in a black rock?" He knew he words would provoke Saeragar, but he wasn't able to hold back the sarcastic remark.

Aragorn flinched as Saeragar jerked his head to face the ranger. The eyes that now glared at him in anger were not those of the elf he loved as a brother. They were so full of cold loathing that Aragorn couldn't suppress a shudder that Begrin, sitting behind him on the horse, felt.

The ranger felt a hand squeeze his shoulder and knew that Begrin was offering strength and support.

"You, human, are not involved in this," Saeragar scoffed in dismissal.

"You are wrong. That is my friend's body that you inhabit, and I want it back!"

Immediately, Aragorn felt another squeeze on his shoulder, only this time it was a warning not to lose focus. He took a deep breath, but his tense body relaxed very little.

The gesture did not escape Saeragar's notice. Interpreting Begrin's gesture, Saeragar scoffed, "Do as you are told, human."

Galáril frowned. He had no idea what had transpired or what Saeragar was talking about, but he knew enough not to lose control of his feelings, though he understood exactly how Aragorn felt. He wanted both his king and his prince back.

To everyone's surprise, Saeragar dismounted and commanded the king to do the same. Thranduil quickly obeyed, as usual. The horses were sent off out of easy reach.

Saeragar did not seem bothered by the fact that he, being on foot, appeared to be at a disadvantage to those that were still mounted. "Come down and join us," he beckoned, pulling the king close to him and placing his left hand around Thranduil's neck.

Begrin knew that with the elven strength that Legolas's body possessed, at the first sign of an attack Saeragar would break the king's neck before anyone could stop him. The robed figure slid off the horse and nodded for Aragorn and Galáril to follow suit. They did.

The ranger did not like what was happening, but decided that Begrin knew what he was doing. He didn't know how long he could go along with the mysterious man, but if it ended in success, he would be more grateful than he could ever begin to repay. However, if things looked like they were getting out of their control and Saeragar was winning, he would take matters into his own hands.

If it came down to a choice between stopping Saeragar or saving Legolas, the man honestly had no idea what he would do. He prayed fervently that no such choice would be needed. He had the feeling that either choice would bring consequences he was not prepared to live with.

Saeragar, with his hand still firmly around the king's neck, and Begrin, Aragorn and Galáril stood facing each other.

"What now?" Galáril asked. He didn't know what was going to happen, but he was getting tired of waiting for it. He was an elf who thrived on action.

"Kneel," Saeragar said to the three facing him. When no one moved, he shouted the order again. "Kneel!"

All three of those facing Saeragar and Thranduil knew that if they ended up on their knees before this evil being, they would either never rise again, or if they did, they wouldn't be themselves.

"We will not comply," Begrin said defiantly.

Saeragar did not seem surprised. He twisted Legolas's mouth into a cruel smile. "The king will die, if you do not obey me."

In a flash, Aragorn lunged forward. He did not leap straight at the two figures in front of him, but aimed his body to the side. As he passed, he grabbed Legolas's hand and with his momentum doing the work, pulled the elf's fingers away from the king's neck. In doing so, Saeragar was jerked around sideways.

Begrin and Galáril, both reacting quickly, jumped forward and grabbed Thranduil, pulling him away from Saeragar. The king then stood quietly nearby, as if nothing had happened.

Screaming in rage, Saeragar lashed out with his foot and connected solidly with Aragorn's lower back, knocking him forcefully to the ground. The ranger rolled over twice and then lay still.

Completing the turn that Aragorn's move had started, Saeragar spun back to his two remaining opponents. He locked eyes with Galáril and focused all of his attention on the elven warrior.

Galáril was forced to his knees by the sheer intensity of Saeragar's will. He felt his mind falling away from himself. His last conscious thought was that this must have been what Legolas and Thranduil had experienced. The elven warrior remained on his knees, arms hanging limply at his sides, eyes focused straight ahead, physically seeing but not mentally processing the scene before him.

Saeragar grabbed Thranduil from beside Begrin and shoved him aside, ordering him to stay where he was. He then faced an angry Begrin. "So it comes down to just you and me."

"That is how it was always meant to be, Saeragar," Begrin replied.

The two rushed at each other, locking their hands around each other's neck. They spun; they fell, rolling across the ground; they rose, kicking and punching. Neither could get a commanding hold of the other. At no time would Begrin look into Saeragar's eyes, knowing that if he did, he would meet the same fate as Thranduil and Galáril.

The battle was desperate, each knowing that whoever lost the tenuous balance they had established, would not win the battle. It was that simple.

However, Begrin knew something that even Saeragar did not. Should whatever body that Saeragar found himself inhabiting ever die and no living one was within ten yards of it, Saeragar would have no host to slip into and would also die. It was for that reason that Begrin forced the two of them farther and farther away from Aragorn, Thranduil and Galáril. He knew that once alone with Saeragar, he would have to die at almost the same instant to prevent his own body from being inhabited and used to fulfill the evil being's grand scheme of conquest.

Tjey both had to die. Begrin was prepared for that. He had known it would probably come down to sacrificing himself ever since the Valar had revealed Saeragar's only weakness to him when he started roaming Middle-earth in an attempt to keep his senses tuned to Saeragar and search for him should he ever be set free.

Twenty yards away, Aragorn groaned as he came to his senses. His back hurt abominably. It felt like he had been kicked by a troll, at the very least, if not an oliphaunt. He heard the sounds of a fight not far off and lifted his head to look. It was then that everything that was going on hit him in a rush.

The man got to his feet slowly but once upright, he gained his balance and headed toward the sight of Legolas and Begrin in deadly hand-to-hand combat.

Begrin caught a glimpse of movement off to his right and ventured a glance in that direction. When he saw Aragorn making his way toward him, he shouted for the man to stop. "Aragorn, do not come any closer."

Aragorn was confused. Why did Begrin not want him to come to his aid? Weren't they supposed to stop Saeragar? And didn't they have a better chance of doing that, if they fought him together? When Begrin yelled, "Get back!" the ranger reluctantly obeyed. Again he thought that Begrin must know what he was doing.

He instead turned to look at Thranduil and Galáril. He gave them a quick exam, which neither of them reacted to, and saw that beyond their mental state, they appeared unharmed.

When he looked back toward Begrin and Saeragar, his heart clenched. Saeragar was now standing over Begrin with a knife held high over his head. Aragorn knew that, if Begrin was killed, they were all doomed. There would be no rescue of Legolas, or Thranduil or Galáril. The man knew he would be next, thus allowing Saeragar to proceed to the palace and take over as the prince who would become king. Aragorn could not bring himself to think beyond that.

The ranger quickly grabbed the small hunting bow he carried on his back and nocked an arrow, pulling the string back to a full draw. "Saeragar, put the knife down."

Saeragar looked up, and seeing the image of the human standing there and aiming a puny wooden shaft at the beating elven heart that sustained him, he actually laughed. "That will not kill me, human. Besides, you will not shoot your friend."

Begrin hoped that Saeragar was wrong. He closed his eyes. 'Please, Aragorn, you have to shoot, but do not do it too soon. I must die when Saeragar does.' It was a silent prayer, but he hoped the Valar would speed it to Aragorn's ears.

The ranger shook his head, as the thought did indeed reach him. "I cannot let you die," he said aloud.

'You must,' came another thought. 'Kill him as I die. It is the only way."

When he felt reluctance on the man's part, Begrin understood that it was not only because Aragorn did not want to let him die, but he also did not want to shoot at Legolas. 'Legolas is gone, Aragorn. I did not lie to you about that. Sparing his body will not change that.'

"But if his body dies, he will never be able to get back." Aragorn was still not willing to let his dearest friend go.

'He is not coming back, Aragorn. Do what you must do. Legolas would not want his body used as an instrument of evil.'

It was at the instant that Begrin's last words reached Aragorn's mind that Saeragar roared in rage and plunged the knife down into Begrin's heart.

With a strangled cry and a pain so deep he knew he would carry it in his wounded soul for the rest of his days, Aragorn released his arrow.

End

Whew. That was a painful story to write. I know there are a lot of you who won't be happy with this ending, but you were warned at the very beginning that it was a character death story.

I had actually written the last paragraph even before I started the story, and that plot bunny wouldn't let me rest until I put it all down in writing. Now I've gotten that out of my system, so you can rest assured that this is the last character death story I will ever write. As I said, it was painful, but I hope those of you who stuck with me, liked it.

I thank all of you who reviewed. It is so great to post a chapter and then go to my e-mail to see the reviews that have come in. Love them and you all so much. Also thanks to the lurkers who just read. I'd love to hear from you.

AFter the contest, my next story will be one called Dragonfire. It's an action/adventure that is serious but has a lot of humor in it, as well. Here's the summaryLegolas and Aragorn discover an injured young dragon and offer their help. What happens as a result ends up surprising all three. I will begin posting it in about three weeks or sooner, if possible. I hope to see all of you then.