A/N: My first LOTR fic after many years of writing in other fandoms. This story was entered in the Teitho contest and won second place. Many thanks to all who read my story. Comments are welcome.
"No, you ask him!"
"He's your Adar, Estel, you ask him."
"Ask me what?" Lord Elrond looked up from his dinner and leveled a questioning gaze at his adopted son and the young Prince of Mirkwood. The boys were seated side by side at the table, the food on their plates mostly untouched. Elrond sighed inwardly. Uneaten food was usually a sign that his sixteen year-old son had something on his mind, and that was not always a good thing.
Estel and Legolas exchanged a meaningful look. Legolas dropped his gaze to his plate as Estel straightened in his chair and returned his father's gaze. "I want to go exploring tomorrow." The statement held unwavering confidence.
Elrond sighed as his shoulders slumped marginally. He should have known the issue would be brought up again. He just hadn't planned on it happening so quickly. "Estel, did we not have this talk a couple days ago? Do you not remember my answer then?" Only a few days before, Estel had come to Elrond while the Lord was in his study and asked quite casually if he could travel to the edge of Rivendell with Legolas as his only companion. Elrond refused the request- there were still dangers that all the young human's training had not yet prepared him for. Estel had sulked for the rest of the day.
"But Ada," Estel argued, "I am nearly a man! Legolas has been teaching me how to track and hunt, as well as my brothers and Glorfindel. I know how to protect myself. I want to see life beyond these walls!"
Elrond glanced at Legolas and noticed that the prince looked as if he were trying to slip under the table. Elrohir and Elladan kept their heads down likewise. Elrond tilted his chin up and gathered his composure. He had not expected such an adamant response from the young Dunedain. "Estel, my answer remains the same. You talk as if you are being held prisoner in this house. There are plenty of areas to explore that do not involve such long and unsafe journeys. You are still too young to wander as far as your heart desires."
Estel dropped his head in unhappy defeat. "When, then?"
Elrond smiled at his son's strong will and perseverance. "In time, ion nin."
Estel picked at the meal before him. Slowly, the young elves followed suit and began sharing stories between them once more. The fact that Estel stayed very quiet throughout the rest of the meal was not lost on Elrond. He knew the boy was brooding, unhappy about being denied permission to wander far. Elrond only hoped that in time, Estel would realized that the boundaries had been set for his own safety. Evil lurked in the woods at the edge of Rivendell. Elrond would not see the heir of Isildur lost to it for such unworthy reasons.
As Lord Elrond resumed eating his own dinner, he made plans to talk to the boy more in privacy later.
"I thought you said you were going to ask, not start an argument," Legolas chided as he and Estel walked down the hallway. Dinner had ended a short while ago and each of the elves parted ways.
"I doubt you could have done any better, elf," the human grumbled.
Legolas smiled despite the grumpy retort. Estel's head was down and his feet were shuffling, much in the typical fashion of one who did not get their way. He had been with Estel the first time the human had asked permission to leave Rivendell. Lord Elrond's reaction had been similar then, just as Estels'. "Why is this so important to you?" Legolas questioned softly. He had known the adopted son of Elrond for most of the young human's life, and very rarely was Estel so passionate about something his father so strictly forbid.
"Because I am ready!" Estel replied quickly. "I have learned many things from my family and I only wish to put them to use. I will leave Rivendell one day," he added as an afterthought.
The friends came to a stop before the large window that overlooked the moon-lit gardens. "Your father only wishes to keep you from harm while he can still do so, you must understand that," Legolas spoke gently.
Estel looked at him and Legolas read the understanding, but also determination that was held in those gray eyes.
"I do understand that, but he must also learn to let me go."
Legolas sighed. Standing in the middle of an argument between Estel and Elrond was somewhere he never wanted to be. He could understand both sides and while his heart ached for his friend's unhappiness, he wished Estel could find peace away from the dangers that lie so near Rivendell's borders.
Legolas reached out and grasped Estel's elbow gently. "It is getting late. Let us retire and find better spirits in the morning."
Estel nodded and looked resigned. "Goodnight, mellon nin." After looking up, he added quietly, "Hannon le."
Legolas smiled as his hand fell to his side. Tomorrow the sun would shine and the matters of Estel's wandering heart would not look so heavy. He only hoped his friend would come to see it as well.
"Echuivo, Legolas! Wake up!"
The Prince of Mirkwood bolted upright amidst the bed covers and pillows. With his heart in his throat, he disparaged, "Rac le, human! Who taught you how to sneak up on elves so skillfully?"
"You did. Now get up, but be quiet!"
"Why? What are you doing, sneaking around in the middle of the night?"
Estel shifted his weight at Legolas's bedside and managed to look very impatient even though the room was nearly pitch black. "I am leaving. I want you to come with me."
Legolas ran a hand over his face. "Leaving for where?"
"The edge of Rivendell."
Legolas's hand fell heavily into his lap. He sighed wearily. "Why do I doubt that Lord Elrond changed his mind so quickly?"
"Because he didn't," Estel replied and moved to the doorway. He leaned into the hallway and looked both ways before turning back and whispering, "I am going without his permission as it is the only way to prove to him that I am no longer a child."
"Estel, I don't think-"
Estel faced the elf completely and took a breath. "You can't understand- you are free to go wherever you please! Can't you imagine what it is like for me to only hear tales of life beyond this realm! I don't wish to seek danger, Legolas," Estel quieted and approached his friend. "I wish to prove my worth. Surely you can appreciate that."
Legolas remained silent, looking hard into the human's pleading gaze. His better judgment warned the elf that this was a bad idea and to just refuse now. But Estel was stubborn if anything, and Legolas would be willing to bet that if he did refuse, the human would just head off into the night alone. Perhaps he should go, to keep watch over the Heir of Isildur. He would only be sent out on the morrow anyway, as soon as it was discovered that Estel had left for the woods.
Legolas wanted to groan and simply return to his dreams. "So be it. I will accompany you on this journey."
A bright smile broke over Estel's face. "Hannon le, gwador nin."
Legolas could not prevent the smile on his own face. "Have you packed, at least?"
The elf got out of bed and began to dress as Estel held up a pack. "Of course. I told you I was ready."
Legolas suppressed a chuckle. "So it is. Give me a moment to pack as well."
As Estel needlessly kept watch at the doorway, Legolas gathered his meager belongings. He grabbed his daggers and secured them to his body, then picked up his bow from where it had been stored in the corner. Legolas did not have use for much else. He had a basic knowledge of the healing arts, but most of the herbs could be found growing wild. They would not to take food as they were both skilled hunters. Satisfied that he had prepared sufficiently, Legolas tuned to his friend. "I am ready," he said softly and moved to the doorway as well.
Estel's eyes were alight in a way the elf had rarely seen before. "Let us go now," Estel urged and quickly slipped into the dark hallway.
As they moved through the dark halls, Legolas once more had to quell his doubt. He understood that what he was about to do was directly defying Lord Elrond's wishes. 'Forgive me, hir nin,' he pleaded in thought. 'May you have peace knowing I will protect him.'
"Come on," Estel whispered urgently. He stood before the great door that would put them outside and waited for the elf to catch up.
"I am coming," Legolas replied curtly. "Do not be so hasty."
"Do not be so slow," Estel retorted and opened the door as smoothly as possible.
The cool night air licked at their skin and Estel was off again quickly. Legolas stepped outside and turned his gaze skyward as he pushed the doors shut silently.
This was going to be a long journey.
Legolas and Estel traveled quickly through the night. Their journey so far had been one of little words. Estel appeared to be focused intently on the ground beneath his feet, so much so that Legolas wondered more than once how the human was keeping such a brisk pace and staying between the trees. In fact, if Legolas had been merely an observer of this expedition, he would have guessed that the demons themselves were after Estel. And perhaps, in Estel's mind, they were.
Estel stopped and faced the opposite direction, not for the first time since they had entered the woods. Legolas paused also and allowed his muscles a brief reprieve. While he was in no way tired, he was content to let Estel make the decisions for now. Legolas leaned against a large mossy tree and studied his friend in silence.
The young man had broken a sweat, as was expected, but he otherwise appeared in vigor. Legolas had to wonder about the drive inside the Dunedain. What a mighty king Estel would make if he remained so passionate about all the things he believed in. As Estel bent down to kneel on the forest floor, Legolas took pride in the skills the human was displaying, skills that himself and other elves had instilled in the Heir of Isildur. There was much satisfaction to be had from watching a human who could track as well as an elf.
Estel stood then and turned to face Legolas. "Let us keep moving. I want to cover more ground before stopping to rest." When Legolas only nodded, Estel grinned and added, "Unless you are too weary?"
Legolas rolled his eyes and pushed off from the tree. "I am not too weary if you are not seeking an excuse to linger here."
Estel stood a little straighter. "Let us be off then."
The pair moved silently through the dark woods and traveled far before the sky had started to blush with the morning sun. Rivendell was still caught between morning and night, both the sun and the moon present in the sky as a new day approached. The animals were still slumbering in their burrows or nests and the night-blooming flowers still flourished on their vines. The air was tranquil and welcomed the two travelers as they finally stopped to rest.
When Estel dropped to the ground against a fallen tree, Legolas chuckled. "Just when I was beginning to wonder if you had not turned into an elf…"
Estel was panting lightly and glared up at his friend in good nature. "Do not think I have missed your own steps growing heavy."
Legolas sank to the earth beside his friend, however he landed a little softer. "I will admit, you run me long and hard," he confessed, tilting his head backwards and towards the pale sky.
They sat in silence for a few moments and Legolas listened as the human's quick breathing returned to a normal rhythm. Legolas's own heart had regained it's regular beat, and he was just about to mention the human's rumbling stomach when Estel spoke.
"Legolas, what do you hear?"
The elf turned his head and studied the human. The question caught him off-guard. "What do I hear?"
Estel nodded once and turned his gray-eyed gaze to the surrounding woods. "Tell me what it is that you can hear and I cannot, out there."
Legolas sighed softly and turned his own gaze to the dark forest. "I hear the lull of slumbering beasts," he started quietly. "And the quiet song of the trees. I hear the gentle rasp of leaves in the wind…"
Estel looked to the dirt under his feet and the envious expression on his face pulled at a piece of Legolas.
"I hear the company of a dear friend," he added, smiling when the human looked up.
"Aye, that is one sound I can hear as well," Estel replied.
A branch snapped and shattered the early morning's calm. Both beings flinched and started in surprise. They had been caught off guard.
"Wargs!" Legolas breathed the warning as he rose, drawing his blades.
Estel was on his feet instantly as well, his seemingly ever-present sword drawn and at the ready. "Are you certain?" he asked quietly.
"Quite," Legolas replied curtly. He kept his gaze locked on the shadowy trees ahead. He squinted, barely making out the gliding shapes of dark creatures. Finding them here was rare, but telling the beasts they did not belong here was not likely to help matters.
Estel huffed quietly. "No worries then."
Legolas risked a sideways glance at his friend. The brave words were spoken from the heart, and Legolas had no doubts that Estel was almost eager to slay the creatures. "Be careful, mellon nin."
The words had just left the human's lips when the wargs emerged from their cover of darkness. Shadows played across the forest floor, distorting the shape and speed of the beasts. Legolas felt himself knocked to the ground on his back almost before he realized the warg was upon him.
The sounds of Estel and his battle were lost on the elf as he twisted out from underneath the heavy animal. Deep-throated growls and the sound of snapping jaws rose amongst the trees. When Legolas was on his feet once more, the warg darted away only to return from another angle. Instantly, Legolas was crouched in a defensive position, holding his daggers out before him. Hot breath pricked his skin less than a moment before a terrible, crushing pain enveloped Legolas's right thigh. With finely tuned reflexes honed by agony, he spun and plunged a dagger into the top of the beast's neck. The grip on his leg vanished as a loud squeal pierced the air.
Legolas paused long enough to watch the warg drop heavily to the ground before turning to find Estel. The human seemed to be fairing well, for a moment later, the warg's dark form was sent limping back amongst the shadows of the woods. The attack had been quick but fierce, and Legolas's heart was still pumping hot blood through his veins. In the silence that followed, man and elf stood some distance apart, panting, and merely looked at each other.
"You are bleeding," Estel said as soon as his gaze dropped to Legolas's leg. He rushed forward as the elf's own gaze studied the wound.
"It is but a scratch," Legolas said even as he was lowered to the ground.
Gentle fingers reached out and felt around the torn flesh. Legolas tensed but did not cry out. Estel looked into Legolas's eyes. "It is more than a scratch, elf. It needs tending."
Legolas wanted to refuse but the hot blood dripping down his thigh could not be ignored for long. Trying to ignore his pain would only place them both in danger when other predatory beasts caught scent of the blood. If he had to swallow his pride a little to spare Estel from danger, then so be it.
He nodded to the human. "You can bind it?"
A small smile spread on Estel. "Of course." He drug his worn brown pack closer and rummaged through it, pulling out a small handful of leaves. He caught Legolas's gaze and said, "It will hurt."
Legolas sighed and nodded. "It hurts already, so do not be afraid of causing me pain."
The sun had climbed a little higher into the sky by the time Estel was trying off the last bandage. The long shadows that has sprawled across the ground earlier had now retreated, returning to their origins to wait for night to fall once again. Legolas found himself staring at the fallen body of the warg. What was it doing this far inside the boundaries of Rivendell? How was it that the elves had not been alerted to it's presence? The animals traveled in packs, so Legolas allowed himself to hope that only two of these beasts roamed the forest. The wounded warg would not survive very long and it would succumb to hunger or disease. Perhaps the problem would end there.
"That should be good for now." After a moment's hesitation, Estel added, "I think we should turn back so Adar can look at you."
Legolas turned his attention to the human on the ground before him. "I am fine, do not fuss over it," he said and struggled to stand. "I would not see your outing cut short because of a scratch."
Estel rolled his eyes and Legolas thought the human suddenly looked older, wiser. "And I would not see your leg fall off because I wanted to explore!"
"For once, do as I say and leave me be," Legolas replied, trying to sound exasperated. "My leg will not fall off."
Estel settled into his stance and looked like he was preparing to argue. Legolas recognized the onset of the human's stubbornness and promptly turned away, walking into the woods as quickly as the burn in his muscles allowed.
Legolas could almost hear Estel's jaw drop. "Wait a minute, come back here! I am the more knowledgeable healer here, you must do as I say! Legolas? For Valar's sake, elf, stop!"
Legolas smiled to himself as he listened to the young human's orders fade into a string of irritated grumbles. Soft footfalls echoed his own and Legolas took a moment to marvel at how cautious the human could be even when his emotions were high. That was one of the skills that set Estel apart from the other humans. It was a skill that would serve him for the rest of his life.
As the companions traveled on, Estel's grumbling ceased altogether and soon the human was once more walking at the elf's side. His new and familiar position, however, did not sit well with Legolas as the elf was having to struggle more and more to mask the growing pain in his leg. He was sure the herbs were helping, but the constant hot throb told Legolas that perhaps Estel had been right. Wargs were known for their powerful jaws- maybe more damage had been inflicted than what Legolas first thought.
The idea of turning around weighed heavily on the elf's mind. They had sacrificed much already to have come this far. Surely they would have been discovered as missing by now. If they dared to return home in the heat of the moment, the punishment would be great. So what were they to do? Legolas would sacrifice his well-being without question if it meant Estel would be dealt a lesser reprimand. Perhaps if they traveled home very slowly…
"You are limping."
Estel looked surprised, then concerned. "You are limping. How is your leg?"
Legolas slowed and finally stopped. He might as well speak the truth- he was certain Estel knew anyway. "It is aching more. I fear it may be worse than I first suspected."
Estel helped the elf to sit on the ground then immediately sought out the wound. "It has bled through the bandages. I was right, you need to see Adar." Estel's head was lowered but Legolas could hear the defeat in the human's voice.
"Do not blame yourself for this," Legolas said as he placed a hand on Estel's shoulder. "It is I who am sorry to have become your burden."
Estel snorted softly and returned Legolas's touch. "Pan natha mae, mellon nin. You are one burden I should never resent."
The prince paused long enough to appreciate the kind words then asked, "Shall we begin our journey home?"
Estel stood and reached down to help bring Legolas to his feet. "I must tell you something about what I have been doing."
Pain flared through Legolas's leg as it bore his weight, so he immediately shifted to stand on the other one. "What have you been doing?" He had only seen the young man pick his way through the forest, nothing more.
Estel smiled brightly as he ducked under Legolas's right arm. "I was wondering, what if there came a day where I was tracking through unfamiliar territory? Or what if you, as usual, had gotten hurt and could not be sure I was heading in the right direction?"
Legolas rolled his eyes as they began moving forward, in the direction of the Homely House. "Why were you wondering such things?" The strange conversation helped to keep his mind from his wound, and Legolas thought maybe that was the point.
"Because it is sure to happen in my lifetime," Estel replied without hesitation. "One day, I will find myself in strange territory and I have come up with a plan to make sure I never get lost."
The statement peaked the elf's interest. "What is this plan of which you are so sure of?"
Estel shrugged out from under Legolas's arm and helped steady the elf on a tree before kneeling on the ground. "I have been leaving a trail," he stated proudly, and plucked a small piece of lemas bread from where it was nestled amongst the leaves. "These pieces of bread are small enough that no unwelcome followers should notice, but in the after dark- they will reflect the moonlight and lead me home." He looked up to Legolas with bright eyes. "A clever plan, is it not?"
Words eluded Legolas at the moment. He focused on a trio of small songbirds that had fluttered to the ground some distance ahead. After rummaging through the leaves and moss, one of the animals lifted it's head, revealing a small piece of bread clamped firmly in it's beak. When the bird's companions noticed, they lunged for the food and all three animals flew into the trees in a skirmish.
Legolas dropped his gaze to Estel once more. "It-" he cleared his throat, "It is a very good idea," the prince began, unsure of how to tell the proud human that his plan had failed. "But…"
Estel's smile faded a little as he dropped the bread to the ground. "But what?" he pressed, rising to his feet.
Estel had only taken one step towards Legolas when one of the songbirds swooped to the ground in a mad dash for the discarded bread, turned in place once the food was secured, and exploded from the ground and back to the shelter of the trees. The flurry startled Estel, who jumped back a few steps towards Legolas and watched the scene in stunned silence.
Legolas decided that now would be a good time to speak. "I'm afraid, Estel," he started, placing a hand on the human's shoulder, "that your trail has been discovered after all."
"No! I cannot believe this! How could I have been so careless?" Estel's shoulders sagged in defeat as he took a step towards where the bread had been. "I have spent this entire journey feeding the animals."
"It is not in vain. They will remember you and one day serve the hand that fed them." Legolas wanted to move after his friend but he lacked the strength. "I think that one day you will laugh at your folly."
"Elrohir and Elladan shall beat me to it, I am sure!"
Legolas smiled. It did not please him to point out his friend's mistake- not when Estel had been so proud of himself and certain the idea would work. The throb in his leg caused him to look down, interrupting his thoughts. The bleeding had slowed but not stopped. He would need to have it tended, and soon.
"Next time, I will use stones," Estel declared, but when Legolas did not answer, the human turned to study him. "Legolas?"
"I fear we must not delay any longer," Legolas admitted as the young man drew near. "I am growing weak."
"Why did you not say something sooner, mellon nin?" Estel chastised. He ducked under Legolas's right arm and helped the elf to stand. "Do not let yourself suffer."
Legolas breathed in sharply as his leg protested under his weight. Estel opened his mouth to say something, but Legolas held up a silencing hand. "Daro! Dina Esta."
The prince felt Estel turn tense and alert. "What is it?" he breathed.
"I smell smoke."
Long moments of silence fell between the two beings as both struggled to hear sounds of anyone out of place. Nothing forthcoming, Estel relaxed marginally. "Is someone out there?" he whispered.
"I can't tell. I smell smoke yet hear nothing." Legolas turned his gaze upwards then closed his eyes. "The trees sing of a new evil here. We must not linger."
Legolas opened his eyes again and reoriented himself with his surroundings. "This way," he said, and began to limp forward.
"I think it is this way," Estel replied tentatively, trying to pull the elf in the other direction.
"Are you daft? It is this way."
"I have grown up in these woods, I am certain it is this way."
"I will not be led around by a human who leaves trails made out of bread!"
Estel faltered for a moment and Legolas realized he had aggravated a sore wound. He sighed wearily. "I am sorry. I spoke without thinking."
Estel nodded curtly and looked away. "You only speak the truth, do not be sorry for that."
Legolas decided to let the matter drop. His heart was beating hard, trying to supply his body with enough blood despite the wound in his leg. "The important thing is that we do not waste any more time here. Lead the way."
As the two travelers picked their way through the forest, Legolas felt his energy dwindling dangerously. He couldn't remember the last time he had felt so diminished. As he concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other, his thoughts turned back to the wargs. They had been unusually aggressive and carelessness by entering this forest and attacking so abruptly. Even the little bird that had stolen Estel's bread had shown extreme boldness. Was there some sort of disease spreading amongst the beasts? Something that was making them go mad with hunger? Is that the evil the trees were singing of?
Estel stopped suddenly and Legolas nearly stumbled, righting himself as the human pointed straight ahead. "Look, a house."
"What?" Legolas asked before he could stop himself. As his gaze followed Estel's outstretched finger, Legolas found himself looking at a small cottage nestled amongst the towering trees. The building couldn't consist of more than two or three rooms, and the outside appeared to be very well taken care of. Colorful winged insects glided lazily through the air around the small house. A small garden was thriving in a patch of sunlight and brightly colored shutters adorned each window. The roof sparkled in the sunlight that filtered through the trees. Smoke drifted out of the chimney and floated into the sky.
"It looks… welcoming," Estel said softly, breaking the reverie.
"Looks can be deceiving," Legolas warned.
"Perhaps they have supplies that I can use to mend you leg."
Legolas only continued to stare at the strange, colorful house.
"We will not get home soon enough. Your wound may become infected."
Where had the house come from? It almost looked as if it had sprung from the very ground it sat upon.
"We are armed just in case; I think we should try to find the people who live there and ask for aid."
Legolas began to feel lightheaded as another drop of hot blood trickled down his leg. It was true, they would never make it back to Lord Elrond. Legolas was sure he wouldn't make it much longer.
"I'm leaving you here and going over there." Estel ducked under Legolas's arm and backed the elf up against a tree. "Stay here, I'll be back."
"Estel!" Legolas reached out and grabbed the human's elbow. When Estel was looking at him, he continued, "Be careful." Legolas was no fool. He knew that in his condition, he would only hinder Estel's ability to protect himself. He would have to content himself with keeping watch from outside. Should a sign of danger present itself, then Legolas would be ready with his arrows.
"As always, mellon nin," Estel replied and gently lowered the elf to the ground. When Legolas was somewhat comfortable, Estel stood and said, "Stay hidden until I return for you. This house is a mystery to me."
Legolas let his head fall back against the tree. "As it is to me."
With a final glance at his friend, Estel drew his sword then took his first cautious step towards the cottage.
The air was peaceful here and the sun seemed to be shining a little brighter. Estel held his guard, searching the area for any inhabitants. There seemed to be no one. It was as if the house was waiting for something. Estels shoulders knotted with tension in his unease and he continued creeping towards the house. Perhaps the most frightening thing was that there appeared to be nothing frightening at all. Where was the person that lived here? How had the house gone undetected in the first place? Surely this could not be the danger the trees were singing about.
Estel neared the house. Try as he might, he could not avoid stepping on some of the brightly colored flowers that sprawled on the ground around the house. They contrasted the dark house sharply and Estel wondered if someone had put the flowers here just for that purpose.
"Hello?" he called out. The air remained silent and Estel continued until he was only a couple steps from the corner of the house.
"Sidn!" He shouted, in case the occupants were elvish. "Amin hiraetha!" His father had taught him the value of declaring peace first, and how the simple act could serve to spare many lives. He truly did not want to tangle with whoever might be living here- he only needed herbs and supplies for Legolas.
Sword grasped tightly in his hand, Estel crept forward. His body hummed with tension and the excitement of danger. He listened very closely to the surroundings, trying to hear the tell-tale signs of someone lingering near by. Silence met his trained ears and Estel reached out to steady himself against the side of the cottage.
A bird squawked overhead and he spun, pressing his back against the dwelling for cover. As his fists clenched, part of the house broke off in his hands. Shocked and confused, Estel furrowed his brow as he studied the material in his hand. "What is this?" he murmured, lowering his sword as he brought his other hand closer to his face. He leaned heavily against the building, forgetting for the moment that he may still be in danger as Estel recognized the substance. To be sure, he took a small bite.
Estel nearly dropped his sword. "What…" he trailed off in amazement.
The material was a type of sweet bread that was used as a main ingredient in some elven desserts. By itself, the bread was too dense and not sweet enough, so fruit and cream was usually added to it. But what was it doing here? Estel jumped away from the wall and turned to look at the house.
The entire cottage seemed to have been built out of the bread. Estel re-sheathed his sword before it fell from his numb fingers and he advanced on the small house again, this time paying it much more attention.
As Estel circled the house, he realized in utter amazement that nearly every part of it was edible. The shutters and door were made out of a hard candy that the human had only seen once or twice in his life, but a small taste proved his suspicions correct. Even the window panes were sheets of hardened sugar. Estel felt himself tingle in bewilderment. Surely the person that lived in this candy house could not be harmful. That is, if he ever found the person that lived here.
Closing his fist over the piece of sweetbread, Estel hurried back to Legolas. The elf looked horrible. Legolas had grown pale since Estel had left, and his breathing was starting to sound labored. His smile dimmed as he held out his hand and said, "Legolas, look! The entire cottage is made from mere candy!"
Legolas blinked dramatically and looked up at the human. "What?"
Estel dropped to the ground beside his friend and moved his hand closer. "Look, mellon nin, the entire house his made of this. What do you make of it?"
Legolas squinted at the crumbling bread in Estel's dirty hand. "The house is made of it? How can that be?"
"I would like to find out," Estel replied as he stood and tossed the bread to the leaves at his feet. "And you're coming with me."
Estel reached down and held his breath as he hauled the elf to his feet. He would rather take his chances with whomever might live inside a candy house before letting Legolas remain a sitting duck for more animal attacks. The prince was beginning to perspire and his breathing sounded shallow against Estel's neck as together they moved towards the cottage. If Estel did not hurry, Legolas would become unresponsive.
When they reached the front door, Estel lowed Legolas to the ground. "Wait here. I'm going inside."
"You are trespassing," came the weak protest.
"I am trying to save your life!" Estel hissed as he drew his sword. Spurred on by desperation, he grabbed the suspiciously sparkling doorknob and pushed the door inwards.
Estel dropped into a defensive stance as he took in the surroundings. Seeing no immediate threats, he lowered his sword and wiped the stickiness from the doorknob on his thigh. He stepped across the threshold.
The place looked warm and homely- and very much lived-in. A fit pit was crackling in the corner as sparks and smoke rose through the chimney and out of sight. A small door was fitted into the wall, resembling those of the baking ovens used by the cooks at home. There was a fairly large wooden table nearby, and it's disproportionate size struck oddly with Estel. It seemed whoever lived here spent an awful lot of time preparing food. A large collection of cauldrons and utensils heightened his suspicions.
Estel swept his gaze to the other side of the room. There were two simple beds nestled in the opposite corner, a chair by the window and a small, low table in the middle that held an a book and other odds and ends. Estel took another cautious step inside and was very pleased by what he found when he turned, facing the front wall.
A large form of cabinetry filled the majority of the wall, and on it's shelves were dozens of assorted healing herbs and medical supplies. He now knew two things about whoever lived here; they liked to cook and they were familiar with the healing arts.
Estel tucked his sword into it's sheath on his side and turned to fetch Legolas. "Stay with me, mellon nin, we have run across some good luck indeed!"
Legolas reached out to steady himself as Estel pulled him to his feet once more. "Knowing us," he started, holding his head through a wave of dizziness, "would you not think that finding good luck is more than a little suspicious?"
"I do not wish to be ungrateful for this good fortune, and you would be wise to do the same." Estel dragged his friend into the one-room cottage and deposited him on one of the beds. As the furniture dipped under the elf's weight, a black cat darted out from under it, causing Estel to jump back in surprise. His hand was on the hilt of his sword before he recognized the animal and closed his eyes in relief.
"Is it just me, mellon nin, or are the beasts giving us a lot of trouble on this journey?"
Estel had his back to the elf when Legolas replied. "I believe it is true," the prince said softly. "I have been thinking about what it could mean."
The human inspected the small jars of herbs and began plucking a few from their places. "What does it mean?" Some of these herbs were rare indeed. What would someone need such an array for?
"I have seen happenings like this before," Legolas started, and his voice sounded distant, as if he were laying back on the bed. "It may be a disease… or curse."
Estel studied the jars in his hands as he approached the bed. "I will use these to dull the pain and help you heal," he announced, focused solely on the task at hand. He kneeled beside the elf and withdrew one of Legolas's daggers, then used it to cut away the fabric from the wound. Estel winced inwardly when he saw the severity of the wound. "It is bad," he stated, laying the bloodied blade on the mattress. "Here, chew this and keep it under your tongue. It will help the pain."
Legolas accepted the fleshy leaves Estel held out and did as the human bid. Estel moved a little slower, giving the herb time to work on the elf before he pressed on with his ministrations. "Are you ready?" Estel asked, hovering above the wound and waiting for the elf's consent.
"As much as ever, I suppose."
A few minutes later, the open wound had been cleaned and packed with a healing poultice, then wrapped tightly with clean bandages. Legolas was lying still on the bed, his eyes shut in an attempt to remove himself from the pain that Estel was sorry to cause. When he was done, Estel set his supplies aside and grasped Legolas's shoulder. "How do you fair?" he murmured.
Legolas looked at the human and forced a smile. "It may feel worse, but I am undoubtedly in better shape than I was a short time ago. Thank you."
Estel grinned in pride and replied, "Do not thank me, thank whoever lives here."
Suddenly Legolas's features turned hard in an expression of warning that Estel was very familiar with. He rose and spun, bringing his sword out in front of him in one fluid motion just as the front door was pushed open.
A human form stood in the doorway, backlit by the bright mid-day sun and Estel had to blink several times to adjust his eyes. An old woman stood before them, one hand firmly clutching a walking stick and the other grasping a bouquet of flowering herbs. Long gray hair fell upon her shoulders and down her back. Her skin was wrinkled and spotted from the sun, and she was dressed in a simple, dark colored dress. The clothing was spotted with dirt and was wearing thin in various spots, and the bottom hem was beginning to fray. Her dirty, knotted feet were bare and she shifted her weight as the black cat slinked over to her and began rubbing the length of it's body against her legs. Estel's gaze traveled back up to her face and he found himself staring in wonder at her dull, red-tinged eyes.
She blinked, the spoke, "Who are you?"
Estel moved to lower his weapon but found it had already dropped to his side. "I am Estel, and this is- my friend," he said because one never knew what sort of danger would be brought upon elven princes, "We mean you know harm. He is injured and we were in search of aide."
"Injured, you say?" she asked in a voice that had spoken too much during it's time. She moved closer. "Is he alright?"
"I will be fine," Legolas replied, pushing his torso up and resting on his elbow to face her. "Who is it that we may thank for the stolen hospitality?"
"Just an old, lonely woman," she replied and moved closer to the young men. Estel moved aside out of courtesy but he did not go far. Both watched in silence as she leaned over Legolas and inspected the bandaged wound carefully. Apparently satisfied, she straightened and moved towards the kitchen. "You would be best to stay off that for a few days."
Estel and Legolas looked at each other behind her back. Estel moved forwards again and stopped, feeling out of place in this stranger's home. "I will work to repay you for the supplies," he volunteered, "And then we can be on our way."
"Nonsense," she huffed as she picked up a long wooden spoon and stirred the cauldron's contents. "I have two beds… you must stay. Do not injure your friend further by making him travel."
Estel looked at Legolas. He did not trust this woman yet- there was something mysterious about her, as if she were concealing something from them. It wasn't wise to accept the hospitality of someone you didn't trust. On the other hand, she was right about moving Legolas. Even with his elven abilities, the wound would still need time to heal well enough to make the trek through the forest.
He nodded slightly, contenting himself to remain on guard while they were here. It would be wrong to leave without giving the old woman anything in return for the herbs. A smile crept over Estel's face. Surely he could handle one old woman and her cat for a few days, right?
"It is agreed, then," he announced, causing the woman to turn away from the crackling fire and her preparations. "We will remain in your hospitalities and I shall help in any way I can."
The old woman smiled. The expression didn't quite reach her eyes- or rather, her eyes held a smile of their own… and it was one that sent a shiver down Estel's spine.
"Very good then. Be a good lad and fetch me some more firewood."
Estel dropped the axe and wiped the sweat from his forehead. His shoulders ached pleasantly and his hands were still tingling from the reverberation of metal striking wood. It had been a tiring task, but not a difficult one. He had came out to retrieve the firewood as the old woman requested, but when he saw the rather small stockpile he decided to cut some more while he was out here. The black cat had come outside to sit on the front stoop not too long ago, and now it watched Estel with weary green eyes.
The human turned away and gathered the split logs, stacking them against the back wall of the house. Some distance away, another building caught his eyes and Estel wondered how he could have missed it before.
He glanced back to the house, noticing the cat as it flicked it's tail, then started off towards the strange building. It was nestled amongst the trees, partially hidden by shade and also camouflaged by the surrounding tree bark. As Estel approached, he could see a crude wooden fence had been constructed around the front side. A split stable door and large window confirmed that the small building was indeed a barn. Curiosity getting the better of him, Estel continued around the fence and entered the barn's side door.
The odor of horse and hay enveloped him as Estel stepped into the dimly lit barn. In a corner stall, a bay pony's head shot up as he gave a nicker of surprise. The sound of many wings fluttered against the rafters over his head, and Estel looked up to see a small collection of pigeons blinking down at him. Despite the barn's crude appearance, it looked very well-kept. The dirt floor was free of manure and garden tools were lined up neatly against one wall. Even the horse feed was stacked neatly in one corner. The old woman must spend a great deal of time in here for a barn to appear so orderly.
A glint of metal caught Estel's eyes and he moved forward, barely aware of the pony's eyes upon him. Partially hidden behind a walk-behind plow and stacked bales of hay sat a large cage. The bars were thick and dull with grime, and spaced only so far apart as to allow for the width of one hand. The cage stood as tall as Estel and was as long and wide as he was tall. On the cage's door hung a heavy padlock.
Estel looked around for the animal that needed to be confined to such a sturdy enclosure. The pony tossed his head and went back to nosing around in his feed bag. The black cat appeared on the window sill then froze, watching Estel once more with those piercing green eyes.
This was a very important discovery, Estel was sure of it. But what it meant, he was still unsure of. With a preoccupied mind, Estel backed away and exited the barn, shutting the door behind him.
The sunlight and gentle breeze did nothing to ease his troubled thoughts. This woman was up to no good. Perhaps he should take his chances and flee with Legolas into the woods tonight. He would care for the elf on his own, away from these things that disturbed him. His unease was driving him, but Estel could not remember a time his instincts had been wrong.
Estel gathered an armload of firewood and returned to the cottage, pushing the partially-opened door with his backside. The smell of simmering stew tempted his empty belly as he made his way to the old woman's side.
"Very lovely, young man, thank you." She turned away from the pot long enough to smile a crooked-toothed smile at him. "Make yourself at home, lunch is almost ready."
Estel glanced at Legolas, who was keeping a silent vigilance from the bed. He leaned against the wall and asked, "Do you have company often?"
"Eh?" the woman barked, cupping a hand to her hear. "Speak up son, I can't hear so well. Or see for that matter," she added in a mumble.
Estel repeated the question a little louder. "I asked if you get many visitors," he said, leaning forward ever so slightly.
"Oh heavens no," she chuckled in a way that made Estel feel somewhat dim-minded. "I'm afraid I'm all alone out here. You're the first in ages."
"How do you manage?" He asked, moving to help as she struggled to pull some bowls off a shelf.
"You think just because a woman grows old she can no longer provide for herself?"
Estel heard Legolas laugh quietly and he frowned. "No, I just mean- it's such hard work…"
"Hold your tongue, Estel," Legolas murmured softly in elvish. "Do not upset the one who is caring for us."
Estel glared at his friend as the woman ladled the chunky stew into a bowl and shoved it towards Estel. "I do keep busy," she said, "but I am not ready to let those burdens overcome me just yet. Set the table."
Estel jumped at the callous order and set the bowl down on the table, in front of a chair. "Perhaps if you did not live so far away from the cities…" he hinted, returning to her to take the next bowl.
She waved the spoon at him, shaking drops of broth from the utensil as she snapped, "I did not ask for your advice young man. I love this land and intend to remain here until I die." Estel blinked and she returned the spoon to the pot. "Go get your friend."
Estel squinted and set his jaw as she turned away, barley containing his urge to say something unpleasant. This may be her house, but clearly the woman had no manners. Estel did not take kindly to such rudeness from someone he did not know. Legolas must have saw his tension, for he spoke up at that moment.
"Estel, come over here. I can not make it that far without your help."
The human had a suspicion that the elf was lying, but he obeyed nonetheless. When he had ducked under Legolas's arm, he asked quietly, "What do you make of her, mellon nin?"
"I see an old woman who is terribly good at ordering you around," he chuckled.
"You do not sense a malice about her, or this place?"
"Perhaps she has been alone for too long and has forgotten her manners."
"You have not seen what I found in the barn."
This peaked Legolas's attention and he opened his mouth to question but the old woman interrupted. "Have a seat gentlemen, and share my food. Tell me how it came to be that an elf got injured so badly."
"We were attacked by wolves," Legolas said, and Estel silently agreed that it was best not to tell her what kind of wolves.
As it was, the reaction was explosive. "Oh my!" she exclaimed so loudly that Estel jumped. "I hope you killed the foul beasts! They've been sneaking around my barn for the past couple of days!"
"One is dead already, the other is soon to follow," Legolas replied. Estel took a bite of the steaming stew as the prince continued, "It is wounded and will not be able to hunt."
Estel frowned into his bowl as the conversation carried on around him. He played with the food in his mouth, trying to decipher the tastes. He easily recognized the vegetables- mushrooms and carrots and a form of small potato, but the meat was foreign to him. It wasn't rabbit or boar or any domestic animal he had eaten before. The unrecognizable food concerned him. His eyes wandered back to the old woman and her half-empty bowl. Whatever it was, she was quite comfortable eating it. Estel swallowed and set down his spoon.
"Why is your house made from candy?"
Legolas had asked the bold question and Estel looked up in surprise.
The old woman grinned. "I love to cook, can't you see that? I used to be quite popular with the youngsters. They would visit me everyday, gathering around to hear stories and eat treats. I loved them so- I lost my own child to disease some time ago." She looked into her bowl and closed her eyes briefly. "All the children in the world couldn't replace her. But I tried. I thought a house of candy would draw the young ones, like flies to honey."
"It didn't work?"
"Oh, it worked very well. But eventually all my children grew up. They stopped coming, no longer interested in my tired tales and warm cookies. I was alone once more."
Estel's gaze dropped back to his bowl as Legolas offered soft words of support. There was something familiar in the smell of this stew… something that reminded Estel of the memorial feasts that were held in honor of the deceased. He sighed in frustration.
"Seconds?" the old woman asked as she rose from the table and carried her bowl to the cauldron.
The friends each replied in the negative. Estel was no longer hungry, and Legolas had not eaten much more than he had.
"Why do you have all the herbs?" Estel asked, redirecting her attention when he found her staring at his food in disappointment.
She chuckled and plopped down in the chair once more. "The children were always scraping knees or elbows," she replied. "Made me into quite the skilled nursemaid."
Something furry ghosted around Estel's leg and he jumped, ducking down to find the cat sitting contentedly between his feet. He thought about shoving it away, but it pulled back it's lips and opened it's jaws in a threatening hiss. Estel gulped.
"I think I'm done eating," he said, rising to his feet and away from the sharply-fanged animal. "Is there anything else I can do for you?"
"Well," she started shyly, "the garden does need weeding…"
Estel was out the door before she finished talking.
Estel dropped heavily onto the bed beside Legolas. He breathed a deep sigh and leaned forward, running his hands through his sweat-soaked hair.
"She works you hard," Legolas said, and Estel could hear the amusement in the elf's voice.
"It is nothing," he replied with a shrug. "They are mere chores."
Estel half-shrugged. "I used her supplies. It is only fair."
Legolas looked away. "I am sorry I am of no help. I feel guilty for laying here all day."
Estel shook his head. "Think nothing of it. Remember, the sooner you heal, the sooner we can leave."
Night had fallen outside and the insects had emerged to fill the night with their music. Just as he would finish his current project, the old woman would come up with something else for Estel to do. Mending the rickety old barn fence took the better part of the afternoon and left Estel with a few splinters to show for his efforts. The woman had stayed close and worked in her garden, never letting Estel out of her sight for long. Her constant vigilance was unnerving- just as much as that spooky cats'.
After Estel had fed and watered the livestock and brushed out the pony, the woman called him inside for dinner. Her words and actions were polite enough, but Estel could sense an underlying evil. Perhaps 'evil' was too strong a word, Estel had thought as they sat around the table, but he was certain that something was not as it seemed. He had picked through the re-heated stew, still cautious of it's contents despite his stomach's audible pleas. He didn't trust old women who lived in candy houses and kept cages in their barns.
Now the woman was sitting some distance away, in her chair with a book in her lap and the cat on her feet. She was dozing off and every so often her head would slide forward than jerk backwards as she awoke. Estel wasn't sure why, but he hoped she would fall asleep soon.
"Wait until I tell your brothers how you were pushed around by an old woman."
Estel looked to Legolas in shock. "You wouldn't."
The elf smirked. "I think it's rather amusing."
"Than tell me what you think of this," Estel murmured as he leaned close to Legolas. "I was in the barn earlier today. She is keeping a very large cage in there."
"Cage? For what?"
"I do not know. It is much too big for any animal I am familiar with."
Legolas looked down. "That is a troubling discovery."
"You understand now why I am so anxious to leave."
"I do." Legolas looked at Estel with eyes that sparkled in the firelight. "I have been playing the fool. Forgive me."
Estel waved his hand flippantly. "How is your leg?"
"On the mend, thanks to you." Legolas sat back and relaxed. "Today has been long. I am growing tired. I imagine you are exhausted as well, mellon nin."
Estel spared the woman a glance. Her head was down, resting on her chest. The book lay loosely in her hands, threatening to fall to the floor should she shift in her sleep. Even the cat was resting with it's eyes closed- the only sign it wasn't asleep was the occasional flick of it's tail.
Estel looked back to Legolas. "I will admit, I am tired. Do you think it is safe to sleep in her presence?"
Legolas smiled. "There is only one of her and two of us. I do not doubt that we could defend ourselves against an old woman."
Estel snorted as he lay down on his own bed. "Don't forget the cat."
Legolas smiled through a yawn. "I shall protect you from the cat, mellon nin."
Estel smiled at that and felt himself drifting towards sleep as the fire crackled nearby. His thoughts traveled over the day's events as he stared at the ceiling. It was hard to believe that it was only this morning when they had been attacked by the wargs. He estimated them to be very close to the borders of Rivendell when the attack happened, but he had been so preoccupied with Legolas that Estel was a little unsure of exactly where they were now. Surely the elven boarder guards would be out looking for them. As cross as his father must be with him, his anger would only fuel his desire to have Estel brought home for punishment. A punishment he would gladly face if it meant getting him out of this house.
Suddenly the old woman's chair creaked and Estel jerked in reflex. Or rather, he tried to.
Estel couldn't move.
Every muscle tensed as he fought against whatever was holding him prisoner in his own body. He had never experienced anything like this before. He was awake and aware of his surroundings but absolutely could not move. The sensation of complete vulnerability terrified him.
The old woman rose to her feet. The cat meowed in protest and darted in front of her, then leaped on Estel's bed and stepped lightly onto his stomach. Estel watched the animal with wide eyes. The cat blinked at him, then sight tightly on his stomach, wrapping it's tail around it's feet and turning it's head towards the old woman. Estel moved his gaze to watch her also.
"Stupid boys," she cackled, walking stiffly towards the beds. "I would expect as much from a human, but an elf?" She shook her head and came to a stop above Estel.
He looked frantically to Legolas. The elf must hear her! Even in a sound sleep, the softest voice would be enough to wake the prince. Was he paralyzed also? Estel swallowed.
Hw was certain now- they had both met their doom when they stepped foot inside this house.
"Stop struggling!" she hissed. "You have merely fallen victim to the potion you have been eating all day. You will not be able to move until the sun rises."
Estel fought hard and managed to blink his eyes. She had poisoned the stew? Had that been the odd flavor he had tasted? No matter now… he just needed to think of a way out of this situation. Despite her words, Estel struggled again to no avail. The only part of him that he could move were his eyes. Right now, he glared at her in as threatening a manner as possible for one who cannot move.
The old woman huffed. "You humans never listen. So be it. Wear yourself out, so that you may fall completely under the spell like your friend!"
The cat blinked down at him and licked it's lips. How Estel wished he could throw the animal off of him.
"You might be wondering what I intend to do to you," she started, and sat heavily on the bed beside him as if she were too tired to stand any longer. "My cupboards grow bear. It has been a while since I have been able to enjoy a fresh meal." She reached out a gnarly hand and drew the cat close. "We are getting hungry, aren't we mum?" She looked back to Estel. "Although we usually prefer the young ones, I imagine Elf would be a treat indeed."
Everything closed in around Estel. The old woman planned to eat them. They had walked right into a trap meant for children, and now she was going to eat them. The cage in the barn was for humans. The woman was a witch, or a sorceress, or maybe just insane, and she was going to eat them. The stew-
Estel felt hot bile burn it's way up his throat. The meat in the stew was human.
It had been a child.
It had been poisoned.
His eyes watered as he tried to swallow down the vomit, knowing he would likely drown in it. He was helpless to do anything but lay flat on his back and stare up into the old woman's reddened eyes.
They were next.
She laughed as she rose to her feet, knees cracking with the movement, then started walking towards Legolas.
Estel struggled against his invisible bonds, ignoring the cat as it hissed at him. He would not let her touch Legolas! There had to be a way, he could fight harder, better… he had to escape.
His nostrils flared as his body tried to supply him with enough oxygen to compensate for his efforts. Estel grew hot very quickly and a small bead of sweat formed on his temple as he strained and fought harder than he ever had before. It was no use.
He could not move.
Through blurry vision, he watched the old woman gather the unresponsive elf and drag him through the door and outside.
Estel was alone.
He had failed.
Estel had fallen under a restless, nightmarish sleep. It was as the woman said- he could not move until the red sun had just barely risen into the sky. Then suddenly he could move, but now his muscles were aching with exhaustion. His body felt heavy and sluggish. His strength had been sapped.
His tears had been spent.
Sunlight streamed in through the window, highlighting the old woman fast asleep in her chair. She looked serene, and Estel's eyes darkened with anger. He couldn't believe they had been so foolish. He should have dragged Legolas out of this place as soon as he found the cage. Perhaps he could slip past her and out to the barn. There had to be a means of escape somewhere. It was just a matter of time and patience.
Estel hauled himself to his feet, his muscles screaming in protest. He felt as if he were underwater. He pushed the pain aside, knowing that Legolas was the one who was truly hurting. Slowly, he started forward. The cat was on the woman's lap, watching his movements with interest. He glared at the animal, demanding it's silence with a look.
The cat blinked in return and hissed quietly but Estel paid it no mind. He was almost to the door. The silence rang in his ears, broken only by the woman's soft snoring and the chattering birds outside. Even the fire had died out.
Estel was creeping alongside the old woman when he saw the cat stretch, extending it's front legs while raising up on it's hind ones. It's mouth opened wide in a yawn, then eight sharp claws extended from it's front feet and sank into the woman's thigh.
"Yeouch!" she yelped, stomping her leg and pushing at the cat before her eyes were even open. "What in the world is wrong with ya, mum?"
Estel froze, but it was no use. She turned towards him, her wrinkled and drawn face outlined in a tangle of gray hair, and she glared.
"Where do you think you're runnin' off to?"
Estel stood transfixed by her dull, reddened eyes, unable to speak.
"Sneakin' off to see your friend, I suppose," she murmured, rising to her feet as various joints creaked. Estel took a step backwards to get out of her way. "Very well. You may see him. There's nothing you can do to free him. Don't go too far though- I've got plans for you."
Estel moved slowly towards the door, not sure if this was a trick or not. When one foot hit dirt, Estel lost his inhibition and made his way straight for the barn.
He ran towards the door and pushed it open with all his weight, nearly stumbling as it gave way easily. "Legolas!" he exclaimed, running towards the cage and falling to his knees against the bars.
The elf was laying on his back on the dirt floor with his head turned away from Estel. His chest was moving in steady rhythm and Estel sent a quick thanks to the Valar for that one miracle. There were no marks on the fair skin to indicate that the witch tormented her prey. It simply appeared as if Legolas were still sleeping.
"Legolas! Echuivo! Echuivo lago, wake up now!"
Slowly, the elf began to stir. His breathing quickened and he winced against the sunlight shining upon his face. Estel pressed himself further against the bars and reached into the cage, grabbing the prince's hand. "Tulo, mellon nin. Get up. Please."
Estel's throat tightened as the reality of the situation seemed to come crashing down upon him. He never should have dragged his friend out on this stupid trip in the first place. Then they wouldn't have gotten attacked, and they never would have found this house, or the witch that lived in it. Legolas wouldn't be locked in some cage with a pony for company, and-
Estel blinked. "What?"
"I know you, mellon nin, and you must stop blaming yourself." Slowly, Legolas pushed himself into a sitting position and he leaned back against the bars. "How do you fair?"
"Me?" Estel rebuked. "I am not the one sitting in a cage amongst the bird waste and pony feed! I am not the one she plans to eat!"
Legolas raised a hand to quiet Estel. "What happened?"
Estel backed up a little. "She put a spell on us, it was in the stew- the-" Estel faltered as the memories came flooding back. Images of the meat flashed through his mind and Estel turned to the side, falling onto his hands and violently vomiting the last remaining contents of his stomach.
"Estel? What is it? Are you ill?" Legolas was at the bars now, reaching through and placing a warm hand on the human's back.
Breathless and numb, Estel collapsed against the pony's stall and tried to catch his breath. He shook his head, rocking it against the wood behind him and swallowed. Legolas did not need to know the truth. "I am sorry. It is nothing. The old woman- she is a witch!" His breathing was evening out and the words started tumbling from his mouth. She placed a paralyzing spell on us and brought you here. Legolas, she plans to eat us!"
"Can you escape?"
"I will not leave you!"
"Estel, you must. You have to go get help. If she is truly a witch we cannot defend ourselves against her for long."
"No! We can beat her!"
Legolas shook his head. "Estel, look at me. Look at my leg, I will only be of hindrance to you! I am telling you, for both our sakes, go!"
"He'll not be going anywhere." The old woman filled the doorway with her presence. The pony snorted from a dark corner of it's stall.
Both Estel and Legolas turned to face her. Estel was truly frightened of this old woman. Her spirit was strong, even if her body looked frail, and he had no doubts that she would be able to fulfill any threats she made unto them.
"Stay away from him," Legolas said lowly.
"Eh? Speak up son!" The old woman lost some of her influence as she cupped a hand to her ear.
Estel looked at Legolas. The elf raised an eyebrow.
"I said, leave him alone!"
"Oh, I can't do that," she replied, stepping heavily as she walked into the dimly lit barn. Her foot caught on a bucket and she stumbled, just barley avoiding a fall. Once she straightened, she continued as if nothing happened. "I've got plans for the boy. Don't worry, I wont kill him until long after you're gone."
Estel almost laughed at the absurdity of the situation. They were being held captive by a blind, deaf old woman and neither he nor Legolas could do anything about it. Wait till his brothers found out about this one. If they made it out of here.
He shrank back as she approached, but when his shoulder blades hit the bars, he straightened. He would do whatever asked of him if it meant prolonging Legolas's fate a while longer.
"You're coming with me," she ordered, reaching out and grabbing Estel's tunic with her bony fingers. Her gray hair fell forward, inches from Estel's face, and he grimaced at the smell that lingered there.
He brought himself to his feet more than she pulled him, but she did not let go of the fabric until he was standing. Estel was barely aware of Legolas struggling to his feet as well.
"I've got a day's work planned for you. Together, we will make the elf nice and plump. If you try to run, I will slit his gizzard on the spot. Do as I bid, and you buy your friend an extra day." She grasped his chin, grazing the skin with her yellow fingernails. "Do you understand?"
Estel nodded and tried not to breath in the warm, rancid air she was exhaling. She smiled then, revealing chipped and stained teeth, then let him go. "Good boy," she added with a pat to his cheek.
Estel felt sick inside. He was trapped in a lose-lose situation. Instead of dwelling on their misfortune, he began assessing the situation. It was best to show obedience for now. Perhaps a means of escape would present itself soon.
The woman pushed past Estel and moved closer to the cage. Legolas remained firm in his stance.
"Give me your arm."
Estel caught Legolas's confused gaze. She was not lined up properly with the elf, like she was only guessing where the prince might be standing. Estel looked closer. The woman was not even looking at Legolas.
Hesitantly, Legolas reached towards her. When his skin brushed her fingertips, she grasped him and squeezed his forearm a few times. "You have a lot of fattening up to do before you'll make a proper meal," she stated, then dropped the elf and turned around, heading for the door. "Come on boy," she called over her shoulder. "You've got a lot of plowing to do today."
The days were passing slowly. Estel spent every moment of daylight in the garden or around the house, serving as a farm boy and general servant. He had become responsible for caring for the pony, which included grooming the animal, cleaning the stall and feeding it. Not one weed seedling was allowed to sprout in the woman's vast garden. He was responsible for repairing the house and it's brittle walls. He was made to fetch water from a small stream nearly half a day' away. Estel prepared the witch's meals while she constantly prepared food for Legolas. He was not allowed to eat anything himself.
His existence was growing impassive. His hands were calloused and bleeding and sometimes wrapped in dirty rags. His weight was dropping from him like sweat. Oil and dirt clung to his hair. His fatigued muscles were constantly sore and sluggish. His brain would often shut down, leaving him to finish out the chores in a trance-like state.
The only thing that kept him going was the short visits to the barn. Whether he was bringing Legolas the witch's meals or caring for the pony, he could seek comfort from the elf.
Estel sat the plate of food on the ground against the bars. He collapsed next to it, leaning against the bars as Legolas did so from the other side.
"You grow so tired," the elf murmured, and Estel could hear the pain in his voice. "You must eat. She will not see."
Estel glanced to the window sill. The cat sat perched upon it, it's feet packed closely together and it's tail swishing back and forth behind it. It did not blink.
"The cat," Estel replied as he dropped his gaze to the grimy floor of the cage. "She tells the witch of my every move."
Legolas looked at the animal. "It is just as evil as she. It will not accept my plea for help."
The birds fluttered above them, causing dust and feathers to rain down, landing on their heads and shoulders. Estel sighed, not bothering to shake it off as Legolas did. He reached up and touched the heavy padlock securing the cage. "She wears the key on a string around her neck."
Legolas seemed to brighten. "If it is within your view, it is within your reach."
"I do not think I can do it. I fear I can no longer withstand her punishments."
Legolas tightened his grip on the human's hand. "We must study her routine then. There must be some moment of the day when she is not guarding herself so carefully."
"I only see her bent over before that oven, baking all day. She uses a lot of wood to keep that fire going." Estel sighed, looking at his hands and trying to remember which blisters were from the axe. Suddenly aware of something, he looked up at Legolas. "How is it that you are being fed all this food and not growing?"
Legolas smiled and reached beside him, then held up a fairly large bone. "She comes every morning at daybreak to check my progress. Every morning she stumbles on one thing or another. Estel, she's blind in the dim light. When she asks for my arm, I merely hold out the bone. Your pony enjoys her meals."
Estel smiled for the first time since this all happened. "That is clever, mellon nin. Very clever."
"Of course. I am an elf, am I not?"
"I will agree to that," Estel replied, patting Legolas's arm before he pulled away. "I am grateful that your leg is healed."
"So am I. We will be able to make our escape soon."
Estel wanted to curse the elf for talking of escape. Could he not see that they were doomed? There was no way out of this evil. The woman could be everywhere when she wanted to be. Her power over him was too great.
"Do not lose hope, Estel."
Estel turned wet, burning eyes to his friend. "What if it is already gone?"
Legolas smiled sadly. "Then I shall bring it back."
Estel sat in silence, wanting to believe.
"It is up to you to free us, mellon nin. You must watch her, find her weak spot and use it. But you must act soon. I fear for your safety more than mine. You cannot survive this much longer."
The cat turned abruptly and leaped to the ground outside, out of sight. The sudden motion shook the friends from their quiet contemplation.
"I must go," Estel said and hauled himself to his raw and throbbing feet. "If she finds me lingering here, I will be punished for certain." Very rarely did she actually beat him; mostly the witch liked to take away any comforts he might have. Last night, he failed to have enough firewood chopped so he was made to stand in the corner all night. This morning, a weed was discovered in the garden and Estel was forced to search the crops for any other weeds- without the protection of his shirt.
"Be strong, gwador nin," Legolas urged as Estel turned to leave. "The time is coming."
Estel gave the elf one last long-suffering look and nodded slightly. He would be ready. If it meant freeing them of this place and getting back home, he would be ready.
Three more days had passed before Estel was given that chance.
"Boy! Get outside and chop some more wood!"
The witch had just returned from her daily early-morning visit to the barn. She had come back visibly upset, stumbling more than usual as her face was set with anger. What had Legolas done to infuriate her so? Even the cat was hiding beneath the table, well out of the woman's way.
Without a verbal complaint, Estel forced himself to stand, clinging to the wall for support. He had never been vain, but Estel knew he looked horrible- he felt it. Admittedly, he was in dire need of a bath. He was shedding weight even faster now that his body was used to living off itself. His hips jutted out grotesquely, making him look sickly and weak.
He supposed he was sickly and weak.
He felt selfish as he moved numbly to the door. Legolas was no better off than he was. The elf had not left the cage since the witch put him there nearly seven nights ago. If Estel knew one thing about elves, it was that they could not withstand such captivity for long. In ways Estel could not fully understand, he knew Legolas must be going crazy .
Estel stepped out into the early morning air. His hand automatically grasped the axe handle from it's resting place against the house. He couldn't help but notice that the tool was heavier today than it was yesterday. Or perhaps he was weaker.
With heavy footsteps, Estel walked straight to the wide, low stump that served as the chopping block. He had done the hard work yesterday and cut down a suitable tree, then removed the branches and chopped the trunk into logs. Grabbing one of the scattered logs without really looking at it, Estel placed it on the tree stump and raised his axe.
The heavy head fell in a well-practiced movement. The bit sang as it sliced cleanly through the log, splitting it instantly. One down. Estel rested his weight on the axe handle and looked at the scattered remains of the tree. His heart sank.
Suddenly a screech filled the air and Estel cringed, recognizing the sound of the woman's anger instantly. Seconds later, the cat bolted out of the door and leaped in a full-body stretch, hitting the ground lightly and continued it's escape without ever looking back.
A sound in the opposite direction caught his attention, and Estel turned towards the barn. The pony was at the window, stretching his neck and nickering softly. It seemed to be staring right at him. The pony tossed his mane and moved a step back, rearing up slightly.
Estel had become quite familiar with the animal, and he had never known it to act with such vigor. It moved forward again, stretching through the open window and neighing more loudly. Something was in the air… a static raised the hair on Estel's arms and his aches seemed to fade.
'Now is the time.'
Estel understood. The haze seemed to lift from his mind and he could think clearly again. Knowing it wouldn't last long, he began to chop the wood quickly with the knowledge that he and Legolas would soon be free.
Two by two the split logs fell back onto the earth. Estel's shoulders were burning, but the fire within him spurred him on. His hope had returned. The sound of cracking wood shattered the peaceful morning. The birds seemed to move excitedly amongst the trees with the energy that sparked in the air. Legolas would soon be free and with him once again. Gaining momentum, Estel quickly gathered a load of firewood and walked back to the house.
He passed the black cat and stepped boldly into the cottage. Without a word, he made his way towards the far wall where the firewood was kept. The old woman ignored him, or if she was aware of his presence, she didn't show it. She was kneading bread on the wooden table, her head down and elbows locked as she put her weight into the task. The dough yielded underneath her hands before she gathered it in a pile and repeated the process. Estel watched as waves of heat escaped the open oven behind her. The fire inside burned hot and red, the flames reaching up to taste the top of it's enclosure.
He dropped the wood. It clattered to the ground and at last, the old woman looked up.
"Clumsy fool. It's about time you returned. 'Twould be a shame if you missed the death of your friend."
Estel knew the appropriate response would be to ask what she was talking about, but at this point it didn't matter. This was going to end soon.
"I grow tired of waiting for him to grow fat. Perhaps elves are not even capable of growing fat. No matter, my belly is empty and I have waited long enough." Her eyes seemed to glow. "Tonight, we feast!"
Estel tried to appear upset and cast his gaze to the floor. He heard the faint sound of the pony from it's prison in the barn with Legolas. It was calling to him. They both were calling to him. An idea began to form in Estel's mind and he grew tense with anticipation.
The witch dropped the dough onto the wooden peel and looked up at him. "Add some more wood to the fire." Her voice dropped, as did the room's temperature. "It needs to be hotter."
So that was the game she wanted to play. Estel easily read the malice she was trying to conceal, as it poured from her like fear from a rabbit in a serpent's jaws. She planned to kill them both today.
Obediently, Estel picked up a couple of the chopped logs and approached the oven, his entire body ready for whatever might come next. He did not look at her, but instead watched her entire body for any sudden movement. Exactly what she had planned, he did not know. But he would be ready.
Keeping some space between himself and the oven, Estel tossed the wood into the burning belly of the fire. The flames roared in appreciation. Now it was her move.
"Crawl inside and make sure it's hot enough."
Estel looked at her. He gaze lowered to the key hanging around her neck. The key that meant Legolas's freedom. Refusing the order would only make her angrier, something he might not triumph over. He wanted her to believe he was harmless for as long as possible. "It is too small, I cannot fit." He struggled to keep his voice meek.
"It is not too small!" she shrieked. "Just stick your head in and tell me how hot it is!"
Estel took a small step backwards. "I…"
"Fool!" The witch drew her hand back and slapped him before Estel could avoid the blow. "Like this!"
The sting in his face quickly became remote as the witch stepped forward and with one angry thrust, shoved the top half of her body into the deep oven.
Quick as lightening, Estel reached for the back of her neck and wrapped his fingers around the string that lay there. Then, with all of his might, Estel lowered his shoulder and threw his weight against her backside. The witch let out a strangled yelp as she lost her balance and fell completely into the expansive oven, head first.
Estel felt the string break away as he jumped back, away from the flames that leaped forward to engulf the body. An ear-piercing screech filled the air, causing Estel to wince. He grabbed the oven's door and slammed it shut, stopping the onslaught of flames and somewhat dimming the shrieks of agony. Estel leaned his weight against the small door as old bony fists thumped against it from the inside. Within seconds, the house grew quiet and still. An awful stench filled the air, and Estel knew it was time to take his leave.
With his fist still clenched around the string, Estel ran from the house and across the grass to the barn. He yanked open the door, stumbling slightly in haste, and dashed to the cage that was now bathed in sunlight.
Estel dropped to his knees. "Legolas! It is over! We are free!" He slid the key into the lock with trembling fingers as Legolas came to the front of the cage.
"I beat her! She is dead, consumed by the flames that sought to consume us." The lock fell away and for the first time, Legolas stepped outside the bars.
The elf smiled. "I knew you would succeed. I could feel it in the air. The animals were singing of it." He swung a hand up and grabbed Estel's shoulder, then pulled the human into a firm embrace. "Hannon le, mellon nin."
Estel savored the contact, not realizing just how much he had missed the prince until this very moment. "Hannon le," he replied, because 'you're welcome' didn't seem right. "Without you I would have lost hope."
"Hope is never lost," Legolas murmured before they pulled away. He took a deep breath and looked out the window. "I am anxious to leave this place. Too long has passed without my feet upon the grass."
A soft sound at their feet caused the friends to look down. The black cat was sauntering in and around their legs, purring and waving it's long tail at them. Estel laughed. "Finally, the beast likes me."
"It only needed time to warm up to you."
Estel rolled his eyes and moved to the pony's stall. "Only time, you say?"
"Well, and perhaps the destruction of an evil force."
"That's more like it." The pony trotted to the front of the stall and shoved it's warm, velvet nose against Estel's cheek and nickered.
"That pony, on the other hand, has taken quite a liking to you from the moment you met," Legolas observed, walking towards the door.
Estel reached up and stroked the animal's long forehead. The pony blinked, moving it's long eyelashes over dark, liquid eyes, and snorted softly. "I suppose he has," Estel said to himself. They had both been beasts of burden under the power of the witch, both had been abused and left to care for one another. Those circumstances were bound to connect two souls very closely.
"Estel?" Legolas asked from the doorway, breaking the silence.
Estel sighed and slipped the simple rope halter over the pony's head. "I am coming," he replied, letting his hand linger over the animal's nose once more.
Aware of the elf's concerned gaze on his back, Estel opened the stall door and led the pony out. His eyes met Legolas's and he smiled.
"Let's go home."
Legolas guided the pony to a stop at the top of the ridge.
Before them lay the steep, zig-zagging path that would take them to the Last Homely House. Legolas struggled to remember a time when the water had looked so clear or the fir trees so green. The sun was already sinking into the horizon and the shadows were long and consuming. Soon there would be little light until the moon shone at it's fullest.
The elf felt Estel's steady breathing as the human sat behind him, slumped forward and resting against the prince in his sleep. Estel had slipped into the dream world some time ago, exhaustion and malnourishment undoubtedly taking it's toll on the mortal body. The soft snoring was as soothing to Legolas as the feeling of the sun upon his skin and the breeze in his hair. With one hand, he pulled Estel's hands tighter around his waist, and with the other hand he urged the pony down the path.
How the bouncing did not manage to wake his friend, Legolas would never know. As the pony's hooves clip-clopped down the last few stairs, a pair of guards stepped forward. Almost immediately recognizing the pair, they stepped aside with a small bow as Legolas guided the pony into the courtyards of the House. He would not have long to wait before-
The voice of Lord Elrond reached his ears and Legolas pulled the pony to a stop. He felt Estel's head roll against his shoulder blades but the human made no sound.
"Legolas, where in Arda have you been? What has happened to Estel?"
Legolas waited for Elrond to collect himself before answering. "It is alright, he is merely sleeping." He turned on the pony's back and guided the human down to Lord Elrond. "He is in need of food and water," he continued, swinging his leg over the pony and dismounting. A guard came forth and caught the pony as Legolas moved closer to his Estel and Elrond. "Come, let's get him inside."
"He is so thin," Elrond commented, picking up Estel and cradling him under the knees and shoulders. "But you say he is not injured?"
"Nay, just hungry."
They moved into the halls and in the direction of Estel's room. "How do you fair?"
The wound in his leg was nearly healed, thanks to the witch and her distaste for 'diseased' meat. "I am unharmed as well," he replied.
"Ada?" Elladan and Elrohir appeared in the hallway and rushed towards their father and brother. "What happened?"
Elladan approached and removed a strand of hair that was clinging to Estel's parted lips. He looked at his father. "Is he alright?"
"Legolas assures me that all will be fine in time. Let us move into the bedroom for further talk. Elrohir, bring me some broth for when Estel wakes. I fear it is long since needed."
The twin nodded and turned, making his way down the hall in haste. The rest of the party entered Estel's room and Elrond lay his son on the bed. Again, the human stirred but did not wake.
Legolas felt his heart grow heavy. He knew his friend had been driven hard by the witch, but from behind the thick bars, there had been no way to help. The feeling was foreign and sickening in his body. It was something he hoped he'd never have to experience again, for both their sakes.
Lord Elrond began removing Estel's filthy and well-worn tunic. Once the fabric was lifted, a bruised and emaciated torso burned into the memory of each elf. Each of Estel's ribs were as visible as if he were nothing but a skeleton, and horrible patches of purple and green colored his skin where who-knows-what had struck him. Legolas could not tear his eyes away from the damage. It was too bad the witch was already dead; at this moment, he would have liked to kill her.
"Oh Estel," Elrond breathed, and Legolas wasn't sure if Elrond was aware that he had spoken out loud.
Legolas noticed the moisture in Lord Elrond's eyes as he looked at the prince. "What happened to you two? You disappeared in the middle of the night, no one could find you…"
"Estel came to me," Legolas started. He could not lie to his elder, the elf who treated him like his own son. Legolas glanced at Elladan as he continued. "He begged me to accompany him on an adventure. His courageous heart was driving him to explore the forest, hir nin. I could not douse the flame inside him."
Elrond gave a small smile as he looked down at his adopted son. "I understand that feeling."
"We were attacked by wargs. There were only two, and they were desperate. Possibly ill. They are both dead by now, but I had gotten bit in the leg. The wound was deep, and we started back." Legolas paused, unsure how to proceed. "We found a cottage… made of candy."
Elladan made a choking sound. "What?"
"The walls were made of sweetbread, the windows of sugar… the entire house was made of food." He looked at Elrond. "Have you ever heard of such a thing?"
"Most definitely not," Elrond replied, shaking his head while his eyebrows furrowed.
"A witch dwelled there. Estel offered to repay her for the supplies used in caring for my wound, but she placed a sleeping spell over us. I awoke in a cage, meant for holding me until I was suitable for her… taste."
He stopped, making sure the other elves understood before continuing. "She forced Estel to stay and work, lest she kill me on the spot." Legolas lowered his voice. "I watched him grow more weary with each day. I do not think she fed him."
Elrond sighed and rested a hand on Estel's forehead. "It appears not." After a moment, he looked back to Legolas and the prince continued.
"She could not see well, and each morning she would stumble in to the barn where I was held and ask to feel my arm. Each day I held out a bone for her to feel, as to give Estel time to find a way to free us. She grew angry though, and this morning decided it was time to kill me nonetheless. The next thing I was aware of was Estel coming to free me. I do not know how he defeated her."
"Pushed her… oven…"
All three elves looked down as Estel blinked open his eyes. "Estel," Elrond called, bringing the human's focus on him.
Estel grinned and rolled his head to look at Legolas. "I pushed her in the oven," he repeated, his words becoming clearer.
"He's awake!" Elrohir exclaimed as he entered the bedroom. He rushed to the bedside and set the bowl on a small table. "Estel, are you alright?"
The bed dipped as the twin sat beside his human brother. "I am fine, just tired." As if to prove it, Estel yawned.
"Alright," Lord Elrond spoke up as he stood, "You three must leave. Let me tend to Estel and get him back to sleep. There will be plenty of time for sharing stories in the morning."
A collective groan rose from the three younger elves, but they obeyed. The twins left first, and Legolas turned back towards Elrond. "Too not be too angry with him, hir nin. His intentions were good."
"I can handle things, Legolas," Elrond replied softly, smiling gently at the prince. "Go and take care of yourself now."
Legolas returned the smile and bowed before leaving. As he walked down the hall with Elladan and Elrohir, he knew in his heart that no being in this House could ever remain angry at the human. Lord Elrond ruled his kingdom fairly and his sons were no exception. Estel knew he had disobeyed, but he had already paid the price of that mistake. There would be no harsh words between the father and son tonight. This was a night for healing, both the body and the spirit.
This night, they were home again.
The black cat moved quickly away from the house. It's body bounced lightly and it's tail was held upright in an air of confidence. It licked it's lips, tasting the fresh meat it has just devoured, then jumped onto the first tree it approached. It's sharp claws dug into the bark and in a few heaves, the cat was perched upon a limb about ten feet off the ground.
It sat quietly, licking a front paw and flicking it's tail, and settled back to watch the black smoke wisping from the cottage's chimney and raising in contrast against a pink and purple sunset.