Author's Note:

Hello! It's been way too long. This chapter has not been Beta'd so please go easy on me as far as grammar is concerned. Congrats to my usual beta viggomaniac for posting what seems like will be a fantastic story ( judging by the quality of writing in the first chapter that is...:) ) Thanks to all who reviewed last time. Sorry for the late responses- it has been a really wild few months. It is so wonderful to read your reviews! Please keep them coming. We didn't break 50 last time :( but this is chapter eleven so anything could happen. Maybe make it to 60? So enjoy this next installment! I hope the next one won't take as long to post, there is a lot more story to tell. ;)

-Athena


Eleven

Somewhere, four hobbits had begun the journey of their lives, taking the off-beaten path out of the shire and braving a new world with a precious burden.

But not here.

Owen's particular sense of here was vague to say the least. When he woke from unknown hours of blissful senselessness, he found himself in a very unusual predicament. He was dry and on land, of that much he was certain. As the details slowly came into focus, he could feel the rough bark of a tree against his hands, providing support against his back. His fingers ran slowly up and down the bark. They were behind his back…

They were bound behind his back.

As this realization sunk in, the remains of his momentary stupor dissipated rapidly. His eyes snapped open to alertness as he struggled to take in every detail of his current circumstances. From what he could tell, his wounds were cared for and bandaged. They did not pain him very much and for that he was thankful. Odd that they should take the time to care for my injuries, yet bind my hands as if an enemy…Despite the comfort of his wounds, due to the pounding in his head he determined it wise to avoid any sudden or overly ambitious movements. Out of the corner of his eye he could see what appeared to be a camp, with many beings bustling about, none seeming to be concerned with him. It was day, maybe even afternoon.

"You are awake," came an unfamiliar, strangely melodic voice. Owen raised his head to the sound of the voice a little too quickly. He bit back a moan as a wave of nausea threatened to steal his dignity. He could not reply if he wanted to. "You have suffered a moderate concussion, you will live."

Slowly, the golden haired figure before him spun into focus. His eyes narrowed in concentration. Another elf, great. Just what I need at this moment. "Why have you bound me thus?" There seemed no sense in beating about the bush.

The elf before him did not waver, showed no emotion. "Tell me exactly how you came to be floating down the river and no harm will come to you," the elf replied, stoically.

"I.." He hesitated, struggling to recall. Ah yes, the river… "I do not remember," he lied, untrusting of these perceived enemies. Were they survivors from Lamias? But their features were so fair.

Before the elf could respond, he was joined by another.

Haldir turned to Glorfindel, barely restrained rage written subtly in his eyes and tone. "He claims that he does not recall how he arrived in the river."

The newly arrived elf bent to one knee, his face inches from the ranger. "We know of your struggle with the dark haired elf. We know of your battle with Elrohir-"At this, Owen's eyes widened involuntarily, stunned. Perceiving his expression as a confession, Glorfindel could not help but smirk. "Your eyes, as well as your dreams betray you." He rose to his feet, once again looking down upon their captive.

"I did not fight with Elrohir, I fought with Elladan."

Now it was Haldir who found it near impossible to retain his patience and composure. "That is quite impossible, Master Human. I found the elder son of Lord Elrond myself, he rests in the halls of the Golden Wood as we speak." Owen's mind was racing, and suddenly in a rush he remembered his great discovery. He recalled the moonlight on the water, and the lack of a reflection… "Therefore, it is very likely that an ignorant and likely uneducated edan such as yourself could easily confuse an elf with his elvin twin," he nearly spat, feeling outwardly disgusted by this man's lies, but more at the thought of harm coming to Elrohir.

"Who are you?" Owen demanded.

"I am Haldir, a march warden of the Galadhrim of Lórien." He stated flatly.

"And I am Glorfindel, a captain of Imladris, sworn ally to Lord Elrond and his kin."

They are allies to Elrond! "Then we are allies as well, for I am Owen, a ranger of the South and one of the Dunedain. I am a friend to all allies of Gandalf the Grey, especially the Lord of Imladris," he replied eagerly.

Both Glorfindel and Haldir considered this for a moment. It was Glorfindel who spoke first, brandishing his elven dagger in a threatening gesture. He did not revel in causing pain, but when matters concerned the safety of any of Elrond's children it conjured emotions not easily appeased by timely diplomacy. "Then, Master Ranger, you have some explaining to do. And I suggest you do it quickly, for neither I nor Haldir have the patience for further untruths."

Owen contemplated for a moment, but then drew in a deep breath, praying to Iluvatar that these elves were who they claimed to be. There was little choice in trusting them, given that he was injured, bound and at the other end of a sharp dagger wielded by two furious and very intimidating elves. "As I said before, I am a ranger from the South and thus have not been in contact with those of the north or their chieftain." At the mention of Aragorn, the elves visibly tensed. "I have been under the instruction of Gandalf the Grey. I believe he is known as Mithrandir to the Eldar. Since our first meeting, I have resigned myself to do his bidding regardless of the peril or consequence. Before his mysterious disappearance, Gandalf had given me a most perilous task indeed. I was told to hunt a creature unlike any that has existed in this realm, it is one of the ancient beings. It knows no identity, no shape, no reflection. Instead, it takes the identity of another, shifting like sand, malleable like clay." He paused, as though for emphasis.

He continued, his voice rougher, graver, "It is nearly impossible to decipher, save for the lack of reflection and the change in personality which may be evident. I began months ago and followed the beast secretly through many lands, observing and recording all of the interactions and actions it has accomplished. I would report to Gandalf on my progress and await further instruction, always watching and tracking. When Gandalf vanished, the creature too vanished and I could not find him again. I had tracked him to the Firien Wood and then lost the trail."

"Lamias and the realm of King Elimerel-" Haldir interjected.

"Yes, only there was something sinister about it. Some dark presence, perhaps Sauron himself, had firmly rooted in that place and Elimerel had been corrupted. I am sure now that the creature's intention was to communicate with that cursed King. When I arrived at the wood, I saw Aragorn, Chieftain of the North, and Legolas of Mirkwood arrive at the woodland gates," he continued to explain the events which followed, leading to the night beside the river. At this point, Owen sighed heavily, the drain of such concentration taking its toll on his battered head. "I stood before him at the riverside, and by the Valar I did not see a reflection on the moonlit water. I knew for certain that this was the creature I had been hunting, and possibly the key to Gandalf's disappearance."

"But who is the creature's master? Sauron himself? And what is its purpose?" Glorfindel questioned when the ranger had finished.

"I know not, Master Elf. There is much evil at hand. Methinks that he is a puppet to some lesser power than Sauron, though no less terrible. Gandalf knew, or at least suspected. As for its purpose, again I am not certain. It spent much time in Isengard, in the edan settlements and throughout Gondor," he replied, feeling weary.

"But you are not dressed as any ranger I have ever seen, and I have seen generations. Your name even sounds foreign to my ears and I am a very ancient being, young edan. You claim to be a friend to Mithrandir, yet he has never spoken of you." And still more, you seem to know the much coveted identity of Aragorn, Isildur's only heir! He stopped himself from saying the last part aloud, only too aware that this supposed ranger may have no real knowledge of Aragorn's destiny. Still, the pieces did not seem to fit.

"I have answers to all of your many questions, Lord Glorfindel, but they cannot be revealed at this time and in this place. Let it suffice to say that I am new to my profession. I am a ranger, though not of the north or, if the full truth be told, of the south. I have been dubbed thus by Gandalf himself in that I have been in his service since our fates were joined three years ago. I owe him my life, and so cannot rest until the debt is repaid. I will find him, with or without your help. Though, considering my current situation your help would be much preferred!" He replied, his voice edgy with barely reigned frustration. The self-proclaimed ranger gestured to his wrists.

There was silence as Glorfindel regarded Owen. He cast a questioning glance at Haldir who, obviously against his better judgment, nodded his consent. Glorfindel hesitated a moment longer. Finally, he took to one knee, bent forward and used the knife to cut the bonds around his wrists and ankles. "About two weeks ago Lord Elrond learned of Mithrandir's disappearance. He dispatched his three sons to the various elvin realms in an attempt to summon representatives to an emergency council, and to collect information regarding Mithrandir. They were to meet after three days in Mirkwood. Needless to say, that did not happen. We have been searching for Elrohir, Aragorn and Legolas ever since," he explained.

Owen rubbed his sore wrists, leaning more heavily on the tree. "You said that you found Elladan?"

Haldir shifted on his feet. "I found him, near the outskirts of the northern wood leading to Lothlorien. When we left, he had yet to regain consciousness. We know not what has happened."

Owen considered this new information for a moment. " King Elimerel has joined forces with Saruman, I think in an attempt to find the ring. I know that Elimerel desired the ring greatly and the destruction of mankind even more so. He knew of Aragorn's identity, of that I am certain. Though, I do not think he understood his value. It seems to me that Elimerel made a bargain with another entity, possibly the master of the creature I have hunted. From my observations and reconnaissance, I believe Elimerel was prepared to betray Saruman. But to whom and for what purpose I know not. It seems that whoever Elimerel was working for, that evil knows of Aragorn as well and wants him as much if not more than the Ring."

Glorfindel's expression was grave. He knows of both Aragorn and the Ring…how could Mithrandir have placed such trust in such a young and seemingly peripheral being? He made a mental note of yet another mystery left unsolved. The man seemed sincere enough, and Glorfindel deemed himself a superb judge of character. Still, he would keep his guard up until he got his answers. " Where are they heading now, where will the creature lead them if not to Saruman?"

"The only one who can tell us that is Elladan, for I believe now that he is the key. Why else would the creature choose to take his form if he had not earlier encountered him." Owen replied, rubbing his temple absently. His head ached dully from the ordeal he had endured, but he did not allow himself to dwell on it. He was relieved to be in the presence of true allies and, for the first time, felt hopeful that Gandalf might still be found and rescued.

"We cannot wait for Elladan to wake. Backtracking to Lorien will take time that we do not have. It is time that our friends do not have." Haldir announced, breaking his previous silence.

Glorfindel arched an eyebrow in curiosity. "What do you propose?"

"We should retrace Elladan's steps. Perhaps whatever evil he encountered is now waiting for this creature to deliver Aragorn and along with him Elrohir and the Prince of Mirkwood!"

"It is not a bad idea. What say you ranger?"

The man managed to push himself to his feet. Though he hid it well, his slight difficulty was not lost on the elves. Still, Owen managed to compose himself fairly quickly. "I say we ride and not waste a moment more discussing it."


"Legolas, I worry for Estel." Elrohir whispered to the elf prince who was mounted before him on the stallion that they shared. Legolas shifted his glance to the horse trotting beside them.

Aragorn did not look well indeed. He was slumped over the horses' neck, mounted before Elladan who held him firmly in place. He was pale, far too pale, and his skin was drenched in sweat. At first, after Elladan's tending, he had seemed to improve. But now, he could not last for more than a few hours without Elladan's herbs. The deep and mysterious wound on his back continuously oozed black tinged blood, causing what remained of his shirt to stick to his back. What worried Elrohir most was that his brother was, indeed, awake. His eyes were dim and glazed with exhaustion and silent suffering. He had not seen the human close his eyes successfully for more than ten minutes time since they left the clearing and Owen.

It pained Legolas to see his strong willed and usually vibrant friend so vulnerable.

Aragorn, for his part, was beginning to lose his grip on reality. The agony of his of his back gripped his entire body tightly, from the inside out. He felt suffocated. He could no longer repress the steady tremble, which settled into his limbs. Valar he wanted to sleep, but every time his eyes would shut he would see faces and hear the dark voices speaking in an evil tongue. His eyes would flash open and the faces and voices would vanish, as swiftly as his memory of them. In truth, it terrified him. He wished he could take a dagger and carve out the evil marks marring his broad shoulders. Alas, he lacked the strength even to sit upright on the horse. Elladan's strong embrace seemed his only comfort, his fragile anchor to reality.

"I worry for him as well, Elrohir. The markings…they are seeping with evil," the fair-haired elf whispered in response.

Elrohir's brow was furrowed in confusion. Legolas had yet to discover that Elrohir had never seen nor been alerted to the unnatural carvings in his brother's back. " Markings? What marking's do you speak of Legolas?" He replied, urgency creeping into his previously even tone.

Legolas hesitated, glancing over at the horse bearing their two companions. Strange indeed that Elladan not mention it to Elrohir… He had often seen Elladan call for a halt in their journey to tend Estel's wounds, and with growing frequency. The elder elf must have been aware of the grave severity of Aragorn's affliction. What were his reasons for not telling Elrohir? " He…Estel was taken as you know. They…carved something, Elrohir, between his shoulder's blades, some word or phrase using characters of the black tongue…" his voice dropped even lower as a cool shiver claimed the younger elf's body. His gaze drifted to the greenery as he began to relive the night of Aragorn's torment at the hands of the strange and ornate dagger. " I, I have never heard such a scream of anguish as I did that night, I have never seen Estel endure such pain," he closed his eyes, managing with some effort to swallow past the forming lump in his throat at the too vivid memory. " It is surely a poisoned wound, he suffers even now and I fear whatever evil the wound brings, its hold is growing stronger."

Elrohir was silent, seeming to consider this new information. Why had Elladan not said anything to him? He had been so preoccupied with Legolas' ailment, and then Owen's apparent betrayal that he had not even, until this moment, paid attention to their surroundings. Shouldn't they have been heading more north than east? Surely Elladan knew the way to Lothlorien…Suddenly, without warning, he pulled sharply on the reigns of their steed causing it to buck in surprise.

"Halt! I am calling us to rest." He exclaimed, meeting Elladan's questioning stare with stern intent. "Legolas grows weary and he would do well with some rest!" Elrohir announced. Legolas suppressed the urge to grumble in annoyance at having the halt be blamed on his infirmity, but he understood Elrohir's intention and said nothing.

Elrohir wanted to see the wound.

The seeming elf who had come to be known by his current traveling companions as Elladan followed suit and coaxed his steed to a halt. Elrohir had already dismounted and was helping Legolas to do this same, in an effort to keep up the halfhearted ruse. After "helping" Legolas to the ground and handing him the reigns, Elrohir made his way to his brothers.

Elladan had dismounted with Aragorn in tow and was supporting the most of the man's weight, with one arm wrapped tightly around his mid section. Aragorn, for his part, swayed on his feet, but managed to remain standing. "How do you fare Estel," Elrohir asked, his gentle inquiry laden with concern.

The man took in a shaky breath. "In truth…not well, brother," he managed, unable to conceal the obvious. " I..the pain only lessens with…the ointment…" he whispered between labored breaths.

" We shall treat you presently, brother, fear not," Elladan responded. He turned to Elrohir. " I will settle him and treat his wounds. You and Legolas must set up camp and build a fire."

" Elladan, you must be weary yourself. Let me tend Estel-"

"No!" Elladan snapped, surprising Elrohir and Legolas as well, who was tending the horses at a distance. The eldest elf quickly regained composure, perceiving Elrohir's confusion. " I am sorry Elrohir, I did not mean to sound harsh. But the herbs I carry are very potent pain relievers and require very specific attention. They were given me by father to be used only in circumstances of dire need."

"What…what are they known as…?" Aragorn asked, surprising the three who had not expected him to be as coherent.

"Do not trouble yourself, Estel. You have probably never heard of them as they are of a very old and ancient sort."

Frustration flashed in the younger elf's eyes. "Elladan, what afflicts him so? The seemingly more serious of his wounds were tended rather nicely by Elimerel. And the lashing, while painful, should not be worsening his condition and should certainly not be affecting him so totally. Is it poison of some sort?" Elrohir demanded, desperate to make sense out of the senseless.

"I do not know."

" And the wound, Elladan." Both Elladan and Elrohir turned to face Legolas as he strode to them, entering the conversation without invitation or need of one for that matter. Elrohir remained silent, feigning ignorance.

"What wound?" he asked, anxious to decipher Elladan's strange behavior.

Elladan paused, hesitated. Aragorn was clutching at his tunic, the pain seeming to worsen with each breath. He felt the strong grip around his waste. His legs felt weak, like jelly, and he knew that they could not hold him without aid. He trembled with the effort, head low and resting on Elladan's shoulder. The tension of the moment was shattered by his soft, pleading voice. "Please…" he groaned. "..can we continue the conversation…after the ointment is administered…?" He gasped, as the intensity was amplified by his efforts to speak.

Elladan locked eyes with Elrohir, who was torn asunder by his confusion regarding Elladan's behavior and his human brother's desperate plea. "Yes, help him-" he heard himself whisper, hot tears of empathy welling in his widened eyes. Estel was suffering. That was their first priority.

As though not to waste any more time, Legolas spread his cloak on the forest floor and they gently eased Estel onto his chest. His breathing was shallow, and his whole body trembled with each attempt to draw in air. Elrohir and Legolas watched in silent scrutiny as Elladan set to work. With speed borne of urgency, the elder elf reached into his cloak and removed a small vile of grey glass stopped with a cork. Elrohir and Legolas watched, curiosity getting the better of them. Elladan, seeming to pay no mind to their scruitiny, unstopped the bottle. The contents glittered and sparkled. It looked almost like red sand, but shimmering as though bathed in perpetual sunlight. It was what one might imagine fine dairy dust to look like, if mythical creatures such as fairies actually existed. Elladan gently exposed the back now, peeling back the remains of Aragorn's tattered tunic.

Elrohir gasped involuntarily at the grisly state of Aragorn's wound. He felt a wave of nausea roll through his stomach as the words that Legolas had spoken were validated. "How- how could you not have told me of this?" He stammered, his eyes hesitantly leaving the wound to search deeply into Elladan's cool spheres.

" I did not wish to quarrel with you, Elrohir." He said simply, then thought better of it. "You were injured brother, still are. I did not want to trouble you further. Legolas was ill, and then Owen betrayed us. It never seemed the proper moment to further trouble you, especially since nothing can be done save what I have been doing. At least until Lord El- Ada can help him." Elladan explained, his icy blue eyes melting ever so slightly.

Elrohir was silent, considering his brother's explanation.

Legolas, on the other hand, could feel his skin crawl and his senses tingling with warning. Just what had alarmed him, he could not tell. Yet there was something in Elladan's demeanor, in his reasoning that seemed amiss. To start, these were no ordinary markings and Elrohir had always been the more talented healer of the two. Since when did Elladan carry ancient and rare herbs on routine errands. The prince was pulled from his thoughts by the soft groaning of the human before him. Elladan had begun to sprinkle the drug onto Aragorn's wound. He decided to speak up.

"The wound, Elladan, it does not seem to be healing. In fact, it seems worse. Will your powder stave off infection and stop the bleeding?" He asked, absently taking hold of Aragorn's cold hand.

"The exact properties are unknown to me." He replied, continuing in his administration. Aragorn hissed and shifted in discomfort. "But I believe that it works from the inside out."

Aragorn began to tremble as the drug took effect. His breathing hitched for a moment as the unbearable pain became intolerable- and then it was gone. He took in a deep, albeit shaky breath, and then closed his eyes in relief.

"..thank..thank the Valar…" Aragorn mumbled, basking in the warmth that now spread throughout his body.

Elrohir and Legolas exchanged an uneasy glance. Elladan replaced the cork and then slipped the mysterious vile into his cloak. "You see?" he challenged, motioning to Aragorn. "Does it matter more that we understand how it works, or that it does work?" Both Elrohir and Legolas could not help but flinch at the irritation evident in his response. The elf rose swiftly to his feet. "I will start the fire. You two tend to Aragorn and your own hurts while I set up." And with that, he was gone, leaving the two dumbfounded elves to try to process what was happening.

Legolas' eyes were now transfixed on the bleeding characters inscribed in Aragorn's flesh. The red powder seemed to accent the angry marks. " Elrohir, we must get Estel to Rivendell. We cannot camp here, not now. We must leave tonight."


Thanks for reading! Please review if you have a minute! ;) tbc