Title: Buried: Ascension

Author: Pentangle

Estel is fifteen years old.

A/N My elves are lighter than men but not light enough to walk on snow. (They can do that just 'cause they're elves. :-)

This story follows Buried: Descent and Buried: Revelation and is the last in the series.

/thoughts/

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Ch. 1 Knife Work

Legolas peered over the large rock pile with satisfaction. He had trailed the two he was watching to their hideaway and solved a perplexing problem for the tiny villages that clung along the lower slopes of the Misty Mountains. Not even villages, really, just a few cots with connected families who knew better than to believe the folk tales about elves. The villagers benefited from the security provided by the patrols from Imladris and the elves bartered for the foodstuffs they grew in their small, fertile fields.

The tiny settlements had been plagued by singular horse thieves. Taking only one or at most two, and taking care to shed no blood, they would disappear for weeks at a time, escaping capture by the elven patrols. This was not surprising; thieves that physically harmed no one were not a high priority for those fighting the forces of Darkness. In addition, a troop of tramping, clumsy Orcs was one thing, but finding two men who knew the land and how to spoil their trail was quite another. Legolas had come across them purely by accident, pausing in his trip home to find their base camp and fix the position in his mind. He planned to intercept a patrol, give them the information, and then continue his return journey to Mirkwood.

Legolas marveled at how well the camp was hidden. When he had seen the two making off with one scraggy nag, he had followed them northward until they suddenly seemed to disappear. He finally created a large circle around the area where he knew they had to be, and spiraled in very slowly, checking every thicket and rock outcropping. He still might have missed them if the sun had not struck the narrow opening at just the right angle; just wide enough for a man (or a skinny horse) to sidle into, it twisted around until it led down into a little bowl surrounded by rock walls. The small butte that protected it was bare and ragged with hundreds of shadowed hollows and cracks. Although he was not more than a half-day from the borders of Imladris as the falcon flew, it had taken the elf two days to follow and find them.

Legolas had proceeded to carefully creep into the tiny defile and now looked upon two men, six horses, a camp fire, and a little depression that held rainwater. Dawn was breaking and now that he knew where the thieves could be found, he would leave; it was not his part to apprehend them.

Legolas heard no whisper of leaf telling him he had missed something. He heard no footstep, no breath, no scrape on rock. Instead he saw a bright flash of light, felt an exploding pain in his head, and slumped forward.

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(noon of the same day)

Estel sat on the grassy bank of a Bruinen tributary. He watched his fishing pole for a tell-tale bob, but his attention wandered frequently. He released a sigh that came all the way up from his boots; he missed Legolas. He had had a very rough time for nearly three months, and had craved the serene, caring presence of the Prince of Mirkwood. With his help, Estel had banished the illusory, hateful voices in his mind and now knew once more that his family did love him, human or not, king or not. Yet he was still left with his other doubts. What did he have to offer them in return? Those around him were more accomplished at everything he cared about. As he stood poised on the threshold of adulthood, Estel realized he needed to discover why being Estel was laudable, not a handicap. He had no idea where to look for the answer.

Just as he had decided to pull in the pole and go pull another prank on Glorfindel, Estel heard a galloping horse in the distance. It was coming from the direction a messenger from Mirkwood would come. It was too soon to hear from his friend, but Estel rose and ran to intercept the path anyway. In his current campaign to bring two particular advisors to their knees, good strategy demanded that he be well-informed. As the horse came closer, however, he realized by the hoof-beats that it was riderless. His curiosity became concern and he stepped into the path as the horse rounded a curve and came into sight. He slowly raised his arm to stop the animal…and then saw that it was Legolas'. Now frightened, Estel held the horse's muzzle and looked swiftly for signs of battle. He saw none, but was hardly reassured. If all was well the horse would not have left the elf. Something had frightened the animal, and since his second home was so much closer than his first, he had returned to Imladris.

Estel grabbed a bit of hanging vine and quickly fashioned a neck loop. All the while he was thinking furiously. The right thing to do was to ride the horse home and tell his father. If he did the right thing, he would be forced to stay home while a war party rode off in search. They would not let him go for fear of what they might find. Estel's heart was hammering and he was cold again, as he had been while he was ill. He tried not to think of the things his family would want to shield him from seeing.

Estel did not do the right thing. He would not stay tamely home while his friend needed help. He led the horse into deep cover and found more vines. He fashioned a rope and tied the horse to a tree; the horse would graze until he had eaten all the grass within reach. When that was gone, he would pull harder against the vines and break them. Estel's family would soon know as much as he did, but he would have already left. By the time they caught up with him, they would not be able to send him home…(he hoped).

Not a half-hour later Estel was galloping toward Mirkwood on his own horse, Sadoreth, carrying a bedroll and healer's field kit. As he reached the top of the cliff path, it began to rain. Estel swore angrily; he was not that good at tracking yet and the rain would make things much more difficult.

He rode the way Legolas would have gone, watching the signs as best he could, even as they began to disappear. A few hours from Imladris, he had lost the trail entirely and simply headed for Mirkwood. Somewhere along that road was his brother-through-love.

He had to ride across another tributary of the Bruinen and decided to muddle his own trail. If he was caught this close to home, a furious Glorfindel would have him hauled back by the ear, giving him at least one that resembled an elf's. Sadoreth splashed into the wide, shallow stream and Estel turned him down it. They rode its length for nearly a mile.

Estel now had to work his way back to the Mirkwood trail, but to be certain he was not caught too soon he would come around from the north. He would go farther north than the High Pass and then come back toward it. As he continued the rain stopped and he rode onto the plains. A few hours of steady riding took him out of territory he knew well.

It was now early evening and the angle of the sun's rays showed some tracks that would be rare if they had been closer to Imladris. Carrion dogs. They were scavengers who were always the first to know where a good meal could be found. They could kill, but preferred to find those that were dead or nearly so. Some distance further on he saw more tracks, heading in the same direction as the first. His stomach gave a flutter and his pulse speeded up. Perhaps….No, that was nonsense. They could not be going after Legolas. The tracks were paralleling the mountains and heading north. It was absurd. It was entirely the wrong direction. Even as he argued with himself, he turned his horse in the direction the tracks were taking and picked up the pace.

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(Evening of the same day)

In Imladris, three elves relaxed on the library balcony at the end of a beautiful autumn day. They sipped from goblets of wine and watched the last rays of the sun illuminate the far walls of the valley cliffs.

"I cannot take much more of this." groaned Glorfindel. He was slouched in a chair with his legs stuck out in front of him. The drooping hand that was nearly spilling wine upon the floor was a particularly lovely shade of green, up to the wrist.

"How many does that make for you?" Erestor asked sympathetically.

"Twenty…Twenty-two. I am not sure, exactly. And you?"

The First Counselor of Imladris would never slouch, but there was a slight rounding to the normally erect shoulders. "I have decided not to count anymore. It is too depressing to remember them all in detail. Not nearly so many as you."

Elrond was smiling into his goblet as the two friends complained.

"What are you grinning at?" demanded Glorfindel. His question should have been a snarl but sounded merely petulant; he was too dispirited to fully develop his anger.

"I am glad you two have reconciled."

"We have not. This is just a temporary alliance so that we may survive the current situation. Naturally you find this amusing since he has the sense to leave you alone!"

"I am surprised you are not happier that Estel is finally fully restored to health."

This brought a cry of the heart from Erestor. "Restored to health? Restored to health! He is not restored to health! He is springing, bouncing, cavorting, frisking, bursting, sparkling, exploding with health! He has pranked Glorfindel to the point that – well, just look at him! Is that the hero of Gondolin?"

The golden warrior moaned pathetically. Erestor moved across the room and patted the top of Glorfindel's head. "Things will only get worse, my dear friend, now that Legolas has left to return to Mirkwood."

That at last roused the ancient one. "He did not just leave; he ran like a rat from a burning granary! I saw what happened when his father's messenger arrived! He kissed him!"

Elrond snorted. "You are both being ridiculous. And you know well that Legolas was loath to go but his father required his presence."

Suddenly Glorfindel sat up, motioning the others for silence.

Then the others heard it. Faint at first but gaining in volume, some commotion approached them. The air vibrated with the sort of tension that dire news carries with it. The three on the balcony stood and prepared themselves for trouble.

The door was flung open and hit the wall with a crash. An elf from the stables stumbled into the room, gasping. Others, who had already heard his news, trailed in his wake.

"My lords! The horse of the Prince of Mirkwood has returned without him!"

"Something has happened." Elrond looked to his friends standing rigidly behind him, but they said nothing; frozen with dread and disbelief. The borders were fairly quiet and the prince was a reknowned warrior. Elrond glanced outside, then locked eyes with the seneschal. "It is getting late. What do you advise?"

Putting him off with a gesture, Glorfindel spun about to his adjutant who had followed the messenger in anticipation his commander might need him. The warrior barked, "Put four guards on Estel's horse! And watch for any horses leaving the stable without their own riders!"

The elf turned and dashed from the room.

Elrond asked grimly, "Will four be enough?"

"We will hope so. The boy is so damned ingenious! Now, I propose that a small party leaves tonight, with two larger parties to leave at first light. Legolas has been gone two days and is surely well into the mountains by now. Fortunately, there are a limited number of paths you can take once you start climbing, Elbereth be praised."

Yet another gasping elf entered and stuttered, "My lord Glorfindel, Taurnil sends word that the horse is already gone."

The poor messenger blanched as the three most powerful elves in Imladris swore like Easterlings.

Elrond recovered his control quickly and turned to Glorfindel, "Will this change your plans?"

"No. He has surely gone after Legolas; the way we will also go. The elves that leave tonight, myself among them, will carry no baggage except torches and weapons. We will be in the mountains as quickly as possible. We will catch him before he runs into whatever has befallen the Prince. We will need the others to bring provisions, medical supplies, and extra mounts. Elladan and Elrohir will each command a party and go by different routes." He bowed briefly. "I must go now—with your permission."

"Order all as you see fit." Elrond looked out into the gathering darkness. "Bring him back, Glorfindel."

The seneschal spun and strode from the room.

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(mid-morning, before Estel left the valley)

Consciousness returned to Legolas as it usually did: with a thumping headache, queasy stomach, blurred vision, and disoriented thoughts. He laid there for some time before moving his head a little to get his nose out of the dirt.

"'Ere, 'ees wakin' up!"

"Get 'im on 'is feet. Les' see wha' we caught us."

Legolas was hauled up by both arms; a common, if uncomfortable, aftermath to a blow to the head. He focused his blurry eyes on the being in front of him, who pushed back the hood of the elven cloak. /Hmmm, one on each arm, one in front; that makes THREE, Legolas Thrandulion! You were caught by a trick that would not net an elfling/

"It's an elf!

"What's 'ee doin' out here alone?"

"How do we know 'ees alone!"

"'Cause I looked 'round as soon as Dorin thunked 'im, ya cretin! There was only one horse. Dam' thing took off when I tried to catch it. If I'da known it was an elf horse I woulda tried harder!"

"What're we gonna do?"

"We're done for now! Break camp and turn the bay and the sorrel loose. We'll never get all six away b'fore they're down on us."

"Why don't we jes kill 'im?"

Legolas' vision cleared. /Horse thievery must not be paying well by the looks of them./

"Right! And then they'd hunt us down like dogs! Besides, we ain't killed yet and we're not gonna start now."

"Yer not gonna jes let 'im go?"

"Not quite. Hold 'im tight." The leader, if that is what he was, stepped behind Legolas. The elf heard the snick of a drawn knife. He struggled, but had not yet recovered his strength enough to get free.

"I be sorry 'bout this but we can't have ya gettin' yer folk after us too soon. An' you could jes magic any ropes we bound ya with."

The man stooped, the knife slashed, and pain blazed—suddenly, shockingly intense. Legolas screamed. His left leg collapsed as horribly and suddenly as the knife had razored across it. He was houghed!

The two holding him lowered him to the ground. Without another word they left him and proceeded back to their camp; within minutes they were gone.

The elf mechanically tended the wound, cutting strips from his jerkin and applying them as a tourniquet. When the bleeding slowed he tightly bound his leg and then lay on the ground, his thoughts numb and his body helpless.

A long time later his mind began to come out of its grim stupor. It occurred to him that he should have let himself bleed to death. It would have been faster and less painful than what he would now face. Unfortunately, he had insufficient (courage? cowardice? he was not sure which) to start the bleeding anew. A chill settled on his spirit as he began to accept the truth. As of a few hours ago he had ceased to be a warrior of Mirkwood.

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End Chapter 1

A/N Hough: cutting the muscles and tendons just above and behind the knee.