Chapter 2: Back again?

Aragorn tried to be as still as possible; but that was not any easy task, given that he was not only injured, but tired and exhausted as well. The muscles in his thighs trembled from the exhaustion of keeping his body upright and pressed at the cliff wall and his hand that held the rope cramped continuously. His other hand, clutching the wall for support, bleed from the small scratches and cuts he had received while searching for a rock outcropping that would support his weight.

Sweat trickled down his face and back, and Aragorn had to forcefully control his breathing. Still, his shallow gasps seemed loud in his ears, and for a short moment he feared the orcs that swarmed the area above him might heart it.

But nothing happened. He could hear the foul voices of the orcs, smell their stench and even feel the vibration of their heavy feet through the stone. Then, suddenly, a deep voice grunted something, and he could hear the orcs leave.

Aragorn sighed inwardly, and was about to come out of his hiding place, when he suddenly heard someone moving above him. One of the orcs must have stayed to make sure that he was truly gone. Holding his breath, he leaned even further against the wall, pressing his entire body flat against the stone. The broken bridge lay on his back and hid him, but he did not know how well the wooden planks hid him, should anyone take a closer look.

Another cramp hit his hand, and he felt blood run down his palm and the rope. His shallow breath stirred the loose sand on the cliff wall and irritated his lungs and nose, but he pressed his lips together and hoped fiercely that he could suppress the urge to cough.

He heard the orc come closer to the edge of the chasm. With wide eyes, he watched from under the destroyed bridge how the ugly face of the orc peered over the edge, and then directly at his hiding place.

Aragorn went paralysed with fear. Could the orc see him? Had he been discovered? Long moments passed, and he dared not even breathe. His lungs burned and screamed at him to be filled with air, but Aragorn suppressed this urge as well.

And when he thought he could no longer hold on, the brute orc finally leaned back and disappeared from sight. Shakily, Aragorn resumed breathing, but his heart still beat wildly in his chest. His whole body trembled from adrenalin and strain, and he knew that whatever happened, he could not stay in this position for much longer.

With a pounding heart, he waited. He heard the orc move around, and then he sensed the orc standing next to the wooden pillars. He could not see what the orc was doing, but suddenly he felt the rope that he was clutching tense, only to lay still the next moment.

What was the orc doing? If the foul beast had seen him, then why had he not killed him already? Thousand thoughts ran through Aragorn's mind, while he still pressed his body against the white cliff walls, and tried to be as silent and still as possible.

Another moment passed, and Aragorn began to wonder whether the orc had already left, for he could neither hear nor sense his footsteps any longer. Had he been so inattentive that he had missed the orc leaving? No, that was impossible. But, what was the orc doing?

Suddenly, Aragorn heard the unmistakable sound of metal on wood and rope, and in the next moment the rope he clung to lost all tenseness. With a gasp of surprise, he let go of the rope and his fingers scratched about the sharp stones, desperate to find a new hold. The severed rope fell down the chasm and into the fast flowing river, soon followed by the rest of the broken bridge.

With bleeding fingers and a pounding heart, Aragorn tried to cling to the wall for support, to stop his body from tumbling down into the river and to his very likely death. He did not know how the orc had found out where he was, but it did not matter now.

Lifting his head, he saw the gleaming face of the orc leader lean over the edge of the cliff wall, grinning down at him and exposing two rows of rotten yellow teeth.

"Ah, look what we have here. Did ye think ye could escape us?"

Not bothering to answer, Aragorn assessed his situation. He was caught, no question. Either he would die at the orc's hand, or drown in the icy river, should he miss the sharp rocks of the chasm walls on his way down, of course.

Gulping, Aragorn readjusted his grip on the wall. This did not look good. For a short moment he wished his brothers were with him, or Legolas, then his situation would not have been that bleak. Another cramp hit his hand, but he forced his fingers to hold on, and ignored the blood that ran down his palm and fingers from the broken nails and scraped skin.

The orc, obviously enjoying himself, grinned down at him. "Oh, has the little human lost its tongue?" And then, the tone changed completely, and the orc yelled at him angered, "Get up here, tark!"

Aye, of course, so that you can torture and slaughter me, Aragorn thought sarcastically. But, on second thought, what other option did he have? He could not stay were he was, his arms and legs would sooner or later stop to cooperate, and from the pain that shot up and down his spine, rather sooner than later.

The river was swollen from rain and snow melt, and not as deep down as it would have been in summer, but still, it was a great fall, and the current was strong. Furthermore, Aragorn was already injured and the river had to be icy; swimming would be difficult.

And on the other side, the orc was alone, from all Aragorn could tell. Maybe there was a chance that he could fight the orc and kill him before the others came back. So far, he had not heard the orc give a call to his comrades. More likely than not, the orc wanted to enjoy his catch alone.

"Get up here, or I'll make ye!" The voice of the orc sounded harsh and angered, and Aragorn knew that he truly had no other choice than to do what the orc demanded. He had better chances of survival up the cliff wall, than down.

Sighing, and flinching in pain when the movement caused his whole body to protest in pain, Aragorn looked up at the orc. He was some yards down the cliff wall, and with the ropes that had held the bridge gone, he saw no way how he was to make it up that cliff.

Had his situation not been that dire and his body in such an amount of pain, he would have laughed. Here he was, ready to obey an orc's command, and he could not!

Peering up at the orc through sweaty locks of dark hair, Aragorn yelled defensively, "I would, if I could. But there are no ropes."

The orc was about to retort, when his yellow eyes narrowed in thought. If these beast could think, that was, Aragorn could not help thinking. Then, the orc sneered, "No tricks, tark. I warn ye."

And with that, he vanished out of Aragorn's line of vision for a moment, only to reappear seconds later. The orc threw a rope down, and grateful but suspicious, Aragorn gripped it with his right hand. Almost instantly, the orc began to pull on the rope, eager to get to his catch and stop him from escaping.

Aragorn's feet came away from the cliff wall and he was pulled upwards; the orc possessed an immense amount of strength, and Aragorn knew that fighting this beast in his condition would not be easy. Nevertheless, his left hand sneaked under his cloak to the dagger sheath that hung at his side.

As soon as the orc would have pulled him up, he would try to kill him and escape.

°°

Taragwath watched how the orc cut away the remainder of the bridge; obviously the orc had smelled the blood the human had unconsciously smeared on the rope while he had climbed down. Then, the human and the orc had talked, and to the elf's astonishment, the ranger allowed the orc to pull him upwards.

Was the human only foolish, or absolutely dim witted? Did he not know that the orc would kill him the moment he had reached solid ground? Taragwath had never had much contact with humans, and as most of his kind, he did not look fondly at the Secondborn.

In his opinion, humans were greedy and weak, a race that should not become the rulers of Arda. And, he had never understood how Legolas could call a man his friend, let alone his brother in arms. Truly, he had never met the human, Estel or Strider or whatever he called himself, and he felt not pressing desire to do so.

But still, he was one of the Firstborn, and he felt it his obligation to at least help this human to not be the next meal of the orc. Taragwath tightened his hold on his arrow; he would have to wait until the orc had pulled the human up before killing said orc, otherwise the ranger would fall to his death.

Then suddenly, the sun caught on something silver on the human's hand. Narrowing his eyes, the elf watched how the man sneaked his left hand under his cloak, only to reappear moments later with a silver gleaming dagger; and he saw that it had been a ring on the man's left forefinger that had reflected the sunlight.

For a moment, Taragwath was not sure whether to be impressed by the ranger's will to fight, or be amused by the man's foolishness. Did this human truly think to fight that brute orc with nothing but a dagger? For, the man's bow was securely slung over his shoulder and his sword rested in a leather baldric on his back; both were impossible to reach in the position the ranger was in, without alerting the orc.

With a flicker of curiosity in his eyes, Taragwath lessened the tension on his arrow. Should the ranger truly try to fight the orc, then it was going to become interesting.

°°

Groaning as the upwards movement pulled at his injury and deepened the scratches and welts on his hands, Aragorn gripped the handle of his dagger tighter. Now, halfway up, he could see that the brute looking orc was using both his hands to pull on the rope, and he was thankful for that. Another quick glance told him that the scimitar had been plunged into the wet earth near the pillar of the bridge; by now, some feet away from the orc leader.

Another strong haul, and finally Aragorn felt his upper body slip over the edge of the ridge; the sharp stones scraped at his cloak and tunic, but the strong leather saved him from any further injuries. He struggled a bit with his legs, and only a moment later he was safe up the cliff wall.

The orc grunted and made for his weapon, but Aragorn never gave him the chance to reach the crude looking scimitar. Summoning all the strength that he still had and caging his pain in the back of his mind, he sprang to his feet and attacked the orc.

With a surprised roar the orc jumped backwards, and the dagger was harmlessly reflected by the thick leather breast plate the orc wore. Anger mixed with hate flickered over the orc's face, and before Aragorn could react, the orc slammed his gloved fist into his face.

Stunned, Aragorn stumbled back a few steps, blood flowing down his face from a broken lip and a cut on his chin. Tiny dark splotches danced before his eyes, and only with a resolute shake of his head was he able to clear his vision sufficiently.

And not a moment too soon. The orc, seeing his enemie's inattentiveness, had unsheathed a dirty dagger himself, and attacked viciously. Aragorn ducked in the last moment, avoiding being cut, and then leashed out with his dagger on his own; there was no time to draw his sword.

His dagger was parried, and for a short moment both opponents circled each other, before the orc grunted deeply, and lunged at Aragorn. His dagger missed Aragorn's chest, but the forwards momentum of the orc was so strong that both crashed to the ground with a heavy thud.

Immediately, the orc pounded his gloved fists into Aragorn's face and chest, driving the air out of his lungs and creating colourful bruises. Panting, his face scrunched up in pain, Aragorn gripped his dagger tightly and without warning, rammed the dagger hilt deep into the orc's chest, where his heart should have been.

The orc roared in pain, but instead of dying or rolling off of Aragorn, the orc stood to his feet and with an alarming strength, he lifted Aragorn up with him. Struggling against the hold the foul beast had on him, Aragorn more sensed than saw that the orc stumbled towards the cliff, dragging him with him.

Fear arose in his chest, and Aragorn tried desperately to loosen the hold of the big hands. But it was to no avail, and the orc only tightened his hold, blood running from his mouth and onto his chest. A gurgling came from deep within the beast's chest, and Aragorn knew suddenly that he must have missed the heart in his haste, and hurt the lung instead.

But the knowledge did not help him, as the huge orc suddenly released his hold on Aragorn's collar with one hand, only to slam his fist viciously into Aragorn's already bleeding side.

Unable to contain his scream of agony, Aragorn yelled out in pure pain. All strength left his body for a moment, and red spots appeared in his line of vision. That was all the orc needed. With a victorious grunt, he reached the edge of the chasm and without further ado, he threw himself down into the river, taking Aragorn with him.

°°

Taragwath watched the fight from his save distance, and was impressed by the ranger's fighting skills. Nevertheless, when the brute looking orc grabbed the man and tried to throw them both down the chasm, he sought for an opportunity to shoot the orc. But alas, the orc held the ranger in front of him all the time and there was no way the elf could shoot the orc without killing the human.

So, unable to do anything, the elven escort watched rather emotionless how the orc and ranger tumbled down the chasm and into the fast flowing river, certain that both had found their death in the icy current or on the sharp rocks.

Replacing his bow on his back and his arrow in the quiver, Taragwath gestured his elves to remount. They were still some days away from Imladris, and the sooner they reached the elven haven, the sooner Taragwath would be able to see to the Prince.

Only some moments later, the elven escort from Mirkwood was underway, the young ranger already forgotten.

Two days later…

To Legolas's delight, the fine weather had held, and he had been able to ride with the sun on his face. The earth had dried somewhat, making it easier for his horse, and with every hour that had passed, his heart had felt lighter and his mood had lifted.

Imladris…the elven haven looked exactly like he remembered it, maybe even a bit more beautiful. The sunny rays reflected on the cascading waterfalls, birds high in the ancient trees sung with pleasure and many wildflowers blossomed on the grass and beside the paths. Peacefulness embraced this isle of light in the world of darkness, and Legolas let his eyes roam over the splendour that was Imladris. And in a way, he felt as if he had come home.

As soon as his horse's hooves clattered over the cobblestone courtyard, the Lord of Imladris and his two twin sons left the house, came down the wide steps and stepped up to his horse to greet him. Smiling, Legolas dismounted; but he was not able to hide the tiny flicker of disappointment when he saw that his best friend was not there to greet him.

Elrond, clad in a deep red robe, came up to Legolas and embraced him tightly. Maybe it was not the formal elven greeting that would have been expected between the Lord of Imladris and the Prince of Mirkwood, but Legolas and Elrond were close friends, and deep inside Elrond regarded Legolas as one of his own sons.

"Legolas, it is good to see you! It has been too long."

Nodding, Legolas agreed, "Aye indeed, hir nin. But my duties at my father's court would not allow me to come earlier. And with the amount of snow during winter…" Legolas's voice trailed off. He knew that Elrond would understand him. And he did; giving Legolas's shoulder a gentle squeeze, he smiled and then stepped back to give his two elven sons the space needed to greet their friend.

Only a second later, the twins had engulfed Legolas in a hug, exclaiming how happy they were to see him, and stating that he had not come just at the right time, because the cook had just finished the midday meal.

While a stable hand took care of the horse, the four elves made their way into the Last Homely House. Elrond excused himself, saying that he would see them all in a few minutes in the Great Hall for the meal, and Legolas and the twins went to the guest room that the prince normally occupied while being in Imladris.

Elladan flopped down on the bed, while Elrohir opened the forest green curtains, letting the sun into the room. Legolas slipped into the washroom to clean himself up from his journey, but he could no longer suppress the question that was on the forefront of his mind since the moment he had seen that Aragorn was not in Imladris.

"Dan, Ro, where is Estel? I thought that we would meet here."

And indeed, when he had send word to Imladris that he would come for a visit, Elrond had written back that Aragorn would be in Imladris as well.

It was Elrohir who answered, his voice light and unconcerned, "I am sure he is on his way and will arrive soon. He spent the winter with the rangers, as you know, and it simply takes time from The Shire to Imladris. And with the state the roads are in…"

What Elrohir and Elladan did not tell Legolas, was that their foster brother had no idea that Legolas was in Imladris. They had planned this together with their father and Mithrandir as a surprise after the long and hard winter, and a welcome respite from Aragorn's exhausting duties as a ranger.

Now much cleaner, but still a bit disappointed, Legolas emerged from the washroom, and together they made their way to the Great Hall. Just when they left the entrance hall and entered the Great Hall, Elladan asked curiously, "Legolas, have you come all alone? I thought your father sent an escort with you?"

Sighing inwardly and cringing openly, Legolas began to tell of his little escapade to the widely grinning twins.

At the same time…

Awareness returned slowly, and the first thing that Aragorn became aware of was pain. Not the dull and throbbing pain one experienced after a night with too much ale or wine –or both- but a excruciatingly sharp pain that made his whole body tremble and shake.

The impact with the swift flowing river had not killed him, and he had not fallen on one of the sharp rocks, but the strong current had taken him quickly downriver; the icy temperatures of the water had instantly numbed his limbs, and so the had not been able to swim, but had been forced under water by the splashing waves. He remembered the feeling of suffocating, the pain inside his chest and the desperate need to breathe…and then nothing.

Groaning, Aragorn opened his eyes. After some moments of disorientation and dizziness, his eyes focused and he was able to scan his surroundings. He was lying on his side on the riverbank; green leafed branches hung over the water and the bank, and the river was still flowing quickly, but not as strongly as before. The white cliff walls had given way to sandy banks that bordered directly to the green forest of Imladris.

With a pang of sarcasm, Aragorn noticed that he was now closer to his home than he had been before the orc attack, but he was still too far to be found by any elven patrols. He knew these woods, and he guessed that it would take him at least three days from here to his home.

Moving slightly, Aragorn suddenly gasped in pain. He clenched his eyes shut and groaned weakly, feeling his whole body tense. A shiver crawled down his spine and he felt his heart beat wildly in his chest. A cough escaped his lips, then another and another, and soon Aragorn was caught in a dry coughing fit.

Wrapping his arms protectively around his middle and drawing his knees towards his chest, Aragorn could do nothing but wait until the fit ended. Some long minutes later, the coughing stopped, leaving him weak and gasping for air. He rolled on his back, eyes still closed, and only slowly regained his breath. When his lungs worked properly again, and the urge to cough had decreased, he slowly opened his eyes.

With trepidation he noticed that he had lost his cloak; the current must have ripped it from his body, as well as his pack. But he had still his weapons, although his quiver was empty, as the strong current had washed the arrows out of it.

A small sigh escaped him, and he sat up gingerly. Almost immediately, his side screamed in pain, and it took Aragorn three attempts before he finally sat upright on the sandy bank. Taking a deep breath to fight the agony in his side and the rest of his body, he slowly peeled away his tunic.

Slightly surprised, Aragorn noted that his clothing was dry; not damp, but truly dry, and for a moment he wondered how long he had been unconscious. It was a small miracle that the river had released him alive, but to have not been eaten by wild animals was almost unbelievable.

The wound that his fingers revealed was angry red and hot to the touch; the skin was marred with dark bruises and the skin around the wound was slightly swollen, but the bleeding must have stopped during his stay in the river due to the cold water, for he saw no dried blood on his skin. Touching the injury gently and wincing in pain, Aragorn cursed softly. He had no bandages, and without even a blanket or cloak, there was no way he could bind this cut. He would not damage his shirt, he would need all the warmth he could get to survive the cold nights in the forest.

Leaving the wound as it was and deciding to apply some herbs should he encounter them in the woods, Aragorn quickly examined the rest of his body. He was badly bruised almost everywhere. Scratches and abrasions covered his legs, arms and chest and surely his back was not looking any better; but the injuries were minor. They would hurt him terribly, but they were not life threatening.

His hands were another matter altogether. His desperate clinging to the rocky cliff wall and the fight with the brute orc had injured his hands severely. The skin on his right hand was nearly scratched off from fingertips to his palm and his left hand did not look much better. It hurt to move his fingers, and with a sigh of frustration Aragorn had to admit to himself that he would probably not be able to hold a sword for the next few days.

A shiver raced through his body as a gust of wind rushed by him, and in that moment Aragorn knew that he had to make for Imladris as quickly as possible. Spring may have come to the lands, but the temperatures were still low, the nights dark and icy. Aragorn groaned inwardly, his father would not be happy when he saw him return in this poor shape.

Flinching in pain and bracing his left arm against his injured side, Aragorn stumbled to his feet. After a deep breath to fight the momentary dizziness that assaulted him, he gazed into the forest behind him. 'At least', he thought dryly, 'I have landed on the right side of the river.'

Just as he was about to start towards the trees, another thought hit him. Almost frantically, he dug his hands into his pockets, searching. Where was it? Had he lost it? Oh please…Relieve flooded his body as his hands touched the sealed off leather cylinder that Gandalf had given to him in Bree. If he had lost it…Aragorn did not know what the message said, but the old Istar had told him that it was important, and needed to be brought to Elrond as quickly and safely as possible.

Satisfied that he had not lost the important message, Aragorn set out into the woods, his steps heavy and his shoulders hunched. It were three days to the Last Homely House, and Aragorn knew that he was in grave danger of not making it that far on his own with his injuries and under this weather conditions. Nevertheless, he would walk as long as his feet carried him, and even a bit further, the thought of his home and family clear in his mind.

Three days later…

Elrond was gazing out at the steep cliff walls that surrounded the elven haven; the sun, standing low in the sky, radiated off the white stone and the waterfalls and tiny rivers reflected the rays and send them all around the valley. The fresh spring breeze brought the scent of sweet flowers and ancient trees, and the melody of the valley warmed his troubled heart.

Troubled, for Elrond had begun to worry for his foster son. Almost three weeks ago he had received a latter from Mithrandir, telling him that he had met Aragorn in Bree and send him to Imladris with an urgent message; it took a little more than two weeks from the human town to the elven haven. Aragorn should have arrived by now, the more so when he carried an urged missive.

But still, his son had not been seen by the border patrols or hunting parties, and Elrond had began to worry. It was not like Aragorn to be late when something important lay in the air. Elrond frowned slightly. What if something had happened to the young ranger? Should he not have felt something then, with his gift of foresight? But he had not, and although the thought comforted him somewhat, Elrond was experienced enough to know that things happened without his gift telling him in advance.

Sighing and rubbing a hand across his forehead in clear frustration, Elrond was about to turn and enter the house, when he suddenly heard the unmistakable sound of horses trotting over the bridge that lead to the courtyard. Turning, he gazed out into the direction the sounds had come from.

His heart that had beat faster in hope that it was his son, slowed down when he recognized the elvish horses and their riders. Legolas escort had arrived. While Elrond made his way down to the courtyard to greet them, he could not suppress the small smile that tried to escape. Of course, Legolas had told him what had happened to his escort, and according to the annoyed faces of the Mirkwood warriors, the good prince was in for some telling off. Legolas might be a prince, but while journeying, the leader of his escort stood in rank higher than he; a necessary station to protect the prince. Oh, Thranduil would be furious when he heard what his son had done! Truly, Legolas had a way with his father's warriors and authority…

Elrond greeted the elven escort formally but friendly, and then some servants showed the elves to their rooms to refresh before they would all take the evening meal together. The sun already began to sink in the East, and night would come soon.

The evening meal passed in friendly conversation. Elrond did not know what the head of the escort, Taragwath, had told Legolas, but the young prince and the elven warrior seemed to have come to a truce; both were smiling and enjoying themselves. Elladan and Elrohir were talking animatedly to the warriors of Mirkwood, and when the meal was finished, they all made their way over to the Hall of Fire to listen to some songs and stories.

It had grown dark outside and night had fallen. The sky was clear and tiny silver stars twinkled down from the black sea of darkness. It was frosty cold, but there was no wind; the trees whispered silently to one another and tiny white night flowers blossomed, greeting their silver twins in the sky.

Shortly before midnight, Taragwath, the twins, Legolas and Elrond were still sitting together, sharing stories, snippets from their daily lives and tales of old, while the rest of the Mirkwood warriors had already excused themselves. The journey had been long and exhausting, the need for sleep stronger than the desire to listen to some stories. There would be enough time to do that later.

Suddenly, Taragwath asked his prince, "My prince, has your friend not yet arrived? I thought this whole journey was about to meet him here."

Legolas shook his head sadly, "No, he has not yet arrived, but we all assume that he will be here soon. Well, the duties of a ranger are plentiful and could have taken him farther from Imladris than even he had anticipated."

Taragwath's eyes glimmered as if he would remember something. Putting his half empty glass of wine on the low side table beside the chair he was sitting in, he said thoughtfully,

"Speaking of rangers. On our way here we met one of the rangers, or at least I think he was a ranger."

Immediately, all Peredhel and Legolas stopped what they were doing and starred at him. It was Elladan who found his voice first, "A ranger? What did he look like? What was his name?"

"Oh, we did not meet in that sense. We only saw him on the other side of the chasm, where the bridge has been destroyed by the storms."

Elrond nodded, Legolas had already told him about the broken bridge. Elrohir leaned forward in his chair a little. Although the chasm was a bit to the south and more west of Imladris, it was not unusual for their foster brother to take that route. It meant a longer way to reach Imladris, but once across the bridge, the journey would be safer than crossing the Bruinen in the West.

Taragwath continued, seemingly not noticing the tension and silence that suddenly lay heavy in the air.

"He was still young, even for a ranger. Although, I have not met that many humans, so I cannot tell exactly. Shoulder long dark hair, broadly built, tall and long legged. He was clad mostly in black and dark colours and carried a sword, bow and at least one dagger." He was silent for a moment, obviously lost in thought, but then he spoke up again, "Oh, and he wore a silver ring on his left hand. I saw it because the sun reflected on it when he drew his dagger."

The ring had stayed in the elf's memory, for even all these days back, he had thought it strange for a man who lived in the wild to wear a ring. It was not usual, and for a warrior, an archer especially, wearing rings could be dangerous in a fight. Anything on the hands could be a disturbance while battling.

The hall had become eerily quiet. All were staring at Taragwath, no doubt in their minds now that the human he had seen had been Aragorn. Then, Elrond asked stiffly, his voice barely controlled, "He drew his dagger, you say? Why?"

Taking another sip from his wine, the leader of the Mirkwood escort shrugged his shoulders; the ranger was of no importance to him, and had it not been for Legolas mentioning the rangers, he would never have remembered him.

"He had been chased by a pack of orcs, and then he was forced to fight one them, the leader I suppose. But the fight did not last long and in the end they both found their death."

"What?" Both twins had jumped to their feet, their faces ashen. Fists clenched, Elladan approached the Mirkwood warrior menacingly. Fury flashed in his eyes, but his voice was cold as steel, "Say that again."

Confused, Taragwath repeated what he had said earlier, "They fought, and then fell."

"And you saw it all and did not help him? You…" Elrohir had joined his brother. Both were furious, fear and disbelieve etched into their features. They could not believe what they had just heard.

Elrond, sensing that the situation was getting out of hand, stood up and placed a comforting hand on his sons' shoulders. "Elladan, Elrohir, let him tell us the whole story. I want to hear every detail, for I cannot believe that Estel is dead."

Stunned, Taragwath looked at his prince, and in the same moment he saw the devastated look on the young prince's face, he suddenly realized that the ranger he had seen had not been any ranger, but the man they had come all the way from Mirkwood to Imladris to meet.

Silently and with his head bowed in shame for not helping the human, Taragwath told them all that he had seen and all that had happened. He left nothing out, and when he finished his sad tale, he felt ashamed and guilty. He should have shot the orc much sooner and not waited so long. In hindsight, it had seemed like a good idea to wait, but now…

Similar thoughts ran through Legolas's mind. Why had he not stayed with the escort? After the long days with no privacy and the stiff warriors of his father's choosing, he had wanted nothing more than to enjoy some brief days in peace with his friends. Yes, it had been a good idea to leave the escort and race to Imladris, but now he knew, that had he stayed with the other elves, he would have recognized Estel, and maybe been able to save him.

His heart ached to think that his best friend was dead, only because he had not been able to wait to see him. The irony of this knowledge was bitter.

Suddenly, Elladan began to pace the room. His face was flushed and he seemed tense like a bowstring. "I cannot, and will not, believe that Estel is dead. He has survived other dire situations. He is still out there somewhere. I am going to find him. Ro? Legolas?"

He needed not wait for their affirmative answers to be spoken aloud, he could see in their eyes that they would accompany him. It was Elrond who sighed deeply. He looked suddenly older than his years, even for an elf.

"My sons, Legolas, I know you ache, as do I, but venturing out tonight is folly. You will not be able to see anything while it is dark, and could get hurt yourself. Please, I do not order this, but ask you to wait for morning."

A few moments passed, the tension in the air palpable. It was clear that the three younger elves wanted to leave tonight, but the plea of Elrond touched them, and deep inside they knew that he was right.

Sighing deeply and letting his head hang, Elladan more whispered than said, "Aye, you are right ada. We will wait for dawn."

And with that, he sat down again on the chair he had occupied before. Elrond quickly explained the situation to one of his advisors, making sure that with the first light of the morning the horses and packs for his sons and Legolas would be ready.

The night passed slowly, but none of the elves left the Hall of Fire, for none of them wanted to be alone tonight. To be alone with ones thoughts meant to face ones fears, and they all knew that they were not yet ready to face the big emptiness that the news of Taragwath had opened inside of them.

°°

Another shiver raced down his spine, and not for the first time this night Aragorn cursed the weakness of his body. Of course, he had fallen ill after his tumble in the icy river; his chest and lungs hurt terribly with every breath he took, and a fever had manifested itself inside his body. He felt cold and hot at the same time, and all his bones ached, Valar, even his skin and hair hurt!

At least, he thought grimly, his wound had not become infected, and the few herbs he had found while travelling to Imladris had helped it heal somewhat. Still, the injury was hurting tremendously with every step, and the skin was hot, bruised and swollen.

Stumbling onwards, Aragorn suddenly had to brace himself against the trunk of a tree, when a dry coughing fit assaulted his already weakened body. The coughs came from deep in his lungs and had worsened with every day. As an experienced healer he knew that this cough could very well develop into a sever infection in his lungs; if it not already head.

Sucking in the air when the fit ended, Aragorn pushed himself from the rough bark of the tree and moved on, totally ignorant to the fact that his unintended contact with the tree had opened some of the scratches on his abused hands. He had long ago become numb to his various pains, and all he felt now was an overall, all consuming pain, as if his whole body was one great wound.

And the fact that he had not truly eaten anything in all the days since had had fought with the orc, had not helped his body either. Hunting took time and strength, and he had neither to spare. The few nuts that were left from the last autumn tasted dry and stale, and the few mushrooms he had been able to find tasted even worse. So, he had concentrated on walking instead of eating.

Tripping over a protruding root in the darkness of the night and catching himself in the last moment, Aragorn stopped in his tracks. Breathing heavily, he looked around, for the first time in hours truly seeing his surroundings. Or rather, what he could make out in the near complete darkness. His heart lifted in new hope. He was almost home! Only a few more turns and twists, and he should be able to see the lights of the Last Homely House.

New strength flared in his chest, and with a determined look on his tired and weary face, he resumed his walk. More stumbling than walking, he finally broke through the last trees of the woods, and laid eyes on the golden lights of the Last Homely House. Although it was deep into the night, there was still light in most of the rooms, and Aragorn felt relief wash over his senses. Only some more minutes…

He took a deep breath, and with heavy but happy steps he made it to the courtyard, crossed it silently and then stopped before the huge double doors that led to the entrance hall of the house. It was night already, and in these dark times, even the peaceful elves of Imladris were forced to lock their doors when darkness fell. Having no key and knowing that a huge bolt would have been placed before the doors from the inside, Aragorn did the only thing that he could do.

He knocked.

The loud banging resounded through the silent house, and for a second Aragorn tried to remember if he had ever knocked at this door before. The thought fled him as a sudden wave of light headedness made him sway. Bracing himself against on of the waist high flower pots that stood next to the door, Aragorn took a few deep breaths. He was freezing and in considerable pain, and in this moment he wanted nothing more than to curl up under the soft covers of his bed and sleep for days.

Nothing stirred inside the house, but just as he was about to knock a second time, he heard something rattle on the other side of the door. Relieved that there was indeed still someone awake, he closed his eyes for a moment, and then pushed himself away from the flower pot.

He heard the heavy bolt being lifted, and then one of the huge double doors opened a crack and a subdued voice called, "Suilad, traveller. Welcome to the …." The voice trailed off, and in the next moment the door was flung wide open.

"Estel?" Elrond could not believe his eyes. He blinked, twice, but when the figure in front of him did not disappear, he rushed towards his son and hugged him tightly. "Oh, ion nin. I thought you were dead. Estel, I am so happy to see you."

Tired, starved and exhausted, not to mention in agony from his numerous wounds, Aragorn did the only sensible thing that he could think of. He fainted.

°°

The sun shone in through the window and Aragorn could hear the birds twitter just outside on the balcony. It was a lovely day, but he did not mind having to stay in bed. Elrond had ordered him strict bed rest for a few days, and Elladan, Elrohir and Legolas were keeping him company. Luckily, none of his injuries was too serious, and after drinking his father's teas, his coughing had already diminished.

It was late afternoon. The twins were sitting near the hearth, reading, while Legolas had found a spot on the window-sill, looking out and enjoying the beautiful gardens of Imladris.

Legolas…Aragorn could still not believe that his friend was here. He had not thought that he would meet the elf before next winter, or even later than that, and had been genuinely surprised to find the prince sitting next to his bed when he had woken the morning after he had arrived in Imladris.

Yawning widely behind his hand, Aragorn settled back against the pillows in his back and closed his eyes tiredly. He had talked with his brothers and Legolas for hours; he had told them of his journey, his chase with the orcs, where he had hidden and what had then happened. How he had ended up in the river and then at the bank, and from his track back. And of course, he had forgiven Taragwath, after all, the elf had not truly meant him harm, and in his travels, Aragorn had learned that many elves –and most humans for that matter- would have done the same. After convincing his brothers and Legolas to forgive the elf as well, the matter had been settled.

Snuggling deeper under the covers and noting with satisfaction that the wound in his side only complained a little, Aragorn was almost asleep, when he heard his father enter. Opening his eyes, he watched with a sour expression how Elrond approached him with a mug of steaming tea.

Not another…

Trying to stall, he asked curiously, "Ada, the message from Gandalf…what was it? He sounded to sincere when he gave it to me, and urged me to deliver it to you with all haste."

For a moment, Elrond's brows knitted in confusion, but only a moment later his eyes flickered in amusement. He rummaged in his robe for a moment, and then took out a crumpled piece of parchment. Holding it out to Aragorn, he said simply, "Here, ion nin. Read for yourself."

Confused, Aragorn took the parchment. Since when was his father so careless with urgent messages from Gandalf? He unfolded the message and when his eyes fell on the somewhat unsteady handwriting, he groaned openly.

"Dearest Elrond,

When you read this, our plan has worked as we have planned and Estel has reached Imladris to meet the Prince. Give my greetings to your sons and to Prince Legolas.

Mithrandir"

Legolas took the parchment out of Aragorn's slack hands, and when the twins and he had read it, they all could not suppress their sniggers.

Looking at them with mock hurt, Aragorn exclaimed theatrically, "And for that I travelled for days with little sleep, let me be chased by some stupid orcs and battled with one that was as tall as a tree and strong like a troll?"

Aragorn moaned again and then let his head fall back into the soft pillows. His voice sounded pouting and amused at the same time when he added, "And I fell down a cliff and into a river that was riddled with sharp rocks."

Getting up and patting Aragorn's arm sympathetically, Legolas commented, all the while smirking, "There, there….You did not do all that to deliver the message, but to see your family and friends." And in an afterthought he added, "Just don't make a habit out of it. Falling down chasm and into rivers, I mean."

To Aragorn's dismay, not even the pillow fight that he immediately started with his brothers and friend after this comment, spared him the bitter tasting tea of Elrond.

But still, it was so good to be home!

The End.

I hope you liked it. Let me know, please!