They left the cavern as soon as the storm had died away and buried the old man's body deep in the dry sands of the desert. It pained their hearts to see Elladan cradle the old man's gnarled hand in his, unwilling to let him go. But Elrohir gently pulled him away allowing the older elves to fill in the grave. The deep wound on Elladan's face and the ugly mottled mark around his neck had angered Elrohir greatly, but somehow he knew that the grotesquely sprawled body at the foot of the stone steps had paid the price.
The thief Ah'lief had stayed behind.
"I will go into the palace and guide to freedom any of my friends that still live."
"Will it not be dangerous for you?" Veren questioned.
"Not at these times, the soldiers are at home with their wives or women. The palace, aside from the guarded front entrance houses only slaves and servants."
"Seems a dangerous practice." Aragorn observed.
"Such was the pride of king." answered the thief with a small smile. "In the times of storms the palace is accustomed to long absences of the king, especially if his current choice is beautiful."
At this Elrohir who was tending to his brother tensed, and glared at the small man with anger.
"I meant no disrespect to you, my lord. I speak only the truth."
Mollified not at all Elrohir turned away, his stiff stance showing his unspoken displeasure.
But the others bid farewell to Ah'lief with genuine goodwill for without him, neither of the twins would have been found.
Tariq had happily eaten two of the five horses in the aftermath of the storm, thus they were at first dismayed for how could they travel these cruel sands without horses? But Elrohir assured them that she would take them as far as the edge of the moving sands.
Elladan, who would not be parted from his brother rode with him on the wild beast, seemingly oblivious to her stench. In fact since his first words in the cave he hardly spoke at all and when he did it was to say nothing that anyone could understand. He slept most of the day through and in the evening would stare out over the plains unaware of those around him.
Aragorn especially fretted over them. Though Elrohir seemed much better than his sibling, there was a wildness about him, a restless that would take hold of him and cause him to pace endlessly as the night moved on. He even seemed to be unable to abide their slow pace and would often travel miles ahead of them only to double back. At odd times he could be seen touching Elladan's hair and face as though reassuring himself that his brother was really there. The truth was that guilt would not let him rest for he had failed his brother when it had mattered the most.
For the first two weeks they stopped every night to rest for Elladan grew tired quickly, but thereafter camped every third night. On one such night the camp was quiet save for the sounds of deep breathing from Elladan and Aragorn. Elrohir eased away from Elladan whose head was pillowed on his lap, but Elladan did not even twitch, so deeply asleep was he. Elrohir crossed over to where Veren sat cross-legged in the sands. He knelt in front of the older elf his eyes shining in the starlight.
"He thinks he is dead. He thinks I take him to Valinor." he said brokenly.
Veren opened his arms and Elrohir sought comfort in them.
"He has suffered atrocities no one should have to bear, we have to be patient, all of us." Veren replied.
Elrohir did not respond but his body shook and Veren felt his sleeve grow damp.
"Let me tend him a while, Aragorn can ride with you for a few days."
For a moment Elrohir stiffened, but Veren began to hum and surreptitiously stroke along his spine. Stubbornly the younger elf resisted, but soon his body began to relax, his head found a comfortable spot on Veren's shoulder, his arms folded inward and his breathing deepened. Veren settled into a steadier position and let Elrohir sleep, for though he had said nothing he worried more about the younger than the older. Elrohir would give himself no peace until Elladan recovered.
It was an uncomfortable ride for Aragorn the next day. The stench of Tariq was almost unbearable that close, but Elrohir felt no discomfort. He laughed when Aragorn resorted to holding his cloak over his nose. The unexpected sound floated back to the others, Elladan who had been sitting lifelessly in front of Veren stirred and said Aragorn's name. Veren smiled, already the young human was having his usual effect on his brothers.
Elladan looked wearily at Aragorn as the young man helped the other elves gather dried brush for the fire. It had been so hot today yet now at dusk it was cool, almost cold. They had been travelling for so long now and yet there was an endless sea of sand ahead of them. He had finally begun to realise that he was still alive, but the knowledge caused him no joy. He reached up, unconsciously feeling for the silver collar but it was not there. He scratched at his neck but it felt so raw, that he let his hands fall to his lap. He shook his head then, tossing his thick hair away from his face. He longed for green, green every where as far as the eye could see and for water streaming over the smooth stones as it chuckled its way to the wide brook. As sleep overcame him he could see himself swimming in that clear water, washing himself clean. But suddenly he saw Ak'tun standing in that garden, beckoning him. Understandably he began to scream. He fought them as they struggled to calm him, slashing with clawed fingers at their faces and arms... Elrohir rocked him back and forth as hours later he still whimpered caught in the vision of his nightmare.
Though Elladan finally slept Elrohir could not, he paced the boundaries of their camp, his arms crossed about his body as though to keep out the cold. Veren watched him closely, but it was Aragorn who approached him.
"Stay away from me." he cautioned the young man.
But Aragorn was nothing if not stubborn. "That which was done to him, was not your fault."
Elrohir spun around his chest rising and falling rapidly with sudden anger.
"You know nothing!" he began, but Aragorn cut across him.
"I saw your wound Elrohir, you should have died."
"But I did not." Elrohir cried, turning away from Aragorn's too caring eyes.
"And thus you wish to punish yourself?"
"You do not understand Estel," he said softly, then he turned around. "I should have been able to protect him as he has always protected me."
Fro a moment they were both silent and then Aragorn said softly.
"Then protect him now my brother, he needs you."
Elrohir bowed his head. He did not resist as Aragorn lead him back to the others.
They bid farewell to the bear-thing two days and one night later. She had reached the boundaries of her territory and though she had grown fond of the youngling, it was time to go. He was safe she knew among his own kind and it was time for him to reclaim himself. But Elrohir felt nothing but loss and watched her until she was but a speck in the distance, he felt that a piece of himself went with her, but Aragorn was there at his side.
That night they built a fire, the two of them. When it was ready Elrohir asked for Aragorn's dagger. Unsure Aragorn glanced over to Veren who sat not too far away, but the older elf merely nodded. Elrohir took it and before anyone could guess his intention quickly cut away at the mass of his hair. A horrified Aragorn looked on with huge eyes as the elf cut and cut until there was but a cap of uneven hair on his head. He dropped the shorn hair into the fire where it burned brightly before it disappeared and with its disappearance he seemed to let go of whatever burden he had carried.
They had so far travelled four weeks across the unforgiving sands. The ground below them had changed from stony to soft shifting sands and then to hard packed earth. They had begun to see vegetation, small strands of green nestled next to ever numerous rocks. They had avoided all villages but one the week before, because their supplies had run dangerously low. Veren estimated that they still had two weeks of travel before they reached the edge of the desert. Though this was good news for the group there was about them an air of tension and worry. Elladan had grown more withdrawn as the days went by. He seemed unaware of much around him and would often scratch at his neck until it began to bleed. Elrohir was with him constantly but even he could not seem to bring peace to his brother. None of them could know that the answer was very simple. Elladan carried the smell of Ak'tun on his skin for though they had cleaned his wounds there had not been enough water to truly cleanse him.
Eyes red rimmed from another mostly sleepless night, Elladan dully watched the sky turn from bright blue to dull grey. The others grew restless seeing in the sky the sign of another sand storm. Veren scanned their back trail seeing a wall of grey advancing on them. Worriedly he looked around though he knew there was no shelter to be had.
"Come together and keep your wits about you!" he shouted as a roar of sound, the advance guard of the storm washed over them.
They huddled together, lying as close to each other as possible their cloaks pulled tightly about them. The first drops hit them hard, cold and heavy they splashed on their tense bodies. In shock they parted, sitting up as the first rains of the wet season began. There were shouts of joy as they slowly stood letting the rains beat down on them. But the most joyful of them all was Elladan and he stood arms spread wide face upturned while the water washed him clean.
Watching him Veren could not help but smile for Elladan stood naked in the downpour. He could see some of the misery in his soul washing away with rain. His eyes flicked to Elrohir and Aragorn who were capering about like mad elflings. With at least one more month left to their journey there were still hardships ahead but now at least he felt confidant that they would make it home safely.