Hello everybody!

So, here it is, the next story. I have successfully replenished my energies, have managed to find a flat and a flatmate, have moved, selected my courses, managed to find my way back into our kind of university system, battled the Erasmus bureaucracy and painted my room - meaning that I am ready to once again start a story! And here is the first bit!

I am trying to post once a week (Tuesdays for now), and promise to do my best to keep to that schedule as long as possible. There might be a pause over Christmas since I will be spending the holidays in Portugal with my mother, but I should be back home before New Year, so don't worry. I won't be too long either way. Other than that, I will give no promises or guarantees - I have learned my lesson! •g•

So, without any further ado, I give you this newest piece of madness! Thank you all for your support and your reviews, they did mean a lot to me!

Visions of Betrayal

By: Nili

Rating: Well, what do you think? Hmm? Yes, of course it's another PG-13, or T or whatever is the equivalent in FF-net's little code. Surprise, surprise. •g•

Spoilers: As always, there are some spoilers for my previous stories, especially for the last big one, "A Sea of Troubles". There might be some more for some previous stories, most likely "To Walk in Night" and perhaps minor ones for "An Eye For An Eye" and "The Heart of Men" - those are usually the culprits. They really would be minor, and I am always trying to explain everything as well as possible while I go along. It would probably help to have read "A Sea of Troubles", but I do not think it is necessary. You should be fine either way. Oh, and there are of course the usual spoilers for "The Fellowship of the Ring", "The Two Towers", "The Return of the King" and "The Silmarillion". But those really are unavoidable, I am afraid. Hey, we are using Tolkien's playground.

I own nothing in Middle-earth, to my never-ending regret. Any recognisable character, setting, place, event and so on belongs to J.R.R. Tolkien and his heirs. I do not have anyone's permission to use any of the above, but I do so anyway. I am a wicked, evil person, don't tell me. The rest, however (places, characters, crazy wood-elves, demon horses etc.) belongs to me, so please don't kidnap any of my characters. They might be rather happy to get away from me, but I wouldn't like it all that much. Besides, my alter ego would have a fit, and I am afraid of her, so... And, finally, this story was written just for fun, and I will most certainly not receive any money for it. It would be a wonderful way to earn my living, but you can't have everything, I guess, least of all vast sums of money. Please do not use any of my original characters (or horses or bats) without asking me first. Thank you.

Summary: Peace has once again returned to Rivendell, and all Legolas, Aragorn and the twins have to deal with are terrified elven captains with pre-wedding jitters and insane wood-elves and their pets. As always, however, that rare time of rest and relaxation is cut short when a message reaches the Last Homely House: There is something amiss in the camps of the Dúnedain. Rangers are disappearing, and fear and suspicion are beginning to rear their ugly heads. Aragorn, his brothers and Legolas decide to join the young ranger's people to discover what it going on, but they quickly realise that the disappearances are by far not their only problem. And while they struggle to keep the darkness at bay that the Rangers have been fighting for so many long years, it becomes clear that, this time, the enemy might be closer to them than they might think - and that treachery could be lurking around every corner.

This story is, just like all the others, part of my ever-growing mini series that is actually beginning to outgrow the "mini" part. I am not quite sure whether to count "A Taste of Disaster" - or where to count it if I do - but I have decided to include it in the list. My other stories are (in more or less chronological order):

Straight Paths
An Eye For An Eye
The Heart of Men
To Walk in Night
A Sea of Troubles
A Taste of Disaster

This newest proof of me being a disturbed and thoroughly weird person takes place in the summer of III, 2954, roughly two months after the end of "A Sea of Troubles".

Additional Notes:
So, this is my first story including the rangers. I am really nervous about that, mostly because Tolkien said so little about them, or rather left us with so little "real" information to work with. I will explain my theories concerning their culture, way of life, location of their settlements and so on later on, when it becomes relevant to the story. Since I am always trying to stay true to canon (or as much as possible), I would, as always, be happy about any comments or helpful information. If you spot a mistake or have just found Tolkien's lost letter where he unanimously stated just how many rangers there were or what their organisational structure looked like, please don't hesitate to send me an email. Oh, and I am also firmly determined to finish this story in less than 25 chapters - stop laughing back there! I am really trying this time - the last story really got out of hand.

Universe-like: A long time ago I decided to follow Cassia and Sio's lead and pretend that Gilraen was killed with Arathorn, something that I sometimes regret by now since I try to stick as closely to canon as I can. It wasn't because I don't like her though, no; I started this way because it was easiest. I still think it's hard to integrate her into Rivendell-life realistically, and she's such a complex character that I only now feel confident enough to have a go at writing her. Now it's too late, though. •g• I hope you - and her - will forgive me for this not so little detail.

Because of this and some other smaller things some people have told me that my whole concept is an AU, and I think they are correct, in a way. I totally ignore the fact that Aragorn's supposed to have met Arwen just after he had been told of his heritage (even though, in general, I have nothing against Aragorn/Arwen romances), and I must state here and now that I am aware of the fact that I am not Tolkien and therefore do not even begin to sound like him, something that can only be commented with "Duh!" in my opinion. I could never write as well as he does, which means that you will have to bear with me. The whole Arwen dilemma I intend to solve at the end of this story.

A small note concerning the Elvish used in this story, or, more specifically, the Sindarin: I am a follower of the "mellon nín" variety. If you like the undoubtedly equally correct "mellonen" better, bear with me. As far as I know, you can use both versions. And, last but not least: It is no secret that English is not my first language. It is, in fact, my third, but that's beside the point. •g• So please, let me know when you find a blatant and horrible mistake somewhere. You will, trust me - I usually spot them right after I have posted a chapter and I would have to upload the whole thing again to correct them. Some always manage to sneak their way into my stories no matter how hard I try. Pointing them out to me doesn't bother me at all and really helps to improve my English. Thank you!

Chapter 1

It was a beautiful morning that had dawned bright and clear over the quiet and reasonably peaceful valley of Rivendell. The sun was a blinding, pure golden circle in the azure blue sky, there was a slight breeze ruffling the lush, green foliage of the trees and the soft sound of crystal clear water that trickled from rock to rock only accentuated the perfection of the day.

It wasn't anything particularly surprising or noteworthy, mind you; for one, it was the middle of July, which more or less guaranteed bright and beautiful days around these parts, and besides, this was Rivendell. No one openly speculated about why the valley was usually spared the worst storms and ravages of the weather that sometimes plagued the rest of this part of Eriador, but more than one elf harboured his or her suspicions.

None of this, however, was on Isál's mind at the moment. That was partly because he had always been a firm supporter of the theory that one shouldn't poke one's nose into things that were none of one's business – especially in Rivendell. Here non-compliance with that very simple rule could get you into more trouble than you could imagine, even if you were one of the people with an active and healthy imagination. For him, the only exception to that rule was Elvynd's business; he simply loved poking his nose into his friend's business, and the fact that the other captain hated it when he did it only served to make it more enjoyable.

But no, it was also because he was having more than his fair share of troubles, and he was far too experienced (or jaded and disillusioned, as other slightly ill-meaning people would say) to be lulled into a false sense of security by something as trivial as a beautiful day. The only positive aspect of all this was that, for once, the reason for said troubles was not his lord's sons and their friends. Well, that was not completely true, of course, since they were always causing some sort of mischief or other, but they weren't more bothersome than usual – which, truthfully, didn't mean a whole lot.

But Isál was nothing if not a fair elf, and so he had to admit that the past few weeks had been fairly quiet. At first, it had been because Estel had still been recuperating from the injuries he had sustained during their last little expedition which most people would call a full-blown catastrophe. It hadn't been the young man's fault, though, or at least not exclusively. Isál had in fact spent quite a bit of time trying to figure out whose fault all of this had been, and still, almost two months after they had returned to Rivendell, he hadn't found a definite answer.

After all, if Lord Erestor hadn't been sent to Aberon, the insane Lady of Donrag wouldn't have felt threatened by Rivendell's apparent close ties to the rivalling city of her town. Maybe then she wouldn't have sent her insane captain (who just happened to be an old enemy of Estel and Prince Legolas who had been out for their blood for months) to ambush Lord Elrond's chief councillor and his escort, even though Isál secretly doubted it – the woman had been as mad as a hatter, after all. Maybe their warriors wouldn't have been slaughtered to the last man – or almost the last man, considering that Elvynd had narrowly survived – and Lord Erestor wouldn't have been taken captive and they wouldn't have thought all of them dead.

Isál shook his head. Maybes and what-if-onlys could be fun, but they were also highly futile. It didn't matter, after all; all of it had happened, and then, when a messenger of Aberon had arrived in Rivendell bearing the news of their escort's deaths and their broken and discarded weapons, everything had spiralled out of control. In his mind, the memory of these days was overshadowed by emotions so powerful and raw that he could barely bear thinking about them. He had thought Elvynd dead, had thought that he had lost the one person in his life he would name brother without question or doubt, and he had been so full of hatred and grief and raw, all-consuming rage that he had lived these weeks like under some sort of heavy veil that filtered out the brighter colours and all but the most solemn sounds.

They had got Lord Erestor back in the end and Elvynd as well, but not before they (and Isál himself was no exception) had all got themselves into a whole lot of trouble. Isál had found out quite a few things, among them that he had neither the patience nor the stomach for diplomacy and political scheming, that one should never travel in the company of Lord Elrond's sons if one wanted to make it out of any kind of place in one piece, and that one should never – ever – infuriate Lord Glorfindel.

The golden-haired elf lord had been devastated by his friend's apparent death, and the fury he had felt for the people responsible for it had not even diminished when he had found out that Lord Erestor was in fact still alive. It had been he who had tracked down Lady Acalith's insane captain and lover, the man who had tortured the dark-haired elf lord and also Lord Elrond's youngest son and Prince Legolas. No one had ever asked him how exactly the man had died, and it certainly wasn't because of a lack of curiosity. Everybody simply agreed that some things simply shouldn't be discussed, and there were also some – those of a more delicate disposition – that were of the opinion that there were things of which they didn't want to know the details.

But somehow, they had managed to extricate themselves from this latest, colossal mess they had once again found themselves in. Lord Elrond, Lord Glorfindel and Lord Elladan had appeared with what had looked like half of Rivendell's warriors and had saved them before they could get their heads cut off (a goal towards which they had been making good progress), and somehow everybody already on the brink of death – namely Estel, Prince Legolas and Lord Erestor – had managed to cling to this life and plane of existence. It was nothing particularly surprising, of course, since all three of them were stubborn to a fault, but for a while, it had looked really, really bad.

Isál shuddered slightly even despite the bright rays of the sun that were bathing him in warming light. These particular memories were almost harder to bear than the memory of having to listen to Aberon's messenger stammer out that he was sorry but that his best friend and all his men were dead, and so he quickly pushed them to the side and into a corner of his mind where he kept all the other unpleasant memories he lacked either the strength or will to deal with.

It was getting rather crowded in that corner.

"He's gone."

The softly spoken words for which he had been waiting for quite some time now brought him back to the present, and even despite his current situation Isál found himself smiling. No matter how much Elvynd annoyed him sometimes, he could not truly be angry with him, not since that horrible day less than three months ago when he had held his sword in his hands and had had to try and convince himself that his friend was really gone.

He had been wrong, though, and Elvynd was just fine, and that brought him back to just why this was such a bad day. With an annoyed sigh, Isál moved until he was right above the spot where he had heard his friend's voice and manoeuvred his body until he could look the other dark-haired elf in the eye. If Elvynd was in any way surprised to see his fellow captain's head appear at such an – unhealthy looking – angle, he did not comment on it.

"Truly?" Isál asked, casting a wary look around. It wasn't that he didn't trust the other elf, but it always paid to be careful.

"Truly," Elvynd echoed, an eyebrow arching amusedly. The action served to highlight the faint scar on the left side of his forehead, the only visible remainder of what had happened to him in the human towns. "Come now, mellon nín, do you not trust me? He is nothing but a youngling. There is no way at all he could outsmart me."

Now it was Isál's turn to arch an eyebrow.
"You're naturally modest, aren't you?"

"No, I had to study," Elvynd answered, deadpan.

"You always were too studious by half, Elvynd," the other elf told him. "And besides, he is not a youngling. Why, he must turn twelve yéni soon!"

"He just turned ten," the dark-haired captain told him. "And he is a junior lieutenant in the northernmost patrol. Do you mean to suggest that he could fool me into believing he had left when he hadn't?"

"Who knows?" Isál grumbled. "These young ones can be crafty. I know, because I was one myself not too long ago…"

"…but I was never young, you're right," Elvynd interrupted him, rolling his eyes good-naturedly. "I came into this world fully grown and as wise and experienced as I am now. I wouldn't possibly know anything about being young."

"…and besides, it's not your blood he is after," Isál finished the sentence, unperturbed by his friend's words. "You do not have the kind of vested interest in this that would convince me of your complete and utter reliance."

"Be reasonable, Isál," the other elf told him, mirth sparkling in his eyes. "He isn't after your blood. He's after your head."

Isál gave him a hard look that was ruined by the position into which he had forced his body.
"You also studied to exude this particular reassuring air, I see."

"No," Elvynd responded with a grin. "That is a natural talent." When the other captain didn't answer, he shrugged and raised his hands, the grin still on his face. "He is only a boy, Isál, and he would never truly harm you. He is too smart for that, and also too frightened of his sister. So stop hiding and come down here."

Isál looked at him in an exceedingly haughty manner.
"What gives you the idea that I am hiding?"

Elvynd regarded him in the exact same manner in which he would have regarded an idiot child, or maybe a singing orc.
"You are dangling from a branch, Isál, ready to disappear back into the foliage should the need arise."

"And your point is?" the other elf asked, giving the tree he was sitting in a flat look. "It's a nice place to rest, contemplate the universe…"

"…and hide from your future brother-in-law," Elvynd finished his sentence. "A thoroughly heroic and noteworthy behaviour."

"For the last time, I am not hiding from him!" Isál protested. "I am avoiding him, yes, but that is all."

"He is a boy, Isál, nothing more," the other said, exasperated. It was clear that even his patience was beginning to wear thin. "So would you now please stop being such a complete idiot and…"

"He is an experienced warrior with access to as many sharp and lethal weapons as he'd like!" This time, it was Isál who interrupted Elvynd. "A warrior who is under the erroneous impression that I have 'tainted his sister's honour', or am tainting her honour, or something along these lines." He shook his head and snorted. "Honestly, as if anybody could do anything to Gaerîn that she doesn't want them to do, least of all 'taint her honour'!"

"…come down here before I have to hurt you seriously and repeatedly," Elvynd finished his sentence as if the other elf hadn't spoken. "And please spare me the more intimate details of your relationship with Gaerîn."

Isál, to his consternation, blushed like a young lad or an elf maid, a comparison he wouldn't have found amusing in the slightest.
"There are no 'intimate details'!" he hissed at the other captain, his hold on the branch next to his head weakening considerably as he only just resisted the urge to wave his hands in agitation. "Are you implying that I would do her the dishonour of … of … of doing anything that might be considered inappropriate before we are wed and…"

"No." Elvynd quickly shook his head. "I would not insult you so, my friend. I know that you have nothing but the deepest love and respect for the Lady Gaerîn, and would never dishonour her, her family or your own by such an act." He grinned at the still very pink elf in front of him. "It doesn't matter what I think, however. And what Dólvorn thinks is not too hard to guess."

"Of course not," Isál grunted, still not making any move to climb down from his lofty but rather safe perch in the tree. "He is quite vocal about his opinions. Especially about his opinion of me."

"Come now, mellon nín, do be fair." Elvynd grinned at him. "You did kiss his sister in the courtyard, with the whole of Rivendell watching."

"She kissed me!"


"And she is his older sister!"

Elvynd gave him a look that quite clearly said that he was an idiot or at least a socially inept person who, to top everything off, didn't have any brothers himself. Neither did he, in fact, but that was entirely beside the point.

"Gaerîn could be six thousand years old and he five-thousand six-hundred and he would still react like he is now. She is his sister, and that is that."

"Whose side are you on anyway?" Isál demanded to know. "He is overreacting! Valar, if we had at least done something to warrant this kind of persecution I would feel better! This just isn't fair!"

"Whoever told you that life was fair?" Elvynd asked with an arched eyebrow.

"You did."

"I lied," Elvynd told him calmly. "You will have to bear this terrible 'persecution' until the wedding. Which, considering that you two acted like love-sick puppies for weeks until her parents caved in and gave their consent, will be … when, in about sixty days?" He shook his head. "I haven't seen such an inappropriately short engagement in many years."

"You are sounding like my mother," Isál accused him sourly. "And her mother. And her grandmother, and her aunts, and…"

Elvynd shot him a teasing grin.
"Well, they are right, you know. An engagement between two people of your high social rank is expected to last at least…"

"I know very well what period of time is expected," the younger elf ground out. "And I would go insane with impatience and desire…"

"Oh, please spare me!"

"…for her company if I had to wait that long, and so would Gaerîn." Isál looked at his friend accusingly, as if he was being an unsympathetic, bull-headed idiot on purpose. Objectively speaking, he might have been on to something. "And the wedding is in sixty-five days," he corrected Elvynd, "including today."

"You know," Elvynd told his friend thoughtfully, "I liked you a lot better when you went red in the face and started stuttering every time you saw her."

"You're never happy."

"Oh, but I will be." The older elf shook his head. "As soon as you two are married and you stop getting on my nerves like this."

"Tell that to Dólvorn, not to me. He is making me hid... avoid him all the time."

"No one is making you do anything. Now get down here."

Isál gave him a calculating look.
"Just how are things going between you and Gaerîn's lovely cousin, by the way?"

This time, Elvynd blushed until the scar on his forehead showed white against the flushed skin, but he would not be deterred.
"That, my friend, is none of your business. Unlike you two, we are private people. Get down."

"You know," Isál began, "that does not sound convincing. And besides, I do not trust you to protect me if worst comes to worst."

"You can protect yourself," Elvynd ground out. "You are a fully grown elf, a captain of our lord's forces, who will undoubtedly soon become a father."

"Elvynd!" Isál exclaimed, looking scandalised.

"What?" The other elf ask, his face a picture of innocence.

Realising that it was hopeless, Isál shook his head.
"I would still feel better if Dólvorn was a painter. Brushes are tickly more than lethal."

"Isál!" Elvynd exclaimed, his patience finally spent. "Down! Now!"

"What am I, a dog?" the younger elf asked, offended.

Elvynd clenched his teeth and cracked the knuckles of his hands, apparently more than willing to demonstrate to his friend just what he was going to be soon, namely a bloody heap on the ground, but before he could say anything, soft footsteps could be heard behind them. The two of them turned around, Isál clearly preparing to blend back into the foliage of the tree at the first sign of red hair, and almost groaned out aloud. Elvynd also closed his eyes and shook his head. This was just his kind of luck, wasn't it?

A moment later, he opened his eyes again and gave the approaching figures a half-sketched bow. He had been raised to be polite, after all, and besides, if he had learned one thing in the past, it was that these half-elves and anyone who was in any way connected to them were devious and possessed long memories. If you wronged or slighted or disrespected them in any way – and sometimes even if you only thought about wronging or slighting or disrespecting them in any way –, they remembered. And later they would get you for it.

"My lords," he greeted the approaching elves. Isál didn't say anything and moved as to disappear back into the foliage, but Elvynd glared at him and the younger elf halted in mid-motion. If he had to be here and face his sometimes-slightly-unstable young lords, then Isál didn't get to back out either.

It took the others only a few more heartbeats to reach them, and Elvynd did his best not to show any surprise when he saw that there were only three of them, not four or five. He didn't know if they did it because they believed in safety in numbers or because they liked annoying people in groups, but fact was that they had taken to travelling in packs. Like wolves or, Elvynd decided wickedly, Wood-elves.

"Elvynd," one of the three said congenially and with a broad smile. "How are you on this fine day?"

If the smile on Elladan's face wouldn't immediately have put him on edge, that far-too-innocent greeting would have. It was never a good thing when one of the twins smiled at you like this, and doubly so when they were together. More likely than not, they were planning something you really didn't want to know about and were only looking for a way to drag you into their schemes.

But not him, Elvynd thought almost wildly. Oh no, he was on to them!

"Very well, thank you," he answered as politely as he could. "We," he added, dragging a very unwilling Isál into the conversation, who shot him a deadly glare in return, "are merely enjoying the sunny morning."

"Ah, yes, you are off duty until tomorrow, aren't you?" Elrohir chimed in. If anything, he looked even more innocent than his brother, something that made Elvynd's blood run cold. "I would assume that the two fairest healers Rivendell has to offer are more than happy about that."

Elvynd gave him an insincere smile, only just stopping himself from telling the twin that all this was none of his business and that he would clout the next person who commented on his relationship with Gelydhiel, Gaerîn's kinswoman.
"You would have to ask them, really. My lord."

"I don't know," the third elf said thoughtfully. "I wouldn't go quite that far to acquire information. Neither the Lady Gaerîn nor her lovely cousin are as bad as Hithrawyn, my king's master healer, but … well, they are healers."

Isál gave the silver-haired wood-elf a thoroughly insincere smile.
"We are quite aware of that."

Celylith raised his hands in placation, but before he could say anything more that could upset the two captains (he was a Silvan elf after all, and just like his prince he loved riling Noldor whenever he could), Elladan interrupted the two of them, a teasing glint in his grey eyes.
"I just remembered; I think we met Lady Gaerîn's younger brother not too long ago. He was looking for you, I believe. Has he found you?"

"No," Isál said curtly. "And he won't, at least not until he has calmed down a little."

"What did you do now?" Elrohir asked, a big grin on his face.

"That's the worst part of it: Nothing!" Isál exclaimed. Elvynd hung his head, sensing a new round of complaints coming up. "Yesterday evening we were taking a stroll through the gardens, and just like this," he snapped his fingers, "that red-haired menace appears and accuses me of knavishly abducting his sister with the intent of tainting her honour even further than I already have! He is completely overreacting!"

The twins exchanged a sympathetic look. It was a brother's right to ensure that his sister's honour remained untouched, of course, but Dólvorn was overdoing it just the tiniest bit. If his sister's fiancé had been anyone but Isál and if his sister had been anyone but Gaerîn, they might even have understood him – after all, Arwen was still unwed and would – if they had anything to say about it – remain that way until they had made sure that any prospective suitor possessed a completely immaculate character, only the best of intentions and a high level of self-control. But Isál was far too honourable to even think about doing anything inappropriate and Gaerîn was … well, Gaerîn. It would take quite a bit of courage to force any kind of unwanted attention upon her.

"So it would seem," Elrohir admitted, truly beginning to feel for Isál's plight. Even a blind man would see how much in love the two of them were, and considering that the wedding date was already set, Dólvorn was only making everyone's lives miserable, nothing more. "Perhaps I could talk to Glorfindel, see if he cannot assign him to a temporary scouting mission north for a few weeks."

"Could you?" Isál asked, dark-blue eyes shining. "I would forever be grateful, my lord!"

"Just where are the prince and Estel?" Elvynd quickly interrupted his friend before he could promise the twins something truly valuable, like his soul or his firstborn son. Knowing the twins, they would come to collect sooner or later. "It is rare to see you alone," he added, with a pointed look in Celylith's direction. The wood-elf possessed the good grace to look slightly embarrassed. Elvynd was speaking the truth, after all, it was a rare thing to find Legolas without Celylith or the other way around. "I trust that they are well?"

He was actually quite sure that they were well since Lord Elrond had – with the cooperation of Lord Erestor and Glorfindel and under a lot of pretences – successfully prevented them from going anywhere where they could possibly get into trouble. Then again, King Thranduil's son and Lord Elrond's youngest were quite capable of finding or creating blood, chaos and mayhem even here in Rivendell.

The three older elves exchanged an unreadable look. That wasn't completely true, of course, Elvynd corrected himself; he did know how to read parts of it and didn't like it in the slightest. The three were up to no good, and he was willing to bet his firstborn son that it was somehow connected to Estel and his wood-elven friend. He was also willing to bet that, this time, the two of them were the victims of whatever scheme the three elves in front of them had set into motion.

"I am sure they will turn up here sooner or later," Celylith finally answered for all of them with a nonchalant gesture that looked in fact anything but.

"They aren't stupid," Elrohir agreed with a nod. "They should find our trail soon enough."

"I don't know." Elladan shook his head. "They were rather … preoccupied the last time we saw them. They might not turn up for a while."

Elvynd and Isál exchanged a weary look. The last thing they needed was to be involved in another one of their personal jokes or vendettas or whatever they were. Isál had Gaerîn's brother to worry about, and, well, Gelydhiel's father who had been curiously uninterested in his daughter's doings until now was beginning to become the tiniest bit suspicious. All in all, if there was something they didn't need, it was being drawn into another episode including blood, pain and chaos. They had more than enough worries already.

"Do I want to know what you did?" Isál asked tiredly. For someone who had been hiding in a tree the better part of the day, he managed to look amazingly like a parent who was talking to particularly strange, difficult children.

The three other elves shared a quick look before they started to grin.
"No, I don't think so," Elladan finally told them.

"You will find out soon enough anyway," Celylith added. There was a rather malicious light shining in his eyes that made his dark-blue eyes look even darker.

"So, what made you turn on your prince, my lord?" Isál asked innocently, dangling his legs over the branch on which he was sitting. "Does it have anything to do with the bat?"

The twins shot the young captain a look that would have frozen lava on the spot, and Elvynd, too, glared at his friend. It was common knowledge that Lord Celylith was a little strange – he was a wood-elf, after all – and that he possessed a rather unnatural love for terrible and wild creatures. Among his pets had been a warg cub, a giant spider baby and a huge ox from Rhûn, and on their last journey the silver-haired elf had picked up a small, black bat. It was quite funny, actually, since Prince Legolas kept trying to order him to get rid of him and because Elrohir just detested bats in general, but until now the wood-elf had managed to remain steadfast. Where he was hiding the creature was anyone's bet, though, and even despite extensive searches neither Isál nor Elvynd had managed to locate it.

"'It' has a name," Celylith told the dark-haired elf, his eyes narrowing and his voice dropping to arctic levels. "'The bat' is a she, and is called Lúthien."

A splutter could be heard behind him, and Celylith turned around, just in time to watch Elrohir turn very red very fast. The younger twin favoured him with a look he usually reserved for annoying councilmen and attacking orcs.
"I thought we had talked about this, Celythramirion. If you ever again speak the name of my great-great-grandmother when you are referring to that … thing, I will have to hurt you."

"It's not as if you can decide what other people do with your ancestors' names, Elrohir," the younger elf protested. "There are dozens, if not hundreds of she-elves who are called Lúthien, and I don't see you bothering them."

"Oh, but I bet he would like to," Elladan interjected in a singsong voice in a not uncommon display of brotherly disloyalty.

Elrohir ignored his twin and only continued glaring at the wood-elf.
"Exactly, you lunatic: She-elves. She-elves, not bats!"

"I fail to see the difference."

"No wonder you're neither married nor betrothed."

"Neither are you," Celylith retorted. "Actually," he went on, "neither of you is."

"See what you have done?" Elvynd mumbled softly so that only Isál could hear him.

The other captain nodded mutely, his eyes glued to the three bickering elves in front of him. Elvynd couldn't blame him. No matter how often he witnessed this, it never ceased to amaze him. It was rather like an accident, with broken bones and blood and everything: No matter how much you wanted to, morbid curiosity just didn't allow you to look away.

Before either of them had to decide what to do now – there weren't all that many options except making their escape or pouring a bucket of cold water over them –, a triumphant shout could be heard. It came from somewhere over to their left, from the direction of the main entrance to this part of the gardens.

"Ha! Keen eyes of the Wood-elves, indeed! They went this way!"

"I could have told you that minutes ago if you had only allowed me to look, Estel," another voice spoke up, sounding decidedly amused. It also sounded quite a lot like the Prince of Mirkwood. "It is a clever thing to do, going into the gardens. Remind me to tell them that before I kill them."

"I will do my best. Even though I have to tell you that homicidal thoughts tend to interfere with my memory."

"Then think happy thoughts, ranger. Think about how they will look when you slowly close your hands around their necks and squeeze … and squeeze…"

"You're right." Aragorn sounded calmer in a second. "Those are happy thoughts."

"I am always glad to help," Legolas said. "Even though they are, technically speaking, also homicidal thoughts."

"Oh, not here. In Rivendell they are rather normal. Most elves here have had them at least once when thinking about my dear brothers."

"That I do believe. Let's find them, shall we?"

"After you, mellon nín."

It was silent after that, but both Elvynd and Isál knew that that wouldn't last for long. Estel knew Rivendell like the back of his hand, and even though Prince Legolas was a wood-elf, he wasn't completely incompetent. The two of them would quickly figure out whereto the twins and Lord Celylith had disappeared.

Obviously that was something that the three elves in front of them had realised as well.

"Uhm, I think we should go," the silver-haired elf spoke up first, shooting nervous glanced about himself. Elvynd felt how his tension even increased. If the Silvan elf was this anxious, he really didn't want to know what the three of them had done to Estel and the prince. "No, I really think we should go."

"A tactical retreat." Elladan nodded. "A good plan, for a wood-elf."

"Oh, as a Noldo you would know everything about tactical retreats, wouldn't you," Celylith retorted, even though there was no real venom in his voice.

"Quiet," Elrohir said. "Let's go." He turned and smiled at the two silent captains. "Elvynd. Isál. It was so nice to see you again."

Elladan and Celylith didn't echo the sentiment, either because they were too busy turning around and all but rushing off or because they couldn't access just the same amount of diplomatic insincerity as the younger twin. Elrohir turned to follow them but then looked back at the other two elves, a very dark glint in his eyes.

"You did not see us." It didn't sound pleading, but rather was a statement full of dark promises of what could and would happen if the two captains would disagree.

Elvynd and Isál shook their heads so quickly that the bones in their necks cracked violently. A moment later the twins and Celylith were gone, hurrying down the path into the direction of the courtyard amongst whispers of hiding places and strategies.

Isál watched them go for a moment before he turned to his friend, his eyes wide and more scared-looking than they had ever looked during any of his confrontations with Gaerîn's brother. They grew only wider when they heard the unmistakable sounds of two people who were drawing closer; one treading so quietly that it was almost impossible to hear him, even for an elf, the other one treading more loudly, but still so silently that he might have passed for one of the Firstborn.

"Not a word about this," he hissed at Elvynd who couldn't help but look over his shoulder in a way that reminded the younger elf of a fawn trying to spy the big bad wolf it knew had to be hiding somewhere close-by. "Not one!"

"What do you think I am, suicidal?" the other captain whispered back. "We saw nothing, heard nothing and know nothing."

"Exactly." Isál nodded his head fervently. "It's the only way to surviv… Estel!"

Elvynd whirled around, realising that he looked like an elfling caught with a hand in a jar with biscuits. Sure enough, he came face to face with Lord Elrond's human son, and as soon as he saw him, he understood why Isál had sounded like he had, namely torn between surprised, shocked, frightened and impossibly amused.

Surprise Elvynd could have predicted, because the whole of Rivendell knew that Estel could be sneaky when he wanted to be, and that he could be almost as quiet as an elf. Even though it was virtually impossible to sneak up on an elf, the boy had managed to surprise his fair share of Firstborn over the last few years, ever since some intelligent individual (Elvynd suspected that Lord Elrond or Lord Glorfindel had had something to do with that) had decided that he had to be instructed in stealth and woodcraft. Fright he also understood, since they had been talking to the twins and Lord Celylith just a few seconds ago and were only a step away from being involved in yet another catastrophe. Shock, he decided, he should also have expected, because they just had been talking about Estel and the prince and it was never nice to be caught talking behind someone's back, especially when that someone belonged to the immediate family of Lord Elrond Half-elven.

And amusement … well, that he understood a second after laying eyes on the ranger and his Silvan friend.

Elvynd narrowed his eyes and cocked his head to the side, studying the elf and the ranger in front of him more closely. The two of them were … red, there was no other word for it. They were covered with some sort of red liquid from head to toe, looking very much as if they had just slaughtered half of the Misty Mountains' goblin population all by themselves. Even their faces were almost uniformly red, something that looked highly dangerous. At least Elvynd hoped that their faces were red because of the liquid and not because they were very, very angry. Then again, how one could not be angry when looking like this, he could truly not tell.

For a moment, Elvynd was virtually rendered speechless. Isál seemed to have similar problems, his mouth opening and closing in astonishment. Even though Isál was his best friend, Elvynd had to admit that the younger elf looked ridiculously like a very surprised fish out of water.

Before either of them could shake off his surprise, Aragorn raised a dark-red eyebrow, as if daring the two elves to laugh or show any other signs of amusement, and smiled at them. His teeth looked impossibly white against the dyed skin, and even despite the man's glare Elvynd had a hard time controlling the quivering corners of his mouth.

"Isál. Elvynd." Aragorn nodded at them, the smile still on his lips. Elvynd noted absent-mindedly that the man was using the exact same, fake smile his elven brother had given them only minutes earlier. If he found it strange that Isál was sitting in a tree, looking like a frightened, overgrown squirrel, he did not comment on it. "A good day to you."


Three pairs of eyes turned to Isál, who had obviously recovered from his shock-induced muteness more quickly than his friend. Being able to speak and being able to articulate words were two different things, however. Aragorn and Legolas were staring coldly at the dark-haired captain while Elvynd, standing to their right and just out of their line of sight (or so he hoped), was shaking his head frantically. Isál didn't seem to notice any of this and only kept staring at the two beings in front of him, his eyes wide and incredulous.

"Kuh. You ... ked. Red."

"Excuse me?"

It was the first time that Prince Legolas raised his voice, prompting Elvynd to look at him. He looked even … redder than Estel, if such a thing was even possible. While the ranger's dark hair looked only darker and … well, redder, Prince Legolas' once fair hair had taken on a dark pink colour that didn't look becoming at all. He was also wearing that particular expression that his father, King Thranduil, was known for, namely the one that quite eloquently told everybody that the next person who only looked at him the wrong way would be messily dismembered.

Isál, apparently noticing the danger he was in, closed his eyes for a moment and composed himself. He took a deep breath and opened them again, the corners of his mouth quivering traitorously when he looked at the other elf and the ranger.

"You. Are red," he finally managed to bring out, not being able to tear his eyes away from their faces. "Very red."

Legolas and Aragorn exchanged a long-suffering look, as if they had heard that particular statement more than once already today. Elvynd was quite certain that they had indeed.

"We noticed," Legolas told him flatly. Every single one of his noble Sindarin ancestors seemed to stare out of his eyes, and in an irrational moment Elvynd couldn't help but wonder why it wasn't getting crowded in there. "It is rather hard to miss. I must applaud your keen powers of observation, Captain. I…"

"Don't," Aragorn interrupted him. "Don't start another one of your Silvan-Elves-are-superior speeches. You and Celylith are becoming unbearable, I swear."

"But we are, Estel."

"Of course," the man smiled at his friend in a thoroughly unconvincing manner and reached out with a red hand to pat Legolas' equally red forearm. "Keep telling yourselves that, and, if you're lucky, someone else might believe you in … oh, about ten or fifteen millennia."

Elvynd couldn't help but stare at them with hopeful eyes. If they got into one of their Noldor-versus-Silvan Elves debates, Isál and he just might get out of this more or less intact. They weren't quite as bad as Prince Legolas and the twins, but Estel was quite aware of his Noldorin heritage and more than loyal to his adoptive family's predominant origins.

"What delusions you Noldor entertain," Legolas said with an insolent grin that would have infuriated even the most even-tempered elf. "Be that as it may, we can discuss this later." Elvynd groaned inwardly. It seemed that the two wouldn't be easily distracted, Eru damn their annoying souls. The wood-elf turned towards them and fixed him and Isál with a penetrating look. "Did either of you see Elladan or Elrohir? Or," he added almost in a growl, "that disloyal captain of my father's?"

Elvynd exchanged a quick look with Isál who was trying to blend back into the tree, looking like an extremely large lizard. No matter how annoyed and anxious he was at the moment, Elvynd found that he couldn't blame him for it.
"Uhm … why?" he finally asked not very eloquently.

Aragorn gave him a look that clearly stated that he considered him a bumbling idiot.
"I would have thought that to be obvious," he said, gesturing at himself and his friend.

Isál once again shuffled forward a bit, his interest caught despite himself.
"How did they…?"

"I will not discuss this," Legolas said, silver-blue eyes hard and flinty. Next to him, Estel nodded firmly, and Elvynd resigned himself to the fact that they would probably never find out. If Estel didn't want to talk, he didn't, and the same went for the prince. The two of them were just like their fathers and almost as bad as Lord Glorfindel. "Not with you, and not with any other of the sixty-three people who have already asked me that question today."

"An ambush." Elvynd nodded sympathetically. Having grown up with a handful of distant cousins and a best friend who seemed to think that they had to put the twins' pranks to shame, he was no stranger to being jumped from behind by someone. "You should have known better, Estel. It has been too quiet lately."

"I was expecting something like this," the man said sourly, rubbing a hand over his face. The action didn't dislodge even the tiniest speck of paint. "And if Legolas here," he shot the elf a scathing look, "wouldn't have thought it necessary to upset Celylith so that he joined forces with the demons posing as my brothers, my usual level of vigilance would have been enough. This way, however…"

"Oh, do not blame this on me, dúnadan," Legolas said, glaring right back at him. "I didn't pour a vat of red dye on us! Your brothers did; Celylith only helped a little. You can count yourself lucky that I do not hold you accountable in their stead! And what do you mean, I 'upset' Celylith? I told him to get rid of that bat, something of which you were in fervent agreement, if I recall correctly!

"No, you told him that if he didn't get rid of the bat in the next two days, you would feed it to Rashwe."

Rashwe was Legolas' white steed, a large, white, beautiful creature that also happened to be thoroughly evil. Most people would find it perfectly understandable and possible to imagine that it would eat anything from a troll to a mouse. It was mistrustful of anyone it encountered but now seemed to be concentrating its malicious attentions on the twins, much to everyone's amusement.

Well, everyone but the twins', that was.

Aragorn wrinkled his brow and continued.
"Honestly, I might have done the same. Threatening somebody with Rashwe is just too much."

"For the last time, he's a nice, perfectly normal horse. I truly do not understand why everybody here is acting as if he was a Nazgûl in disguise."

"Because it is a Nazgûl in disguise. Only with, presumably, more legs." That was Elvynd, mumbling the words so softly that they were almost impossible to understand.

Legolas ignored his words, something that was a seriously bad sign, since he usually took such comments personally.
"Enough of this. Have you seen one of them?"

Isál looked at his best friend and the way his mouth was opening and closing helplessly.
"Shouldn't … shouldn't you try to wash this … paint … off first? You know, before it … stains?" he came to Elvynd's rescue, not even really knowing what he was saying. He was making it up as he went, and wasn't sure if it even made sense.

Aragorn gave him a look so cold that Isál involuntarily shivered a little.
"What," he asked in a far too calm voice, "do you think we have been doing for the past two hours?"

"Oh." It was all that Isál said. There really wasn't much more to say.

"So, have you seen them?" Aragorn repeated, sounding definitely annoyed now. "You know that I will take it as a personal insult if you lie to me, don't you?"

"Me? Lie to you, Estel?" Elvynd asked, chuckling nervously. "Whatever would give you that idea? I must say, I am offended."

"No, you're not," the man told him curtly. "You have seen them. Where are they?"

"Well, not here," Isál spoke up with his most charming smile. Unfortunately it was lost on both Aragorn and Legolas. "We don't know where they went."

"Ah!" Legolas exclaimed triumphantly. "So they were here! Which way did they go?"

Whatever small hope Elvynd might have had to escape this situation relatively unscathed and, more importantly, uninvolved, died right then and there. He exchanged a look with Isál, saw the same resignation in his eyes, and hung his head.

"They left the gardens a few minutes ago, heading for the courtyard. They heard you coming and decided that absence was the better part of valour."

Aragorn and Legolas looked very pleased with the information, which prompted Isál to speak up. If he had to be miserable, then these two had no right to look so pleased.

"But since they knew you were coming, they also knew that you would find us here. They knew that, since we knew where they went, we would eventually tell you, so now that you know, you should be aware that they know as well." Isál grinned, as if what he had said had made perfect sense. "It seems that everybody knows everything else, so if I were you I would be careful where I followed them. They know you are coming, after all."

"But we know that they know that we know," Legolas told the dark-haired captain calmly. He surely didn't do him the favour of looking miserable. "So we have the advantage and can surprise them, for a change."

"How wonderful," Elvynd said faintly. "I wish you the best of luck, my lord."

Legolas nodded benevolently.
"Thank you." He turned to Aragorn. "Do you still have it, Strider?"

Aragorn produced a small, leather bottle with the same flourish a hobbit might have used to pull out the world's largest mushroom. Elvynd resolutely refused to think about what might be in said bottle.
"But of course, mellon nín. Happy thoughts, remember?"

"Indeed," Legolas grinned at him. "Shall we?"

Aragorn merely returned the grin but turned back to Elvynd and Isál before he followed the fair-haired elf down the winding path.
"Thank you very much, my friends. You were very helpful."

Then he turned around and ran after the wood-elf who was already disappearing around a bend of the path, moving in the very purposeful matter of someone with a mission. Most likely a mission that involved unknown liquids, revenge, blood and mayhem, but that was another thing Elvynd and Isál resolutely refused to think about.

Isál was listening to the fading footsteps and just thinking that he had been right in thinking that just because it was a sunny day it didn't mean that it would really be a nice day when Elvynd turned towards him, looking up at him with serious eyes.

"We are completely doomed, aren't we?"

Isál couldn't help but smile at his best friend.
"Oh Eru, yes."

Elvynd only nodded calmly and leaned back against the tree Isál was still sitting in. Perhaps he should join him, he mused absent-mindedly, it had to be (at least marginally) safer than being on the ground. It was silent for a while, even in the courtyard and beyond – the proverbial calm before the storm, of that Elvynd was very sure –, but then Isál shrugged, quite clearly accepting his fate.

"Well, it has been far too quiet lately."

A loud shout could suddenly be heard, cutting through the quiet morning air like a hot knife through butter. To Elvynd it sounded either like a troll someone had just trodden onto its foot or like a Nazgûl's fell beast that had twisted an ankle. Both possibilities sounded far more attractive than what it most likely really was.

"Not anymore," he said glumly.

"Ah, come now, my friend." Isál grinned at him in that strange, fond way he had been using ever since Aberon. "At least it can't get much worse."

That wasn't entirely true, of course, but there honestly was no way either of them could have foreseen it. Not before long they would wish for vats of red paint or annoying young lords or insane future brother-in-laws.

Unbeknownst to the two young captains, it would indeed get far, far worse, for all of them and a lot of other people.

But that, as they would have agreed, was another Rivendell rule for you.

More than twelve hours later, a few hundred miles removed and seemingly a whole world away, a campfire was crackling noisily. If was, as every objective observer would have agreed, doing so in an exceedingly and inappropriately merry way, even though there was no such observer present. It was not the only fire in the vicinity, there were others visible not too far away, lighted after no particular order or fashion.

There were dark shapes just outside of the fire's reach, moving with surprising speed and surety through the darkness that spoke of sharp eyes and long experience. The sounds that accompanied these movements didn't seem to fit to that; there were grunts and growls and other, half-articulated sounds whose horrific, terrifying effects were only amplified by the darkness.

Close to the fire in the centre of what looked like a chaotically pitched camp a single tree stood, the bark darkened and charred as if someone had purposely tried to set fire to it. The crown was still lush and green, though, a stark contrast to its surroundings that was so deeply wrong that most people would have been hard-pressed to say why exactly.

There was a single figure sitting slumped against the darkened trunk, hauntingly lit by the dancing flames of the campfire and looking, on first sight, as if he was merely asleep or resting. That impression was quickly dispelled by the thick dark ropes that bound him to the tree, winding around his torso and arms and even around his throat. The man's head hung forward limply, long, dark, blood-encrusted strands of hair hiding his face. His clothes and cloak were ripped and torn, covered in blood and mud, and where skin showed through the ruined clothing, it was bruised and cut and bloody.

The light the fire cast onto the bound man was briefly obscured when another figure stepped closer before it moved to the right, out of the flames' direct light. It was another man, tall and covered with a long, dark cloak whose hood covered his face, hiding his face and identity as effectively as any mask he could have worn. For a second, he only looked down on the bound man, but then he crouched down in front of him, his head cocking slightly to the side as he studied him closely.

With a movement that looked curious more than anything else, he finally reached out and tangled his hand in the other man's hair, using it to pull his head up. When the bound man's head connected with the tree at his back, he unconsciously let out a weak, pain-filled moan, his head moving feebly to escape the painful hold the other had on him. A moment later, blood-encrusted eyelids opened, revealing clouded, almost fever-bright grey eyes.

The prisoner only looked at the hooded man for a moment before he allowed his eyes to close again, his lips pressing together tightly in either an attempt to stop any sounds of pain that might escape him or to prevent him from saying something that was on the tip of his tongue. The man who still had a firm grip of his head didn't react to that, but when he spoke, a grin was clearly audible in his voice.

"No, no, no, we'll have none of that. You have slept long enough now, I think; it's time for you to do some talking."

At that, the other man's eyes opened again, and for a moment, there was incredulity and hatred amongst the pain and confusion. The hooded man only waited for a moment before he tightened his grip on the other's hair and slammed his head against the tree behind him. The prisoner didn't utter a sound, but his bruised face turned even paler, taking on the colour of dirty-grey snow.

"Now, I am beginning to lose my patience," the other man said, his voice calm and controlled and almost sounding friendly. Almost. "We have been dancing this particular dance for two days now. Just answer my question and all this will be over, I promise."

His prisoner only looked at him with wide, blank eyes before bloody lips twisted into something that, in a different life, could have been called a smile.
"Your promises … mean … nothing, móradan."

Behind them, a sudden hissing sound could be heard, and, for the briefest moment, it looked as if dozens of yellow eyes focussed on them. The hooded man merely raised a hand and the sounds subsided, even though the feeling of anger and hatred and a darkness so much more deadly than that that was surrounding them did not lessen.

One could almost see the smile when the man released his prisoner's hair, almost causing the other's head to fall forward once more. It was clear that he hardly possessed the strength to raise his head, too weakened by the past two days of pain and fear and the sort of darkness that wants to swallow you whole.

"Oh, but they do," the hooded man says coolly. "They can mean the difference between ending this tonight and two more days of it." He cocked his head to the side again calculatingly. "Maybe I could even make you last three. Wouldn't that be entertaining?"

The other man didn't answer. Whether it was because his body was betraying him or he simply tried to drift off to someplace else, but his eyes once again began to drift closed. The hooded man didn't take very kindly to that and, without saying anything, calmly placed his fingers over a spot on his prisoner's left side that was already wet and glistening with blood and pushed.

The reaction was almost instantaneous. No matter how weakened and close to giving up his body was, this pain did register in the bound man's brain almost without delay. His body convulsed as agony blossomed in his middle, ineffectively fighting against the bonds that bound him to the tree as a chocked-off scream of pain was ripped from his lips. The other man only removed his fingers, now wet with blood, when his prisoner's struggles had died down and he was hanging in his bounds, shuddering convulsively.

"Let's try this again, shall we?" the hooded man said almost pleasantly as he sat back on his haunches, studying the other man with the same intensity with which a cat would study a mouse. "Tell me what I want to know."

The bound man didn't even lift his head; he most likely didn't possess the strength to do anything but try and force as much oxygen as possible into his lungs. His voice, however, was strong and calm and utterly uncompromising when he answered.

The other man's only answer was reaching once again for his wounded side and burrowing his fingers in the torn flesh. This time, only a groan found its way past the wounded man's clenched teeth, but when the other man removed his hand a minute later and once again jerked his head up by the hair, his face was so bloodless that it looked almost ghostly in the flickering firelight. There was fresh blood on his lips, and the old and new bruises and abrasions on his face looked positively obscene against the paleness of his skin.

"Never," his captor told him in a silky tone of voice, "can be a long, long time. You of all people should know that."

The bound man smiled that horrific parody of a smile once more, showing bloody teeth that gleamed in the fire's light. There was relief on his face, and a strange, faint hint of triumph in his eyes as he looked at the other man.
"Not … going to last … three days."

"No," the hooded man replied calmly. "No, you won't. You are going to die, that is something both you and I can agree on, I think." He leaned forward a bit, up to the point where one would have thought to be able to see his features, but the oval of his face remained dark and shadowed. "The only question is when you will die, and how. That should be of a certain interest to you, no?"

The dark-haired man swallowed thickly, painfully, before he focussed eyes that were clouded and dark with pain on the dark hood in front of his eyes.
"What will happen … w-will happen. My fate is … in the … h-hands of the Powers."

The other man shook his head in mock sadness, and there was a mocking grin in his voice when he answered.
"Not at the moment, no. Right now, not your almighty Lords hold your life in their hands, but me."

"Not … almighty," the wounded man protested weakly. There was a strange detachment in his voice, as if he was barely aware of where he was, pain and blood loss finally beginning to catch up with him. "Almighty and … all-knowing is only Ilúvatar, father of the Eruhíni."

The hissing, malicious sounds once again rose up behind them like the tide washing against the shore, and this time, it did not die down so quickly. Movements were barely visible just outside of the firelight and the ever-present feeling of malicious hatred only seemed to grow stronger, yellowish eyes seemingly gleaming in the shadows. The other man paid all that no heed, but he did not release his prisoner's head.

"My … friends here are beginning to become impatient. They have been waiting for two days now, and you have not been providing the kind of entertainment they are used to." He leaned forward a little. "They are not happy. I, however, have a vested interest in keeping them happy. I just might indulge them a little."

The bound man coughed a little, bright red blood appearing at the corners of his mouth and bubbling obscenely as he tried to breathe. His captor seemed to look at the blood for a moment before he sat back a little, his left fist still tangled in the other's dark hair.

"It can all end tonight. Tell me what I want to know, and I will end it quickly and painlessly. Do it not, and I will let my friends do as they wish." He chuckled darkly. "That is not a way you want to go, you know that as well as I do."

"Empty … threats," the other man brought out, his chest heaving as he tried to draw in enough oxygen.

"Empty?" the hooded man asked, his right hand ghosting over the other's torso to burrow itself in a deep slash up on his shoulder. The other man's body arched with the pain, a groan turning into something like a scream when the long fingers twisted ever deeper. Finally, he let go, the invisible smile once again returning to his voice. "Ah, I don't think so. You have seen what they can do – many times, I believe. I will let them have you."

The prisoner's eyes that had slid closed as the newest wave of pain had washed over him slowly opened once more, blinking as he tried to get his surroundings into focus. He looked at his captor silently for a moment or two, unaware of or ignoring his body's trembling fight for air, and a sudden calmness seemed to lay itself over his stern, ravaged features.

"Do what … you … will." Ignoring the pain the grip that the other man had on his hair must have caused him, he lifted his chin slightly, grey eyes hard and calm. "I … will never b-betray … my people, least of … of all to a coward … who is too af-afraid to show his face."

The other man was silent for a moment, studying his prisoner's face and the unwavering determination in his eyes. Finally he sighed, shaking his hooded head slightly as if saddened.

"No," he agreed quietly. "I had never really thought you would."

With no hesitation and a movement almost too fast to follow, he drew his dagger and slit the bound man's throat. And later, when everything was over and the dark-haired man hung dead in his bonds, he reached out and removed the brooch that pinned the dead man's cloak upon his left shoulder.

The brooch, shaped like a rayed star, had survived everything almost unstained and unblemished, and as the hooded man held it in his hands, turning it over thoughtfully, it blinked and gleamed in the oppressing darkness, and no real star could have been more beautiful.

And that, perhaps, was the most dreadful thing of all.


mellon nín (S.) - my friend
yéni (pl. of yén) (Q.) - elvish unit of time, equivalent to 144 solar years
dúnadan (S.) - 'Man of the West', ranger
móradan (S.) - 'Man of Darkness' - a rather impolite thing to say to any human, especially to one of of the Edain
Eruhíni (S.) - 'Children of Eru', the Children of Ilúvatar. A term for two races of Arda: Elves and Men

So, and it's starting again... Will they ever catch a break? Highly doubtful if you ask me... •evil grin• I wanted to thank you for all the reviews for the last chapter of "A Taste of Disaster" I have received over the past few weeks. They really meant a lot to me and encouraged me to start posting this newest bit of madness. Thanks! I am trying to reply to all of them, but since I am a tiny bit busy at the moment, it might take me a bit yet. Thanks for your patience! •hugs all reviewers• Oh, and about this story: I am trying to post once a week - I know, I know, let's see how long THAT lasts. I am doing my best, though. So, the next chapter should be here next Tuesday, and, as always: Review? Yes, please!