Disclaimer: For full disclaimer, please see chapter 1.


Hey everybody! I'm back, which is something of a miracle, I'm sure... So, the excavation went well, even though we all went a little bit crazy, but that's completely normal. Too much work, too much sun, not enough privacy, that's unfortunately how it always goes. Oh, and this time, also hand puppets. One was a tiger, and we named him Patroklos. He was helpful. Yeah, right, don't ask. *g*

Oh, and I just spent 95 EUR on computer repairs, which kind of explains why this update is kind of late. The annoying thing is that, three years ago, I bought this laptop BECAUSE of the video card, because you can't go wrong with Nvidia, can you? I mean, they make GOOD video cards. Or that's what I always thought. Turns out that it's a production error, meaning that every single computer that has this particular card eventually overheats because of shoddy workmanship. So I had to pay a lot of money – no guarantee, of course -, didn't have a laptop for three weeks, AND now they tell me that even though it's working again, I should better not do anything too strenuous like playing a video game or, oh, I don't know, watch too many videos. And even if I do all that, chances are that it will break down again within the next year or so, because the problem is essentially still there, and unfixable. Wonderful, really. I would start hating HP, even though it's not really their fault. They just used a bad video card. Grrrrr.

But at least the data was still intact, so here I am! I am also kind of on a roll here, which means that in the time that I couldn't get to parts of this chapter (three weeks!), I planned the rest of the story, complete with times and dates and scenes and stuff. So, we're in chapter 29, right? (which is perversely long, btw) I guess I can say that this story will be about 35-38 chapters long. More or less. Approximately. That's the closest I can get at the moment, but I think it's about right.

So, and here we are, the next chapter is here, and Celylith is back! Yay! (even though I think that the rangers wouldn't necessarily agree) Apart from that, as mentioned, there is more angst than you can shake a stick at, because Haldar and the twins and Legolas start to realise that everything has gone really, REALLY wrong. But they have a plan! Yes, exactly – be afraid, be VERY afraid. *g*

Also, this story is rated PG-13, or whatever equivalent FF-net has come up with. There are good reasons for this. Some of those are discussed in this chapter. So, if the (rather vague, but still) mention and discussion of torture and abuse disturbs you, better skip the middle part. Because, you know, orcs are orcs and act as orcs will. And Skagrosh is not a very nice person at all.

Still, I hope you will enjoy this chapter! Let me know what you think.

Chapter 29

In times of crisis, they said, it all boiled down to two options: Fight or flight. You could also try to freeze and do nothing, but that wasn't really a choice at all because sooner or later you still had to choose one of the two, since doing nothing was never really an option at all.

However, what Haldar had learned the older he got was that there was a third option: Laugh. Or cry, but that was a choice rather unworthy of a ranger. But really, what was he supposed to do sometimes? Chaos had descended around him and had left him apparently the only sane one. In the case of the twins and Prince Legolas, that was nothing new (elves were by nature strange and mercurial), but even reasonable people like Captain Daervagor or Belvathor had fallen prey to this mysterious affliction.

And, Valar, it seemed to be catching, too.

Seeing that he had reached the village square, Haldar reined in his horse and took a second to pat the animal's dusty coat. He brought up his other hand and pinched the bridge of his nose, closing his eyes for a moment. Countless days of surviving on a couple of hours of sleep a night were catching up with him now, not to mention the aftermath of half a bloody day of having so much adrenaline saturate his body that it could probably last him another year or two. He was exhausted, the kind of bone-deep exhaustion that made you want nothing more than curl up and sleep for a week or two.

But no matter how exhausted he was, he knew that he would not sleep tonight. As soon as he closed his eyes, there were pictures flashing through his head, most notably of the men he hadn't been able to save in the end. He knew that it would be a long time before he'd be able to close his eyes without seeing Torthagyl's face in front of him, so serene in death, or Herion's or the faces of all the others. He knew that they'd got off lightly, that it could have been so much worse and that they'd been downright lucky. They had found Halbarad and Estel, and both of them were still alive, if only just, but right now it did not feel like a victory. It felt like everything else had over the past months, like a battle won that preceded the loss of the war.


Haldar almost fell off his horse. Later, he would claim that it was all due to exhaustion and not due to the fact that he had been thoroughly surprised. Partly, it was true, but if he was entirely honest with himself, it was mostly because Hasteth, freak of nature that she was, had suddenly appeared next to his horse out of nowhere, grasping its bridle. Haldar's horse was not the gentlest of creatures – though it did pale next to Prince Legolas' demon horse –, but she knew better than to cross a healer. She tossed her head but did nothing else, and so Haldar clung to the animal's mane and did his best not to let his distant cousin see how close he had come to being unhorsed.

"Hasteth," he acknowledged.

He wanted to say more, but for the life of him, he did not know what. He looked about himself, trying to discover where Captain Daervagor and the elves were dismounting. They had arrived about two minutes ago, but the village had already descended into complete and utter chaos, as any place was wont to do when thirty-one people suddenly appeared without warning, five of them badly wounded and a lot of them with lesser injuries. The only thing he could think of was to point her into the direction of where Halbarad and Estel were, but he couldn't see either of them or the captain, and suddenly his headache was escalating and his eyes felt as if someone had rubbed a handful of gravel into them.

A small but strong hand touched his knee, and he looked down, into the clear grey eyes of Hasteth. Her sharp gaze swept over him and took in his appearance, and her eyes narrowed at what she saw.

"Eru, Haldar, but you look terrible."

Haldar smiled at her while he forced himself to let go of his horse's mane and prepared to dismount.

"Thank you for the vote of confidence, cousin. I can hardly think of anything I would rather hear a healer say to me."

Hasteth didn't look overly apologetic. Then again, she rarely did, and as far as he knew, she didn't overly care about what other people thought about her or her bedside manner.

"You do. Now get off this horse before you fall off, and tell me what is going on here."

Haldar, not to be outdone by his horse in matters of common sense, did as he was told. As soon as his feet touched the ground, he found that he was just as exhausted as he had surmised, and he wasn't overly surprised when his knees buckled without warning. He managed to hold onto his horse's saddle, upsetting the beast, but by the time that Hasteth was reaching for him to steady him, he had regained his equilibrium.

"I am all right," he said, ignoring the small healer's concerned questions. "Truly, I am. We have to find the captain and Lord Elrond's sons. Halbarad and Estel need your help far more urgently than I do."

"You found them?" For a second, Hasteth sounded truly delighted, before she turned her gimlet-eyed stare towards him once more. "You can take me to them in a second, after you have explained to me how you came by this."

She poked him in the chest, just above a cut that he had successfully hidden from both Belvathor and Aravir. That feat would have been slightly more impressive if the two of them hadn't been so preoccupied with saving Estel's and Halbarad's lives. They had noticed his very, very badly bruised forearm, but had clearly discounted it as his just rewards for upsetting distressed elf lords. Hasteth poked him again, more gently now, and glared at him.

"Did someone try to cut your throat?"

Haldar looked down at his chest and the cut running diagonally from his left collarbone down to below his sternum. It had finally stopped bleeding. He had managed to hide it under his cloak the entire day, and yet Hasteth had managed to spy it in under a minute. She really had freakishly sharp eyes, and an iron will that would put the Dark Lord himself to shame. He had once had a nightmare about her using her powers for Evil, but it had been so traumatic that he wasn't inclined to try and recall any details.

"Haldar?" the healer demanded again, apparently quite unperturbed by the way that people hastened to and fro behind her back. "Did someone try to cut your throat?"

Haldar tore his eyes away from the wound and the crystal-clear memory of a long orcish knife arcing towards him and shook his head slightly to disperse it before he looked up.

"Yes," he said curtly. "Someone did, unsuccessfully as you can see. I was faster."

Hasteth, being no stranger to violence, didn't flinch at that. She only glared at him a little more evilly, as if this was all his fault, and pushed the cloak to the side, raising dark eyebrows as the wound was more fully revealed.

"This is deep, Haldar," she said, letting the cloak fall back into place. "You will need a few stitches at least. Let me..."

"No," Haldar interrupted her as gently as he could and pushed her hands away. It wasn't hard, considering that she was at least a foot shorter than him. He wobbled for a second, his other hand reaching blindly for his stirrup, but he managed to regain his footing before Hasteth could swoop down (or rather, up) on him like an avenging beast of Mordor. "No, Hasteth, I am fine. It will keep. I promise you I will come to you later and submit to any treatment you deem necessary, but now we have to look for the captain and the others. Believe me when I tell you that Lord Elrond's sons need you, and urgently so."

Hasteth, the Valar bless her stubborn little heart, did not argue.

"All right," she conceded. "Now, tell me what happened."

Haldar ignored the request and took a moment to lead his horse over to the side and tie the reins to a pole next to a trough in front of one of his houses. Giving the animal one last pat, he turned and started to all but drag Hasteth back towards the chaos behind them. His cousin would have none of it, of course. She stopped in the middle of the village square and grabbed the arm of one of the rangers hurrying past them. The man, who was even taller than Haldar, looked down at the small woman standing in front of him in surprise but was silenced by the look of menace that she directed at him. It said quite eloquently that yes, she was at least a full head shorter than him, but that she was a being of limited patience who possessed the unparalleled ability to make his life miserable.

The man all but gulped as he recognised her. Haldar felt vaguely insulted, because even he, in authority second only to Captain Daervagor now that the commander was dead, couldn't have achieved this kind of instant obedience in under two seconds. You had to be a healer or a power-hungry megalomaniac, he guessed, knowing that the two were in no way mutually exclusive.

"Healer?" the ranger asked politely, which contrasted starkly with the yelled questions and shouts and the chaos of people and horses hurrying to and fro in the flickering light of a multitude of torches.

"Where is the captain?" Hasteth asked, drawing herself up to her full height.

"I..." the man began, but Hasteth cut him off almost immediately.

"We must find him now," she stressed. "You must take us to him and the elves immediately. And you," her hand snatched the sleeve of a boy just hurrying past, "find my apprentice and bring him to us. We will be with the captain and Lord Elrond's sons. Tell him to bring me the large brown chest; he will know which one I mean." The boy blinked at her, and she released him and gave him a little push. "Quickly now, lad!"

The boy nodded and ran off, and Hasteth turned back to the man in front of her, eyebrows arched in a way that clearly stated that she did not understand why he was still just standing there. The man gently extricated his arm from her grip, clearly afraid he might receive a push himself, and gave her a somewhat nervous smile.

"I saw them over at Commander Cemendur's ... I mean, at Bania's house a couple of minutes ago," he said. "I can take you, if you wish it."

"No." Hasteth shook her head, already turning into the direction of the building in question. "We'll be fine. Find one of the elders and tell them that I need hot water and the brightest lamps and candles brought to Bania's house."

The man nodded his assent and was gone a moment later, and Haldar had to hurry his steps to catch up with his cousin who was already several steps ahead of him. Within moments they had wound their way around horses and rangers and villagers and reached the other side of the square. It took only a few seconds longer to reach the house in question, yet getting to the entrance proved a much more difficult venture since there was more than half a dozen horses blocking the way. Stepping around the agitated animals, Haldar pushed Hasteth in front of him and herded her towards the entrance, ignoring the annoyed look that she shot him. The mere thought of having to report to his family that he had allowed Hasteth to be trampled to death by a panicked horse was enough for cold sweat to appear on his forehead.

They managed to avoid death by agitated horse and reached the door that was guarded by Tarcil and Tinalad. The two young rangers gave him a nod and Hasteth a slight bow, and the door was opened before they had even reached it. Hasteth accepted such behaviour as her due and swept past them without a word, but Haldar stopped next to them, placing one hand on the carved wooden door-jamb in a manner that he hoped looked nonchalant instead of exhausted.

"Well?" he prompted, hoping that the word itself would be sufficient. The doorpost was reassuringly solid, and the exhaustion inside of him reared its ugly head once more and threatened to drag him under. For the moment, he really wasn't up to formulating more complex questions.

The two young men seemed to understand, and judging by the way they were using the wall of the house or, in Tinalad's case his spear, to remain upright, they were feeling as wrecked as he.

"They were still alive when they were brought inside a few minutest ago," Tarcil answered for the two of them, instinctively grasping what he wanted to know most of all. "Halbarad slightly more so than Estel, or so I understand."

Haldar felt how his heart did a somersault inside his chest.

"What are you saying, Tarcil?"

Tarcil, realising that he was moving on thin ice that was right now cheerfully splintering under his very feet, shrugged and looked beseechingly at Tinalad, who clearly refused to do anything but guard the door. Talking to irate superiors, his expression stated, had not been part of the deal.

"You know that I know nothing about the healing arts," the younger ranger told him. "I do not have the ... aptitude ... for it. But I have seen enough injuries, Haldar. He is in a bad way, even worse, I'd say, than he was when we got him out of the cave. The ride here has not helped matters at all."

Eru Ilúvatar, yes, the slow ride here, Haldar mused, his grasp on the door-jamb tightening. The elves had almost come to blows over the question of whether or not it ought to be attempted at all. Neither Halbarad or Estel nor the other two wounded rangers hovering between life and death had been up for it, but in the end, all of them (and even Prince Legolas) had agreed that they really didn't have any choice. If they didn't try to make it back to the village, they would have to make camp somewhere close to the cave system, where the four of them might very well die during the night no matter what.

Haldar was reasonably sure that he would never forget even a single second that he had spent in the cave, most prominently the moments when he had stood next to the prince in the cavern with the underground lake and faced the orc captain, Estel hanging lifelessly and bloody in the creature's grasp. He would never forget the unholy light gleaming in the orc's eyes as it looked down upon its broken captive. He didn't pretend to understand how this particular orc thought or acted, nor did he want to, but there was one thing he did know: This orc was vicious and determined and it was clever, and if they gave it even the slightest chance, it would find them and have the horde slaughter every single one of them during the night.

The best they could have hoped for then would have been for Estel and Halbarad to die with them and not to be recaptured. And really, those weren't very good options even by the standards of their company.

"No, it wouldn't have, would it," he muttered, mostly to himself. The ride itself had been a nightmare of urgency and fear and checking repeatedly that the makeshift litters didn't come apart at the seams, but it had been necessary and they had made it. Though he had to admit that the last two hours had taken at least a decade off his life. He shook himself and determinedly pushed the memory away. "The captain and the elves are within?"

Tarcil looked at him as if he had asked the most stupid thing imaginable, and, actually, he just might have.

"They are," he affirmed. "Bania left to find Hasteth, which," he shrugged, "is rather superfluous now. The captain ordered us to stay here and keep everybody out." Haldar raised his eyebrows, and Tarcil hurried to add, "But I am sure he did not mean you, Haldar."

Haldar almost smiled. Tarcil was strangely squeamish when it came to injuries – highly unusual for a ranger, really –, but he wasn't stupid.

"What about Belvathor?" he asked.

"He is trying to figure out where to put the rest of the injured," Tinalad spoke up, idly scratching a cut running diagonally down his left cheek. Fresh blood trickled down the side of his face and disappeared into his already matted beard, and the father in Haldar wanted to slap his hand away and scold him. "One of the more seriously wounded did not look good at all. I think Belvathor will have him brought here so that the elves can try ... whatever it is they do."

Whatever it was that the elves did, Haldar reflected. He didn't really know himself what 'it' was, but he didn't really care anyway. As long as they saved Halbarad and Estel, they could be performing unspeakable rituals of dark magic for all that it mattered to him.

"All right," he said instead of voicing these thoughts. He knew that he should try and establish some sense of order, possibly before the village just imploded, but, Valar, it was hard to think. "Hasteth sent for her apprentice a few minutes ago. He should be here soon with supplies, and somebody else should be bringing candles and lamps and hot water and Eru knows what else. Escort them in, but make sure to announce your presence beforehand. If one of the elders wishes to enter, please come and fetch me; the same goes for Belvathor. For anybody else, this house is off-limits until the captain or I say otherwise. Understood?"

The two of them nodded. Haldar wasn't entirely sure if their wordless acquiescence was due to his natural authority (unlikely), their own weariness (more likely) or their fear of Captain Daervagor and the elves (infinitely more likely). Right now, he didn't even care. Haldar gave both of them a nod as he reluctantly pushed off the door-jamb, cursing silently at the quite incredible pain shooting through his bruised forearm, and made his way inside.

For a second, the cosiness of the small, unlit entrance hall perplexed him. Haldar hesitated, but then he got a hold of himself and told himself he was being an idiot, because Bania's home was small and there was only one place where they could have brought Estel and Halbarad: The lounge, where the commander's body had been laid out before the funeral and where Captain Daervagor had kept watch during the night.

Haldar walked down the short corridor towards the light and noise emanating from the lounge, but even if he had wanted to enter the room, he would have been quite unable to do so. He was equally unable to keep his mouth from dropping open in astonishment, because if he had thought that outside there had been chaos ... well, this was worse.

It was not what one would call 'chaos' per se, of course. He wasn't sure if Elves tolerated chaos at all – he rather doubted it –, but he was sure that sons of Elrond didn't, especially not in front of him. So, the term 'ordered activity with a very, very strong, underlying sense of panic' would probably be more appropriate. Haldar swallowed, his throat going very dry. Before, he had been too busy and stressed to really pay attention, but the sense of panicked fear was so strong in here that it hit him like a wave of cold water.

He had seen the elves fight in the caves, and while their fury had been terrible to behold, this was a thousand times worse.

Haldar frowned, trying to figure out how seven people, two of them unconscious and grievously injured, fitted into the small room without adding yet another wounded one to the count. Somebody – Haldar guessed one of the elves – had pushed the few pieces of furniture over to the side where they remained, looking unsteady and crooked. The space that had thus been cleared was mostly occupied by the two stretchers and what looked like most of the medical supplies between here and the Misty Mountains. How the elves, Captain Daervagor and Hasteth were not standing on top of each other, Haldar seriously did not know.

Haldar remained where he was, leaning against the open door. The captain and Hasteth were kneeling next to the one stretcher he supposed was Halbarad's, while the Lords Elladan and Elrohir were crouching next to the other one, half-obscuring the two dúnedain behind them. Prince Legolas was hovering somewhere in the middle, looking as much out of place as Haldar felt, but projecting a sense of fierce purpose that very clearly said that he didn't intend to move even an inch in the near future. As Haldar was watching, one of the twins – he had given up trying to figure who was who once and for all – moved to the side and stood, taking with him the long grey cloak that had been serving as a blanket.

Haldar felt how all blood left his face in a rush. He wasn't squeamish and he had even seen worse injuries in his time – granted, most of those had been on dead men, but the fact remained. The only thing that still made him feel sick to his stomach was to see women or children hurt, and no matter how much he still thought of Estel as a very, very young man, he was hardly a child. It wasn't even that he hadn't seen him since they'd found him; he had, of course, but the boy had always been surrounded by Lord Elrond's sons and his friend and his body had been covered with cloaks and bandages and so he had hardly caught more than a glimpse or two.

As it turned out, that had been a kindness. He wasn't squeamish, Haldar repeated to himself firmly, he really wasn't, but this ... this really only awoke inside of him the kind of cold, decisive fury he had earlier seen on the twins' faces. If there had been an orc nearby, he would have cheerfully torn its head from its shoulders. Things being as they were, Haldar was left to bitterly accuse himself.

This should never have happened. He should have found a way to prevent this, even though, honestly, he had no idea how he should have managed it. If Estel – no, he thought almost defiantly, if Aragorn, son of Arathorn – died tonight and the Line of the Kings with him, then it would by extension be his, Haldar's, fault. He had brought the boy here from Rivendell, or had at least not prevented him from coming. He had not made him return home when it became clear that they were all in over their heads and in danger. The boy was not even twenty-four years old, but he, he was almost fifty. He should have known so much better.

Ilúvatar above. Lord Elrond would kill him if he ever saw him again.

Then again, he amended quickly, maybe the elf lord would be cheated of that pleasure, because his sons would pre-empt him. The twin who had just stood up was making his way over to him, managing not to step on anything or anybody else in a way that had to be elven trickery. He was still holding the blood-stained, slightly torn cloak that seemed to belong to his brother or him, and in Haldar's eyes he was looking as if he was right now contemplating letting go of it to wrap his fingers around Haldar's throat instead.

Right now, Haldar would have let him.

"Haldar," the elf said. Haldar decided that it was Lord Elladan, not his more diplomatic brother, simply because of the dark, impatient sparkle in his deep grey eyes. "Mistress Hasteth said that her apprentice should be arriving momentarily?"

"He should," Haldar assented, inordinately relieved that a strangulation attempt seemed to have been given up for now. "But the village is in an uproar, and he might need another few minutes." The elf's eyes narrowed in obvious displeasure that deepened as his twin hissed something in Elvish under his breath that sounded suspiciously like a curse, and Haldar hurried to add, "Several others are seeking him as we speak. Tinalad and Tarcil and standing guard at the front door, and they will let him pass as soon as he gets here."

The elf looked unimpressed. Haldar didn't mind, since that was the other's default expression when in his presence.

"I hope he hurries," the older twin said, in a tone of voice that suggested that he was already planning just what he could do to the boy in case that he didn't. "Mistress Hasteth needs all the help that she can get." He paused, then added, softly, "And so do we."

Haldar looked at him and the heartfelt, soul-deep worry and fear in his eyes, and for the first time since he could remember, he truly felt for the elf. They had started off on the wrong foot, Lord Elrond's sons and him, with them unable to forget that he was the one who had dragged their little brother away from the safety of Rivendell and with him ... well. It had taken a while until he had admitted it to himself, but a part of Haldar saw the two elves as a substitute for every one of the Firstborn who had taken Estel – or rather, Aragorn, son of Arathorn – from his people and the life he should have led. The two of them had the kind of relationship with Aragorn that, by rights, should have belonged to Halbarad as his cousin, or – in a more perfect world – to any additional children Lady Gilraen might have borne her husband. Rationally, he knew that Estel was happy, and that Lord Elrond and his people had given him the kind of safe, protected upbringing that the Rangers never could have, but the boy should have been with them, with his people, with humans.

It sounded terrible even in the privacy of his own mind, and it was not meant entirely as narrow-minded as that. But at least part of the boy's problems in general, and most definitely a large part of his problems with the captain, had its source in the fact that, at the end of the day, he was too elvish. Estel spoke Sindarin and Quenya better than he spoke Westron, Haldar knew that for a fact, and in his way of thinking and his manners and his air he was entirely too much like his foster-brothers. He even resembled the twins, slender and dark-haired and grey-eyed as he was, but while those were characteristics shared with a vast majority of the Dúnedain in general, there sometimes was a light in his eyes that was, frankly speaking, not entirely human. It was just too intense for a man, whispering of joy and pain and darkness and wrath and kindness and despair and love, all wrapped up into one fell glimmer, and the paradox was enough to give Haldar a headache. How Elves managed this and stayed sane throughout eternity, he did not know, but a half-grown boy certainly shouldn't be able to project such an air.

But it wasn't his place to judge and he really tried not to, and so he had accepted the elves' hostility in as graceful a manner as he could manage. But now, for the first time, Haldar felt his heart to go out to one of the elf-lord's sons, because the utter misery in Lord Elladan's eyes was the same he himself had felt when his brother Belen had been found dead. He might not truly understand the ties that bound these two immortal beings to his dead captain's son, but the naked fear and pain in the elf's eyes was something he could relate to only too well.

"Tell me what to do, my lord," Haldar said softly, trying to communicate his willingness to help without making it sound too much like pity. "Whatever I can do to help you or your brother, I will do it gladly." He swallowed and lifted his gaze, locking eyes with the still elf, and said what, under any other circumstances, would have felt entirely too much like the oath he had given his captain when he had pledged his life and service to the Rangers. "Command me, my lord, and my men and I will do what you ask, whatever you ask."

Lord Elrond's son looked at him for what felt like an eternity, and Haldar felt as if the two of them were alone in the small, cramped room. Then the elf blinked and the sounds of the small sitting room washed over them again, and Haldar watched as he inclined his head the tiniest bit. For the first time, he felt as if he hadn't been weighed and found wanting in some fundamental way.

"There is nothing you can do, ranger, and nothing your men can do either," Lord Elladan said in that flat, dead tone of voice that was so much worse than anger ever could have been. "And I am not sure that there is anything Elrohir or I can do, either."

"My lord..." Haldar began, feeling how his throat closed up in sheer terror.

"He is still alive, Haldar," the elf hurriedly went on. "But there are limits to our abilities. My brother is more gifted in the healing arts than I am, more gifted than your cousin or young Belvathor, surely, but he is not my father. I most certainly am not."

"But surely you..."

Haldar trailed off once more, unable to put his thoughts into words. He was not stupid, however, and he knew as well as the next ranger about the healing abilities that the Heirs of Elendil were said to possess. He knew that Estel must have harnessed that power, and successfully at that, for all that it could have killed him. It wasn't the athelas alone, of course; any idiot could throw a few dried leaves into boiling water. In lesser hands, it was just a sweet-smelling herb that eased pain and promoted healing, and not the powerful, almost miraculous tool that it could be when used by the Heirs of Númenor.

But surely the sons of Elrond must possess some of that power as well? They were the boy's cousins, after all, many generations removed, and ... Valar they were the sons of Elrond. The elf-lord possessed healing powers beyond those of even the most gifted of his long-dead twin brother's descendants, and he must have passed some of them on to his sons. Haldar refused to believe anything else. They were elves, they were Lord Elrond's sons, they would save Estel, and the sun rose in the East.

The alternative was far too terrible to entertain, for all of them.

Lord Elrond's older son looked at him, almost sympathetically, and Haldar once again witnessed how age-old understanding clashed with eternal youth in the Eldar.

"We are not without some power, Master Ranger," the elf said quietly. "We need time, and athelas, and all our skills and all the luck in Middle-earth, but we will do whatever we can and whatever we must to save our brother. His injuries are terrible, but he is strong and stubborn and has much to live for. With any other man, this couldn't possibly be enough, but I know my little brother, and I know that he would never let an orc get the best of him. And," he added, with the sort of steely, terrible determination that, in the time of his ancestors, had brought entire realms to their knees and re-shaped the known world, "I will be damned if I allow them to take him from us as well. That – will – not – happen."

Haldar, like any other ranger worth their salt, knew – in bare essentials, mind you – what had happened to Lord Elrond's wife these many centuries ago. It had been long before his time, before his great-grandfather's time, even, but the consequences of Lady Celebrían's departure (namely the twins trying to kill every orc on this side of the Misty Mountains and themselves in the process) had been embedded in the collective memory of the Rangers. Everybody knew that an enraged elf-lord was something terrible to behold, but in just a few short years the twins had managed to set new standards. And – of this Haldar was very, very certain – losing their mother to the Undying Lands would be nothing compared to the twins losing their human brother to the Gift of Men, here and now and in this way.

"Then tell me what I can do, my lord," he said, as determined as the elf in front of him that Estel live and that the orcs not win this. They wouldn't, and before this was over, he would rip out the heart of that thrice-cursed orc captain through his bloody throat, and that was a promise. "I know that I am no healer, but there must be something I can do to help."

The elf cocked his head a little to the side before he quickly turned back to look at his brother, who had just muttered another curse. The kneeling twin shifted to the side in an attempt to hold both onto a bandage he had either just applied or was in the process of unwrapping and a small crystal vial filled with a dark liquid, and Haldar could see a glimpse of a heavily stained bandage wrapped around Estel's right thigh. The cold anger in his stomach turned into an even denser little knot of pure fury, and Haldar had to avert his eyes and take a deep breath. Maybe he should ask Lord Celylith for advice on how to kill the orc captain in as painful a way as imaginable; if he judged the silver-haired elf correctly, he was someone who was willing to invest a lot of thought and planning into such matters.

Lord Elladan turned back to look at him, grey eyes shadowed, and seemed to reach a decision.

"Actually," he began, "there might be something you can do to help. Except make sure that nobody comes in here and starts asking questions, that is."

'Asking questions', the elf made clear by his tone of voice, was in this case a sin equal to Collaborating With the Dark Lord, if not worse.

"Tinalad and Tarcil will let no one but the elders pass," Haldar reiterated. "And even they will not be allowed to come in here without your express permission."

The elf nodded soundlessly. He turned his head, suddenly looking shifty, and Haldar felt how – even after everything that had happened over the past few days – cold sweat broke out all over his body. Elves were problematic to deal with as a general rule, but shifty elves were nothing short of a catastrophe impatiently waiting to happen. Lord Elrond's son glanced behind him again, and this time Haldar realised that he wasn't looking at his brother or Hasteth or the captain, who was kneeling on the ground with his unconscious son's head in his lap, but at Prince Legolas. Haldar would have liked to close his eyes. He had seen terrible things today and killed quite a lot of orcs, but he was not desperate or exhausted enough yet to gladly tangle with King Thranduil's son and heir.

"We need more space, Master Ranger," Lord Elladan said. "And we will have to do a few things in the course of the treatment that will be ... unpleasant. If you would take the prince with you when you left, we would be most grateful. If you could convince the captain to leave as well, it would be ideal, but I would rather expect a Nazgûl to see the error of his ways."

Haldar raised his eyebrows at the elf, for a moment quite incapable of speaking. Hasteth's apprentice, a skinny boy of about eighteen or twenty years, chose this moment to burst into the room, a large wooden chest cradled in his arms, but he did nothing more than give both of them a nod. He shouldered his way past them and made his way to Hasteth's side.

"I think," Haldar said, trying to choose his words carefully, "that the chances of a Nazgûl seeing the error of his ways are much, much more greater than those of the captain leaving Halbarad's side."

"I know," the elf admitted. "He can do nothing to help us, really, and there are things I would not wish him to witness, but I have known Daervagor since he was a lad of three years of age. He is as terminally stubborn as Estel. I would not ask you to attempt the impossible, son of Baranor."

"Yet you ask me to attempt to separate Prince Legolas from the rest of you," Haldar retorted. "I have to admit that I do not know him as well as you do, but I doubt he'll see the logic of any argument I could raise with him. You might as well ask me tame a fell beast of Mordor."

"Come now," the elf muttered, more to himself. "That would be far easier and hardly a challenge at all."

Haldar shot him a look that would have caused even the most battle-hardened human warrior to quiver in his boots. Half-elven warriors, however, were made of sterner stuff, and the elf only looked back at him, completely unimpressed.

"I will convince him," Lord Elladan went on. "You just have to take him with you and deliver him into Belvathor's waiting arms." Haldar must have looked openly disbelieving at that, because he added, "Diving into freezing lakes while you're still recuperating from serious injuries is, as it turns out, not a very intelligent thing to do, even if you are an elf." He frowned, mock-thoughtfully. "Come to think of it, though, it is a very Silvan thing to do."

Haldar knew far better than to get involved in the eternal Noldorin vs. Sindarin/Silvan Elves battle that had probably been raging between the sons of Elrond and Prince Legolas ever since some well-meaning but ultimately misguided person had introduced the three of them a couple of millennia ago. Whoever that person had been – personally, he suspected King Thranduil or the fabled Lord Glorfindel, because Lord Elrond Peredhil was one of the Wise and simply wouldn't do something like that –, Haldar was very certain that they deeply regretted it by now.

Oh yes, he thought, suddenly distracted, it was highly likely that it had been Lord Glorfindel. Judging by what he had heard about him, that would have been something the golden-haired warrior would have considered funny, and probably some sort of epic payback for transgressions long past..

"I will make him see reason," Lord Elladan went on, oblivious to his thoughts. "If I am not successful, I will let Elrohir have a go. That should do it."

Haldar was still not convinced, but he knew better than to show it. Besides, just then Lord Elrohir shot him a quick look that clearly conveyed the idea that his presence here was at best a nuisance, if not a true disturbance that would have to be dealt with in a very definite way. It also eloquently stated that the younger twin considered him, Haldar, to be responsible for his brother's short moment of distraction, which just wasn't fair in Haldar's opinion.

"All right," he finally gave in. "I will take him to Belvathor, wherever he may be. I will even do my best to convince him to stay there. The rest is up to you, my lord."

'And good luck to you, too,' was what he didn't say, but he probably thought it so loudly that the elf in front of him had no problem hearing him. Lord Elladan shot him what could only be called a filthy look, narrowed his eyes at him and turned on his heel.

The next few minutes were the most uncomfortable of his entire life, and he did count the first time he had been dressed down by Captain Daervagor as a very young warrior, the interview with his father-in-law when he had asked for his daughter's hand in marriage, and, more recently, the indeterminable time spent in the orc cave. Lord Elladan and Prince Legolas were arguing in hushed, quick Quenya, a language of which Haldar understood a handful of words at best (and most of them of the kind best not to be repeated in front of ladies), complete with angry hand movements and the kind of heated looks that should have set each other's hair aflame.

The argument was slightly hampered by the fact that the older twin had returned to his brother's side and was doing medical things that Haldar, a man with a rather deep-seated aversion to healers, refused to contemplate, especially considering to whom they were being done. Captain Daervagor had been snapped out of his trance sufficiently for him to be handing Hasteth and her apprentice whatever tool they needed, but he was steadfastly ignoring the three elves, if he was even aware of their presence. Hasteth's young apprentice was too awed and busy to do more than bow his curly head and concentrate on his work, and Hasteth liberally divided her displeased looks between all three of them. Still, considering that Lord Elladan was convincing the son of King Thranduil to do something he very much didn't want to do, it took no time at all. It couldn't have been more than maybe a minute before the fair-haired elf hissed something that couldn't be anything but a heated insult of the twins' character and heritage, threw them both an evil glare that both of them ignored, and stalked over to the door. It wasn't easy to stalk across a completely packed room without stepping on anybody, but for an elf it seemed to be no problem at all.

A moment later Haldar flattened himself against the wall so the elf could move past him into the hallway. The elf stopped next to him, looking back into the small room, eyes riveted on the two dark-haired elves who once again almost completely obscured the too-still form of their human brother. Haldar saw that the area around the elven prince's right eye was heavily bruised. The dark discolouration covered the entire cheekbone and disappeared into the blond hair that had long ago escaped its neat braids and now hung down onto the elf's shoulders in a wild and rather un-elven tangle.

The prince didn't seem to want to move, and so Haldar weighed the possibility of death-by-elven-knife against the need to find Belvathor and the promise he had given the older twin. It was a close call, because death-by-elven-knife would be an exceedingly stupid way to die after everything that had happened, but duty won in the end. He gently and carefully placed a hand on the elf's shoulder and removed it just as quickly when he felt the other stiffen at the touch.

"Come, my lord," he said in his most reassuring tone of voice. "We need to go. We are blocking the way."

First, he thought the elf hadn't heard him or was purposefully ignoring him, but then Prince Legolas turned, and his look of fear and pain and helplessness and soul-deep, banked fury was so terrible and familiar that whatever Haldar had wanted to say curled up and died before the words had even formed. For a moment, the proud and cool exterior that the elven prince wore like a mantle cracked, and Haldar glimpsed the profound misery that was written in every line of the elf's body.

"All this, and we still might lose him," Prince Legolas said, eyes huge and silver-blue and pained like he had never seem them. "I cannot help him. He lies there, dying, and I cannot help him."

Haldar wasn't yet fifty years old, but he had seen many people die, his comrades and his opponents and those whose only crime had been being at the wrong place at the wrong time. No matter how often he had had to stand by and watch and do nothing, he still didn't know what to say to comfort those left behind. The older he got, the more he suspected that there simply wasn't anything anyone could say.

"No, you cannot," he finally simply said. "And neither can I. We will have to trust in Lord Elrond's sons."

"I do," the elf told him. It sounded very much as if he was trying to convince himself. "I do, I really do. The twins have saved my life more times than I can count. But..."

He trailed off. The cool mask reappeared in an instant, though now that Haldar knew what to look for, he could still see the stress and fear and sheer underlying terror on the elf's face. The prince turned away, unable or unwilling to look at either the room or Haldar anymore, and the move was so oddly reminiscent of the ranger's young son when he was wishing for the monster to go away that he had to close his eyes for a second and clear his throat.

"Come, your Highness," he said once more, taking a last look at the room and its occupants. Hasteth seemed to have things more or less in hand, but the twins' shoulders were tense, and he could see Lord Elrohir's hands as they pressed down on something, both of them covered in blood almost to the wrist. Then the other elf moved across his line of sight, and Haldar turned away. "We would only distract them now. Let us help those we can help."

The set line of the elf's bruised jaw said what he really thought of that, but he was a warrior and a leader and Mirkwood's crowned prince, and Haldar suspected that there wasn't much that he didn't know about sacrifice. A silent nod was all Haldar received and all he had expected, but both of them stopped when the door at the far end of the corridor opened and Tarcil ushered in a man and a woman. The man carried what had to be the world's largest pitcher of steaming water and two large basins, and the woman an armful of lamps and candles. Tarcil looked at Haldar questioningly, and he nodded, gesturing at them to come closer. The prince and he quickly moved down the narrow hallway and into the small entrance hall to let them pass.

The two villagers moved past them with only a nervous look at the prince and a nod at him, and soon after Haldar heard Hasteth's voice, probably telling them where to put their burdens. Not waiting for the villagers to return, Tarcil nodded at the two of them and stepped back out.

Haldar was about to follow him, thinking that he should get a move on before his body decided to sabotage all future action by fainting where he stood, when he found himself stopped by the look that Prince Legolas gave him, eyes unreadable in the darkness of the small entrance hall.

"I wanted to..." the elf began. He shook his head and ploughed on, determined. "Thank you, Haldar, for all that you did for him. We have not always seen eye to eye in the past, I know, but … thank you. Without you or your men, we would not have found him."

Before Haldar could come up with a reply, the elf had moved past him and opened the front door. The noise from outside came rushing into the small space, and Haldar found himself arrested by it for a second, unable to move with his body screaming in exhaustion and pain and his mind reeling with fear and urgency and what could only be termed well-suppressed terror.

He knew that he should be pleased by the elf's words, that this was proof that the prince may not wish for him to die a fiery death and soon, at that, but he couldn't bring himself to care. Unless Estel did the impossible and lived, unless Halbarad and he beat all the odds and cheated death and probability and maybe fate, none of this would matter, because they would still have lost them and the war and their people's entire future with them.

And the elves … well, they would tear themselves and the whole Angle apart in their desire for revenge, and he would only be able to stand aside and watch the inevitable unfold.

Well, he thought savagely as he followed the elf outside and into the chaos enveloping the village, that would not be a pretty sight, but it would be a monument worthy of the last of the Line of the Kings. It would be something that no pyre and no memorial, no matter how magnificent, would ever be able to match, because they were Lord Elrond Peredhil's and King Thranduil's sons and of the ruling Houses of the Noldor and the Sindar and what they didn't know about vengeance was not worth knowing.

That thought should have been far more comfort than it actually was, and all Haldar could do was keep his hand steady as he gently closed the door behind him.

It was another two hours or so until dawn, and Legolas couldn't have slept if his life depended on it.

If one was to believe Hasteth, Belvathor and the other healers, he needed rest. Legolas almost snorted rather inelegantly. He was his father's son and, almost more importantly, frequent patient of Hithrawyn, his father's (insane) master healer at the palace, and was therefore rather immune to the threats of healers, be they elven or human or Dúnedain. It was a fact that he knew annoyed Lady Gaerîn and the other healers of Rivendell to no end.

But really, if you had seen Mirkwood's master healer and Lord Elrond in a rage, what more was there that could possibly scare you? Not a lot, really. Compared to that, not even Hasteth was worth losing any sleep over.

If he could have slept, of course.

Legolas sighed and leaned his head against the wooden pole that was already more or less holding the rest of his body upright. The very last thing he needed now was to collapse where the stood, or rather leaned. If he collapsed before the rangers did, he would most likely die of the shame of it. Haldar at least was still up and conscious, even though the man had been ordered by his cousin to sit down and rest. It had been rather amusing to watch the tall dúnadan being reprimanded by Hasteth, but it had quickly ceased being so when the woman had rounded on him.

So he had suffered to have his own injuries seen to, mostly because it would do Mirkwood's reputation no good to be seen running away from a human woman who didn't even come up to his sternum. Said injuries turned out to be far more numerous than he had realised, which didn't come as much of a surprise because ever since he had seen Estel tumble over the edge of that lake he had stopped really seeing anything else. The scene was being replayed in his mind over and over again, slowed to a fraction of its actual speed and with the shock and surprise on the young man's face standing out against the background like the light of a candle in a dark room.

He had got him out of the water, Legolas knew that, and he had even managed to get the reckless idiot to start breathing again, but that didn't seem to matter. That one scene was crystal-clear in his mind, branded into the insides of his eyelids, and small matters like sword cuts and bruises and reopened stitches and old burn wounds paled into insignificance against it.

For a human, his injuries would have been bad enough to condemn him to a lengthy recuperation in some lonely bed or other, but for an elf – and a driven elf at that –, they were nothing but an inconvenience that had to be dealt with, but briefly, please. Hasteth and Belvathor had fussed and tutted at each other in outrage, but when they had tried to make him lie down and rest, they had come up against the steely resolve that was entirely Thranduilesque, at least according to the twins. There was no way, absolutely no way at all, that he would rest before he knew what was going on in that little house right next to him. The stray thought carried him to the memory of small dark rooms and despair and grief that hung thickly above the entire dwelling, speaking of Bania's loss that was still so recent. Worse still, it conjured up the sight of the twins' eyes, wide and bright with panic.

If their past experiences were anything to go by, then scenes of blood, chaos and imminent doom were nothing new for Elladan and Elrohir. He had seen them in said scenes of blood, chaos and imminent doom more times than he could count, more times than were conducive to the peace of mind to either of their fathers. And yet he really couldn't remember a time when they had looked so horrified, down to the very cores of their being. He had worn that look himself and seen it on the faces of his warriors, namely whenever any of them had been crouching next to a dying comrade and desperately been trying to soothe them, telling them in disregard of all reality and truth that everything would be all right, shhh, relax, close your eyes, the healers will be here in a moment.

An iron hand closed around his heart and squeezed, and Legolas pushed off the pole, the weakness of his body forgotten. Sharp pain erupted in his left side and shot up into his shoulder joint and down his left leg as the freshly-sewn cut was jostled by the sudden movement, and the leg threatened to give out. Legolas ignored it and deliberately took a step as if daring his body to quit now, eyes squeezed shut against the images of too many dead elves, people he had been responsible for, and, more painful yet, the image of Estel's broken and bloody body and the horror and panic and soul-deep fear in the twins' grey eyes.

Elladan and Elrohir didn't panic. They just didn't. They were old and experienced enough to deal with almost anything, and he knew what it meant to see them like this, so utterly lost. He wanted to deny it, to tell himself that they were their father's sons and could help anybody recover from anything, but it just wasn't true. Nobody was all-powerful and omniscient, and no one was truly immortal save Eru and the Valar. Elves died and Maiar died, and so did stubborn humans in whose veins flowed blood of the both of them.

Black hopelessness rose up to envelop him, and Legolas took another step forward until he bumped against a horse box, one of three that made up the small stables next to Bania's house. A graceful white head immediately appeared next to him, bright eyes studying him intensely, and he didn't even think before he leaned his dishevelled head against Rashwe's neck. The horse's white coat gleamed even in the sparse light that the single lamp hanging next to the entrance cast, and Legolas closed his eyes and breathed in the smell of horse and hay and a lush summer night. He felt the pulse throb strongly in the animal's neck, and only his pride stopped him from opening the box's door and throwing his arms around Rashwe's neck.

If the horse could have patted his head, it would have, he was sure about it. Things being as they were, Rashwe merely nosed his right shoulder in a calming manner, and Legolas found himself smiling against his will.

"It's a trick," a voice behind him announced, and Legolas felt how the breath caught in his throat. It wasn't embarrassment – he dared anybody, and that included the twins, to comment on his behaviour – and it wasn't surprise, but rather the kind of dread that paralysed you in mid-motion. "It's only pretending to like you. Next thing you know, it will be trying to bite through your carotid artery. The next step would be taking over this part of Middle-earth."

Legolas slowly turned towards the voice, cheek still pressed against Rashwe's reassuring warmth. True, his body was close to complete rebellion, but he couldn't have mistaken that voice.

"Elrohir," he began, taking a step to the side and ignoring Rashwe's irritated snort, "you know that I love you like a brother, but I swear on my mother's own name that..."

"He is alive," the dark-haired elf quickly supplied, pre-empting whatever Legolas had wished to threaten him with. "For what it's worth, he is that."

Legolas took another step closer to where the other elf was standing next to the crooked door of the stable, all weakness and pain forgotten for the moment. His left leg and the rest of him knew better than to bother him right now, and if he hadn't had the dull memory of pain and weakness and trembling muscles, he might have forgotten about the injury completely.

"Elrohir," he repeated, for once not caring at all how pleading and desperate he really sounded. "Please."

The dark-haired elf took a step forward, and in the flickering light of the small oil lamp Legolas could see that there were dark circles under his eyes. They were almost black and so deep that he looked as if someone had punched him in the face, repeatedly and very hard. His hair was even more dishevelled than Legolas' own, a rat's nest of tangles, half-braided tresses, a few leaves and what looked like caked blood. There was dried blood under his fingernails, too, and Legolas felt how his heart skipped another beat.

Elrohir held his gaze for a moment, eyes blank and large and grey as slate, before he lowered his head, all strength seemingly draining out of his body.

"What do you want me to say, Legolas? That he will be all right? That everything will be just fine? I can't. Elbereth knows that I want to, but I can't."

Irrational anger surged inside of Legolas, and he glared at the other elf, silver-blue eyes flashing.

"Is that what you think, Elrohir? That I want you to lie to me? That I want you to protect me from the terrible truth that I couldn't possibly bear?"

He took a wobbly step closer to to his friend, but stopped short of invading his personal space. That would not end well, not in the mood the two of them were in at the moment.

"I will let you in on a secret, Elrohir, ion Imladris. I am the crown prince of Mirkwood. I have led our forces into battle more times than I can count. I have lost warriors, elves I have called friends and comrades-in-arms, to orcs and wargs and spiders and trolls and human attackers. I have sent those selfsame warriors to their deaths, knowing full well that they would most likely die, because that was what I had to do.

"I have knelt at the side of dying friends and held their hands and soothed their dying fears, because that was what I had to do. I have made the hard choices, the kind where both options are the bad ones, the kind that you know will inevitably end you up on the losing side, with all that matters being how much of your soul you lose. I have done all this and more, because that was what I had to do. This is what it means to be a Captain of Mirkwood, a realm besieged by a darkness that you of Imladris can barely even understand. I know my duty well, Elrohir, to my father and our realm and my warriors and my friends. Do not dare to imply that I would wish to close my eyes and pretend that everything is well. It never is, not in Mirkwood and not here, in this Valar-forsaken part of Arda that seems to know only death and fear and despair."

Elrohir had raised his head again, his face tightly controlled, and Legolas shot him a look so dark that it should at the very least have bounced off his forehead.

"If he is dead, tell me. If he is dying, tell me. If he is so grievously injured that he will never again open his eyes, if he is maimed for life, if he has lost his mind, for Eru's sake, tell me. I can bear anything, but not this thrice-damned ignorance. I understand why you sent me away earlier. I was in your way; I distracted you. But I am not now, and I will not go away until you tell me just What. Happened. To. My. Friend."

For a second, it looked as if Elrohir wasn't about to answer. But whatever faults the Noldor possessed, never let it be said that they were cowards. He exhaled in a long breath and answered.

"You are right. My words were ill-chosen, mellon nín, and I apologise for them. I meant to imply no such thing, and your anger is ... understandable, at least. But..."

"But I should not have taken it out on you," Legolas interrupted his friend. "For that, I am sorry. Please, just tell me how he is. That is all I want to hear."

"No, Legolas, you don't," Elrohir told him in as serious a voice as Legolas had ever heard him use. "You don't want to hear this. I am not being overly dramatic."

"Maybe not," Legolas agreed, leaning against the main pole between the horse box and the door where Elrohir stood. "But it's what I have to hear. Tell me, Elrohir, for pity's sake."

Elrohir looked at him for a moment longer before he lowered his eyes, studying his hands, as if looking at Legolas was just the one thing he could not bear on top of everything else.

"He's not well," Elrohir finally said, clearly choosing his words with care. "He is … well, you did see him when we found him."

"I did," Legolas admitted. It was an image he would hardly ever forget. Not that he had needed more reasons to hate the orcish race, but … well. This had transcended his hate into something more potent, something more akin to true rage that he knew he would have to get under control, and fast.

"Be glad that you didn't see the rest," Elrohir told him, voice clipped and brutal. "If he survives the night without developing pneumonia, I think we may have a chance. If he does develop it..."

He trailed off, and even though everything inside of Legolas rebelled against the thought of asking a healer for details when he looked at you like this, the fair-haired elf swallowed painfully and forced himself to ask for clarification.

"What will happen then, Elrohir?"

"He will slip away," his friend told him softly. "And all we'll be able to do is ease his passage and hope that he dies in as little pain as possible. You and I know how stubborn he is, but he doesn't have the strength to fight this off right now."

Even though he had known that something like this would be coming, even though he had been expecting it, Legolas was still not prepared actually to hear it. The stable and Rashwe and Elrohir disappeared while the soft yellow light of the single lamp seemed to expand, swallowing everything around it until the edges of the bright circle turned dark and the straw-covered ground fell away into nothing. There was something solid at his back that was holding him up, but that, too, seemed to wobble and bend, and all Legolas could concentrate on, all that he could hear at all, was Dead. Dead. Mortals died of things like these. Aragorn had already almost died more times than he could count. Aragorn, whom he very rarely thought of as anything but Lord Elrond's son and the twins' brother, but who was still mortal, could die of this.

Eru help them.

"Legolas!" That was Elrohir's voice at his elbow, and Legolas felt how a pair of hands grasped his shoulders, shifted their grip as he hissed and tried to pull away from the pain in his freshly-stitched left shoulder, and started to shake him slightly. "Breathe!"

But he couldn't, not for the life of him, because all had been for nothing. All the fear and the urgency and the sacrifices and the sheer, desperate hope and they had come to this. Aragorn was dying, and he had failed. He had failed his friend and his people, and in what he had sworn to himself in many a sleepless night, namely that he would see to it that, this time, Aragorn returned home unharmed. He had allowed the orcs to steal him away from them, had allowed Sauron's spies to just take his friend like that, and, Elbereth, Lord Elrond would kill him.

In the end, his body, weary by his continued lack of co-operation, overrode whatever tenuous control he maintained over it and breathed for him. Oxygen didn't really seem to quiet his panicky, riotous thoughts. He hardly felt Elrohir draw him into an embrace, but he couldn't have resisted if he'd wanted to. He came back to himself an eternity later that couldn't have been longer than a minute at the most, sitting on the straw-covered ground in a rather graceless heap and Elrohir clinging to him like some sort of limpet.

"...and you tell me that we Noldor like being overly dramatic," said limpet was saying just now. "Really, you Sindar could give us a run for our money. If you had been so good as to actually listen to me for once, you would have noticed that I didn't say that he will die."

"No," Legolas agreed to Elrohir's apparent surprise, who hadn't seemed to expect him to be aware of what he was saying, "He just very well might. I know you, Elrohir, and I know that look on your face. You expect him to die."

Elrohir shifted slightly, crouched on the floor as he was, and the look on his face was so terrible and dark and full of despair that, for just a second, Legolas felt his breath catch once more.

"Yes," the twin admitted in as broken a voice as Legolas had ever heard him use. "Yes, I do." Legolas was about to turn away, but the other elf stopped him with a hand closing around his uninjured forearm, long, calloused white fingers digging into his flesh in a way that, on any other day, would have been quite painful. "But that doesn't mean that he will, Legolas. I expected him to die in Baredlen, when that creature Teonvan had him and when the two of you went on that harebrained rescue mission of yours. I expected him to die in Aberon, when he almost drowned after getting himself cut to pieces. I watched him almost die then, more than once."

Legolas was about to inject some sort of protest that that was hardly the same things, but then he refrained. At last for the latter incident he could hardly be called an objective observer, having been gravelly injured himself at that time.

"I am a healer, Legolas," Elrohir went on, some of that despair on his face muted and transformed into a sort of grim determination. "I always expect things to go wrong. I am always anticipating complications. But I also know Estel. He doesn't know how to give up. Right now he is holding his own, and Elladan is helping to keep him with us. If there is a chance, any chance at all, the two of them are far too stubborn not to take it, you know that."

Legolas did know that. Aragorn's stubbornness was easily matched by his oldest brother's, and the two of them united in some sort of common purpose was a fearsome thing to behold.

"He is … mortal, Elrohir," he still said, trying to put an entire world of meaning into the four words. "He is not us, he is not Elladan. He cannot … he could die..."

"And he will," Elrohir interrupted him almost cruelly. "One day he will die, and nothing you or I or ada can do could stop it from happening. He is mortal, and he will die in due time. But," he added, seeing the look on Legolas' face, "if he is anything like Elendil whom he resembles so much, he still has a good yén and a half or so, even considering all the years that lie between them. Do not despair just yet, mellon nín. I wish I could give you more hope, but know that he is not dead yet. And if Elladan and I have anything to say about it, he won't die just yet either. He is our brother, and I will be damned into the pits of Angband and back before I let an orc take another member of my family."

Legolas was silent for a moment, the hand that Elrohir had released grasping mindlessly at the straw covering the ground.

"Then tell me what they did to him, Elrohir," he finally repeated, lifting emotionless eyes to lock with the twin's slate-grey ones. "This is the last time I will ask. You have been in my situation, and you know as well as I that not knowing the details is by far the worse fate."

Elrohir was about to argue, but then seemed to give up, either agreeing or not possessing the energy to continue the discussion.

"There is an old stab wound to his sword arm; it seems that this is how they disarmed him when they captured him," the younger twin began, voice so disconnected that he might as well have read aloud from a textbook. "It's not very long, but deep, and it looks as if it's been torn open repeatedly. There are also at least some cracked ribs on the left side of the torso, and I think one broken one, and enough shallow cuts and bruises and abrasions to last him a regular human lifetime. And his wrists, of course … the cuffs lacerated them very deeply. I think we managed to get to it in time, so I don't think he will lose any mobility in either hand, or at least not much. But it will be a long time before he will truly be able to use his hands, or hold a sword."

He fell silent, and Legolas couldn't bring himself to interrupt him. He knew that these injuries were not bad enough to bring even a human to the brink of death, at least not one as young and strong as Estel, and he dreaded what else he would hear.

"They must have had at least one warg. I wish I'd killed it, animal or no," his friend continued in as dead a tone of voice as he had ever heard him use. "There is a bite wound to his right thigh, a deep, badly infected one at that. It could have been worse, considering how warg bites usually turn out, but with his general weakness and the blood loss, it's what worries us the most. He might even lose the leg. It's too early to tell, really. If he does die, this is what will kill him, this and the cold water."

Legolas tried to adjust his world view to Aragorn, weak and helpless while a warg tore into him to the jeers and cheers of its watching orc handlers, but his imagination baulked at the task. There were tears in his eyes, and he brushed them away impatiently, angry at himself and the orcs and the world at large and even the Valar themselves.

"What about … on his chest...?" he tried to force himself to concentrate and think, and yet failed to put his thoughts into words, horror and helpless fury choking him.

"You mean where they skinned him like you would a dead rabbit?" Elrohir asked, voice cracking once more. "We cleaned the wounds, but it was done …. it was..." For the first time, the other elf truly faltered, and Legolas only didn't reach for him to try and comfort him because he knew that any kind of touch would, right now, be answered with violence. "They are infected, of course, and there was a lot of damage. We cleaned the areas as well as we were able, and used athelas and one of ada's more inventive ointments. Time will tell."

"If he lives."

"If he lives," Elrohir agreed. It was silent for a moment or two. The only sounds to be heard were the soft conversation of the two rangers who had taken over Tarcil's and Tinalad's posts at the front door of Bania's house, Rashwe's occasional movement and the noises of the night animals and insects.

"Did you see him? The orc captain?" Elrohir went on, and for a second Legolas was so thrown by the change of topic that he couldn't reply.

"Yes," Legolas then replied. "I did. He is tall and strong for an orc, with dark skin; there is some uruk in him, I would say. He escaped in the mêlée. I almost got him with my knife when he used Estel as a shield, but my aim … I was afraid to hit Estel." In truth, he had been so incandescently furious at that particular moment that he couldn't have kept his wrist steady even under more ideal circumstances. "I know his face, and I will remember it. And mine will be the last thing that worthless creature will ever see."

"They must have been close to escaping when you caught up with them," Elrohir commented almost off-handedly.

"They were," Legolas admitted. "Two more minutes, and they would have been beyond our grasp. They would have been gone, and Estel with them."

Elrohir didn't answer and only closed his eyes, turning his head away. There were tears at the corners of his friend's eyes now, too, but he did nothing to try and brush them away.

"I will kill him, that thrice-cursed spawn of Morgoth, that blight upon the face of Ennor," Elrohir went on around gritted teeth, positively shaking with hatred and fury. "I will hunt him down like the lowest form of creature imaginable, like the filth he is, and I will carve open his chest with my fingernails and rip out his soulless heart!"

"Elrohir..." Legolas tried to calm his friend, for even though he understood the sentiment, he could see that the other elf was one step away from collapsing where he sat. However much of his energy and strength he had given trying to keep Estel alive, it had likely been too much.

"No, Legolas!" Elrohir interrupted him, the anger in his voice even magnifying. "You did not see what I saw. What that … that thing did to him – the thought of anybody hurting Estel, my little brother, in such a way, it is … inconceivable. Intolerable. Unpardonable. Only somebody's blood can atone for it, and Iwant his. And I will have it, Legolas, I swear this to you on my House's honour and my own."

Legolas only looked at him for a moment, uncomprehending. Then Elrohir's hate-filled words came together with what he knew about the orcish kind after long years of fighting them, and with what he had heard from former orc captives and what he had learned from his history tutors. Added to that, the looks the orc captain had given Estel when they had found them took on an entirely new meaning. The words he had whispered to his captive and which had provoked him, Legolas, to such new heights of fury returned to the forefront of his mind.

He felt how his blood turned to ice in his veins.

"What is it you are saying, Elrohir?" he asked in his most controlled tone of voice. If he lost his composure now, there would be no getting it back, not with the amount of soul-blackening hatred and wrath fighting for control inside of him. "Do you mean to say that … that Estel … that they..."

He trailed off, unable to put his suspicion into word. Elrohir turned back to him, tears falling now from his eyes, unchecked and unhindered, and the misery and helpless fury in his eyes were really all Legolas had to see. The horror welling up inside of him must have been visible on his face, for Elrohir reached for him once more. This time, the other elf's fingers were shaking.

"No," Estel's brother told him quickly. "No, Legolas, not that. Never fear. Not that. But there are some … scratches, like those made by long fingernails or claws. And bruises. Hand-shaped bruises, and finger-shaped ones. There are a lot of them, and … they are not only on his arms."

Legolas opened his mouth, couldn't think of anything to say, closed it again and was silent. He made a second attempt, his thoughts frozen in a continued loop of horror and guilt.

"Valar." That was as far as he got.

Next to him, Elrohir finally reached up and brushed a hand over his eyes, wiping away the tears. He was dry-eyed now, and almost eerily calm in comparison to his earlier outburst.


"Are you … are you sure that...?" Legolas tried again.

"As sure as we can be, yes," Elrohir told him, that calmness still firmly in place. "It seems that it didn't go … quite … that far. We will know more when he wakes up."

Legolas didn't know what to say to that. Any step down that road was too far – by a long shot too far –, and the mere thought of that orc touching his friend in any way, shape and form was … unbearable. He forcibly wrenched his thoughts away, because apart from giving him nightmares, this would not help Estel in any way.

"When can I see him?" he asked finally.

"When you have rested and we must not fear that you collapse at his bedside," Elrohir said smoothly. The answer sounded rather practised to Legolas' ears. Seeing his impatient look, the twin added, "Tomorrow morning, if everything goes well. There is no need to pester me on this, Legolas. I will not yield."

It was a testament to Legolas' exhaustion that he only very briefly entertained thoughts of rebellion. In the end he only nodded slightly and returned to his previous dark thoughts.

"We never should have allowed him to come here," he said after some moments, mostly to himself. "We should have tied him to a tree, or sent him to your grandmother."

"It was his decision," Elrohir retorted, sounding infinitely tired. "These are his people. He was right about one thing, you know. How can he ever be their chieftain, their leader, if he does not share their pains and joys and perils? How can he ever be his father's son – Arathorn's son – if he knows nothing about his own people?"

"I find," Legolas said, holding onto his calm with iron strength of will, "that I hardly care. He came here because we let him, and now he lies in that bed, close to death and only alive by the grace of the Valar and your and your brother's stubbornness and skill, and who knows what that … that creature did to him before we found him."

"I know," his friend retorted. "And I will regret this to the end of my days. And still I am right. Coming here was the right thing to do, the only thing a man like Estel could do, really. And you know it." Legolas did know it, but that didn't really make it any easier. "Estel is strong," his brother continued. "He will overcome this."

"If he lives."

"If he lives, yes," Elrohir agreed again. He seemed to slump, his strength apparently having been spent on telling Legolas the entire gruesome truth. With a clear show of inner strength, he gathered the last remnants of his energy and sat up slightly, forcing himself upright. "Halbarad is doing reasonably well, by the way. They whipped him mercilessly, and he has some broken ribs and a lot of cuts and bruises, and terribly abraded wrists, but if his fever doesn't get out of control and if he gets through the night without complications, he should heal. We did what we could to ensure it."

Legolas tore his thoughts away from the memory of his friend's torn body and dark, dark images of soon-to-be-exacted vengeance. Despite his preoccupation and horror, he felt a slight blush of embarrassment creep up his bruised cheeks. He had forgotten about Halbarad so entirely that the young man might as well have never existed at all.

"I am glad to hear it," he said, and he was. He liked Aragorn's cousin well enough, even despite the young man's sometimes rather worrying tendency to hero-worship the twins, and under any other circumstances he would have been genuinely worried about him.

Now, however, he really found it hard to care about anything but Aragorn lying in a bed no more than twenty yards away, unconscious and close to death.

"Daervagor is with him," Elrohir continued, seemingly not noticing his sudden embarrassment. "How he is still on his feet, I will never understand. But never let it be said that the captain is weak-willed or easily persuaded."

Legolas would never have wished to say any such thing, and would rather have used the term "obstinate". Celylith, he was sure, would have expressed his opinion in far less diplomatic terms.

"Elladan and I are still worried about the boy's breathing; it sounds too laboured as it is, and it might be some sort of pulmonary infection. It wouldn't come as a surprise, with the caves as damp and cold as they were. And while Halbarad is young and strong, he was also in their hands for over a week. It's a miracle he's still alive at all."

"I am glad for the captain," Legolas told his friend at that, and again it was the truth. "First to lose his best friend, and then his only son … that I would have wished on no one. Certainly not on a member of Estel's family."

Elrohir looked at him at that and leaned back against the horse box behind them, oblivious or indifferent to Rashwe's presence. Exhaustion and worry and even a hint of that earlier wrath were still visible on his face, but there was something else there now, a sort of cold calculation that reminded Legolas strangely of Lord Erestor, when, across a negotiating table, he looked at you with a raised eyebrow, plotting your complete and utter destruction.

"He will not be the last one to lose people he loves," the younger twin said. "This is escaping our control, Legolas."

"We never had it under control, mellon nín." Legolas sighed. "Everything we did was try and rectify a situation that has long been unsalvageable. We are merely reacting, and are always one step behind them, if we are lucky. When Halbarad and Cemendur disappeared, it was at least three steps, and when Estel did as well … well, we were already far behind the last bend."

Elrohir did not try and refute that statement, though it must have rankled him.

"Ever since they took Estel, I have been thinking about little else," Legolas went on. "And … Elrohir, do you think that they took him on purpose, that they knew who he is? It was a very bad turn of luck that Estel, Serothlain, Lhanton and the others just ran into them like this."

"And that Lhanton and Ereneth just left him there," Elrohir interjected, ever the Noldo.

"Nobody just left anyone anywhere, you know this as well as I do, Elrohir," Legolas told him. Elrohir, truth to be told, didn't really look as if he knew anything of the kind.

Elrohir was silent for a moment, but then he shook his head.

"No, Legolas, I do not think so. Firstly, from what Lhanton and Ereneth tell us, they really only came upon them by accident, when the orcs rid themselves of Cemendur's body. Secondly, would they have allowed anybody to escape to tell us about what happened if this were the case? They could easily have pursued Lhanton and Serothlain, and even Ereneth, and it would have taken us much longer – too long, probably – to find the spot where the orcs ambushed them, and trace them from there. Thirdly, I do not think they would have given up Estel so easily if they had known that he is the very prize they seek."

"Easily?" Legolas repeated, slightly incredulous. "He fell into the lake, Elrohir! They would have had to jump in after him!"

"Yes," the other elf admitted, "but still, they never would have allowed it to go that far. They would have killed him the minute they realised that they were under attack and that there was a chance that they might lose their captive. They would have robbed us of the chance to recover him, partly just out of spite, but also because to be the one reporting the death of the last Heir of Isildur … for them, that would have been a prize beyond compare. You met the orc captain, Legolas. He is clever, for an orc. If he had realised that Estel was more than a … a toy, more than something to torture for his enjoyment and of much interest to his master, he would have killed him rather than let us retake him."

Legolas felt how his teeth clenched at the mere mention of Estel's captor. He doubted that he would ever react differently.

"What you say is sound," he admitted, much relieved. "Still, I find it suspicious that Lhanton and Ereneth should escape while Estel did not, even though both seemed genuinely distressed."

"Lhanton did save your life at the lake, just as Ereneth aided us. Without him, I doubt we would have found you in time"

"So they did," Legolas allowed. "Would they have acted thusly if one or both of them were in league with the orcs? I don't know. They might have, if they are clever."

"Of course they are clever." This time, Elrohir sighed. "They, and Hírgaer, too. That is a man I do not trust."

Legolas, who did not like Ereneth's older brother either and couldn't for the life of him understand why Estel did, thought that at least part of Elrohir's dislike was founded on the fact that Hírgaer, unlike other men, refused to be intimidated by Elrondish looks or the fact that they were elves. It should have been a rather refreshing attitude, and yet wasn't.

"I do not trust anybody here," he told his friend instead. "With the exception of you and Elladan, Estel and Celylith and Haldar, Daervagor and Halbarad."

"The captain?" Elrohir repeated, raising an eyebrow in faint astonishment. "That is news to me."

"I do not like him, that is true," Legolas admitted. "I doubt I ever will. If not for his connexion to Estel, he would be nothing to me but Halbarad's father and a Captain of the Ranger whose opinions and company I must endure. But by no stretch of the imagination can I conceive a world in which he would collaborate with orcs to bring about his chieftain's death, who happens to be his cousin and his dead friend's son. No, Elrohir. I trust him to want to protect Estel at any cost, and that is all I care for."

"I have thought about this constantly for weeks now," Elrohir said with a slight shrug. "I can make neither heads nor tails of it. But one thing I do know: There is someone working against us in the company, probably someone who accompanied us here to the village. It would have been stupid of him to stay behind and guard the camp."

"I agree." Legolas nodded. "But this sort of idle speculation isn't going to help us now, just as it hasn't helped us these past weeks. It could be literally anybody, and without this turning into a witch-hunt, I am not sure how we should proceed."

"We could start with making a list."

"Do you have that long of a piece of parchment?" Legolas asked wryly. "I can give you more than half a dozen names off the top of my head. Ereneth and Hírgaer, obviously – they do tend to disappear quite a lot with only the most flimsy explanations to give, don't they? And Ereneth was there when Estel was taken, as was Hírgaer when Ciryon and the others were killed. It could be both or either of them. Amlaith, behaving as he is. Serothlain, even despite his friendship with Ciryon. Lhanton, who did save my life but left Estel behind, as you put it. Belvathor and Naurdholen, who survived the attack on the village and yesterday's fight both. Cemendur and Halbarad were taken, and nothing at all happened to them. And that is just the ones whose names I actually know."

"It could also be anybody in the village," Elrohir said, apparently opting to make their task even harder. "Quite a few people have relatives or friends in Daervagor's company, like Bania did. Daervagor's men should know better than to betray sensitive information, but it would not be the first time that someone unwittingly betrayed a secret to those they thought they could trust. It could even be a woman."

"You understand what I mean?" Legolas asked rhetorically. He paused for a moment, unsure how to phrase his question, but then continued, "Is there any way to … to trace them through whatever it is that happens to Estel when he dreams? Would you not know them somehow?"

Elrohir looked at him with mild amusement.

"What do you imagine, my friend, that I pass them on the street and just see it in their aura that they have the Gift? Or that Elladan or I can make ourselves dream of them?"

Legolas was too tired to feel true indignation at the other's words, but he wasn't too exhausted for defensiveness.

"I don't know, Elrohir, because in Mirkwood we don't have to deal with things like these!"

"Of course you don't."

"No," Legolas stressed, pushing back a surge of irrational anger and the knowledge that this wasn't entirely the truth. "We do not."

Elrohir gave him a look that clearly stated that he expected him to lose his cool any second now, and another one saying that he would humour him, just this once. Legolas could have cheerfully hit him for it.

"Be that as it may," the dark-haired elf went on as if he hadn't spoken, "there is nothing we could try. If we could, we would have done it a long time ago. Such things are considered private by the Dúnedain, and nobody's business but those who are so gifted and their families'. It is common knowledge that Daervagor does not possess the Gift, though it is strong in his family, but that is because he is the captain and thus a prominent figure. I know of no one in Daervagor's company whose Foresight is remarkably strong – and it would have to be for this –, but that doesn't mean that there is nobody. And as for Estel's dreams – I don't know what to tell you either, Legolas. Elladan and I do not understand why Estel has this … this bond, for a lack of better word, because that is more or less what it is. But whatever it is, it is his, and nothing we could manipulate or recreate."

Legolas was silent, trying very hard not to feel discouraged by what Elrohir had told him. It had been a long shot, but he was so tired of sitting here and waiting for the next catastrophe to occur.

"We have to talk to the captain," he finally said. "We cannot keep reacting and being surprised by events, not if we wish to survive this. I know that it means showing our hand and what we know, but we have to start questioning people officially."

"That would spook whomever we are looking for," Elrohir pointed out. "He or she could escape before we could find them and join the orcs and the mysterious Master. And Eru only knows what might happen then."

"If worse comes to worst, they might give up and report back that Aragorn lives and is somewhere in the Angle," Legolas continued his friend's line of thought. The mere thought was enough to send a cold shiver down his spine. "Once his continued existence has been confirmed, Sauron would never stop looking for him, though he might not know his identity yet. There would be no place to hide for him, no way to live a life outside of Imladris' protected borders."

"I will not condemn my brother to such a life," Elrohir told him firmly. "It would destroy him. He would be hunted forever, with no way to escape his fate."

"What about the letter you sent to your father?" Legolas inquired. "Did you not tell me that you sent a report just before Estel was captured?"

Elrohir nodded.

"We sent a letter to ada, yes, but that was before Estel was taken. I am afraid we phrased our report rather more … tame than I would now. Besides, who knows if the messenger got through. And even if he did, and even if our father sends help based on our report alone – which I am confident that he will –, they could not get here for the next six or seven days, at the earliest. The messenger would have to travel very carefully, and as secretly as possible. He would arrive tomorrow at Rivendell, maybe, and then it would take at least five days to return here with help, plus whatever time the captains need to make ready. No, Legolas, we are on our own for the coming week at the very least."

"Then what can we do, Elrohir?" Legolas asked, trying very hard not to let his helplessness show. "We cannot continue as we have, and we cannot let on that we know that there must be a spy. What do we do now?"

Elrohir looked at him, eyes calm and cold and possibly even harder than before.

"Now we end this, once and for all. It has been going on long enough, and I am heartily tired of it." He paused to give Legolas a sidelong look. "What do you think about sending Celylith a letter?"

Legolas returned the look, eyebrows drawing together in a half-confused and half-suspicious frown.

"Celylith? Why would I be sending Celylith a letter? The less he hears to worry him, the faster he will recover."

"Well, he is your friend, insane tendencies aside," Elrohir told him, looking far too innocent. "I would think it entirely natural and understandable, given what has happened."

Legolas narrowed his eyes.

"Was is it you are planning, Elrohir? I know that look on your face." He cocked his head to the side. "Does Elladan know about this?"

"Not yet," the younger twin admitted. "Nor will he like it. But I simply do not see another way. I think it is time to bait a little trap, and I know just what kind of bait to use."

Suspicion warred with worry inside of him, and yet Legolas felt a sudden rush of elation. He knew that he would most likely not like Elrohir's plan – the twins' plans didn't have the highest rate of success, if one truly thought about it – and he knew that they would be embroiled in a fierce argument by the time that the sun rose, but still, here was the chance to finally do something. He was not made for helpless waiting, and the prospect of action, of doing something to end this, was enough to bring a grim smile to his lips.

"Well," he began carefully, "Coincidentally, yes, I do feel the burning need to write to Celylith. How considerate of you to remind me."

Elrohir grinned at him, a fierce grimace that Legolas had no wish to see ever again on his friend's face.


There had been several times over the past few decades when Eldacar had regretted having acquired the reputation of a calm, level-headed and rational man. Most recently, he had regretted it when Captain Daervagor had selected him to remain behind and take command of the camp. It was an honour, of course, and Eldacar was doing his duty gladly. But he would very much have preferred to travel with the others to the village to try and find Halbarad, Cemendur and Estel. It wasn't that he was a particularly bloodthirsty man, but he had no love for the orcish race, and besides, he was friendly with the commander. It would probably have been too much to say that he and Cemendur were friends, but they liked each other well enough. He would have loved to be allowed to be of use, to be allowed to search for him with the others, but, well, somebody had to stay behind and guard the camp.

And so, while a part of him would have loved to emulate Prince Legolas and leave to join the rest of his comrades, the larger part of him knew that he was doing the right thing. He was level-headed and reliable, after all.

You could, however, take everything just the tiniest bit too far.

Eldacar forced himself not to change his expression of good-natured patience, nor to pinch the bridge of his nose. He squinted at the man standing in front of him, wishing the other ranger had closed the tent-flap behind him after entering the tent. The midday sun stood high in the sky, and the light seemed unbearably bright after having spent several hours bent over his maps, schedules and reports.

"So," he began, when it became clear that his visitor would not speak. "What has he done now, Nestir?"

Nestir gave a rather inelegant snort and collapsed onto the empty stool in front of him. His sudden movement made some of the documents piled high on the wooden folding-table flutter, and Eldacar shot him an aggravated look. Nestir ignored him with the sort of effortless efficiency that clearly bespoke of the fact that, usually, the healer was the one doing the glaring.

"That elf," the other ranger began, using both hands to re-tie his long hair in a gesture of exasperation, "is a menace. I doubt it would even be a crime if I made a mistake with the dosage and literally drugged him into next month."

"It might not be a crime, no," Eldacar admitted, fighting a smile of amusement. "Yet I wonder how Lord Legolas and the other elves would view such a mistake."

"Pah." Nestir grumbled as he wrapped a long piece of leather around his dark ponytail and flicked it back over his shoulder. "Elves. Worst patients I've ever had, and I am counting you, you know."

"It was a concussion!" This was a conversation they'd had quite a few times already. Personally, Eldacar thought that the other ranger would never tire of bringing up the topic. "Not a mortal injury! Since when do you have to stay abed for over a week when you get knocked on the head? We are rangers; we heal quickly!"

The healer gave him the kind of assessing look that bespoke of a neurological exam looming in his very near future, the one that questioned your ability to string more than three words together in an intelligent manner.

"You almost fractured your skull, Eldacar. Half an inch further to the left and we wouldn't be having this conversation, because that troll would have cracked your head open like the overripe pumpkin that it is!"

Eldacar, who knew very well that he had come close to dying (and being eaten) that day, only shrugged. He didn't doubt Nestir's words and knew that he was essentially correct, but riling the healer was one of the few true pleasures he had left.

"Be that as it may," he said, making a show of rustling the papers and suppressing a groan when his eyes came to rest on the stack of half-finished monthly reports, "I am sure that you have not come here to utter half-hearted insults against Lord Legolas' companion and then talk about the concussion I had more than ten years ago."

"Well," Nestir began,"No, but I must admit that it does hold a certain appeal. Lord Celylith is wise, I am sure, and a mighty elf lord in his own right, but he is also the most exasperation person I have ever met! You would think that I order him around for my own amusement, not in order to ensure that he heals as quickly as possible! Why would I want to be stuck with him for any longer than I have to? It makes no sense!"

This time, Eldacar couldn't suppress a smile.

"It does not," he agreed.

"And that look he keeps giving me!" the healer went on. "As if I drug him out of some sort of base inclination and not because he needs the rest to heal!"

"I thought you had started weaning him off the drugs more than a day ago?" Eldacar interjected.

"Well, yes," Nestir admitted distractedly. "Though I still give him pain medication, laced with some anaesthetic herbs in the evenings to help him sleep. But that isn't the point! He is polite, mostly that is, but he keeps looking at me as if I am torturing him for my own amusement!"

Eldacar, who had thought similar thoughts at one point or another during their acquaintance, thought it wise not to inform the other ranger of that fact.

"I am afraid, Nestir," he said solemnly, "that there is no law against looking at people, even if they are healers."

"There should be," Nestir declared. "And now that he is beginning to walk around, I am sure things are about to get a lot worse. A menace, that one is, and he is always arguing – politely, and that makes it even worse! He wakes up – he argues. He is not allowed to go visit his horse – he argues. He is not allowed to juggle a dozen sharp knives with both eyes closed or something similarly moronic – he argues. He is expected to drink his potion in the evening – he argues."

Eldacar shot him an amused look.

"Well, he is an elf," he pointed out. "The Firstborn do like to debate … well, anything, really. If you put more than two elves together, you have an argument. And," he added, holding up a hand to forestall Nestir's next complaint, "he is also alone amongst strangers and injured and in pain. Surely you understand this."

Nestir exhaled slowly and reluctantly.

"Yes," he admitted. "I do. That is why I haven't poisoned him yet."

"Come now, Nestir," Eldacar said, very close to laughter now. "He cannot be that bad."

"Oh yes," Nestir retorted firmly. "He is. I always knew that warriors make terrible patients, but elven warriors – the Valar save me."

There wasn't much one could say to that, and Eldacar was too diplomatic a person to try and change Nestir's mind. The other ranger was hardly likely to really go ahead and drug or poison the silver-haired elf, and if all he did was rant and rave now and then, well, Eldacar could live with that.

"Was there anything else you wanted, Nestir?" he asked, ostentatiously reaching for a piece of parchment with the one hand and taking up a ink-tipped quill with the other. "Because, before you barged in here, I was actually quite busy with the paperwork..."

Nestir looked up with an expression that, on another person, would have been sheepish.

"Actually, yes. Faedond bade me tell you that two riders had been sighted, moving towards the Argonath. It's two of ours. They should be here right about..." he cocked his head to the side at the exact same moment that shouts of welcome could be heard outside, "now, I think."

This time, Eldacar did pinch the bridge of his nose, after carefully setting down both parchment and quill. There was a look of exasperation mixed with very real anger on his face, and he forced himself to take a deep, calming breath.

"There are messengers arriving, most likely sent by the captain and our comrades in the village, all of whom are searching for Halbarad and Estel and Commander Cemendur, and you waste my time complaining about the elf? Really, Nestir?"

"They hadn't arrived yet," Nestir countered, looking thoroughly unapologetic. "You would have paced and worried and fretted until they did, and that would have served no one." The young healer shot him a look that was gentler and a lot more serious. "You already worry more than enough, my friend. I thought only to spare you ten more minutes of useless concern and vexation. We will find out what news they bring soon enough. And besides," he added, "that elf really is impossible. It needed to be said."

"His name," Eldacar stressed as he got to his feet, reacting to the noises from outside that seemed to be drawing closer and closer, "is Lord Celylith. Use it. You know how particular elves are about their names, especially elves made impatient with unaccustomed weakness."

"Oh, trust me, sir," Nestir stressed, turning to follow him, "I would never treat our guest with anything but the highest respect and courtesy." He paused. "And sleeping herbs, as it so turns out."

Eldacar had learned a long time ago that healers were a lot more easily dealt with when you just let them talk sometimes. He did just that now, and was out of the tent before Nestir could make any additional comments. Outsides, the bright daylight served to blind him for a moment, and while he was still blinking in order to adjust his eyesight, he saw a tall figure stride urgently towards him, cloak billowing out behind it. Another blink, and the figure coalesced into Tarcil. He and the other messenger had left their horses in the care of a couple of rangers who did their level best not to appear as anxious and curious as they clearly were. Of the second rider he could only see the dark-clad back disappearing between the off-white tents.

Tarcil wasn't exactly his usual cheerful self either, even though there was a guarded smile on his face. It was tempered by something dark and careful, though, and Eldacar forced himself to be calm. Level-headed and calm, that was the way to go.

"Tarcil," he said when the younger man had closed the distance between them. He stepped forward and grasped his forearm in a warrior's greeting, feeling how a relieved smile spread over his face. "Eru Ilúvatar be my witness, but it is good to see you. Are you well? We haven't heard anything from you for more than four days."

Tarcil returned the greeting and gave him a small, sketched bow, nodding at both him and Nestir.

"I am well, Eldacar. I have a message for you from the captain; Aravir is delivering another message to Lord Celylith. It was impressed upon us that both are most urgent."

Eldacar looked about him at the faces of his men who were watching their exchange, all of them looking wary and worried and anxious. No matter where he held this meeting, he would have to tell them something sooner or later, and he saw no point in amplifying the anxiety even more.

"What about Halbarad, the commander and Estel?" he asked, meeting the younger ranger's eyes. There was that shift again, and he felt how dread rose up inside of him like a dark cloud. "Have they been found? Or are you under orders to keep quiet?"

"No, sir. I am more than happy to answer your questions." Tarcil shook his head. He looked up at him and smiled, a smile full of heart-felt relief. "The night before last, we infiltrated the cave system where the orcs were holding Halbarad and Estel. We managed to free both of them with only moderate losses. They are both alive."

A loud cheer went up around them, and even though Eldacar found himself grinning alongside the rest of his men, he held up a hand until the noise died down. He wrenched his gaze away from Nestir's wide smile and focussed once again on Tarcil's now serious face.

"What about the commander, young one?" he asked.

Tarcil's expression turned stony.

"We found Commander Cemendur's body later on the day on which Estel was taken. We lit his pyre three days ago. I am sorry, Eldacar. We were too late."

The dread inside of him sizzled out and died, leaving a strange numbness behind. He was a rational man, Eldacar told himself, and as such had known that the chances of seeing any of the three missing men again were very slim, if not positively abysmal. But still … he had hoped. Valar, how much he had hoped.

"I understand," he said after a moment or two, simply because he had to say something. "Join me in my tent, please. Amlaith," he nodded at one of the rangers holding Tarcil's and Aravir's mounts, face rather sullen, "please see to the mounts. Is there any reason I should be doubling the guards, Tarcil?"

A quick, half-hearted smile flittered over the other ranger's face as he shook his head.

"No, sir. We were not followed, and we do not suspect the orcs in this area."

That, of course, raised the question of where the captain suspected the orcs to be and why, but Eldacar wasn't about to debate that in public. Instead, he only nodded and indicated Tarcil to follow him. He sensed the stares of his men, and even though he knew what they wished to know – just what were "moderate losses"? Who hadn't made it? – he couldn't ask Tarcil, at least not now. There were many here who had friends and relatives in Daervagor's troop, and he would not have them informed of their loved ones' death by announcing it to the entire camp without considering tact or propriety.

Quickly enough, the two of them were in his tent, with the tent-flap closed as tightly as possible. Tarcil was blinking in the dim light, fingers working to open the messenger pouch strapped to his belt. He was very pale, with deep, dark rings under both eyes, and what looked like a hastily applied bandage peeking out from underneath the collar of his grey shirt. Judging by the tentative way the younger man moved his right arm, it reached from his shoulder to at least the elbow.

He was upright and seemed steady enough, though, and besides, the captain would hardly have sent a seriously injured man. There was little chance Tarcil's injury would escape Nestir's sharp eyes, though.

Tarcil straightened up, drawing a sealed envelope from his now open pouch. It didn't look thick but rather like a single piece of parchment that had been folded up into a makeshift envelope and sealed.

"The captain's message, sir."

Eldacar took the piece of parchment without a word and only quickly glanced at the impression of the seal in the wax. He would have recognised Captain Daervagor's seal anywhere.

"Thank you," he said as he set the message on his already towering pile of paperwork. "I will read it in a minute. Now tell me what you didn't say out there, please."

The stony expression from earlier laid itself over Tarcil's face once more.

"Four of us fell, sir, in the caves. Three more are badly wounded, with one at least not expected to live long past this sunset."

The part of Eldacar that was simply a ranger worried for his comrades' welfare was grieved beyond expression. Four dead, and most likely one or two more about to join them – Valar, that was a dearly paid-for rescue. The part of him that was a ranger and a leader and had been fighting orcs for most of his adult life knew that it could have been much, much worse.

"Among the dead are Herion and Torthagyl," Tarcil went on. "I thought that..."

"I will tell Faedond," Eldacar interrupted him. "He and Torthagyl have always been good friends. And Herion, you say? Eru Ilúvatar." He was silent for a moment, thoughts reeling, before they seized on the thing that most quickly came to mind. "How is Aravir dealing with it?"

Tarcil shrugged, a little helplessly.

"You know him. He doesn't talk much under normal circumstances, and now he speaks even less."

"Not well, then," Eldacar summed up. He hadn't expected anything else, since Aravir was what you would call 'intense', and that even under the best of circumstances. He and Herion had been friends and cousins of a sort, even though Eldacar couldn't remember what the relation had been exactly. "What about Halbarad and Estel, then? They are alive, you say?"

"They are," Tarcil affirmed. "For now, that is. When we left the village this morning, Halbarad seemed to be doing a little better; Hasteth was looking carefully optimistic. Estel, however … the elves are still very worried, or so it seemed to me. There has been no word, but I saw him just after he was found and..." He trailed off, face going even paler, and Eldacar remembered Tarcil's aversion to all things medical and blood-related. "They have been most ill-used, Eldacar. Both of them, but Estel most especially. If he survives this with his wits intact, it shall be a miracle."

And so it might all have been for nothing, Eldacar's darker side whispered quietly in his mind. Cemendur dead, Estel dying and Halbarad only hanging on by a thread – and for that, four more of their men had lost their lives, with one or two more expected to follow. He hardly dared imagine the condition Captain Daervagor would be in, with his son's life hanging in the balance – and the elves of course. Suddenly he was very glad just to be dealing with one of the Firstborn; the mere thought of having to put up with Lord Elrond's sons and Prince Legolas, all of them frantic with worry and fear – that was just too much.

"I see," he told the younger man before he could voice his thoughts, because that would hardly do, considering what Tarcil and all the others had gone through to get to Estel and Halbarad in time. "I rely on you telling me the whole story after I have read the captain's orders. You can get yourself something to eat in the meantime, and please, rest while you can. You look like you haven't slept in days."

Tarcil nodded readily, taking this as the dismissal it was.

"Truth to be told, I haven't. None of us have." He was about to turn away when he remembered something and turned back to look at Eldacar. "And please, accept my condolences as well. I know that you and the commander were friends."

"Thank you," Eldacar said as graciously as he could, a sharp pain taking up residence inside his chest at the other ranger's words. "I think we are … we were." Tarcil gave him a quick little bow and was about to turn away again when he added, almost against his better judgement, "Did he ... did Cemendur die quickly?"

The younger man seemed to freeze for a second, apparently undecided, before he took a deep breath and raised his head to meet Eldacar's eyes.

"No," he said softly. "He did not."

Eldacar exhaled and closed his eyes, unable to say anything, and when he opened them again Tarcil was gone. The tent's entrance flapped in the slight breeze, betraying his exit, but apart from that he might as well have walked right through the very fabric of the tent in the manner of a ghost or wraith. For several seconds, Eldacar could only stare at the gently moving fabric, thoughts scattered and disjointed, before he forcefully pulled himself together and away from thoughts of Cemendur, Herion and the others. There was the captain's letter to consider, and everything that would follow. Tonight, maybe, when the day's work was done and the camp quiet, he could grieve for Cemendur whom he would have called a friend, of sorts, and who hadn't deserved the kind of death Tarcil had hinted at.

Eldacar broke the seal and unfolded the letter. It was indeed as he had thought, no more than a single sheet of parchment that had been folded and sealed. The letters were crisp and even, shining unnaturally black in the dimness of the room. They had not been written by Captain Daervagor, he saw, even though the signature was his. The handwriting looked rather like Haldar's, even though Eldacar hadn't seen it often enough to be sure.

"To Eldacar, son of Calmacil, commander of the forces stationed by the Argonath, greetings..."

Eldacar hadn't read more than the first line before the tent-flap was thrown open once more and Nestir's head appeared in the opening. If the healer had looked annoyed before, he looked positively frazzled now.

"Excuse the interruption, sir," he began, stressing the last word in a way that told Eldacar quite clearly just who was the second shadow that he could see silhouetted against the light fabric of his tent. "I told him that you were busy, but of course he argued that..."

"He," a second voice interrupted him, "can speak for himself, thank you very much, Master Healer." The owner of the voice stepped around the ranger, moving slowly and in a way that made it look more like a conscious choice and less than the weakness that Eldacar knew that it really was. "Master Eldacar. Good day."

Eldacar looked at the elf standing before him, for a second not quite knowing what to say. Elven regenerative powers had fully kicked in almost two days ago, enabling Prince Legolas' companion to be up and about when four days ago no one would have thought it possible for him to do anything more strenuous on his own than move from one side of the tent to the other. Still, no one could have overlooked the fact that the silver-haired elf was still very much injured. The leg wound was healing quickly enough now that he had grown stronger, making it possible for him to hobble around on his own, but he still tired very easily and, Eldacar reckoned, possessed about a tenth of his natural strength and resilience. And, of course, there was still the bandage wrapped around his head, completely obscuring one half of his face, including his eye.

Eldacar automatically got to his feet, the letter dangling from his hand. It wasn't only politeness, because he liked Lord Celylith. He was a little strange, but he was clever and witty when the mood took him. When it didn't, of course, he could be even more inscrutable and elvish than Prince Legolas. Under different circumstances, Eldacar would have been delighted to see him on his feet, but right now it was yet another complication on a day that seemed intent on piling one problem on top of the other.

"Lord Celylith," he still said politely with a nod of his head, trying very much not to let the elf know how much he wanted him to just turn around and leave him alone. "It is good to see you on your feet. However, as Nestir undoubtedly already informed you, we have just received word from Captain Daervagor and I have much to do."

The elf raised a singed silver eyebrow at that.

"I am sure of it, Master Ranger. It is, however, imperative that I talk to you right away. I, too, have received word from my prince. I would like a word with you, in private, if you please."

Eldacar silently surveyed his guest and his pale face. There was that stubborn set to his mouth that Eldacar had learned meant that he was set on something – the same set that Prince Legolas had sported when he had informed him that he would ride to join the others in the village to help find Estel, and the captain and Eldacar and the rest of the rangers could go hang for all he cared –, and he knew that further discussion would be extremely futile. A good thing he was a reasonable man, then.

"Very well," he gave in graciously and sat down again, motioning the elf to do the same. The elf looked from him to the wooden stool and back before all but sauntering closer. He very slowly and carefully sat down, like a cat that clearly wanted to convey the fact that it moving had nothing at all to do with the dog running towards it. "Nestir," he went on, "if you would excuse us for a moment."

Nestir narrowed his eyes at him, threw him a glare that clearly accused him of complicity in unspeakable elven conspiracies, and left the tent with an almost inaudible huff. Eldacar suddenly felt for Tarcil, should Nestir get his hands on him and discover that the young ranger sported a hastily-wrapped injury.

"As you can see," Eldacar went on, almost as soon as Nestir had left the room, "I didn't even have the chance to read the captain's orders."

"Oh, I will gladly wait," the elf offered magnanimously. "It is I who is intruding, after all. Please, take your time."

Eldacar clenched his teeth against a sudden rush of annoyance and returned his attention to the letter. To Eldacar, son of Calmacil, greetings... It took him only a few moments to read the short recapitulation of the rescue; Cemendur's death and funeral were only mentioned in a single sentence. Eldacar didn't hold it against the captain; everybody knew that Captain Daervagor and the commander had been friends, and the few words describing Cemendur's death were enough to convey the other man's pain and grief. The captain went on to describe the manpower and equipment lost during the rescue operation and gave a quick description of the tactical situation of the village. Prepared by Tarcil's words as he was, nothing he read shocked Eldacar – until he reached the last quarter of the message. Eldacar read the words once, decided that he must have misread them, started again at the beginning of the last paragraph, repeated the process and then decided that either he or the captain must be going mad. Deciding to give the letter a last chance, he scanned the paragraph again, but the words stubbornly refused to change their meaning.

Eldacar raised his eyes to see Lord Celylith quietly surveying him, his one visible dark-blue eye knowing and calm.

"I don't understand, my lord," he said, unashamed of his confusion. "What is the meaning of this?"

"If you were to tell me just what it is Daervagor let you know, I am sure I could oblige you."

Eldacar thought about reminding the elf of the captain's rank, but decided against it. He might as well bang his head against a wall or a tent pole for all the good it would do him.

"My lord," he began instead, aiming for politeness or at least a sort of desperate patience, "I do not have the time to play games. Surely Prince Legolas informed you of the rescue?"

The elf raised a hand as if in answer, revealing a piece of parchment. Eldacar tried not to feel resentful that the elf's letter was considerably longer than his own, and instead concentrated on the flowing tengwar letters. His eyes only caught a few words, but those refused to make any sense at all. The tehtar symbols were placed in a way that seemed to be making even less sense. The words might as well have been Black Speech for all that Eldacar knew.

"It is written in a more obscure Silvan dialect of Mirkwood," the elf explained, noticing his look. "And the script is known only to my prince, myself and very few others, none of whom should be anywhere close to the Angle." He smiled in a way that failed to convey any humour at all. "Let's call it an added safety measure."

Eldacar tried to decide if he should feel embarrassed about having been caught trying to read the other's message before he decided against it. He had more important things to worry about, like the question just why Prince Legolas thought it necessary to encrypt a simple message in such a way.

"Call it what you like, my lord," he said a little more brusquely than he'd wanted to. "I trust that in there is the news that Halbarad and Estel have been found, and that Cemendur is dead?"

"Indeed it is." The elf smiled for real this time, the sort of dazzling smile that made you forget his weakness and injuries and made you think of the rising sun, or maybe rather the moon, considering his colouring. "And while I am sorry about Commander Cemendur's death, I cannot describe the joy that the news of Halbarad's and Estel's recovery gives me."

Eldacar believed him. Nobody could fake a smile like that.

"Did it say anything about their condition?"

The smile faltered and died a quick death, and the silver-haired elf shook his head, a small frown appearing between his left eyebrow and the edge of the bandage.

"Nothing specific, I fear. My prince only writes that Estel and Halbarad have been treated very ill indeed, and that Lord Elrond's sons are still very much worried. Nothing more."

Eldacar was silent for a moment. Both of them knew what that kind of description likely meant.

"I am sorry to hear it. I must, however, ask of you to explain to me just why we are to pack up everything, move you, Nestir and two guards to a more easily defended camp and then join the captain in the village."

"Those are your orders?" the elf asked, the one blue eye entirely guileless. It was not a very convincing look. "I couldn't possibly say."

Eldacar gave the cryptic letter a very pointed look.

"Couldn't you now. How interesting."

"I am hardly privy to your captain's thoughts, Master Ranger, or to my prince's." At least the last part was a bold-faced lie, Eldacar thought to himself crossly. "All I know is that the village's security has been severely compromised and that they need all the warriors they can get."

The next thing being considerably compromised would be his patience, Eldacar quickly decided.

"But that is not all, my lord. Why are we to move there in all this haste and abandon what has been our main camp for over a year?"

"How would I know, Master Ranger?" the elf asked back. "I know little about your people's ways and tactics."

"My lord..."

"Then let it be said," the elf interrupted him, "that my prince hinted at another strike against the orcs that will require all the manpower Daervagor," Captain Daervagor, Eldacar thought crossly, "can get. I know not the particulars, but it seems that they have an idea where the orcs might be hiding."

Eldacar leaned back in his folding chair and studied the even-faced elf in front of him. If he had been a less diplomatic or a less sane man, he would have called the elf a liar.

"And this is truly all you know?"

The elf cocked his eyebrow and winced at the movement.

"Are you calling me a liar, westman?" he asked, neatly mirroring his own thoughts.

"I would not do you or your realm the discourtesy," Eldacar answered smoothly. "I would not call it lying anyway. I would rather say it is a sort of selective recounting of the truth."

Lord Celylith looked at him, a faint smile tugging at the corners of his lips.

"That is rather like two sides of the same coin, isn't it?" he asked rhetorically. "But I will answer your question. What I just told you is all I can tell you."

"All you can tell me, all you will tell me, or all you have been allowed to tell me?"

This time, the elf smiled outright.

"Choose whichever makes you happy, Master Ranger."

"None of them do," Eldacar muttered to himself. This was infuriating. The elf knew more, a lot more if not all, and he simply wouldn't tell him.

"I can understand that, and I sympathise." The elf looked at him seriously and, Eldacar thought, just a little bit pityingly. "I, however, cannot help you further." The smile disappeared from his face and he added, "Does it matter, really? You have your orders – or do you doubt their veracity?"

"No," Eldacar answered immediately. "I don't. The message is written in Haldar's hand, and it bears the captain's seal and his signature. It is genuine. It just … doesn't explain much. Or anything, really."

And you won't either, he added silently. The elf shrugged eloquently, apparently a commentary on the confused nature of life in general, and began to roll up the message and fasten a leather cord around it which sported an elaborate series of little knots. Another message, Eldacar wondered, or maybe just an added means of authentication?

"The captain is not one to explain things more often than he needs to, or so it seems to me," the elf said off-handedly as he fastened the leather cord. "I daresay everything will be explained once we reach the village."

A nice way of saying 'Stop thinking and do as you're told', Eldacar thought to himself. He was already in the process of deciding which should be done in what order – they would have to take down all the tents, and the corral for the horses, and bury everything they couldn't carry, and leave runes to let other rangers know that they had moved and where – when he realised what the elf had just said. He looked up to meet the gaze of an innocent dark-blue eye that appraised him coolly.

"Excuse me, my lord," he began, "but did you say 'we'?"

"Yes," a voice from the back of the tent chimed in. "Did he say 'we'?"

Eldacar rolled his eyes as he motioned for Nestir to enter the tent, and the healer did so, letting the tent-flap fall into place behind him with a quick, angry movement of his wrist. He shot the younger man a look promising that they would be talking about this later, a look that Nestir either did not notice or ignored.

"Have you been eavesdropping, Nestir? I do not think that I must remind you how very unbecoming of a ranger such behaviour is."

"I did not eavesdrop," the younger ranger protested. "I just happened to walk past your tent in the exact same moment that he," he looked at the completely unaffected elf in front of him, "mentioned that little plan of his. Naturally, I had to make sure, because this kind of behaviour clearly is a sign of a previously undiagnosed head injury."

The elf cocked his head in amusement and slowly got to his feet, wavering slightly once he was standing but quickly catching himself.

"Strangely enough, you are not the first to mention that possibility, Master Healer."

"And I daresay I won't be the last," Nestir shot back. Eldacar gave him a pointed look and cleared his throat. "Oh, pardon me," Nestir added. "I daresay I won't be the last, my lord."

"I thank you for your concern," Lord Celylith went on as if the healer hadn't even spoken. "But I have long been of age, both in the eyes of my people and yours, and I know very well what I am doing."

"I seriously doubt that," Nestir told him, clearly trying to remain patient. "You are very weak, Master Elf, and still must take quite a varied range of medicines to aid your recovery. Any strenuous activity might mean a relapse. I do not use these words lightly, my lord. It is imperative that you rest, lest your wounds worsen and set back the healing process, especially of your facial wounds. It could mean permanent scarring or the loss of your eyesight. I cannot stress this enough."

"I am aware of that, Master Nestir," the elf said calmly, even though Eldacar thought he saw him pale even more. There was that firm set to his mouth again, though, and the elf added, "I must, however, ask of you, Master Eldacar, that you disregard that specific part of your orders and take Master Nestir and me with you. I am sure Lord Elrond's sons and Mistress Hasteth will be very glad of his help. Further splitting up our group would serve no one in the first place."

Nestir began to protest, but Eldacar quickly raised a hand to quiet him. It worked, which surprised Eldacar exceedingly.

"You wish me to disregard Captain Daervagor's orders?" he repeated, allowing the full force of his incredulity to shine through. "His direct orders that he took the trouble to send to me, in writing, urging me to follow them with all haste?" He gave a small, derisive laugh. "Surely you are joking."

"I am not." The elf shook his head. "I ask to accompany you."

Nestir was uncharacteristically quiet. Eldacar looked at the elf and narrowed his eyes slightly.

"Is this another thing that your prince let you know in that secret message of his?"

For a moment, the elf looked torn, but then he shook his head slowly.

"No," he admitted. "It is not. He orders me to remain here with Nestir, under guard, while you and the rest of the men join the others in the village."

That was not the only thing he had been ordered to do, Eldacar thought as annoyance rose once more, but he knew that further probing would be useless.

"So you would disobey your prince?" he asked, trying to feel more surprise than he actually did.

"I would," the elf affirmed. "Regretfully and most respectfully, of course."

"I see," Eldacar said. "Why?"

"Because he is the crown prince of Mirkwood and I am one of her captains," the silver-haired elf explained easily. "I swore an oath to obey him."

"That is not what I wished to know," Eldacar said impatiently. "I meant..."

"I know what you meant, Master Ranger," Lord Celylith interrupted him softly. He took a breath, clearly trying to decide how best to put this, and continued. "While it is true that I have been a captain of Mirkwood for more than one and a half millennia and thus swore an oath to protect the prince, I also made another oath, long before I even reached the age of majority. I swore, to myself and his father, to protect him as well as I am able – with my life, if need be. These two oaths clash sometimes, but I know which one I hold more dear."

"I do not wish to insult you, my lord," Nestir said, sounding for once very calm. "But I find it highly doubtful that you will be able to protect anyone for the next few weeks, including yourself."

"Maybe. Maybe not," the elf admitted in an off-handed way that seemed to proclaim his conviction that, eventually, reality would fall in line with his wishes. "However, I see no reason not to find out." His voice grew softer as he added, "And I would never forgive myself if something did happen and I did nothing to try and stop it."

Eldacar looked at the stubborn set to the elf's jaw and weighed his desire not to spend any more time arguing against how he knew the captain and the elf prince would react when they heard that he had allowed Lord Celylith to accompany them. Respect for his superiors finally won out over the wish for peace and quiet.

"I am sorry, Master Elf," he told the elf in front of him, suddenly rather glad that the desk was between him and his guest. "But I cannot disregard Captain Daervagor's orders without very good reason. I understand your desire to be of use to your prince and your friends, truly, I do, but..."

"You understand nothing, dúnadan," the elf interrupted him, dark-blue eye flashing. "Legolas is my prince, the only son of my liege lord. I am honour-bound to serve him to the very best of my abilities. I would do anything to help and protect him, even if he were no more than that." He took a step closer to Eldacar until mere inches separated him from the desk piled high with papers. "But he is. He is my friend, the best friend I've ever had. He is my brother in everything but in blood. Whatever I can give that will see him safe and happy, I will grant it gladly."

"I do understand, Lord Celylith," Eldacar interjected once more. "Forgive me for saying it, but is is not only about what you want."

"No, indeed it is not," the other agreed. "My wishes are secondary. My duty, however, is not. He is my future king and my friend. My duty is to him, and always will be. I am aware of the fact that he is not going to be happy about this..."

"That is a mild way of putting it, my lord."

"Most likely," the elf allowed. "Yet I will not be swayed on this. I would much rather chance his wrath than his death. He ordered me to stay behind because he is worried about me, I know this, but I am no longer at death's door. Keeping me here with Master Nestir and two guards would serve no purpose, not when both warriors and healers are urgently needed at the village."

"I will admit this," Nestir spoke up. "But it would serve a purpose, Master Elf. It would allow you to recover and not make you risk your life merely by journeying to the village."

"And how would I recover knowing that my prince and my other friends will most likely place themselves in danger very soon?" He turned to look at Eldacar, faint pleading now in his eyes. "Come now, Master Eldacar. We both know that whatever will happen, will happen in the village and not here. I cannot in good conscience leave them to fend for themselves."

Eldacar looked back at him, feeling how his firm conviction was beginning to falter.

"Yet you expect us to leave you, an honoured guest we promised to protect, to fend for yourself."

"No, I do not expect it." The elf shook his head. "I ask it of you. Please, Master Ranger, do not make this harder than it has to be. I would much rather accompany you with your approval, but know this: If you wish me to stay here, you will have to tie me up and set a guard on me, because I will not remain behind willingly. I will go and join my prince, whatever you have to say about it, and I would advise you not to get in my way."

Eldacar looked at the elf and the steely determination that seemed all the fiercer for his pale face and slumped body, and gave up. He knew that the elf spoke the truth and that he would have to tie him to a tree to prevent him from accompanying them, and the captain had said nothing about holding captive a captain of the Elvenking. And anyway, he asked himself almost angrily, just what had Captain Daervagor thought would happen when he had left them alone with a wood-elf of all people, and one sporting such overprotective tendencies?

"Very well," he agreed with as much grace as possible. "I bow to the inevitable. But Nestir will be at your side during the entire trip, and if you faint and fall off your horse, I refuse to be held responsible."

"Wood-elves do not faint, Master Ranger."

"They do when they are being stubborn and refuse to take their pain medication," Nestir said in the sort of sickly-sweet tone of voice that Eldacar knew meant nothing good. "I have seen it happen."

The elf turned to glare at the healer, and before the two of them could get into an epic staring contest, Eldacar hurriedly added, "We will need at least half a day to pack up the camp, Master Elf, and I will not risk travelling at night. We will leave tomorrow morning at first light, so I urge you to get as much rest as you can before that."

Nestir forcibly unclenched his jaw and levelled a dark stare at his patient.

"As you are apparently intent on killing yourself, I will come by your tent in a few minutes and bring you something to help you rest. And I would very strongly recommend you take it, if you wish to make it through the journey tomorrow."

"But of course." Now that he had won, the elf was clearly willing to be gracious.

"Very good," Eldacar said, feeling suddenly very tired. "I will send someone later to help pack up your things and whatever your companions left behind."

"Thank you." The elf gave him a nod. He looked even paler than before, and there were deep lines of pain around his visible eye and on his forehead. "If you would excuse me now, I think I will follow your advice." He was about to turn around but stopped, levelling that calm, dark-blue stare at Eldacar. "I thank you, Master Ranger."

Eldacar smiled wryly and sighed.

"Thanks are hardly applicable, my lord. I am old enough to know that getting in your way would be nothing but foolishness."

The stare turned harder.

"Yes," the elf agreed softly. "It would."

Eldacar nodded in agreement, refusing to be intimidated. The elf gave him a quick bow that very much looked like it all but brought him to his knees, but managed to recover and turned around to leave. He was already stiffly grasping the tent-flap when he seemed to remember something, and he turned back around, left hand firmly grasping the back of a nearby chair in support.

"Oh, and Master Eldacar? Somebody please get my bat."

He gave them a friendly nod and limped out of the tent. Eldacar listened to the soft sounds of the elf laboriously making his way past the main fireplace towards his own tent before he turned to look at Nestir, an eyebrow raised high.

"His bat?"

Nestir bowed his head, lifted one hand to rub the back of his neck and gave a tired sigh.

"Don't ask. Just … really, just don't."


dúnedain (Sindarin) (pl.) - 'Men of the West', rangers
athelas (S.) - also called Kingsfoil, a healing herb
ion Imladris (S.) - son (of) Rivendell
mellon nín (S.) - my friend
ada (S.) - father (daddy)
yén (S.) - elvish unit of time, equivalent to 144 years
dúnadan (S.) (sg.) - 'Man of the West', ranger

So, as I said, ANGST. And more angst. But come on, you know you love it. *g* And, as I said, they have a PLAN. It's Elrohir's plan, so I guess there is the vague chance that it won't be as much of a disaster as their plans usually are, but ... well. I wouldn't bet on it. *g* Next chapter, we have the asked-for reunion of Halbarad and Daervagor – because, yes, I didn't have the heart to let him be unconscious for very much longer -, and more of Celylith, who was very right when he assumed that Legolas would not be amused about his accompanying Eldacar & Co. Also, we find out how fine Aragorn is. Have a wild guess. Thank you for your patience and support!

Additional A/N:

My apologies to d and I for not including them in the review replies. For that to happen, I need you either to log in before leaving a review or, if you prefer to review anonymously, to leave me an email address. Because that's unfortunately how FF-net now seems to work. To all those who did review, thank you!