Disclaimer: Nothing's mine.
AN: I can't believe I have to say this now, but... This is going to be the last chapter of this fic. *hides in anticipation of what people will do when they see where I've ended it* I'm so sorry – but that seemed like the perfect place to end it when I was writing.
But I won't say any more about that. ;-)
Thanks to CAH, RadioactiveSquirrel, Silivren Tinu, darkdranzer, sokkergurl, OrcMaster, Strangely Tawny, AtlantisGirl12, KyMahalei, AiedailWing, ilysia, Blackgenius and Taranis for reviewing the last chapter.
Many thanks to my wonderful beta, Calenlass, for her work on this, and to Silivren Tinu for letting me borrow Tuilinn. (I couldn't have moved the story along without him.)
Part III: Deception Cannot End
Thandraug had been first on the spot in answer to the whistle.
Four men stood around a clearing, effectively marking the area and keeping the others away from it in order to preserve the tracks. When Thandraug arrived, he saw the reason for the signal at once: in the soft earth in the centre of the clearing were distinct hoof-prints. They were visible for a few feet; where the grass became thicker the horse's path could still be seen from flattened blades and broken leaves. Nearer the edge of the clearing was a broad swath of disturbed grass where, clearly, the horse had rolled.
"Do you see?" one of the men asked eagerly.
"There has been a horse."
"It is more than just that. Erthor said he saw a rider – he was certain of it. And see, here..." He pointed at the prints in the soil. "The depth of the tracks, and its gait... It was definitely carrying a rider at that point. And here it walked." He followed the trail with his pointing finger. "There it rolled on the ground, probably playfully. But never with a rider on its back, nor with a saddle, either. Possibly the man was riding bareback, but he must have dismounted."
"Where are his footprints?"
Thandraug heard a muffled oath in Quenya. It startled him, because he had heard it only once before, from Lord Aragorn's foster-brother Elladan on seeing a particularly grievously wounded Ranger. He looked up – just in time to see Suiadan, who had evidently arrived while the other man was speaking, flush and duck his head.
Halbarad, who had also come, muttered something that sounded suspiciously like, "The fool."
"What should we do, my lord?" Thandraug asked.
"Perhaps he swung himself up into the trees?" Halbarad suggested. "It is likely enough, with a tall horse, as this clearly was."
"The branches are far too high, Lord Halbarad!" the man protested. "Look!" Then, looking up, he swore.
Thandraug followed the direction of his gaze, and was hard-put not to echo the curse. He would have sworn, a few moments ago, that there was no way any of the trees around them could be climbed without the aid of a stout ladder. Now, though, strong branches of oak and beech hung low as though laden by invisible and very heavy snow, no more than twelve feet from the ground – easily within reach for an agile man on a tall horse.
"I am going mad," he muttered. "They were not like that before."
He looked at Suiadan again. The young Ranger had pulled his cloak closer around him, but what Thandraug could see of his face was scarlet.
"He has a horse," Thandraug whispered suddenly, remembrance and realization striking him at the same time. "And nobody has seen it since he arrived!" Halbarad shot him a sharp glance, and he fell silent. But, remembering the conversation he had witnessed between Lord Aragorn's trusted advisor and the strange weapons master, he began to wonder if all was well among the Dúnedain.
"Lord Aragorn, it was Suiadan! It must have been!"
"Master Thandraug is mistaken. I assure you that Suiadan could not possibly mean any harm to the settlement or to any who live here. I can understand that, in his concern for his charges, he is naturally suspicious of any stranger who has close interaction with them –"
"You do me an injustice, Lord Halbarad," Thandraug said angrily. "I have treated Suiadan with respect and courtesy all this time, relying on his reputation and your own favourable opinion of him. I do not mean to impugn your judgement when I say that he is odd. I may not have travelled, Lord Aragorn, but I have met plenty of men who have. None of them is as strange as Suiadan. Lord Halbarad is blinded by his determination to deal fairly with a young man alone among relative strangers. The feeling does him credit, but –"
"Stop," Aragorn begged. "Both of you."
Silence fell. Aragorn glanced from one of them to the other, noting that while Thandraug appeared slightly angry, or perhaps worried, Halbarad seemed only mildly amused.
"Master Thandraug," the harried Chieftain went on, casting an imploring glance at Halbarad to stay silent, "tell me, if you will, what exactly you found and what it is that makes you believe Suiadan was riding last night... And, since riding at night is no crime, you will have to tell me why you think he is being dishonest with us."
"Gladly, Lord Aragorn," Thandraug replied. "We found a horse's prints – it seems to have been a tall horse, in keeping with what the lookouts said. There were signs that its rider must surely have dismounted, but, although the horse's tracks were clear for all to see, not so much as a bent blade of grass market the rider's footsteps."
Aragorn's mind flew at once to chasing his foster-brothers around Imladris as a child, to the frustration he felt when he realized that they could walk on snow without leaving more than the faintest footprints in it. For one wild moment he was certain Elladan or Elrohir had come in disguise to play a prank on him. Then he dismissed the idea: most of the Rangers knew the sons of Elrond, and any attempt at impersonation would have been penetrated at once.
"Why do you believe Suiadan knows something of it?"
"I saw his face, my lord," Thandraug said simply. "He is concealing something. I do not know what, but I do not want him around the boys until I have a satisfactory explanation."
"I do not know anything about what he has told you, Master Thandraug," Halbarad put in. "But I am willing to swear that he has been perfectly honest with me. As you are aware, Lord Aragorn, I am acquainted with Suiadan. Master Thandraug's fears are understandable, but ill-founded. This boy is no threat."
"He made the trees move!"
"That is absurd."
"I saw it, my lord. And that is not the only lie he has told – he calls himself a swordsman!"
"You cannot deny his skill," Halbarad protested. "I saw it myself, yesterday."
"I grant that he has a fair hand with a blade," Thandraug admitted grudgingly. "But he does not particularly like swords. That much is evident. And did you see his skill with the bow? I have seen nothing like it before. He is an archer if ever I saw one."
Halbarad schooled his expression a moment too late.
Aragorn's eyes were agleam.
"One last thing, Master Thandraug," he said, his voice carefully level. "How did he arrive?"
"He rode, Lord Aragorn. I have not seen his horse since I saw him ride it up the road, but it is the right height. Tuilinn, he called it."
Fifteen minutes later, the Captain of the Guard had joined them. He was looking from Halbarad to Thandraug apprehensively, not wanting to be drawn to take sides in an argument.
"Suiadan," Aragorn said, with a grin that would have frightened anybody except, perhaps, the subject of their conversation. "Or... The man who calls himself Suiadan." There was particular emphasis on the word 'man'. "He is an impostor – no, wait!" The Captain had made to leave the room at once. "He is a dangerous warrior, and an experienced woodsman. You will not be able to take him against his will if once he gets to the trees. Set your best men to keep a watch on him. If he attempts to leave, they are to bring him before me." He paused. "And above all, remember that Suiadan must not get hurt. The consequences of that might be... severe... if his family hears of it."
The Captain bowed and left, followed by Thandraug.
Alone with Halbarad, Aragorn asked, "And whose side are you on?"
"The Elf's, obviously."
"You will not warn him."
"Of course not. I want to watch the fun."
... And now there seem to be two of Lord Aragorn's Dúnedain following me everywhere. These Men are as persistent as leeches!
This afternoon I was taking the boys through the forest for a lesson in tracking. Every step of the way my 'guards' were following us, attempting to conceal themselves in the trees. And they were stealthy, for Men. The boys never knew they were there. The trees spent what I imagine was a wonderfully mirthful two hours sending them on false trails.
I cannot imagine what Aragorn means by it. If he has guessed who I am, then he knows that there is no point setting men to trail me through the woods. Perhaps growing up with the two of you robbed him of whatever common sense he might otherwise have possessed...
Legolas slipped outside again. The Men were still awake, some sitting by firesides telling stories, others strolling with their wives or children. The moon was the merest sliver in the sky, but the night was particularly clear and it seemed as though every star was shining as brightly as Eärendil.
Beneath the eaves of a nearby house, the shadows moved.
He hurried away from the settlement towards the surrounding trees. He could hear footsteps behind him. The Men were stealthy. He had to grant them that; he would certainly commend them to Aragorn when he got the chance.
As he neared the trees, he heard the footsteps behind him quicken. It appeared that Aragorn had warned them that they would not be able to catch him in the trees.
Legolas' grin widened. With a sudden burst of speed that no Man could possibly match, he gained the cover of the forest. One of the trees bent its boughs invitingly. He leapt into them without breaking stride. A moment later, his pursuers panted into the forest. The Elf pressed himself against the tree, letting the gently rustling leaves close over him and hide him from sight.
The men stood below, breathing heavily, staring around them, not even suspecting that their quarry was only a few feet away.
With the stealth of an experienced Elven-warrior, Legolas hoisted himself onto a higher branch. He paused a moment to make sure he had not been detected, then he scurried along the branch, which barely bowed under his weight, to that of another tree. In just a few minutes he was several yards away, his hood pulled up to hide any telltale glint of blond hair, watching as the men scoured the ground for footprints.
"Thandraug was right," one of them grunted. "He leaves no marks."
"He is a creature of flesh, just as you are. We will find him and then we will carry out Lord Aragorn's orders."
About to slip away and find Tuilinn, Legolas stopped. He could not imagine what 'Lord Aragorn's orders' could be, beyond having him taken back to the settlement... But perhaps Aragorn had told the men some way to catch him. He had no idea what it could be. Aragorn's successes in tracking games in Imladris and Eryn Galen had been infrequent at best.
He wondered what Aragorn would do if he were captured and brought before the Chieftain as an impostor.
With an inaudible groan, Legolas realized that Aragorn would have known only too well that his own curiosity would lead him to let the Men see him, and not to make a serious attempt to escape if they tried to take him prisoner.
Making as much noise as he could, the Elf-prince dropped to the ground.
The Rangers whirled at the noise. They reacted faster than any other Men would have done; all the same, Legolas, if he had wanted, would have had ample time to be in another tree twenty feet away by the time they reached him. Instead, he backed up against the hard trunk, drawing his knives.
If he was going to let them catch him, he might as well make them sweat for it.
Thandraug stared down in mute horror at the letter before him.
It was from a Ranger settlement many leagues away, from a man called Suiadan, explaining that he had broken his arm and would therefore be delayed by a month.
He dropped the missive and hurried outdoors. The first place he went was Suiadan's – the impostor's – quarters. They were empty. What was worse, there were no footprints near any of the entrances, or even any of the windows, except a lopsided, two-day-old pair that he recognized as his own.
He groaned. How many opportunities had he had for noting the impostor's steps? Yet he had never thought to check... Even after what they found in the woods, he had only assumed that the man had somehow managed to get into a tree. That would have been a remarkable feat of agility, no doubt, but to walk without leaving a single mark on the soft, loamy soil was terrifying. It made him wonder if the impostor had dealings with the Shadow, if this was perhaps some strange ability given to servants of the Enemy to mask their presence.
At this very moment the false Suiadan might be leading Orcs to them – or Nazgûl – perhaps even the Witch-king himself –
Thandraug shook himself. He searched the area around the building and found the slight but still discernible marks left by the men Lord Aragorn had told to watch Suiadan. They led into the woods.
Thandraug broke into an awkward run.
Legolas did not know whether or not to laugh. He had intended to do no more than put up a token fight before he let the Men take him, but the trees, believing that some concealed injury made his reflexes slow, were interfering on their own account. The Rangers found themselves tripped by roots and bombarded by acorns. They were looking more and more alarmed with each passing second, although, to their credit, they did manage to get their blades dangerously close to Legolas more than once.
With an adroit move, he slipped around them into a relatively open area, where there was less chance of their being attacked as soon as they neared him. He hoped they would think he had done it because the trees were bothering him as well.
Evidently they did. They followed, their relief not entirely covering the air of scarcely-veiled menace that armed Rangers always managed to convey.
Legolas backed away, parrying. His hood had slipped, but his hair, fortunately, was hiding his ears. The trees were shouting warnings, but he ignored them. This was not the time.
Then one particular cry from the trees made him look up.
No! he said urgently. No, do not do that! Wait!
The moment's distraction cost him. A blade came arcing through the air to his shoulder. Legolas took a hasty step away –
And stopped when he felt cold steel on the back of his neck.
"The less trouble you cause," Thandraug hissed, "the less we will cause for you."
Legolas sheathed his knives in a movement so swift that it was over before Thandraug could react. Not even to find out what Aragorn had planned was he willing to risk dropping his knives and letting them gather damp and rust.
At once, the blade pressed harder. Legolas felt a drop of blood on his neck.
"I give you my word, I mean no harm," he said aloud.
"We will see." Thandraug nodded to one of the other men. "I left a torch there – light it. I will not feel safe until I can see him properly."
Legolas held up his hands to show that they were empty, and let one of the men pat him down for weapons. The small dagger up his right sleeve was found and confiscated, as was another one tucked into his belt. The slender throwing knives in his boots remained undetected.
"It would help if you would release me," Legolas said in as reasonable a tone as he could manage while on the verge of convulsive laughter. "Somebody observing might think that you mean harm –"
"I do mean harm," Thandraug snarled.
"But it would be wisest not to say that." Legolas cast an anxious glance at the trees that, although normally friendly enough to the Rangers, had begun rustling ominously at that last remark. "If – I only say if – someone –"
"Someone? One of your friends?"
"No – I – that is –"
"You cannot be a Ringwraith," Thandraug whispered. "I do not sense that much evil –"
"A Ringwraith!" Legolas said, outraged. "I am no Ringwraith!"
"Then what –"
Before Thandraug could finish his question, there was a great crashing noise, as though half a dozen riders were approaching them at full tilt, accompanied by a sound that was too furious and dangerous to be described as a neigh.
"Ai Elbereth," Legolas breathed. "There will be no stopping him. I did try to warn you. At least drop your knife."
Thandraug shook him.
"What do you mean?"
And then the source of the noise burst through the trees.
Even at the best of times, Tuilinn was tall for a riding horse. Snorting, rearing, and charging as though he were in the midst of a battle with Legolas on his back urging him on, he looked about twice his usual size.
"Daro!" Legolas cried desperately. "Baw, Tuilinn! Daro!"
But where his master's safety was concerned, Tuilinn was not in the habit of taking orders. He ignored Legolas and made for Thandraug, who looked too shocked to move.
Realizing that the man would be trampled unless he did something, Legolas pushed him back and to one side so that he was between the Ranger and the charging horse.
"Tuilinn, daro! Boe i ledhich!"
Tuilinn nosed Legolas firmly aside and reared again. The Elf made a wild lunge and managed to close his fingers around a handful of Tuilinn's mane. He was shaken off at once. Thandraug finally overcame his shock enough to fall back a few paces. But a tree root tripped him and he went sprawling to the ground.
"The beast is mad!" he shouted. "Kill it – use one of the throwing knives. Quickly!"
"No!" Legolas protested. Then, since nobody appeared to paying the slightest attention to him, he stared around the clearing and muttered a few soft words.
The darkness that fell was absolute. The torch went out, and the trees, drawing themselves closer together, managed to blot out the moon and most of the stars.
"What manner of witchcraft is this?" Thandraug demanded, sounding horrified. "What are you?"
"Please," Legolas gasped, still trying in vain to restrain Tuilinn, "please, if we can just discuss this like reasonable people, it will be much easier. I will gladly do what you ask – saes, Tuilinn – but you are alarming my horse."
His tone reassured Tuilinn, if it did nothing else. The horse stopped prancing, snorted and lowered his head to nose at Legolas' hair. Then, reassured of the Elf's wellbeing, he began to crop the grass as though nothing had happened. But it was clear that he did not trust any of the Men, because he did not budge an inch from his master's side.
Thandraug's sigh was audible.
"We will do no harm to the horse if you will send it away and come with us, without making a fuss, to see Lord Aragorn. Now can you bring some light back?"
Legolas had pulled his hood up again. The men, one holding each of his arms, hauled him along with a distinct lack of gentleness. Legolas could not blame them. He did not attempt to tell them who he was. There was no reason for them to believe him, and every reason for them not to believe him – he had entered the settlement under false pretences, after all.
"What made you so certain just now?" he asked Thandraug.
The Ranger seemed, for a moment, to be wondering whether or not to answer. When he finally spoke, it was with an air of distinct satisfaction.
"I had a letter from Suiadan – the real Suiadan."
"Letters! Always letters! First Saeldur and now your friend! Somebody ought to forbid the writing of letters to Ranger settlements."
Thandraug cast him a curious glance, but did not respond.
Aragorn got out of bed, wondering irritably why people were knocking on his door at this hour. He fumbled for his clothes, slipping into a tunic and a heavy cloak before he went to see who was outside.
He opened the door and stared.
There was practically a procession standing at the threshold. Thandraug was first, eyes agleam with triumph. Behind him stood Halbarad, who had clearly also been rousted from his slumber – his hair was tousled and he was shivering in the cold. The rear was brought up by Legolas, who had his hood pulled high – probably to hide his ears – and looked remarkably smug, considering that he was being held in what looked like a painful grip by the men on either side of him.
"This had better be good," he muttered.
"He was trying to escape!" Thandraug burst out furiously. "We caught him, though, before he could. And that monstrous animal of his nearly slaughtered us all – and he called darkness down upon us, by I know not what witchcraft. If he were not so clearly made of flesh I would believe him one of the Nine!"
Aragorn had to laugh at Halbarad's grin and Legolas' outraged expression.
"Well, since we know he cannot be one of the Nine, perhaps we can deal with this more calmly indoors. It will be far warmer, at any rate." He stepped back to let them enter. "I hope you have been gentle. It is more than my life is worth to return him injured."
The glare he got from Legolas only made him laugh again.
The Elf was dragged into the room by his two captors. They shoved him roughly into a chair and stood behind it, watching him in grim silence.
"I hope you have been enjoying our hospitality?" Aragorn said politely. "The food is to your liking? And so is the wine, I trust, although we lead a rough life here and we cannot match the Dorwinion of your Elven-halls."
"He is an Elf?"
For a moment Aragorn was startled – Legolas would have put up at least a token fight, and that would have been enough to identify his race. Then he remembered how little Thandraug travelled.
"He is an Elf," he confirmed calmly. "And one who is well known to me. The boys would not have suffered by his teaching. In fact, I am certain that they will, if anything, profit by it." He paused for emphasis. "I am sure he had a very good reason for pretending to be Suiadan."
"He called me Suiadan," Legolas muttered mutinously. "What else could I have done?"
"Do they not have the word 'no' in your land?" Aragorn smiled at Thandraug. "He is little more than a child by the standards of his people, Master Thandraug, and he is still fond of childish pranks. You will have to excuse him." Legolas looked even more furious than he had done at the suggestion that he was one of the Nazgûl. "He means no harm."
"Are you certain, my lord?"
"I know it beyond a doubt... But I have not even introduced you yet! Forgive me." He grinned at his friend, who, despite himself, smiled back. "Master Thandraug, this is Glavror. He is one of the Noldorin lords of Imladris," he lied cheerfully. "Despite the fact that he is still an Elfling, he is an accomplished warrior. I am certain that he will be happy to join you and your companions for a few flagons of ale and a discussion of battle-tactics tomorrow. You will be able to learn much from him."
And Aragorn smiled beatifically into Legolas' furious eyes.
"Ale? Ale? It is bad enough that you consume that vile beverage –"
"You mean you do not like it?" Aragorn asked, pretending to be surprised. "I am so sorry, mellon nîn. I never realized!"
"And I am a Noldo, am I?"
"I had to say something."
"Yes, I quite understand. And now, Lord Aragorn, if you would care to step into the forest with me, I have to say something to you."
"You will pardon me if I do not. I like my limbs unbroken."
Halbarad, who thus far had been listening to the argument and chuckling quietly to himself, finally broke in.
"One thing, Lord Aragorn. The Elf won."
"What?" Aragorn demanded. "How did he win? He got caught!"
"It is likelier that he let them catch him. And that is not the point, anyway. He is still in the settlement under a false name. It does not matter what the name is."
"See?" Legolas said, smirking. "I win."
"Of course you do not win! Halbarad is a fool."
"Halbarad is far wiser than his chieftain."
"We will see about it after you drink that ale. Elves!"
Daro! Baw, Tuilinn! Daro! – Stop! No, Tuilinn! Stop!
Tuilinn, daro! Boe i ledhich! – Tuilinn, stop! You must go!
Saes – Please
*returns Tuilinn to rightful owner*
*is hiding under bed*
What did you think? Good? Bad? Coming after me with armed-and-dangerous bowmen? Please review!