A/N: I didn't expect seven reviews. I expected less because of my long, long absence. Thanks to everyone reading!! You give me hope!


PART III: Conflict – Man vs. Man, Man vs. Supernatural, Man vs. Elf

He did not see Kuro again until a month later, on a moonless night.

"You seem different," Halbarad, his second-in-command, noted as they sat around a fire. "More often than not, you seem lost in thought."

He shrugged. "I have much to think about," was his reply, looking up. "How are things faring?"

"Well enough," someone spoke up. "We found several more smiths who are willing to facilitate us."

Others gave their reports, and he noticed the seemingly lack of one. "What about the number of men willing to fight for our cause?"

Halbarad exchanged glances with another. "Is nearly to the minimum that we hoped for."

"The minimum?" He hid his disappointment; by now he had hoped they would have enough. There were reasons why he was a mercenary—he was trying to build up some sort of reputable fame amongst the common people, so that they might be more willing to follow him. "Judging from the time we have used thus far, how long do you think it will take?"

"I do not know."

"A guess?"

"Perhaps a year or two." Halbarad stared into the fire. "Most people do not care. They think they if they are fed, then their leaders can do anything they wish, from consorting with Orcs and other enemies to Morgoth himself. They have forgotten what it is like to be free."

"And how would you remember?" A slightly amused glint came into his eyes. "You are only a mere twelve years older than I, Halbarad."

"The want for freedom should be an in-born feeling," the other said, "But it has to be awoken."

He nodded. "I can wait."

"For how long, though?"

At this new voice, they all stood up and drew their weapons. Only Strider did not. "Daro," he said sharply. "Stop."

Kuro stepped into the light, flicking his hood back. "So you still remember me?"

"I never forget a face I have met," Strider met his gaze evenly.

"Are you still wondering at my words?"

He ignored this question by asking one of his own. "Why are you here?"

Kuro shrugged. "To help you. Or to prove myself to you. Or to wait in hopes that you will learn to trust me." His eyes gleamed in the firelight. "Pick any answer you wish."

"Who are you?" One of his men demanded.

Strider held up a hand. "Sheathe your swords; he is one of us."

They obeyed him, albeit stiffly.

"Tall ships and tall kings. Three times three. What brought they from the foundered land, Over the flowing sea?—" Halbarad began. It was the universal password they used.

"Seven stars and seven stone, and one white tree," the elf finished. "I wish to speak to Strider here, alone."

"For what reason?"

"Many reasons."

This elf was…infuriating. But he sent his men away. "We are alone now."

Kuro nodded. "Now, tell me how long will you wait."

"What does that matter to you?" Strider tossed a few sticks onto the fire. "You ask many questions, yet you answer few of them."

"It is said that you cannot go to the Elves for answer, for they will tell you yes and no."

"I, however, grew up among Elves, and know their ways, but you are unfamiliar to me." He glanced up. "You are no Noldor."

"I am Silvan."

"Silvan?"

"Aye, Silvan." He offered a enigmatic smile. "More dangerous than their Noldo kin."

"What do you seek gain in helping me, then?"

For the first time, the amusement in Kuro's eyes died away, leaving an emotion Strider did not understand. "In time, you will understand that, Estel."

"Strider."

"Is your name not—"

"I do not use it anymore."

"Strider, then." The elf slipped an arrow out of his quiver, examining it. "My question?"

How long? Forever, if possible.He sighed, gazing at the fire for a long moment before finally answering. "I do not know."

"Pitiable."

His head shot up. "What?"

"Pitiable." Kuro shook his head. "You fight in the name of freedom, yet you yourself are not free. You lead, but to what? You wait—for a lifetime, is it?" His blue eyes flickered. "I think you are afraid."

Kuro had said that before. He had not liked hearing it then, and it liked hearing it again even less. His sword was out in an instant, pointed at the elf's throat. "Too assume that, you go too far," he whispered fiercely. "Are you—"

"Hsst." In one swift movement his blade was knocked away. "Evil approaches."

"Wha—"

"The Nine are here."

He froze, his blood running cold. The Nine, or the Nazgûl—Sauron's most loyal servants that carried out his work…they were said to be immortal like the elves, difficult to kill, and their blades were poisoned. Elves could sense them half a league away; he could sense them only a few meters away.

"Gather your men." Kuro stood up, as did Strider.

"They may simply be scouting."

"No, Strider." The elf shook his head. "They want something." His face was pale in the firelight, but there was no fear in it. "Go."

Since when did you start ordering me around? he wondered, but he obliged, calling the others about and giving curt orders.

Halbarad caught up to him. "We have built up the fires."

"Good," he replied. "Have you rallied the rest?"

"Aye."

"Have half of them stay hidden, with you in lead. The rest will follow me." He tugged at his arm braces, checking their tautness. "When I give the fifth signal, be ready."

"Understood." Halbarad saluted him. "Eru go with you."

If he ever was with me…He readied himself. In the dimness of the night, he made out Kuro's form, still next to the fire they had been occupying only moments ago. "Where are they?" he asked.

"Closer."

And then he sensed them—a shadow in your mind, like ice, that slips through your body and threatens to freeze your heart, your strength, and any sort of bravado in you. This was not the first time he had faced the Nine, but this would be his first fight against them. The night sounds quieted. Birds, animals, insects—nothing. They also sense the Nine. Even the sounds of the trees faded. There was just the crackling of the fire next to him, the fires behind him, and the shifting of his men.

He could hear his own heartbeat, and was straining his hearing. When was the last time he had been this…fearful?

What are you playing at, Estel?

A little boy trembled in the rain, trying hard not to stare at the dead warg lying close by. "I was—I was—"

A pair of arms caught him up. "Never mind, dear one. It is all over now."

"I was trying to be brave."

"Shh." Fingers stroked his hair, catching in the tangles and gently tugging them free. "You'll have all the time to brave when you're ready."

"But…"

You're still a child. Be free for now…

"Strider."

He shuddered a little.

"Do not—"

"I know," he said through gritted teeth. He did not need Kuro telling him things he knew. Why he suddenly thinking about the past?

The fire seemed to shrink a little and he shifted his cloak so that it hid the fact his hand was on his sword.

The Nine appeared, nearly soundlessly. But he heard the grass dying beneath their feet and he stiffened. He watched as their leader approached him, face shrouded by the cowl of his cloak.

"Are you the man Strider?" a hoarse voice hissed.

"Why do you seek me?" he asked, tersely.

"Our Lord wishes to employ your services."

"My services?"

"He has heard of your renown as a mercenary and wishes for you to aid us in our hunting down of dissenters."

Absolutely not. But he pretended to consider it. "…Does he wish it or does he order it?" He did not miss the glances they were giving each other.

"An order. Lord Sauron has yet to find a man suited to the task."

"Even so, I must turn down the order." It was getting difficult, keeping the level tone to his voice. "Tell me I am flattered by his proposition, but I cannot accept it."

"He will want your reason."

Strider hesitated. "I prefer to be my own man."

"So be it." The hooded man turned as if to leave, then whirled around, drawing his sword. "I do regret doing this…"

Nay, you do not. He flung back his cloak. "More is the pity that you cannot honour the answer of a man who is renowned."

"You do realize this is more than a simple job. It is a test of your…allegiance."

He stiffened. "Mercenaries have no allegiance."

"But you are Númenórean all the same."

"Yet some of us were born free," Kuro spoke up, pushing back his cloak and letting the firelight dance over his golden strands.

The leader of the Nazgûl looked at him. "And just who might you be?"

Strider watched as Kuro half-shrugged. His bow was still lowered, and he showed no signs of trepidation. "A stranger, working with Strider here."

"You are not Númenórean."

"Good guess." Kuro looked bored now, and Strider was amazed at his flippancy. "But it seems that you have forgotten me." He took a step backward, closer to the fire. The flames danced over his features, giving him an unearthly aura that rivalled that of the suffocating presence of the Nine. "Because murderers never remember how many people they have killed."

What? Strider blinked, glancing sharply from the Nine to Kuro.

"You," The leader hissed.

A smile gleamed, colder than the night. "So I was not forgotten." In one swift motion, the elf had whispered a phrase in the High Tongue, and the fire he stood in front of died out as if swallowed by the darkness.

"Get him!" One of the Nazgûl shrieked. "Keep him and Strider alive, but kill the others. We—" he suddenly choked, fingers dropping his sword and scrabbling at his neck. "Curse you, elf!"

The other Nazgul bore down on Strider and his men on that instant. He parried a blow and ducked another, trying to stay close to one of the fires. Inwardly, he was cursing Kuro for his audaciousness and acting without consulting with him first. His men were dying around him, succumbing quickly the poison. He swore in Dwarvish and realized even if they did outnumber the Nine, they still had a chance of being defeated.

There was nothing to lose, then. Seizing a branch from the fire, Strider waved it in the air. "Elbereth, Gilthoniel!" he shouted, eyes glowing in the light. "Lacho calad!"

Strider stabbed his blade into one of the Nine, ready to step forward when an arrow flew close, grazing his cheek. He jerked back in surprise. "Ku—"

A scream erupted from behind him, and he turned to see an Orc in its death throes.

Kuro walked past him. "There are Orcs about, do not let down your guard," he was all he said as he strung another arrow on his bow.

Anger and pride flared up in him and he almost stomped away. He came almost face-to-face with another Nazgûl, and he vented his anger by shoving the torch in his face and setting his cloak on fire.

Halbarad was suddenly next to time. "The Orcs—"

"They only want me," he brushed the other's concern off. "Just concentrate on ridding as many of them as you can and driving the Nine away."

"Aye."

The battle wore on; he was not counting how many he had slew. As he pulled his sword out of a dead Orc's body, he glanced about it, and caught sight of Kuro battling two of the Nine with a pair of knives. The elf was deft in his moves, blocking, slashing, and ducking.

Then he saw the dagger one of them held. It gleamed sharply before being hidden in the depths of the black fabric. Without thinking, he ran forward, yanking his own hunting dagger from the back of his belt. "Kuro!" he shouted.

The elf saw him and dropped to his hands and knees in a graceful move, kicking out with his boot and catching the Nazgul in front of him unaware. The dagger passed over while Strider threw his, the blade finding its mark in the neck of the one behind Kuro.

The elf stood up. "Hannad," he shouted over the din before he ran off into the night.

"The same," Strider said, softly. The elf held up a hand, and the man knew he had been heard.

"Orcs, rally to me!" The leader of the Nine shouted. "We are leaving." He pointed his sword at Strider. "So, you are the one who leads these rebels. The heir."

"What of it." Strider returned the other's gaze as calmly as he could.

"Beware, for your days are numbered. Lord Sauron does not forget his enemies."

"Tell him I do not forget mine, either." He watched as the Nazgûl melted into the shadows, out of site, with the Orcs trailing them. The creatures spit and taunted, howling about the terrible things Sauron would do to him once he caught him. He stood passively, watching until they were gone until the feeling of the Nine was too.

"Halbarad?" he called out.

"Here." The man emerged, bloody but seemingly unharmed. "I am well, but some of the others are not."

"Gather the injured, and bury the dead," Strider said, cleaning his sword before sheathing it.

"And the poison?"

"In my pack, I have an antidote that should work." He caught the other's arm. "Tomorrow at first light, we must leave for the mountains." He shook his head a little. "Things are moving much faster than I have expected."

"The elf caused it."

"Only a part. It was inevitable, I think." He tried to smile. "Go, now."

He watched Halbarad leave, and suddenly he felt weary. It had been some time since he had last fought, and while his skills were not rusty, he was…troubled by it. These Orcs were different, strong, perhaps.

Sauron was up to nothing good.

What next?

Someone put their hand on his shoulder, and he jerked.

"It is only I."

"Kuro," he said.

"Strider."

Slowly, he turned to face the elf. A smear of blood decorated his cheek, and his cloak was half ripped. But his eyes still gleamed, and even his entire form seemed to radiate a little.

"The fire—"

"A handy trick my people sometimes use."

Silence. He started to speak, but stopped himself. Shaking his head, he offered his hand to the elf, who grasped it firmly.

"I saved your life, and you saved mine."

"I will be indebted to no person."

"Then, Estel, you have much to learn."

"Strider." His child-name had too many memories.

Kuro met his gaze. "Strider for now."

"Will you not tell me your name?"

"In time."

"How am I to trust you, then?"

"Then trust what your heart says."

"Will you swear allegiance to me?"

The elf shook his head. "I have already sworn allegiance to another," he replied, "But I can give an oath that I will be a friend at all times."

What was he to say? "I accept that." It was only a word. Friend? He wondered if he would ever had a true friend that would be closer than a brother.

Nevertheless, for the time, he saw a genuine smile on Kuro's face, and he was strangely encouraged by it.

TBC...


A/N: Next chapter is a WIP, and the rest of the story has partial chapters finished. My concentration got fragmented at some point, but the at least the next chapter is mostly complete. It'll be posted either the end of April or in May.

On an unrelated note, I know some of you are probably waiting for the next chapter of "Apostate's Ruse," but I'm afraid it's not going to be posted anytime soon because the story is rather old. My style and viewpoint have change throughout the years, and the story's become unsatisfactory to me. I know I probably should take it down and redo the entire thing, but I'm reluctant to do that because this story was the one in which I finally got the hang of writing. So it will be continued in time, yes, but it'll be a while longer. For now, I hope you're enjoy this story. :)