AUTHOR: Marethiel TITLE: Of Mice and Men and Elves and Dwarves RATING: PG-13 SUMMARY: Yes, I'm afraid it's another one of those "Elessar tries to elude his guard" things, but I'm hoping it will keep interest enough for readers to continue through to the end. 1st Place Teitho "Pranks" challenge, April 2010.
AUTHOR'S NOTES: This is a proofed and edited version of the story posted on Teitho. It is slightly AU and quite definitely more movie- than book-verse. (thanks for the heads up, Raksha and pete - truly, I appreciate it! Poetic license is one thing, being outright wrong is another. My thanks.) The years are a bit muddled the ages of Elessar and Arwen's children, the settling and building of Legolas' area of Ithilien. I simply ask that you observe a willing suspension of disbelief and try to enjoy it anyway. :-)
STATUS: Complete BETA: Cairistiona, Rachel; strong editorial support from Raksha the Demon and pete.

Ithilien, Settlement of Legolas Greenleaf, The Fourth Age

"Why the long face, my friend? Truly, you look as dejected as the day Master Elrond learned you had been the one guilty of hiding all of Glorfindel's boots, and not the twins after all."

Startled from his reverie, Aragorn Elessar raised his grey eyes, wide with surprise, and stared at the smirking face of his dear old friend, Legolas Greenleaf, Prince of Mirkwood. At his friend's side sat Gimli, son of Glo n, of Erebor. These three members of the Fellowship, grown older in the ensuing years (nearly thirty since the destruction of the One Ring) were resting in comfort in a grassy area under Legolas' beautiful trees with goblets of chilled, clear spring wine in their hands. The stately home more a castle - Gimli had begun to build to Legolas' direction was finding its lines now as it grew and expanded over the years. The beautiful trees Legolas had insisted Gimli build around provided shelter and protection from heat and storms, wind and rain. This lovely arbor, filled with grapevines, strawberry and blueberry plants, as well as fruit trees of many kinds, was growing into a lovely, aromatic haven for Legolas and his guests.

There were several guests at the castle at this time, including the Lord Steward of Gondor and his White Lady; all were present to celebrate the Spring Festival here in Ithilien in a few days' time.

Today, the three companions rested in contented peace, away from the noise of workers or mortal villagers. Away, even, from the presence of the King's Guard, which was a rare feat indeed. The D nedain of the North had flourished in the last thirty years. Young men from Eriador, healthy, strong D nedain men, populated the King's personal guard. Captain at the moment was Br ganu, the youngest son of Aragorn's beloved kinsman, Halbarad.

Aragorn thought back to that long ago prank with a rueful chuckle. The situation named had earned him two very long weeks' worth of hard work cleaning tack and warriors' gear under Glorfindel's stern eye. The king laughed and shook his head for a moment in memory of that day long ago. He raised an eyebrow at his friend, who had also been there; Aragorn marveled to think that truly, Legolas looked not a day older than he had that summer day when Estel had been fourteen years old, a day nearly a century behind them.

"I am no longer the stripling youth I was, filled with ill-conceived ideas," said Elessar loftily, but with a smile in his voice and a sparkle in his eye.

"What is this nonsense of which you speak, Legolas?" asked Gimli, leaning back in his chair, puffing on his pipe.

Legolas regaled the dwarf with the story of young Estel's prank on the Great Lord of the House of the Golden Flowemaking Gimli laugh at the boy's audacity. "You set your heights high, Laddie! Glorfindel? He'd slain a Balrog! Did you not fear his wrath?"

Aragorn smiled and shook his head. "Nay, my friend. The worst punishment I ever faced from Glorfindel was a well-deserved switching for disobedience on the training ground. Only one was necessary to place me once again on the righteous path. Glorfindel might have been a fearsome warrior to some, but to me he was -" He was about to say more when he heard footsteps behind him and sighed. So much for our unbroken privacy.. Schooling his expression to a bland acceptance, Aragorn waited for his Captain to come before him. To his surprise, both Br ganu and the Elf Arassarod, Legolas' Seneschal, entered their circle.

"Your Majesty, my apologies for the intrusion."

Aragorn nodded in acceptance, and gestured for the young soldier to speak, but it was Arassarod who turned to Legolas instead.

"There is a contingent from the village here, m'lord. There have been rumblings in the earth, and the villagers are frightened."

Aragorn raised an eyebrow in concern; it was the first he'd heard of this. Legolas sighed, nodding, then glanced at Gimli. "It is you who are one with rock and stone, my friend. What would you have me tell them?

Gimli sighed and set down his goblet. "It's true these rumblings can sometimes come before more serious tremors," he agreed quietly, "but these are rare, Legolas, and the rumbling generally come to naught. It has been many years since a serious quaking of the earth has occurred, particularly in this area. Even the active volcanoes are quiet." He set the goblet down. "Still, I can understand their uneasiness "

Legolas rose to his feet. "Well, then, let us be off and reassure my people, shall we, Master Dwarf?"

"Aye, Master Elf, lead on," responded Gimli rising to his feet to follow.

Legolas turned to Aragorn. "Shall you join us, Aragorn?"

The King shook his head. "Nay, my friend. My presence might serve the purpose of undermining your authority with your people. It is you to whom they should look for guidance. I shall see you at the evening meal."

"Very well, mellon nin," nodded Legolas, with a smile. Aragorn watched his friends head back toward the castle a bit wistfully, then closed his eyes, enjoying the peace: water playing over the rocks in the creek nearby, the sounds of the birds and animals of the wood; the light wind ruffling leaves and grasses and the crunch of earth under the remarkably large boots of a King's Guardsman.

Aragorn opened one eye to glance to his left and found Br ganu standing at attention. At Aragorn's pointed look, the Captain smiled slightly and stepped back roughly six feet, but remained at attention, clearly not planning to move another inch.

Aragorn sighed and closed his eyes once more, wondering if he should mention to Legolas at the evening meal how beautifully fragrant and colorful a prison his home had become

Arwen sat at her dressing table, slowly using the long, steady strokes that brushed out her hair, and studied the figure of her husband, standing before the hearth. Though the spring days were warm and lovely, evenings and early morning still bore a chill, and the crackling flames were a comfort. "It was a lovely evening, was it not, Estel?

She was not surprised at his silence. Though their evening had been lovely, filled with wonderful food, sparkling conversation and pleasant music, her husband had shown considerable restlessness and distraction, as though he simply could not relax. They'd retired early, begging leave of their companions, and headed to their suite.

The exhaustion was real. Both were nearly ready for bed; Aragorn stood barefoot before the fire, a goblet of wine in his hand, though he'd barely touched it. He wore merely leggings and a shirt, open and comfortable and the color of the flames danced on the white linen, warming the tones of his skin and hair.

Sighing softly, Arwen gracefully swept to her feet and padded over to him. She touched his arm ever so gently; he still started, so lost in his thoughts was he. "What's this? A Ranger caught off his guard?" she whispered, allowing her touch to be more firm. Her thoughts on his troubles were confirmed when he winced at her choice of words.

He flushed slightly. "My apologies, my love. I was thinking," he said softly, brushing her forehead with his lips.

"I noticed," she nodded. "Estel, dearest, I would have you talk to me, unburden yourself if you wish. Remember Elrond's words that a trouble shared is one halved?"

He glanced at her. "You believe I am troubled?"

She stroked his cheek. "I believe you are distressed, beloved, and I would have you at peace."

He nodded, lifting his arm so that she might cuddle next to him as they looked into the crackling hearth together. "I I am distressed, though I'm at a loss to explain it easily, my love," he said softly. "I have no wish to hurt or cause pain."

Arwen decided to cut short the discussion and ease his path. "You wish you had the relatively carefree life of a D nedain Ranger once more; that your every move was not tracked by your personal guard, and that people could leave you in peace to think, to walk, to dream. In many ways, you wish you were not King."

Shocked, Aragorn looked down at her. She retrieved the goblet before the wine stained Legolas' carpet and set it aside. "Estel, I am the daughter of the Master of Imladris. Do you not think Elrond faced these same restrictions and feelings? Why do you think one of the few rooms in Imladris with a lockable door was his study? Why do you think Erestor worked so diligently to plan the private gardens to be so cloistered? Adar recognized his desperate need for solitude, to recover from the demands of leadership."

He smiled slightly and shook his head in admiration at her. "I will learn, someday, not to be surprised by the depth of your intuition and knowledge, vanimelda." He sighed then, leaning his forehead against hers. "In one thing, though, you are wrong; I do wish to be I am up to the task and know that my people, all of my people, need me. But I do wish change could be effected. Sadly, there are far more important things to which I must devote my time than detailing the responsibilities of the King's Guard." He leaned over and kissed her. "You do understand when I say I wish solitude sometimes I am not sad or displeased with our life together?" he asked, a bit of worry in his grey eyes.

She smiled. "Of course. Have you never wondered why I often will spend time with the children? They are too old now for a nurse, really. Eldarion would be deeply offended if I alluded to that." Aragorn snorted in laughter, thinking of the adolescent outrage that would be present on his sixteen-year-old's face if his mother used those words. Their daughters, too, would take the reference to "nurse" as an affront. "It affords me time alone, as well, my love, as they will often disappear to their own devices."

She felt some of the tension ease from her husband. "You must balance better, dearest. Overburdening yourself serves no one, least of all the people whom you protect. You must find ways to ease your tensions." She smiled wickedly, her hand snaking up under his open shirt. She tickled along his spine, making him shudder, then chuckle. "I can think of a wonderful way to ease tension and distract you "

Aragorn laughed softly at the naughty grin on her face, and leaned down to kiss her, deeply. He was delighted to feel his body respond, despite being so weary. It had been too long! His hand gently slid one narrow strap of her nightdress off her shoulder, clearing way for him to nuzzle the base of her throat where neck met shoulder. She purred with pleasure as he kissed her, the passion rising. For a few moments, hungry lips and hands explored each other until they parted, breathless and flushed. Aragorn chuckled and swiftly lifted her into his strong arms and carried her, laughing, to their bed. "Truly, your Highness, you do know the most effective ways to distract me from my troubles."

Gimli poured two half-goblets of wine and brought them to the two comfortable chairs before the hearth in his sitting room. This was a common way to find Legolas and himself at the end of a day, for the chairs reflected this: each proportioned for their owners. He handed one to Legolas and sought his own chair.

"So," the Dwarf said as he settled in his chair, "what do you think is wrong with him?"'

Legolas sipped and stared into the flames. "I think he is overtired, overexerted and overrun," he replied, raising a blond eyebrow at his friend. "I can only imagine what these last thirty years have been like for someone used to sleeping under the stars."

"Aragorn has more patience than most Elves I know," said the Dwarf pointedly, making Legolas tilt his head at him coolly, "but even he must chomp at the bit with bloody court politics. How much must he give away before agreement and consensus can come."

Legolas studied him. "True. That's perceptive of you."

"Here, I might not be a pointy-eared Elvish princeling," snorted Gimli derisively, "but I am of royal blood and know the Court well!"

"My apologies," smiled Legolas

"Ye daft Elf," muttered Gimli. "Back to the issue how do we help him?"

Legolas sighed and shook his head. "The lead on this must come from Aragorn. He is the King, that cannot be undone, my friend."

Gimli sat thoughtfully. "Aye perhaps that's the answer. He is the King."

Legolas slowly turned from the fire to his friend. "Valar, Gimli. You are not as stone-brained as others describe," he said solemnly, though his eyes danced.

"What!"

" So between negotiations with the Haradrim, determining which of my already struggling people must suffer taxation, and dealing with the politics of court, I have not been in a room with less than eight people at a time in months well, except perhaps Arwen's and my bedchamber."

Gimli sighed. "'Tis a heavy burden, lad. I know. But you need to find a way to keep up your spirits!"

"Too many people," nodded Legolas softly, understanding.

A brief nod, and Aragorn rose from his comfortable chair on the balcony to walk toward its edge, looking out into the view of Ithilien spread before him. "I know it is little more than childishness, but " Aragorn sighed, leaning once more on the balcony railing, overlooking Legolas' beautiful domain. "I miss quiet and solitude. And I miss the freedom of coming and going when I wish."

"You are the King," grunted Gimli. "I daresay you can come and go and order anybody else to do so as you desire!"

Aragorn glanced at his friend. "Yes, provided I have an honor guard striding along beside me." His face darkened slightly, and he snorted in disgust. "During our trip here I had to grow firm with my Captain to inform our youngest members of the guard that I did not require accompaniment to the privy!"

Gimli choked on his pipe, struggling to keep from laughing.

"Oh, you may laugh, Master Dwarf," growled Aragorn. "'Tis not your person in constant eye view!"

"Aragorn, you are the Ruler of the United Kingdoms," reasoned Legolas gently, from his perch on the railing, his back comfortably against the wall. "Surely you realize that your safety is paramount to Middle Earth? You are no longer a mere nondescript Ranger of the North."

"I know," he muttered. "I just wish that I could be, every now and again."

Gimli puffed his pipe in thoughtful silence, then he grinned to himself beneath his russet beard. "As I said earlier, laddie you're the King. Can't ye order 'em to stay behind?"

Aragorn glanced at him. "Law of the Realm: King's Guard accompanies King."

"Oh." Gimli frowned.

Legolas studied his friend: The grey was more prominent in his hair now, and he'd put on a little more flesh than he'd carried as the spare, lean Ranger thirty years ago. But there was a tiredness in Aragorn that rivaled the exhaustion he'd shown after the War of the Ring. Arwen had shared that she was concerned for her husband, that his smile and the sparkle in his eyes were both growing fainter.

"Estel."

Without thinking, Aragorn's head came up in response to his childhood name. It wasn't until he saw the devilry in his Elf friend's sapphire eyes that he realized, startled, he'd answered to a name only Arwen or his brothers used these days.

"Yes," nodded Legolas, making his decision, gracefully swinging his long legs down from the railing and walking toward the King. "I believe it is time for young Estel and his penchant for evading his elders to once again come to the fore."

Gimli tilted his head to one side, bemused.

Aragorn remained silent looking up at his friend. Then a slow, comfortable smile began to break on his face. When the smile turned to an open-mouthed grin, the transformation was complete. The sparkle had returned.

"Legolas, I'm not as sure of this plan as I once was "

"It is your plan!"

"I know!"

"Estel, do not lose faith, mellon nin. Think of it as a secret rescue mission."

"Rescue? And exactly whom are we rescuing?"

"Not whom, but what."

"Very well. What?"

"Your sense of humor."

Startled, Aragorn glared at his friend and steeled his nerve. Gripping the tied scroll in his hand, he turned on his booted heel and marched toward his Captain of the Guard.

Legolas grinned, and then made his own way to find the second in command.

Aragorn had taken pains to station a third of his guardsmen in different locations over the last day or two, laying the groundwork for the final deception.

The plan was to flummox the three top Guardsmen, sending the King's Guard off in a few different directions, ostensibly at the order of the King himself. Each was given a scroll written in the King's hand, directing then to some not-too-far but not-too-close location with a missive for someone at the other end. And each of the three - Br ganu, who was Aragorn's task; second in command Coruanu whom Legolas would tackle, and Platoon leader Dolon, to be approached by Gimli - were told that one of the others was in charge in his absence and that he and his company were to leave immediately, no delay.

"But, your Majesty, there is no guard here, now, for you," protested Br ganu. The younger man might have been nearly sixty years the King's junior, but he was not Halbarad's son for nothing. He'd grown up with this man as his Chieftain, been trained by him, disciplined and loved by him. This youngest son of Halbarad and Niriel had also been the one, more than any of the others, to drink up thirstily his father's stories of his and Aragorn's adventures and heartaches.

It had been Br ganu's goal since childhood to one day fill his father's shoes as right hand man to the Chieftain. It had been heartbreaking to have Halbarad's place empty far too soon at Pelennor. Not long afterwards, Br ganu had proven his worth and indeed risen to Captain of the King's Guard. And after all of these years, he could sense something wasn't right. Two reasons stared him in the face: for the first time in days, the King had neither Legolas nor Gimli hovering around him, and today, Elessar looked as though he'd dropped twenty years in age.

Aragorn had waved him off. "'Tis no matter, Captain," he assured him. "I am in the stronghold of the Lord of Ithilien. No harm will come to me from here, bidding you and your company to fare well, and then walking back to the castle. Unless some unruly squirrel accosts me," he said dryly, raising an eyebrow eloquently at the young soldier. Br ganu bit his lip, then gave up.

"Very well, Milord," he nodded. "It shall be as you command." He turned to the men who had begun packing up their gear, having heard most of the conversation, giving them command to mount and ride in ten minutes' time.

Br ganu turned back to his liege. "Your Majesty if there were something I needed to know, you would inform me, is that not correct?" he asked quietly, looking pointedly at his King, tilting his head in query.

Aragorn's stomach clenched a little at the achingly familiar gesture; truly, never had Br ganu looked or sounded more like his father! Then Aragorn decided the man had phrased the question perfectly. "Of course, Captain. I would be the first to inform you of information you needed," he replied easily. It is simply that you do not need to know my whereabouts for the next passing of the sun, my friend!

Br ganu studied him for a few more silent moments, nearly making Aragorn squirm, then nodded slowly. Oh, there is definitely something going on here! "As you wish, your Majesty," he said quietly, looking him straight in the eye, then bowing and walking to his men.

Aragorn fought the desire to wave goodbye to his men, and simply stood and nodded regally as they mounted and rode off. Once they were out of sight, Aragorn sagged a little, then mischievously wondered if his friends had been as successful.

"My Lady Queen?"

Arwen looked up from her stitching, in surprise. It was early in the afternoon, certainly not time for an evening meal. And her surprise was doubled when it turned out to be Br ganu. Br ganu, who never left his liege's side if he could help it. She realized she had not seen or heard from Estel, or indeed Legolas or Gimli either, since just after the break of fast.

Though Arwen was no longer of the Elves, her foresight served her. "Something is ill," she said quietly, setting down her work in her lap, her eyes clouding. "The King?"

Br ganu swallowed hard as he came tentatively closer to her. "Your Highness, the King is um . missing."

Alarmed, Arwen set aside her needlework and rose to her feet, eyes wide as she came to Br ganu. "Missing? How on Arda could he be missing? Prince Legolas and Gimli are with him, are they not?" she breathed.

"Yes, Highness, I believe they are, but "

Understanding dawned, and Arwen's face paled. Oh, Estel what have you done? "Aye," she nodded, resigned. "But you know not where all three are, is that it? They have eluded you?"

Blushing in shame, the young Captain nodded abruptly.

She patted the soldier's arm in reassurance. "Worry not, Br ganu. These three have crossed Middle Earth countless times " with at least two of them constantly requiring being stitched or bandaged back together by Ada! " and know how to survive in the wild. You know this."

"Aye." Br ganu sighed. "But Highness, why? Why would he do this? Why would the King deliberately try to evade his own guard? Does he not know we would lay down our lives for him? For his safety?" The man ran a hand through his hair in frustration. "And why would Prince Legolas and Lord Gimli allow the King to be placed in danger?" he demanded.

She shook her head gently. "Nay, Br ganu, do not blame Legolas or Gimli. I daresay it was the King's idea, or at the very least his desire. Be at peace. Legolas and Gimli have protected my husband for many years, Legolas since the King was a child. They are all very able warriors, as you well know. If they have not turned up tomorrow, then we will send a contingent out to find them."

Br ganu appeared to want to say more, the finally clamped shut his mouth, bowed curtly and left the room.

Sighing, Arwen walked to the window slit in the castle great room and gazed out toward Minas Tirith. A glance at the gathering clouds in the sky told her the companions' evening was likely to be damp and cold. Despite her worry and concern, she also believed all she'd said to Br ganu . None of the three were incompetent children; they could manage a night out in the wilds by themselves. But still

She placed a hand over her heart and thought, Be careful, my love. Come home to me, safe.

The rain continued to pour as the three horses carefully picked their way around the hillside. What should have provided a damper on the party had no effect, at least not on the tall Man second in line. He had a look of peace, if rather damp. There was a small smile resting on his face and his brow was unfurrowed. Legolas would glance back occasionally and a small smile of his own would dust his lips.

"I propose we camp under that outcropping, yonder," he called back, pointing toward a natural lean-to carved by Iluvatar into the rock side. There was a relatively spacious dry area beneath, perhaps ten feet by fifteen feet of varying height. Neither the Elf nor the Man would stand up straight within, but since neither slept on their feet as their horses did, it should not prove an issue. Aragorn nodded and looked around for a good location to tether their animals. The pony trailing behind carrying the Dwarf was as skittish as its owner.

"That ledge is not sturdy," warned Gimli as they approached it. "Observe there are crumbles of stone here and again here. It shifts, Legolas." He eyed the Elf.

"Nonsense, Gimli!" retorted the King with a grin. "There are saplings sprouting from its crevices! This ledge has been here a yen at least!" Gimli hesitated; he was reluctant to shift that youthful, radiant smile from Aragorn's face, but something just did not sit well, and he couldn't put his finger on it. Perhaps it was only the recent rumblings of the earth that were unsettling him. He'd always been home before when they'd occurred. He looked in concern at the Elf.

"For the night only, then, yes?" suggested Legolas in compromise. "We need shelter from the rain, or the Mortal over there with catch cold, and you and I will not sleep for his snorting like a piglet rooting for a teat."

Said Mortal offered a particularly rude response, making all three laugh, though Gimli's lasted a short time. Uneasily, he glanced at the ledge, putting his shoulder to it, trying to gauge any give, and found none. He still didn't feel comfortable with it all, but nodded. "Very well," he grunted. "Far be it from me to argue with a stubborn Elf and a Man who's even worse."

A smoky fire was managed, and the trio changed into dry clothing, prepared a hot, satisfying meal and leaned back to relax. Aragorn and Gimli indulged in their pipes, while Legolas remained close to the edge of the outcropping for fresh air. The companionable silence was pleasant.

Aragorn leaned back against the stone, cozily wrapped in a snug, warm blanket, his eyes closed in contentment. "Truly, Legolas, I felt a pang of remorse and guilt when I handed off his missive to Br ganu. I've used him ill but right now, I'm afraid I feel as remorseless as I did over Glorfindel's boots." He giggled a little to himself as her remembered the heady feeling of putting one over on the mighty Balrog Slayer.

Legolas laughed. "Until Elrond confronted you."

"Aye," agreed Aragorn ruefully, with a chuckle. "The twins did warn me, but " He shrugged. He glanced toward the Dwarf. "Unburden yourself, Gimli surely you played pranks on your elders as a youngster? You cannot have been this current paragon of virtue all of your long life?" Aragorn kept his face innocent, though his eyes danced with mischief.

Gimli's mind turned to a long, lonesome week spent in the confines of his sleeping quarters after a particularly noisome prank played on his father, Glo n. He chuckled. "Aye, my Lord Aragorn. Glo n is a most just and fair dwarf, except when his patience is taxed." Gimli puffed placidly on his pipe, and then winked. "Which is most of the time!"

The rest of the evening passed with laughter and camaraderie, each sharing peccadilloes from their pasts and their aftermaths, of battles won and lost. When they finally settled for the night, Legolas' heart was lighter; his dear friend had recovered a bit of his old self and his old smile. And he was even more gratified to hear Aragorn breathing settle and the Man slip into restful slumber faster than he'd thought possible. He listened for a pleasant half hour to the Man's soft snores. Satisfaction easing his soul, Legolas glanced toward his other friend, frowning at the unsettled look on his face. "What it is, my friend?" he asked softly. "Are you still concerned for the "

Legolas' words were cut off by a sudden, violent shake as at that moment the earth trembled violently. Startled, glaring at the ledge above them, Legolas swept to his feet, still crouched, and reached for the still-sleeping Aragorn, hauling him one-handed out from under the outcropping. Gimli had already gathered their weapons and bolted out himself. Legolas turned back to retrieve the rest of their gear, only to find himself knocked off his feet by a particularly violent shudder in the very core of Arda.

"Gimli!" Legolas shouted, rolling toward Aragorn, who had startled awake and was trying to gain his feet and failing at the violent shudders of the earth.

Gimli looked around, searching for places of safety. "The clearing!" he shouted to the others, pointing. "Make for the "

But nothing more was heard over a deafening, terrifying crack! resounding as the earth itself shifted, moved and then split, creating a widening crevice at their feet. There was no time to evade it, not even for the nimble Elf.

Where only a heartbeat prior a Man, and Elf and a Dwarf had stood on grassy lands, only a gaping wound in the earth itself remained.

Faramir leaned forward in alarm, helping the Queen to her feet again. "Your Highness! Are you injured?" he demanded, as he reached to his side and wrenched a chair upright once more to allow the Queen to sit.

"Nay, Faramir," breathed Arwen as she allowed him to help her up. "Just shaken." She paled suddenly, and turned to him, her eyes frightened and wide. "Estel!"

"My Lady, out of doors, his Majesty and his friends are much safer than within the walls of a building or a city," Faramir told her earnestly. "Please believe me, they have a better chance than we do."

Arwen bit her lip, nodding slowly at the good sense of his words, yet her heart was aching within her. Oh, Estel, where are you? her mind moaned.

The double doors of the great room flew open and Eowyn swept in, seemingly unhurt. Her eyes took in the shambles of the room Legolas had decorated in simple elegance. Pictures had fallen from their places, leaving broken or shattered frames; decorative pieces were tumbled, broken or tipped over. Furniture shifted, books looking as though they'd leapt from their shelves. Her lips trembling, Eowyn scanned the room for those she knew were within. "Faramir!" she gasped, hurrying to him. It was only then that the Steward realized he felt a warm trickle on his cheek. Almost in surprise, he touched a hand and winced as he felt a scrape on his cheekbone. "It is nothing, my love. Just a scratch. How do you fare?"

"I am well," she replied, then turned immediately to Arwen, who nodded as well. Eowyn brushed her grey-gold hair back with a slightly shaking hand. "My lord, there have been a number of injuries, most in the kitchen and in the work areas near the new hall. One hurt is the housekeeper. Do you have any idea where Prince Legolas keeps any healing supplies?"

Faramir ran a hand through his thinning grey hair, trying to remember. "It has been so long since we were here," he said slowly, uncertain.

"I know," said Arwen, rising resolutely. "Near the game-cleaning room, as it is centrally located at the back of this floor by the kitchen."

Faramir held out his arm to offer her to lead the way, and she was followed by the Steward and his wife.

Her gown flowed behind her as Arwen made haste to the back of the house. As she walked she reached out with her mind to her husband, hoping against hope that she might feel the touch of his presence. But there was nothing. Her lips trembled; she did not know if the lack of contact had more to do with Estel's condition or the fact that she was diminished and Estel's Elven blood was long diluted. Regardless, she felt alone as she had not felt in many a long year.

In the hallway, she heard pounding feet and metal on metal. One of the guardsmen was coming. "My Lady!" breathed the soldier in relief. She recognized him as one of the D nedain guard. "Captain Br ganu is helping to rescue one of our men hurt in the tremor. He sent me to find you and return with word."

Arwen smiled gently at the youngster. "All is well with me, Hurchen. We are heading to the room with healing supplies. Let your Captain know "she stopped a moment and turned to Faramir. "I don't believe there are healing rooms here. Where shall we establish some? I'm sure there will be those in need."

"The dining room," answered Eowyn promptly, pulling her hair back and tying it in a knot much the way she had as a girl. "It is large, and has plenty of windows for light in the day, and is well lit in the hours of darkness." She squeezed her husband's arm, and then headed back down the hallway. "Arwen, I will head there and clear the area while you and Faramir fetch supplies," she called back over her shoulder.

Faramir chuckled grimly, as he courteously gestured Arwen ahead. "Ever does my lady wife take charge thank the Valar!"

Arwen smiled wanly and they continued down the hall.

Dust and rubble continued to fall in spurts through the crevice, bouncing off of Gimli's russet and grey beard. Spitting and coughing, still dazed, the Dwarf tried to turn on his side and hissed in pain, realizing that his legs, from the thighs down, were trapped under rocks and rubble. He at least turned his head to try to breathe, and understand what happened. And suddenly he remembered. "Legolas!" he choked. "Aragorn!" There was no answer. Grimly, he did a mental assessment, and realized that though his legs were trapped, he didn't feel serious pain. Certainly not crushed limbs; he knew that pain, and this wasn't it. He made the effort and tested each leg, wiggling toes, flexing knees and ankles. There was pain in his left ankle that was sharp but not deadly.

"Legolas!" he tried again, louder. "Aragorn!" He heard a slight movement and a soft moan of someone coming back to consciousness behind him to his right. Because of the slight glow, he guessed it must be Legolas. Making a huge effort, the Dwarf twisted his body to see who was behind him and stopped short in shock.

The brutal ripping of the earth in two beneath their feet had created a crevice for the three friends to slip down roughly fifteen feet, and bared the earth to the light for the first time. And interspersed amid the expected gneiss and granite and limestone, Gimli's jaw dropped to see something that had not been seen in an age: broad, shining untouched ribbons of mithril. Mithril!

" Gimli "

The Dwarf shook himself free of the image before him and looked again toward the sounds. Gratefully, he saw Legolas trying to raise himself to his feet, the Elven glow making his face even paler. And the glow made it impossible for the Elf to hide a cut on his temple, seeping blood slowly, nor his left arm, twisted and bent at a sickeningly impossible angle. "Legolas "

"Worry not," he said between clenched teeth. "What of Aragorn?"

"He's not responded yet," Gimli admitted, hauling himself up to a seated position and beginning to dismantle the cairn of rock over his legs.

"He would have been the first to hit," breathed Legolas, remembering where they had been when the earth opened up underneath them. Painfully, he managed to walk to Gimli and looked around. He noticed the pile of debris on the Dwarf's legs, and gaped. "Gimli!"

"Unlike you, nothing serious," grunted the Dwarf. "No broken bones, I'm thinking. Look for Aragorn." When Legolas didn't move at first, Gimli snapped at him, in nervous frustration, "And did yer pointed ears suffer in the fall as well? See to the King!"

Glaring at the Dwarf, Legolas painfully made his way to the back of the narrowing ravine. "He's here!" Gimli redoubled his efforts to unload his legs.

"Well, speak then! How is he?"

"Unconscious ." Legolas hissed in pain. "He has landed hard on his right side. If nothing else, I can see his right leg is broken and he's knocked his head quite hard; there's a lump the size of a goose egg on his forehead."

Gimli growled and finally extracted himself from his prison and managed to limp his way over to his friends. He glanced up around them and his heart grew cold. There was a slight ledge that precariously teetered not far from Aragorn's head. "Legolas," he said quietly. "let me in there, quickly."

Legolas glanced at the Dwarf and nodded, not offering any argument. He knew Gimli's serious tone did not bode well. Quickly, and stubbornly pushing back the pain from his own ankle, Gimli did a fast but thorough check on Aragorn, and sighed in frustration. "There's nothing else for it, we have to move him, though I'm feeling a broken rib or two, definitely the leg and possibly his arm and collarbone as well."

"But "

"Look above ye, lad." Legolas' eyes went up and he saw. "That will come down on him and cause worse than a bump on the head, ye can believe it." The Dwarf looked back. "We've nothing to put him on," he growled in frustration. "All right, I have no leverage when standing, and you have one arm. You get over there, on his left side, and get a good grip on his tunic. You'll need to do the hard pulling to move him out; I'll do me best to keep his leg and chest stable. I'll bind him after we have him out."

Inch by miserable inch, with Gimli barking, "Slowly now!" ever two seconds, they managed to extract Aragorn safely. "Thanks to the Valar, he got through that unconscious," sighed Gimli. "If I can bind him up the same way, he'll be the better for it." He glanced at Legolas. "Can ye remove that tunic, lad? I'll need mine and yours for bandages. His own, he'll need for warmth." Legolas nodded and began to comply.

In a relatively short time, Gimli had managed to stabilize Aragorn's arm and ribs by securing them tightly against him; the leg was another matter. There was nothing he could do for that.

"All right, let me see to you, now."

"It is nothing."

"Oh, aye. The bone all but stickin' out o'yer flesh, but yer dandy, you are." Gimli shook his head. "Stubborn Elf. Sit."

After all the wounded had been patched as best as possible, they sat back, each with his own thoughts. "How bad is the head do you think?"

"Hard to say. Tis too dark to see if the darks of his eyes are affected," said Gimli softly. "He should wake soon, though. I don't envy him when he does. He'll be in a boatload of pain."

Legolas fiddled with the raw, torn edges of his tunic that bound his own arm to his chest. "This little 'adventure' was childish and ill planned. I offer my amends, Gimli," he said softly.

"Don't be daft!" snapped his friend. "We all went into this together. We can always blame him. He's the bloody King."

The words were light, but neither of two conscious companions could chase away the ghosts of guilt that haunted their dark, damp resting place.

Anor had not yet risen, but a host of Guardsmen were standing by their mounts, gear packed and ready to depart, many carrying torches. Taking no chances, Br ganu had insisted that the young guardsman being trained as a healer join them. He had agreed and grimly thought of potential injuries he might face and planned ahead packing a pony with materials for splints, wounds, stitches, and the like, as well as a good amount of herbs for pain, general healing and dreamless rest. Br ganu had been pleased; the king had chosen this young man well; he knew how to plan ahead for all contingencies.

"Men, I have already left a platoon to stay with the Queen." Br ganu stood before those remaining of his company, all of them tense and most chomping at the bit to get going to find their King. He turned, looked for the landmark he sought, then smiled grimly and raised his arms at 45 degree angles. With his hands pointing, he said over his shoulder, "We shall fan out and cover this area first."

"Br ganu, should we not wait until dawn?" reasoned one of the older soldiers.

"I reason that the first we became aware of the King's " Br ganu almost said 'deception' then thought better of it, " 'little trip' . " Grim chuckles met him. " they'd been roughly two hours gone. It is now about that same amount of time before dawn. With any luck, we may pick up their trail and be closer to them if we start now. Although she does not speak it aloud, I can tell the Queen does not sense him." Br ganu stopped a moment, to regain control of his voice. "I do not wish to waste a moment of time seeking him. Torch bearers will lead the way."

"Forgive the question, Br ganu," tossed out his dearest friend, Dolon, a mirth filled jester with a punch like a pile driver and the only one, besides Aragorn in his prime, who could behead cleanly with one powerful swing of his sword, "but why do you choose that particular wedge of land?"

Br ganu smiled grimly. "Because, Dolon, that's the only direction the King and his compatriots did not send us in with his missives."

Their eyes widened a moment in surprise, and then they nodded, understanding.

Br ganu shrugged. "I realize it is merely a hunch, but I think it is the best place to start. Enough talk. Mount and let us unearth our King!" he bellowed. He had no idea how true his words were

Arwen gently used water laced with athelas to wash a wound as her father and grandmother had taught her centuries ago. "Easy," she said softly, as the young woman winced. "I almost finished, my child. Breathe deeply and I will be finished soon." The woman managed a tremulous smile and closed her eyes breathing deeply as ordered.

"What is your name, penneth?"

"I am Amdiriel," she whispered. "I work in the kitchens."

"Then you are someone I need to thank for the lovely hospitality the King and I have received when we visit here," said Arwen gently, smiling.

"Oh, no, my lady!" protested the girl. "I'm just a scullery maid, nothin' more."

"If you washed a cooking pot that was then used to prepare a meal, child, you had a part in it. You see to the cleanliness of cutlery and stoneware." Arwen set aside her bowl and deftly packed the hand with healing herbs and bandaged it. She smiled at her. "No work is needless, and all plays a part in the final outcome."

The girl looked at the Queen in awe. "I I never though of it that way."

"I hope you do from now on," laughed Arwen lightly, patting her shoulder. "Now, all you need to do is lie back, rest and heal." The girl smiled and closed her eyes wearily.

Arwen gathered her things and moved to the main work area. Eowyn wearily met her and took the bowl from her. "Eowyn, you must rest," Arwen said gently. "You have been at this for hours."

"As have you," the woman replied stonily. "You and I are the only ones for miles apparently with any healing training."

"My lady has no idea how close to accurate that statement is." Both women turned to see a weary Faramir walking up to them. He had been riding through the area with several of his men to scout for wounded and those in need of help after the earthquake, and spreading word for survivors without safe shelter to seek it at the castle. He put his arms around his wife and kissed her forehead. "Beloved, you look weary beyond words." He glanced around the room and saw volunteers going from bed to bed offering help with personal needs, a drink, or just to hold a hand. "It appears you and Her Highness have done splendidly. Come, let us sit outside in the fresh air for a moment of rest."

"Faramir speaks truly, Eowyn," assured Arwen. "We have done well here for the moment. Let us rest, for surely there will be more as people receive word they may come here for aid. It is wisdom to obey your husband this time," she teased very gently.

Sighing, Eowyn leaned a little more against her husband and let him lead her out to the arbor. Truly, she felt every one of her fifty-two years right now.

Faramir seated the ladies and fetched some cool water for them both. "I learned there are essentially no Halls of Healing in this region, something I was not aware of. Apparently Legolas is, and has plans in place to rectify this soon, but " he shrugged.

"Without halls of healing, I can assume there are no trained healers either?" asked Arwen tiredly.

"That is correct, my lady."

"Arwen, Faramir, please," she smiled. "We are not in court."

He chuckled. "At any rate, this is something that will need to be rectified sooner than later. I'm certain we can spare a contingent of healers from Minas Tirith for training. Perhaps even one or both of your brothers would be willing to aid in teaching," suggested the Steward.

Arwen nodded thoughtfully. Many of the last thirty years Elladan and Elrohir had spent teaching the healers of the White City of the power of the herbs growing locally of which they had little or no knowledge. Faramir was correct; their help would be of great importance to the people of Ithilien. She would ask the King

Suddenly, Arwen gasped in shock and went white as a sheet, dropping her goblet and folded in on herself, the eyes rolling in her head.

Shocked, but moving swifter than one could believe of a woman of her age, Eowyn was at her side. "Faramir! Raise her feet and lay her down!" she commanded. A fit? What could this be? Eowyn questioned fearfully.

"No," panted Arwen, tears running down her face, but a smile in place as well. Baffled, Faramir and Eowyn hesitated. Arwen's eyes opened and she looked between the both with new determination and hope. "He is injured, but Estel is alive!" she pronounced, joyfully.

"Valar, that hurts!"

"I am sorry, my friend, the binding was the best I could do given the circumstances," Gimli offered in apology.

Not ten minutes prior, Aragorn had suddenly regained consciousness and tried to move, before either Legolas or Gimli could warn him otherwise. He was unable to choke back a tortured cry as his ribs stabbed him, his leg bones ground together in agony, and his head felt like someone was hammering on it with a mallet. He didn't even bother to count the shoulder.

Panting, the King reached out with his good hand. "I am sorry," he ground out between clenched teeth. "I meant no "

"Ah, shut your gob, Aragorn, and keep your strength," soothed Gimli, stroking the Man's head gently. The tender touch almost undid the King, and he had to squeeze his eyes shut hard to keep from allowing the tears smarting his eyes to flow. Gimli soothed him and slowly, the wave of pain receded slightly to a nearly manageable level. "Just lie still as you can and breathe gently, lad," the Dwarf offered softly. Who knew the curmudgeonly Dwarf could be so tender? thought Aragorn with a small smile. He shivered suddenly, which also hurt.

Gimli slowly and quietly explained what had happened to them, so Aragorn could catch up a bit with the circumstances. A low roll of thunder above them made Gimli glance upward at the lip of the crevice, wishing he could see enough sky to know what was going on out there. He knew it was suddenly colder, damper. "It sounds like rain, Legolas."

"Aye," nodded the Elf, resting his back and head against the mithril-ridden stone wall. Aragorn wearily turned to his other friend, sad to see his arm bound thus, then his eyes widened, his pain blocked for a short moment.

'Sweet Elbereth " he breathed, staring behind and above Legolas' head. "Is that is that what I believe it is?"

"Aye," nodded Gimli, with a grin.

"Mithril," the king uttered in amazement. "Legolas, this will make your realm very wealthy indeed!"

"Will it? At the moment, I'd gladly trade it for a way out of here," offered the Elf. He saw Aragorn shiver again, wincing, and looked at Gimli. "We must come together and try to find warmth in each other," he said grimly, moving closer to Aragorn. "Someone will come looking for us soon."

As the rain began to fall in earnest, and lightning lit the sky, the three comrades huddled together, the Man shivering in painful cold, while his friends struggled to keep him warm.

"Captain! Over here! Come look!"

Quickly, Br ganu broke from his formation of hunting inch by inch and rushed to the side of the guardsman, squatted on the ground, looking at tracks by torchlight. "See, here. Two horses' prints, and a pony. They definitely came this way." He looked at his Captain in respect. "That was good reasoning, sir."

"Learning to think like that cagey D nadan is a hard won skill, with secrets passed down from father to son," he grunted, though grateful his hunch had paid off. "This way, men!"

Not much further along they spotted Legolas' beautiful gray and the sorrel stallion Aragorn rode when in Ithilien grazing beside him. Gimli's pony, however, was nowhere to be found. Further sign of their riders, however, was naught.

Anor rose and offered the men a chance to see more of the terrain, and Dolon was the first to notice it. His face pale in shock, he grabbed Br ganu's arm and pointed. "There, that hillside yesterday was one. Now it is two." He glanced meaningfully at his Captain.

Cold fear pumped through Br ganu's veins. "Men, there! The two hillocks! But be very careful it appears they are rent in two from the force of the tremors. We know not how stable the ground is."

It did not take long for them to reach the crevice. Most had never seen the aftereffects of an earthquake, the raw ripped earth, shifted and rubbed together. The power of Arda, and of Iluvatar, had never been more clear to them.

"Your Majesty! Prince Legolas," called Br ganu, hoping against hope.

"We're here! But the King is badly injured!" they heard Legolas' strained voice.

Grimly, Br ganu pointed toward the healer and gestured him forward. "Ascertain the King's injuries, and those of the others, and find out what's needed," he ordered, then he and Dolon examined the ledge.

"It's not the most stable," Dolon offered looking at one side.

"What about from both sides?" asked Br ganu, gesturing to the other side of the crevice. "What if we sent men down on both sides to steady the ascent of the three?"

"Depends upon how badly wounded they are, Br g," sighed Dolon, running a hand through his hair. "That's a fairly sharp ascent."

"Turven!" he called as the healer rattled off a list of supplies he needed from the pack horse. The man raised a hand to assuage Br ganu, finished his orders, then hurried to the Captain's side. "How bad?"

"Bad enough," the healer said seriously. "The King is badly injured, Prince Legolas and Master Gimli less so. But the King's injuries are such that he cannot be hoisted except as level as possible. His right side sustained the most damage: leg, arm, collar bone, and a bump on the head. The prince has a badly fractured arm, and Gimli, apparently, has escaped with merely an injury to an ankle." Turven glanced at the crevice. "Perhaps men on either side could hoist the king as safely as possible," he said seriously. "Positioned on either side "

"We've already ascertained that," grinned Dolon. "Nice to know you have engineering skills as well as healer's knowledge."

"Ass," grunted Turven, flushing. Dolon laughed, clapping the youngster on the shoulder. Even Br ganu managed a small smile.

"All right then," he said, "we lower Turven to splint and bandage the King and his guests as well as possible down there. While he's doing that, we'll position men along the crevice and get them out there."

It was a slow, painstaking process. Turven nervously noted that the downpour of rain had caused somewhat of a gully down below and the King was laying in cold water, shivering and miserable and running a fever. He quickly checked Legolas' bandages, commending the work done by Gimli, bound Gimli's sprained ankle, and then bullied the two to be hauled up while he finished working on the King as quickly as he could.

"I have enough to contend with here!" he barked, quaking inside as he argued with an Elf several thousand years his senior and a doughty Dwarf who kept reaching for a non-existent axe. "Up you go, and no more arguing!"

"My friends," coughed Aragorn, shivering hard. "Please do as Turven says? You can be no more help here."

Very carefully, Aragorn was bound, immobile, to a litter, his leg and arm splinted, his chest and shoulder bound tightly. Even his head was carefully bound to the litter to hold him safely still.

Br ganu's idea worked splendidly. Eight men, positioned carefully, four on either side of the rift, gently guided the litter up, keeping Aragorn as straight as possible. When they could not, Aragorn was permitted to place his weight on his left leg and foot. It hurt, but it was not agonizing. Turven had given him a pain-relieving draught, and he had to admit, life was a little bit better, especially since he'd been wrapped in dry, warm blankets. That didn't last once they were back on the surface, what with the downpour facing them, but by then Aragorn was blissfully unaware. The same couldn't be said of his friends.

"Dolon, take two men and head back with Prince Legolas and Master Gimli to let the Queen know of the King's rescue and his condition. They can prepare his room to receive him," ordered Br ganu, wanting to breathe in relief, but realizing his work wasn't done yet. They still had to get the King safely back to the castle. But at least he'd been found.

"Br ganu." The Captain walked beside the King's litter, quietly thinking and holding an oilcloth apron over the king's head and shoulder to keep the rain from soaking his face.

"Your Majesty."

"I owe you amends," came the slightly slurred statement.

Br ganu had to fight a grin, but did so. How he remembered his father talking about these 'talks' he and the then Chieftain would have after one of Aragorn's more reckless 'ideas.' "We' will speak of this later, your Majesty, when you're more yourself."

"You mean, when I can bear to hear how angry you are, right, Halb Br ganu?"

The younger man's heart clenched, and he put a hand to the king's good shoulder. "Nay, my Lord. I merely want you to rest and regain your strength right now. You are wounded and in pain. I would not have you in more discomfort."

"Yes, Br ganu." The King's hand clasped his Captain's and squeezed gently. Br ganu returned the pressure, offering a prayer of thanks to the Valar.

Two days later, Br ganu and Aragorn had that talk. It was not pleasant. Br ganu offered his resignation as Captain of the Guard, arguing that obviously the King had not felt secure enough in his keeping to operate safely. Aragorn had offered sincere apologies, as well as irate silent curses to his late cousin for having raised another version of himself. The resignation was exactly something Halbarad would have tried.

It ended with a repentant King promising to find a different method of relieving stress. Br ganu's smug satisfaction was permitted by His Majesty, but only just.

His next 'little talk' came with his Lord Steward, the highlight of which involved Faramir demanding to know no uncertain terms if the Northern D nedain were more prone to early senility than other races.

Finally, his wife gently informed that she would have kept his secret; but how much better it would have been to at least let someone know where they were headed. Of the three interviews, the King decided this was one the most painful, for Arwen offered no reproach, no scolding. Simply disappointment that she was not trusted. He shifted uncomfortably in pain, and she stilled him gently, apologizing for disturbing him, and left him to his 'rest'. After she left, he sighed. She had learned well from the master: her calm, sorrowful "talk" had been every bit as guilt-provoking and effective as any dished out by Master Elrond

The evening of the third day after the rescue, Aragorn felt well enough to have some visitors, and Legolas made arrangements for everyone to have a light supper in the King and Queen's rooms. This way, Aragorn could rest in bed, allowing the bones to knit and heal, Legolas could rest in an easy chair with a pillow propped under his arm, and Gimli could rest comfortably as well. And yet all would be able to enjoy each other's company.

The King felt well enough to sit up, resting against pillows, his arm and leg both propped up comfortably. He'd been told of the hard work of the Queen and the White Lady in creating a hall of healing here in the castle. Legolas had thanked them for their efforts, and then entered into drawing up plans with Gimli for creating formal Healing Halls on the castle grounds.

"I am amazed by the mithril vein Legolas told us about," Faramir shared after the meal had been eaten and cleared. "A new vein of mithril should prove tremendously profitable in trading for Ithilien, do you not think, your Majesty?"

"I do indeed, but I think one of the things a large percentage of any profits should be earmarked for are the new House of Healing and the training of the healers to work in them. What do you think, my Queen?"

"That is a wonderful idea, Estel," nodded Arwen, offering him a drink of water. "Faramir and I talked about the possibility of my brothers perhaps helping to found a teaching hall for healers."

Aragorn sipped the water, and thought. "Yes, I think both of them would enjoy that," he nodded, tiredly. Arwen saw her husband was reaching his limit with guests, and she was about to suggest that the others withdraw to the great room downstairs, but Eowyn spoke before she could do so.

Eowyn put down her needlework for a moment. "Your Majesty, may I suggest something?'

Aragorn leaned back against his pillows, weary and noticing the pain eased when he lay back and rested. "Of course, my lady," he said softly.

"The next time you feel a need to break away from the stricture of Court, may I suggest a trip to the kitchen for a cooking lesson? Or perhaps to the weavers to learn to use a loom? The danger is lessened and it would be easier to keep track of you!"

Horrified, Faramir stared at his wife in shock. "Eowyn!" he barked, in total mortification, though he wife showed total equanimity.

Legolas found himself laughing uproariously, and Gimli was guffawing.

Aragorn's eyes were wide with surprise, then blushed and looked little hapless.

Even Arwen could not hold back her laughter.

~-ooOoo-~

The best laid schemes o' mice and men Gang aft a-gley;
And leave us naught but grief and pain For promised joy.

Robert Burns