Alede finished tying the ribbon about the three strands of Legolas' hair and put them back in the box. She looked up as he came down the steps. His limp was virtually gone and he walked with the graceful confidence that was so common to all Elves. Though it threatened to break her heart, she knew she could no longer keep him here. She would not cage him. If she held him back with pleas or guilt, he would come to resent her. She would not do that to him or to herself. She could no longer delay the inevitable. He was well enough to travel and certainly well enough to be reunited with his friend Gimli.

"Tomorrow," she forced herself to say, hating the way her voice cracked. Legolas looked up and she noticed signs of fatigue around his eyes. Had he not slept well, she wondered? She herself had slept late, waking to find Legolas restlessly prowling the confines of the upper chamber.

"Tomorrow?" he asked.

"Oh…" she glanced down at the basket and gloves, making sure she had everything. "I… thought that I'd take you to Helm's Deep tomorrow morning."

"Are you certain?" he said quietly.

"If you're not feeling…" but then she stopped. His hesitation was not for himself. And she realized that her own unhappiness was making him feel guilty.

"Yes," she said nodding her head. Though she wondered which one of them she sought to convince. "I'll take you tomorrow." Gathering up her things, she headed toward the door. "Besides, I grow weary of your constant complaints."

Legolas grinned at that, since he'd complained only once or twice.

Alede walked over to him and gave his arm a brief squeeze. "I go to pick some raspberries if there are any left. I'll make some tarts and perhaps we can bring some to Gimli tomorrow. I've never known a dwarf who did not like sweets."

"Or an Elf," Legolas grinned. She'd discovered his liking of sweets early on.

She returned the smile, vowing to not be a source of unhappiness for him any longer. If she could do anything for him, it would be to not cause him grief.

"Promise me you'll give your leg one more day of rest. The raspberry brambles are too hilly for you to follow me."

He gave her a tolerant look for what he'd often termed her 'mothering', but nodded his head. "I intend to put an edge on your knives this morning. How you have managed to cut bread with them, let alone meat, is beyond me."

Alede laughed and on impulse stood on tiptoe and kissed his cheek. Then she turned and without a backward glance walked outside.

****

Legolas let the motion of the knife strokes lull him. The blade made a steady grinding sound as he slid it across the wet stone.

Perfect for weary thoughts.

He'd lain awake until the early hours of the morning, wrestling with his guilt and then had woken before dawn. He had come to no real conclusion. He owed his life to Alede. That she loved him only increased the debt. He knew of no way to repay her. Normally, he did not feel responsible for other's emotions. But this was so very personal.

'And, I like her,' he thought. 'I like her very much. Why can I not love her?' But he knew the answer as he gazed up at the Misty Mountains. Middle Earth was still his first love. He'd spent so much time in Mirkwood, and had missed much of this world. The quest of the One Ring had woke his burning desire to see what was left of this land before he was forced to leave it. His people would eventually be gone and he would follow. But he would know what he missed before he left.

Wearily he rested his head against the sun-warmed wall at his back and set the knife down, closing his eyes.

'Perhaps if I…' but his thought was never finished. A dreadful voice fell upon his ears like a splash of cold water.

"I thought I'd find you here, Elf!"

Legolas' eyes flew open and even as they did he reached for the knife. Recognition was instant and he hurled the knife toward the dark wizard that suddenly stood there.

Sildair laughed as he knocked the knife from the air with a twisted black staff.

"Surprised to see me, Elf?" Sildair mocked as Legolas got quickly to his feet. "I'm sure Alede thought that I knew nothing of this place." He laughed nastily. "But I still have a few tricks left. Enough tricks to sneak up on an Elf. And Alede did not think to take my staff, did she?"

Legolas said nothing. What was there to say to his former tormentor? Oddly, he was not surprised, though chills crawled up and down his spine. Despite Alede's reassurances, he'd expected this. Wizards did not give up easily.

What ever happened he must not let Sildair know where Alede was. Cautiously he inched toward the door. Sildair might be able to block a poorly thrown knife, but he could not block an arrow. If he could just get to the bow that hung inside…

"Oh, I think not," Sildair said and making a violent gesture at Legolas with his staff, he hurled a spell toward him. Legolas was thrown back against the wall and fell to the ground. He struggled to get up, but found an invisible force pressing him down.

"Now, where is Alede?" Sildair asked, advancing on Legolas.

Legolas continued to struggle with the spell. He could almost feel edges to it. If he could slip out from under it…

"Where is she!?" Sildair screamed.

"Orthanc," Legolas managed to say despite the weight holding him down. "She returned to Orthanc. She's looking for you…"

"Liar," Sildair spat. "Elves have always been terrible liars." He raised his staff again. "Never mind, I'll find her myself and I'll deal with you later."

He pointed the staff at Legolas again and began his incantation. "Nuzka a' bleniz kallumbul te wathu shiv'sal!"

Legolas froze. Those were the same words he had heard in the dungeon. Panic seized him. The freezing spell swirled around him, slithering past his skin like ice.

Legolas was barely aware of Sildair entering the tower house and then exiting furiously a moment later and walking up into the hills. Legolas tried to cry out, to warn Alede but no breath escaped him. In his panicked fog he forgot about the "edges" he'd felt on the spell and continued to struggle uselessly, waiting for the freezing cold to sink into his skin, into his very bones.

****

Alede leaned her staff against a tree. Around her birds chirped and the sun drifted lazily through the bare branches, warming her. Drifts of snow still clung to the shady areas, but much of it had melted. The ground squelched beneath her boots.

Her heart was heavy at the thought of Legolas' departure. But the day was too glorious for her spirits to sink too low. And who knew what the future might hold? There was every possibility that she might travel to Ithilien. She was convinced that if she gave Legolas his freedom, she might win his heart some day. He obviously was not ready to take a woman into his life.

How could she blame him? She could easily see that he hungered for adventure. Few women cared for travel, instead wishing to tie their men to hearth and home. No doubt he feared such confinement. Perhaps if she came to visit him in Ithilien, he would come to see that she was different…

Did she dare hope that he might miss her when they were parted? It would make the reunion that much sweeter.

Forcing her mind to consider happy possibilities, Alede pushed into the thickest part of the raspberry bramble. Thorns tugged at her tough leather breaches, but she ignored them for treasure lay ahead. In the very center of the patch, huge berries still clung to the vine. Most had withered in the cold of the storm, but in the places where they had been sheltered from the wind many had survived. Alede began filling her basket.

She never even knew what hit her.

One moment she was picking plump berries, the next she was flung out of the patch and into a snow bank. The wind was knocked out of her and she struggled to draw breath.

"Well met, old friend," a voice hissed.

Alede finally managed to roll over and face her attacker.

"Sildair!" she gasped.

"You didn't think I could find you, did you? Stupid girl!"

Alede made no answer but stretched out her hand and called her staff to her. It flew through the air, but Sildair intercepted it. With a wave of his own staff, he sent it flying out of sight.

Alede struggled to sit up as he advanced on her.

"I told you it would not go well for you if you betrayed me," Sildair said furiously, his voice shaking with rage. "I'm going to kill you, my dear old friend. But not for a very long time. You'll beg me first before I'm through with you."

Alede managed to stumble to her feet, looking around for a weapon. She knew she'd never call her staff back in time, wherever it was.

"First though, you'll watch me finish my work with the Elf."

Alede's head shot up. "You'll never touch him again," she snarled.

"Oh no?" Sildair gave her a slimy, self-satisfied smile. "I've already put him back under the freezing spell. He won't give me as much trouble as he did the first time."

"No!" Alede shouted. Had her talisman failed?

"He succumbed much more quickly than he did the first time. The memory was still fresh after all. Fear is such a useful tool."

Alede threw him a murderous look. She should have killed him! But right now, she had to find a way to fight him, to get back to Legolas…

"I'll turn him into an Orc and you'll watch. I seem to remember that you had a liking for Elves. He's a pretty thing, isn't he? Are you fond of him? Would you like him still if his skin was burned and blackened and his teeth sharp as a wolf's?"

Alede did the last thing Sildair was expecting. She launched herself at him, hands outstretched like claws. But she went not for the staff as he might have supposed, but for his face instead. Screaming as her fingernails raked across his eyes, Sildair tried to throw her off. But she clung to him. Her proximity made it impossible to use his staff without endangering himself.

She drove her fist into Sildair's face, breaking his nose again and jabbed a thumb in his eye. As he lay writhing, she wrestled the staff away from him.

"You always did talk too much," she shouted, clouting him hard with the staff. Sildair tried to use a spell to wrench it from her grasp, but she hung on tightly, countering it with a simple spell of her own. She could not use the staff's magic since it would only answer to its master. But as a green witch, there were other spells she could use.

And she had not forgotten all of Elrohir's lessons. Taking an aggressive stance, she struck Sildair again. Using the staff to parry his movements, she hit him over and over. Each time he tried to chant, she struck him so that he couldn't finish.

All around the clearing they battled. Some of Sildair's spells worked, throwing Alede off balance or tossing her to the ground. She scrambled to her feet and danced around him, striking him with all of her strength and with the fury born of love and desperation.

One blow to the stomach doubled him over and too soon she thought she'd won. A spell streaked out and threw her to the ground again, but before she could leap up he used the freezing spell on her. The staff became so cold it burned her skin and she dropped it in dismay. Sildair lunged for it, but Alede drove her foot into his stomach. Forgetting the staff, Sildair had to defend himself against her furious physical assault.

At first Alede thought she'd beat him. But finally Sildair's greater height and weight began to win out. Apparently he had not lived as softly as she'd thought.

He bore her to the ground and her shoulder struck a rock, sending numbness through her whole arm. Paralyzed for a moment, Sildair gained the upper hand and pinned her. She struggled against his weight, but could not throw him off.

"Do you yield?" Sildair panted. His foul breath puffed in her face.

Alede shouted at him.

"Tsk, tsk," Sildair scolded. "Such unlady like language. But then you never were much of a lady, were you?" His gaze ran down to her heaving chest. "Perhaps I just might let you live. Once you're properly broken in, I just might have a use for you."

Alede's eyes widened and she struggled harder to dislodge him. But Sildair called his staff to him and suddenly Alede could not move. A holding spell wrapped around her and her simple green magic could not budge it.

"Yes," Sildair said, considering. "That would be a fitting service for you. You're still very comely, you know."

Alede shouted a few more choice words at him, struggling in vain against the spell.

Sildair ignored her and with a tug, ripped the front of her tunic open. Alede screamed and Sildair laughed. He leaned over her, exposing her breasts. "Yes," he hissed. "This will do very nicely."

Alede panicked. She could not move and could think of no way to defend herself. Fear clouded her mind and she felt that she would burst from it. She screamed again loud enough that the sound echoed off of the mountains.

Sildair laughed again. "Now just hold still," he mocked.

"NO!" Alede wailed as she felt his cold hands against her belly. Her vision started to go black as terror overtook her.

But then a sound registered in her panic stricken mind.

Thwip!

It was followed by a thump and Sildair lurched to the side. Alede struggled to see what had happened and her panicked vision showed her an arrow embedded in Sildair's ribs.

Legolas!

She could not see him, but she knew he must be there. She screamed his name. Beside her, Sildair was paddling his legs in agony. Alede tried to inch away from him. But the spell still held her firmly. Movement caused her to turn her head and Legolas ran into view.

Time seemed to stop as she watched his graceful movements. He ran low, like a hunter seeking cover, making no sound at all. Sunlight shone on his silver gold hair turning it to the color of moonlight. His twilight eyes swept over Alede and his face turned hard as he looked at Sildair. She watched his jaw muscles bunch in anger as he came to a gliding stop over them.

Beside her, Sildair gasped and struggled to roll over. A knife suddenly pressed painfully against Alede's throat.

"I'll kill her," the dark wizard warned. "Make another move, and I'll kill her."

Legolas regarded him for a long moment and Alede forgot her fear as she looked into the Elf's furious gaze.

"No. You won't." Legolas said evenly. And before Sildair could draw back the knife to slash, Legolas fitted arrow to string and shot him.

Alede jumped as the spell suddenly released her. Sildair lay on his back an arrow piercing his skull, pinning his head to the ground. His mouth hung open at a hideous angle.

Alede whimpered. Clutching her tunic she tried to stand. Legolas hauled her to her feet. With a cry, she threw her arms around his shoulders and sobbed against his chest. Legolas held her so tight she thought her ribs would crack, but she cared not. They stood on the hillside for a long time, while the sun shone down on them and the dark wizard lay still.

****

They slept chastely in each other's arms that night, both needing the comfort of the other. Legolas told her in the dark how he had overcome his panic to realize that the spell was not really holding him.

"It was sliding all around me, but did not actually have a grasp on me," he had explained. "Once I realized that, I just slipped out from under it. Your talisman worked. It was my own fear that paralyzed me."

They had dragged Sildair's body back to the tower house and burned it there on the open ground. His staff, she would take back to Orthanc. Older and wiser wizards would have to be consulted on how to best destroy it. Her own had been retrieved.

How lucky we have both been, Legolas thought as he lay cradling Alede in the dark. He turned his head, resting his chin against her hair. If he had not gotten there in time…

She whimpered in her sleep and he stroked her shoulder reassuringly. Her skin was warm beneath the nightshirt she wore and she smelled of soap. Legolas had bathed her wounds before they'd gone to bed.

She would never know how closely he came to staying with her. His feelings had undergone a change. Seeing her lying there with a knife at her throat had made him realize just how much she meant to him. He still did not think he loved her. But his feelings had deepened. And while no intimacy had occurred between them, he needed the feel of her in his arms.

Oddly enough, when he'd offered to stay a few more days, it had been Alede who'd insisted that he leave.

"You have your work in Ithilien," she had told him. "And I must gather the remaining wizards to destroy Sildair's staff and wake the Watch Wood. We must also seal Orthanc. Who knows what other dangers might lay there. And I would wish to drive off what ever Orcs might remain. We will meet again, Legolas."

Stroking her shoulder again, he knew that she was right. Perhaps he would visit the Misty Mountains again one day. Murmuring soft words to her, he drifted off to sleep.

****

Alede waited until Legolas had slipped down from the shadow horse, before sliding down herself. She adjusted the herb bundle on its neck so that it would not unmake. The pause also gave her time to regain her composure.

Over the spell horse's back she saw the crouching bulk of Helm's Deep. As she looked, several faces peered out from battlements and windows. No doubt their landing had been observed. Horses did not drop out of the sky everyday.

One particular face on the battlement was familiar. Its appearance was followed by a shout. Gimli had been watching for his friend.

Alede turned to Legolas as he finished waving to the dwarf. The sun shone on his smiling face and Alede felt her resolve not to cry crumbling. She did not think she could endure this.

"Come," Legolas said. "Let us greet Gimli and I will give you a proper introduction."

She shook her head. "I can't. I'm sorry."

Legolas' gaze fell to hers and the smile vanished.

"Alede…"

She shook her head. "Don't," she said forestalling what ever he had been about to say.

Legolas looked at the ground for a long moment before he met her eyes again, sighing as he realized this was their final parting.

"Thank you for my life, Lady," he said gravely.

"And thank you for mine," she answered. Her voice trembled, but so far no tears had fallen.

Legolas glanced over the horse's back. Alede could hear the Dwarf's labored approach though she could not see it. In another moment or two they would have company.

Legolas turned back to her. Cupping her face with his hands, he bent his head and kissed her. It was not the kiss of a lover, but neither was it the simple peck of a friend. Tears streamed down her cheeks as she sighed against his mouth and returned his kiss.

He released her slowly and helped her to mount, since she could not see for the tears clouding her vision.

"Farewell, Alede," he said squeezing her hand.

She leaned down and lightly kissed the back of his knuckles. "Farewell, my Prince." And then before she lost all nerve, she released him and commanded her horse to rise. Wind blew in her face as the horse stepped up into the air and below her she heard the delighted cries of the dwarf as he ran across the field to his friend.

Dashing the tears from her face, Alede looked back as Legolas bent to one knee, the leg that he could barely walk on four days ago. He greeted Gimli with an affectionate hug. The dwarf pounded him soundly on the back, on scars that had faded to almost nothing.

"It is a good thing I have done, and an even better thing that I do," she whispered. "I will see you again someday, Legolas Greenleaf. On my love for you, I promise that."

Turning forward, she pointed her horse's head toward Isengard and did not look back.

The End.

****

A/N: My thanks to all of you and to everyone who has posted reviews. They mean sooooooo much. I especially appreciated the remarks concerning Alede. I tried to make her the type of character that we all could relate to. That we could essentially "step into her shoes". I hope that I accomplished that.

I do have a sequel partially written. Here is a brief little blurb about the sequel which is called "The Caverns of Mirkwood" - Legolas returns to Mirkwood to find his father deathly ill. But is it a sickness or an evil spell that threatens King Thranduil?

Interested? Let me know. I could be ready to post by next weekend. :)

Thanks for reading! ~Nebride