*Author's Notes: Let me just say, right now, that I have not read the Silmarillion or the Unfinished Tales, nor do I have Lord of the Rings committed to memory. Bearing this in mind, please be gentle with reference to any factual errors I may make. Thank you.

*Now, let me also explain my depiction of the Rangers in this story. I have always been a little unclear about what exactly the Rangers did all day, besides wander about the wilderness with, apparently, no purpose. In this story I have them acting as a sort of rogue, law-enforcement, posse...thing. If I'm totally off base with this depiction... oh well, 'cause then my story makes no sense. Also, from what I understand, Strider, simply by virtue of his lineage, is automatically the leader of the Dunedain. But in this story he's only, like, 19 or 20 years old and it just seemed a little strange to have this kid ordering around these much older, much more experienced men. And being the general, all-around, studly kind of guy that Strider is, I would think that he would want to earn the right to lead them, so in this story he is not yet their leader. Again, if this is completely wrong...just... go with it. Oh, and I apologize in advance for the stupid title. It was the best I could do. I really hate coming up with titles.

Okay, I'm done making excuses for myself. You can read the story now.

*Oh, yeah, and this story is kind of a continuation of my previously posted story "Comfort for the Weary", and kind of not. It does have two original characters that I introduced in that story, but you don't need to have read it (okay, so I'm just shamelessly plugging my other story).

*Oh, and this story is rated R for an attempted rape scene, but its very brief and not at all graphic (I just wanted to give y'all a heads up about that, don't want to freak anybody out).

Okay, now you can read the story. Really.

GOOD SAMARITAN BLUES

3/20/02

A small flock of sparrows took to the air, startled into flight by the arrival of several Men on horseback. The eight Men rode hard across the open plain towards the large, dark forest looming in the east. They slowed to a halt at the edge of the tree line. One of the Men in the lead dismounted and bent to examine the grass. Standing, he walked to the trees and studied them for a moment before returning to the group.

"They've gone into the woods," he reported to the others.

He was a young Man, around twenty years old, with shoulder-length, dark hair, a lean, muscular build, and intense gray eyes that seemed much too old for his handsome, youthful features.

"Can you tell how far ahead of us they are?" a tall, gray-haired Man, with a close-cropped, gray beard, asked. He was obviously the leader of the group.

"About a half day's ride, I'd say," the younger Man answered. "But they appear to be avoiding the forest path, so I doubt they're making very good time."

These Men were Rangers and they were pursuing a group of highwaymen who had been terrorizing any and all travelers passing between Rivendell and the Misty Mountains. The Rangers had tracked the outlaws here to the edge of Mirkwood Forest. Now, their leader, Holbard, sat glaring at the dark, forbidding forest with a baleful eye.

"Of course, they would come here," he muttered. "I hate Mirkwood, enchanted river, giant spiders, Wargs, and grumpy Elves, always such a pleasant place to visit... We could just leave them in there, if the spiders and the Wargs don't get them, the Elves will. There would be a certain poetic justice to it."

"Yes, except that we are supposed to capture them and return them to Rivendell for trial. Or would you now have us become judges and executioners, as well as hunters?" the younger Man asked, with a sly smile.

Holbard sighed heavily. "You are right, as usual, Strider. I overstep my bounds. Thank you for reminding me. Come, let us go and collect our stray quarry."

* * * * *

"We're lost, ain't we, Volmar?" A surly voice asked.

The red-haired Man addressed as Volmar, turned and glared at his companion. He was growing weary of the incessant griping of his fellow fugitives.

"We're heading east, that's all we need to do," he snarled back.

"How much longer are we going to be in this accused forest?" another Man asked. "And why can we not walk on the path? I'm tired of gettin' smacked in the face with branches."

"We will continue through the forest until we reach the other side. And we're stayin' off the path so we can lose those damn Rangers!" Volmar snapped.

"Well, I heard there are ... 'things' livin' in these woods ... unnatural things," the second Man mumbled.

"Yeah? Well, if you'd all just keep your mouths closed, maybe they won't notice us."

But the five Men had already been noticed. High above, crouched on the branch of a tree, a lone figure watched them. Sharp Elven eyes followed their every movement and quick Elven ears listened to their conversation. And frankly, the Elf was astounded. These Men were making so much noise and leaving such an obvious trail, that even a granite-headed Dwarf could have followed them. They had no prayer of eluding the Dunedain. And why were the Dunedain tracking them?

Legolas, like all of King Thranduil's sons had been taught the Common Tongue, but he used it so infrequently and these Men were speaking in such a heavy dialect that he was having a little difficulty following their speech. But he had definitely heard them mention the Dunedain. His curiosity was piqued. He had never really seen Men before now, but had been fascinated by them ever since they had first been described to him. He had always listened eagerly to Gandalf's stories of the goings-on in their lands. The Men of these stories had always made the young Elf think of butterflies, with their ever-changing and brief, but vividly colorful, lives.

He knew that he should return to his father's cave-palace and warn the other Elves of the presence of these intruders, but for some reason he couldn't really explain, he didn't. Instead, he followed them, slipping noiselessly from branch to branch above them. He had no difficulty keeping up, as the group was moving slowly. They were forever stopping to rest, which the Elf didn't understand. Were all Men so sluggish? And were they all so quarrelsome?

These Men had done nothing but argue with and berate one anther since the Elf had come across them. Legolas was beginning to grow concerned that they were going to bring the giant spiders down on them all, with the noise they were making. He doubted very much that they would be able to take on even one of the behemoths, let alone two or three.

As if summoned by the Elf's very thoughts, the faint sounds of muffled clicking reached his ears. It was an ominous sound, well known to the Elves of Mirkwood, the sound of large, hair-covered, chitinous plates moving against one another. It announced the arrival of the giant spiders. Glancing off to the left of his position, Legolas could just make out movement among the treetops about a mile away. It would not take long for the monstrous arachnids to cover that distance. Turning his attention back to the Men below, he saw that they were, as yet, unaware of the danger.

The young Elf was at a loss as to what he should do. His father had admonished him repeatedly about the dangers of becoming involved in the affairs of Men. Their concerns did not, and should not, interfere with the concerns of Mirkwood. Legolas understood the wisdom of this advise, but surely his father did not expect him to simply sit idly by as these Men were taken by the spiders? For the prince recognized that that was precisely what would happen. He also recognized that there was a very good chance that he would join them in their fate if he chose to stand with them. But without the aid of his bow, these Men stood no chance at all. Hearing the clicking sounds growing louder, loud enough to even attract the attention of the Men, the Elf made up his mind.

* * * * *

"Shh," one of the Men hissed. "Do you hear that?"

The others paused to listen. Hearing the faint clicking sound also, they began glancing around, trying to determine the direction of the sound.

"I told you there were things livin' in these woods!" the Man whispered to Volmar. "We're all gonna die!"

"Shut up, Darrow!" Volmar snapped. "All of you, spread yourselves out. Try to see where it's comin' from."

The Men were just beginning to move out from their tight clump, when something large and green dropped down on them from above. The Men whirled around, swords and daggers drawn, to find that a magical being had fallen from the very sky to join them. Tall and fair beyond description, with golden hair and fierce, midnight eyes, he was like a shining star descended from the very heavens. The surrounding Men could only gape soundlessly at the wondrous creature before them.

"Do not just stand there," the godlike creature cried out in the Common Tongue. "Ready yourselves! You are about to be attacked!"

Remembering the strange noises they had heard and noting that the stranger was armed with a bow, an arrow already nocked and ready, the Men finally began to perceive the full scope of their peril. Turning to face the direction in which the strange being pointed his arrow, the Men tried to prepare themselves for whatever was rapidly approaching them.

The spiders burst into the clearing, two hideous, hairy blobs, dancing maniacally on sixteen grotesquely jointed legs. Legolas let fly his arrow, but the monster he was aiming at shifted at the last moment, so that the shaft missed its eyes and buried itself in the creature's side, only angering it further.

The five panicked Men drew together in a tight defensive clump and tried frantically to drive off the second spider, leaving the Elf to fend for himself with the first. Fully enraged, it dove at the prince, who drew his long, white knife and leapt to the side, slashing behind him and severing one of the eight flailing legs.

Hearing one of the Men scream, Legolas turned to glance at the fumbling outlaws. Even as briefly distracted as he was, the Elf was left momentarily vulnerable. He groaned aloud as he felt the two pincers pierce the flesh high on his left shoulder. The prince managed to retain enough presence of mind to slash out with his knife. The spider tried to dance back out of reach, but its severed leg hampered its movements. This allowed the Elf to stay close and plunge the knife to its hilt into the cluster of eight eyes. The giant arachnid gave a tremendous shudder and collapsed. It lay for a moment twitching spasmodically then went still.

Legolas leaned against a nearby tree, breathing heavily and clutching his shoulder in pain. He had felt his collarbone snap under the powerful jaws of the spider. The venom inevitably injected into his body along with the bite was not much of a concern for the prince. The spiders' venom was not strong enough to kill large prey, only temporarily incapacitate and it could not do even that to the naturally immune Elves. It would, however, interfere with his natural healing abilities. It would take his body much longer than usual to heal the injured shoulder.

Glancing over at his fellow combatants, he saw that four of the Men were still struggling with the second spider. The fifth Man was down, either dead or unconscious. The others were holding their own, but were too preoccupied with trying to get at the creature's well-protected underside, mistakenly assuming that this was its weak spot, as it was on a dragon.

"The eyes!" the Elf called to them. "Aim for the eyes!"

Understanding this strategy, the large, red-haired Man, who seemed to be in charge of the others, began to hack at the monster's eyes. At last, one of his wild swings found its mark and he was able to blind at least one of the glittering black eyes. The spider, realizing that it was now alone, injured, and very much outnumbered, wisely decided to withdraw from the attack. Jumping up into the nearest tree, it beat a hasty retreat.

With the immediate danger now past, the Men all collapsed onto the ground, panting and trembling. With a sigh, Legolas allowed himself to slide down the tree truck to sit at its foot, cradling his left arm to his chest to prevent any movement of his shoulder. He noticed that the red-haired Man was watching him warily. After a moment the Man stood and moved to stand over the still sitting Elf.

"You're an Elf," the Man said after a moment of scrutiny.

"Yes," Legolas said flatly, thinking that statement to be fairly obvious.

"I always heard that the Elves of Mirkwood weren't entirely friendly."

"We aren't... entirely."

The Man's blatantly dominant stance and almost aggressively probing stares were beginning to make the Elf-prince uncomfortable and for the first time Legolas questioned himself on the wisdom of coming to the aid of these Men. He found his body stiffening involuntarily as the Man slowly lowered himself down to a crouch in front of the Elf.

"I ain't never seen an Elf before," the Man said softly. "I heard they was beautiful, but I thought that just meant the females... I had no idea..."

The Man slowly reached a hand out toward the prince, but before the touch was made, Legolas turned his face away. The Man's hand froze in mid-air.

"Oh, I see how it is," he said softly, "you're too good for us Men, ain't you?"

Legolas could hear the underlying threat in the Man's deceptively soft voice.

"No, it is simply that I am in pain," the Elf answered, carefully keeping his voice neutral.

Seeming to notice the other male's injury for the first time, the Man brushed a hand across the Elf's shoulder. Even that light contact was enough to send agonizing spikes of pain shooting through Legolas' body. His breath hissed through his tightly clenched teeth as he bit off his scream. As the pain gradually subsided, it left the prince feeling light-headed and drained.

"And here I though Elves was immortal and couldn't be hurt," the Man observed, a slight sneer in his voice.

"We are immortal. We do not age and therefore cannot die from it. We are also immune to most diseases, but that does not mean that we cannot be wounded or killed."

The Man thoughtfully drew a long, vicious-looking dagger from his belt and held it up in front of the prince's face. Legolas pressed himself back against the tree, as far as he could get from the Man. His own weapons were lying on the ground near the dead spider, now out of his reach. The Elf silently cursed himself for relaxing his guard and allowing himself to be caught in such a vulnerable position.

"So, if I was to stick this knife into your heart, you'd die, right?" the Man asked.

"Yes," Legolas answered, forcing himself to at least appear completely calm, the epitome of Elven composure.

"Oh, but that would be a grand waste, wouldn't it?" the Man whispered, lightly trailing the point of the dagger along one high, pale cheekbone. "I can certainly think of something else I'd like to stick into you."

"Is this how you thank those that help you?"

"You want a thank you? I'll give you a thank you, all right. Don' you worry, Little One, you'll be howling like a dog 'afore I'm through with you."

The other Men had started to take an interest in the conversation and were now moving closer to better hear the soft words. Legolas turned toward them, hoping to find someone sympathetic to his plight, but he saw only the same sullen lust mirrored in their eyes.

"I wan' to have a go at 'im, too, Volmar," one of the Men sneered.

"You can have 'im when I'm through."

Panic was beginning to spread through the Elf's body like fire through dry summer grass. How could this be happening, his mind screamed. He had risked his life, and injured himself, helping them. This was how they intended to repay him, by raping him? Is this what Men were really like? Why hadn't Gandalf told him this? The ancient Istari had always encouraged the young prince's interest in Men. Why hadn't he warned Legolas about their uncontrollable impulses?

"We should not linger in this place," the Elf said, desperately trying to stall the Man. "The body of the dead spider, it will attract more."

"Don' worry, Little One, I'll be quick."

The Man was still crouched in front of Legolas, the others ranged in a semicircle behind him. Making full use of his Elven agility and reflexes, the prince leapt to his feet, using his good right arm to knock Volmar onto his back. Legolas started to sprint towards the safety of the trees, but one of the Men was just able to grab a handful of golden hair, jerking the Elf back. The Man grasped the back of the prince's tunic and spun him around, throwing him to the ground. A scream was torn from Legolas' throat as he landed hard on his injured shoulder. He struggled painfully to a sitting position, only to be sent sprawling back down by a sharp backhand from Volmar.

The Elf scooted back away from his tormentors and was able to brace himself against a tree trunk and pull himself back onto his feet. He had no sooner done so, than Volmar stepped forward to deliver another devastating blow. As Legolas' head snapped to the side, it slammed against the tree and the world quickly faded into darkness.

* * * * *



The trail left by the outlaws was almost disappointingly simple to follow. In the lead of the Rangers, Strider did not even have to stop to look for signs of their passage. The signs were everywhere. He had only to slow his pace occasionally to make sure he hadn't accidentally veered off their trail. Even despite the fact that the Rangers were now on foot, forced to lead their horses through the dense forest undergrowth, they were still making very good time and were rapidly gaining on their quarry.

Seeing large spots of dark liquid splattered on the foliage just ahead of them, the young Ranger held a hand up, gesturing to his companions to halt. Approaching the area cautiously, he touched two fingers to the unknown substance and brought them up to his nose. Spider blood. He turned back toward his fellows.

"A wounded spider has passed through here, very recently," he said a low voice. "I'd say we are fairly close now."

"Well, hopefully the spider was able to take a few of the bastards out before they got him," Holbard said with a vicious smile.

Strider returned the smile and several of the other Rangers chuckled quietly. The younger Man was about to return to his tracking duties, when a scream abruptly rent the forests' silence. The sound had come from a short distance ahead them. Knowing that now was not the time to be concerned with stealth, Strider and the other Rangers broke into a run, crashing through the trees toward the sound of distress.

Sword in hand, Strider was the first to burst through the trees into a small clearing that had obviously been created when the undergrowth was trampled during a confrontation. The nearby carcass of a very large, dead spider confirmed this assumption. The young Ranger took in everything he needed to know with a quick glance around the clearing. One of the outlaws lay sprawled on the ground near the body of the spider. Three more stood clustered around the fifth, who was kneeling on the ground, his trousers down around his ankles. A pale, naked body with an abundance of tangled, golden hair, lay sprawled unmoving before him. Just what the Man was preparing to do, was sickeningly apparent.

Realizing that the intended victim was an Elf, Strider felt a cold, deadly fury infuse his soul. He could not bear the thought that these Men would dare treat a member of the Eldar race so cruelly. Roughly elbowing his way past the gawking outlaws, Strider grabbed the collar of the kneeling Man and yanked him back away from the Elf. Spinning the Man around, the young Ranger punched him, watching as he crumpled to the ground. Standing dispassionately over the dazed and helpless outlaw, Strider gave him a solid kick to the ribs, and such was his rage that he would have delivered another kick, if Holbard hadn't stepped up and grasped his arm.

"Enough, Strider, leave something for the executioner," the older Man said.

As the haze of his anger gradually faded, the young Man glanced round to see that his fellow Rangers were already taking charge of the rest of the unprotesting outlaws. The surprise of the attack had been so complete that none of the bandits had had a chance to even attempt to defend himself.

"See to the victim," Holbard told the younger Man. "Your skills as a healer are by far the best among us, as is your Elvish. Leave us to deal with this scum."

Kneeling beside the unconscious Elf, Strider flinched slightly at the damage he found. The Elf had obviously put up a fight. Gently smoothing away the long, tangled hair, he found two ugly bruises forming on the left side of the Elf's face, along with a bleeding gash on his right temple. The pale, long-limbed body was covered with scratches and more bruises. In particular, there was a very large bruise in the distinct shape of a hand on the inside of one pale thigh. But the injury that drew his attention most was a large area at the left shoulder that was already stained black with deep bruising. He noted a puncture wound at the center of this mass and guessed that it was a spider bite. Strider knew that the spiders' venom was not deadly, but he also noticed a small lump near the Elf's neck, as well as a great deal of swelling. Both were indications that the collarbone was broken. It would have to be set back into position.

To say that this procedure would be painful would be to grossly understate the obvious and the young Man was grateful that his patient was still unconscious. The only way for Strider to get the proper leverage was for him to straddle the Elf's chest and press down on the lump, forcing the bone back into position. As he did so, the Elf's eyes snapped open and he gave a weak cry.

Seeing the Man directly above his face, straddling his chest, the Elf panicked and began struggling frantically to throw Strider off, heedless of his wounded shoulder. Worried that the Elf would do himself further injury with his exertions, Strider caught the flailing wrists and pinned them against the ground at the Elf's sides. Glancing down, he saw pure panic in the dark blue eyes as the being beneath him continued to try to fight him.

Most Men found it difficult to judge the ages of Elves. Their faces gave away very few clues. An Elf could be centuries old and yet still have the appearance of a fresh-faced youth. But to those who had spent a great deal of time among the Eldar race, such as Strider had, there were ways to tell an Elf's age. The eyes were one way. Elves acquired wisdom as they aged, just as Men acquired wrinkles, and that wisdom was reflected in their eyes. One had only to look into the eyes of Lord Elrond or Lady Galadriel to know that here, indeed, were two beings who had witnessed the passage of millennia. Gazing down at the Elf, still writhing beneath him, the Ranger could tell that this one was still quite young and inexperienced. By Elven standards, he was probably close to Strider's own age.

The Ranger knew that he was only contributing to the other's hysteria by handling him so roughly, but, at the moment, his fear for the Elf's physical state outweighed his fear for the mental state. He tried speaking soft, soothing words in Sindarin, but they didn't seem to be having any effect. The Elf was simply too traumatized to hear them.

After several minutes of struggling with his captor, whether from the fear, the injury, or more likely, a combination of both, the Elf finally passed out. With a sigh of relief, Strider released the other male. Using strips of cloth torn from the Elf's already ruined clothing, the Ranger strapped his left arm to his chest, to prevent any movement of the injured shoulder. Removing his oilskin cloak, he wrapped it around the Elf's naked body. There was very little more he could do at this time.

"How is he?" Holbard asked, coming to stand behind Strider.

"He needs to be in a warm bed among his people."

"Yes, we'll take him back to Rivendell with us."

"We can't take him to Rivendell. He's a Wood Elf. You know as well as I, that the Noldor and the Sindar are not exactly close kin. He's still very young and he's just been through a traumatic experience. He needs to be with his own people."

"I understand that, Strider, I do. But our first priority is to get these prisoners to Rivendell for trial. Now, unless you are suggesting that we leave him here...?"

"Of course, I'm not suggesting that. He is in no condition to defend himself. He would be at the mercy of the spiders."

"Very well then, we take him with us."

Considering the matter closed, the older warrior turned and walked back toward the prisoners. Strider just sat staring at his patient for a long moment. It would take several days for them to reach Rivendell. The outlaws, who were on foot, would slow their progress. When the Elf regained consciousness again and found himself alone and injured in a company of Men, several of whom had attempted to rape him, far from his forest home, which he had probably never left before... For all their physical strength and endurance, Elves did not fare well in captivity. And that would be precisely how the Elf would view his situation. Strider felt terribly that the young Elf's first encounter with Men had left him traumatized and he was determined to prove that not all Men were so cruel.

"Captain Holbard?" Strider called out.

"Yes, Strider, what is it?"

"I request permission to return the Elf to his people."

"Alone? I don't think that's wise. The Elves of Mirkwood are not known for their tolerance. You know there's a very good chance, they'll take one look at him and blame you for his condition."

"I am aware of that. It is a chance I'm willing to take."

"Yes, well, I'm not sure that I'm willing to take it."

"With all due respect, sir, I'm not giving you a choice. I'm sorry, but this is something that I feel I must do."

"Very well, then. Join us in Rivendell as soon as you can. Good luck to you. I fear you will need it."

* * * * *

The forest was silent and dark. Strider found it unnatural and unnerving. Forests were supposed to be places teeming with life and softly filtered sunlight, not secretive shadows and mysterious watchful eyes. He felt as if the trees themselves were watching him, watching him and measuring him. It was an uncomfortable feeling. He was beginning to understand why Holbard hated this place so much.

He was once again on horseback, his still-unconscious patient seated in front of him, leaning against his chest. They were traveling on the forest path now and he had seen nothing and no one since he had parted company with his fellow Rangers several hours ago. There had been nothing but the endless line of dense trees and the mysterious, glittering eyes staring out at him from among the leaves.

The slight sound of a bird's trill instantly caught the Ranger's attention and put him on his guard. Perhaps if he had not been raised among the Elves, or if he had not already been so preoccupied with the forest's unnatural stillness, he might not have taken note of the sound. But he was and he did. So, he was not particularly surprised when a tall, slim figure in green stepped out from the trees a few yards ahead, bow drawn and ready, arrow aimed directly at his eyes. Strider knew that there would likely be several more archers still hidden among the trees.

"Halt! What business have you in Mirkwood, Stranger?" the Elf demanded in the Common Tongue.

Carefully making sure to keep his hands well within the Elf's sight, Strider answered, "My name is Strider and I'm a Ranger. I ha--."

He never finished his sentence as another green-clad Elf suddenly burst from the trees to Strider's right and yanked the unconscious Elf from the Man's arms before he could even react.

"Tis Legolas!" this new Elf exclaimed in Sindarin, gently lowering the younger one to the ground. "Nimithil, it is Legolas!"

The first Elf moved closer warily, still keeping his bow trained on the Ranger. Glancing down at the young one lying on the ground, a look of hatred flared in the Elf's eyes and he stepped closer, his arrow only inches from the Man's right eye.

"What did you do to my brother?" the Elf hissed through tightly clenched teeth.

Brother? Damn, Strider swore. He had hoped he would have the opportunity to tell his side of the story before he encountered anyone too closely related to the injured Elf. Obviously that had been too much to hope for.

"Master Elf, I assur--."

The young Man was not able to finish this sentence either as he was again interrupted by the second Elf.

"Nimithil, I believe he has been violated," the Elf said quietly.

The tall Elf threatening Strider with the bow lowered his weapon and turned to kneel beside his brother. Very gently, he looked beneath the cloak at what the other Elf was gesturing to, mostly likely the incriminating bruises on the young's one's inner thighs. As the one addressed as Nimithil turned his attention back to the Ranger, Strider knew that he would have to proceed very cautiously. His life was hanging by a very thin thread. In many ways Elves considered rape to be an even more heinous crime than murder. The murderer killed only the body, while the rapist killed the soul, leaving the body to slowly rot from the inside.

"I did not do this," Strider tried to explain. "I am--."

"Be silent!" Nimithil hissed. "Get down off your horse."

The Ranger obeyed.

"Glanaras, take the horse. Get Legolas to my father. I will bring this one on foot," Nimithil said, gesturing to Strider.

"Yes, my Prince," the other Elf said, moving to mount Strider's horse.

As Nimithil handed up the limp form of his brother to Glanaras, the words of the two Elves began to sink into Strider's mind... My prince? Father?... Thranduil? Oh, hell, will this day never end?

After watching Glanaras disappear down the path, bearing Legolas to safety, Nimithil turned back to his prisoner. The Elf, once again, had his arrow knocked and ready, should the young Man prove rebellious.

"Move," Nimithil commanded, giving him an unnecessary shove in the back. "We don't want to keep my father waiting."

Oh, no, Strider thought bitterly, I wouldn't want to be late for my own execution.

* * * * *

The House of Thranduil, situated within a large, hollowed hill, was bustling with activity as Strider was escorted into the great hall by several armed guards who had met he and Nimithil on the path. It seemed that the entire Kingdom of Mirkwood knew of what had befallen their youngest prince. The young Ranger tried to ignore their stares and the whispers that swirled around him like the rustling of dead leaves. He held his head high, his shoulders proudly squared, refusing to appear cowed or guilty. The Elf-king himself stood at the back of the hall, tall and cold, like a figure carved from the palest marble. He gazed at the young Man who had been brought before him with all the contempt accumulated through his centuries of long life.

"Do you know who I am?" the tall Elf asked softly, in a voice tinged with frost.

"You are Thranduil, the King of Northern Mirkwood."

"Yes, and you are the Man who violated my son. Do you have a name?"

"I am called Strider and there was no violation," he answered, "nor did I make the attempt."

"Then how came my son to be injured and so... bruised?"

"I do not know the full story of his injuries, but another attacked him. I stopped the attack."

"Then where is this other? Why did you not bring him here to answer for his crime?"

"Because he had other crimes to answer for as well. My fellow Rangers took the outlaw and his band back to Rivendell for trial."

"Fellow Rangers? You claim to be a member of the Dunedain?"

"Yes, I have only recently joined them."

"How convenient that none of your fellows are here to vouch for you... Lies! All of it!"

"My Lord," Strider said, trying to keep his voice steady and calm, "if I had violated your son, why would I bring him back into your territories?"

"Perhaps you did not know that you were riding into my territories. Perhaps you thought you were escaping from the forest. Perhaps you thought you could take my son and sell him into slavery in the lands to the south. I have heard of such things happening."

"What?" Strider exclaimed, astounded. He had traveled over much of Middle Earth in his young life and had never heard of such a thing.

He was about to explain this to the king, when he was distracted by the appearance of a tall, white-robed Elf with silvery-blond hair. He had bits of mistletoe woven into the two long braids that hung down on either side of his face and a girdle of holly leaves encircled his waist.

Also taking note of the other's arrival, the king turned to him and asked, "What news of my son, Urnen?"

"The prince is awake, my Lord, although he is weak and a bit disoriented."

"Is he strong enough to appear here and answer my questions?"

"Yes, my Lord, I believe, he is," the healer answered after a moment of consideration.

"Bring him." Turning back to address Strider, the king said, "Now we shall see if you are truly lying or not."

When the healer returned several minutes later with the prince, the young Man noted that some of the color had returned to the Elf's cheeks and he was walking unaided, although much more slowly than was probably his norm. Despite his situation, Strider found himself thankful that the Elf seemed to have recovered so quickly from his trauma. Mental trauma could sometimes prove more fatal to Elves than the physical and Strider had feared that this Elf might have been too young to survive it. But he was proving himself to be much more resilient than the Ranger had given him credit for and the young Man was glad to be proven wrong in this instance.

The young Man also noted that the left sleeve of the large, green, linen tunic that the Elf wore, hung empty at his side and there was a bulge at his midsection where his left arm was still bound to his torso. Strider couldn't help but feel a small surge of pride to see that the Elven healer had opted to treat the prince's injury in exactly the same way that the Ranger had.

As the two Elves entered the room, Thranduil gestured for a chair to be brought so that the injured prince could sit. Nimithil, the prince's brother, who had arrested Strider earlier, moved to stand protectively behind his younger brother's chair. He was joined by another Elf, who bore a strong resemblance to the other two. It was very obvious that all three were related. The Elf-king moved to kneel in front of his youngest son's chair. He reached out to tenderly caress the golden head.

"Are you sure you are up to this, Legolas?" Thranduil asked softly, his voice only just audible to the Ranger.

"Yes, Father, I can do this," the young one answered.

It was obvious to Strider that despite his infamous reputation for arrogance and hostility, Thranduil of Mirkwood was a father who cared deeply for his sons. It was unfortunate, that such love would probably be the death of the young Man.

Turning back to face the prisoner, Thranduil said, "Legolas, will you please tell us what happened to you."

Taking a deep breath, the Elf began his narrative in a surprisingly calm and steady voice. He told of how he had been patrolling in the woods and had come across a group of Men. Curious, he followed them. When he saw that they were about to be attacked by two spiders, he decided to go to their aid. His shoulder was injured by one of the spiders. After he had killed his spider and the Men had driven off theirs, one of the Men had threatened to rape him.

"Was this the Man?" Thranduil interrupted the narrative to gesture to Strider.

"No," Legolas answered after a furtive glance in the Ranger's direction. "This Man was much larger, older. He had red hair and a red beard."

Strider could tell from the Elf-king's expression that this was not what he had wanted to hear.

"Continue," Thranduil said.

"When I resisted him, the Man struck me. I hit my head on something and everything went dark... My mind felt cloudy, but I was aware of hands ... touching me, tearing my clothes away... I think I tried to fight, but there were too many hands and I couldn't..."

The young Elf fell silent, his eyes staring, unfocused, seeing only the images in his mind, and reliving the nightmare.

"Legolas," Thranduil called gently, pulling his son back to the moment. "Do you remember anything else?"

"Pain," the young Elf whispered. "It felt as if my entire body was on fire. I have never felt such pain... When I opened my eyes, it was his face I saw above me."

The prince pointed at Strider. Angry whispers spread through the hall.

"I tried to push him away," Legolas continued. "He grabbed my wrists and held me down. I tried to fight him, but he wouldn't let me go... I don't remember anything else."

The angry whispers were rapidly growing louder and Strider felt his heart sink. Thranduil turned to face him, a look of dark victory on his fair, cold face.

"And now we have heard. Your lies have been confirmed."

"No, no, my Lord, the reality of the situation has been confused--."

"Are you calling my son a liar?" Thranduil asked, his voice dangerously low.

"No, my Lord, I am simply saying that he was injured and frightened an--."

"And with good reason!" Thranduil shouted.

"Yes, my Lord, but ...," Strider let his voice trail off, seeing that the Elf-king was in no state to listen to reason. The Ranger had one defense left to him. He doubted that it would make a difference, but he had to try. "My Lord, I was raised in Rivendell, in the House of Elrond. I would never, ever raise my hand in violence against a member of the Eldar Race."

"Elrond! Hah! And what would that HALF-Elf teach you?" Thranduil spat, contempt fairly dripping from his voice. "Oh, he might teach you to respect the Noldor, but did he teach you to extend such benevolence to we lowly Wood-elves? No, enough! I have no more stomach for your lies! Glanaras, please escort the prisoner to the dungeons where he will await execution at dawn."

After the prisoner was led from the hall, Thranduil collapsed onto his elaborately carved, wooden throne, suddenly exhausted. His emotional outburst, along with being forced to listen to Legolas' narrative of his ordeal, had left the Elf-king completely drained.

"Father, are you alright?"

Thranduil looked up into the concerned face of his eldest son and managed a weak smile.

"Yes, Belegorn, I'm just tired. Please, will you and Nimithil take Legolas back to his rooms and see that he is comfortable?"

"Yes, Father."

As the prince walked away to join his brothers, the silver-haired healer moved forward to take his place.

"A moment of your time, my Lord?"

"Yes, Urnen, what is it?"

"I need your advice, my Lord, I am in a quandary."

"Oh?"

"I cannot seem to work out in my mind, why a Man would so brutally force himself on another, but would then so carefully bind his victim's wounds. It doesn't seem logical. Wouldn't a hardened rapist simply leave his victim to die? When the prince was first brought to me there was very little for me to do. His worst injury had already been tended. His broken collarbone had been set and the shoulder immobilized, and very expertly, I might add. Does this seem like the action of a Man who would forcibly rape another?"

"No," The king admitted grudgingly, "but who's to say what goes on in the minds of Men? They are not like us. Their ways are a mystery."

"True, my Lord, but there is also the matter of the violation itself. I examined the prince. I found no evidence of violation."

"What do you mean, no evidence? I saw the bruises myself, Urnen."

"Yes, my Lord, there was an attempt, of that there is no doubt. But I do not believe that attempt was successful."

"Are you saying that Legolas was able to fight them off?"

"No, my Lord, in his physical condition there would have been no way for the prince to defend himself... I believe that the attempt was interrupt--."

"No, do not say another word!" Thranduil commanded. "I will not hear it. Successful or not, a Man tried to rape my son. And a Man will pay for that crime."

"Even if it is the wrong one?"

"Yes!" the king hissed as he stood and stormed from the hall.

With a sad sigh, Urnen also left the hall to return to his patient.

* * * * *

The Rangers had left Mirkwood Forest a few hours earlier. They were not making very good time with their prisoners on foot. The four bound outlaws were walking in the center of the group, the seven mounted Rangers encircling them. Holbard rode at the rear. The sun was a huge burning, blinding disk sitting low on the horizon before them. They still had a few hours before it would set behind the Misty Mountains and give them some relief from its glare.

Holbard sat brooding and chewing his lower lip. He shouldn't have let Strider go. He should have insisted that the younger Man remain with them. Holbard understood his concern for the Elf, but Strider was entirely too valuable to risk simply for the sake of one Elf's peace of mind. Not for the first time, since leaving the younger Man, Holbard considered turning around and going to retrieve him. Holbard's thoughts were interrupted by one of his Men.

"Yes?" he asked the Man.

"Sir, there is a rider approaching. With the sun behind them, we can not tell anything more about them."

Glancing up and seeing that there was indeed the silhouette of a rider heading towards them at a fast gallop, Holbard said, "Tell the others to keep on their guard until we can determine whether this rider is friend, foe or stranger."

They did not have to wait long. Within minutes, the outline of a tall, pointed hat became distinguishable on the mysterious rider's head. Moments after that, a long, gray beard could be seen and long, gray robes flapping in the wind. Holbard urged his horse forward to the head of the procession so that he could greet the approaching wizard.

"Gandalf!" the Ranger captain called. "You are certainly a welcomed sight."

"As are you, Holbard," the wizard answered, reining his horse in as he drew alongside the Man. "Ah, I see that you have located the troublesome bandits. Excellent work. I was riding out to join you in your search, but it seems that I needn't have bothered... Where is Strider?"

"Unfortunately, we were not able to apprehend these animals before they were able to cause more trouble. We had followed them into Mirkwood Forest where they had captured a Wood-elf and were about to rape him when we found them. The Elf was injured and traumatized and Strider insisted on personally returning him to his people."

"Oh, dear, I'm afraid that may not have been a very wise decision," the wizard said soberly.

"That's what I tried to tell him. He would not listen. You know how strong a loyalty he feels towards Elves. He would not even hear of us bringing the Elf to Rivendell."

"You and your Men get these prisoners to Rivendell. I will continue on to Mirkwood. Hopefully, I will be able to prevent a tragedy from occurring."

"Thank you, Gandalf. You go with the gratitude of the Dunedain."

"No offense, Holbard, my friend, but I am not doing this for your sake, but for the sake of all of Middle Earth."

* * * * *

Entering Legolas' personal quarters, Urnen found the prince sitting on his bed, rubbing his temple with his good right hand.

"Are you in pain, my Prince?" the healer asked, setting the tray he was carrying down on the small bedside table.

"A little, but mostly I can't seem to think clearly. It's as if there is a fog inside my head. When I was telling my father what happened, I felt that there was something that I was forgetting, but I don't know what it is... Oh, if only my head would clear."

Laying his hands on the bowed, silken head, Urnen said, "My Prince, you have been through much in a very short time. You also took quite a blow to the head. It will clear with time. You just need to rest."

With a nod, the prince stood and began preparing for bed. With his left arm immobilized, he needed the help of the healer to remove his tunic. As Legolas managed to remove the rest of his clothing on his own, the healer returned to the tray and the teapot and cup it carried. He fussed with the tea for several minutes before handing the cup to Legolas, who was now sitting in the bed, the blankets pulled up to his waist.

"What is it?" the prince asked, accepting the cup and giving it a curious sniff.

"It's chamomile and honeysuckle tea. The chamomile will help you sleep, while the honeysuckle should help to clear your head."

After taking a sip and finding that the flavor was acceptable, Legolas quickly drained the draught. Setting the empty cup aside, Urnen helped the young prince settle himself under the covers and find a comfortable position.

"Good night, my Prince. I shall have someone look in on you throughout the night, in case you should have need of something," Urnen said.

"Thank you."

* * * * *

The prince slept deeply, but not well. As the crushed honeysuckle petals in the tea began to do their work, images from the attack began to resurface through the rapidly clearing fog in his mind. He was once again confronted with the leering face of his red-haired tormentor, once again felt the insistent, groping hands as they roamed freely over his body, probing and hurting him.

As he once again felt the searing pain ripple through his body, Legolas whimpered softly and shifted in his sleep. The images abruptly changed and the red-haired Man was gone, replaced by a younger, darker one. The clawing hands seemed to drop away as well, although as the prince tried to move, two hands held him firmly down. Feelings of panic began to flare in the pit of his stomach. He was once again helpless and completely at the mercy of a stranger.

As his panic reached its peak, the Elf gradually took note that the young Man's lips were moving. He was speaking. Forcing his mind to move past the suffocating fear, Legolas concentrated on the Man's words and was surprised to realize that he was speaking in Sindarin. He was also surprised to note that the words were meant to soothe. The Man was trying to tell the Elf that everything would be all right, that no harm would come to him, that the Man had set his broken bone.

Suddenly very much awake, Legolas forced himself painfully up to a sitting position, his mind whirling with these new images. Was this how the events had truly transpired? Had he been too panicked to consciously note any of this earlier? Or was his mind simply fitting the images to the Man's story? After all, didn't these images, or memories, confirm what the Man had been claiming all along, that he had only been trying to help Legolas? And what of the pain? In his dream-memory, the pain had originated in his injured shoulder. If the Man had attempted to rape him, wouldn't the pain have originated from a much lower region?

Now, more confused than ever, the prince knew that he would not be able to sleep any more this night. He needed answers. Climbing carefully out of the bed, he managed to awkwardly pull on a pair of leggings. Donning a tunic unaided was entirely out of the question at this point and shoes seemed far too much trouble, so bare-footed and bare-shouldered, he padded lightly out of his rooms toward the lower tunnels.

* * * * *

The young Ranger, known throughout much of Middle Earth only as Strider, sat staring at the earthen floor of his prison. The chamber was quite small, its only furnishing, a narrow wooden cot. One wall was made entirely of crosscutting iron bars, with a padlocked door of similar design. The young Man found it ironic, knowing that Thranduil's Elves did not work metal, that this prison, which had undoubtedly hosted more than one Dwarvish "guest", was most likely of Dwarvish make.

There were no windows or skylights of any kind to allow the Ranger to judge the passage of time. He had no way of knowing how imminent his execution was and he was sure that this was by deliberate design. He could only wait and make his peace.

When the thick oaken door to the larger chamber outside his cell began to open, Strider tensed, thinking that it might be time. But when only a single Elf stepped into the room, the Man relaxed. He doubted that Thranduil would send only one guard to escort this prisoner. The Elf who had entered stepped closer to the bars of the cell and into the dim torchlight. Strider recognized him as Thranduil's eldest son, Belegorn. The tall Elf gazed at the Man with a look of undisguised disgust.

"Strider," Belegorn said, with a slight sneer. "What kind of a name is Strider? Surely not the name you were given at birth. Why will you not grant us your real name?"

"Because my innocence or guilt will not be determined by what name I answer to, so why should it matter?"

"To me, it doesn't," the Elf said, with a shrug. "I simply thought you might wish to have your real name on your grave marker."

Realizing that the other male was simply taunting him, Strider turned away from him to resume his scrutiny of the floor. Miffed that the Man was not rising to the bait, the Elf decided to switch tactics.

"You know, I've heard about Men like you," he said.

When he got no response, the Elf continued. "You lust for the very young, the younger the better. I understand that even children are acceptable to your kind. Tell me, Strider, do you lust for children?"

There was still no response.

"Is that why you attacked my brother? You looked at him and saw only a beautiful and vulnerable youth. But my brother is several hundred years old. He may still be a youth to my people, but he is ancient to yours. And he is not your plaything. He is not the helpless child you thought him to be."

"I never thought your brother a child," Strider said quietly, turning to face his captor, "But you obviously do."

"Oh, really? You presume the ability to read my thoughts as you would read a book?"

"I don't need to read your thoughts. I have eyes. I have seen the way you and your father and brother treat him, as if he were a piece of spun glass that might shatter with the slightest jarring. I think it is all of you who think him a child. Why else would you be down here? Are you really here to inform me of my error in underestimating him, or are you trying to convince yourself of that error?"

"How dare you?" the Elf spat angrily. "I have no intention o-."

"Answer him, Belegorn. Do you think me a helpless child?"

The eldest prince whirled around to find his youngest brother standing in the doorway to the outer chamber, staring at him expectantly. Belegorn and Strider had been so intent on goading each other that neither had noticed the younger Elf's arrival.

"Legolas, what are you doing down here?" Belegorn said quickly, trying to cover his guilt. "You should be in bed resting."

"I could say the same to you."

"Father asked me to check on the prisoner."

"Did he also ask you to provoke him?"

The elder prince was left speechless, clearly not accustomed to being so openly challenged by his youngest sibling. Strider sat watching the exchange with interest. These may very well be the last few hours of his life, but at least they would be entertaining.

"You are injured and should be in bed," Belegorn said, rapidly losing his temper. "I am going to fetch Urnen and have him give you a sleep draught."

"You do that," Legolas said, stepping into the room to allow his brother access to the doorway.

Seeing that the younger Elf was making no move to follow him, Belegorn stopped and gave his brother a pointed look.

"I would like to speak to the prisoner," Legolas said.

"No."

"I did not ask your permission, Belegorn. I will speak to the prisoner. I have a right to address my attacker."

With an exasperated sigh, the elder prince crossed his arms over his chest, saying, "Fine, speak to him."

"Alone..."

"No, absolutely not, Legolas! It is too dangerous."

"Belegorn, we are on the lowest levels of the palace. There are armed guards just outside this door and there are more stationed throughout the tunnels. Do you honestly think the Man is going to burst out of those iron bars and attack me again, here in the palace? Do you really think me that helpless?"

"Fine!" Belegorn growled as he turned and stormed out of the chamber. The heavy oak door closed behind him with a resounding thud.

With the older sibling gone, Strider stood and moved to lean against the bars of his cell, watching the young Elf closely. Despite his brave words just a moment ago, Legolas stayed at the far end of the chamber, well away from the bars of the cell, well out of arms' reach. He stood fidgeting with a frayed edge on the bandages across his chest.

"They told me your name is Strider," the Elf said at last.

"It is."

"My brothers also told me that you claim to be of the Dunedain."

"I am a Ranger, yes."

"Tell me, Ranger, do you speak Sindarin?"

"Yes, I was taught Quenyan, and Sindarin, in my childhood, which was spent in Imladris," the Man answered in that Elvish tongue, wondering at the question.

"Then you did speak to me in Sindarin while you were holding me down?"

"Yes, I did. Do you now remember my words?"

"Yes, you were trying to calm me," the Elf said softly.

Strider closed his eyes and gave a sigh of relief. At last, someone was listening to him.

"Everything you said was true. I remember now, one of the Men had said something about being followed by the Dunedain... You saved me from the red-haired Man. You were trying to help me. You bound my wounds."

"Yes, my Prince," the young Man whispered.



"Oh, Elbereth, what have I done?" Legolas moaned, clutching his head with his free hand. "I helped those Men against the spiders and they repaid my kindness by trying to rape me. You saved me from them and now we would repay your kindness by executing you. This is all my fault."

"No, my Prince, you were in shock and could not think clearly. It was your father who jumped to conclusions without proof... You do believe me then?"



"Yes, the fog in my head is lifting and I can see clearly now that what you say makes sense. I believe you... I must speak to my father. I must stop this."

"Do you honestly think he will listen to you?"

"He has to."

Strider was about to respond to this, when the door to outer chamber burst open and Thranduil strode inside, flanked by two armed guards, as well as Belegorn and Urnen.

"Legolas, what are you doing here?" the Elf-king demanded. "I went to your rooms to check on you and found you gone. Urnen did not know where you were. We went to look for you and instead found Belegorn, who informed us that you were here. What is going on?"

"Father, you must stop the execution. This Man is innocent."

"What?! Has he now bewitched your mind?"

"No, the fog in my mind has lifted, I remember much more clearly now. He was telling the truth. He saved my life."

"I will hear no more of this," the king said angrily. "Legolas, you are not well. Urnen, please return my son to his rooms and give him a sleep draught. See to it that he sleeps through the morning."

"Yes, my Lord," the healer said with a slight bow and reached out to grasp the young prince's right elbow.

Legolas pulled his arm away and stepped in front of his father, forcing the king to look at him.

"Father, you must listen to me!"

"Legolas, you are trying my patience. Now, this execution will take place at dawn, as I have commanded. You will return to your rooms, now!

"But, F-."

"My Prince, come away, please," Urnen said, physically interjecting himself between the father and son.

As the prince continued to protest, the healer began to drag him toward the door. Still weakened from his injuries and ordeal, the younger Elf could not put up much of a fight. When they reached the empty hallway, Legolas tried one last time to convince the healer.

"Urnen, please, we have to stop this," the prince pleaded.

"Yes, my Prince, I know."

"You know? Then why will you not let me go?"

"My Prince, now is not the time to argue. Your father is upset. He was very concerned when he found your bed empty. He is in no fit state to listen to you at this moment and the more you challenge his authority, the more you harden his resolve. Now is the time for a strategic retreat. We still have four hours until dawn. Give your father some time to calm down and approach him again then. Now, I very much doubt that he will sleep at all tonight, but I am sure he will return to his quarters to change his clothing sometime before dawn. We will wait for him in his quarters."

Seeing the wisdom in these words, the prince could only sigh and reluctantly nod his head.

"And how is it that a healer is so wise of the ways of warfare?" Legolas asked.

"A healer wages war with death every day of his profession and I pride myself on being a formidable general. Come, my Prince, let us fall back to a stronger position."

* * * * *

An hour or so before dawn Thranduil wearily made his way toward his private apartment. He was exhausted, but still determined to execute the prisoner. It did not matter to him that the Man could very well be innocent. This would send a message to the world of Men to stay out of Mirkwood and to leave her Elven citizens in peace. It also sent the message that the King of Mirkwood would take quick and decisive action against anyone who threatened himself or his offspring in any way.

The king's only hesitation about this course of action was his concern for Legolas. Thranduil had quickly dismissed his son's assertions that he suddenly remembered the Man's innocence. The child was obviously feeling guilty about being the reason for the Man's death and his mind was compensating for this guilt by conjuring up false memories. Regardless, Legolas would still be devastated by the Man's death. But the king could not allow the incident to go unpunished simply for the sake of sparing his son's feelings.

Thranduil's youngest had always been different from his brothers, much more curious and much more independent. He had always been the first to climb the unfamiliar tree and the one to climb the highest. But when one strove to scale such heights, one had to remember just how far down lay the ground. There was always some price to pay for the way one chose to live one's life. Thranduil had done his best to shield his son from the evils of the world, as did his elder brothers, but it was difficult to contain one with such a thirst for adventure. It angered the king to no end that such a naïve desire had been taken advantage of so cruelly.

Elves had never born children with nearly the fruitfulness of the other races, but in recent times Elven children had become even more rare and precious. It had been some several hundred years since any babes had been born in Mirkwood. Legolas himself had been among the last births, which perhaps explained why so many in Mirkwood doted on their youngest prince so. The thought that any upstart Man, who couldn't possibly fathom the exquisite, rare miracle of an Elven child, would dare to touch that child in such a degrading manner filled Thranduil with a rage that he had not felt since the day the Elves and the Men of Westernesse had fought Sauron. Unfortunately much had changed since that fateful battle. Men had forgotten their place and grew too bold. The Elf-king would send a message to remind them. And if an innocent Man got caught up in the sending of that message, so be it.

Walking into his apartment, he found a fire already lit in the fireplace and Legolas and Urnen seated before it, waiting for him. The anger, which the king had managed to bank to a smolder, abruptly flared to full life again.

"I thought I made my orders explicitly clear," he said in a low, dangerous voice, addressing the healer. The king gestured to his son. "He is to be in bed, sleeping. You are to be with him, seeing to it that he remains there. At what point did these instructions become unclear to you?"

"Father," Legolas said quickly, moving to stand in front of the visibly shaken healer, "do not blame Urnen. This was my decision. I ordered him to bring me here."

"Your orders do not countermand mine. I am the ruler here."

"Father, please, I--."

"No, enough Legolas! I will hear no more of this," Thranduil's voice was little more than a harsh whisper, but it quickly silenced his son's protests. The prince knew that deadly tone and realized that he and Urnen had badly misjudged the depth of the king's wrath. There would be no more arguing, this battle was already lost.

"No, sir," Legolas breathed.

Turning on his heel and striding to the door, the Elf-king opened it and stepped out into the corridor. Gesturing to someone in the hallway, he moved back into the room, followed a few seconds later by one of the royal guards.

"You will escort Prince Legolas and Urnen to the prince's rooms," Thranduil said to the guard. "You will have a guard posted outside those rooms until further notice. Neither of these two is to leave those rooms until I personally come to fetch them. Is this clear?"

"Yes, my Lord."

As the healer and the prince moved to follow the guard out of the room, Thranduil stopped Legolas with a hand on his good shoulder.

"I do love you, my Son," he said softly.

"Yes, sir."

* * * * *

Legolas sat on his bed staring blankly in front of him. He had failed. His father would execute the young Ranger in less than an hour and the Elf was powerless to stop it. His father hadn't even given him a chance to plead his case. His father had simply dismissed him, as he would have an errant child. Would he never be able to convince his father that he was no longer that child?

Sensing movement beside him, the prince looked up to find Urnen standing beside the bed holding a steaming earthenware mug. The healer held the mug out to Legolas, who only looked at him, confused.

"The sleep draught your father commanded," Urnen explained. "Take it, my Prince."

Accepting the mug, Legolas stared into it, mesmerized by the slow movement of the tealeaves drifting toward the bottom of the cup.

"Do you know how they're going to execute him?" he asked, still staring into the mug.

"I imagine they will take him to the festival field, where they will bind him to a post and draw the spiders to him."

The prince looked up, shocked. "That's barbaric!"

"Not necessarily. After the spider bites him, he will fall unconscious. With luck, he won't even wake up before they finish him off... There are worse ways to die."

"He shouldn't have to die at all!" Legolas said, abruptly setting the mug aside and standing. Suddenly very agitated, he began to pace around the room. "This isn't right, Urnen! There must be some way to stop it."

"The world is a very cruel place, my Prince, and many innocents are forced to pay for that cruelty. Sometimes we must accept that."

"Those don't sound like the words of a formidable general," the prince said.

"No general can win every battle. But every good general knows when the battle is lost and it is time to quit the field. Please, my Prince, spare yourself and drink the tea."

With a resigned sigh, Legolas took the mug back from the healer. As he raised it to his lips, the two males became aware of the sound of raised voices from somewhere outside the prince's rooms. Glancing at Urnen, the younger Elf once again set the mug aside and moved toward the door. As he did, the voices outside grew louder and he was able to distinguish the rich, baritone of Gandalf, the ancient Istari. The wizard was loudly calling for Thranduil and seemed fairly upset. Flinging the door open, Legolas started out into the hallway, only to be stopped by one of his father's guards, who had been stationed outside the room.

"I'm sorry, my Prince, but you're not to leave your rooms," the guard said, placing himself in front of Legolas.

With an impatient sigh, the prince craned his neck, trying to see past the taller Elf, down the hallway. Just catching a glimpse of a tall, pointed, gray hat moving across the tunnel, Legolas called out to the wizard, "Gandalf!"

Whirling around, Gandalf spied the Elf-prince. He covered the distance down the hall in a few long-legged strides.

"Legolas, where is everyone? Where is your father? I need to speak to him urgently."

Glancing at the guard who was still standing between the prince and the wizard, Gandalf added, "Well? Stand aside! What is all this?"

Somewhat cowed by the visibly agitated wizard, the guard stepped out of the way. Legolas quickly stepped forward. Noting the prince's bruised face and heavily bandaged torso, Gandalf started to ask about it, but Legolas quickly cut him off.

"Everyone has gone to the festival field. My father is going to execute a Man for a crime he did not commit. Please, Gandalf, you must stop them!"

"Is this Man called Strider?"

"Yes!"

"Where is this field? Take me there."

The guard once again stepped forward to physically restrain the prince. While the guard was uncomfortable with the thought of angering the wizard, the thought of angering Thranduil frightened him even more.

"I'm sorry, my Prince, but my orders are to keep you here."

Exasperated, Gandalf turned to the guard. "I think you could use a little nap... Sleep," with that command, the wizard reached out and touched the Elf's forehead with an extended index finger. As the single digit touched him, the guard slumped to the floor, sound asleep.

"Come," Gandalf said to the prince as he turned and started down the hallway.

With a quick, awed glance at the sleeping guard, Legolas sprinted after the rapidly retreating figure of the wizard. Stepping outside the cave-palace and into the faint light of early dawn, the prince took the lead. At the, north-western foot of the hill, inside which the palace was located, was a large, open clearing where the Elves of Mirkwood held outdoor feasts and celebrations. Today would see a much more somber gathering.

Crimes among the Elves were very few and far between, particularly crimes of a capital offense.

Therefore executions were exceedingly rare, but they did occasionally happen. In Mirkwood, the means of execution was simple. The criminal was tied to a post in the center of the festival field. Meanwhile, runners would head out into the woods and locate one or two of the giant spiders. Using the blood from a recently slaughtered animal, they would entice the spiders toward the field. When the monstrous arachnids arrived they would bite the criminal, then drag them away. Whether the spiders actually understood the nature of this offering or not was unclear, but whenever these incidents occurred the spiders curiously never bothered the gathered onlookers, they only took the ones tied to the posts.

As no Elf would be required to act as executioner, this form of execution was seen as the most fair. While it was true that the runners enticed the spiders, it was the spiders that did the actual deed. No Elf's honor would have to be compromised because of another's crime. And while this form of execution was not exactly humane, particularly for Elves, since the spider's venom would not render them unconscious as it would other races, it was still seen as the best solution by the Elves of Mirkwood.

Bursting through the trees into the clearing, Gandalf saw three enormous spiders bearing down on the helpless Man tied to the post in the center of the clearing. Striding calmly forward, the wizard placed himself in front of the Man, directly in the path of the oncoming nightmares. Raising his staff high, the Istari slammed it back down with a shouted word of command. Intense, blinding light filled the clearing, driving the monsters back into the sheltering shadows of the trees.

"Begone!" Gandalf shouted at the retreating spiders. "You will find no meal here this day!"

Allowing the light from his staff to die down, he turned to the prisoner and began untying him.

"Do you think it would be possible for you to accomplish something as simple as capturing a band of outlaws without requiring my services to rescue you?" the wizard asked with a smug grin.

"Do you think it would be possible for you to accomplish that rescue without gloating?" the Ranger responded, returning the smile.

"Oh, absolutely not," Gandalf said with a wink. "The gloating is half the fun."

Once he had freed the young Man, the two turned to find a furious Thranduil standing before them with several of his archers, their bows armed and ready. Catching movement out of the corner of his eye, Gandalf glanced to his left and saw a struggling Legolas being physically restrained by his elder brothers. With a sigh, the wizard turned back to the Elf-king, crossing his arms over his chest.

"This is not your concern, Mithrandir," Thranduil hissed. "Why are you interfering?"

"I am trying to keep you from making the biggest mistake of your very long life. But I see now that your narrow-mindedness knows no bounds," the wizard said, gesturing to the archers.

"This Man tried to rape Legolas! If you cared at all for my son you would let me execute him!"

New comprehension dawned in Gandalf's eyes. He turned to look back at Strider.

"The Wood-elf the outlaws attacked was Legolas?" the wizard asked quietly.

The young Ranger nodded.

Nodding Gandalf glanced over at the Elf in question. Legolas shook his head and tried to go to the wizard, but was held back by his brothers.

"It was a mistake, Gandalf," the younger Elf cried out. "My mistake. He was helping me, but I misunderstood. Please, don't let them kill him for my mistake!"

"Legolas! Be silent!" Thranduil commanded. "Belegorn, Nimithil, take your brother back to the palace."

"Hold!" Gandalf ordered, his voice ringing in the silent forest, instantly freezing everyone where they stood.

Moving to stand close to the Elf-king, the wizard said softly, "Thranduil, your own son denies the crime. I am a trusted friend and I personally vouch for the young Man's character."

"I don't care!" the Elf-king whispered harshly. "One of your precious Men tried to rape my son. Someone must pay for that crime!"

Gandalf's face softened. Looking deep into the Elf's eyes, the wizard saw that he was acting, not as a self-righteous king, but as an enraged father, desperate to avenge the wounds inflicted on his son's body, and more importantly, his soul. The problem was that the son appeared to be bearing up under those wounds far better than the father.

"Thranduil, I know this Man and I assure you that he is innocent," Gandalf said gently. "And I cannot allow you to execute him. I cannot allow you to jeopardize the peace of Middle Earth, simply so that you can feel better about yourself as a father."

The Elf-king's eyes flashed angrily at this last statement. "How could the peace of Middle Earth be put in peril just because I chose to execute a simple Ranger?"

"There is nothing simple about this Man and he is much more than a mere Ranger. He is Aragorn, son of Arathorn, and he is the rightful heir to the throne of Gondor. If you execute him, you will not only incur the wrath of the Dunedain, but of much of the race of Man as well."

"He told me his name was Strider," said Thranduil, who had gone pale at the wizard's announcement.

"That is one of the many names that he answers to, but the name he was given at birth was Aragorn. Do you still wish to execute him?"

The two ancient males stood staring at each other for a long moment. Then, abruptly, all the anger seemed to drain out of the Elf-king. With a heavy sigh, he gestured to his archers to stand down. Glancing over at his sons, he said, "Let him go," to the elder two.

Belegorn and Nimithil released Legolas, who moved forward cautiously to stand beside his father. The young Elf had never seen his father look so defeated and it frightened him somewhat. But when Thranduil raised his head to look at his son, his eyes were fierce.

"There was nothing I could do to change what had happened to you," he whispered harshly. "I felt so helpless. I couldn't take away your pain, but... I could make someone else share it... I just wanted someone to pay for your injuries!"

"My shoulder will heal quickly," Legolas said softly. "I have had much worse injuries, you know that. I will be all right, Father. And I will be all right, thanks to Stri-... Aragorn." The prince threw a grateful glance at the young Man before turning back to the king. "Please, Father, let go of your anger."

Thranduil reached out and grasped the back of his son's head and pulled him close in a fierce, although one-sided, hug. Releasing Legolas, the Elf-king stepped over to the young Ranger. He stood before the Man looking very uncomfortable.

Clearing his throat, the Elf said, "I was not thinking clearly. I was blinded by my desire to right the wrong done to my son... Please... forgive me." The last two words were issued as barely more than a whisper, as if they had had to be forced out with the Elf's last breath.

All eyes turned expectantly to the young Man, who stood staring at the Elf-king. Thranduil stood looking anywhere but at the Ranger.

"Your son is a fine example of his people," Aragorn said, his eyes never leaving the Elf-king's face. "He selflessly placed himself in danger to help others. He bore up under a very difficult and painful situation with remarkable poise. And though he did make an error, once he realized that error, he acted quickly and tirelessly to correct it, even when it meant defying his own father. I can see why you cherish him so much. Out of my own respect for your son, I will forgive you."

Glancing quickly up at the young Man, Thranduil gave a curt nod and stepped back. Legolas moved to take his father's place.

"Thank you for your generosity toward my father," the prince said, "and for your words."

"I meant them. You are a fine warrior."

Gandalf moved to stand beside Thranduil who was staring somewhat grumpily at his son who was still conversing with the young Ranger.

"You know," the wizard began conversationally, "if you are still serious about wanting to make those truly responsible for Legolas' injuries pay for their crimes, why don't you allow Legolas to accompany Aragorn and I to Imladris. The outlaws will be placed on trial there and Legolas' testimony against them could prove valuable in helping to ensure their fate. It might also ease Legolas' pain to know that he helped to bring these Men to justice."

"Legolas go to Imladris?" Thanduil repeated. "He has never been outside of Mirkwood. He has just been through a very difficult experience. I do not think he will wish to leave his family at this time."

The wizard raised one eyebrow at the Elf's last statement. "Why don't we ask him and let him decide," Gandalf said.

Thranduil glanced over at the wizard, but said nothing.

Taking the Elf-king's silence as an affirmative, Gandalf called out to the prince.

"Yes, Gandalf?"

"Would you like to join Aragorn and I on our journey to Imladris? You could testify against the outlaws who attacked you, during their trial."

The prince's entire face lit up, like sunshine peeking through the clouds after days of rain. "Go to Imladris! Father, may I?"

Gandalf turned back to Thranduil, his expression smug. "I think he's willing to make the journey."

"You may go," the Elf-king said with a heavy sigh...

*But that is another story for another day... Okay, so I just couldn't come up with some snazzy way to neatly wrap everything up...Well, the story's over, go back to your lives...