Rillen was now right up to the tree, the branch that the elf stood upon
coming up chest-high on the troll. The creature swept his hand
sharply downward, trying to crush the elf where he stood. Legolas
jumped sideways at the last moment, but the branch snapped and
splintered under the assault. Caught on the end away from the
tree, Legolas felt the wood jerk sharply downward under him. But
before he could even have the sensation of falling it suddenly heaved
up again like a sea-serpent in a roiling ocean as Rillen’s hand closed
around the splintering branch and he wrenched it from the tree with one
The up-shot of the branch slammed into Legolas like a battering ram,
catching his unprotected stomach and chest so hard that he felt as if
his internal organs must have been permanently re-located. He
tasted blood as his chin connected sharply, snapping his head first
forward and then back upon impact before he could compensate. A
sickening pop close to his ears flared in time with the pain that raced
through his jaw at the impact.
The world spun around the prince and it wasn’t simply the result of the
blow, the world literally was
spinning around him. Rillen had
hoisted the tree-branch that Legolas still clung to over his head like
a club, waving it in rapid, deliberate strokes and trying to fling the
elf off against the ground in a crushing blow that would surely kill
Legolas felt himself snapped first one way and then the other. It
was like riding a bucking dragon and he knew he could not long endure
the harsh punishment. His grip slipped a little more each time
his hurting body was whipped around. The abuse coupled with the
wild motion made the elf feel ill.
Rillen slammed the tree branch down against the ground, trying to smash
Legolas with it.
Finally close enough to the earth to make a safe dismount, the elf
jumped free just in time to avoid being crushed. He rolled to the
side as the thick branch slammed down against the ground right next to
him, cracking and splintering with a horrendous noise.
Aragorn pulled himself to his feet again just in time to see Legolas
roll away from the troll’s attack. The prince looked slightly
dazed and he stumbled as he tried to distance himself from his
attackers. The elf’s lack of grace alarmed the ranger, who knew
how badly his friend must be feeling to reel like that.
The trolls were too close, there was nowhere for Legolas to go. A
glancing blow from Rillen’s swinging club caught him across the
back. The elf was thrown forward sharply, and although he rose
again slowly to his hands and knees, Aragorn could see blood dripping
from the prince’s mouth and nose. Legolas’ arms were trembling as
he tried to support himself and force his body up again.
Aragorn cringed to think what internal injuries his friend might be
taking. Horror engulfed the ranger and heedless desperation drove
him forward with a shout as another grazing near-miss flung Legolas to
the side, crumpling the prince like a rag doll and tearing a cry of
pain and fear from his lips.
Rillen was relentless, going after the elf with wild swings of his
tree-branch club while Nokk and Neb tried to grab the prince as he
attempted to escape the deadly blows. Down under the combined
attack of three trolls, Legolas didn’t stand a chance.
Charging Rillen, Aragorn struck with a force born of sheer desperation
and actually managed to drive his sword deep into the creature’s
Howling, Rillen dropped his club and grabbed his leg, kicking angrily
at Aragorn who scrambled quickly out of the way.
Back on the other side of the fire, trapped precariously on the high
boulder, Kaldur was wearing out. Drum’s hand slammed down onto
the rock right beside him, swatting as one might swat at a fly.
The bandit was thrown forward by the impact, landing hard on his hands
and knees only to have to scramble backward again just as quick to
escape another sweeping slap. His side burned from where the
troll’s rough fingernails had gouged him on a near-miss he had avoided
only by tumbling through the troll’s thick fingers. Thus far his
above-average acrobatic agility and Drum’s state of intoxication had
kept him one step ahead of Drum’s clumsy, drunken attempts to squash or
grab him. It was only a matter of time though, and he knew
that. Already his breath was painfully short and his limbs
trembled from the effort. He was too high up to jump off this
isolated plateau of stone, and he could only dodge for so long.
If he’d had time he would have spared a glance to see how the others
were faring. Better than himself he hoped... although he feared
Somehow, Legolas managed to drag himself back to his feet, even though
he felt as if every inch of his body had been viciously bruised, inside
and out. It was no longer a joke to say that he felt as if he had
been beaten by a troll and he found himself cursedly unsteady on his
feet. The archer had lost his bow in the chaos and his arrows
were all spread between here and the next mountain range anyway after
his wild ride. He drew his knives, but the small part of his mind
that he didn’t want to listen to knew just how ineffective those were
going to be against their current enemies.
Aragorn appeared at the elf’s side, half-hunched to the right against
the flaming pain in his arm, his bloody sword clutched tightly in his
They placed themselves back to back as the three trolls rushed them,
knowing they were not going to walk away from this fight. It was
horribly ironic really, that after everything they had survived
together, they looked to have met their ultimate match in a bunch of
thick-headed trolls not five days travel from Rivendell.
“Even in death we shall not be parted, believe it, gwador-nín,”
Legolas whispered fiercely around the hot pain in his jaw brought on by
Aragorn nodded, sparing his dear friend one last, final smile.
Although it had been an unspoken bond for years, Legolas had never
actually called him brother before.
Suddenly, loud, ringing cries and horn blasts filled the air; confusing
the angry trolls and making them pause long enough to look up in search
of the source of the disturbance.
Aragorn and Legolas looked up as well, and were shocked to find the
hills around the valley dotted with several dozen black shapes that
were rushing down towards them. The shadowed forms quickly
resolved themselves into the bodies of men carrying torches and
wielding bows, swords, axes and hunting spears.
The trolls yelled and cursed in anger as a swarming hail of arrows
descended on them from all angles, accompanied by a barrage of sharp,
Within seconds the newly arriving humans were all around them,
thirty... no, forty strong at least, not including an unknown
additional number who remained hidden in the hills, raining arrows upon
the huge targets.
Drum left Kaldur and hurried to join his friends, sweeping his massive
arms and feet, trying to scatter the humans as he went. But
although the trolls could easily crush the smaller beings, these humans
were too smart and too quick to let them do so very easily.
The elf and the ranger found themselves suddenly of little interest to
the trolls who turned to respond to the new threat. The relief
was great, but the danger wasn’t over, and for a few minutes the valley
became absolute chaos as one of the trolls tripped, falling into the
fire and scattering the flaming logs everywhere. Parts of the
valley blazed, although conditions were still too wet from the previous
rain for a serious grass fire.
The earth shook under the pounding feet of the trolls and rang with the
impassioned cries of their unknown attackers. Eventually even the
thickheaded trolls realized that there was nothing to be gained
here. Their chance of an easy meal was lost and they were not at
heart very brave nor very stubborn creatures. Taking the path of
least resistance, the brutes finally took to their heels.
Thumping away towards their dark dwellings in the hills they muttered
curses as they departed. This was a bad place to be, nothing but
trouble. They were not coming back to his area any time soon.
Legolas leaned forward, resting his hands on his thighs as he caught
his breath and tried to still the terrible aching in his chest.
Miraculously, he didn’t think he had any broken ribs, but it felt as if
his insides had been forcefully re-arranged and his jaw was definitely
dislocated. There was a strange, sick burning in his stomach and
lungs that spoke of too much abuse. The elf pushed the pain
aside, focusing on the moment.
Next to him, Aragorn leaned his good shoulder against a tree, his eyes
pinched closed as he tried to not let the pain flaming through him make
him sick to his stomach.
They had been snatched from the proverbial jaws of death but they had
yet to figure out by whom. That question did not have long to
wait for an answer however. As the chaos subsided and the unknown
men re-gathered enough to see that they had taken quite a number of
injuries but no fatalities, two figures approached the elf and the
An older man and a younger walked forward from the rest of their
group. The older man’s hair was nearly completely white although
his short beard retained flecks of grey, but his strong, sturdy body
belied these indications of age in a way that showed he was still a
force to be reckoned with.
Aragorn smiled as he got his pain levels back under control, but did
not move away from the support of the tree just yet.
“Taradin, Garith, I cannot begin
to tell you how good it is to see
you,” the ranger said warmly, with a slightly rueful chuckle as
recognition hit him.
Taradin laughed. “Should have figured that the next time I saw
you, you and Legolas would be in some kind of scrape, even after all
these years!” The elder hunter shook his head. “I don’t
know whether I should say you’re cursed to find so much trouble, or
blessed to always manage to survive it.”
Legolas laughed gingerly around his aching insides. “We’ll take
either way that keeps us alive. How did you know to come to our
“Taradin and his men rejoined our party the day after you left,” Garith
explained, and then easily let the older man pick up the story from
“Garith here told me what way you were heading and I knew it was bad
business,” Taradin nodded towards the younger man he had long ago taken
as his son. “See, my men and I just had a run-in with these
beasts on the way back, that’s why we was late. Not that we
didn’t think you could handle yourselves just fine, mind you, but we
knew those big lunks’d be angry after our little tussle and more prone
to bothering travelers. So we thought we’d just come along this
way to see if everything was all right.”
“Well we are extremely glad that you did,” Aragorn chuckled, finally
able to push away from the tree, although he continued to hold his
injured arm with his good one. “We are in your debt.”
Taradin shook his head, his eyes looking over the two friends, his
“What? Nah, none of that. Perhaps you can consider it that
our debt to you is finally paid.” His gaze lingered for a moment
longer on Legolas who just smiled and shook his head. The elf had
long ago forgiven the hunter for their initial meeting. Actually
the hunter had helped them out in a number of scrapes after that, and
they had done the same for him. They were already more than
‘even’ if one was counting.
The archer had to stop smiling presently though and winced as he rubbed
his jaw. It hurt, badly. As he worked it back and forth he
felt it click back into place with a sharp little jolt of pain that
took his breath away. He had to close his eyes to hold back the
sting of pain-induced tears, but the ache faded swiftly.
Relieved, he opened and closed his mouth once or twice to check the
hinge. Now properly aligned once more, it still hurt, but not
quite as severely. He was lucky it had not been broken.
Aragorn looked at his friend questioningly, but Legolas just shook his
head, rubbing his jaw lightly. His eyes told his human friend
that yes, he was in pain, but he would be all right. The ranger
nodded back slowly. He was still concerned that the elf might be
bleeding internally from the battering he had taken... in fact it was
almost impossible for him to not be, but the light in his friend’s eyes
was bright, even around the pain, and Aragorn saw no immediately
visible threat to the prince’s life at least.
“Hey, lose something?” several of Garith’s young men came over,
escorting Kaldur who had somehow finally managed to get down off the
cliff-like boulder. They remembered the bandit had been one of
the prisoners in their camp and returned him politely, but firmly to
the elf and the ranger. “He was trying to sneak off.”
Kaldur looked insulted. “I was just stretching my legs!
Everyone’s so suspicious...”
Aragorn doubted that, but at this point he was willing to forgive the
other man his idiosyncrasies.
“Thank you. It’s all right, you can release him,” he assured the
two young hunters who were holding Kaldur rather tightly. The
bandit had earned that much of their trust at least after
tonight. “He’s not going anywhere in a hurry, right, friend?”
Aragorn’s voice was genuinely companionable, although he used Kaldur’s
own turn of phrase with a small glint of amusement.
Kaldur smiled and shrugged, hugging his side lightly once his arms were
released. Those scratches hidden by his torn and dirty shirt
still stung fiercely, but he didn’t complain. He knew how to take
pain and keep on smiling.
“Where is the rest of your party?” Garith suddenly looked around with
concern. “Where are Lord Elrond’s sons?”
“All right, I hope,” Aragorn
glanced towards the darkness
beyond. “Although I think they will need the attentions of a
skilled healer, and soon. They should be waiting on the other
side of these hills for us if Elladan didn’t decide that he needed to
come back to try to save us.” He laughed, but he truly hoped that
his brother had gotten no such foolish ideas. The twins were not
in a good way.
Garith, with most of his party, stayed to care for the wounded and
reconnoiter after the skirmish, while Taradin accompanied Legolas,
Aragorn and Kaldur to find the rest of their missing group.
The elder hunter left the majority of his men with Garith, but took a
good number of them with him in case Strider’s friends needed
Taradin spoke quietly with Aragorn and Legolas as they walked, catching
up on bits and pieces of news. Then he nodded towards where
Kaldur was walking ahead with some of his men, who were laughing
merrily along with something the bandit had said or done.
“Garith told me about these men you was guarding. Right smart
thing you’re doing taking them to Rivendell. Too many good folks
are just too quick to take action they regret later.” He didn’t
give any more indication than that, but they all knew he was once again
remembering the events surrounding their first meeting so many years
ago. Taradin had been one of those men and he wasn’t proud of
it. He liked to think he had grown past that quite some time ago
however, and his long friendship with the man he knew as Strider and
the blond elf archer who was almost always with him was proof.
“We’ll be heading back to Strayton ourselves soon. If you’ve a mind,
we’ll move things up a bit and go back to Rivendell with you all.
I’ve a feeling you might need a scratch of help with your prisoners,
given... the way things are.” He glanced from Aragorn’s limp arm
to Legolas careful movements. If Elladan and Elrohir were in no
better shape than these two, handling their prisoners alone would be a
“Thank you, Taradin, your help would be most appreciated,” Aragorn
replied, obviously sounding a little relieved. The same
difficulty had presented itself to his mind as well.
Taradin nodded. “What do you think Lord Elrond’ll find to do with
them when we get there? Rivendell ain’t got no prisons that I
know of, unless they borrow ‘em from Strayton, which wouldn’t be so
hard I suppose. The new Warden’s expanded the jail facilities
considerably since the last time you two had the pleasure of viewing
them.” He chuckled.
Aragorn laughed with him. He shook his head; he had no idea
exactly what would happen when they got to Rivendell, but trusted his
foster father’s justice implicitly.
“I really don’t know, but I’m sure whatever their sentence, it will be
fair. An agreement with Strayton would be a likely option
actually. I hear that they are on better terms with Rivendell
than they have been at times in the past. Perhaps these men can
work off the damage they caused.” His gaze strayed to Kaldur,
swaggering along ahead of them. If he had anything to say about
it, Kaldur’s part in aiding them tonight would not be forgotten when
that time came. It did not cancel his other debts, but it proved
he had a good heart underneath his act, one that Aragorn would see
Kaldur’s face did not darken, nor did his laugh lose any of its luster
as he joked with the hunters around him, but he heard every word that
was spoken behind him.
Prison... prison meant bars... darkness. His heart started
speeding up; old, buried fears trying to surface despite what he might
wish. Work it off... they meant as a slave, wasn’t that what they
really meant? He knew all about the custom of selling convicted
thieves into a lifetime of servitude to pay off their debts.
A cold chill ran through him. He couldn’t do it again. He
Aragorn’s heart stopped when they got to the large rock with the tree
growing out of it and found no one there. Not his brothers, not
the bandits... no one. Where could they be? What could have
happened? His over-wrought thoughts could come up with plenty of
explanations, all of them dark and dreadful.
Legolas squeezed his good arm lightly, looking around with just about
as much confusion. “They were supposed to wait here...”
“And they did,” a voice came from further up the hill on their
right. Jalif’s voice. Slowly the bandit emerged from the
rocks and they could see the others clustered behind him.
Against his chest Jalif was holding Elladan. The dark haired
elf’s eyes were closed tightly against the painful pressure that the
man’s grip placed upon his hurting ribs. The elder twin’s hands
were bound behind him and Jalif had his blood-caked shoulder in a
painful grip, twisting his arms slightly to keep him submissive.
He wasn’t trying to hurt the
elf, but he wouldn’t let him go either.
“Estel!” Elrohir’s soft voice trembled slightly and Aragorn’s horrified
gaze was carried a little further up the hill to where two of the
bandits had Elrohir kneeling between them. The men held his arms
firmly, but Thil was kneeling gently beside the elf, quietly supporting
his head. Elrohir seemed incapable of holding it up himself,
which was alarming.
Elladan and Elrohir had been too injured to fight this latest set of
captors when the bandits’ intentions became clear. What weak
resistance they could offer at this point was easily overcome.
The thieves had not hurt the twins; the rockslide and the trolls had
done a fine job of that already, but they were going to use this to
their advantage if they could.
Aragorn’s gaze turned dark. He had not thought of this, he had
not prepared for it; he had not realized the danger he inadvertently
sent his injured brothers into.
“Let them go!” The stab of betrayal was palpable. They had saved
these men’s miserable lives, at risk to their own, and this was
how they repaid them? The ranger moved forward a few steps,
physical pain forgotten as his eyes fixed on Elladan’s, which opened
slowly at the sound of his voice.
“Sorry, Estel... my form’s... a little off...” the elf rasped slightly,
trying to smile but ending up with his voice choked off by painful,
wracking coughs. It was hard to breathe. His broken ribs
were giving him difficulties now that the adrenaline had left his
Jalif pulled back when Aragorn advanced, dragging Elladan with him and
placing the elf’s own dagger warningly against the twin’s throat.
“Look, we’re grateful for what you all have done; we don’t want to hurt
nobody. We just want to leave. Tell your friends to lower
their weapons, now!”
Aragorn gestured for Taradin and his men, who stood with weapons drawn
and ready, to stand down. He believed they didn’t want to hurt
his brothers, but he also knew these men were desperate and he didn’t
want to push an accidental tragedy.
“Send Kaldur up here,” Jalif nodded to his leader, tightening his grip
painfully on Elladan’s shoulder when they didn’t comply fast enough.
Elladan winced and bit his lip to keep from crying out.
“Stop it!” Aragorn snapped, grabbing Kaldur’s arm and shoving him
forward, showing their compliance. “Please, talk sense to them!”
he quietly asked the bandit. “They won’t make it twenty miles out
here before they’re retaken and that will only make matters worse for
everyone involved. Besides, there are still four trolls out there
as well as entire villages full of people who would like to burn you
alive. This is madness!”
Kaldur turned to look at him, an unreadable expression in his
eyes. “And what is your solution, Strider? To go with you
Rivendell to face heaven-knows-what? Do you honestly think I can
get them to buy that?”
Aragorn had no idea, only desperation as he heard Elladan’s labored
breathing rasp and rattle painfully. “You’re Kaldur DeCahr,” he
thrust the bandit’s own logic back on him with only a hint of a
jest. The plea in his eyes was clear: I trust you. I
don’t care what you do, don’t let them hurt my brothers, they have
already suffered too much.
Kaldur held his eyes for a moment before turning away and heading up
the hill. “Yes,” he said quietly. “I am.” His tone
was frighteningly different than anything Aragorn had heard from him
Kaldur’s mind spun as he walked. He knew what Strider and Legolas
believed was the right thing, what his nagging conscience told him was
the right thing, but he couldn’t ask his people to walk into a
trap. The trust in the ranger’s eyes burned his heart, but he
would not follow Strider or anyone else to prison or slavery.
What kind of fool did they take him for? After everything they
had just been through together... how could they still want to do that
to him? How could anybody want to put another human being into a
lifetime of being owned and possessed by another? The ranger and
the elf weren’t the only ones who were feeling betrayed at the
His gaze lingered painfully on Elladan and Elrohir’s bloody
faces. He wouldn’t hurt them, he wouldn’t let any harm befall
them... but he couldn’t go along anymore either. If Taradin and
his men now accompanied them all the way to their destination, there
would be no further chance for escape. Not with numbers like that
to contend with. Once in Rivendell it would be too late.
After what he had seen of elves, he doubted even he could find a way
out of an elvish stronghold. Their chances were getting too
slim. If they did not act now, they condemned themselves.
Strider wanted to take them to the Lord of Rivendell; he said he was a
fair judge... but Kaldur had been taught early in life just how twisted
people’s definition of ‘justice’ was. Besides... his gaze again
took in the badly injured elves before him... these twins were the Lord
of Rivendell’s sons. What kind of verdict would there be for the
men partially responsible for bringing them home three steps from
Mandos' door? It was a frightening thought.
Reaching Jalif, he silently held out his arms and the other man
released Elladan to him, along with the dagger.
Elladan’s cloudy eyes caught and held his with silent accusation.
“Sorry friend,” Kaldur said quietly, and he meant it. Almost
tenderly, the bandit leader gripped the elf to him, lightly replacing
the knife against the pale neck.
“I’m sorry,” he called down to Strider. “I promise no harm will
come to them, you have my word! But we’re leaving, and we’re
taking them with us to make sure no one follows. Don’t try to
stop us mate, don’t push me that way. I don’t want anyone to
get hurt,” the bandit spoke with a dead seriousness that was unusual
The thieves were getting edgy as Taradin’s men eyed them, obviously
waiting only for an opportunity to act.
“Kaldur, don’t do this!” Legolas shook his head, dismayed by the man’s
choices. “You’re making it a thousand times worse on
“Look, Kaldur, please,” Aragorn walked slowly forward, keeping his good
arm up where the bandits could see it. “Elladan and Elrohir are
hurt, badly. You can see that. They need a healer and they
need one now. I believe you won’t hurt them, I do. But if
they don’t get help that’s not going to matter. They could die!”
Kaldur backed up, shaking his head. “Strider, I like you, I like
them, don’t push me... please... don’t push me...”
Aragorn kept coming, now aware that Legolas was following a few paces
behind, although Taradin and his men wisely hung back and maintained
their positions, not wishing the bandits on the hill to panic.
“This is madness, how far do you think you’ll get? If you need a
hostage, take me,” Aragorn offered. “Let my brothers go!”
There was a desperate, cornered look in Kaldur’s eyes, the look of a
man at war with himself. He laughed, but it did not hold his
usual careless mirth.
“I’m not a fool. I can’t handle you, Strider. I know
that. I don’t want to hurt them, don’t make me... just let us
go!” He had gone too far. He had taken the one step he
couldn’t reverse. If he gave up now he was sure his head was
destined for the execution block, or worse.
“Kaldur...” Thil’s voice was soft but worried. Elrohir had
started shuddering convulsively against the young human as he supported
the elf. “Kal, something’s wrong, we’re losing him!”
Elrohir’s body had taken too much abuse lately and was sliding into
Kaldur flashed a worried look behind him, but his tight hold on the
knife remained wary. No, no... he didn’t want anything to happen
to them, he didn’t! Yet...
Aragorn started to rush to his brother, but was checked when the other
bandits moved in front of him threateningly, keeping them apart.
Elrohir was trembling, his breath shallow and rapid, and his eyes
rolling back in his head as his injuries took over. The men
holding him looked anxious and unsure, but weren’t about to release the
elf of their own volition.
Elladan gasped painfully when his broken ribs were shifted again as
Kaldur nervously changed grips on him. “El...” he moaned his
twin’s name in heart-wrenching alarm.
The situation was quickly spiraling out of control towards an outcome
that no one there wanted.