by Cassia and Siobhan

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    Aragorn paced in small circles inside the prince’s chamber waiting for Legolas to return.  He had hated the idea of his friend going out into the palace without him, but the elf’s argument had outweighed his fears.  Legolas could more easily and quickly make his way unseen through the interior of his house than his human companion.  And so the prince had charged the ranger with staying inside the room with both bolts locked and not opening the door to anyone but himself. 
    Aragorn glanced back out towards the balcony marking off the sun’s descent in the sky; he would give Legolas only a few more minutes and then he would go looking for him himself.  The ranger did not trust the elf’s uncle and was eager to learn what had become of Thranduil in their absence.
    A soft rapping at the door caused the man to jump and he quickly ran back to the heavy wooden entrance. Even pressing his ear against it he barely heard Legolas whisper, “Strider, it is I. Open the door!”
    Aragorn quickly threw the bolts on the door, pulling it open.  Legolas squeezed in before he had the door halfway open and immediately shut it behind him, relocking it.  The elf crept to the balcony opening and pulled the thick curtains across its expanse, shutting out the afternoon light and casting the room into semi-darkness, causing Aragorn to falter for a moment before his eyes readjusted to the lack of light.
    “What’s going on, Legolas?  What did you find?”
    Legolas grabbed his friend and walked him away from the door, towards the bedchamber, and pushed his friend down in a chair opposite the bed.  He seated himself across from the human and leaned forward, his face marred with lines of worry.
    “Legolas? What is it?”
    “It is what I did not find that worries me,” he whispered, glancing back to the large door.  “Aragorn, my father’s servants are nowhere to be found.  Elrynd has not been seen in weeks.  The elves I did find were either guards that I have no recollection of ever seeing before or newly placed servants that are frightened out of their wits.  Few would even speak with me.  None did I recognize as having served in the palace before.  I do not know what evil is afoot but I know that my uncle has done something terrible.  There is no thinking that my father would leave and take his entire staff with him to look for me!  I am ages old, he has done nothing like that since...”  Legolas stopped, thoughts of the past chasing fears of the present round his heart and mind.
    Aragorn leaned forward and touched his friend. “We will find them.  They must be here somewhere.  Someone must know something.  Did you look everywhere?”
    Legolas swallowed hard, dropping his gaze to the thick carpet beneath his feet. “There is one place that I have not yet looked.”
    “Then let us start there. Perhaps we will find the answers we seek.”
    “It is in the dungeons.” Legolas glanced back up at his friend.
    Aragorn sat back slightly as the implications of what his friend spoke of slowly filtered into his mind.  “Well then if that is so let us start there.  Someone knows.”
    “Yes and that someone is right now poisoning the minds of my people,” Legolas said with bitter frustration.
    “All the more reason for us to be about this quickly,” Aragorn replied.
    Legolas met the serious gaze of his friend with a sad smile; the ranger’s enthusiasm to always take his friend’s side and ever be of help warmed his heart.  “Strider, listen to me, this is no game.  I am certain that my uncle will kill us if he finds us snooping around.  I fear he may have already done so to my father.” Legolas’ words were soft and he swallowed hard as he spoke around his emotions. “His one aim in life has always been to sit on the throne of Mirkwood and now that that goal is within his grasp once again, it will be of no consequence if he must shed more blood to do so. He has no qualms about killing and he will kill you as easily as he will kill me simply because you side with me and not him.  Do you understand?  He is capable of no small cruelty. He enjoys the pain of others and I would not see you fall into his hands.”  Legolas spoke from hard-learned personal experience. 
    A huge smile split the human’s face and he was shaking his head as his friend spoke so seriously.  Leaning forward once again the man locked eyes with the elf and answered him softly, “I would think after all this time that you of all people would realize that your troubles are mine and that there is no way you can make me leave if I do not wish to, which I don’t.  I am your friend and I will help see to it that the throne is restored to you and your father who I have no doubt is alive somewhere if he is anything like his son.”  The ranger’s eyes sparkled brightly in the dim light, “Now, which way did you say the dungeons were?  I am afraid I have forgotten since the last time I was in your home.”
    Legolas laughed softly and shook his head. “Strider what will I do with you?”
    “I suggest taking me with you, because I am not sitting in this room waiting for you to come back for one minute longer!”
    Legolas stood to his feet and held his hand down to the human pulling the man up next to him. “Very well, my friend.  Let us hope that secrecy is on our side long enough to uncover what evil my uncle has done in my absence.”
    The elf quietly walked back to the door, the ranger following him stealthily.  After unbolting the heavy locks upon the door, Legolas peered out into the hall.  With the slightest movement of his hand, he directed the human to follow him as they made their way down to the lower recesses of the palace. 

    Aragorn felt a startling sense of dèja-vu as he and Legolas slid silently down the lush, stately palace hallways that now seemed charged with an air of unknown danger.  The last time they had been forced to sneak through Legolas’ home Aragorn had been accused of murder... but although everything had worked out well in the end, the young ranger did not care to remember that particular time just at the moment. The present seemed to hold enough mystery and danger all of its own.
    If Legolas recalled that previous adventure as they stalked quietly towards the prisons near the cellars, he gave no sign.  His mind was too consumed with trying to find his father to give thought to much else.  Although on the outside it seemed that everything was normal, he knew it was a façade. He could feel it. Something was deadly wrong here and somehow his uncle was behind it.
    They encountered no resistance and indeed, no sign of life at all, which should have comforted them, but did not.  To Legolas the palace seemed altogether too quiet and empty, like a tomb. 
    Silently, Legolas led Aragorn around the turn where the passage leading to the dungeons branched off from the main corridor, which continued on towards the cellars.  A soft sound behind them made the elf jerk and whirl around, hand going automatically over his shoulder for his weapon.  Grabbing the intruder he pinned the elf up against the wall with a knife to his throat faster than Aragorn could blink.
    The prince stopped when he found himself staring into a startled elven face that he knew well.
    “Galion,” Legolas sighed as he backed off and re-sheathed his weapon, not having realized he was so on edge.  “You surprised me.”
    The butler allowed himself to breathe again as Legolas released him.  Older than Legolas, the elf had served the prince’s father for many, many millennia.  “So I see.” He rubbed his throat slightly and smiled for a moment, but his face was troubled and it was not because of Legolas’ actions.
    “Your Highness, I’m so glad you’re here. What is going on?” the butler shook his head, obviously disturbed.
    “I wish I knew, Galion,” Legolas shook his head, glancing back at Aragorn.  “I was hoping you could tell me. You’re the first friendly face I’ve seen since I returned home.”
    “Aye, it’s a bad business,” Galion responded grimly.  “The King going off and leaving us like this, and everyone else seeming to disappear shortly thereafter... I haven’t seen half of my helpers in days, the cellars are in terrible repair, I can’t see to all the barrels and everything down there by myself... and Tarius... he’s not come down to join me for a drop and a tale in over a week!”
    “That is unusual.” Legolas could not help smiling slightly.  Tarius, the head jailer, and Galion were fast friends and it was no secret that they frequently enjoyed ‘taste testing’ the wine that came to be stored in the cellars.  Yet it was not surprising news that Tarius was absent from his post.  If what Legolas suspected were true, Doriflen would have had to replace all the jailers.  He did not like the fact that they seemed to have simply disappeared though.  Those were disturbing tidings.
    “Galion, when did my Uncle come back?  What happened?” Legolas needed answers and he trusted the butler to tell him truthfully.
    “Several weeks ago, brought a whole passel of his people with him.  Said that his long exile had given him time to think and come to his senses, said he wanted to make amends with your father for all that had happened.  The King accepted him as a guest, which is more than I might have done...” Galion said softly, glancing around somewhat nervously to see that he was not overheard.  “Then... then I don’t understand what happened at all.  King Thranduil seemed right wary of him at first, but a few days later what does he do, but up and take off looking for you and leave the kingdom in Doriflen’s care while he’s gone.  A ‘symbol of trust’ they say.  I won’t speak ill of your father’s wisdom, Your Highness, but I’m not comfortable with this at all and I don’t mind saying so either.”
    Legolas nodded slowly. It was much as he had expected, and feared.  “Did you see my father do all this, Galion?” he asked gravely.
    “Nay, not I, but I’m not often at court you understand,” Galion shook his head.  “But he has the King’s seal right enough and everyone saw the search party leave.”
    “Listen carefully now, Galion,” Legolas glanced around cautiously.  It was apparent that Galion had told all he knew and now the prince wanted to move on quickly.  “Something ill is in the wind and I fear things may sour swiftly.  Be careful.  Stay clear of Doriflen, keep your people away from him as much as you can without seeming to do so.  I am not at all convinced that he has any legal reason to be acting as regent.”
    Galion’s eyes widened in alarm at the prince’s warning.  “I knew something was not right about all this!  I knew it!  What can I do?”
    Legolas squeezed the butler’s shoulder.  “Be wary, be watchful and don’t believe that anything is as it seems.  Be cautious, but ready.  Ready to act if you are called upon.  You will know when the time comes whatever it is you need to do.  Now go. You must not be seen talking with me or you may fall under suspicion.”
    Galion nodded in understanding.  He lingered a moment longer, before accepting the duty Legolas had placed on him and hurrying back down the passage, towards his station in the cellars. 
    While the two elves were talking, Aragorn had ventured down the hall a little and now Legolas quickly caught up with him. 
    Elves treated their prisoners well as a rule, and the dungeons were not foul, nor horrible places, but they were grim and dark and the fear of what they might find there made both friends tense. 
    The first row of cells turned off to their right, while a second branched off at an angle to their left.  Legolas paused, a deep frown on his face. 
    “What’s wrong?” Aragorn asked, whispering without realizing it.
    “There’s no guard,” Legolas looked around suspiciously.  “There ought to be a guard here on watch.”
    “Well it makes our job easier this way.  Perhaps Doriflen doesn’t have the manpower to keep all the guard stations operational since it seems so many of your people have gone missing?” the young ranger hazarded a guess, but he had to agree with Legolas. It felt wrong.
    “Perhaps... but it’s almost too easy.  I don’t like it...” The elf shook his head, hesitating in indecision.
    “What do you think we should do?” Aragorn looked around them, searching for any sign that things were not as they appeared, but all looked in order to his untrained eye.
    “We must go on.  We have got to find an answer to this puzzle, no matter how dangerous,” Legolas concluded at last, and they chose to begin with the right hand passage. 
    Each thick, wooden door had a closed window set in the middle of it to allow those on the outside to look in and pass food and drink to the prisoners, as well as a small, barred peep-hole near the top of the door that admitted some light and enabled one to look in without being seen in return by the occupants of the cell.  Walking silently between the double row of cells the two friends split up, Legolas taking one side and Aragorn taking the other.  They used the small, unobtrusive peek-holes to peer inside each small prison in turn.  Legolas suggested they do this because he did not want anyone who might be in here to accidentally give away his and Strider’s presence, and it was well, for if once the occupants of the cells knew that their prince was down there, the clamor would have been loud indeed.
    Normally the dungeons stood all but empty and unused, for crime was not a common thing among the elves and since Mirkwood had fallen into darkness there were very few intruders who ventured here from the outside world to worry about. Yet such was not the case now and Legolas’ heart twisted at what he saw. 
    Each cell, every single one, was filled to capacity, over capacity actually, and the conditions were appalling.  Legolas recognized almost all the faces he saw through the narrow, slatted bars.  Friends, warriors, nobles, palace workers... it was an eclectic mix that was thrown together down here.  Tarius was among those Legolas spotted, and doubtless, this was where all of the people who had disappeared recently must reside.  The prince felt guilty at looking in on their sorrow and captivity without even letting them know he was there, but he knew that he dare not risk discovery yet.  This was obviously something that Doriflen wanted to remain a secret and he and Aragorn were treading on dangerous ground now.
    They reached the end of the tunnel and took the turn off back towards the left-hand one, searching it as well, but to no avail.  Amid the many faces that they saw who should not have been there, the Elvenking was not one of them. 
    Aragorn looked slightly awed and somewhat ill when they were done.  It was a travesty to see all these merry and noble elves locked up and kept in darkness like this, in such crowded and inhumane circumstances. 
    “We’ve got to get them out...” he whispered softly to Legolas.
    The prince nodded, touched that his friend had obviously been as affected as he was by the sight.  “We will, but we need keys and we need a plan.  And we have got to find my father.  Come, there is one more place to look.”  Legolas led Aragorn swiftly down the passage towards the cellars once more, taking a small, ill-lighted turnoff that the ranger had almost not realized was there. 
    “There is an especially deep, dark cell down here, reserved for the most troublesome of prisoners.  It is highly likely that that is where Doriflen would have put my father,” the elf explained quietly as they made their way to the cell door at the end of the hall.
    The door was different than the others and had no peep-hole in the top, so Legolas lifted up the larger food grate at the bottom of the door, peering inside into the gloom.  He did not find his father there.  But who he did find, he would never have expected. 
    Unlike the others, this cell held only one prisoner.  Indeed, it was so tiny it hardly could have fitted more.  The way the cell was built, the actual floor of it was five or six feet lower than the floor of the passage, and a sharply slanting stone slope ran up to the door.  The fair-haired elf sitting against the wall in the small, flat area at the bottom of the slope looked up when the grate was opened.
    “Ran?” Legolas whispered softly in shock, not wanting to believe what he saw.  A short chain connected heavy manacles around Raniean’s wrists and similar bonds with slightly longer chains about his ankles kept him shackled to the wall behind him. 
    Raniean’s head snapped all the way up at the sound of his friend’s voice and there was a soft rattle of irons as he pulled himself as far up the slope as his fetters allowed. 
    The elf warrior in the cell stopped with his face a few inches from the grate, when the chains about his ankles pulled tight.  Legolas and Aragorn both had to resist the urge to wince.  Raniean was shirtless, and even in the dim light it was painfully obvious that he had been scourged, and badly so. 
    “Ran...” Legolas breathed in horror.  “Ran what happened?  How...”
    “Legolas, get out of here, now!” Raniean interrupted his friend urgently, gripping the bars.  “You are not safe.  Your uncle-”
    “I know about my uncle,” Legolas said darkly.  “But I don’t understand what has happened or how.  Raniean, you must help us. What is Doriflen up to, why did he do this to you?”  The prince’s eyes blazed at the sight of his friend’s pain. 
    “Us... Strider is with you?” Raniean tried to peer around Legolas to see the ranger. 
    “I’m here, Raniean,” Aragorn dropped down into a crouch next to the prince so Raniean could see him.
    “It is well,” Raniean said softly.  “And Trelan?  Is he safe?”
    “He’s not with us. I did not see him in the other cells, more than likely he is not yet returned.  Detouring back to Rivendell must have lengthened his trip,” Legolas assured quickly.  “But what of you?  Ran, please... I need to know what happened.”  The prince realized that his friend seemed to actually be avoiding the subject slightly.
    Raniean dropped his gaze.  “After we left you and Strider outside Adirolf, Trelan and I headed back towards Rivendell, as we said we would.  We split company before we reached it, he continuing on to deliver your message to Lord Elrond, and I turning homeward to deliver it to the King.  I came as swiftly as I could, but encountered several delays and only returned five or six days ago.  I should have known something was amiss right away, but I was disturbed that I had been delayed so long and wanted to get your message to your father as quickly as possible.  The servant outside the throne room said the king couldn’t see me at the moment, but he’d take him the message...” Raniean swallowed hard before continuing, his gaze fixed on his hands, refusing to look up at his friend’s face. 
    “So I told him,” the warrior’s voice was quiet and filled with shame.  “Then Doriflen came out of the throne room... And I knew something was wrong, but it was too late, he had heard me talking about you.  He wanted to know more, more about you and your friends, who did you trust?  He wanted me to lead my men to follow him because apparently not all of them trusted him and his regency... but I wouldn’t.  He pressed very hard, but I wouldn’t do it and I swear your highness, I swear I told him nothing more...” Raniean’s throat squeezed off as he shook his head slowly, begging the prince’s forgiveness.  “I did not mean to betray you to him, Legolas,” the other elf’s voice was soft and sorrowful.  “I swear I did not.”
    Legolas’ eyes stung and he quickly reached through the bars, wrapping his hands around his friend’s forearms and giving him a comforting squeeze.  “You didn’t Ran, I would have bumbled in here, same as you, whether he knew I was coming or not,” the prince assured quietly, gently touching the other elf’s flushed cheek, his voice asking Raniean to meet his eyes.  Raniean did, reluctantly. 
    “You did well, and we’re going to get you out of here,” Legolas assured; he had no idea how, but somehow they would.  He had known Raniean since childhood, for as long as he could remember, and it burned him to see his good friend hurting so much, locked up in the dungeons of the prince’s own home. 
    Legolas was thinking fast, but it wasn’t getting him anywhere.  “We need those keys!” he swore in frustration, once again irked that they had no idea where Doriflen had disposed of them.
    “Maybe, maybe not,” Aragorn was apprising the lock.  “I think I could get in if we had a pin or something like it...”
    “You know how to pick locks?” Legolas raised his eyebrows as his friend nodded.  “And dare I ask which of your brothers taught you that useful little skill?” He could not resist a slight smile as he quickly searched his clothing to see if he had such an item.  Aragorn was always full of surprises.
    “Actually, it was my father, but don’t tell anyone,” Aragorn grinned.
    “Lord Elrond?” Raniean’s incredulous voice from inside the cell made them both chuckle.
    “He said you never knew when it might come in handy,” the young ranger shrugged.
    “Obviously he was right...” suddenly Legolas stopped dead still, listening. 
    “Legolas, someone’s coming!” Raniean said suddenly in a hushed whisper, his sharp elven ears picking up the same sound as Legolas had.  The prince and the ranger were in a dead-end passageway here; it was not a good place to be trapped.  “You’ve got to go, now!”
    Aragorn was already alert and on his feet, straining to hear what the two elves had.  Legolas half-rose, but hesitated, hating to leave his friend down here a moment longer.  He gave Raniean’s hand one last, firm squeeze.  “I promise we’ll be back and get you out of here, Ran. You have my word!”
    “I know, I know you will, just hurry!  Go!” Raniean urged them, returning his friend’s squeeze before releasing the prince’s hand and urging them on. 
    Aragorn and Legolas fled silently up the passage.  The way seemed clear when they peered out, but both of them could feel that something was wrong as they crept stealthily forward.  That notion was confirmed when they turned the corner into the main prison and nearly walked smack into Doriflen and half a dozen of his guards.  
    “Hello Legolas. Fancy running into you here.” Was it Aragorn’s imagination, or did Doriflen’s mocking smile hold a bit more ice and steel than it had earlier?
    The two friends pulled up short.  Aragorn glanced over at Legolas, but the elf prince’s face was a façade of calm. 
    “Indeed?” the elf prince replied with calculated carelessness.  “The last I recall I was perfectly free to wander where I wished in my own home.”  He was going to play Doriflen’s cordial game for as long as he could and as far as it would get them.
    Unfortunately, Doriflen was not in the mood to play anymore, not when he did not have to do so.  His smile would have frozen the sun.  “But you should be more careful young prince. The dungeons are a dangerous place... people get hurt down here.”
    Aragorn was suddenly aware that another platoon of Doriflen’s elves had come up behind them and felt a ring of alarm building inside him.  He and Legolas exchanged a glance; they were trapped here, between the two groups and every instinct in them was screaming for them to run... yet there was nowhere to go.
    “Your concern is touching,” Legolas’ voice was as frosty as a February morning.  “We’ll be leaving then.”
    Doriflen laughed, but made no move to get out of the way. In fact the guards moved in closer, until they were almost touching the two beings caught between them.  Aragorn smelt an acrid, distinctive odor that he recognized at once and tensed.
    “You’re a very good actor nephew, but the human reeks of fear.  And you know what?  He’s the smart one.”  Doriflen gave an almost imperceptible nod and the guards behind Aragorn and Legolas grabbed for them suddenly, attempting to press thick, drugged cloths over the friends’ faces; that was what Aragorn had smelled.
    The two friends were ready for the attack, but in such close quarters and against these numbers that helped them little.  If their enemies had been orcs, or men, or dwarves... but these were elves and even Legolas had very little advantage over them in speed or cunning.  The struggle was fierce, but short. 
    Aragorn thrashed and gagged as he was thrown back against the wall and held there. A strong hand against his throat nearly cut off his airway as another struggled to get the cloth over his face.  The elves were far stronger than he and he couldn’t move at all inside their iron grip; it was a frightening, suffocating feeling. 
    A sharp blow caught Legolas in the stomach as half a dozen hands struggled to pull him down.  The prince landed hard on his knees and was struck again to keep him there; the sheer press of bodies kept him from rising.  From the corner of his eye Legolas saw Aragorn drop senseless to the ground as his captors released him.
    The rough, stinking cloth was shoved against the elf prince’s mouth and nose.  Legolas struggled and squirmed, gagging on the stench of the drug, twisting his head around violently and attempting to escape.  He could hold his breath a long time and had no intention of inhaling the fumes if he could help it.
    The other elves swore as they tried to hold him down.  Twisting their hands in his hair and attempting to hold his head still, one of them kicked him viciously in the ribs, forcing the prince’s breath to leave his body in a rush.  Inhaling was automatic and with a thrill of horror, Legolas felt the acrid rush of the drug entering his lungs and a moment later the world went black.

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