by Cassia and Siobhan

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    “You won’t get out of this that easy,” Doriflen’s voice was sharp.  “Wake him up again!”   But before his guards had a chance to obey, they heard the outer door open and shut hurriedly, and the sound of running feet as someone entered the room.
    “My lord, my lord!” the messenger was out of breath and the tone of his voice held more than a little fear.
    “What?  What is it?” Doriflen snapped, not liking to be interrupted.
    “M-my lord,” the unfortunate elf stammered, obviously fearing the other’s anger.  “The human... he’s not in the pit.  And we cannot be sure, but the prince seems to have escaped the funnel vents as well-”
    A harsh sound indicated that Doriflen had struck the messenger to the ground.  Being the bearer of ill tidings was dangerous around Doriflen, all of his followers knew that.
    Doriflen swore angrily.  “You think?!  Is everyone here an idiot?!  Come, I will see for myself and if someone has bungled my plans then they will pay most dearly!”  The elves left the room swiftly and when the door finally clicked shut behind them, both Aragorn and Legolas breathed a quiet sigh of relief. 
    The door had barely finished closing before Legolas was already making his way back into the room where his father was.  Aragorn followed as quickly as he could.  His leg was stiffening up significantly in protest for everything he was doing to it. 
    “You know, I feel sorry for his followers. He treats them almost as bad as he treats us... I don’t know why they stay with him.” The ranger winced as he leaned against the wall for a moment, watching Legolas smooth the hair back from Thranduil’s clammy forehead.  The king had been turned around to face the wall and ugly welts had been added to his previous injuries. 
    “Because they know nothing else,” Legolas said sadly as he tried the keys in his father’s manacles, one at a time.  “I see very few of the older generation that left with him among them now.  What he has done to them I know not and I shudder to think, but all that follow him now are near my age or younger.  Some would barely have been into their maturity when they left everything and threw their lot in with him, lured by fair words and promises... and many must have left with their families or fathers when they were mere children, or been born in exile... and now somehow their elders are gone and Doriflen is all they have to hold to.  And knowing him, the worst part, I believe, is that that is probably all deliberate.” Legolas’ voice was grieved and angry. 
    Aragorn shook his head, unable to imagine such a twisted mind that would dispose of the elder generation so that the youth had no one else to follow. 
    Legolas fumbled with the keys slightly, frustrated by his lack of success and the clumsiness of his injured hands.  He dropped the key ring by accident and swore softly as he stooped to retrieve it.  They had to get out of here quickly. As soon as Doriflen had confirmed that he and Aragorn weren’t dead, this would be the first place he would look for them.
    Aragorn picked the keys up first.  “Here, let me.”
    Legolas shook his head.  “It’s no good, I’ve tried them all, none of them work!”
    Aragorn quickly pulled the long tine he had used to pick the locks on Legolas’ manacles earlier from one of his pants pockets.  Legolas’ eyes narrowed when he saw it, but he understood what Aragorn meant to do and nodded.  “Hurry, I fear we don’t have long before they come back.”
    “Thanks... nothing like a little pressure to make things easier...” Aragorn said with a wry smile as he tackled the locks.
    Legolas grinned and rolled his eyes, but was too worried to joke back.
    The manacles were high off the ground and at a difficult angle to reach.  Aragorn winced as he stretched up on his toes to reach them, sucking his lower lip in concentration and trying to keep from trembling under the strain, since that only made his job harder.
    Finally, after what seemed a small eternity, the locks holding the King’s wrists released with a satisfying click and Legolas caught his father as he fell, gently easing the elder elf down and letting him rest propped against the wall for a moment while the prince quickly examined his father’s injuries.
    On the whole, Thranduil actually seemed to be in mildly better shape than either Legolas or Aragorn, but Legolas could see by the marks on his body that Doriflen had treated him most cruelly.  The young elf gently touched his father’s back. Underneath the most recent welts, he could see that it was marred as his own was from the insidious use of Doriflen’s favorite little torture devices.  From the way it looked, Doriflen had been using them and other such things on his brother for days, maybe even weeks.  It made the prince’s blood boil and a sick feeling turn in his stomach. 
    For a moment Legolas had to close his eyes and swallow hard to dismiss the raw lump in his throat as he imagined his father chained up down here for days and days, enduring Doriflen’s torture and insane whims.  Legolas clutched the elder elf to him tightly, guilt ripping his heart out.  He should have been here... he should have stopped this!!
    “I’m so sorry, Father,” Legolas whispered, his voice somewhat husky as Aragorn helped him gather the king up in his arms and rise to his feet.  “I’m so sorry.”
    Aragorn touched his friend’s arm gently.  The pain in the younger elf’s eyes made his heart ache, and he wanted to tell Legolas that none of this was his fault, but now was not the time nor the place.  They were in grave danger of discovery here and had to get out as soon as possible.
    Legolas, still weakened from his own injuries, staggered under his father’s weight and had to lean against the wall before continuing.  Quietly, Aragorn helped take as much of the load as he could and together they moved out.  With Aragorn limping and Legolas struggling for breath around his bruised and perhaps broken ribs, they made a pretty sorry sight. 
    When they finally found another nice, forgotten room in a musty, hardly used side-passage and locked themselves in, Aragorn actually had to laugh as he helped ease the unconscious king to the floor.
    Legolas looked at the human and blinked, as if trying to figure out what about any of this could be at all humorous.
    “I’m sorry,” Aragorn apologized, sinking down to the floor wearily and stretching his throbbing leg out in front of him.  Even sitting hurt, but at least it was a different kind of hurt than standing.  The ranger winced and sucked his breath in as the welts on his legs touched the ground.  But he chuckled again when he opened his eyes and saw Legolas’ bruised face staring quizzically at him. 
    “I was just thinking,” Aragorn ran his hand through his hair.  “That it’s a good thing my father can’t see us now.  Or my brothers for that matter.  They’d have my hide for getting this beat up...” He shook his head with a smile.
    Legolas just stared at the human as if Aragorn were crazy, which was a possibility he seriously considered sometimes... but he smiled as well, for a few moments at least.  “Well if you don’t tell them I won’t.”
    “Agreed,” Aragorn nodded, sliding over to sit nearer to Legolas and Thranduil.  His eyes turned serious again.  “How is he?”
    Legolas sighed, gently rolling his father onto his stomach so he could tend his injuries.  “Not good.” 
    Aragorn helped Legolas and together they cleaned and dressed the king’s wounds, something both of them had had a lot of practice at recently.
    When they were done, Legolas took Thranduil’s head and shoulders in his lap.  He could not lean against the wall because his own back was hurting him far too much now, so he let himself slump forward slightly, cradling the unconscious older elf close and rocking back and forth, as much to deal with his own pain as to comfort his father.
    “This is all wrong.  It should never have been allowed to happen.  I should have been here,” Legolas whispered quietly, to no one in particular. 
    “And done what, Legolas?  Get taken just like your father did?  It wouldn’t have changed things.” Aragorn shook his head, not wanting Legolas taking blame that wasn’t his.  “This isn’t your fault.”
    “Don’t you understand?  Doriflen wouldn’t even have been able to show his face here if father hadn’t overturned that law – for me!  Besides, I could have done something... if father had had someone to stand by him this wouldn’t have happened!” Legolas was angry, but only with himself. 
    “He’s the King and you don’t think he had people to stand by him?  From the state of the dungeons I’d say a lot of people tried, like Raniean did.  You saw where it got them.  What makes you think you would have been any different?”
    Legolas looked away.  “Because I’m his son.  It would have been different.”
    Aragorn sighed.  How could he argue with guilt that didn’t want to listen to reason?  “Legolas, listen to me, this is not your fault. Remember what you told me?  When my father was injured and I was sure I was to blame?” the ranger tried to reason with his friend.
    Legolas did not lift his eyes from where they rested on his father’s still form.  “That was different.  Elrond chose to push you out from under that falling arch, there was nothing you could have done to stop him.  But my father summoned me... even commanded me to return.  He wanted me here... and I didn’t come.  I wasn’t here when he needed me, and I was upset with him for calling me home like a child...” The elf’s voice cracked and he stopped, unable to go on.  Letting his head drop down over his father’s, he battled the tears that wanted to fall as his golden hair brushed the pale, bruised face of his father and his king. 
    Aragorn shook his head, regarding his friend with compassion as he realized that there was probably nothing he could say to make the elf think any different.  “Oh, Legolas...”
    Thranduil stirred in Legolas’ arms and the prince quickly straightened up, nearly holding his breath.  Slowly, the elder elf’s eyes opened, bleary and unfocused.  When he saw the fuzzy outline of the face above him he blinked several times, trying to make sense of the image and his current position. 
    “L-Legolas?” He reached up to touch his son’s face lightly, to assure himself it was real and he was not dreaming.
    “Yes, Father, it’s me,” Legolas said softly, trying to keep from choking as he trapped his father’s hand gently against his cheek with trembling fingers.  “I’m here, I’m here now, it’s all right.  Doriflen lied.  He lied...”
    “Oh, Legolas, I thought I lost you...” Thranduil exhaled as if he had been holding his breath since he had heard of his son’s supposed death.  “I thought he took you away from me and I wasn’t there to stop it.”
    “Nay, nay, it was not so...” Legolas shook his head, tears sparkling in his clear blue eyes.  “I-I’m sorry, Father... I should have been here.  I did not mean to delay, I promise it was not by choice or wanton disobedience...”
    “Shh...” Thranduil touched his son’s lips softly.  “Let us not speak of it now.  My brother’s actions are not your fault... If anyone is to blame it is me for allowing this to happen.  I knew in my heart when he came here that he was up to no good... but I had hoped... had wanted to believe that he could have changed.”  The king sighed.  “But we have not time for blame laying I think.” The elder elf tried to sit up.  “Doriflen must be stopped before he does more harm-” The words ended in a sharp hiss of pain as his body protested the motion.
    Legolas quickly tightened his arms, gently pulling his father back down and pressing one hand against the other elf’s chest in a gesture for him to remain still.  “We will, but you must gather a little more of your strength first, Father. You are not well.”
    “No, I suppose not,” the king blinked several times. 
    “Here, I’m sure he could use some.” Aragorn handed Legolas the water skin they had raided from a storeroom earlier.
    Thranduil gave the human a small, wry smile.  “An internal dispute in Mirkwood concerns you little, Ranger, so why did I know you were going to be here as well?”
    “Because Legolas and I always end up wherever trouble is?” Aragorn shrugged with a half-grin, repeating what his brothers kept telling him.  “But I would hardly say this wasn’t my concern.  Anything that affects Legolas, affects me,” he finished on a more sincere note.
    Legolas laughed softly at the first part and Thranduil smiled again.  “My son’s trust of you seems to have been well-founded.  You have proved a loyal friend I think.  You must forgive me if I seemed to have thought otherwise in the past.”
    Legolas watched them both closely.  That was a huge admission for his father to make, for the king did not easily admit to being wrong about anything.
    Aragorn just shook his head to show there was no need, not sure what to say.
    Legolas noted that his friend was at an uncomfortable loss for words, so he intervened.  “Are you going to drink, or talk?” he asked his father with gentle amusement, indicating the water skin that he was still holding for the elder elf.
    “Drink,” Thranduil returned his look, putting his hand over his son’s and tipping the skin.  He pushed it away slightly when he was done, but did not release Legolas’ hand.  Gently, but firmly he pulled his son’s fingers away from the flask, revealing the nasty, broken blisters spreading up and outward across his palms.  The king frowned when Legolas winced slightly and pulled away.
    “Doriflen tried to trap me in one of the magma-vents,” Legolas answered the questioning look in his father’s concerned eyes.  “But I’m all right.”
    “I doubt that,” Thranduil murmured, remembering Doriflen’s words to him earlier.  He sat up, slowly this time, his eyes traveling piercingly between the friends.  Aragorn was still shirtless and now that the King’s vision was clearing and his mind with it, he could see that the ranger had been severely beaten.  Bloodstained strips of cloth wrapped around his wrists and left thigh.  He could see the pain in the ranger’s eyes, even though Aragorn was dealing with it well. 
    Pain was also evident in Legolas’ eyes, although he was trying harder to hide it than Aragorn was.  The long sleeved under-tunic Legolas wore hid most of his injuries, but Thranduil could see the bruised face and split lip, and the uncharacteristic stoop of usually proud shoulders.
    “I don’t think either of you are anywhere near all right.  Legolas, take off your shirt. Let me see.”  It was not a request. 
    “Father-” Legolas tried to put him off. 
    “I said off.  Now.” Thranduil’s voice was stern with concern.  He knew his son well, and Legolas was famous for making light of his injuries.  Once, as a young elf, Legolas had broken three of his fingers and told no one, insisting he was fine.  It was Trelan who had finally gone to Legolas’ mother with the concern that the injury was slowing the prince up in his bow-work and wasn’t healing as it should have if it had only been a minor sprain.  That had been many hundreds of years ago, but Thranduil was not going to let Legolas pull anything like that ever again.
    “Yes, sir,” Legolas sighed slightly as he obeyed, wincing as he pulled the shirt off over his head. 
    Thranduil’s face hardened when he saw the badly bruised and torn flesh across his son’s back, recognizing the small burn marks for what they were.  “You call this all right, Legolas?” he asked softly, gently touching one of the ugly blue-black bruises wrapping around the younger elf’s ribs.
    Legolas inhaled sharply and pulled away, sliding his tunic back on as soon as his father allowed him to do so.  “Aragorn’s hurts are worse.  And you, Father, have you fared any better?”
    “I suppose not,” Thranduil shook his head, closing his eyes and taking several deep breaths.
    Aragorn remained quietly aside, not wishing to intrude and letting Legolas and Thranduil speak without interruption.  He was good at blending into the background and wanted the father and son to have the time they needed after what had happened.   But when Thranduil and Legolas turned their eyes on him at nearly the same moment, he shifted forward again, indicating he was ready for whatever needed doing.
    “We must act, and swiftly,” Thranduil pulled himself to his feet, rising slowly.  “We haven’t much time.  Doriflen wants the people to believe in him, but he can’t fool them forever, and when he can’t fool them anymore, he will simply crush them.  He must be stopped!”
    Legolas also rose and helped Aragorn up. 
    “There are storerooms, not far from here. We passed them on the way down,” Aragorn said as he gained his feet. “We should be able to find supplies and fresh clothing there.”
    Thranduil nodded. “It is well thought.” He glanced around them as they ventured cautiously out into the hall.  “It’s been a long time since I wandered any of these halls, but if I am not mistaken this way shall also lead us to a back door to the armory.  It would be folly to resist Doriflen unarmed.  Legolas,” Thranduil turned to his son.  “What is the state of the kingdom?  What of our warriors?”  He looked apprehensive of the answer.
    “The situation is less than optimal, but it could be worse,” Legolas filled his father in quickly as they slid silently down the passage, on the alert for any sign of trouble.  Aragorn brought up the rear more slowly, walking behind the two elves, ever watchful.
    “Unfortunately it could also be better.  Raniean is imprisoned in the dungeons near the cellars, along with many of his men and almost all of the court who opposed Doriflen.  The rest are too frightened to resist when they know not what exactly is true and what is not.  I fear that Doriflen counts many of our warriors among his ranks now, although I do not believe that they trust him, and would choose you if the two stood side by side.  The people know naught of what is going on. Doriflen has them entirely deceived and too afraid to question, but unrest is growing strong and the secret will not long keep now that we are freed.”
    Thranduil nodded as they entered the storerooms.  “Then now is when we must act.”
    After the store rooms, their next stop was the armory.  They had only just chosen the weapons they desired when footsteps on the stairs sent them hurrying back into the passage from which they had come.  The passage door was disguised to look like a weapons rack and Legolas and Aragorn quickly pulled it shut after them, not a moment too soon.
    Several guards entered the armory and looked quickly about.  “There’s no one here,” one elf called back up to their captain at the top of the stairs.  Aragorn and Legolas recognized the voice as belonging to one of Doriflen’s men.
    “Well post a guard and the rest of you follow me!  They’re here somewhere,” the other responded.
    The three in the passageway exchanged looks and slid quietly away.
    “They know we’ve escaped,” Aragorn whispered, once they were out of earshot.
    “We’ve got to get to the dungeons and free Raniean and his men.” Legolas hoped that Doriflen had not already done away with the warriors. 
    “All the main passages will be watched, but we may be able to get through these back tunnels faster than they can search them, if my memory does not fail us,” Thranduil led them back into the secret passages, walking swiftly.
    “Father?” Legolas queried in a whisper as they hurried along.  “You knew these tunnels were here?”  He did not understand why he had never been told, why no one seemed to know.
    Thranduil sighed slightly in the murky gloom.  “Yes, Legolas, I did.  They were an ancient defense system, conceived in theory to correct the shortcomings of the great underground realms such as Menegroth and Nargothrond, so that if invaders should ever take the palace, the inhabitants would not only not be trapped, but resistance could be mounted from the inside.  Of course they were kept secret or they would have been useless.  Only my father, my brother and I knew of them...” they turned a corner and branched into a side passage, their footfalls making hardly any sound.  A torch in the darkness ahead caused them freeze and duck into another turn off, flattening themselves against the wall as a silent, swift-moving patrol swept by.
    Aragorn held his breath, but he still could not hear the passing of the elven warriors.  They were too light and quiet.  It was unnerving.
    When the coast was clear they slipped out again and continued on their way in silence for several moments.
    “Did you not think I could be trusted to keep such a secret?” Legolas asked quietly, trying not to sound hurt.  The fear of uncertain trust between father and son was old and rooted in previous history with Doriflen’s lies.  Legolas had thought it all long healed, but now he wondered.
    “Nay!  It was not that, Legolas, you must not think so.” Thranduil shook his head quickly, knowing what his son was thinking.  “My father and I did not know it, but Doriflen had long made these secret ways his own privet haunt, for we alone knew of them and Oropher and I had very little call to venture into them at all.  Unbeknownst to us Doriflen brought unfortunate animals and eventually people into those hidden tunnels, where he had set up hideous torments for them, contrived by his twisted mind.  When the war came between us after our father’s death, my brother tried to use the tunnels against me.  He was driven out, but it was then I discovered what he had been doing down here.  I caused the passages to be sealed off and those who knew were sworn to secrecy.  Such evil had been committed here; I could not stand that they should be open to the palace any longer.  Besides, with Doriflen turned against me, they were no longer a secret defense.  You were a child then, Legolas. There was much I did not tell you, not for lack of trust, but because of your tender years.  These passages have been sealed and forgotten for many ages... but my brother has obviously reopened them.”  Thranduil was evidently very troubled by the memories.
    Legolas touched his father’s arm softly, realizing that there was undoubtedly more to everything that had happened way back then than his childish memories could comprehend.  “Well now let’s see if we can’t turn them against him instead.”
    Another hidden door let out into a small room not far from the cellars.  Quickly turning up the passage, they hurried towards the dungeons.  Now was the most perilous time for them.  Even armed, the threesome was in critically poor shape; battle was not a very positive option at this point, so they had to put their hope in stealth. 
    Raniean’s deep, solitary cell was first.  Aragorn remained in the mouth of the passage to stand guard while Legolas and his father made their way quickly back towards the large wooden door at the end of the hall. 
    “Raniean?” Legolas called softly as Thranduil tried several different keys in the lock.  “Ran?”  Apprehension gripped his heart when he heard no answer. 
    The door swept open inwards and Legolas stepped in quickly, almost stumbling because of the sharp incline and his own unsteadiness.  Thranduil caught his son’s arm, gently helping him regain his balance. 
    To Legolas’ great relief, Raniean was still there, and no worse off than he had been before.  The warrior jumped to his feet, chains rattling and clanking, when he saw who the two people were that entered. 
    “Legolas!  Your Majesty!” 
    Legolas took the keys from his father, who remained to guard the doorway while the prince descended and quickly began unlocking Raniean’s fetters, hating to see his friend chained up like an animal for even one more moment than was necessary.
    Raniean’s worried gaze swept his friend’s bruised face.  “You didn’t come back... I was worried for you, Legolas.”
    “I’m sorry,” Legolas freed the elf’s ankles and moved up to his wrists.  “I wanted to return sooner, but I was... detained.”
    Raniean had only to take one look at his friend, even cleaned up and dressed in fresh clothing as he was, to know exactly what kind of detention that had been.  “Then I failed you again, haven’t I?” he said quietly. 
    Legolas stopped, holding Raniean’s freed wrist in his hands.  “Ran, this wasn’t your fault any more than it was when we were young,” he whispered back.  “Now come, my friend, we have a job to do!  I need your help.”
    Raniean nodded quickly as the last manacle fell away and the two elves swiftly made their way up into the passage by the King.
    “Your Majesty, I cannot tell you how good it is to see you once more,” Raniean said with genuine relief and a somewhat stiff bow when they reached the spot where Thranduil stood waiting for them.  Like Legolas, he too had secretly feared that Doriflen had done away with the King.
    “Well met, Raniean, we will have great need of you and your men up the hall.  It is time we take back what is ours.”  Thranduil touched the young warrior’s arm gently.  His eyes darkened when he saw what his brother had caused to be done to the loyal, younger elf, but he said naught of it.  He hated to imagine what else he would find had happened these past days.  Doriflen had much to answer for.
    “Most gladly, Your Highness!” Raniean nodded with grim enthusiasm as they gained the mouth of the passage where Aragorn waited for them. 
    Just as they entered the main holding area, disaster struck. 
    Seemingly out of nowhere, Amon, Nynd and eight or nine more of Doriflen’s elves appeared in the passage ahead of them. It was hard to tell just how many blocked their escape in the cramped tunnel.  The guards were caught by surprise, but took the situation in quickly and drew their weapons with elven swiftness.
    Legolas, Aragorn and Thranduil drew their own weapons just as fast.  Raniean was not armed, but he glared defiantly at the other elves, ready for whatever happened.  For a few moments the two opposing sides remained thus; eyeing one another.
    “Get out of our way,” Thranduil commanded them, his eyes flashing.  “Stand aside and you have my pardon.  Hinder me and be considered traitors one and all and suffer the consequences.”
    Amon laughed at the bold words in the face of their superior numbers and strength.  “Do you have any idea what Doriflen would do to us if you escaped again?  I think those are mighty strong words for someone in your position.  I have a better idea.  Surrender your weapons and maybe we won’t kill you.”  It would please Doriflen to retake the prisoners alive, but if he had to, Amon was ready to kill them all. He would not face his liege’s wrath.
    Aragorn glanced at Legolas.  None of them were in peak form and they were clearly outnumbered.  Yet surrender was not an option; it would mean death just as surely as fighting would and a horrible one at that.  This silent knowledge passed between the two friends as they tensed for action.  It was doubtful that all of them would make it out of this alive.  But some of them had to or Doriflen would win and all would be lost. 
    “He would treat you worse than us, am I not correct?  Why would you willingly serve a lord like that?  You deserve better than he,” Thranduil stalled slightly, also aware of their desperate situation.  “Not even the basest criminal is treated with as much disdain and injustice in our realm as I have seen him regularly employ with his most trusted followers.”
    “So you say,” one of the young elves behind Amon and Nynd shook his head, and no one missed the slightly hopeless tone of his voice.  “But all leaders promise much but deliver only lies.”
    “Shut up!” Nynd snapped at his underling.  “You four stand down now or forfeit your lives.”
    “Do you really believe that?” Thranduil shook his head, ignoring Nynd and addressing the other elf’s statement.  “You have been much mistreated I think.  I would that you would give me a chance to prove that I am different from my brother.”
    “That’s it, you had your chance,” Amon glared at the Elvenking, not liking the effect this brief conversation was having on his troops.  It was no secret that many of their own had been questioning Doriflen’s leadership of late, now that they had returned.  Alone in their own camps, cut off from all others of their kind, they had known nothing but their insane leader and his ways, but here in Mirkwood, back among other elves who had other ways of doing things and lives that most of the exiles could only begin to dream of... loyalties were beginning to sit uneasily. 
    Greed, cruelty, power and fear were the qualities that Doriflen had counted on to control his people, and at the same time marked as dangers as well.  Yet light, warmth, kindness and a sense of home after thousands of years of lonely wandering were the enemies he had not taken into account.
    Amon, Nynd and the handful of others who Doriflen had corrupted to nearly his own level of depravity, had found themselves working double-time to keep their forces united and they were not about to let anyone start thinking too much. 
    “Take them!  If they resist, kill them!” Amon ordered and his men surged ahead obediently.
    Legolas moved forward to meet their rush, placing himself between them and his father.  As if working in one mind, Aragorn moved to cover the prince’s back.  Thranduil raised his sword and Raniean tensed for action.  All of them knew this would not go well.

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