Between Darkness and Dawn

Chapter 19: Last Chance

by Cassia and Siobhan

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Aragorn blinked slowly, never changing the rhythm of his breathing, nor moving his gaze from the point on the wall ahead of him that he had chosen.  He thought he was dying inside.  This charade was killing him; it was easily the hardest thing he had ever done.  He would never, for the rest of his life, be able to forgive himself for putting that vile contraption on his friend’s face.  He hadn’t expected that the Nazgûl would make him do that.

Legolas’ tearful pleading had torn his heart out and he desperately wished the elf would stop speaking.  He knew the damage the prince was doing to himself by fighting the bridle even though he had not put the vile contraption on Legolas as tightly as he had been instructed to.  But the ranger forced himself to wait.  Wait until he could hear no one in the hallway, wait until the throbbing in his shoulder died down and the fears that caused his heart to race subsided - all tell-tale signs that his captor was near.  He knew the Nazgûl was still monitoring them.  He could feel it now when he was close at hand.  The dark presence throbbed in his shoulder like a warning signal.

Legolas’ heartbroken sob was too much for the ranger to handle and the emotions he had been fighting spilled silently down his own cheeks.  He had been as strong as he was able to be.  He had played the charade as best he could around a burning and breaking heart.  The only measure of comfort he could take was that, if he had not taken this gamble, the Nazgûl would eventually have broken him for real and he would be forced to do much worse to Legolas, without any choice remaining in the matter.

As it was, he had only allowed the Nazgûl to think he had won.  His mind still burned and swirled from the dark assault when he lifted his defenses... but the Witch-king did not realize that he had been fooled.  He had only been allowed in as far as Aragorn chose to let him.  He had only seen the things the ranger left for him to find.  It had been an extremely risky gamble.  If the Wraith had chosen to dig deeper and force the issue more thoroughly, Aragorn might not have been able to pull back and hold onto himself and he could truly have been lost.  However, it seemed that, at least for the moment, the Valar were looking kindly upon his desperate gambit.

Aragorn trembled slightly, this time not because of illness or pain.  If the Witch-king had not been so sure of himself, or had not wanted to torment Legolas with the sight of his broken friend, things could have turned out very badly.  But the risk had paid off for now and Aragorn had been left unrestrained in the cell with Legolas.  It was more than he had hoped for at the outset.  He had a plan fermenting in the back of his mind even now.  If Yrin meant what he had told them the other night about being willing to dream, then perhaps they stood a chance.  The Nazgûl’s latest orders shifted the level of desperation to their favor.  The slaves were not going to be happy about having to cull their own.  Perhaps they would be unhappy enough to risk a little more than usual.


Waiting for a few more minutes before he gave up his feigned stupor, Aragorn swallowed hard and tried to block out the soft sounds of distress coming from the far corner of the cell.  When Legolas’ breathing hitched and he gave a soft whimper of pain, Aragorn could stand it no more.

Glancing quickly at the closed door, Aragorn scooted across the floor, keeping well below the barred window.  He crouched in front of Legolas and gently took the elf’s face in his hands.

Legolas started and pulled back as much as his position allowed when the human touched him.  Stark fear was evident in his eyes as he pressed himself back against the wall.

Aragorn’s heart burned at seeing that abject terror directed at him.  Yet he couldn’t blame Legolas for being afraid of him.

Quickly and quietly, the ranger unfastened the hideous bridle and eased it carefully off his friend’s head.  Tears burned his eyes as he gently wiped the crimson stains from the elf’s cheeks.  The cruel instrument had drawn quite a fair amount of blood, but had thankfully not cut too deep.

“I’m sorry, Legolas, I’m so sorry...” he begged forgiveness he knew he didn’t deserve. “I had hoped it would hurt less that way.”

Legolas shuddered as he was released, his confused gaze searching his friend’s face.

“Estel?” he rasped quietly.  He winced, his injured tongue giving him great pain.

“Legolas, shhh... It’s all right; there is nothing wrong with me. I did not give up, mellon-nín.”  Aragorn rested his forehead against the prince’s, speaking soothingly in the grey tongue.

The chains that held the elf clanked loudly as Legolas, surprised by the contact, tried to reach out to his friend.

“Quiet,” Aragorn warned him softly.  “They need to think that nothing has changed and we present no danger.”  The ranger gently pinned the elf in place with his hands, stilling the chains that held Legolas’ arms above his head.

“What?...” Legolas stared incredulously at the man crouched in front of him.  His wary eyes held Aragorn’s gaze fast, judging for himself whether or not his friend was truly well.  To the elf’s immense relief, he saw Aragorn behind his friend’s eyes again, with no shadow of lie or deception between them.

“It was an act,” Aragorn replied distractedly as he worked with the manacles around Legolas’ bruised wrists.  “I gave him what he wanted and gambled on his over-confidence...” The ranger braced himself against the wall and shifted his hand to his left boot, extracting a thin, elongated, almost metallic looking tine, the one he had confiscated from the Nazgûl’s workshop earlier.  The sharpened tip just slid into the lock and he began to work the mechanism, feeling the way the interlocking pieces lay against once another.  In a few moments the manacle sprang open, releasing Legolas’ arm.

The second one was easier and Aragorn caught the offending metal cuff as it swung free from the elf’s wrist.  It was best not to let anyone onto the fact that they were free in their cell.

Working the lock on the collar was much more difficult.  Aragorn tipped Legolas’ head forward, brushing the long, disheveled strands of hair away from the elf’s shoulder.  He crouched near the elf, his head nearly touching the prince’s.  This close, he was able to keep up a quiet, steady stream of conversation.  The bruises around the elf’s neck were easily visible now and Aragorn winced slightly as Legolas cringed when the pin slipped and the collar jerked tightly against him.

“I’m sorry.  Hold on just a minute longer.  This lock is...” Aragorn’s voice faltered as he concentrated.  “It’s more difficult.  I think I have it!”  He felt the pin slip into place and move the internal mechanism.  Gently he removed the offending restraint and pulled Legolas away from the wall, resting the collar against the stone and keeping it from clanking.

Carefully, he tipped the prince’s chin back and checked the soft skin around the base of the elf’s neck.  His fingers were gentle on the inflamed bruises and Legolas closed his eyes until the ranger was done.

Legolas pressed back against the stone wall behind him as Aragorn seated himself in front of the elf.  He gingerly rubbed his sore wrists as the circulation was restored to them.

Taking one of the elf’s slender hands in his own, the ranger gently rubbed the prince’s fingers.

“I’m so sorry, mellon-nín,” he repeated.  “I had to play along.  I had to do what he told me so he would believe... I-I never wanted to hurt you and I didn’t mean to frighten you so.  I never imagined he would force me put that thing on you.  I wanted so badly to give you a sign that I was all right, but I could not risk his returning and finding out the truth.  So I obeyed him until I could no longer feel him near.”  Aragorn smiled ruefully and gently touched the welted wound to his shoulder.  “At least some good has come of this injury – I know when he is near now; he has touched it too many times for it to forget his presence.”

Legolas winced, understanding all too well the pain his friend was going through as memories of his own enslavement resurfaced. Gently he touched the man’s face where the Nazgûl had backhanded the ranger sometime in the recent past.  Aragorn’s features were bruised and his lip was split.  Welts and bruises decorated his arms and his chest as well where they were exposed.  Almost self-consciously, the human pulled his tunic more tightly about him.  Legolas’ hands stopped his movements, gently pulling the shirt away from Aragorn’s wounded shoulder.  The cut was no better, but the results of the antidote the Nazgûl had administered were evident as it slowed the fevered infection.

“There is nothing to forgive, Estel,” Legolas shook his head.  “You did what you had to do.  I am just glad that I have not lost you, my friend,” the elf admitted, his eyes sparkling with unshed tears in the dim light for a moment, before he regained control of himself.  His mouth hurt, but Legolas concentrated on his words and paid it little mind.  He knew how to deal with pain without succumbing to helplessness.

Placing his hand carefully over the ranger’s injury, Legolas pressed his palm against the ragged wound, causing Aragorn to draw in a deep breath and hold it against the pain.  The elf’s touch was cool to his feverish skin and he felt himself relaxing slightly as Legolas worked, slowly infusing comfort in his touch the way he remembered Elrond doing.  The prince’s contact was awkward and his experience with this type of healing nearly non-existent.  Yet he closed his eyes, letting the power ebb out from him and into his friend.  If he just trusted and let go, it seemed to happen naturally.

“Where did you learn to do that?” Aragorn asked in quiet surprise when Legolas broke the contact and sat back once more.

“Your father.”  Legolas smiled at the man.

“When?”  Aragorn shook his head, trying to remember when Elrond might have had the opportunity to teach the Silvan elf that level of healing.

“I-I don’t know,” Legolas admitted when the memory did not spring as readily to mind as he had expected.  “Probably one of the times we came back in need of his attention after some adventure or another.”

Aragorn smiled at the fond memories.  He wanted nothing more than to be back home with his father right now, instead of being trapped as they were.  The mountain winds whistled fiercely against the walls of the prison, causing the small oil lamp to flicker.

“What now?” Legolas asked softly.  Aragorn refocused his attention on the elf and smiled slowly.

“Now, we find a way out of here.”  The ranger stood to his feet slowly, his body beginning to feel the ache of the beating he had endured.  “I’ve been analyzing the antidote as much as I am able from taste and effect.  I think I can make some guesses about how to recreate it.  I was in the Nazgûl’s lab again today and he had a table set aside with large quantities of certain herbs and powders.  I recognized most of them.  It’s a fair guess that he is waiting to make another batch of the antidote as soon as the orcs get him the last ingredient.”  He reached down and helped Legolas to his feet, careful of the elf’s bruised wrists.

“While I was in there, the dim-witted orc, Rhzaq, came in and reported that the orcs could not reach the lower levels and harvest the plant for the antidote.  Apparently the Nazgûl is running low on supplies and needs some soon for the household servants,” Aragorn explained quietly as he crept to the door and glanced out into the darkened hallway.

No one was up this late at night and the door to their cell was not locked.  There was no reason for it to be fastened.  The elf had been chained to the wall and left with a ranger who was no longer capable of functioning, or so the Nazgûl had thought.  Locked doors weren’t necessary in a dwelling where fear stalked the halls and the threat of death hung over the heads of the inhabitants.  Running away was sure death; disobedience simply brought it on faster and more painfully.  The orcs monitored the halls at night and so the humans remained on their own floor to avoid contact with the evil creatures.

In Angmar, things ran smoothly or not at all, and so it was that very few of the doors were fitted with locks.  A practice that lent an advantage to the two friends who stole silently down the long hallway heading for the stairs that led to the lower levels.

“So we should try to accomplish what the orcs have failed,” Legolas whispered quietly, his tone a little ironic.  “Lovely.”

“We need that plant,” Aragorn whispered back.  “If I can get Yrinvan or someone who knows about these things to help us once we have the ingredients, we might have a chance.”

Legolas noticed that his friend used the word ‘might’.  It was still a long shot that they would actually be able to reproduce the antidote, but right now their only option was to try.

They had nearly reached the stairwell when Legolas grabbed Aragorn and pulled him back into a recessed doorway, pressing the human as far into the corner as he could.

The ranger didn’t resist when the elf shoved him out of the hallway and shielded them both, dimming his light.  Legolas laid his chin on the ranger’s shoulder and pressed his lips to the man’s ear, speaking in a barely audible voice.

“Orcs approach,” the elf whispered, his breath stirring the ranger’s unkempt locks.  Legolas’ grip on his friend’s shoulders tightened as the sound of the small company quickly approached.  He hoped the darkened recess would be enough to hide them, for he was sure they would not be able to resist recapture.

“Retzhrak, the master is looking for you.”  A human’s voice stopped the company from advancing further.  “His mount is hungry and the coffers are running low.  He has requested that you feed the creature and see to the traps.”

A low grumbling set up within the ranks of the orcs and they glared at the human.

Yrinvan stared the dark beings down.  “It is the master’s request.  I only bring it on his behalf.  If you wish to discuss it with him further I can inform him of your desire.” The human crossed his arms, pushing his hands up underneath the overlarge tunic sleeves.

“No.” the orc he had addressed answered him harshly, “We’ll go.  You may tell him we have obeyed.”  With a rough command Retzhrak led his contingent back to the stairwell and headed up to the level that housed the Nazgûl’s mount, barking orders at his men as they walked.

Yrin sighed, shaking his head and moving forward.  He wanted to make sure the elf and the ranger were settled for the night.  It was the least he could do.  He tired of being the Nazgûl’s lackey, but once again it seemed he had no choice.  With the ranger gone, their hope of making any successful attempt to break free had dwindled back to a foolish dream.  He was sure that someday the Witch-king or one of his orcs would become equally tired of the slave that carried out the orders and kill him.  There were nights when he looked forward to that day and this was one of them.  The Master expected him to decide who lived and who died tonight... How was he supposed to do that?  He had done it once and it still haunted him, all those lives on his hands.  His heart couldn’t take it anymore.

Letting up his grip on Aragorn, Legolas allowed the man to move from the shadows and slide closer to the hallway, knowing instinctively what the human had in mind.  They had both heard what had transpired and the ranger was paying close attention to the approaching footsteps.

As Yrinvan passed them by, Aragorn stepped out behind him and grabbed the man, pulling him back into the recess with them.  One hand covered Yrin’s mouth and the other pinned the servant’s arms to his side.

The slave stiffened under Aragorn’s touch, shock and fear paralyzing him enough so that he did not fight as the ranger pushed him into the corner, turning him so Yrin could see his abductors and Aragorn could motion the man to silence.

Yrin’s eyes grew wide when he saw the elf and the ranger, but he remained silent as ordered.

Glancing quickly at Legolas, the ranger motioned to the edge of the alcove and the elf stepped into the doorway, looking up and down the hallway.

With a simple nod, the elf informed the Dùnadan that they were alone.

“If you’re going to kill me, please do it quickly,” Yrin said quietly.  If the Nazgûl had found out all that Yrinvan had been doing behind his back through his new control over the ranger, then it was far better for it to end like this.  He wasn’t afraid.  At the moment it sounded as if he was almost asking them to kill him.

The ranger shook his head.  “We aren’t going to hurt you.  We need to know where to find the plant the Witch-king uses to make the antidote and what it looks like,” Aragorn whispered.

“How is that you are well?  How did you escape?”  Yrin glanced from the elf to the ranger.  The signs of their abuse colored the skin that he could see but the Dùnadan’s eyes were cleared from the dead, glazed look he had in his cell.  “I saw you!  You were overcome.”

“No.”  Aragorn shook his head, glancing at Legolas again for reassurance that they were still safe.  Time was running out; he could feel it.  The night had precious few hours left in it and they would need them all.  “I was pretending so the Nazgûl would leave us alone. I freed Legolas with this.”  He pulled the tine from his pocket and showed it to the slave.

With a gasp the servant grabbed the long spine and shoved the elf out of his way as he stepped near a torch set high in the wall.  Carefully he inspected the long tine looking for telltale traces.  It was clean.

“Do you know what this is?” He asked fearfully.  When they indicated they did not, he continued.  “This is a spine from that terrible beast the Nazgûl rides.  It’s from his back.  They grow and shed them with the seasons.  Usually they are longer and thicker.  This one appears to be newer growth.  But they are also filled with the blood of the creature and it is a toxin to humans.  This one is not poisoned; you were lucky.”  He handed the tine back to Aragorn who held it more gingerly, its iridescent coloring sparkling under the dull lights.

“Estel, the antidote.  We are running out of time and so are you,” Legolas warned quietly.

Urgently, Yrin grabbed the ranger’s arm, garnering his attention.  “The plant is found in the lower levels, but you cannot go there.  It is not possible.  Cave trolls live down there... and worse things as well, if the orcs are to be believed.”  The slave was insistent.

“Yrin, listen to me.”  Legolas stepped back near the two men.  “This... this plant is the main ingredient in the antidote, is it not?  If so, then we must try.  If we can recreate enough of the antidote, you and your people have a chance to be free and Strider has a chance to live.  Otherwise none of us have any hope.  It all hinges on this.”

The servant was shaking his head adamantly.  “You will not make it out.  And even if you did, what do you expect us to do?  Borrow the Master’s lab to make the antidote?  That is the only place it can be done.  Simply walk out under his nose?  People don’t leave this place alive against his will!”

“Trust us Yrin.”  Aragorn touched the man’s shoulder redirecting his attention. “If we stay here the Nazgûl will kill us.  If we die trying, at least we will have tried.  We can’t just wait for that Wraith to have his way with us.  He won’t stop, like he has with you and your people.  He will never be content with us merely for our service.  He intends to destroy us completely and through us, all the elves of Mirkwood and Rivendell.  We can’t let that happen.”

Yrin nodded slowly, but the fear was evident in his nervous gaze.  If the ranger and the elf failed, it would very likely be his end as well.  The Nazgûl didn’t even have to know he had been involved, the fact that he was in charge of the prisoners would likely be enough.  Yet hadn’t he just gotten through thinking that he almost wished the end would come, rather than keep living this way?  Yrin swallowed hard, remembering what it was he was supposed to be doing tonight.  Would he risk anything rather than have to be involved in another mass murder?  Yes, he would.

“All right, I’ll help you,” he agreed quietly.

Aragorn swayed slightly as nodded his agreement. He reached out to catch the wall and steady himself as the world tilted sideways.  He felt sick and weak.  The adrenaline rush of being out of their cell and finally taking action had carried him this far, but it would not support his failing body for much longer.  His mind still ached from the Nazgûl’s intrusion and the small amount of antidote he had been given wasn’t nearly enough for his depleted physical state.

“Strider?” Legolas caught Aragorn’s outstretched arm and eased the man down into a sitting position in the small alcove. “Can you help him?” he asked the servant as Yrin crouched next to them.  Their plan was not going to work very well if Aragorn could barely walk.

The slave checked the ranger’s pulse and pressed his head back, gazing into the other man’s eyes before answering.  “I have no antidote.  He is suffering as much from the Nazgûl’s attempts to break him, as he is from the poison.  He needs rest.”

“There is no time,” Aragorn whispered, trying to push back up to a standing position.  He was impeded by two sets of hands that held him firmly down.

“I don’t have anything to counteract the poison, but I do have some chrysein seeds,” Yrin offered quickly, remembering the tiny dried seeds in his pocket.  He had been handing out a lot of them lately, as more and more of his fellow servants became in need of a supplement to keep them going through the inevitable withdrawal that the antidote shortage created.

“Chrysein?” Aragorn had never heard of it before until now.

“We found them one spring.  They come from plants that grow in the woods at the edge of the granite steppe.  They don’t stop the poisons and they can’t counter their affects but they do give a boost of temporary energy.  They’ll help you get down into the caverns and back out if you’re quick,” Yrin explained.  He reached into his tunic and produced a small, velvet-wrapped pouch.  Pouring out a handful of the tiny, black, elongated seeds, he dumped them into the palm of Strider’s hand.  “Eat.”

The seeds had a slightly acidic bite to them as though seasoned with spices that the ranger could not quite identify.  He sat quietly for a few minutes while Yrin explained the way down into the caverns below.  Slowly, the nausea faded and his thoughts cleared.  The headache that had been wrapping itself like a vise around his temples slipped away and he felt the tremors leaving his body.  He felt better, but he also felt unnatural.  A strange, slightly detached sense of euphoria replaced his former weariness.

Yrin noticed the difference before Legolas.

“Feeling better?” he asked as he turned towards the ranger.

“Much better,” Aragorn answered as the servant and the elf helped him to his feet. “That stuff works amazingly well.”

“Perhaps,” Yrin replied guardedly.  “But it is wise to use it seldom.  It’s not really giving you any strength; it’s just clouding your ability to feel pain or weariness.  It will wear off and when it does... when it does it will leave you worse than you were before.  You’ll have a few good hours though, so I suggest you make the most of them.”

“Thank you, we’ll keep that in mind.” Aragorn nodded in understanding.  He glanced at Legolas, knowing he would need the elf’s help when that time came.

Legolas returned his gaze with a quiet promise of support.  He was a little bit anxious about this situation.  He did not like entrusting his friend’s well-being to the hands of this obviously powerful narcotic, but it seemed their only option at the moment.  He hoped his friend would not pay too dearly for it later.

Peering around the corner into the hallway, the elf moved down the passage towards the back door to the caverns below.   “The way is clear.  We must hurry, Strider.”

“Wait just a moment more,” Yrin bid them pause.  “There are a few more things you need to know.”


The pathway cut into the heart of the mountain was steep and winding.  The walls of the descending passageway that led into the bowels of Angmar were no more than three feet wide at most.  They were barely wide enough for the orcs that sometimes used this stairwell.  The stone was slippery with mosses that had collected on them, feasting upon the condensation.

Legolas led Aragorn down into the darkness as swiftly as possible, using the little-used side-passage that Yrinvan had shown them.  He carried a torch stolen from one of the wall sconces.  Holding it high above his head, the elf lit their way down into the depths of the earth.  He tried to not to think about where they were going or what waited for them as they raced down the stairwell.

Down the winding stairway, through the portal and into the left hand tunnel, past the waterfall and into the basin...

Those were the instructions Yrin had given them.  The plant that they sought was really a phosphorescent mold.  It grew near the edges of a large, subterranean lake.  It was harvested by the orcs who simply scraped the glowing plant life off the rocks.

Yrin had never actually been down here himself, which was not a comfort since they were relying on his directions.  However, he had gotten all his information on the topic from Rhzaq who had been sent there frequently by the other orcs.  The little orc had told Yrin all about the lower levels one night when the servant had found him cowering in a corner, mumbling about things in the dark that tried to catch him.  Yrin had deduced that Rhzaq had encountered cave trolls from the descriptions the orc had given him.  He also cautioned the two friends of something that apparently lived in the underground lake near the water’s head.  He was never able to get a straight answer out of the smaller orc, except that Rhzaq was terrified of the water.

Time lost all meaning as they wound their way down the nearly vertical stairwell.  The pace was tiring for Aragorn, but he did the best he could to stay within the sphere of light that Legolas cast around them.  The rocks were slippery in places and the mosses grew thicker the farther down they went, turning from bright greens and deeper reds to even darker shades.  As they neared the bottom, the lichens and molds that ran in rivulets down the rock face had begun to pick up traces of phosphorescent colors, lighting the passages dully with streaks of greens and blues.  They would have found it pretty, had their situation not been so dire.

Aragorn’s foot slipped on a wet patch of moss and he stumbled forward into Legolas, throwing the elf off balance.  Legolas, although faring much better than his friend, was still trying to deal with the effects of the rough games the orcs had played with him earlier in the day.  Unfortunately, it was affecting his reflexes and balance.  Unable to catch himself, the prince threw the torch down the stairwell ahead of him as they tumbled down the steps.  It wasn’t far to fall as they had nearly reached the ground level.  The torch rolled into the open cavern a few feet ahead of Legolas.

Aragorn lay sprawled on top of the elf, unmoving.  Legolas slowly sat up, gently easing the ranger off of him.

“Estel?”  The elf shook the man carefully, quickly checking him over for broken bones or gashes.  Amazingly, their short fall had resulted in no serious damage beyond a few additional scrapes and bruises.

Aragorn moaned as consciousness broke afresh through his mind.  His head hurt and he was dizzy but, with help from Legolas, he sat up and stared around them.

“Legolas, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to stumble, are you all right?”  He apologized, but the elf was not listening.

Following the prince’s gaze, Aragorn could see that they were in a vast, domed cavern.  The top of the cave stretched far above them, beyond the sphere of light their torch cast.  Legolas picked up the still burning flame and held it as high as he could.  Behind them was the staircase they had just descended, and next to that, a yawning opening that was well over nine feet tall and just as wide.  Dark stairs led up from the cave floor, disappearing into the tunnel.  This was the main passage down, the one Yrinvan had cautioned them to avoid since it was more frequently used.  On the opposite side of the room were three passageways leading out in different directions.

The wind whistled through the caves high above, creating an eerie, melancholy music that sent shivers up the ranger’s spine.  Bracing himself against Legolas, he stood shakily to his feet and helped the elf stand.

The air wasn’t as dank as they had expected, but it still held an unmistakable oldness to its scent.  Mingled with the smell of moss and musty stone were the traces of animal droppings: bats, rodents... trolls.  Legolas took a deep breath as he walked in a small circle, taking in their surroundings.

“We dare not linger,” the elf whispered.  His voice echoed loudly despite the softness of his words.  “Yrin was correct, these caverns are inhabited.”

With a curt nod, Aragorn followed the prince, heading towards the left-most passage.  As they walked through the cavern, Legolas lit the sconces mounted on the wall nearest to them, shedding a small amount of light into the huge room.

The tunnel was more than tall enough for them to stand upright, and wide enough for them to walk beside one another.  Legolas wondered absently if the dwarves had at one time occupied Angmar, before the Witch-king established it as his home, or if slaves had done all this work.  After a sharp switchback in the passage, the tunnel opened up into a second room that was nearly taken up by a massive, underground lake.  The thermal flows that ran under and through the mountain kept water here from freezing, even in the bitter dead of winter.  A small waterfall fell from several feet above their heads just to the left of the tunnel’s opening.  Its soft, misty spray covered everything near it in a fine sheen of water.

Aragorn stepped farther around the lake to the right, avoiding the misting shower.  He had no desire to add cold and wet to his already mounting list of discomforts.  A large metal sconce, set five feet off the ground in the rocky wall, easily accepted the torch as Legolas slipped the handle into the ring, shedding light around the edges of the pool nearest them.  The lake stretched back into the cavern, seemingly with no end.  Around both sides of it for as far as the pair could see, a narrow shelf of rock edged the perimeter.  Jutting out here and there into the water in odd patterns, the ledge created islands and jetties upon which the moving water broke in quiet waves.

The water was an inky black color where the light did not touch it.  It barely rippled on the edges when Aragorn knelt.  The stone shelf the ranger balanced on had been smoothed over time and now formed a barrier between the lake and the rocky ledge around its circumference.

When Legolas knelt next to the man, he could see what had so fascinated the human.  Inches below the water line, brightly glowing ribbons and rivulets of lichen coated the rocks, reaching up the stone face just below where Aragorn’s fingers gripped the lip of the shelf.

“This must be it.”  The ranger spoke quietly, his voice swallowed up in the immensity of the large room and drowned out by the sounds of the waterfall behind them.  “Look, here, this patch has been all scraped away, not more than a month ago.”

Leaning in closely, Legolas could easily see where the rock had been scratched and gouged.  White indentations marked the ledge below where they knelt.  He pulled the small velvet bag that Yrinvan had given to him before their descent and held it out as Aragorn dug into the soft plant life.  The ranger loosened it with his fingers, attempting to pry it free.  The going was slow and the lichen stubbornly refused to release.  Searching urgently around them for anything that might help, Legolas returned with a small, flat rock and offered it to the ranger.

Within minutes the sack was bulging, filling up quickly with the glowing lichen.  Aragorn kept up a steady pace.  He was unsure of how much they would need for everyone and wasn’t taking any chances.  He packed the bag as full as it could get.  The rock clanked dully against the granite shelf as the ranger scraped one more section of lichen into his hand.

The small sounds they made as they collected the plants reverberated under the water loudly, ringing through the depths and disturbing the inky black peace.

They were back.


They never should have come back...

Small dark eyes opened and blinked, looking up through the water and finding the small pinpoint of light that the torch shed on its underwater haven.  It liked it dark in the cave.  It hated the light.  It hated the beings that came and woke it so often, taking the glowing plants from the edge of its home.

This was its home and it was not happy.  How many of those creatures must it kill before they would stop coming back?  What would it take to convince them?  Moving slowly, the creature worked its way upward, its massive body swirling the waters as it stirred once more to life.

Legolas touched Aragorn’s arm, stopping the human.  Something was wrong.  The lake, which had moments ago been smooth as glass near the back of the cavern, was now rippling.  Small wakes disrupted the ever expanding ripples created by the waterfall behind them.  The water was moving, shifting as though something below were surfacing.

“We must go.  Quickly!”  Legolas jumped back from the ledge and stood to his feet, trying to pull the man up with him.

“One more handful.  We have to get enough!  If we make mistakes as we try to recreate the antidote, we’ll need plenty to cover them,” Aragorn argued.

Bubbles rose to the top of the lake, churning the surface into a black cauldron.  Glancing up, the ranger’s eyes went wide as a long, thick tentacle uncurled from the water and snaked toward the edge of the pond.

Legolas’ arm around the ranger’s waist tightened and the elf jerked the human backwards, out of harm's way, pressing them both against the cavern wall.  A high pitched, shrieking roar filled the cave and set the hair on the back of Aragorn’s neck on end.  They had awoken something, and it was not pleased.  More tentacles joined the first and swept the walkway along the side of the cave where the torch was hung.  Groping in the murky twilight, it searched for the beings that it knew had invaded its home.

Legolas leapt out of the way as a dark limb swept past him, trying to trip him up.  It barely grazed his heel, just missing bringing the elf down.  Aragorn ducked as a wildly flailing tentacle swept past overhead.  It crashed down on his right, making the cavern shake.

Darting after the elf, Aragorn shoved the bag of lichens into an inner pocket of his tunic and headed for the passageway.  Legolas grabbed the torch as he passed by it, garnering the water creature’s attention.

The light was moving.  It was so much easier to catch the ones that carried the lights.

Surging forward, the creature propelled itself up, rising out of the water.  Legolas only had seconds to correct his course as the massive beast flung the upper half of its body onto the walkway, cutting off their escape.

The elf skidded to a stop, slipping on the water that sloshed over the edge of the lake.  Turning as quickly as possible, he pelted back towards Aragorn.  For all his speed and agility, it wasn’t enough.

The world shifted around Legolas as the monster behind him latched onto the elf’s ankle, pulling his feet out from underneath him.  With a sharp crack, the prince’s chin impacted the stone floor, shooting pain through his consciousness and causing bright points of light to dance across his vision.  The torch flew out of his hand and hit the wall.

Before the elf could gather his wits, the creature pulled Legolas back along the slippery floor towards the center of its mass, exposing a gaping maw filled with sharp teeth.  Legolas scrabbled at the wet stones under him but could get no purchase.  The creature was sheer muscle and he could not get his leg free.  If he had his weapons this would have been a vastly different story, but with only his bare hands he could not make the creature let go of him.  The beast roared in triumph, grasping one of Legolas’ wrists and pinning the helpless elf in its grip.

Legolas gasped in pain when his already sore arm was twisted and ground against the harsh stones under him.  The creature dragged him back steadily.  The tentacle around the elf’s leg snaked up over his knee and around his hips, gripping the prince more firmly.