Black Breath


by Cassia and Siobhan

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    Elrond’s dining area was filled with people when he entered it and he couldn’t help smiling as the atmosphere of the celebrating beings banished the darkness that had settled in his heart, sweeping away the worry the events of the day had brought with them.
    Estel was seated next to his brothers and across from the Silvan warriors.  He had changed and cleaned himself up, but the bruises and the dark circles under his eyes attested to his weariness.  The younger elves were entertaining themselves teasing the human.  It wouldn’t be long before the ranger got back at them.  Presently he was laughing helplessly and shaking his head, protesting whatever Elrohir was saying.  However, the empty seat beside the young man worried the elf lord.
    At the other end of the table sat the elves that served in Elrond’s household.  They were talking quietly amongst themselves.  Marean accompanied them; she had quickly taken to the female elves and seemed to truly enjoy their presence.  Elrond had even considered allowing her to stay in Rivendell if her husband was not found.  Curious, he looked closer and caught sight of Estelle beside her in a basket on the floor; the baby was sleeping contentedly.  He smiled at the girl and nodded in acknowledgement of her presence. It cheered his heart to see their table so full.
    The opposite end of the hall erupted in laughter and Elrond turned his attention back to the elves that were talking animatedly amongst themselves, arguing.  Shaking his head, the elf lord approached his youngest son.
    Estel stopped laughing and turned in his chair looking up at the elf lord, when his father placed his hand on the ranger’s shoulder.
    “Where is Legolas?”  Elrond questioned quietly.
    With a start the ranger realized the seat next to him was empty.  “I’ll go see.”
    “If he is sleeping, let him rest, Estel, we’ll bring him something to eat later,” the older elf called after his son as the human swiftly climbed the stairs.  Aragorn smiled as he listened to the laughter coming from the large hall; he loved being with his family.

    At the top of the steps, Aragorn turned right and walked past his room towards the guest quarters.  He knocked softly on the closed door.  When Legolas didn’t answer right away, he quietly entered the room.  The chamber was dark save for a small glowlamp in the corner.  At first glance he didn’t see the elf and concern gripped his heart.
    “Legolas?”  Aragorn whispered softly into the darkened room.  Stepping into the interior, his eyes lighted on the lithe form.
    The prince was asleep, sitting in the overstuffed chair that occupied the corner right behind the door.  He must have sat down to just rest for a few minutes, but his injuries and the stress of the past month had caught up with him and overwhelmed him.  He was finally safe, he could finally let his guard down.
    Aragorn smiled down at his friend.  Legolas had changed from the dirty clothes he had been wearing and had slipped into his silver leggings and matching tunic.  He had had every intention of joining them for dinner.  It was the only dress outfit he had brought with him and he often wore it for mealtime.  Silently Aragorn moved to the bed and pulled the extra blanket from the foot of it where it was neatly folded.  He shook out the soft fabric and gently laid it over the sleeping elf, trying not to disturb the prince.  Tucking the edges around the elf he turned to the darkened fireplace and quickly started a small fire to warm the cool room and give his friend light throughout the night.  He remembered Legolas telling him how dark it had been where he was and the ranger remembered how he had first felt when he had returned home after escaping the cave.
    When the fire was stoked enough to satisfy him, Aragorn turned to leave.  He glanced at his friend before heading for the door and smiled softly; the elf was watching him.
    “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to wake you,” the ranger whispered.
    “It is all right.”  Legolas returned the smile and stiffly sat up.  “Did I miss dinner?”
    Aragorn stifled a soft laugh. “No, not yet. But you might wish you had.  Elladan and Elrohir are giving Trelan and Raniean tips on bowhunting.”  He laughed in remembrance of the argument.  “Father says you may stay up here and he’ll have dinner brought to you later if you like.  He thought you might be overly tired.”
    “I’m not,” Legolas lied, pushing himself into a standing position with a soft moan. “I’ll join you.”
    The elf stopped and stared at his friend.  Aragorn was glaring at the prince, one eyebrow raised in accusation.
    “WHAT!?” the human stalked towards him, “You can hardly move.  Stay here and rest.”
    “I am going down there to eat with your father. You may join me if you like.”  Legolas stared stubbornly at the ranger.
    “You are the most stubborn creature I have ever met!”  Aragorn frowned at his friend as they moved towards the door.
    “And you and your kind are the most intrusive.” Legolas turned back towards him and feigned an indignant glare. “Now, I really am hungry. I can't remember eating decent food in...” the elf stopped and glanced at the ranger, “Well I can't remember eating!”
    Aragorn’s laughter was interrupted as they reached the stair well.  An insistent knocking on the huge doors of the house echoed up to them.
    “I wonder who that is?”  The human quickly descended the stairs, followed more slowly by his elven friend.  The laughter and talk about the dinner table covered over the sound of the persistent rapping as Aragorn pulled the wooden doors open.
    Moranuen stood in the entryway with Taradin and another man that Aragorn did not recognize.
    “Mora! Taradin!”  The ranger pulled the elf into the house, pounding his friend on the back, and motioned for the hunter and his companion to enter.  “How are you?”  He looked the older man over and smiled. “You look well.”
    Taradin stepped back and eyed the ranger and Legolas, carefully frowning at the two of them.  The elf prince had slowly joined the small group, a smile on his bruised face that didn’t quite reach his eyes.
    “Well you look like wargs got the best of the both of you,” Taradin observed.  “What happened?”
    “Uhm, it’s a rather long story.”  Aragorn looked sheepishly at Legolas.
    “And it would bore you to tears,” the elf quickly picked up, unwilling to speak of it and wanting only to be near others and around cheerful faces.
    “Right.”  The hunter smiled a lopsided grin at the friends. “Well knowing the two of you I highly doubt that, but I’ll leave it for later.”  He quirked a bushy eyebrow at the ranger and continued, “But don’t think you’re getting out of it. A tale as good as whatever beat the stuffing out of the two of you is worth waiting for.”
    Aragorn laughed and clapped the man on the back. “As you wish.  I wouldn’t dream of depriving you of the only entertainment you ever get.”  The human smiled devilishly at the hunter.
    Taradin let out a booming laugh as he cuffed the younger man good-naturedly on the shoulder, pushing the ranger back a step.  Aragorn winced and sucked his breath in, his hand going instinctively to his bruised arm.
    “It’s all right. It's all right,” he reassured as he massaged his shoulder lightly.  “Just a bruise,” he commented quickly as he caught sight of the slight smile on Legolas' face, his look the very epitome of feigned innocence.  The ranger tried to quickly change the subject and leaned around Taradin to glance at the man standing behind him.  “Who’s this you brought with you?” The human smiled impishly back at Moranuen, “Don’t tell me, he’s the one?”
    “That he is!”  Taradin answered for the elf. “He heard you got something that might belong to him.”
    “More like two of them.”  Legolas smiled at the man, immediately understanding of what they spoke.
    “This is Erron,” Taradin introduced the man who had until now remained quietly behind him.  “I picked him up over a month ago. He’s been working with my company, right useful with a sword I might add.”
    Erron couldn’t have been older than Aragorn. In fact the young man looked to be two or three years his junior.  He was taller and more filled out than the slender ranger and he towered a good head over his host.  A thick mop of curly brown hair spilled about his face; it was cut short and neat and his green eyes held an excitement to them that couldn’t be contained.
    “Is it true?  Maraen lives?”  His voice was soft and deep and Aragorn smiled up into the open face.
    “Yes, she does at that.”
    “And not only she but your child as well.”  Legolas stepped near Aragorn and addressed the young man.
    “I thought she was dead or, worse yet, taken by the orcs. Blasted beasts almost got the drop on me after I left her.  Had to hide in a cave, only to get trapped by a bit of a rockslide.  When I finally dug my way out again... I-I couldn’t find her.”  His eyes misted over slightly as he thought back to the past month.  “I tried but... well, Taradin was good enough to take me in and give me a job and a place to stay.”
    Aragorn smiled conspiratorially at the older man, “Softie.”
    “What?” The hunter shrugged his shoulders and glanced away as though indifferent. “You take in one orphan, you take in another, makes no difference. One, ten, they're all the same.”
    “Right.”  Aragorn rolled his eyes, and began walking them slowly towards the dining hall. “Speaking of orphans, where is Garith?”
    “He’s back home, minding the trading post.  I’m not staying long.  Just here to drop this one off and set back out.”
    Erron stopped and glanced at the man. “Taradin, are Maraen and I still welcome with you?  I mean, may we stay until I build a new house?”  The young hunter seemed suddenly at loss. “You and Garith’s the only family we have now.”
    The older hunter smiled as he answered, “What did you think I was going to do? Throw you out?  Of course you’re staying - you and that little family of yours. Why Garith would never forgive me if I left you here. But winter’s coming on fast and we’ve still to stock the basement good.  We’ll be needing to get back at it right soon.” He leveled the tall hunter with a serious stare.
    “But what he didn’t tell you,” Aragorn interrupted glibly, “is that now that you’re in Lord Elrond’s house you won't be able to leave until he says so.”  He smiled wickedly at Taradin.
    “Taradin says he’s an elf lord,” Erron whispered, half in awe.
    “Yes, he is,” Aragorn answered, glancing quickly at Legolas before laying an open, questioning gaze upon the older hunter.
    Leaning in close to the ranger Taradin whispered, “He ain’t never seen an elf before.  Well not a lordly one if you get my meaning.” He nudged Aragorn and glanced back at Moranuen.
    The elf rolled his eyes and walked past the two humans. “I think I’ll inform Lord Elrond that he has guests.”
    “That would be good. Thank you, Mora.”  Aragorn shook his head and pushed Taradin away from him.  “Legolas is a prince.” The ranger nodded at the elf that stood next to him, watching with uncontained humor as Erron’s eyes grew wide.
    “Thanks a lot, Strider.  Shall I tell him who you are?” Legolas glared at the human who was helplessly laughing next to him.
    Aragorn turned so that he faced the elf and quietly whispered, “If you think he’ll believe you, go ahead.” His smile was a dare in itself.  “Didn’t think s,.” the ranger taunted when Legolas simply glared back at him.
    “Well shall we all go in now that we have been announced properly?” Aragorn ushered them down the hall to the spacious dining room.

    Elrond had stood from his seat and was listening intently as Moranuen explained how he had found Taradin who, in fact, had only a month ago employed a man who claimed to be the only living person to escape Holswollow alive.
    Maraen quickly jumped to her feet as the room quieted listening to the elf’s tale.  “Did he give you a name?” she questioned.
    A shift in the shadows behind him caught Moranuen’s attention before he could answer and he glanced into the darkened hallway catching sight of Aragorn out of the corner of his eye.  The human had raised his finger to his lips; a twinkle of merriment lit his eyes.  The elf knew that look well and easily played along with the man.
    “I am afraid that he did not, my lady.  We have brought the trader and one of his men here in hopes that they could shed more light on the man from Holswollow.”  Moranuen quickly dropped his gaze to the floor and wouldn’t return Elrond’s stare.
    It took only seconds for the elf lord to realize what was going on as Elrohir snickered quietly from his seat, his eyes fastened on his human brother out in the hallway, whispering into the ear of a tall man that the twin had never seen.  Elrond glared at his sons, shaking his head slightly – they never lost the opportunity to play lighthearted jokes on whomever was unfortunate enough to be near.
    Moranuen stepped aside as Taradin walked up next to him, removing his hat and twisting it nervously between his huge hands. He bowed slightly, the movement awkward and stiff. “Lord Elrond.”
    “Taradin. It is good to see you again, please join us for some dinner.  Perhaps you can shed more light on this man you hired.  His wife has done nothing but weep for him the entire time she has been here. I fear that her heart will break if you do not bring some good news with you.” The older elf cast a quick small smile back towards the doorway, he knew full well what he had said was not the full truth but he also knew that Maraen’s husband would not be able to stand the thought of the young girl crying over him.
    Aragorn stood just beyond the arch, his mouth dropped open in total surprise.  Never in all the years he had lived in Rivendell had his father teased anyone nor played along with any of the teasing of the younger generation.  And he couldn’t help laughing out loud as Erron roughly brushed him out of the way, bursting into the hall.
    “Now I know where you get it from.”  Legolas leaned against the doorframe and glanced at his friend, a cocky smile on his face.
    “I can not believe he just did that.” Aragorn couldn’t help smiling as he shook his head at his father who simply returned the look of disbelief with a satisfied grin.  He followed Legolas’ lead and leaned into the room to watch the reunion of Maraen and Erron.
    “He really got you,” Legolas quipped.  He couldn’t help smiling as the large hunter knelt on the floor next to the basket that held his sleeping daughter and gently scooped the tiny bundle out of the makeshift crib. Maraen was crying with joy and Legolas was glad that this moment was possible and that he was able to witness it.  At least some good had come out of the nightmare of the past month.
    “He did.”  Aragorn turned away from the sight of the reunited family and carefully watched his friend.  Legolas eyes were half-lidded and he winced slightly, moving his wounded shoulder to a more comfortable position against the hard wood doorframe.  The elf was worn out but too proud to admit it.  Aragorn realized with some surprise that he himself was rather weary.  They both needed rest.
    “Let's let them have their time.”  Aragorn steered his friend away from the bright hallway, “We can eat later. I mean, really, are you hungry?”
    Legolas allowed himself to be led away, thinking over the question his friend had just asked him.  Oddly enough it took a bit for him to answer.  “No. I’m not hungry now, not really.  What I really am is tired.”
    Celboril entered the hall just ahead of the two as they slowly walked its length.  “I saw the both of you leave.”  He held out steaming cups of warm, sweet, amber colored liquid.  “To keep your strength up and help you heal.”
    “And put us to sleep I’ll wager.”  Legolas glanced warily at the mugs.
    “Not this time, good prince. It looks like you have no need of help there.” The servant laughed at them, pressing the cups into their hands.  “Now go on upstairs with the both of you. I’ll bring you food later.”
    They had just reached the foot of the stairs when a soft voice behind them stopped them both.
    The two turned towards the speaker. It was Maraen; Erron stood behind her, his large hands resting on her slim shoulders.
    “I just wanted to thank you...” She hesitated and glanced back over her shoulder at her husband.
    “We wanted to thank you,” Erron finished the statement, “for all that you did for us.  I am in your debt for protecting Maraen and Estelle with your life. And to you ranger, for bringing them to this house of healing where they were safe.”
    “It was my pleasure to help.” Aragorn replied softly.
    “Mine as well,” Legolas answered with a smile, “and it was worth it. I am glad that you were able to find one another again.  Life is a precious gift and you have been given a second chance.  Iluvatar has been watching over you all.”
    “Will you not eat with us?”  Maraen questioned them.
    They were spared from answering as Elrond walked up behind them and stepped into the entryway.  He smiled at his son as he released the two friends from attending dinner, “Legolas and Aragorn have just made it back to Rivendell. I imagine they are weary from their travels.  I will have food sent up to the two of you.  Celboril will attend you should you have any needs.”  The elf lord turned back to Maraen and Erron, “As for you, the food is getting cold. Please make yourselves at home.” He escorted the couple back to the dining hall.
    Aragorn and Legolas had made it to the first landing when Elrond reappeared at the bottom of the stairwell.
    The ranger stopped and gazed down. “Yes, Father?” there were black circles under his eyes and he yawned as he spoke.
    “Are you and Legolas all right?  You both look worse than you did earlier.”
    “Thanks.”  Aragorn rolled his eyes and smiled.
    “I, for one, am just tired my lord.” Legolas leaned against the balustrade resisting the desire to yawn after Aragorn just had.
    Elrond doubted that weariness was the younger elf’s only problem but, given the circumstances, that was understandable.  “Very well.  Go get some rest.  Tomorrow morning you may say your farewells to Maraen and Erron.  They will be leaving with Taradin.”
    “We should be leaving as well.” Legolas glanced at Aragorn who only nodded because to speak would have required more effort.
    “Neither of you are going anywhere until I say so. Is that understood?” Elrond glared at the elf and the human.
    “I must return as quickly as possible. My father will be beside himself,” Legolas argued halfheartedly.
    “And I have to go with him to help explain about the...about what happened.  I have to, I promised.”  Aragorn realized he was finding it difficult to finish his sentences.
    Elrond stood in the entryway, the intensity of his gaze unwavering.  Anyone could see that the ranger and the prince were nearly exhausted and he knew that arguing with Estel in the shape he was in would get them nowhere. Tomorrow he would enforce his ban on their leaving until the prince was fully recovered from his poisoning.
    “We’ll discuss it in the morning,” he answered them.
     “That just means no.” Aragorn looked over at Legolas. “That’s what he says when he doesn’t want to argue.”
    Elrond laughed lightly at the human, “Exactly, Estel.  Besides no one is crossing the northern pass until I am sure that the orcs are well away from the area.  The southern pass will take longer and require more traveling so you will need to be well to journey that way. I will send message to your father by carrier hawk, that you are well and will be returning to him by the southern route so he can expect your delay.  But until I say so, no one leaves this house. Now off with the both of you and get some rest.”
    “I’m not arguing with him. You can if you like.” Aragorn glanced at Legolas and mounted the last flight of stairs to the bedrooms.
    “I’m not arguing with him either.”  Legolas followed his friend up the stairs, dragging himself into the warm, softly lit guest room, “It makes sense to me.  I don’t think I want to leave for a bit anyway.  I’m glad I can't. Father will be just as angry if I get home tomorrow or a year from now, he can wait.”  The elf set his mug down on the nightstand and dropped down onto the bed, asleep before his head hit the pillow. His ordeal had pushed him far past his limits, strong though his elven endurance was.  Elrond was right; he needed to regain the strength he had lost before attempting the long journey home over the southern pass, down through the Gap of Rohan and beyond.
    Aragorn picked the blanket up off the floor and draped it over his friend.  He threw a few more logs on the fire to keep the room warm through the night and then headed for his own room.  The interior was dark and he stumbled awkwardly about trying to find the small shell light he had since a youngster.
    “Looking for this?”
    The ranger jumped and turned at the sound of his brother’s voice. Elrohir entered the room balancing a tray of food and the tiny light, its wick trimmed and burning.  “I borrowed it yesterday and forgot to return it.”  The twin set the food down and placed the light on the mantel at the foot of the bed, lighting the room with its soft glow.
    “Thanks.  I don’t think I am hungry though,” Aragorn murmured, rubbing his eyes and blinking a couple of times. He carefully balanced his mug on the tray, making sure it wouldn’t tip over.
    Elrohir laughed softly, “Well it really doesn’t matter. Father said bring you food and so we have.” He motioned with his head back towards the door, “Elladan brought some to Legolas.”
    “He’s sleeping.” The ranger spoke around another yawn as he sat down heavily on his bed.
    “I know.” Elrohir seated himself across from the ranger and leaned forward talking quietly as Aragorn pulled his boots slowly off his tired feet.
    “So tell me Estel what was it that you and Legolas ran into out there?”
    Aragorn glanced up quickly before busying himself with the other boot.  “It was a Nazgûl.”  He looked at his brother to watch his response.
    Elrohir only nodded. They both jumped when Elladan spoke from the doorway. “I thought it had to be worse than orcs, the way Father was acting.”
    Their human brother only nodded, looking to the floor and absently wondering if he should even bother taking his socks off.
    Elladan motioned to his twin.  As Elrohir stood, Aragorn looked up at them both. “I’m sorry. I’m just tired.”
    The elves nodded. “Its all right. Get some rest.” Elladan smiled at the human warmly.
    “Yeah. When you’re better, Elladan can beat it out of you.”  Elrohir ducked as his twin swatted at him. “I do remember him saying there were a few things he wanted to beat into you.”  Elrohir laughed as he moved out of the way back towards the staircase.
    “Really?” Aragorn raised an eyebrow and grinned mischievously at his eldest brother.
    Elladan suppressed his own laugh and rolled his eyes. “You know Elrohir, he makes things up. Like how big that warg was that he took down last week. Stuff like that.”
    Aragorn could hear Elrohir protesting in the stairwell.
    “Get out of here, both of you, and hush him up before he wakes Legolas.”  The ranger laughed at them both walking slowly to the door and shutting it.
    Elladan pressed his palm against the smooth wood and held the door open a second longer. “Estel, it is good to have you home, even if Father has to enforce it for a bit.”  He smiled at the human who laughed softly.
    “It is good to be home.” Aragorn answered honestly.  His smile turned devilish as he tightened his grip on the door knob on his side, “And I look forward to you trying to beat anything out of me. It’ll be a nice challenge for you in your old age.”  He shoved the door firmly shut and pressed his weight against it, laughing as Elladan tired to push the door back open.
    When it grew quiet outside, he pressed his ear to the door and cracked it slightly open. “Just you wait, my little brother, and I will show you what an old elf can do to the likes of you,” his brother whispered through the crack in the door.

    Elladan heard the ranger laugh softly at his comment as he descended the stairs. The celebrations in the dining hall could just be heard as he joined Elrohir at the foot of the stairwell.  Together the two walked back to the festivities.  Things were well in the House of Rivendell this night and it was time for celebrating.

    Upstairs the ranger pulled himself wearily into bed, a huge smile on his bruised face as he recalled his brother’s threats.  He was looking forward to that immensely and with Legolas here it would be even more fun.  They would leave as soon as his father allowed it but until then...he laughed as he blew out the small light.  Until then he would enjoy being home with his family.
    And things were good that night in the Last Homely House.
    However things do not always remain unchanged... 

The End

Next: "Epilogue"