Black Breath


by Cassia and Siobhan

First > Next  

    Sharp pain from the orc’s arrow shot through Aragorn's mind as the tip embedded itself in his right shoulder.  The force of the weapon threw him off balance and he felt his feet slip out from underneath him.
    Fear wrapped itself around his heart and squeezed all thought from his mind as he found himself tumbling over the falls.  The water bore him to the foot of the chasm and forced him to the bottom of the lake.  His face was pressed into the pebbled sandy floor and, before he could get his hands underneath him, he was dragged backwards as the water rolled him closer to the granite cliffs.
    Trying to swim against the current was impossible and Aragorn couldn’t tell which way was up in his watery prison.  The tumult of the falls roared in his ears and he was smashed against the cliff side before being drug along its length.  The gritty rock easily bit through his tunic and dug into his skin.  He hadn’t the breath to cry out and in fear he started to panic.  Pressing his feet against the stone wall, he pushed off in an attempt to clear the cliff and gain the surface.
    As he struggled against the current and the deep burning in his lungs, he was carried backwards once again towards the granite cliff.  He had to surface and it had to be soon or he would die down here.  He clawed at the water, heading, in his confused state, to what he thought was up but the waves swirled around him oddly and he was rolled off balance, his head slamming hard into the rocks behind the falls.  His body went limp and he barely clung to consciousness.  If he lost that, he would have no chance of surviving.
    The water kept pressing him back and he thought it odd that the rocks gave way beneath him. It felt as though the stone wall had sunk in behind him and he was being carried inward.  In fact he had been forced into a subterranean cave and was carried by the water through the constricted tunnel.   As he tumbled wildly between the dark rock walls, the shaft of the orc arrow snagged on an outcropping and broke.
    The pain of the arrow shaft's being ripped from his shoulder caused him to cry out and the last of his air was expended.  Dark spots danced before his eyes as his oxygen-starved lungs overrode his will and begged him to inhale.  Water choked his nostrils and a numbing peace stole over him as he realized with sudden clarity that he truly was going to die.
    He had almost given his will over to the idea of death when his head broke the surface of the water around him.  He gasped in the dank air greedily, instinctively drawing the oxygen into his lungs.  His fingers touched the edges of a rocky shelf and without conscious thought he pulled his upper body out of the water, collapsing in the dark of the cave as consciousness fled him.
    He never heard the frantic cries of his brothers or his friend as they searched throughout the day for him. 


    It was well past midnight when Elladan, Elrohir and Legolas finally made their way back to Rivendell.  The three elves stood in the courtyard, unwilling to go any further.  How would they ever be able to tell Elrond that his youngest son had been lost?
    Legolas dropped wearily to the stone steps and buried his face in his hands.  His shoulders shook slightly from the quiet sobs he had held back all day.
    Elrohir knelt in front of him, pulling the unwilling elf into his arms.  "Don’t give up, Legolas, we haven’t found him yet... we don’t know for sure..." but tears streamed down his own face, leaving silver tracks in the moonlight.
    The door to the house opened silently and Celboril stepped out, a bucket of kitchen waste in his hands.  He nearly stumbled over the young elves on the steps, their presence giving him a start.
    "Hey now, what is this?"  He looked from one face to another.  When Legolas didn’t look up, he mistook the elf's sorrow for pain and ran swiftly back into the house to fetch Elrond.
    "No, Celboril!  Wait!" Elladan called after the retreating elf but it was too late.
    In moments Elrond rushed out onto the steps, trailing his servant.  "What is wrong?  What is it?"  The elder elf took Elrohir's face in his hands and forced the young elf to look at him.  Legolas had stood and walked to the far side of the courtyard, concealing himself in the shadows.
    "What has happened?"  Elrond glanced from one young elf to the other, looking between the three.  They were damp and disheveled, but none of them looked obviously hurt or injured...  Then he realized that someone was missing.  His heart caught in his chest and he forced the words from his lips, "Where is Estel?"
    "It was my fault," Elrohir whispered brokenly, his eyes searching his father’s.
    "What happened?  Tell me, my sons,"  Elrond implored them softly.
    Elladan spoke up as he approached Elrond.  "We were at the river head, just like we told you we were going to be.  We weren’t even hunting.  Estel was fishing," a short humorless laugh escaped the twin as he remembered the afternoon. "We were ambushed by orcs.  And we fled.  We had almost escaped by crossing the falls when Estel was hit.  The force of the arrow knocked him off the edge and he fell."  Elladan's words were a whisper as he recounted the events for his father.  Swallowing the sorrow that threatened to choke him he continued, "We looked all afternoon and until it was too dark to see.  He was not at the bottom of the lake that we could tell and we could not find him on the edges of the river."  Elladan's eyes were huge in the moonlight and tears spilled over them as he spoke.  "I-I’ve lost him.  I am sorry, Father.  I am so sorry."
    Elrond nodded silently and pulled Elrohir against him.  With his keen eyes he saw the outline of the elf prince against the far corner of the courtyard arch.  He could see the slant of the proud shoulders, his sorrow obvious as Elladan spoke.
    "Celboril," Elrond called the stunned servant to his side.  "Please go start some tea, get into my medicine cabinet and use some of the herbs that are good for resting, you know the ones."  The elf lord’s voice was soft and held the slightest waver.  He gently pressed Elrohir into the house after his servant.  "It was not your fault, my sons, do not take that burden on yourselves.  We have not found his body, Estel may yet live.  Do not lose hope."
    Elrond gently touched his eldest son’s shoulders as the young elf walked dejectedly into the house after his twin. "We will search again tomorrow.  When everyone is refreshed and the sun is up once more. You did well.  I am thankful you have returned safely."
    Legolas moved away from the arch and headed back out towards the path away from Rivendell.
    "Prince Legolas," Elrond’s deep voice stopped the younger elf. "Come inside. It is late."
    The elf halted but did not answer. His head lowered in response but he did not turn.  He stiffened slightly when Elrond approached him and laid his hand gently between the princes' shoulders.
    "I cannot go inside when he is out there."  The words were so soft that only the elven hearing could catch them.
    "It will do you no good to go after him tonight.  Knowing Estel, he has probably hidden himself somewhere and even you would not be able to uncover his hiding place."  Elrond smiled softly when the prince finally turned to gaze up at him.
    The tear tracks on the fair face caused the father’s heart to clench.  The elf looked all of his younger years, not unlike his own sons.  He placed his arm around the prince’s shoulders and led the reluctant friend back to the house.
    "A runner from your father passed through here this afternoon."  He needed to convey this information to Legolas and would rather do it outside the presence of his sons - he had an inkling the conversation would produce a fight.
    "He did?"  Legolas stopped and turned to the elf lord. "What did he say?" The prince dried his eyes with the back of his hand, staring hard into the older elf’s kind gaze.
    "Your father has requested that you return home. It is the last year of the Yèn and your people are celebrating it.  Your presence is required."
    Legolas’ jaw tightened.  “He didn’t request, he commanded,” he said simply, knowing that a summons from his father was never a request.  “But I cannot think to leave now! Not with Strider missing!”  Legolas paced away from the elder elf, thinking.  It was true, the last year of every elven marked year, which comprised about 432 of Middle-earth’s standard years, was a leap year and it was considered a high celebration, especially in Mirkwood were it was treated as the most important of their holy days.  There were games and dances and feasting that lasted for the entire day and much of the following week.  The royalty was always supposed to be in attendance.  It was an incredibly important holiday for the wood-elves and the king and his son both needed to be on hand to give the special, traditional blessing to the people of Mirkwood.  But the thought of celebrating right now made Legolas sick, how could he ever enjoy himself when his friend was lost and more than likely dead? 
    No, he would not go, he would not return until Strider was safe or his body was found, no matter how upset his father would be with him.  He had made up his mind and turned back toward Elrond, but the elf lord was prepared for the refusal. 
    He held up his hand stopping the prince, a small smile gracing his lips.  "Listen to me now, young one." His voice was soft and Legolas stepped nearer.  "My sons know this land and their brother far better than you do.  They will be doing all they can to find him.  Your presence is not necessary and your place now is by your father’s side.  It may be that you do not feel like celebrating, but Mirkwood needs her prince through this time. It is not forever. You can return as soon as your duty is done.  You know what this means to your people. Do not deny them or your father.  Estel would not want you to do either."
    The argument gently rebuffed the prince’s objections and he quieted immediately.  It was true; Strider would not want him to stop celebrating life just because he was lost. Still Legolas hated the thought and his heart balked at the necessity of it.
    "Our peoples are not on the best of terms yet, young prince.  The relationship that you have forged with my son has gone a long way towad healing those broken ties.  Do not let your heart lead you in this one.  If you do not return to your father, it will not be seen well by your people that you stayed here during their high holiday, shunning them in favor of us, no matter what the reason.  Your return to them and then your absence afterwards to find your friend will do more good for both our peoples than if you were to stay and help to search for Estel."  Elrond walked slowly back to the steps leading into the house. "Do you understand of what I speak?"  He turned to the prince and pushed the door to the house open, motioning with his hand for the younger elf to join him.
    "Yes, my lord.  And you are correct, though my heart would tell me otherwise and I hate that I must choose my position and duty over my friend. Sometimes responsibility is a bitter draught indeed."  Legolas slowly walked up the steps and stopped, eyes level with Elrond.
    "That it is, my young prince, that it is.  And it does not get any easier with age." He smiled softly into the sliver blue eyes, "Trust me."  Elrond led the prince into the house and down to the room next to Aragorn's.  "I will have Celboril bring you some tea.  It will help you sleep and calm your nerves.  See that you drink it, you'll need it."  He leveled a serious stare at the elf until the prince nodded in compliance.
    Elrond wearily walked back to his room.  The night had taken an awful turn and his heart was heavy with grief.  The unimaginable had happened and he was left to pick up the pieces.  He had always feared this day, but he had hoped that it would come long after he had left for the Undying Lands.  To have to deal with his youngest son’s death now was overwhelming.  It was incredible how much he had come to love that boy, and he could not help but feel that he must have failed him somewhere, for his heart told him that Estel was meant for greater things and greater struggles... that his life was important... not that it should end like this, a pointless death taking him away so young, even for a human.  Elrond sat down on the edge of his bed and let his head rest in his hands, pressing his palms hard against his eyes to stave off the tears. Elladan stopped in his father’s doorway.  The older elf’s shoulders shook with the sorrow that he could no longer contain and a soft sob escaped his lips. 
    “Father, no.” Elladan walked quickly in and wrapped his arms around the elf lord.  “You are right, we will find him.”  Elrond nodded and allowed his son to hold him.  Celboril entered moments later, trailing Elrohir.  The youngest twin walked forward and kissed his father’s head as the elder elf looked up at his sons.
    Elrohir walked back to an overstuffed chair and dropped heavily into it, cradling a warm mug of tea that Celboril handed him.  Elladan took the ones proffered to him and passed one to his father.
    “Sleep, my lords, and rest. Morning will find that errant son of yours.  He’s too much an elf himself to let any such thing as a waterfall get the best of him.”  The servant spoke softly.
    “True words, good Celboril, rightly spoken.”  Elrond wiped his eyes off on the sleeve of his robe and drank deeply from the mug he held.
    Elladan grabbed an extra blanket and curled up on the floor below his brother.  Elrohir’s hand dangled from the chair’s arm and rested on his twin's head, the slight touch saying more than any words.  Elrond smiled softly as the two fell to sleep.  Estel just had to be alive, he had to be.
    His last conscious thoughts were prayers carried to Iluvatar on wings of hope, asking that his son might be brought safely through the night and led home.
    Celboril turned out the lights and left his lord’s chamber, a deep sigh escaping him.  He noticed that Legolas’ light was still on down the hallway and moved quietly into the room to turn it off, but the prince was not in his room.  Curious, the servant stepped next door into Estel’s room and smiled sadly.  Legolas lay on top of the ranger’s bed, with Aragorn’s old night-light burning low in the corner. 
    The servant covered the sleeping prince with a soft blanket and went to blow out the tiny light.  As he approached the shell-carved lamp, a thought occurred to him and he took the little light instead and set it in the window, “Let him know we wait for him,” he whispered quietly to the lamp. “Let your light show him the way home.”  Silently he left the prince to rest, he had his own prayers to pray.  He knew Iluvatar would hear them, Iluvatar always heard. 


    Someone was groaning and the noise was waking him up.  He realized with an odd detachment that that someone was him.
    Aragorn pulled himself clear of the small underground pool, dragging his feet up onto the shelf and pressing his back against the rock wall.  He could hear the water as it ran through the chamber but he could see nothing.  Shakily he touched his eyes just to make sure they were, in fact, open. 
    His shoulder throbbed incessantly and he probed the wound gently with his fingers.  The arrowhead was embedded too far in to remove himself, he would need help.   Water dripped into his eyes and he brushed it away.  It felt strange and oddly warm. He touched his fingers to his tongue and realized that it was not water but blood.  That was why his head hurt so badly.  The brow above his left eye was split, so he must have hit his head against the rock walls.  He remembered being slammed against the cliff and gingerly touched the back of his head.  A swollen, tender knot attested to the fact. 
    The sounds of the falls reverberated in the small cave he found himself inside.  The ceiling of the hollowed area he occupied was just inches above his head.  Curious, he followed the wall of the shelter, listening, smelling, using his other senses where his eyes could not aide him.
    Near the front of the cavern where the river pressed in under the rocks, he noted that he could just barely make out the image of his hand before his face.  There was light somehow filtering into the hole behind the falls.  He felt the walls, his fingers pressing into a deep fissure in the rock.  He smelled fresh air and could feel the spray of water on his face when he pressed close to the crack.  Suddenly the ranger realized where he was.  He had been forced behind the falls into a subterranean cave, the water he felt on his face came from the falls outside and the light he was seeing was the sun slowly rising over the mountain ridge that held Rivendell. 
    Aragorn pulled away from the crack and pressed back against the wall, allowing himself to relax for a moment.  He was cold and his body was starting to protest the abuse that it had taken yesterday.  He couldn’t remain in the cave and hope that help would find him.  He was almost positive his family would think him dead, who would possibly know that a cave existed behind the falls?  Claustrophobic thoughts wove into his heart and mind and the ranger concentrated on breathing slowly and evenly as he calmed himself.  He had come in under the falls, he would go out the same way. 
    Crawling to the edge of the shelf he swung his legs down into the cold water and sat for a few moments, breathing deeply, pulling all the oxygen he could into his lungs and expanding them as far as possible.  When he was ready, he turned and slid over the side of the rock and eased into the underground stream.  The current was swift and threatened to drag him farther back under the mountain.
    Bracing his feet on the rocks and using the rough walls as handholds, he pulled himself to the mouth of the tunnel. With one last deep breath he plunged under the water and began moving up the channel towards the opening in the lake. 
    It was hard to see in the dark swirling waters and his right shoulder spasmed in pain as he forced himself forward against the current, kicking with his feet and pulling himself out, hand over hand as he grasped the rocks around him.  In seconds he was free of the short tunnel and into the lake.  The force of the falls slammed the human against the granite cliff.  He flattened out against the rock wall and edged sideways through the pounding water.  
    His air supply was almost gone and it seemed that he was no closer to the edge than when he had started.  Panic flared in Aragorn’s heart and he closed the emotion off, slowly moving along the wall of the lake, trying to remember how far around the hollowed-out bowl really was.  He was thinking on these things to distract himself when he realized that the water forcing him down was lessening.  Placing his feet at the bottom of the lake he pushed himself upwards.  His head broke through the surface of the water and he gulped in air greedily.  Free from the pulling current, he swam to the edge of the lake and pulled himself out of the water, lying on the ground and simply breathing. 
    Looking about him, the young ranger smiled slightly at being able to see the trees of the nearby forest and the sun as it reflected on the far mountains.  The sounds of the surrounding forests edged into his hearing as the roaring of the falls dissipated, warring with the ringing in his head from the abuse he had taken.  He carefully shook the water out of his hair, aware that he was more injured than he had originally thought as the slight movement made him somewhat nauseous, threatening to throw his world into a tight spin.  
    Aragorn pushed himself up onto his hands and knees, suddenly aware that he could be in danger.  He glanced to the top of the falls, from here it looked like a long way down.  He remembered the orcs that had ambushed them and felt fear rise up in his chest.  He needed to get to shelter, out of sight.  The forest around him grew silent as he crept into the foliage at the edge of the lake, warning him of danger as he moved deeper into the forests and down the valley towards home.  He had no idea who or what was nearing the lake but he did not stay to find out.  Stumbling into the brush, he worked down the rift away from the falls and the perceived threat.
    Behind him on the opposite shore several elves stepped silently from under the cover of the trees.  They were searching the edges of the embankment, looking intently for any signs of their missing friend.  Two of them crossed at the small point of the river and headed back towards the bottom of the falls.  They moved quietly, knowing that orcs were in the area and unwilling to allow them to find out that they were indeed searching for someone.  One of the warriors knelt in the mud near the water’s edge.  It was apparent that something had drug itself out of the lake and laid in the dirt, the faint impression of where a body had lain could barely be seen and the footprints leading away from the water were fresh and definitely human.  The elf whistled to his companions and motioned them over, pointing back into the forest behind him.  In moments the fleet-footed beings were tracking the human back down the gorge. 

    Aragorn heard the soft sounds of his pursuers.  The thought never occurred to him that they could be family or friends and he quickly concealed himself, his heart hammering in his chest.  His vision was blurred and his head pounded, making it hard to concentrate.  A twig to his left snapped softly and he pulled a small dagger from his boot, holding it against his chest, hoping that he would not be forced to use it.  He was sure in the shape he was in that he wouldn’t stand a chance against a single orc, let alone a pack of them.  Closing his eyes for just a moment he tried to calm his heart and slow his breathing. 

    Moranuen followed the broken trail left by the man.  The twins had fanned out behind him, trying to locate where their brother had hidden himself.  Elrond had warned them that he might have done just that.  They had spotted orcs not far from their location and their joy at discovering that Estel may still be alive was dampened by the proximity of the enemy.  They hoped to find the human in time.
    Moranuen stopped short and stared down at the base of the trunk he had just rounded; something odd had caught his eye.  Hidden in the ferns that grew around the base of the large tree, Aragorn had concealed himself.  The tips of the man’s boots could barely be seen; only the sharp eyes of the elf had even caught the anomaly that gave away the dark leather.  The others were too far away to alert and Moranuen was afraid of what he may still find.  Kneeling quickly he carefully moved the fronds of the fern away, exposing his friend’s hiding place.  
    Aragorn sat with his back against the large tree, an elven dagger clenched in his hands, sleeping soundly. His face was bruised and scratched from being drug along the bottom of the lake and pressed against the granite.  Blood from his split brow mixed with the water that dripped from his hair and mingled in the dark stain that was spreading across his tunic, the broken tip of the shaft just protruding from the man’s right shoulder. The right sleeve of his overshirt had been torn away and cuts and scrapes decorated the length of his arm.
    Moranuen breathed a silent sigh of relief and reached towards his friend, gently grasping the human’s hand. 

    Aragorn started and woke, trying to move away from the touch.  He hadn’t meant to fall asleep, only rest for a moment and catch his breath. He jerked his hand free and thrust the blade forward, grabbing his opponent by the back of the head and forcing the weapon against the elf’s soft throat.  Moranuen held very still, his hands slowly closing around Aragorn’s as the human stared at him with huge, frightened eyes.
    “Estel, it’s all right, it is I, Mora.”  The elf smiled softly as the ranger allowed the blade to be taken from him.  His friend gently pushed him back, seating him on the forest floor once more. “It is well.  You’ll be just fine.”  Tears welled up in the elf’s eyes as the man smiled back at him. “We thought you were dead.”
    “Mora?” Aragorn looked around them into the forest; he matched his voice to the elf’s, keeping it low and quiet.  “Are you alone?”
    “No.” The elf shifted and leaned around the tree searching for the others that had accompanied him. “Elladan and Elrohir are here as well.  Plus a few of the others that we couldn’t keep from following us.”
    “There are orcs here.” The ranger gripped his friend’s arm, trying to listen.
    “Yes, we know.  We sent a few warriors to rout them out and keep them away from this area until we found you.”  The elf pressed his fingers to his mouth and loosed a low whistle.  “We need to move quickly. Can you walk?”
    The ranger nodded slowly and allowed the elf to help him stand. He had just gained his footing when several elves stepped from the surrounding trees.
    Moranuen turned to the warriors, “Did you drive the orcs out?”
    “Yes” an elf to his left reported, “They headed north towards the pass.  We will have no more trouble from them today.  How is Elrond's son?”  He glanced at Aragorn who wove unsteadily on his feet, reaching behind him to brace himself against the tree.
    Elladan and Elrohir erupted from their right, pressing through the warriors and converging on Moranuen and Estel.
    “Estel.” Elrohir stepped past the other elves and pulled his brother towards him, holding the human against him.  “I am so sorry.”
    “No, it’s all right.” Aragorn murmured in his ear. “I’m fine.”
    “Where were you last night?”  The elf gently pushed him back and began to look the ranger over, taking note of the wounds he had sustained from his fall.
    “I was sucked into a cave behind the falls. I didn’t wake up until just this morning.” Aragorn winced and drew his breath in quickly as Elrohir pushed the edges of the torn tunic away from his shoulder wound.
    He smiled as Elladan walked up near him.  The elf leaned over his twin and wrapped his hand around the back of the young human’s head pulling his brother in close until their foreheads barely touched.  “Oh, Estel, I thought we had lost you.”
    “I’m sorry.”  The ranger apologized quietly. “I didn’t mean to scare you.”  He gripped the elf’s forearms with his hands. 
    When Elrohir edged out from between them, Elladan pulled Aragorn into a gentle embrace. “We have to get you home. Father thinks you’re dead.”
    Aragorn began laughing softly, his shoulders hitching as he tried to catch his breath.  His brothers mistook the actions for tears and immediately became worried.  “Estel what is it?  What’s wrong?”  Elladan gently cupped the human’s face with his hands and forced Aragorn to look at him.
    The smile that spread across his countenance hurt in a thousand places but he couldn’t help it as he looked on his brothers.  “Well we did hunt orcs, and I did get wounded and you are going to take me back home to father in need of patching up again.”  He laughed at himself, causing the others to join him.
    “Estel, you idiot.”  Elladan pulled him away from the tree and began to slowly walk him home, “only you would find humor in a situation like this.”
    Moranuen walked closely behind the brothers, the warriors flanking them, still uneasy about the fact that orcs had been so close to their home.
    “I think father would take you any way we brought you home right now, so long as you were alive.” Elrohir spoke up.
    “Wait, where is Legolas?” Aragorn looked behind them at the elves who were following, his step faltering as he realized his friend was not among them.  “He’s not...he didn’t... the orcs, they didn’t, did they?” He could not bring himself to ask the question and yet the absence of the prince caused fear to spike through his heart as he stopped and searched the faces of his friends.
    “NO! No.” Moranuen understood what he was asking first, “No, Legolas is fine.  His father sent for him and he had to leave early this morning.  He came with us searching for you as far as he could before we parted, but he was unable to remain behind.”
    “Why, what was wrong?” Aragorn’s fear did not abate, it simply jumped tracks faster than his mind could process. 
    Elladan wrapped his arm around the ranger’s shoulder and started the man walking again as he explained. “Nothing was wrong. Mirkwood is fine and so is King Thranduil.  But it is approaching the Yèn, the leap year celebration, and in Mirkwood they honor it with a high holiday.  His presence was required.”
    “Oh. That’s right, I forgot.” Aragorn answered absently, trying to process everything and keep upright.
    “He promised to return when it was over,” Elrohir added encouragingly. “He’ll be back as soon as he can.  Father had to force him to go.  He didn’t want to leave without finding you.”
    “Yes, but it was important for him to be there. I would not want him to miss something like that on my account.”
    Elladan laughed softly, “Exactly what father told him you would say.”
    Aragorn stumbled and fell into Elrohir, his steps becoming more unsure.  He was safe now and his body was beginning to betray him, making every tiny injury known.  Weariness stole over him, replacing the fear and adrenaline and he was very glad they were nearly home. 

    Elrond stood in the courtyard.  He hadn’t eaten that morning and if not for the tea he had forced on himself last night he wouldn’t have slept either.
    Sending Legolas home had been one of the hardest things he had to do.  The young elf was visibly torn and tried to reason his way out of it, but in the end he had consented, accepting the fact that royalty did not always have the luxury of doing what pleased them.  He had promised to help search for Estel as far as he could before the northern passageway split from the edge of the river.
    With a heavy heart he had left Rivendell, promising to return as quickly as possible.
    It had been hours since the young elves had gone out searching.  Moranuen had insisted on accompanying the brothers and had brought with him several of the warriors who lived in Rivendell to help deal with the orcs.
    Elrond found himself pacing back to the middle of the courtyard, listening to the noises of the forest around him and yet lost in a world of worry unto himself.
    The sounds of people approaching reached the elven ears and Elrond turned quickly towards the entry, stepping forward just as the warriors passed through it.  They bowed formally to their lord and stepped aside.  Elrond tried to gauge from their faces if they had been successful but they passed quickly by him.
    Moranuen walked in behind them and bowed low to the elf lord. But he was unable to suppress his joy and when he stood up the smile on his face betrayed him.  “My lord, we found him.”  Moranuen glanced over his shoulder as Elrond’s three sons walked slowly up behind him. “He was hiding just as you said he would be.”
    “I thought you were orcs.” Aragorn quipped lightly.
    “We sound nothing like orcs!” Elrohir glared at him.
    “No, but you smell like one.”  Elladan glanced at his twin over their brother’s head, his comment eliciting laughter from the young human.
    Their father however was oblivious to their banter, his eyes fixed on the sight of his youngest.  The human stepped away from his brothers and Elrond quickly closed the distance between them, pulling the ranger against him and holding him there, wrapped in his arms.  Elrond glanced at the twins and smiled at them, “Thank you,” he whispered.
    Aragorn allowed himself to be held and simply relaxed against the tall, strong elf.  He suddenly felt very young as he leaned into his father’s embrace.
    “I didn’t hunt them. I swear,” he whispered, his voice muted by Elrond’s soft robe.  “I didn’t even get the chance to shoot back.”
    “Right now, I wouldn’t even care if you had, Estel.”  The strong arms around him tightened slightly, “I am so glad you are home.”
    “Even though I am not quite in one piece?”
    “Even though.” Elrond smiled and slowly released his grip on the man, feeling the way the ranger was unsteadily remaining on his feet. “I have never been more happy to see you than I am today.”  Elrond held his son against his side as they walked slowly back into the house, it wouldn’t be long before the boy collapsed, his energy was spent and he slumped sideways, allowing himself to be directed down the hall to his room.
    Aragorn vaguely remembered being led to his room and helped onto his bed.  His father was speaking to Elladan and Elrohir and he heard Mora leave and return at one point, but the words began to blur together and as his body slowly relaxed into the softness beneath him. His consciousness released its death grip and he allowed himself the luxury of falling asleep.  The last thing he remembered was his father's face looming into view above his own and the softly spoken elven words, “Rest Estel.  It will be all right.  Just rest.”  He fell into sleep with a slight smile on his face, simply glad to be home once more.