Black Breath


by Cassia and Siobhan

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    Elrond heard the commotion in the common room and left his study to investigate.  He could hear Celboril arguing with the twins, an occurrence that was rare. Stepping into the doorway the elf lord quickly took in the situation and had to stop himself from laughing out loud.
    Elrohir and Elladan were holding a wet and dirty ranger between the two of them, the human’s feet barely touching the floor.  The servant was trying to press Prince Legolas forcefully out of the room complaining about the dirt the two bedraggled beings had brought in with them. 
    It was true; Aragorn was filthy from the fight he and Legolas had survived.  Soot and ash discolored his overcoat where he had nearly fallen into the fire.  His boots were covered in mud and his face was dirty and bruised.  Prince Legolas fared no better.  He was wearing one of Aragorn’s old shirts and the left shoulder was stained dark with blood.  The elf’s face was as bruised and dirtied as his human companion's although he had obviously suffered more, attested by his split lip, and the half-lidded gaze that betrayed his weariness.
    “Not there either!” Celboril shouted, shooing the elves away from the couch that they were about to deposit their brother on.
    “Put me down!” Aragorn growled, shifting between the two. “This is my house I can come into it dirty if I like!”
    Elrond hid the smile on his face as Legolas dropped into a chair much to Celboril’s dismay, “Not there! Prince Legolas, you must go change.”
    “I will. I will.” Legolas wearily answered the servant.  He was too tired to think.  The prince looked up and took note of the elf lord standing in the doorway, trying to conceal his laughter.
    As the room quieted and all eyes turned towards the entry, Elrond stepped in and brought the argument to a close. “Enough.  This is my house and I say who can come and go in it and how they may do so.” 
    Celboril immediately stepped back and bowed slightly. “Yes, my lord, forgive me.”
    Elladan and Elrohir dropped Estel, and the young human stumbled off balance tottering back against the couch.  He jumped up quickly brushing off the seat and glanced guiltily at his father. 
    “It is well.  Sit.  It is only furniture. Iit can be cleaned.” Elrond glanced at Celboril with a small smile before turning his attention back to Aragorn, “And you look as if you will fall down any moment. I’d rather have you on the couch than on the floor.” 
    “I’d rather have you on the couch too, because I do not wish to pick you up off the floor. You’re getting rather heavy you know that?” Elladan murmured to his human brother.
    Aragorn allowed himself to fall back onto the couch, kicking his leg out at the same time and causing his brother to trip over him.
    “Stop,” Elrond spoke darkly, glancing at the siblings.  “This is not the way I wanted to end this day.”  The elf lord looked over at the prince and motioned for the young elf to join them as he took a seat opposite the plush couch. “Please, Legolas, come sit over here. It is warmer near the fire and more comfortable.”
    Aragorn scooted over as Legolas joined him.  The two made for quite a sight and Elrond looked them over carefully, shaking his head slightly. “At least you are both walking and were able to enter the house under your own power.” 
    “For the most part.” Aragorn glared at Elladan who had walked around Elrond’s chair and leaned against the back of the seat.
    Trelan and Raniean edged closer to hear the conversation.  They had stayed out of the room during the whole altercation with Lord Elrond’s servant but, now that things had settled down, they moved back towards Legolas, hoping to discover what had happened to their friend.
    Elrond graced his human son with a stern stare. “Aragorn, you and I will have a serious talk when this is over.  Patience is something you lack yet, young one.”
    Aragorn leaned forward, his demeanor completely changed from the cockiness that had spurred the argument moments earlier. “Father, when you hear what has happened you may change your mind.”
    “I have the feeling I may.  I think I know partly what you will tell me already.  But I will reserve my judgments for later.”  His gaze softened as he noted the way Aragorn’s eyes begged him to understand.  Something else had happened.  Breathing in deeply to settle himself, the elf lord caught the slightest hint of a familiar scent and his eyes narrowed.  “Tell me what happened.”
    “Well, I found Legolas.” Aragorn graced his father with an impish smile before glancing at his friend.
    Legolas barely met the ranger’s eyes, his countenance was somber and he did not smile back.  It seemed to Aragorn that the prince was closing himself off, and the human scooted a little closer to his friend.
    “So you did.” The slight shift in emotions was not lost on the elderly elf and he smiled softly at the two of them. “And I am very glad that you did, Estel.”
    The same familiar smell hung in the warm air.  Elrond stood from his seat across from the two friends and approached his son. He gently laid his hands on the young man’s head.  Bending down, the elf lord barely touched the ranger’s hair with his face and breathed in deeply, trying to catch the scent that had been evading him.  The sweet, clean smell of athelas clung to the young human.
    “I thought I smelled athelas on you.”  Elrond reseated himself and stared at his son, curious to hear what had transpired.
    The ranger became suddenly nervous.  He hadn’t given a second thought to taking some of the healing herb with him, honestly. It was common enough in the wild, but feelings of self-doubt flickered through his mind and he wondered if he had done something wrong.
    Legolas shifted uncomfortably next to him, eyeing the occupants in the room before glancing at Aragorn.
    The elf lord observed the slight exchange.  Noting Legolas’ unease and the discomfort he had exhibited when the subject of athelas was brought up, Elrond asked the other elves to leave them for a bit.
    Trelan and Raniean were instantly reluctant, unwilling to leave their friend and wanting to know what had become of him during his absence.  Celboril immediately departed with the twins close behind.  They had no worries that their younger brother would tell them in privacy later, when time permitted, what had transpired.
    “Please,” Legolas looked over his shoulder at the two Silvan elves, “leave us. I will be fine and there are things I need to discuss with Lord Elrond.”
    With a slight nod Raniean pushed Trelan out of the room in front of him, allowing the prince the space that he requested. 
    Aragorn watched them all leave before glancing back at the two elves. “Shall I go as well?” He was uncertain as to whether or not his father wanted to speak to Legolas in private.
    “No.” The prince touched his arm, holding him in place. 

    “No,” agreed Elrond, smiling at the two friends as they locked eyes. “I would hear your part in this as well, my son. But I sensed that you, Prince Legolas, were having difficulty discussing recent events with the others in the room.”  The elf lord glanced at the human. “The fact that you were forced to use athelas worries me and says in and of itself that your situation was far more grave than what I originally had thought.”
    “What did you think had happened, Father?” Aragorn leaned fully back against the soft cushions, realizing he was overly tired.  The fire snapped and crackled softly and the warmth from the blaze had a calming effect.
    “Maraen awoke this morning.” Elrond glanced at Legolas, “She remembered everything.”
    “How is she?” Aragorn questioned, concerned.  He recalled the last time he had seen the young woman.
    “She is well and will recover completely.”
    “Recover?” Legolas glanced between Aragorn and Elrond, “But he said...”  He stopped talking and dropped his head in his hands, knowing he shouldn’t have been surprised.  “I knew he was lying.  Never trust a...  I never should have agreed.”  The words were a mere whisper.
    Aragorn leaned down, trying to look into his friend’s eyes.  He gently pulled Legolas’ hands away from his face. “You didn’t know he would lie.”
    Legolas exhaled with as much disgust as his weary, hurting body could muster and shook his head.  Maybe he had known, maybe he hadn’t.  He had suspected that the wraith was hardly trustworthy, but what other choice had he really had?  “I should have killed him.”
    “He would have killed you.” Aragorn’s eyes flashed angrily as he spoke, “And then he would have killed Maraen and the baby.  You did the right thing.” Legolas nodded silently before shifting his gaze to the fire.
    “Who is 'he'?” Elrond questioned softly. “Maraen could only describe him as someone or something evil and clothed in black, a dark lord.”
    “He is.”  Legolas’ eyes were fixed on the fire.  He allowed the hypnotic weave and dance of the flame to flood his mind as he thought back to that first day, willing himself to relax.  It was hard to relive the nightmare, so hard.
    Elrond spoke quietly, beginning the tale from what he knew. “Maraen said that you found her after their home had been attacked by orcs.  She believes her husband was killed by them.  I have sent Moranuen to Taradin in hopes that the two of them can find the girl’s husband.  She claims to have escaped, whereupon she was found by you.” Elrond glanced at the prince.  The young elf simply nodded.
    “Yes, I found her.”  With a deep sigh Legolas turned back towards the elf lord. “She was too near her time to birth and the baby came.  We were within hearing of the orcs camp and the child gave away our position.” 
    Legolas ran his hand back through his hair, pulling the wayward strands out of his face, “We evaded them for as long as she was able.  But in the end they overwhelmed us and we were trapped.  And then he came.”  The elf shivered with the dark memory.
    Aragorn draped his arm around his friend, “Its all right, he’s gone.”
    “Not gone.” Legolas glanced at his friend. “Fire will not kill what that one is.”
    “Legolas?”  Elrond leaned forward, his brow was knit with a frown as he followed the conversation. “Who did you encounter?”
    The young elf swallowed hard, the answer difficult to speak. “It was an Ulaire, my lord.”
    "A what?" Aragorn asked in confusion.  He had never heard the elvish term and it surprised him.
    Elrond sat back in the chair, unable to answer for a few moments as the implications sunk in.  That something so evil should be so close to his home was no small matter. 
    Glancing at his son the elf lord explained, "Ulaire is the elvish word for Nazgûl, Estel.  Nazgûl or ringwraith is their common name derived from the dark tongue."  Aragorn nodded mutely.
    “He was searching for something, I think.  But what it was, I did not possess.”  Legolas watched the elf lord carefully.
    “He searched me for it also.” Aragorn spoke softly, remembering the way the wraith had probed his very soul looking, searching, desiring to find what the ranger did not have.
    Elrond glanced up sharply when the human spoke, fixing the youth with an indecipherable gaze.  “He searched you?”
    “I think that’s what you would call it.” Aragorn looked over at his friend for confirmation.  “He didn’t exactly touch me, but it was as though he could see through me and it felt like bands of darkness wrapping themselves around me until I couldn’t breathe.  Then he let go.  I wanted to resist him, I wanted to fight his will... but something stopped me.  Almost as if something was telling me I shouldn’t.”  The young ranger allowed his puzzlement to creep into his voice.  He was still a bit perplexed by that.
    Elrond stood from his chair and walked towards the fire, leaning against the ornate mantel.  “It is well that you did not, Estel.  For then he would have seen you for what you are and it is not yet time for you to be revealed to Mordor.  The time is unripe and you are not ready... not yet.”  The elf lord sighed quietly, the weight of ages seeming to come into his eyes.  He understood far more about this situation than his son or the prince.  “It was only a matter of time before they took up in search again.” He said quietly.  “I told them, did I not? It is moving... it will be found again.  I had hoped we would have longer.”
    “Father?”  Aragorn had never heard his father speak with such weariness.
    “It is nothing to worry about yet, my son.”  Elrond turned back to the two of them, “But the Council will need to know, and especially Mithrandir.” A small smile pulled at the corners of the elf’s lips. “Knowing him, that wizard already knows full well and just let it slip his mind.”
    “Well you are beginning to sound like him, speaking in riddles.” Aragorn muttered sarcastically.
    Elrond laughed lightly. “Go on, tell me the rest.”
    Legolas recounted the horrors of being subject to the evil being.  As he forced himself to tell Elrond about Aragorn’s capture and his part in it and his near inability to stop himself from killing the ranger, tears welled up in his eyes, spilling down his fair cheeks.  The prince looked away, brushing his palms across his eyes quickly and blinking hard, ashamed of what he had to relate, and of his own weakness now.
    “I’m sorry.”  He stopped speaking, dejectedly staring down at the floor, his breathing hitching as he tried to regain control of his emotions.
    Aragorn kneeled on the floor in front of his friend, forcing the elf to look into his eyes. “I told you before it was all right.”
    “I watched you fall over that cliff, fearing you dead.  I was forced to leave before they found you and then when I saw you next I handed you over to the enemy and tried to slit your throat.  Now, you tell me: what is all right about any of that?” Legolas’ voice was soft and strained.  He didn’t know how he could ever deal with what he had done, with the darkness that had touched him.
    The young human turned and implored his father for help.
    “I will tell you, young one.”  At the sound of Elrond’s deep voice, Legolas looked up. “The fact that you are here, free from the Nazgûl’s control.  The fact that you saved Estel by your actions.  Your will was not controlled by the evil and you never stopped fighting it.  The very fact that you sit in my presence and acknowledge these things openly speaks of the good in you, which is indomitable. That is what is right about all that has happened.”
    Legolas watched the older elf, weighing his words, allowing the truths to sink into his soul and vanquish the lies that had been eating at his heart.  “Yes, you are right,” he finally agreed.  He knew the truth when he saw it, and although lingering traces of guilt remained, he tried his best to shake them off.
    Smiling, Aragorn pulled the elf forward and whispered, “I told you so.”
    With a laugh, the prince pushed the human backwards, tipping him off balance.  The ranger caught himself on his hands before he fell, his mirth uncontained until a thought struck him.  Turning towards Elrond, Aragorn seated himself on the floor leaning back against the couch and questioned his father, “Do you think we killed it?”
    “The Nazgûl?” Elrond clarified the cryptic question. When his son nodded the elf lord continued, “No. Legolas was correct. Simply setting him on fire would never release that tortured soul that is bound to Sauron himself.  The black-cowled figure you saw was merely one of the corporeal forms taken by the Nazgûl, convenient for them when they travel abroad.”
    “Will there be any lingering effects from his evil?” Legolas needed to know.
    Elrond stood from his seat and approached the elf prince. He pulled back the young elf’s tunic and inspected the healing wound.  Satisfied that it would heal with the proper care, Elrond leaned down and pressed the palm of his hand against Legolas forehead; closing his eyes, he listened.
    In seconds the elf lord withdrew his hand and smiled down at the young prince, “There is no darkness within you, young one.  The athelas has cured you completely.  You have nothing to worry about.”  Elrond smiled at Estel and nodded to the young ranger, “Well done, my son. You have used the athelas well.”
    The elven lord walked to the far side of the room and opened a tiny drawer hidden behind the ancient books stacked on the shelves that lined the wall. Retrieving a small object he walked back towards them, explaining, “There is an old saying, a true saying.  It is said that, ‘The hands of the king are the hands of a healer’. ” The elf did not finish the old prophecy, for now was not the time yet for the young human to know his full destiny. This much was well uncovered for the present.
    Elrond sat down across from the two friends and opened his hand, holding it out, palm up.  In the center of his palm lay a ring.  It was made of two entwined silver serpents with eyes of emeralds met beneath a crown of golden flowers that the one upheld and the other devoured.  The silver circle sparkled in the firelight.  Elrond held it out to Estel. 
    “Take it, my son. It is yours. It is part of your heritage.”
    Aragorn picked up the ring and slid it onto the forefinger of his left hand - it fit perfectly. 
    “The ring has been in Isildur’s family for generations.  It marks you as an heir of that house.” Elrond smiled softly at the human.  He knew how hard it was for the young man to accept who he truly was and so they had agreed to take it slowly.  His son nodded his head, looking back to the ring and admiring it.
    “It is called the Ring of Barahir, for it was a gift to Barahir and his descendants in reward for the saving of Finrod Felagund’s life, many, many years before your father’s father was born.  It has come into your family and has been known as an heirloom in the House of Elendil for generations. And now, my son, it is yours. Your abilities in curing Legolas with the athelas are only more proofs that you are Isildur’s heir.  In time your lineage will be known by all men, but for now it is enough that you accept it.”
    The ranger was fingering the ring.  He slipped it off his hand and passed the token back to Legolas who was leaning over his shoulder trying to glimpse it.  The elf took the ring and looked it over, running his fingers around the edge and feeling the intricate detailing.  It was a stunning piece, and the history that went with it even more so, for Finrod Felagund, King of Nargathrond and brother of the lady Galadriel, had perished defending the mortal, Beren, ere this Age of the world began.  The prince passed the ring back to the ranger with a smile.
    Aragorn slipped it back on his finger and looked up at his father. The elf lord was smiling sadly down at the human.  His adopted son was growing into the man he had raised him to be. 
    “Now up with the two of you.  You are filthy and wet and Celboril will have my hide for letting you sit on ‘his’ couch.” Elrond teased.  “It is nearing the dinner hour.  Go change out of those clothes and clean up.  There are fresh clothes in Estel’s room.”  As the two headed for the door the older elf stopped them. “Legolas, I will want to look at that wound personally before you retire for the evening.  You did very well, young prince. Your father will be proud.”
    “My father,” Legolas shook his head somewhat ruefully, but he grinned with good humor, even if it was laced with exhaustion.  “My father is going to have my head next time he sees me, of that you can be sure,” the prince muttered softly. 
    Elrond grinned softly.  “I think not once he has heard the entire tale.  He will be glad that you are able to return to him whole, nevermind when.  Trust me, for I know a father’s heart.”
    Legolas nodded, rubbing his aching eyes.  He was too tired right now to worry about anything anyway.  All he wanted at the moment was to get washed and into something clean and be able to rest a little before he had to face anyone else again.  Eventually he was going to have to confide in Raniean and Trelan, but not yet.
    “Estel,” Elrond’s voice halted his son in the doorway.  “I would have a word with you.”
    The ranger smiled at his friend guiltily and walked back towards his father.  Legolas wearily mounted the stairs and headed for the guest room adjacent to his friend’s.
    “Yes, Father?”  Aragorn walked back up to the older elf and looked into the silver eyes. 
    Elrond pulled the boy near the fire, turning them away from the door so that any who happened by would not accidentally hear their conversation.
    “What you did with the athelas yesterday, in healing Legolas, few can do.  It is a skill that has been reserved by Iluvatar for the use of royalty only.  Be careful how you use this gift, but do not hesitate to employ it when it is needed.” He glanced sideways at the human who stood next to him, staring into the flames.
    “I am still not used to this...” Aragorn struggled for the right words and Elrond let him have time to respond. “This heritage that I have been given.  I was truly happy simply being Estel, son of Elrond.”  He turned and locked eyes with the elf lord. “Is there anything so wrong with simply being that?”
    Elrond smiled softly and shook his head. “My son, you will always be Estel and no, there is nothing wrong with that.  However the time will come I think when you will be called to be even more than simply the adopted son of an elven lord.”  Aragorn began to protest but the elf quieted him, placing his arm around the slumped shoulders of the young man. “I said that the time would come, I did not say it was now.  You have plenty of time to simply be Estel.”  He laughed lightly as the ranger glanced up at him through strands of wayward hair. “Do not trouble yourself with the future, today has quite enough trouble all to its own.”
    Elrond glanced behind them into the hallway.  The twins stood on the threshold, their glances curious and worried. “I think your brothers will be enough to occupy you for the time being.”
    Aragorn glanced over his shoulder and threw the elven twins a devilish grin before Elrond redirected his attention. “This conversation will remain between us and you may wear the ring or put it away as you should choose.  It is up to you.”
    The ranger fidgeted with the silver circle for several seconds. “I’ll wear it.  But I’ll still be called by my right name, my elven name.” He clarified.
    Elrond laughed and pushed the boy towards the door. “As you wish, Estel.  Now off with you before Celboril calls supper. Do not think he will tolerate you at his table looking like that.”
    “Nor will I!” Elladan teased him, ruffling his hair as he walked past. 
    “What have you there, Estel?” Elrohir fell into step with his younger brother, walking tightly next to the human as Aragorn showed him the ring.  They traipsed quietly up the stairs, talking softly together as Elladan joined his father near the fire.
    “Told him more?” the younger elf asked his father, recognizing the ring his youngest brother was now wearing.
    “Yes.” Elrond watched the two climbing the stairs, “He has much to think about.  Perhaps you can lighten his mood.”
    The elder twin snickered evilly, “Oh, not a problem there, Father.”
    “Elladan,” Elrond turned to his oldest, “I said lighten, not torment.  Now please go see to the warriors from Mirkwood.  Have them join us for dinner tonight.”
    “I’ll see to it, Father.”  The younger elf quietly left and Elrond turned back to the fireplace, watching the dancing flames. 
    So much had transpired in the past day that it would take some time to absorb it all but the fact remained that the Nazgûl were near and searching.  There were others who would need to know of Mordor’s quest and he quickly penned a brief recount of Legolas and Aragorn’s mishap.  Sealing the notes with his signet ring he called a runner and instructed the servant to stop for no one, but deliver the letters, one to Lothlòrien, one to Isengard and one to the care of an innkeeper in Bree who would hold it until the person it was addressed to should turn up.  With that chore taken care of, the elf lord walked towards the dining hall, seeking the company of others.