Curse of Angmar

Chapter 12

by Cassia and Siobhan

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Morning dawned clear and fair with birdsongs in her golden wings as the small troop began their way back to Bree, prisoners in tow. 

Kaldur watched the landscape pass by them with dark eyes devoid of much of their usual sparkle.  The six surviving bandits walked in a small knot, their hands tied tightly behind their backs, carefully guarded by the watchful elves and rangers. 

This was a bad situation.  Kaldur knew that he and the others would not last five minutes in Bree or any of the local villages.  They were all dead men as sure as he was standing there.  The only small mercy in that thought was they would likely be dealt with immediately, sparing them any time in prison.  The others might not have cared much about that, but Kaldur knew he could never see the inside of another set of bars and remain sane... well, as relatively sane as he was anyway.  Still... that was small consolation to the fact that they would all likely be lynched or worse before suppertime. 

Next to him, Thil looked around uneasily, seeming hesitant to meet the elder bandit’s eyes.  “Kal... I’m sorry I didn’t stand up to Losmir when he started his nonsense.”  The younger man had almost let himself go along with a plan to kill his friend and mentor the other night and that did not sit well with his conscience.  He didn’t know how much Kaldur knew about what had happened the night the ranger escaped them, but he felt he needed to get it out in the open.  If they were going to have to die, he didn’t want anything left lingering between himself and the older man. 

“He wanted to kill you along with the rest of these people and... I did nothing.” Thil sighed, glancing sidelong at his friend to judge his reaction.  “I should have.  I should have from the start, when he began messing with the ranger and talking about not ransoming you, when I realized that he let them take you on purpose.  Maybe if I had we wouldn’t be in this mess now.  I guess... I guess I... was scared.”  The younger man swallowed roughly, obviously ashamed of that confession.  “I still am... I don’t want to die, Kal.  Not... not like this.” 

Kaldur considered Thil for a moment.  How close he had come to perishing at the hands of his own men surprised him a little and renewed the small sting of the fact that he had been betrayed by people he would have died to protect.  Still, he knew Losmir could be very intimidating, and didn’t blame Thil for looking to his own interests.  Wasn’t that what Kaldur had always told him to do? 

“Shh, none of that talk,” the bandit leader shook his head, smiling at the boy to cheer him up.  “Nobody’s going to die.  Have I ever let anything bad happen to ye?” 

Thil chose not to answer that.  “What are we going to do?” he asked quietly instead. 

“Wait for just the right moment, lad, and grab it when we see it,” Kaldur returned quietly.  Silently, he hoped there would be such a moment. 

Gandalf walked with Bilbo and Aragorn in the front of the party while Halbarad and the three elves walked perimeter to guard the prisoners. 

Gandalf glanced over his shoulder before turning slowly back to Aragorn as the borders of Bree became apparent on their horizon.  “You might want to consider your choice of options, Estel,” the wizard said calmly.  “What exactly do you intend to do with these men now that you have them?” 

“Turn them over to the town leaders for justice, and be sure that any superstitious nonsense is laid to rest.  I mean to see that they are treated as men, not monsters.”  Aragorn looked questioningly at Gandalf.  By now he knew the wizard well enough to know that for some reason, the Istar held a different opinion. 

“Ah,” Gandalf nodded.  “A good thought.  But can you be so sure justice is what they will receive?  How far do you think the word of a ranger will go in Bree?  One who travels with elves and...” the wizard chuckled, “crazy old men.” 

Aragorn looked troubled.  Some of the same misgivings had been weighing on his thoughts as well, but Gandalf’s voicing of them gave him even more cause for concern. 

“Thorongil...” Gandalf used Aragorn’s discarded human name with the hint of a smile.  “You are not in Gondor anymore, not a captain whom people must respect.  Remember the foibles, as well as the beauties of your homeland.  There is no superimposed system of justice here.  These people will do as they see fit, and mob rule is just as effective as any other.” 

Aragorn’s troubled look deepened.  It was true, the habits of a decade or more were not easily put aside, even if it was a past which he wanted no part in at the moment.  He had much to remember and re-learn about his own home.  “You are right Gandalf, we cannot simply enter and expect no trouble... but my mind is divided.  What then should we do?” 

Gandalf kept walking, ignoring Aragorn’s questioning scrutiny for so long that the ranger thought he was not going to answer.  “Whatever you decide to do,” the wizard said finally. 

Aragorn actually stopped walking, clenching his fists in exasperation.  “Why does everyone insist on thrusting some sort of leadership upon me?  Can they not see I do not wish for such, nor am I equipped to deal with it?  When the wise are present, do not put the choices on an ill-chooser.” 

Gandalf’s smile in the face of Aragorn’s frustration was patient and understanding.  He laid his weathered hand on the ranger’s shoulder, keeping the younger man walking as they talked.  “Because, my dear boy, others see in you what you cannot.  Have you learned nothing in all these long years?  I trust to your wisdom.  So should you.” 

Aragorn had the irritating feeling that Gandalf was trying to teach him some kind of lesson by all this, but wasn’t sure he wanted to figure it out.  The ranger was still bothered by the trouble he felt he had led Legolas, Bilbo and his brothers into these past few days.  He had simply assumed the lead without being asked, having become used to a command position.  His friends were all more than ready to give that task to him, but had it turned out very well?  Surely someone else could have done better than nearly getting them all killed, trapping he and Legolas in a barrow and perhaps dooming Elrohir to live his entire immortal life in a silent world. 

Legolas had observed the change in his friend’s stance and manner and knew something was wrong.  Sliding away from the others for a few minutes, he moved up to join Aragorn, Gandalf and Bilbo. 

The little hobbit was looking around for something to take his attention and apparently trying to keep his nose out of business that he knew did not concern him; Legolas spared him a quick smile before turning to his friend. 

“Is everything all right?” the elf inquired quietly of the ranger. 

Aragorn sighed.  “Yes and no.  Gandalf and I were discussing the wisdom or peril of taking our captives into Bree.” 

Legolas nodded slowly, falling into step with Aragorn and Gandalf.  Bilbo intentionally trailed away a little to give them some privacy, although he could still hear everything quite clearly. 

“I see.  The same question was on my heart.  When I spoke with Kaldur a night past, he suggested that the Bree-landers and other folk in this locality might have a rather severe reaction to them because of the supernatural nature of their charade.  As much as I would see justice done... I do not think the majority of these men deserve death,” the elf admitted.  “And it would not sit lightly on my conscience to take them to it.” 

In the past few years Legolas had learned all too well that even when seeking justice, people could sometimes unintentionally do grievous harm. 

Aragorn regarded the elf thoughtfully.  He knew Legolas was thinking of his own experiences as a captive in Gondor.  He had seen that in the prince’s eyes this morning when he insisted that the prisoners, bound all night, be untied for at least a few minutes before they set out, so that their hands did not completely stiffen.  Legolas had rubbed his own wrists lightly, unconsciously... but Aragorn had seen and understood.  As he had understood when Legolas made sure that the prisoners shared in their morning meal, under guard, but free.  Halbarad and Elladan had been more than a little unsure about that, but Aragorn had supported Legolas.  It was perhaps an over-compensation, for the bandits would certainly not come to harm from being bound up for one day or missing one meal, but Aragorn would let his friend have his way in these matters, knowing that some parts of Legolas’ mind and heart were still tender and healing. 

The prince’s captivity in the name of justice had been hard, and Legolas was obviously unwilling to replay that travesty upon anyone else, even if they were truly guilty parties. 

Legolas took a cold front with the prisoners themselves, and Kaldur particularly seemed to delight in attempting to drive the prince to insanity.  The ranger wondered if the bandits realized how much of an advocate for them Legolas really was.  He doubted it.  Legolas would not have wanted it known.  Aragorn doubted that even his brothers noticed Legolas’ actions as unusual in anyway, for the prince was excellent at masking his feelings.  But Aragorn could see through that mask, just as Legolas could see through the walls and pretenses that the ranger often presented to the world.  Perhaps that should have been an uncomfortable thought... but it was not. 

“Nor would it sit well on mine,” Aragorn agreed with a sigh.  “The question is, if we don’t turn them over, what do we do?  What of all the pain they wrought, and the damage and loss?  And what of their victims?  Do they not have a right to expect these men to pay for their crimes?”

“Of course they should.  But how... I don’t have any answers for you, Estel,” Legolas shook his head. 

Aragorn resisted the urge to feel annoyed.  Implied in that statement was again the implicit thought that he should be the one to make the decision.  The ranger had been the unconscious leader of their party from the beginning; it was actually a role that he filled quite easily, but now that his attention was being called to it, as well as this difficult situation at hand, he felt distinctly uncomfortable.  Although he supposed he should be complimented that all these beings whom he respected so highly thought that highly of him in return. 

Right now, however, that was little comfort because it still left the whole mess in his lap.  

“The decision may not be yours to make much longer,” Gandalf murmured.  “Look.” 

Up ahead, a small knot of angry-looking townspeople and farmers were coming their way.  Aragorn had a sudden flashback pertaining to a small town called Strayton, earthquakes, and accusations of river and chicken theft.  Perhaps he had forgotten how rural justice sometimes worked out here, considering that once, long ago, he and Legolas had very nearly been hanged for ‘stealing’ the Bruinen when an earthquake dammed it up.  These Bree-landers were good people, just as the villagers of Strayton had been, but as soon as something they did not understand took place, reason could become a little muddied. 

“Tell them to keep the prisoners back and quiet!” Aragorn quickly instructed Legolas as the small knot of men drew near.  The elf obeyed instantly. 

The small party, which looked to be made up of hunters and farmers, slowed and drew to a halt as they approached the ranger, hobbit and wizard.  They were provisioned for a hunt, but the determined set of their faces suggested they were not after meat or hides. 

Legolas had Elladan, Elrohir and Halbarad form a small circle around their prisoners, moving them off of the road and hanging back a little from the rest of the group.  There was no chance of staying out of the hunters’ sight, but they could at least act as inconspicuous as possible until they knew more about these people. 

“Who are you?” the lead hunter, heavily armed with a bow, hunting knife, axe and cudgel asked without preamble, sizing Aragorn and Gandalf up with a critical eye.  He discounted Bilbo as big folk often did the little people who were their neighbors. 

“Just weary travelers passing through your hospitable lands,” Aragorn returned, more graciously than was warranted by the rude questioning.  He noted that these men were not just well-armed, they were over-armed.  You wouldn’t need this many weapons to go after the most ferocious of man-eating bears. 

“Most of us are from the north, near Strayton and Rivendell, but some,” he glanced at Bilbo, “hail from the Shire.  I am a Dúnadan, a ranger. These are my friends, Gandalf the Grey and Bilbo Baggins of Bag-end.”  He hoped that giving them enough familiar and yet unfamiliar names would put them off of thinking overmuch about the rest of the party lingering behind them. 

“Where are you all off to?” the ranger glanced over their weaponry with pretended appreciation.  “You look ready to take down a giant!  Trouble with wolves going after the livestock?  Or a bear?  I certainly hope that it’s not the hill trolls again, I should not like to meet any on our road.”  All of those were options that had troubled this area in the past, but somehow Aragorn felt sure that none of them were the reason behind this particular party. 

The lead hunter seemed to rethink his brusqueness when met with the friendly talk, and someone who was obviously familiar with the area and therefore more or less ‘from around these parts’.  The man stepped his suspicion back a pace and relaxed a little. 

“Neither.  Worse.  Wights have been terrorizing the countryside, but now folks are starting to think there’s no wights at all, but devil men, calling on the evil powers of the wights to give ‘em superhuman abilities.  So a bunch of us are going out there to put a stop to it!” 

A ripple of murmurs ran all around the crowd. 

“We’ve had enough of them terrorizing our women and children and making off with our hard-earned goods,” the man finished firmly.  “We’re going to send them back to whatever underworld they came from!” 

Aragorn nodded slowly.  He had actually expected as much.  This was no doubt the twisted result of his and Halbarad's trying to convince the villagers that the wights were not to blame.  Amazing how things could become so reinterpreted so quickly.  “I see. Do you think that’s wise?” 

The hunter’s jaw clenched grimly, his steely eyes reflecting determination.  “We may not all come back, but we’re going to burn us a few devil men before this is all over!  Right boys?!” the man mustered their courage and was again met with a ripple of support, several of the men proudly brandishing ropes, weapons and torches. 

Aragorn resisted the urge to bite his lip.  These men were only doing what they thought was right by their families and their town, and, in their own eyes, being quite brave to attempt anything at all against what they thought was out there.  Aragorn remembered vividly the terror when he and Legolas were trapped in the wight’s barrow last night and could not blame these men for the wish to destroy such creatures.  If it truly were some kind of morgul devilry going on out there, then he would most likely do the same thing... only perhaps with a little more preparation and a great deal more knowledge. 

Kaldur and his men, however, were not such creatures.  They were criminals, certainly, but you could not equate them with the sheer evil of a wight, no matter what game they had played. 

From where they stood, Kaldur could easily see and hear the men up ahead talking with Aragorn and felt his blood start running cold.  Not yet, not yet!  He hadn’t had a chance to work on a plan yet, to figure out how to get them out of this!  Now it was too late. 

Half consciously, half un-consciously Kaldur moved in front of Thil, as if blocking the younger man from sight would keep him from the harm they all knew was coming.  He had seen a man burned to death once... the memory haunted him. 

Legolas was watching the understandably nervous prisoners carefully, but the other half of his attention was firmly fixed on Aragorn and the hunters. 

“We wish you luck then,” Aragorn nodded to the men, giving the impression that their conversation was drawing to a close so everyone could move on about their business. 

“And who are they?” the hunter nodded towards the elves and the prisoners, obviously not ready to let Aragorn end their conversation just yet.  “What’re ye doing carting people around trussed up like that?  Has there been trouble?” the man asked warily, a hint of suspicion creeping back into his tone and showing that he was not quite as unobservant or inept as Aragorn would have liked in this instance. 

“Halbarad is a ranger, like myself, and the elves are our friends from Rivendell, as I mentioned earlier,” Aragorn chose to answer the easy part of the question first, his mind working quickly.  “The rest of these men... are wanted in Rivendell. We are taking them to Lord Elrond.”  It wasn’t exactly a lie, the bandits were considered wanted men in Rivendell and they had been sent out to catch them.  Aragorn knew that the minute he brought the elves into it the townspeople’s interest would wane.  No one in these parts wanted to intrude into the elves’ business. 

Predictably, the hunters looked them all over one more time, decided it was none of their affair, and began to move on.  “Well then, there’s a lot of ground between here and the mountains, you be careful,” the lead man cautioned by way of parting.  “And you be sure to tell us if you run across any of those devil men!” 

“Oh we will,” Bilbo nodded with a dramatic shudder and such an innocent smile that Aragorn had to keep from laughing. 

The hunters did not have as much restraint and went on their way chuckling.  

Bilbo’s grin turned somewhat smug as soon as they weren’t looking.  Big folk were always ready to not take hobbits seriously. Sometimes that was an advantage.  

Aragorn glanced side-long at the hobbit, knowing he had intended to send the men off on a light note, causing them to forget any lingering doubts they might have had.  Gandalf had often told him that there was more about the Shire folk than met the eye, and he was beginning to agree, if Bilbo were any indication. 

Kaldur didn’t understand what had just happened.  He had more than expected the ranger to hand them over.  After all, these people’s ‘civic duty’ had been fulfilled, they could walk away pleased with themselves for a job well done; wasn’t that what they wanted?  Oh, he liked the ranger and his elf friends all right, they were an okay sort, if only they hadn’t ended up on opposite sides in this game, but they were the noble kind, and that kind usually trusted too much to the justice of those not as noble.  The bandit’s respect for these people went up a notch as he realized that maybe they weren’t as predictable as he thought.  The fact that he and his men had just been saved from a grisly death didn’t hurt matters either. 

“Smart bit about Rivendell there, did you see them VISIBLY lose interest?” Bilbo remarked with a smile to Aragorn once the men were out of earshot.  “That’s quick thinking, my lad.” 

Gandalf chuckled at the assessment and Elladan nodded in concurrence as the small group re-gathered themselves. 

“It’s true.  But what are we going to do with them now, Estel?” the elder twin inquired.  

“Personally I’m for letting them all go so everyone can live happily ever after,” Kaldur put in helpfully with one of his trademark grins. 

Everyone ignored him; they had become good at doing that.  

Aragorn shrugged.  “We’ll do as I said we would.  Take them to Rivendell.  They’ll get no real justice in these parts.  Lord Elrond can judge them for what they have done, and I am certain that even here no one would dispute his wisdom in such matters.” 

“Especially if they find out about it after the fact,” Legolas’ smile was wry.  He knew that if Aragorn had told those men that now, they would never have let them peacefully take the prisoners to Rivendell, but if word was brought later that the ‘devil men’ as they called them had been captured and the Lord of Rivendell took care of it, then the Bree-landers and everyone else would simply be relieved that a menace had been removed and go on about their lives not caring who took care of the threat, so long as it was gone.  

“Exactly,” Aragorn nodded, sharing the smile.  The ranger looked up when Gandalf put his hand on the younger man’s shoulder. 

“There, you see?  Was that so very difficult?”  The wizard’s gently teasing words were met with a playful scowl.  

Ignoring him for the moment and bending down to Bilbo’s level, Aragorn glanced upward at Gandalf.  “My brothers tell me you’ve known him much longer than I have. Tell me, how EVER do you put up with him?” 

Bilbo could not help laughing; despite the glare that Gandalf was now leveling on both of them.  “It’s not easy sometimes... but um, it’s a lot safer than not,” the hobbit quickly added when he saw Gandalf eyeing him from under the wizard’s foreboding, bushy brows.  

“Since you are figuring everyone’s problems out so brilliantly, brother,” Elladan shook his head with a smile, “perhaps you will tell me how we can be sure that those poor hunters who walked right by their quarry do not snag some other unfortunate innocents by mistake?  It has happened before.” The elf was thinking of Legolas and their friend Moranuen, both of whom had been severely beaten when they were mistaken for a rogue elf that had terrorized the countryside years ago. 

Aragorn’s face clouded as he realized that his brother had a very good point.  This time however, it was Gandalf who answered. 

“Well since the dear Dúnadan has been so good about answers thus far, I believe it is our turn to help out.  Bilbo and I will continue on to Bree and then from there back to the Shire.  I was on my way to see him and how things fared in the Four Farthings after all.  Rescuing elves and rangers from the jaws of evil has merely been an added benefit,” he said with a merry twinkle in his deep, wise eyes.  “While in Bree and the lands around which we shall cross, we will be sure to spread the word of what happened in the barrow mounds last night.  If anyone wants proof they have only to go out there and see the collapsed mounds and blasted earth.  It will be easy to impart that the wights have retreated back to their dark mounds and that any humans masquerading as wights,” his keen gaze landed on Kaldur who smiled innocently, “have been dealt with by the rangers and the elves.  Things should begin returning to normal very soon.” 

“It has been a pleasure having your company, Mithrandir, and you Master Baggins,” Legolas said.  “It grieves us to see you leave so soon, but I believe your plan is the wisest.  We would not want any innocents falling victim to a wight-hunt.” 

Halbarad had been very quiet this whole time but Aragorn fixed him now with his gaze.  “I fear that you must also be taking your leave of us Halbarad, is that not true?” 

Legolas looked slightly surprised, but Halbarad did not.  

“You read my thoughts, my friend,” the other ranger sighed.  In truth he had stayed longer than he intended already.  “I sent Arendur to do a man’s job, but he is still young and in my charge.  My heart urges me that now that this situation is resolved, I should hasten to join him as I promised.  Although I hate to diminish your numbers further, for I thought Gandalf would travel with you a while yet and now I am even more loath to leave.” 

Aragorn had seen the hesitation growing in the other ranger’s eyes for some time now.  “Of course you must. If I were free I would go with you, but I know that the cities to the south could ask for no better help than yours.  Do not fear for us; I believe that Legolas, Elladan, Elrohir and I are more than capable of handling this lot,” he tossed a warning smile to the bandits.  “Go with the blessings of the Valar, Halbarad, and may we meet again soon.” 

Halbarad nodded, stepping forward to clasp Aragorn’s forearm in farewell. 

“Well since everybody’s leaving we’d be more than happy to go our way as well...” 

Aragorn closed his eyes.  He wondered if Kaldur actually expected them to ever agree with him or if he just talked because he could. 

The side of Halbarad’s mouth quirked upward.  “I don’t envy you your task or the company, Strider,” he whispered with a chuckle. 

“Thank you so much,” Aragorn glared ruefully at the other man. 

When Aragorn turned to say farewell to Bilbo he found that the little hobbit was busily scribbling something on a scrap of paper with a small pencil stub he must have kept in one of his many pockets. 

“Half a moment, apologies,” Bilbo said as he finished; folding the small, but tidy little piece of paper in half.  “I had a bit of something starting to run about in my head since last night and had to get it down before it ran completely off again.  It was good to make your acquaintance Legolas, Dúnadan,” he shook both of their hands.  “Perhaps I will be able to see more of you in Rivendell in the future.” 

Aragorn smiled.  “I hope you will see much more of me in Rivendell for a time now.”  He intended to stay close to home for a while. 

“Good then!” Bilbo smiled.  “SOME of my friends simply wander around too much for you to ever count on being able to get a decent visit,” he glanced meaningfully at Gandalf who merely smiled. 

“Some of us have better things to do with our lives than spend it paying social calls to hobbits, however wonderful the company, food and pipe-weed may be,” he retorted with his usual soft-edged crustiness. 

“I suppose so,” Bilbo nodded with a sly grin, “although I daresay I can’t imagine any.  Elladan, Elrohir, take care, tell your father hello for me, I will be out that way again in a few months if all is well.” 

“We will warn Celboril!” Elladan chuckled.  “He can start hiding all the seed cakes now!  Good-bye Bilbo!” 

Elrohir waved when his brother waved, but turned a slightly puzzled and peeved expression on his brother afterwards.  “You know, El, anytime you want to tell me what is going on would be appreciated...,” he commented quietly, for his brother’s ears only.  “Where are Gandalf and Bilbo going?  And is Halbarad leaving as well?  Are they coming back?  Who were those men?” 

Elladan smiled and pretended to smack his brother lightly, but made careful to not actually hit him.  He acted like it was funny for his twin’s sake, but it wasn’t.  The fact that Elrohir had to rely almost solely on him to even understand what was going on around them sometimes made Elladan’s heart ache. 

Lightly touching his twin’s temples, Elladan explained everything slowly and quietly, since Elrohir didn’t need to hear him, he just needed to see what he was saying.  

Halbarad had already left and Gandalf was taking his leave.  Bilbo paused to shake Aragorn’s hand one last time, before hurrying off to catch up with the wizard.  This action surprised the ranger, but more so when he found that Bilbo had left the small fold of paper he had been writing on in the Dúnadan’s hand.  

Unfolding it, he read the verses that were written across the paper in a somewhat thin and spidery script.  What he found caught him off guard and he jerked his head up in surprise, looking to the retreating form of the little hobbit as he dwindled into the distance beside Gandalf’s larger and more distinctive profile. 

Looking back down at the paper he read the salutation again.  

For Aragorn. 

That one line was surprising enough.  The fact that the hobbit had managed to pick up his true name showed that Gandalf was right, he and his brothers had not been nearly careful enough.  But then, Gandalf had called him that this morning, also in Bilbo’s presence, now that he thought about it.  Yet even more intriguing than the header were the verses beneath. 

All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost,

From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
A light from the shadows shall spring;
Renewed will be blade that was broken,
The crownless again shall be king. 

--B. Baggins 

Aragorn stared for a moment, dumbfounded, then he started to chuckle.  Bless that little hobbit’s hairy feet!  There was MUCH more to him than met the eye indeed!  How many of Elrond's books and scrolls had Bilbo been into?  His verses showed an understanding that shocked the ranger. 

Legolas and his brothers were staring at him now, so he brought the note over for them to see, keeping it carefully away from any other prying eyes.  

“Our dear Mr. Baggins has indeed been spending a lot of time in Rivendell, apparently where many tongues wag freely,” he glanced with amused accusation at the twins.  

Elladan and Elrohir both held up their hands in innocence.  “Nay, Estel, we spoke of you as our brother but nothing more and I doubt Father would have said anything.” 

Aragorn believed them.  He also believed that somehow Bilbo had simply figured it out on his own, pieced together from his long study of lore, many visits with Gandalf and to Rivendell, and most likely their own conversations the past few days.  The ranger hoped he wasn’t being that transparent to everyone.  Whether he wanted his heritage or not, it was still dangerous.  But Bilbo was a friend of Gandalf’s, a close friend, so Aragorn was willing to trust him, since indeed it seemed he had no other choice. 

Legolas was still looking at the words.  Elves appreciated good prose, and Bilbo had a nice meter to his style, but that wasn’t what he was thinking about.  

“It is you, Aragorn,” Legolas said softly in Elvish.  He placed his hand lightly against his friend’s chest with a smile.  “Not all those who wander, or who choose to wander, are lost.” 

Aragorn’s smile gentled slightly as he folded the note and tucked it away, catching Legolas’ eyes.  “Well these deep roots may not have been touched by frost, but they have been very cold of late,” he said with equal quietness.  It was true, the essence of the poem had spoken to his heart and he wondered if somehow this was the hobbit’s answer to what he and Gandalf had been speaking of earlier, and the unspoken doubts and questions still plaguing the Dúnadan’s own mind.  

“However, I’m not so sure about that last part...” the wry glint returned to the ranger’s eyes.  “I think he’s in league with Gandalf.” 

“With him it’s wiser to be in than out!” Elladan shook his head and they all laughed. 

“Excuse me, not to interrupt if you’ve forgotten all about us, which mind you, I think is a grand idea, but it’s getting a little hot out here.  You think we could move on before we all grow roots?” Kaldur spoke up, disappointed that although the four guards were occupied with their own private conversation, their watchful gazes never left the prisoners long enough to make any escape attempts plausible.  He remembered how fast the elves were with those bows.  Suicide.  Definite suicide.  And since the alternative no longer seemed to be roasting alive like a pig on a spit, he could afford to be more patient.  

“You’d be a lot hotter if we’d left you with those hunters,” Aragorn pointed out with a patient, but meaningful look as Legolas and his brothers connected the bandit’s bound wrists together with additional lengths of rope, stringing the prisoners out in a long line and making them easier to guard since the company was now down to just the three elves and the human again.  

“Point taken,” Kaldur smiled as they adjusted their course towards Rivendell and started walking once more.  “Thanks, friend.  Now we just have to work on this whole prisoner situation...” 

Legolas, walking beside Aragorn on the bandits’ left while Elladan and Elrohir took the right, rolled his eyes.  “Do not encourage him Strider.  I may soon begin to envy Elrohir.” 

Aragorn laughed.


They had a surprisingly easy time for the first few days of the return journey.  The sky was clear and aside from one ill-conceived escape attempt by a few of the men, which, knowing what a useless idea it was, Kaldur hadn’t even bothered to take part in, there had been no trouble. 

Unless you counted the fact that the bandits were a vocal bunch.  Once they realized that their captors were not going to beat or mistreat them for complaining, the whining grew frequent and increasingly irritating.  They complained about the rigorous pace, the long hours, the tight ropes, and just about everything else until finally Elladan had lost patience and threatened to bind their mouths shut for the rest of the journey unless they shut up.  That had silenced them at least for the time being, for which Aragorn and Legolas were grateful; they had both begun to envy Elrohir his blissful ignorance. 

Night was coming on and a campfire ahead drew the small party with wary curiosity.  Elladan advanced cautiously to check it out, and returned to inform them that all was well.  The camp belonged to a hunter, his wife and some of their companions.  They had welcomed the elf and his party to join them if they so desired. 

Real hunters,” Elladan had assured quickly when met with Legolas’ dubious look.  “Ones after food and pelts, not people.” 

“Are they aware of our situation?” Aragorn waved at the line of prisoners strung out between them. 

Elladan nodded.  “I told them, but they said it mattered not. Any elf from Rivendell was welcome in their camp.  I will admit I was a little surprised, Estel. We are not always met with such warmth.” 

Aragorn could see suspicion written all over Legolas’ face and knew that an overly friendly welcome aroused the prince’s wariness.  “I don’t know if that’s a good idea, since we don’t know anything about them.” 

“And the less we have to do with humans we don’t know, the better?” Aragorn asked mildly, the corners of his mouth twitching up slightly.  He understood why Legolas would feel that way; heaven knows the prince had a right to after everything he had been through in his life. 

“I didn’t say that, Strider, you know I didn’t say that,” Legolas shook his head, his lips depressing in a slight line as they did when he was irked.  He wasn’t really irritated with Aragorn; he was more frustrated with his own heightened paranoia when it came to strange humans.  Gondor and Umbar had left him a little over-sensitive he supposed, but it would pass, he knew that.  It had done so before. 

Elladan shrugged indifferently.  Aragorn had been right earlier; the Noldorian elf did not share Legolas’ experiences or heightened wariness of human kind.  He was ready to take the hunter at his word, but not if it made the prince uncomfortable.  “I really do believe he was being sincere, but if you would rather not, Legolas, that’s perfectly all right.” 

“No,” Legolas said quickly.  Too quickly.  “It will be fine.  If you think all is well, then there is no sense in being rude.  Let us just act with caution.” 

Aragorn sighed inwardly.  Legolas’ back was stiff and his posture rigid.  The ranger knew he was only consenting because he felt he would be giving in to his own fears to do otherwise. 

“Legolas, what I said before, I didn’t mean it the way it sounded,” he tried a soft apology as they headed towards the campfire ahead, herding the prisoners ahead of them.  Legolas had healed so well, Aragorn almost forgot sometimes that the prince’s reasons for distrusting most humans had recently been painfully refreshed. 

“Yes you did,” Legolas returned just as quietly.  “And you are right.  I know I can be overly suspicious at times and it is not a trait of which I am fond.  It reminds me too much of my father,” he laughed slightly. 

Aragorn smiled back, glad the elf truly wasn’t upset with him.  “I suppose we all have more of our ancestors in us than we would wish sometimes.  I promise I’ll be watchful. If it even looks like there might be trouble, we will leave quickly. You have my word, mellon-nín.” 

Legolas squeezed his arm.  “Estel... please, do not worry so about me.  I am all right.  If I do not face the things that make me anxious, I will never get over them. That is something you taught me a long time ago, my friend.” 

Aragorn nodded, but kept a discreet eye on the elf anyway as they entered the camp, judging the prince’s state of unease.  It was not severe, but he was not relaxed either.  

The camp was small, but well-stocked and it seemed that this hunting party had already done most of its work.  Cleaned pelts were tied neatly in bundles, large slabs of cured meat were wrapped in packages and more hides were stretched between pegs near the ground as they dried. 

There were several hunters present, most of them younger men in their teens.  The older hunter, who seemed to be in charge, was still not very old and Aragorn would have guessed early to mid-thirties, but he couldn’t be sure.  The man had been sharpening a skinning tool against a grindstone, but laid it aside when the guests entered.  

The only woman of the party, presumably the man’s wife, sat nearby, working some greasy substance into a buckskin to keep the curing leather supple and soft.  

The hunter stood to his feet to welcome them. 

Aragorn was surprised that the younger man seemed familiar to him somehow, but he could not put his finger on the reason.  Come to think of it, his wife seemed familiar too in a vague sort of way. 

Legolas also was struck by that sense of familiarity and his brows knitted slightly.  He studied the young woman as she looked up from her work, amber hair spilling in curly waves around her shoulders.  She was younger than her husband, only in her twenties perhaps, if that much.  She smiled shyly at the elf staring at her, but there was no flicker of recognition in her eyes to tell him where he could possibly have known her from.  

The hunter, however, was another matter.  As soon as he locked eyes with the new arrivals, a large smile lit up his face.  “Strider?  Legolas?  Is that really you?  By the stars but neither of you have aged a day since I last saw you!” 

Aragorn blinked several times.  When the other man smiled he looked younger and Aragorn could see past the short beard and the matured features. 

“Garith?  Young Garith?  My WORD but you make me feel old!” he laughed, returning the younger man’s welcoming embrace.  “Last time I saw you, you were still a half-grown pup tagging along on Taradin’s heels. Now look at you!” 

Garith laughed.  “I haven’t seen you in forever, Strider, not even with the rangers. Taradin and I thought you died.  I’m glad you did not.” 

“No, I’ve just been... away,” Aragorn avoided saying any more on that subject.  “Garith, you remember Elladan and Elrohir?  Lord Elrond’s sons?”  

Garith nodded, now he did remember them, although before he had not.  He remembered Strider and the blond elf better. 

“And let’s not forget the faithful tag-alongs,” Kaldur put in as if he actually had a reason to be speaking.  “The infamous bandits-on-a-string at your service...” he shook the line keeping them all together ruefully.  

Garith raised a questioning eyebrow and Aragorn just rolled his eyes.  “And this is Kaldur DeCahr, whom you may please feel free to ignore.  We are taking him and his men back to Rivendell for sentencing by Lord Elrond.” 

“Well you do get all the fun jobs, Strider, no mistake,” Garith shook his head.  “But you are welcome here for the night, longer if you wish.  We’re waiting for Taradin and the rest of the group, but it could be a few days or a week, depending on how the hunting was.”  Taradin was actually late already for the rendezvous, but that was not unusual and no one was concerned. 

“We can only stay for the night, but thank you,” Aragorn accepted when Garith led them further into the camp, showing them a safe place to deposit their prisoners around the fire before taking seats themselves.  Aragorn glanced at Legolas and noted with relief that the elf seemed much more relaxed and at ease now, although he was still stealing curious glances at Garith’s wife.  “How is Taradin?” 

“Healthy as a boar and STILL holding the title for the most pelts per winter,” Garith smiled as he sat back down next to his wife.  “And this is my wife, Estelle.  Estelle, these are some old friends of mine, Strider, Legolas, Elladan and Elrohir.”  He introduced the pretty young woman sitting next to him. 

A small flash of understanding crossed Legolas’ face and his smile widened slightly.  “Estelle... that’s a beautiful name,” he complimented with a small twinkle in his eyes.  He had not seen her since she was a wee babe, but she looked enough like her mother to be familiar. 

“Thank you,” the girl smiled back.  “It is different, I know, but my mother tells me it is an elvish name; that it means hope.” 

“It does.  How is Maraen?” Legolas couldn’t help asking.  “And Erron?”  

The girl blinked, obviously surprised.  Of course she would not recall the elf prince that delivered her into this world and saved her and her mother’s life before she was old enough to remember, but she guessed rightly that this elf, who looked no older than she, must somehow know her mother and father.  

“They are well, thank you, sir,” she replied politely.  “At home with my three youngest sisters.  My brother is with Taradin’s party.” 

Aragorn and Legolas smiled at one another.  This certainly was a night for reunions and chance meetings.  It was unexpected, but somehow... unexplainably nice, to be walking back into all these old memories.  Into these parts of themselves that had seemed so long ago, but now felt not quite so removed and distant as they had before.  

Legolas had not thought he would be able to sleep in a strange human camp that night, but to his surprise he slumbered easily and his dreams were light and as free as the night birds soaring above the darkened trees in the moonlight.

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