Part 4

by Cassia and Siobhan

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    By the time night had fallen, their sodden clothes had ceased to be a laughing matter.
    Aragorn resisted the urge to chatter slightly, hugging himself for warmth against the chilly night air and the damp coldness of his own wet clothing.
    Elves are not as affected by the elements of hot and cold as some other races, so the chill did not seem to bother Legolas overmuch; however, the still-damp clothing was distinctly uncomfortable.
    It had not taken long for their presence to be missed. Search parties had started looking for them not a full half-hour after their escape. This had forced the two friends to retreat deep into the darker, southern reaches of the forest.
    The first two times they had had to hide from the searchers Aragorn had followed Legolas’ lead and concealed himself without question. Yet as the groups of elves forced them to retreat farther and farther south, he had begun to wonder what exactly they were hiding from, especially when a troop of the royal guard passed them by. He understood the need to stay away from Sarcaulien’s brothers, and the others that had been openly hunting his blood, but surely not all the elves would want him dead... especially not with Legolas with him...
    "Legolas," the young man shook his head, turning questioning eyes upon his friend. "Why are we hiding? What are all these people doing out here? You said I was free to go if I wished..." he didn’t understand.
    The question had been nibbling at the back of his mind since they had been locked inside the palace, but he hadn’t had the time for it to form into a conscious thought until now.
    Legolas’ gaze followed the retreating form of the guards, intentionally not meeting his friend’s eye. "They’re not looking for you, Aragorn," he said quietly. "Come, they’ve gone."
    "Whoa, wait," Aragorn caught the elf prince’s arm, halting him. "What do you mean they’re not looking for me? Then... who are they looking for?"
    Legolas sighed, giving his friend a look that seemed to question his intelligence. "There’s only two of us, Strider. If they’re not looking for you, who do you think they’re looking for?"
    "But... but why?" the young ranger shook his head, his brows furrowing in concern.
    Legolas looked away, obviously preferring that they not have this conversation. "My father and I had a... a difference of opinion regarding my involvement in your case. It is a small matter," he made light of the situation. "We should be going."
    Aragorn wasn’t about to let it drop that easily. He was beginning to realize that he may have gotten his friend into worse trouble than he thought and that notion did not sit well with him.
    "Legolas," his voice was serious and he gestured towards where the last search party had disappeared a few moments previous. "That is not a ‘small matter’. They have half of Mirkwood searching for us. What’s going on?"
    Legolas looked perturbed by his friend’s unwillingness to let the matter go. "You recall I mentioned to you that there is a law forbidding royalty to interfere in situations like yours?" he said at last with a small sigh. "Well it seems my actions have placed me on the other side of that edict."
    Aragorn’s eyes widened. "They want to arrest you?"
    Legolas fixed him with an almost amused stare. "That seems to be the general idea."
    Aragorn didn’t find it funny. "Legolas..."
    The elven prince raised his hand, cutting off his friend’s words. "We need to prove your innocence beyond a shadow of a doubt, Aragorn. We need to figure out what happened to those missing arrows. That is what we must concentrate on now," he said firmly.
    Aragorn nodded slowly. He figured that the sooner they got his name cleared, the sooner Legolas would be able to go home as well.
    Right now, however, all Aragorn could really think about was how very cold it was. Night had set upon them and, along with the chill, he had to fight back the shudder that ran up his spine whenever he let his gaze drift out at the darkness around them. Eyes glittered dully in the dark, seeming to be illuminated in their own light. Bulbous spider eyes, and hard, squinty, evil eyes that he could not even begin to guess at the nature of. They made his flesh crawl, although he was not about to admit that to anyone, especially since Legolas seemed unperturbed by either the darkness or the eyes. Of course, Legolas had lived in these woods a long, long time.
    "I still don’t see why we can’t have a fire," the young ranger shook his head. The elf might not need the warmth, but dang it all, he sure wouldn’t mind some right about now. "We’re deep into the southern reaches now, there’s no search parties about, no one to see us... there’s plenty of kindling..."
    Legolas rolled his eyes. They had been over this before. He wasn’t about to try explaining again. "All right," the prince didn’t argue this time. Instead he simply settled down onto the ground with his back against a tree and waved his hand permissively. "Go ahead and start one."
    Aragorn set to work and soon had a cheery little blaze started. He didn’t understand why Legolas had been against the idea... for about five seconds. Then, the eyes began to appear. He had thought that the three or four sets peering out at them on occasion were bad, now there seemed to be hundreds of them. The creatures stayed just out of reach of any light that might reveal them, but their eyes shone brightly in the firelight and Aragorn could swear they looked hungry.
    Almost instantly a huge cloud of great, grey-bodied moths descended upon them, drawn by the light of the fire. The air was suddenly thick with their large, flapping bodies as they whirled around the two friends’ ears and threw themselves heedlessly into the flames, creating quite a foul odor.
    Aragorn swore and swatted at the moths, but there was no getting rid of them, nor the menacing presence of the eyes.
    Legolas watched impassively from his place against the tree, only blinking and turning away when the moths fluttered into his face. He looked at Aragorn with a gaze that seemed to say: "Well, isn’t this fun?"
    After about a minute of that, the young ranger quickly kicked out the fire and some semblance of calm began to return to the area as the eyes faded and the moths began to disperse. However, Aragorn couldn’t shake the awful thought that maybe the eyes weren’t really gone, you just couldn’t see them without the reflection of the firelight.
    He dropped down next to Legolas, as close as he could get without actually seeming like he wanted to be close. He could feel Legolas looking at him in the dark. "Don’t say it," the young man warned.
    "Say what?" Legolas asked innocently, but there was hedged amusement behind his tone.
    "That you tried to warn me, about the fire. Don’t say it." Aragorn glared at the elf in the darkness, shivering involuntarily.
    "I don’t seem to need to, you just did," there was no mistaking the hint of laughter in the elf’s voice this time.
    Aragorn grimaced and shook his head. "You know, I’m afraid I really don’t think much of your home right now, Legolas."
    The elf prince beside him sighed. "It was not always like this," he said quietly. Aragorn had meant the words as a jesting barb, but Legolas was serious in his reply. "I can remember the days when Greenwood the Great was beautiful and exceedingly fair. Before evil came and turned it into this place. Into Mirkwood. Many things are changing, Strider. Many things have changed. Some for the better, some for the worse."
    Aragorn just nodded. He was used to elves and their ways. He was accustomed to the ease with which they could go from merry to serious and back again in the blink of an eye; and their often-mysterious comments did not puzzle him. Perhaps that was one of the reasons that he and Legolas were able to become as close as they had, because at some times, Aragorn could think almost like an elf, although at others he was obviously all human.
    Legolas took the first watch. Aragorn thought that sleeping would be next to impossible for him that night, but he managed to doze off eventually, worn-out by the events of the day.

    It seemed he had only just closed his eyes when Legolas was shaking him awake.
    "What? What is it?" Aragorn forced his sleep-leadened eyes open, trying to pierce the thick gloom around them. In the dark he could just see the outline of his friend’s face. "Is it my turn already?" he yawned, but Legolas pressed his fingers to the man’s lips, bidding him be silent. Instantly, Aragorn was alert, if not fully awake. He probed the darkness around them for any sign of danger, but heard nothing.
    Nothing. Not even the sound of the crickets or nighttime birds. The out of doors should never be this dead silent.
    Aragorn scrambled quietly to his feet, looking around warily. "What’s out there?" he breathed quietly, knowing Legolas could hear his faintest whispers.
    "I don’t know," Legolas shook his head. "But we’re not safe here. Come on."
    Aragorn followed the elf without question, trusting to Legolas’ knowledge of his own woods. They pushed silently through the nearly pitch black forest and for all his trained skill, Aragorn had no idea which direction they were going. He could see nothing but the faint outline of Legolas in front of him.
    Suddenly that too disappeared and Aragorn stopped in his tracks. "Legolas?" he whispered. "Legolas!"
    "Shh!" the voice came from above him as Legolas popped his head down, hanging onto a tree branch above Aragorn’s head. "Come, we’ll be safer up here tonight," the elf beckoned the ranger to follow before swinging farther up into the tree.
    "Right. No problem," Aragorn murmured somewhat sarcastically as he grabbed the branch above his head and pulled himself up. Aragorn climbed slowly up to where Legolas waited for him. By now he knew better than to compare himself to elves. He could never match their speed, agility or grace. Growing up with them had taught him that and he did not particularly care that his own ascent was somewhat slower and more clumsy than his friend’s had been.
    High above the ground, two thick branches crossed, one on top of the other, forming a slanted "v" with each other and the tree truck. Legolas sat easily in the groove, his back against the tree trunk, one knee bent, the other dangling freely over the side of the branch.
    "Trouble?" he inquired when Aragorn dropped down heavily in front of him.
    "No," the young ranger shook his head with another yawn. "I love being woken out of a dead sleep to climb trees in the pitch black. It’s such fun."
    Legolas laughed quietly, then hushed his friend once more. Beneath them they heard a menacing growl and the rustle of bodies moving low to the ground.
    "Wargs," Legolas said with a disgusted look. "We must be further south than I thought."
    Aragorn nodded in the blackness, suddenly glad for the distance between themselves and the hunting beasts below. "They can’t climb trees, we’re safe up here," he breathed with some relief.
    "Yes, from everything but spiders," Legolas said glibly, casting his friend a wicked glance that Aragorn could not see in the dark.
    Aragorn sighed. "Did I tell you how much..."
    "You don’t like this place?" Legolas interrupted with a grin. "Yes. Several times. I begin to think you are a most ungracious guest in my home. Now get some sleep or you’ll be intolerable tomorrow. I know how you humans are about that."
    Aragorn rolled his eyes, stifling another weary yawn. "Sure, just curl up and fall asleep right here."
    Legolas nodded matter-of-factly. "Of course."
    Aragorn did not protest, but leaned back against the branch behind him and attempted to rest, but he was too tense and could not seem to forget the long drop beneath them. The branches they rested on were entirely too thin for his comfort, although they certainly seemed to be proving sturdy enough. His sleep was fitful and every time he started to doze off he felt as if the floor had dropped out from under him and he was falling... falling... only to jerk awake when his body tensed up from the dream.
    After a half hour of listening to the young ranger jerk, turn and fidget on the branch next to him, Legolas had had enough. "Come on, Strider, come over here."
    Aragorn gave a muffled grunt that was supposed to be some kind of answer, but it came across more like the sound one might get if they poked a cranky bear who was somewhere between hibernation and waking.
    "Come on," Legolas persisted, half dragging the human closer to him. Positioning Aragorn in front of him, he pulled the young man’s head back against his shoulder, wrapping his arms securely around his friend’s chest.
    "What’re you doing?" Aragorn slurred sleepily.
    "Ensuring that I get a little peace tonight and can hear something other than you jerking all night long," Legolas said lightly as he pushed Aragorn’s head to the side a little more so that the ranger’s hair was not in the elf’s face. "Now rest. Rest..."
    And Aragorn did rest. Secure in Legolas’ grip he did not stir again until dawn began to frost the trees in milky-golden light. Only because they were high up amid the treetops could they even see the breaking dawn. Down on the forest floor no glimmering trace of its radiance could penetrate the perpetual twilight that held sway over these parts of Mirkwood.

    When Aragorn awoke he was not entirely sure where he was, but he quickly became aware that a pair of strong, slender arms was wrapped securely around his waist. He stirred and started to pull away automatically.
    Legolas tightened his grip slightly until he was sure that Aragorn was all the way awake. "Easy, my friend, it’s a long drop down if you get up on the wrong side of the bed this morning."
    Aragorn remembered where they were then and rubbed the sleep out of his eyes before moving away with more caution. "You didn’t wake me," he semi-accused as he glanced at the growing light filtering in through the canopy of leaves about them. "You were supposed to wake me for the second watch."
    Legolas shrugged, stretching the stiffness out of his arms and back that had accumulated from supporting Aragorn all night. "You were sleeping so peacefully, and you seem to need so much more rest than I do."
    "Legolas," Aragorn’s gaze was serious. "You don’t have to take care of me. I can take care of myself and I can pull my own weight. I know I must seem like a child to you, but I’m not."
    Legolas smiled at his friend, but his eyes were serious this time as well. "I know, Aragorn. But neither do you have to do everything on your own. Pride only serves you so far, Strider." He grinned lightly then. "So, do you want to race to the bottom of the tree?" It was a slight barb and Aragorn knew it. Legolas was well aware that he could move faster through the tree tops than the human could.
    Aragorn turned a devilish grin upon his friend. "Beat you there!" Without stopping to think about it another moment, he swung off the branch he was sitting on, catching it with his hands and allowing himself free-swing for a moment before letting go and dropping straight to the ground, far below them.
    "Aragorn!" Legolas shouted in concern, so surprised he didn’t move fast enough to catch or stop his friend’s impulsive act.
    Aragorn landed sure-footed, dropping into a crouch to absorb the impact of his landing. He was standing and leaning against the base of the tree when Legolas made it down a few moments later, dropping lightly to the earth from a slightly saner jumping-off spot a few branches up.
    "What kept you?" the young ranger couldn’t help saying carelessly when his friend turned worried, irritated eyes upon him.
    "That was foolish Aragorn! You could have broken your neck," Legolas chided, having been more frightened for a few moments than he liked to admit.
    "I won," Aragorn pointed out. "You were beaten by a human and you don’t want to admit it."
    Legolas rolled his eyes. "What did I do to deserve you?" he asked in exasperation. "I’m out here trying to save your hide and your reputation and you have nothing better to do than nearly kill yourself with crazy stunts like that!"
    Aragorn just grinned infuriatingly, the kind of grin that usually guaranteed a scrap if Elladan and Elrohir had been around. Fortunately for the young human, Legolas was slightly more reserved with him than his adopted brothers were.
    Legolas just threw his hands up in defeat and turned away with a half-stifled laugh. "I give up. You are hopeless, Strider."
    Aragorn had to jog to catch up with the Prince. "So what do we do now? How can we prove anything way out here?"
    "I thought you had all the answers for everything," Legolas eyed him from the corner of his vision. A deep ravine slanted downward before them.
    "Come on, Legolas, I’m being serious," Aragorn shook his head.
    "So am I," the elf prince returned with a sigh as the two of them picked their way down a rocky path along one side of the ravine. "We’re going to have to go back... but that may be easier said than done."
    "All right, so we go back, and then what?" the young ranger pressed as they circumvented a large knot of tree roots.
    "I haven’t figured that out yet," Legolas said bluntly. "Have you?"
    "Not yet," Aragorn admitted. He really hadn’t expected Legolas to have any answers for him, he had just hoped...
    Legolas stopped and caught his friend’s eyes with a reassuring smile. "Don’t worry, Aragorn, we’re going to get this worked out."
    The young ranger nodded slowly and smiled back.
    Several moments of silence followed as the two friends made their way down the north face of the ravine, along a small, forgotten trail that wound slowly downward.
    "Legolas?" Aragorn’s voice broke the stillness as they gained the bottom of the ravine. "Are you sure this is the way back?"
    Legolas did not answer, but pushed past a ledge of sweeping vines.
    "Legolas?" Aragorn’s concern mounted quickly.
    "No, I’m not sure, is that what you want to hear?" Legolas responded somewhat testily as he looked around them. It was not easy for him to admit to being turned around in these woods, but he had never been in this area before and their trip in the dark last night had not helped matters.
    Aragorn’s eyes widened. "We’re lost?"
    "No, we’re not lost," Legolas assured. "There’s a stream down here, you see?" he pointed to a broad, swift-flowing brook that cut its way through the dark, tangled undergrowth of the ravine. "Now it’s got to be going to meet up with the Forest River. If we follow it, we’ll reach the river and can easily find our way from there."
    "In other words, we’re lost. I never heard of an elf getting lost before." Aragorn ventured unwisely, not quite suppressing his grin enough.
    "And I, on the other hand, have heard plenty of stories about how young rangers disappear in these woods without a trace," Legolas said pointedly with a thin smile.
    Aragorn wisely chose to shut up.
    "If you hadn’t been so busy trying to kill yourself this morning and looked around in the daylight," Legolas said after a few moments as they forged deeper into the shadowy depths of the ravine, "you would have been able to see the far distant shape of empty black towers." Of course, without elven vision it was doubtful that Aragorn would have been able to see anything.
    Aragorn sobered immediately, not having realized that they were that far south. "Dol Guldur?"
    Legolas nodded. "Not quite a hundred miles to the south. My people do not venture in this area, Strider, or at least not often. I have not been this far south in Mirkwood in more than a thousand years. And I do not believe I have ever been in this area before, or if I was it looked significantly different."
    The elf prince stopped short, reaching for his bow. "There’s something here..."

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