Priceless Treasure

Chapter 9

by Cassia and Siobhan

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...80 years later...

"My father will not let you get away with this." Eldarion struggled helplessly against his captors as they pulled his bound hands above his head, throwing the rope over a root that protruded from the rock face several feet above the young man’s head. The rope fell back down and the prince was jerked harshly up, his feet barely touching the ground. A small cry escaped his lips as the men around him roughly tied the rope off.

Dyryn had brought Eldarion to an open glade that butted up against a rocky cliff. The trees formed a semicircle around the small indention in the forest, where nothing but the valley grasses grew. The rocky incline at the back of the shallow stretched a good fifty feet, creating a natural barrier not only for the plant life that flourished in the shadow of the mountain but for anyone who might try to use the cover of the trees to reach the boy tied against the rock face.

Dyryn had found the hollowed out bowl and seen in it the perfect place to set a trap, not more than a mile away from where the King and his party had bedded down for the night. The bounty hunter had made sure that it would be easy enough to track the young boy back to this very spot. Now they worked quickly to ready the snare for the ones who would follow.

Kolir smiled and slapped the young man across the face. "Don’t worry, we’re counting on your father to come looking for you." He grabbed the prince’s jaw and twisted the youth’s head to the side, where Dyryn was mounting a crossbow on top of an old stump, just to the left of where Eldarion was bound, hidden back in the trees. The old hunter strapped the weapon down to the dead wood and locked the drawstring in place, laying a bolt across the readied bow.

Kolir released the prince’s face and pulled his dagger from its sheath on his belt, running the blade’s edge lightly down the side of the boy’s face. He traced the curve of Eldarion’s neck, dragging the tip down across the prince’s chest and deftly cutting the first button off of his tunic. He pressed the tip of the knife against the soft skin above Eldarion’s heart, causing the boy to cry out as he cut a small ‘x’ across the boy’s chest. Leaning in close and laying his face next to the young man’s, he whispered, "And that’s where the other one is going to hit," Kolir motioned across the small glen to where another crossbow was being readied, pointing straight for Eldarion’s heart, "but only after the first one kills your father."

"Kolir, shut your mouth and finish up there." Dyryn growled at his accomplice. "Help Vec cover up those trip wires. Can't have that ranger wise to us until it’s too late." The old bounty hunter finished setting the second crossbow, bending down to make sure the bolt was lined up with the boy’s heart. His features were hidden by the hooded cloak he constantly wore, and Eldarion had yet to discover who he truly was.

There was no more time for questions as Kolir pressed a piece of wadded-up cloth into the boy’s mouth and tied it off there with another strip of fabric. He slammed the boy’s head forcefully back against the rock behind him, causing stars to dance before the prince’s eyes. Tears of helplessness and fear edged the rims of his wide blue eyes as Kolir tightened the bonds at his ankles and coiled another length of rope around the boy’s thighs, pinning him in place.

Eldarion pressed his eyes shut, unwilling to allow these men to see him cry. He wanted nothing more than to be back with his father but, knowing what he did, he prayed his father would never find him, ever. His breathing hitched slightly and Kolir smirked at him, ruffling the youth’s hair as he walked away. "What? This will be fun," he taunted the boy.

Eldarion jerked away from the man, but the laughter of his captors bit deeply into his heart. He watched in horror as the trap was set for his father. Kolir and Vec finished disguising the trip wires that would fire the crossbows and Eldarion doubted if even Legolas would be able to tell that they were there. Dyryn camouflaged the crossbows, making sure that the tree branches would not block or deflect the bolts. With a satisfied smile he left the glade, completely ignoring the child on the far side who leaned against his bonds in defeat. Tears slid down his fair face now that he was alone and the gag made it hard to breathe. Rain began to fall gently in the glen; the storm clouds finally having enough of carrying their weighty load had decided to stop and shed their burden. The grey skies reflected the dark thoughts in the young man’s heart as he waited and hoped he would never be found.


Legolas walked soundlessly in front of Aragorn. The tell-tale signs of the kidnapper’s flight were easily read in the crushed plant life and the heavy prints in the soft ground made by their boots. They had made no attempt to cover their escape and the smears of bright red on the leaves of the lower-hanging trees created a mounting dread in the elf.

"They do not hide their passing." Legolas turned back towards the human that trailed him. "I fear what we will find."

Aragorn’s silver eyes flashed darkly and he only nodded in reply.

It had started to rain moments ago, the droplets barely making it to the forest floor. They had walked nearly a mile in the predawn gloom and now the storm darkened their path again.

Legolas stopped, pressing his arm straight out from his side to stop Aragorn. There were no sounds of life in this part of the woods and unnatural unease crept over the friends. The elf crouched down in the path where they stood, pulling Aragorn down beside him. He waited quietly, listening, smelling their surroundings, waiting.

A soft whimper touched their ears, more a sob than a cry. But it was enough to send Aragorn lurching forward. Legolas grabbed the human and pulled him back, fighting the fierce desperation that tore at the man’s heart.

Aragorn turned, pointing back in the direction he had been heading while grasping the elf’s cloak desperately with his other hand. They communicated without speech, a language developed over years of hunting and wilderness survival together.

Legolas shook his head vigorously, pointing at his own eyes with his fingertips. He indicated with a sharp downward motion that he wanted Aragorn to remain while he went and took a look around. The king would not agree, touching his ears and pointing back to where the sounds had originated from.

The elf forcefully jerked the human off his feet and firmly planted the king behind him. Removing his elven dagger from his boot he held the flat of it against the man’s neck, pressing his face close to his friend's. It was a warning of the most severe kind. He did not want the human to follow him. Dark, angry eyes held his and did not give in.

"Stay," Legolas barely whispered in elvish. When Aragorn did not answer, the elf stepped away and walked toward the hidden glade. He turned a few paces out and pointed the dagger back at his friend for emphasis. In resignation Aragorn stepped near the closest tree and crouched down at the base of the pine. Legolas nodded and disappeared into the forest.

The elf stepped cautiously up to the perimeter of the small glen, his heart catching in his throat when his eyes fixed on the young boy across the way. The young prince’s head hung down in defeat and he leaned against his bonds; rain dripped from his forlorn form and pooled in the grass at his feet. The front of his wet tunic was stained red with blood that the rain was washing down from the cut Kolir had given him, making it impossible to tell from this angle exactly where, or how badly the young prince had been hurt. The boy’s breathing hitched as he tried to calm himself but to no avail. Legolas waited on the edge of the meadow... waited and watched. He could see no snares or traps. It seemed for all purposes that Eldarion had been strung up here and simply left, but he knew it could not be so. He remembered Dyryn, remembered the man’s brutality and cunning; his instincts told him there was more to this than he could see.

The snap of a twig caused the elf to swivel, the blade in his hand coming up automatically. He breathed a sigh of relief and frustration as Aragorn crept up to his position.

The easily read tracks of Dyryn and his men led to this very point in the forest and the human had followed them to his friend.

Legolas tried to press Aragorn back. He did not want the man rushing into the glen just yet, but the elf knew that if he caught a glimpse of Eldarion there would be no stopping him.

True enough, the king’s eyes lighted on his son across the way. The utter sorrow and horror that touched them went straight through the elf’s heart.

"Wait." Legolas touched Aragorn’s chest gently with his fingers. "It is not right."

"Legolas!" The man whispered desperately at his friend. Eldarion choked back a sob, the gag preventing him from swallowing properly. The soft whimper was all it took to send the boy’s father past all reason and into harm’s way. Not even the warning of his lifelong friend could override the protective anger in his heart that drove him forward.

Eldarion looked up as the movement caught his attention. His eyes went wide and he shook his head vehemently, desperately trying to speak around the gag and warn his father, but it was no use.

Aragorn quickly crossed the threshold of the meadow, reaching for his sword as he stepped onto the slick wet grass. His boots snared a thin line hidden in the green blades. The tiny snick of the cut wires was undetected by the human, whose eyes were locked on the horrified ones of his son. The triggers of the snare, having been severed, snaked wildly through the long grass, released from their tension, as were the bowstrings on the weapons that they had been tied to.

"Aragorn!" Legolas saw and heard the danger the moment before it happened. The two rigged crossbows fired at nearly the same time, but not quite.

Aragorn realized the peril a few moments too late to avoid it. Often people say time seems to slow at an instant such as that, but it was not so for Aragorn because everything seemed to him to happen much too fast.

Before Aragorn even had a chance to finish registering the threat, the king felt Legolas’ body slam into him, pushing him sideways, out of the path of the deadly bolt.

Only his elven speed and reflexes got Legolas to his friend’s side before the shot went through the human’s heart, but not even they could get the elf out of the way in time as well.

The bolt meant for Aragorn struck Legolas in the back, near his left shoulder blade, whirling the prince partway round and making him stumble from the force of the heavy poundage-per-inch that the crossbows possessed.

The spin placed Legolas directly in the path of the second shot, meant for Eldarion, from the other side of the glade. Closer at hand than the first, this bolt had even more power behind it.

Falling to his knees from the force of Legolas’ shove, Aragorn saw what unfolded in a split instant of sheer horror. Legolas turned and stumbled under the impact of the shot meant for him and almost immediately was caught by the second shot as well. The bolt intended for Eldarion struck the elf prince directly in the chest.

Aragorn thought he must have screamed his friend’s name, but he could not remember afterwards. What he did remember was the wide-eyed look on the elf’s face and hearing Legolas’ cry of shock and pain as the prince stumbled forward, clutching his chest numbly and not really seeming to understand yet what had happened.

Legolas sank slowly to the muddy earth, a look of semi-shock frozen on his fair features.

"Legolas!" Aragorn caught the elf prince before he hit the ground. Bright red blood covered the king’s hands as he knelt, holding Legolas gently in his arms. His shaking fingers caught on the ugly, dark shaft of the crossbow bolt protruding from the back of the elf’s left shoulder and he quickly shifted his hold so as not to aggravate the wound. There was no sign of the bolt that had hit the prince in the chest; the smooth shaft had gone straight through, leaving only the swiftly growing crimson stain that was rapidly soaking the front of Legolas’ pale, green-brown tunic.

The shoulder wound was bad, but Aragorn feared that the chest wound was going to be deadly. It was far too near Legolas’ heart for comfort, even though it had apparently missed hitting it directly. The elf prince’s eyes were glazed and his body trembled as if he were cold.

"Legolas!" Aragorn whispered again in horrified alarm. The chill rain pattered down on them, spreading the bloodstains larger and plastering the prince’s golden hair against his pale face.

"A-Aragorn... are you... all right?" Legolas forced his eyes to focus slowly on his friend. He choked slightly on the words. Cold, icy pain was radiating from his wounds and his body responded sluggishly to his commands. He was frightened, but not terrified. Death was a novel concept to elves, although Legolas had certainly seen his share of it. Confused thoughts jumbled through his mind and he wasn’t sure what to make of them all. The pain faded in and out like the gusts of wind, sometimes disappearing altogether... Aragorn’s arms tightened desperately around the elf, bringing the prince back to the moment, and the pain. He moaned softly.

Aragorn knew that they were not safe. Whatever trap they had stepped into was surely closing fast if indeed it had not already snapped shut around them, but Legolas could not be moved and he feared that if he so much as released him for an instant, the light would leave the elf’s eyes forever and an immortal spirit would disappear into a night it should not have had to taste.

"I’m all right, Legolas," Aragorn choked on the lump in his throat. "But you had better not dare try to tell me you are ‘just fine’ this time..." He could not finish the old jest, his throat swelled shut and his voice refused to work.

Legolas smiled faintly. "No... no. I think not this time..." he coughed. The elf seemed to be having trouble breathing and shuddered softly in Aragorn’s arms. "E-Eldarion?" he questioned somewhat apprehensively.

"He’s fine too," Aragorn assured gently. "Don’t worry about us, Legolas..." He resisted the urge to say Legolas should not have done what he did, the former ranger knew his old friend far too well for that. Aragorn realized that he was also trembling as he held Legolas close to him, pressing the corner of his damp cloak against the heavily bleeding wound just to the right of the elf’s heart, trying desperately to bring it under control. He saw the numb, dazed pain on Legolas’ face and felt as if the arrow had gone through his own soul.

As it should have.

Every beat of his breaking heart told him that it should be him, not Legolas. Those arrows were meant for he and Eldarion, not the elf... But it was his friend who was dying.

Legolas’ breath caught as the pain made his chest muscles seize up around his diaphragm. Remarkably, his lungs had not been punctured, but his breathing was difficult all the same. Aragorn tried to ease him into a better position, but Legolas cried out softly at being moved. The pain was building again. His hands trembled as he wrapped his long, bloodstained fingers in Aragorn’s cloak, holding onto his friend like he was holding onto life itself. A chill that had nothing to do with the icy rain was creeping over his body. "It’s getting c-cold..." Legolas murmured, fighting hard against the pain that wanted to overwhelm him.

The same fearful ice seemed to have entered into Aragorn’s veins as he held his friend close. But there was little he could do to assuage the frost creeping over Legolas. Tears stung the king’s eyes, hidden by the rain. He did not want to have to helplessly watch Legolas die in his arms as he had watched Boromir die, as he had watched Haldir die, as he had seen too many both mortal and immortal perish during the long course of his life.

"Dartho Legolas, Dartho mellon nîn, ú-awartha i arad, an i tinnu, egor pada i guruthos nîf-ned anannch lîn...," Aragorn pleaded quietly. "Hold on Legolas, hold on my friend, do not forsake the day for the twilight, nor tread the shadows before your time..." his throat constricted again and he could not finish.

Legolas smiled weakly, remembering the last time those words had been spoken. Remembering all that he and Aragorn had done together over the course of their long friendship, both the brave and the foolish, the serious and the joyful... "Edhored nin, forgive me Estel," his voice wavered unsteadily, speaking was difficult. "I-I don’t know if this creeping chill is one that can be conquered, my friend. I fear it is too strong this time..."

"No," Aragorn whispered his denial. "You never gave up on me, ever. I won’t let you go, not now, not like this!"

"Touching. So touching," A hard, sardonic voice startled them and made the king look up.

Aragorn’s burning eyes fell upon the man standing before them and blazed as if he would like to kill the fellow with the intensity of his gaze. The man was tall and swarthy, a cocked cross-bow was in his hands, leveled squarely with Aragorn’s chest. Three other men stood behind him, similarly armed, although at least two of them had their crossbows trained on Eldarion. The meaning was clear. If Aragorn tried anything, his son died first.

"Friendship is such a sweet thing to see," the man who had spoken before continued mockingly. A loosely wrapped headdress kept all save his eyes hidden from sight, but Aragorn didn’t need to see his face. He knew the voice well enough. The voice etched into the deepest lines of his worst nightmares. The voice that taunted and laughed at him when he was helpless and hallucinating, dying of cold in the frostbitten mountains...

"Dyryn," Aragorn said between his teeth. The anger in his chest was so hot that it was a wonder it did not radiate outward and turn the rain to steam as it touched him. Clutching Legolas to him tighter, he moved slightly, putting himself between Eldarion and this ancient enemy from the long distant past.

"You remember me, ranger. How nice. I suppose it would be bad taste to leave someone for dead and then forget all about them," Dyryn sneered. "Although I wager that’s exactly what you did, your Highness." The man’s ruthless gaze shifted to Legolas. "It’s fitting that you should both be here. The two who cost me so much." In truth, Dyryn’s plans had only involved Aragorn and his son, but the elf had chosen to intrude and get in the way, just as he had so many years ago, and so Dyryn was given a new opportunity now. One that he rather relished the thought of.

"Speechless?" Dyryn grinned. "But then, why not? I suppose you never expected to see me again, alive." With one swift move he unhooked the veil that hid his face.

Next to him, Aragorn heard Eldarion give a small gasp around the gag on his mouth.

Dyryn’s face was so hideously twisted that not even Aragorn recognized him now. Wide, ugly scars crisscrossed it like vines crawling up the side of a building and the skin pinched and puckered in a grotesque manner.

"Well you may gasp, boy," Dyryn glared at Eldarion. "It’s not a pretty sight, is it? Know then, that this is what your father did to me!" his burning eyes turned back on Aragorn. "You abandoned me buried alive in the middle of that storm! This, this!" he held up his left hand, it was malformed, clenched in a perpetual fist. "This I lost to the frost and the fall, and when I crawled out at last, frozen and broken I swore that someday if I ever had the chance, you were going to know my pain," his voice was barely above a whisper now, and trembling with rage built up over many long years. "You never were an easy man to find, and the years fly away too quickly. For some time I thought you dead... and then what do I see one day? But that the shivering beggar has become a king! Of all the twists of fate that was the most cruel, and from the moment I discovered this, your doom has been sealed; you just didn’t know it. And now, at last, fate has put you and your meddling friend back in my grasp."

"You tried to kill Legolas and I both," the deadly ire in Aragorn’s voice matched that of their captor. "You dragged me through the snow for weeks, so drugged and beaten I could barely stand up! Don’t you dare speak to me about un-amended wrongs!"

"Every story has two sides," Dyryn glared. "And time brings all things, including justice. Now it is time for you to pay, and you will pay, as dearly as you can."

"You must know that our deaths will not go un-avenged," Aragorn said coldly, without a trace of fear, still crouching directly in front of his son and holding Legolas tightly.

Dyryn’s smile was thin and feral. "But you will not die, Your Highness. You will live. You will live with all the pain and rage and loss that I have had to live with. And you will have to live with the consequences of your own choice. It is the job of a king, is it not, to decide who lives and who dies?" Dyryn raised one eyebrow in cruel amusement. He let the implications of his statement hang in the air for several minutes, watching his prey; the sounds of the soft rain pattering into tiny pools on the forest floor broke the stillness. He blinked the raindrops out of his eyes, his smile broadening as dawning horror spread across the king’s face.

Aragorn tensed. He did not like the way this seemed to be heading at all.

"Two people are going to walk out of this glade alive today, but one will not. So choose now, oh high and mighty King Elessar, which will it be? Who will you save? The life of your son? Or the life of your friend? Because the other must die." Dyryn swiveled the point of his crossbow between Legolas and Eldarion as he spoke, tapping the wood of the thick bolt with his forefinger.

Aragorn’s grip on Legolas’ cloak tightened until his knuckles turned white as the horror of what Dyryn wanted to force him to do washed over him. "I choose myself," the king said without hesitation. "Kill me, Dyryn, and let the others be. I’m the one you really hate."

Dyryn shook his head. "You weren’t listening. That is not an option. Dying seems to me too easy for you now that I think it through. No. You are going to live, and find out just how much more painful that can be. So choose. Which one are you going to condemn to death and which one will you save?"

"Aragorn..." Legolas whispered, wrapping his hand tighter in his friend’s sleeve and pulling slightly to get his attention. "I may be treading that path already. Take your son, take him back to Arwen, leave while you can and don’t look back, my friend. Please."

Eldarion could not speak around the gag Kolir had shoved in his mouth earlier, but he made muffled sounds of protest and shook his head fiercely, trying to catch his father’s eye. He would not have his life purchased with the life of another. He had far too much of his father in him to tolerate such a thought and he would not see his father forfeit the life of his best friend or anyone else on his account.

Aragorn felt as if he had been caught between a hammer and an anvil. His heart was torn and he physically could not breathe. This was a choice he could not make. How could he possibly choose between his dear young son and the elf that had become as close as a brother to him? If Dyryn had wanted to force upon Aragorn the cruelest thing he could contrive, he had succeeded.

Grey rain slated down Aragorn’s face, making his dark tresses cling to his brow.


But he could not choose. How could anyone make the choice being set before him? It was impossible. It would break a heart of stone, and right now, Aragorn was very aware that his heart was made of anything but.

Legolas’ blood covered his hands and ran down to mingle with the mud by his boots as he clung to the elf, willing the life to stay in his friend’s body. He was the King of Gondor and Arnor, but he could not command Legolas’ heart to keep beating, nor bind his spirit to this world if it should choose to set flight. The elf moaned softly and shuddered as the pain of his injuries grew.

"Stay with me, Legolas," he whispered softly in elvish. "Don’t leave me like this, my friend."

Beside him, Aragorn’s young son, Eldarion, struggled against the bonds that held him, the bonds that Aragorn was now helpless to remove. The boy’s quick breathing around the gag in his mouth clouded on the chilly air as Aragorn met his son’s eyes, wishing he had something to give the young man besides the burning knowledge of how very much his father loved him.

"So which will it be?" the voice of the man who had orchestrated this whole nightmare grated on Aragorn’s nerves, making him want more than anything to spring up and choke the life out of his sneering adversary... but any such move would forfeit all their lives.

"Your life is full of choices isn’t it? Your Highness," the title was a slur. "So choose now or they both die."

The rain pelted as fast as Aragorn’s spinning thoughts. He couldn’t choose. He couldn’t. Had anyone ever been forced to make a crueler decision...?

Oh yes.

One had.

The memory came back to Aragorn in a rush, a day he had not thought of in many, many years. Oh father, I understand so much better now...

Their captor waved his bow impatiently. "Choose!"

Aragorn buried his face in the shoulder of Legolas’ cloak, letting his head sink down, burdened by the heavy choice being pressed upon him. He thought that his heart was physically going to break in two. He wished he had died a dozen times before coming to this place, this impossible place with this choice he could not escape from.

"Aragorn..." Legolas’ voice was as firm and as fierce as he could make it around his injuries. He gripped his friend’s shoulder with an intensity that belied his weakness. "You know... what you chose. Th-that night in the house. Remember what-what you told your father? You were ready... and so am I. Do now what you know you have to and d-do not blame yourself. Ever. Do you understand me, Estel? Do you?"

Aragorn barely shook his head, denying the memories. He squeezed his eyes tighter shut, not willing to accept his friend’s words, no more than Elrond had been willing to accept his on that long ago night of which Legolas spoke...

In his mind’s eye he saw again the deep, heartbreaking horror etched into the usually calm, kind face of his adopted father... perhaps the only time Aragorn had ever seen the elf lord nearly lose control. And now Aragorn felt that same dagger twisting in his own heart, ripping him apart and leaving him bleeding and raw.

Now he knew. At last he finally understood how Elrond must have felt all those many years ago. Understood it far too well, and, as usual, too late.