Seventh Stone


by Cassia and Siobhan

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    Running his long slender fingers along the page edges of the book he read, Saruman sighed heavily. The large tome was boring and he glanced out the thin window that graced his study high in the mid-rooms of Orthanc. He idly flipped the book shut and stood to his feet. He made his way out into the lush gardens that grew inside of the perimeter of the high stone walls of Isengard, the fortress stronghold that surrounded the tall elegant black spire that rose from its center, the only dwelling in the encampment.
    A frown crossed his gaunt features as the wizard thought back to years not long since when he had thoroughly enjoyed walking through the trees and garden paths that surrounded his dwelling. The rich plant life no longer gave him such pleasures and his mind roved to darker thoughts. He was a being of great patience, but he knew his time was coming, it was coming soon when he would no longer serve humankind or the creatures that roamed Middle-earth. The time was coming when they would serve him. A slight, grim smile decorated his countenance and he stopped in the middle of the path, his sharp ears picking up the faint sounds of a flock of crows heading in from the west. The thin smile broadened as he looked overhead. "So, my friends, you have returned. What word have you of that which I seek?"
    Saruman stretched his hand out and held it slightly up, the overlarge sleeve of his robe sliding back down his arm. A sleek black crow spiraled down from the flock that swirled overhead screeching and calling one to another and speaking as one to the Maia.
    "And the elf and the human have escaped Moria and Paxcyn isn't even close to their whereabouts? Why am I not surprised? Perhaps it is time they had a bit of assistance. I think I'll send a troop of orcs to point him in the right direction. That ought to encourage that fool to take me more seriously. I have grown weary of men. Soon their time will run out and I will suffer their company no more." Saruman glanced out over the tops of the surrounding trees, his gaze thrown far into the future. The crows had begun to settle in the sheltered canopies of Isengard.
    The bird that had lighted on his arm cocked its head slightly, one dark beady eye watching the wizard. "Very well. It is that fool Drelent's turn. Let's us hope for his sake he is as smart as he thinks he is." The white-haired man looked at the crow perched on his tunic sleeve. "You know the one of whom I speak? The man with the scar," He drew a line with one bony finger down the left side of his face.
    The bird croaked at him, hopping closer to the wizard's face.
    "Find him, tell him that the elf and the human are heading towards him. Make sure he knows what direction they are coming from, it is important to me." He eyed the bird carefully. "Do you understand?"
    The crow stood tall and loosed a high-pitched screech that sent its companions exploding into the air around them. Ruffling its dark feathers the bird launched itself into the sky and headed back out west the direction it had come from, followed by the cloud of black birds that followed it.


    Aragorn dropped easily over the edge of the craggy stone ledge onto the plateau below and Legolas followed. The ground they had been traversing for the past several leagues was broken and rough, but they still managed to keep up a good pace. Keeping to the wild areas and staying away from any frequented paths or roads to avoid being seen, they hoped to evade Paxcyn and his men. Other than animal tracks, the two had seen no signs of any other living being having been in these parts in a very long time.
    "I don't suppose anyone's come this way in many, many years," Aragorn commented as the two friends scrambled over another rocky ridge, battling their way through a choking tangle of barbs and bracken. In places the grass was chest high and razor-edged so that it scratched and tore at the two as they passed, and again, in places there was nothing but loose, pointed rocks which made footing dangerous and walking a tedious chore. The wilds could be quite inhospitable when they wanted to be.
    "Frankly that does not surprise me," Legolas commented wryly, sparing a glance around them. "But you are right. My people are fading away and no longer wander the wide world as they once did, while the lives and memory of men are short and many things are swiftly forgotten..." the slightly wistful tone in his voice turned back to amusement once more as he watched Aragorn try to disentangle himself from a prickly bush the ranger had tried to push through and instead become ensnared in. "But I suppose that occasionally some things are better left forgotten. Are you quite all right?"
    "Just - fine." Aragorn pulled the arm of his overcoat free from the sticky, piercing barbs of the sprawling, mammoth weed. Unfortunately all that meant was that now the hem of his cloak was tangled up in it instead. Bending down, he untangled that only to have it snag all over his sleeve again. When he tried to stand it caught his hair. The young ranger was quickly becoming frustrated and his friend's laughter did not help matters.
    He shot the elf his best "this is NOT funny" glare but, since he was still mostly tangled up with the sticky, pricker vines, all that did was make Legolas laugh harder.
    "Of course I don't know... I think it is worth coming all the way out here to see this..." Legolas grinned devilishly.
    Aragorn would have done something to the prince for that, but the vines still held him and the harder he tried to get out the more stuck he seemed to become. "Very funny," he said in a tone that suggested it was not at all. "Are you going to stand there and laugh all day or are you going to help me get out of here before Paxcyn and his crew find the Palantir and waltz off into the sunset?"
    Legolas really did try to stop laughing, but the resulting smirk was just as bad. "But you're doing such a good job on your own," he said as he moved towards the ranger, trying to be careful to not get snagged himself. "Besides, without the map no one but us knows where the stone is."
    "Well he sure seemed to be able to find us pretty well. Hurry up, I think this plant is trying to eat me," Aragorn grumped, although he was not quite as irritated as he acted.
    "Patience, patience..." Legolas' nimble fingers moved quickly, trying to help extract his friend. "Stop moving. You're making it worse."
    Aragorn rolled his eyes and sighed, trying to stand still. That worked for about five seconds. Then he started trying to disentangle himself again, but whenever he moved it seemed that five new vines stuck to him.
    "I said hold still." Legolas shook his head, shooting his friend an impatient look. "When one is stuck in a carnivorous plant I would think they would wish to do all in their power to aid those trying to get them out..."
    "WHAT?!! What do you mean carnivorous? Legolas!"
    Aragorn's eyes were so huge Legolas couldn't help laughing again. The elf rocked back on his heels, almost unable to breathe for a moment.
    Aragorn glared at his friend accusingly. "You made that up. There's no such thing as a carnivorous plant this big."
    "Strider, all I said was if one was... You're the one talking about it eating you." Legolas' impish grin told the truth. It had simply been too good an opportunity to pass up. Besides, the prince still had that whole Moria thing to pay Aragorn back for.
    "Legolas, you are so lucky I am stuck in this thing..." Aragorn growled, although his lips were beginning to curl into a smile without his leave; his friend's mirth was infectious.
    "Hm... well maybe I should leave you there then..." Legolas pondered for a moment, ducking his friend's swing. "All right, all right, there, you're free!" Legolas pried the last barbs off the ranger's cloak.
    "Now we can..." Legolas stopped as he noticed that several of the vines had caught about his boots and snagged at his leggings unbeknownst to him while he was freeing his friend. He started to pull the entanglements off, but had about as much luck as Aragorn had been having.
    Aragorn, now free, was dusting burrs off his cloak as he turned and saw his friend's predicament. The look of puzzled vexation on the elf's face was very satisfying.
    Legolas was surprised. He did not usually have problems like this with nature. The twisting mess of gooey-sticky prickers seemed especially fond of the prince's long hair and caught and tangled mercilessly.
    "You know... you're right..." Aragorn was grinning like a Cheshire cat. "Come to think of it that IS a rather funny sight..."
    "Strider. Shut up." Legolas glared at his human friend. "This is your fault. Now help me out and if you say another word I swear I will shoot you."
    Aragorn laughed, shaking his head. "Can't take as good as you give eh? All right, I won't let the carnivorous plant get you..." he stepped forward.
    Suddenly a vine shot out and twisted around his ankle. Both of the friends jerked in shock and Aragorn tried to jump backwards. The vine however held tight and began winding rapidly up the ranger's leg, jerking him off his feet and pulling him towards the center of the mass, while the ones tangled about Legolas tightened down, catching his wrists and ankles like snaking ropes. With a zing of panic, Legolas realized that he couldn't move as he struggled against the suddenly prehensile vines.
    Humor changed to alarm very quickly. Aragorn drew his sword, hacking at the creepers around his legs, scrambling backward as more flung outward to grab him. It hadn't been his imagination then, the plant really had been trying to hold onto him before!
    "Aragorn!" Legolas' call for help was choked and urgent. The vines had wrapped around the captive elf's chest and looped around his neck. Now they were drawing tight and trying to strangle him.
    Surging forward quickly, Aragorn chopped and hacked at the deadly weed, trying to cut away the vines holding the prince. A waving sea of tossing, groping green tentacles curled quickly out towards the ranger, trying to ensnare him once more as well.
    Legolas couldn't breathe. He struggled with the plant and managed to wrench one hand free, but the thick vines around his neck continued to tighten crushingly and black spots danced in his vision.
    Aragorn reached Legolas and grabbed the coils of vegetation around the prince's neck. It was hard to cut them without cutting Legolas, but somehow the ranger managed, dragging his friend backward out of the plant's reach.
    The elf gasped for air as the pressure was released, but there was no time yet for relief. The angry vines shot out and wound around Aragorn's sword arm, trying to wrench his blade from him and draw him back in.
    Grabbing his friend around the waist to hold him back, Legolas slashed the vines with one of his knives.
    The two friends scrambled back quickly, trying to get as far away as they could. Whether the vines decided they were too much trouble, or because they got out of its reach, they would never know, but after a few moments the vines followed them no more and they made their escape quickly down the rocky slope.
    After putting a safe distance between themselves and the thing that had attacked them, the two friends stopped to catch their breath and collect their thoughts.
    Legolas rubbed his neck, his breathing slowly returning to normal.
    Aragorn was staring back up the hill with a wary gaze, still breathing hard. "What was that... thing?"
    "Apparently it was a carnivorous plant..." the elf shook his head, who would have thought that his jest would turn out to be true?
    Aragorn looked at his friend with a wry gleam that Legolas recognized well. A smile was beginning to replace the alarm in his young eyes. "Legolas, what is it with us? Even the shrubbery wants to turn us into a snack!"
    Legolas rolled his eyes and did not bother responding. "Oh Strider, only you..."
    "Only I what? You were stuck in there too!" Aragorn protested as they resumed walking.
    "Only you could find humor in these kinds of situations!" Legolas returned, although his smile gave away that Aragorn was not the only one.
    "Well I don't care," Aragorn shrugged it off with a laugh. "I am never going to be able to look at a weed the same way again."


    It was nearly dusk and Drelent sat near the sparking fire watching the men he had recruited to help him retrieve the map Saruman sought. By all rights they looked the part of merely a hunting team out scouting the region for game. It was the cover they were using as they passed from Isengard and headed north, the Misty Mountains towering over them on their right as they made their way towards Moria in an attempt to find the two companions that carried the map.
    Four men accompanied Drelent, his long time associate Gyn was egging on a rather rough game of target practice. The older tracker was in his late sixties and his love of ale had given him a rather rounded look about his girth and he continually engaged those around him in amusing small talk. His appearance however belied what Drelent considered to be one of the sharpest wits he had met, not to mention that the old hunter was an expert with the crossbow and always hit his target. He had not seen another man possess such accuracy.  The two had become fast friends, accompanying one another on many hunts and excursions. He smiled ruefully as Gyn taunted the younger hunters who were trying hit a small target he had carved into the trunk of a tree a good hundred yards away with throwing knives.
    The younger men in his employ were new to Drelent. Gyn had recommended the brothers Rhyddry and Selvic. The two hailed from East Emnet, their accents giving them easily away. It seemed the older hunter had found them in a small town on one of his escapades and had been rather impressed with their developing skills in tracking and hunting.
    However the dark-haired youth that comprised the fifth member of their party was something much different. Drelent watched as he stepped up and tossed a heavy double-bladed knife with deadly accuracy at the tree. That one worried the tracker. His background was a mystery and he would not speak of it. Neither Drelent nor Gyn could place his accent and no one in the town Drelent had first met him in had even known who he was. But the hunter had quickly discovered that the boy had a love for killing and it did not seem to matter to him what his prey was, he excelled at dispatching it with swiftness and precision. It was his coldness as a killer that had convinced Drelent to seek him out for this particular job; he had the feeling he was going to need someone like that before this was all over.
    Drelent hid a sneer as Gyn tormented the dark-haired hunter.
    "You call that a hit?" The rounded older man rocked back laughing as Romyr turned towards him, a dark glare on his face.
    "If you think you can do better old man, go right ahead."
    Drelent feigned innocence as Gyn glanced back at him, raising one eyebrow slightly at the implied dare. Returning his gaze to the angry youth his smiled turned feral and he answered softly, "In my sleep, young one, in my sleep."
    He hadn't moved from the fallen log he sat on. His crossbow lay in his lap notched as always, ever ready. Romyr stalked back towards the older hunter, ready for a fight when Gyn released the catch on his weapon. The bolt sang through the air, barely brushing the sleeve of Romyr's tunic as it flew by, slamming itself directly into the center of the carved out target.
    Rhyddry whistled softly as he quickly ran to the tree to inspect the bolts placement. "Mighty pretty, Gyn," he called back as his brother joined him snickering softly.
    "Messed up that fancy blade handle of yours Romyr." Sedric laughed.
    Romyr turned on his bootheels and paced to the tree jerking his weapon free of the wood. Gyn's bolt had in fact scraped a deep line in the polished handle as it had buried itself in the target.
    Whirling back towards the older hunter he held the knife up and threatened, "If you ever do that again…"
    His warning was cut off as the woods around them erupted with the raucous calls of a hundred crows shrieking and crying at once. The sound of their wings beating the air was like the rush of a river and the younger hunter cringed involuntarily.
    Drelent stood and moved to the center of the campsite making himself seen. He was fully aware that his employer often used odd means to communicate with those in his service and he had the feeling that Saruman was attempting to contact them.
    A large crow dove through the canopy of the trees and swept the camp, espying it. He turned for another pass and lighted down on the rock that Drelent had occupied moments ago. The flock of birds circled just feet over their heads watching intently.
    Out of the corner of his eye Drelent saw Romyr heft his knife, flipping the blade casually in his hand to a better throwing position, his sights on the bird that had entered the camp.
    Preventing the young man from following through, the hunter turned towards him and motioned with his hand palm out, "Stop! Don't. I want to know what it has to say."
    Selvic traded confused glances with his brother. Drelent heard the young tracker question him, "See what it has to say? It's a crow, right?"
    The hunter chose to ignore his men and concentrated on the bird that hopped closer to him. When the creature saw that it had the man's attention, it repeated in croaking, harsh words the message Saruman had given it.
    Upon completion of its speech, it vaulted skyward and swept back towards the south heading away from the woods with the cloud of birds that accompanied it.
    The occupants of the camp sat in silence after the crows had left, no one daring to speak. What they had just witnessed was not something common but rather an act of magic and they were unsure of how to proceed. The snap and crackle of the fire dominated the night sounds and after a few moments the soft singing of the nocturnal insects took up once more.
    "That was a crow," Selvic repeated himself quietly again.
    Drelent nodded his head. "Did you hear what it said? The man and the elf are heading our way. They have escaped Moria and Paxcyn's lost them." He sighed heavily as the implications weighed on him. He cast a dark glance at Gyn. The older tracker simply looked to the forest floor.
    "Paxcyn's a good tracker, Drelent." Gyn didn't like what his friend was implying.
    "I know."
    "So what is the problem?" Romyr seated himself on the ground near Gyn and gazed up at the older man.
    "The problem is, young hunter, that our employer has ordered us to take care of Paxcyn if he couldn't come through."
    "And he hasn't," Drelent finished Gyn's unspoken thoughts. "Damn I wish he had."
    "Again I ask you, what is the problem?" Romyr glanced at Drelent.
    "We have to get rid of Paxcyn in order to take over the job. He will never stand down and let us have at it. He will do all he can to thwart us and he will blow our cover. We need to gain that elf and human's confidence and we can't risk him ruining that. Saruman won't tolerate our failure."
    "And that is a problem?"
    "You are a cold-hearted one aren't you?" Gyn glared at the dark-haired youth. Shaking his head he eased up onto his feet slowly and walked around the fire away from Romyr, seating himself next to Drelent.
    "Well, I can't do it." Drelent sighed. "I've known the man too long."
    "That is why you hired me," Romyr spoke softly. "I know him not and I do not care about him. I will take him out. Tell me what he looks like."
    Gyn turned towards his friend, the worry evident in the furtive glance. Drelent nodded slowly. The young hunter was right, this was exactly why he had hired him. "Fine. Then you'll have to take him out quickly and I want it to be merciful. Do you understand me?"
    Romyr simply nodded his head, a small smile creeping onto his face.
    "Now, they have a head start on us. Saruman said our destination lay in the fiery plains below the peak of Methedras. We need to move out now. They'll be there a day or two ahead of us even if we leave right now."
    "It's late, Drelent." Gyn observed.
    "Very well, everyone catch an hour or two of sleep. We'll head out before dawn. I have no intentions of disappointing Saruman. We get our hands on that map or the seeing stone, whichever we can. He'd like both but if we can get the stone, I think we'll be alright." He glanced around the somber ring of men. "Everybody agreed?"
    They nodded.
    "When we have the information that we need from the elf and his friend we'll kill them," Drelent nodded his head at Romyr who smiled even broader, "that will be the job of you three. And then we'll retrieve the items. Until that time we are gamers out on a long hunt. You will be civil," his gaze lighted on Romyr, "And you will be polite."
    Again he waited until every head nodded in compliance. "Good, then either I or Gyn will do the talking. Now all of you bed down and rest. I'll wake you before dawn."
    Drelent watched as the men turned in for the night. He remained seated on the rock long into the late watches, his eyes focused on the fire, his thoughts far flung to the task that awaited him. The world was no longer the safe place he once knew it as, no one could be trusted these days. Glancing down at Gyn he smiled as the man snored deep in slumber. Well, perhaps some he told himself. Within moments the heaviness of their job flooded back in and he sighed, kicking a log back into the fire that had shifted out of the ring of rocks as the wood burned down. Dawn was not far off. Closing his eyes for a moment he allowed himself to rest.