Seventh Stone


by Cassia and Siobhan

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    Aragorn gently jostled his shoulder, the slight movement meant to alert the elf that was sleeping with his head resting against the human for what slight comfort he could find. But it was unnecessary, Legolas was already fully awake, watching their guards, his keen eyes alert for chances to escape.
    Paxcyn and his men entered the main hall. His lips pulled back in disgust as he walked through the refuse that littered the old marble floor, leftovers attesting to the orc's makeshift camp.
    As he approached the two prisoners, the dark creatures that had kept watch over them all night pressed out of the way, melting in with the shadows that still marked the hall in the faint pre-dawn.
    "Get up." Paxcyn kicked Aragorn's boot and stepped back as the ranger and the elf slowly made their way out from under the edge of the huge stone table. "I see you made it through the night in one piece." He glanced back at the orcs that shifted curiously in the wings of the main chamber.
    Legolas grabbed Aragorn's arm and helped the man to his feet as their guard moved away from the table. Neither one of them answered their captor and he turned dull grey eyes back on his prisoners.
    Motioning Dryxyn over, Paxcyn brushed past Aragorn, laying his crossbow on the table and spreading the map out once more on the top of the stone behind them.
    Dryxyn cautiously stepped forward and pulled a long, serrated knife from the sheath at his waist. Approaching Aragorn, he slowly moved the blade in a clockwise circle indicating he wanted the man to turn around. With a quick glance at Legolas, the ranger obeyed.
    Blood rushed into his fingertips as the small man cut the bonds from his wrists, letting the ropes fall to the floor. Aragorn quickly stepped away from Dryxyn, massaging his aching fingers and hands.
    "Now him." The ranger motioned with his head to the elf who stood bound next to him.
    "I don't think so," Paxcyn spoke calmly, not looking back at the two, his eyes intently roving the yellowed paper in front of him.
    "You can't mean to keep him bound up the entire time?" Aragorn felt his anger rising.
    "I can and I do." The older man finally turned and stared at the ranger. "You I can control easily." He glanced at the elf and looked him over, "Him, not so much. And I don't trust him." Paxcyn leaned against the table, half-sitting on the edge of it. "Besides you're only getting a reprieve. When we move out you'll be bound just the same as he is. I just want your hands in front of you so I don't have to watch you every step of the way. You understand?"
    Legolas glared at the man. Aragorn simply nodded once.
    "Good." Paxcyn took a deep breath, the scowl vanishing from his face, "'Cause we need to talk. I want to know everything you know about this place."
    Aragorn looked at Legolas in confusion, but the elf was frowning as well. "Everything we know?" he questioned their captor.
    "Do I need to repeat myself?"
    Aragorn shrugged and answered, "We know nothing of this place. I have never heard that anywhere like this existed."
    "And the markings on the building are not elvish if that is what you are thinking." Legolas added quietly.
    "Damn, that's what I was afraid of." Paxcyn swore softly.
    "Why?" Aragorn tipped his head slightly, eyeing the man curiously. "What have you heard?"
    Paxcyn stared at the ranger for a few moments, obviously weighing the need to even explain himself to his prisoners; in the end his desire for more knowledge of the area won out and he told them what he knew, hoping it would trigger something and they would remember more. He had a feeling they would need all the information they could gather.
    "Alright, this is what my employer told me," he began to give an account of what he had been told but Aragorn interrupted him.
    "Who is your employer?"
    The man scowled at the ranger, "Do you want to hear what I know about this place or shall we just go off down another tunnel where the floor might drop out on you again?"
    "It is well. We would hear what you have to say." Legolas touched his friend's arm with his fingertips, silencing the young human.
    "Alright then," the frown slowly melted from the man's face as he recalled the conversation he had had with Saruman. The wizard had seemed forthright, but Paxcyn was still uneasy about being in the ancient building. "From what I was told this used to be some sort of a place of wisdom and knowledge."
    Paxcyn stopped speaking and glared at the orcs, they were talking amongst themselves while the man was distracted. When they noted his attention they quieted, several of them crouching down, waiting the human out.
    "Anyway," Paxcyn pushed off from the table and rounded the ancient stone top. He walked to the far side and leaned down upon it, resting his head in his hands and staring at the map as he spoke. He had no qualms about the position his prisoners were in and trusted his men to keep their eyes on them. "There was some catastrophe that brought the building down."
    Paxcyn glanced around them at the dilapidated stone structure, "And some of the things kept in here were never removed. I don't know why. And my employer has a special interest in the one spoken of on this map." He flicked a corner of the torn paper in front of him. "This thing is the last link to prove the existence of this place."
    Legolas spoke up, "If it is as you say, and this was such a place, then I fear we tread where even the Valar would not dare to go. Places of such knowledge are most often guarded by ancient powers that are best not woken. There are reasons why those who have gone before you have not been successful in retrieving what you seek. We dare not hunt for this. We would do well to leave this place." He turned huge blue eyes on Aragorn, imploring the human to believe him.
    The ranger started to speak, but was cut off as Paxcyn stood, shaking his head; a look of disgust distorted his weathered features.
    "Right." Paxcyn spat at the elf, rolling his eyes. "Elves and their damned horror stories, just tales to scare people off, if you ask me." He motioned Vaeric forward. "If you can't tell me anything more helpful than that then I think it's we best go exploring. Time is short gentlemen, bind the ranger."
    "Dryxyn, get the orcs on their feet. We're going in," he called to his men.
    Vaeric approached Aragorn with a length of rope. The ranger automatically stepped away from the man.
    Paxcyn cleared his throat and tapped his crossbow down on the tabletop. Aragorn glanced at him out of the corner of his eyes and the man picked the weapon up aiming it at the elf, quirking an eyebrow up as he silently questioned Strider. The ranger stopped moving and raised his hands before him, allowing Vaeric to bind them.
    They chose to try entering the locked chamber using a different route, since the passage to the right had led to the dead end and there was obviously no way anyone wanted to try a repeat of the previous day. Two halls led from the main room that the men were assembled in and Paxcyn led them down the passage that fell away towards the left.
    Unlike the tunnel they had been in yesterday, this one was dank and smelled of mold. The eerie dripping of unseen water echoed off the cold, dark walls. The floor beneath their feet was roughly hewn stone and in places the rock itself had buckled, causing irregular breaks in the flooring that tripped up the company. The passageway sloped gently downward at first, dropping into a steep shaft. Into the floor of the shaft shallow steps had been carved. The rock was deteriorating and the steps crumbled as the company picked their way carefully down.
    Legolas was sure-footed in the darkness and Paxcyn shoved him out front, following him with a sputtering torch; the pool of light from the fire barely reached the steps that dropped away ahead of the elf.
    No one spoke as they descended and the shuffling, murmur of the orcs in their midst echoed oddly off the broken walls of the passage.
    Legolas' eyes were huge in the near pitch black of the hall and he swallowed hard against the fear and the dread that caught at him. This was no ordinary darkness. A flicker of evil touched his mind and he paused mid-step, catching his breath.
    "What is it?" Paxcyn whispered, the sound of his voice loud in the deafening silence.
    "I do not know." Legolas glanced around them trying to find the source of the growing dread. "We should leave."
    "Get moving," the man growled, giving the elf a hard shove.
    Unbalanced by the push, Legolas fell back a step. The old stone under his feet gave way and he lost his footing, tumbling down into the darkness. There was nothing he could catch hold of with his hands bound like they were and nothing to stop his fall.
    "Legolas!" Aragorn shoved Vaeric out of the way and passed by Paxcyn, who raised his torch higher and slowly followed the two. The ranger heard the sound of his friend's body as it hit the base of the stairs some distance down. The darkness wrapped about the human, thick like a living thing, slowing his progress to the bottom.
    Vaeric rushed forward to stop the ranger, but was halted by Paxcyn who pressed his arm out to the side holding the man back. "Let them go first. If there is anything down there, let them find it before it finds us."
    "Legolas?" Aragorn reached the last step and gingerly stepped down. A moan to his left alerted him to the elf's position and he knelt near the prince in the darkness. "Don't move. Are you all right?"
    The sounds of the elf's quick, frightened breaths echoed off the walls and slender fingers grabbed the front of the ranger's shirt urgently. "I am fine," Legolas answered, pulling the human down close and speaking softly to him. "Something wakens, Aragorn, I can feel it. We need to find a way out of here."
    Before the human could question the elf further, the soft light of the torch touched the two and Aragorn could make out his friend in the dim lighting. A cut marred the fair being's forehead and his leggings were torn at the knees where he had taken the brunt of the fall. The prince's wrists ached terribly from trying unsuccessfully to stop himself; he feared they had been sprained by his attempts to slow his sudden descent. Being numb and bound as tightly as they were hadn't helped matters at all.
    Aragorn drew his breath in with a soft hiss as he gently brushed Legolas' hair away from the cut on his head. "Is anything broken?"
    "I think not." Legolas tried to stand, but Aragorn pressed him down.
    "Just wait until they reach the bottom. Rest for a moment while you can." Aragorn glanced back up as Paxcyn descended the steps, followed by his men and the orcs. The dark creatures shifted nervously, their eyes darting far ahead, piercing the darkened passage.
    "They feel it as I do." Legolas noted their uneasiness as he sat up slowly, finally having caught his breath.
    "Can you walk?" Paxcyn towered over the two prisoners, glaring down at the elf.
    Legolas nodded once and stood stiffly to his feet with help from Aragorn.
    "Good. Then get going." Their captor motioned up the dark tunnel with his head.
    Aragorn started into the passageway but was quickly pulled back by his friend. "No wait!" The elf was scanning the floor of the hall.
    "What?" Paxcyn frowned at the prince. "You said you were fine."
    Vaeric moved forward, "I'll get him going," he growled as Legolas knelt back down to the ground and carefully ran his fingers around the edges of the tiles paving the walkway.
    "These are the same stones that lined the passage yesterday." Legolas glanced cautiously up the hall. Turning to Paxcyn he asked the man, "Lower the torch you hold."
    Paxcyn obliged the elf. Vaeric had stopped, watching as Aragorn knelt beside the prince to get a better look.
    The firelight jumped and danced across the stone floor, throwing strange angled shadows about them. Throughout the hall, several tiles seemed covered in shadow, depressed into the floor a bit more than the others around them.
    "Do you see it?" Legolas pointed them out to Aragorn. "They are different." He ran his fingers gingerly around a tile directly in front of them that sat a fraction of an inch lower than the ones that surrounded it.
    "I see." Aragorn reached out his palms and laid them flat against the stone intending to press it down and find out what they were dealing with, but Legolas grabbed him, jerking him back.
    "No!" The elf whispered fiercely, "Look at the walls." Legolas regained his feet once more, suppressing the moan that the ache in his knees gave him. Cautiously stepping a few feet into the hallway, careful to avoid the odd tiles, he approached the left wall. Holes more than an inch wide decorated the long passageway at random heights and intervals.
    Without being asked, Paxcyn stepped carefully near the elf, making sure his feet only touched where the prince's had. He raised the torch to the height of the hole as they both tried to see into its depth. The sharp glint of metal flickered in the yellow light and the elf glanced back at the man who had drug him down here.
    "The floor is a trap. We must walk only on the tiles that are not sunk in," Legolas informed Paxcyn.
    The man nodded slowly and called back to the men and creatures behind him, telling them what they had found and to pay attention.
    The walls were lined with sconces that still held torches. As they made their way slowly down the passage, Vaeric and Paxcyn cautiously lit each one, shedding more light on their path and making it easier to distinguish which tiles would trigger the trap that had been set.
    A chill of darkness shot up Legolas' spine and he stopped dead in his tracks. A feral shadowy evil touched him, barely running its fingers through his awareness. Something was waking, something knew that there were intruders and the fact delighted it.
    The elf swallowed hard and backed up a step. Aragorn had noticed Legolas' reluctance to proceed and had stopped, turning back towards his friend as Paxcyn and Vaeric came up on either side of him.
    "I cannot go any further, and you cannot ask me too." The elf glanced back at the orcs. They sensed something too, but it was familiar to them and they advanced past the prince making their way warily into the darkness.
    "Don't play these games with me, elf." Paxcyn spat at the prince and shoved him a step forward.
    Legolas stumbled and quickly stepped back. Aragorn walked up beside his friend and touched the elf lightly, redirecting the prince's attention.
    "What is it?"
    "I do not know, but we have woken something. Something that should not have been roused. We must leave." Legolas' eyes were huge and frightened in the firelight as he implored the man to listen to him.
    "Look, if Legolas says it's not safe, then it isn't. We need to leave." Aragorn glanced back at the orcs that continued to cautiously creep down the hallway.
    Paxcyn was irritated. He wanted nothing more than to find this stone and leave, but a tiny voice in the back of his mind was warning him off. As much as he had no love for elves, he had heard the tales of how they could perceive things that humans could not. Before he could respond, Vaeric stepped forward and smashed the wooden pommel of his crossbow against the side of Legolas' head. The blow caused the elf to stagger sideways and Aragorn jumped forward quickly to stop him from over-stepping onto a depressed tile.
    "Paxcyn said move, do it now!" the man growled at the elf. He kicked out at the prince as Legolas tried to stand up, catching the fair being in the ribs and dropping him to the ground as the air was forced from his lungs. "Get up, you lazy elf!"
    Paxcyn himself walked down the corridor, the orcs had gone so far down the hallway that he could not see them in the dark. "Be careful damn it! All I need is you to step on a trigger stone and set this whole thing off." He peered into the darkness not caring if Vaeric killed the prisoners or even the possibility of the orcs getting themselves killed. He didn't want one of the oafs setting off the trap they were all precariously standing on, however.
    "Stop it!" Aragorn rushed Vaeric as the man turned to kick the downed elf again. The ranger brought his hands down hard between the man's shoulders, stunning him and stopping him from attacking the prince.
    Vaeric turned on the ranger with barely concealed anger. He quickly drew a blade from his belt and approached Aragorn who was trying to step away from the angry man without touching down on one of the wrong tiles.
    The knife sliced through the air near Aragorn's face as he ducked the blow, spinning quickly out of the way and dancing lightly over a depressed tile, barely missing stepping down on it.
    Paxcyn turned and walked back towards the scuffle. Dryxyn was watching in muted surprise from the back of the hall.
    But the man paid his captain no heed and rushed after the ranger.
    Aragorn sidestepped another arcing swing as Vaeric caught up with him. He slammed his fists into the side of the man's head, stunning him and sending him staggering sideways. Taking advantage of the surprise of the moment he drove Vaeric against the wall, intending to knock him out, but the man was holding his knife in a defensive position. Unable to compensate for the driving blow of Aragorn's shoulder he slammed into the rock wall, his hand pinned in front of him, and the blade slipped into his abdomen. With a stifled cry he slumped to the ground in shock, curling into himself.
    "Legolas, run!" Aragorn turned back to the elf to see his friend slowly gain his feet once more. "GO!"
    Paxcyn was running back up the passage now as quickly as he could without triggering the trap. "Dryxyn, stop them!"
    The small man stood in front of the steps they had descended and drew his knife but the elf was already pelting towards him, easily avoiding the darkened tiles on the floor. As Dryxyn brought the sword up, Legolas kicked out at the man's midsection, felling the human with the fierceness of his blow. He leapt over the downed guard and fled up the steps.
    Paxcyn shouted back down the hallway to the orcs and the dark creatures materialized out of the inky blackness they had retreated into. "Bring them back here now!" He pointed down the way the prisoners were heading.
    Aragorn was a good pace behind Legolas. It had taken him a moment to gain his bearings and map a safe path back to the stairway. He could hear the orcs running down the passage behind him. A spear thrown by one of his pursuers shot past his head, missing him by a hair's breadth. They were gaining on him.
    "Get out of the way!" he yelled at Dryxyn, motioning with his hands for the man to move and ready for him if he didn't.
    Aragorn spied the very first tile that Legolas had noticed was different and sped towards it, a plan forming in his mind.
    Dryxyn followed the ranger's gaze and noted the determined set of the man's jaw as he ran back towards his position.
    "Paxcyn!" the small man screamed at his boss as he turned and raced up the stairs away from the hall.
    Somehow Paxcyn understood. He was too far away from the steps to reach safety. Raising his torch he saw that the tiles ended not a hundred yards ahead of him and raced for the opposite end of the tunnel.
    Aragorn gained the edge of the hallway and purposefully stepped on the depressed tile. The floor moved beneath his foot as the tile slipped out from under him and he fell onto the stairs, barely catching himself with his bound hands.
    The orcs were not as lucky. The sing of arrows filled the passage as crossbows hidden in the depths of the wall aimed and cocked for just such an occasion released their deadly volley, catching the foul beasts in a killing cross fire.
    Bolts filled the air and Aragorn glanced back as he heard the orcs screaming, caught between the firing weapons, their bodies littering the hall behind him. Throwing himself forward, the ranger slipped on the crumbling steps and staggered up the ancient stairs.
    Legolas gained the upper hall and raced toward the main chamber. He skidded to stop on the threshold of the room, as he took in the scene before him.
    A small contingent of men filled the hall, scouring through the remnants of the orcs' camp from the previous night. They stopped and stared, surprised by the elf who stood in the passageway.
    A tall, dark-haired man stepped forward and approached the bound prince, taking note of the elf's disheveled appearance and the ropes that tied his hands tightly together. "Do you need assistance?" he asked cautiously. His dark hair was shot through with streaks of grey and his eyes were deep brown like the forest floor. A scar decorated his thin face and he wore leather arm guards. A matching buckler covered his chest.
    Legolas quickly glanced behind him as the cries of the orcs reached his ears and he stepped towards the man who addressed him.
    "My friend and I have been taken captive and we are being used by a band of men and orcs to help them hunt for things in this building. Will you help us?" The elf did not reveal the full truth to the man, uncertain of who these newcomers were.
    The man raised one eyebrow and stepped closer to the fair being. Unsheathing a short blade he cut the elf's bonds and glanced down the darkened passage. "We will help you. We were just passing by and saw the camp set up outside. We have heard tales of this region. It's not safe to be in here."
    "That we know," Legolas agreed breathlessly. He turned swiftly as he heard footsteps pelting up the hallway behind them. Aragorn tumbled into the main hall, falling to his knees as he gained the safety of the large room.
    He was breathing heavily and slowly looked up as Legolas knelt beside him. "Strider, are you all right?" The elf squeezed his shoulder sharply and the human glanced up and out into the room catching his breath as he stared at the five watching him intently.
    "A ranger and an elf?" the man who had freed Legolas questioned the two. "Odd traveling companions I would think."
    "Some of them..." Aragorn watched the men in front of him, cautiously wary of them as he tried to warn the other, "not all gone..."
    "What?" Legolas glanced back down the hall and caught sight of a black tide rushing forward. Some of the orcs had actually survived the onslaught of the loosened crossbows and they heedlessly followed their prey into the main chamber, intent on recovering the two prisoners. "Yrch!" The elf pulled the human with him, jerking them out of the path of the creatures and pressing them against the wall beside the tunnel opening, shielding the man with his body.
    The men in the main chamber had little time to react as the orcs spilled out into the hall. They unslung their bows and felled the beasts as they rushed towards them. In moments the creatures were dead.
    "I thought you said there were men!" The dark-haired man glanced at Legolas.
    Paxcyn stepped out of the tunnel, followed by Dryxyn, his crossbow strung and ready. His eyes narrowed as he saw the man who stood in the center of the room. Angry recognition flashed through his eyes. As he started to speak, a bowman to the left of the leader of the small group fired a single bolt into the man's heart. Anything he would have said was silenced as he looked in shock at the shaft that protruded from his chest. Confusion crossed his weathered face as he locked eyes with the dark-haired man and he shook his head not understanding the turn of events. His body dropped to the floor, his spirit gone before he fell.
    Dryxyn laid his drawn sword on the ground and stepped away from Paxcyn's dead form. He was quickly taken into custody and bound. Two of the men escorted him outside.
    "You didn't have to kill him." Aragorn watched the whole scene incredulously.
    "Was he not the one that took you prisoner?" Dark brown eyes stared at the silver ones.
    "Well yes but..." Aragorn glanced at Paxcyn. "Did you know him? He acted like he recognized you."
    "Recognized that he was in trouble more likely. Never seen him before in my life. But he did have a weapon and my men thought him a threat or they would not have fired on him." The dark-haired man walked over and held his knife out to Legolas, proffering him the pommel of the weapon. "My name is Drelent. My men and I live not far from here. We were just on our way into the woods to hunt. The storehouses are getting empty and it looked like a good day for it when we passed by your campsite."
    Legolas severed Aragorn's bonds and passed the knife back to the man, nodding his thanks curtly.
    Aragorn hissed as the ropes fell away and he massaged his tender wrists. "Really? Didn't know anyone lived out this way," he pressed Drelent.
    "Well, the game has been poor this season near our village so we have been forced to go farther to seek food." He glanced around the inside of the building, "This really isn't a safe place to be. Why don't you come outside? We've set up our camp on the plains and you're welcome to stay with us tonight if you like. I'd be very interested to hear how you got into this mess." Drelent glanced at the bodies of the orcs and the human, "And why a human was working with orcs." He kicked Paxcyn's body, turning the dead man over onto his back.
    Legolas bent down and quickly removed the map from the man's inside pocket. "Something that he took from me," the elf explained as he stood and gazed back at the questioning look Drelent was giving him. He passed the map to Aragorn who pressed it inside his tunic, following their rescuer out of the collapsing building.