Seventh Stone


by Cassia and Siobhan

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    Drelent's laughter carried through the camp. He glanced over the sparking fire that burned brightly in the center of the circle of men who lounged around its shallow stone wall, eating what small catch the hunters had scoured from the surrounding area. They had made their camp near the forests that bracketed the plain in front of the ancient building.
    Night had rapidly drawn over the grassy meadow they had camped on, and Legolas and Aragorn had found themselves quickly enveloped by the men who had rescued them from Paxcyn and the orcs earlier in the day. They seemed a fairly inclusive group. Drelent had four men working with him, Gyn, Romyr, Rhyddry and Selvic. They all claimed to be from southern Rohan, but Aragorn was sure that their accents were wrong. When the ranger had questioned Drelent on the length of their search for game, seeing as how Methedras, the mountain they camped below was well over one-hundred and fifty miles from their home, the hunter had merely shrugged it off and returned the question with one of his own. Aragorn filed away the information for later use. He liked Drelent, and Gyn his second in command had been a pleasant fellow as well. Portly and happy, Gyn was an excellent shot with a crossbow and had bagged nearly all the game they were now dining on.
    The other three that comprised the small company had kept to themselves, keeping their conversations and contact with the elf and the ranger limited. Even now, Drelent had sent them into the forests on the edge of the plain in search of more wood after they had seen to Dryxyn, making sure the man was well tied up and had had food and water for the night.
    Legolas had remained silent for the better part of the day. During a quiet moment when the two had been left alone, Aragorn had questioned his friend on his reticence. The elf had responded simply by saying that the men seemed all wrong to him and he was certain they were not who they said they were. He had watched them carefully throughout the day, his suspicions only deepening.
    "So you say the floor fell beneath you when you turned the handle?" Drelent leaned forward, his tone incredulous as he listened to Strider recount their exploration of the building that sat quietly behind them, resting in the slight fog that hugged the ground near the base of the mountains.
    "It did! Half the orcs fell in with it! And I couldn't get my hand freed. Legolas and I were stranded on one side with the orcs on the other!" Aragorn laughed now, but it hadn't been funny at the time and Legolas glanced at him out of the corner of his eyes, a smile pulling at his own lips.

    "Now there is a situation that I would never wish to find myself in." Drelent elbowed the man next to him with a huge smile. "What say you Gyn?"
    "I'd say that would be a mighty fine spot to find oneself in." Gyn tipped a mug of mead to his lips and took a huge gulp. In the seconds that his eyes were hidden from their guests he glanced at Drelent, his gaze questioning the man he called his boss. He grew weary of these two and wished to get on with business. Drelent smiled back and nodded almost imperceptibly, motioning ever so slightly with his eyes into the trees behind Aragorn and Legolas.
    He had in fact sent the others out into the woods to circle behind the camp and wait. At a signal from Drelent the three hidden hunters had orders to kill the elf and the ranger, but Drelent wanted to learn everything he could from the two before he disposed of them. Saruman had told him in no uncertain terms that failure was unacceptable and that those who failed him paid for it, as Paxcyn had. Drelent had hated killing the man; he'd known Paxcyn for years, always as the competition. But Romyr had enjoyed it. He was a killer at heart and the one reason Drelent had hired the youth in the first place; he had no conscience at all.
    "So tell me how far have you explored the ruins?" Drelent pushed his guests for more information.

    Before Aragorn could respond Legolas gently brushed his fingers against the ranger's leg. His eyes were fixed on the men across the fire, not giving away the silent communication that passed between them.
    Strider pretended to be caught off guard and asked Drelent to repeat the question, leaning forward and filling his mug with a second draught of mead. With the attention off himself and onto his actions, Strider glanced down at Legolas' hand resting near his thigh. The elf made a sharp cutting motion with his fingers before laying them back on the ground. If the ranger hadn't known what to look for he would have simply thought that the elf were shooing away a pesky night bug or a crawler, but the warning was taken to heart and when the human sat back once more he sipped his ale before answering.
    Legolas had seen the slight nod that Drelent had given Gyn when the man had silently questioned his boss. He had followed the hunter's almost imperceptible gaze out into the woods behind them when no one paying him any attention and had caught glimpses of the hunters hidden in the forests, the tiny glints of starlight on their arrowheads tipping off the keen-sighted prince.
    He realized that Drelent was using them for information and he had told Aragorn to stop telling the man anything with the simple warning he had given the ranger. He feared they had just stepped from one trap into another.
    Aragorn's answer did not please their guest and Drelent's barely contained look of surprise and anger tipped him off.
    "I mean surely you haven't come all this way simply for game? I see no provisions that would carry you this far on such a trip. So I ask you again, my friend, why so interested in the ruins of an old building?" Aragorn smiled openly at Drelent, his questions easily deflecting the others.
    "Tales." Gyn spoke up from where he sat, answering for Drelent. He stirred from his resting place against a boulder that poked from the broken ground and he shifted the logs in the fireplace with a long thick stick. "The townsfolk tell of tales from that place. Might be we could take our own back and add to the fire of the myth." He chuckled at himself, downing his second mug of ale.
    "Yes, tell me of your home," Legolas questioned softly.
    All eyes turned on him. Gyn glanced at Drelent, the tables had turned and the interrogators had suddenly become the interrogated. It was time to end the conversation.
    Neither man answered the elf and the tension stretched over the camp.
    Aragorn turned and glanced behind them into the forest. "I think Romyr and the others might need help collecting that wood. They've been gone an awfully long time." He barely caught the darker shape of a human pressing back against a tree; it was so fast he almost questioned whether he had seen anything or not.
    "They'll be fine." Drelent glanced over the ranger's head and motioned towards the woods with his chin. "They'll be back any minute now."
    Legolas' fingers closed about his bow that lay near his side. He and Aragorn had retrieved their weapons from Paxcyn's camp earlier that day and he tensed where he sat ready for any sudden movements.
    In the darkness Romyr notched his bow and sighted in on the elf's head. He pulled the arrow back, realigning his mark. Rhyddry and Selvic followed his lead, readying their bows and sighting in on their targets.
    Romyr breathed in deeply and released his breath, his sharp gaze narrowing down to the point of his arrow resting just above Legolas' fair head. His fingers began to relax, easing up on the bowstring, when a dark shape fell from the sky above the camp sweeping mere feet over the heads of the men seated there.
    Drelent and Gyn ducked as the dark, swooping shape swept over their heads, a shrill, keening cry piercing the air, marking its arrival.
    Legolas glanced at Aragorn, a huge smile on his face.
    "Mithrandir, with help!" he whispered as he leapt to his feet drawing his bow up with him and running towards the dark figure that had landed just outside the light of the campfire.
    "Friends of yours?" Drelent asked a bit darkly. He was irritated with the interruption.
    "Yes." Aragorn smiled at the man. "We've been waiting on them." He slowly gained his feet and walked after the elf, who threw himself into the arms of the man that now stood next to the dark shape that had fallen from the sky - Gwaihir.
    Drelent looked back into the woods, and quickly motioned his men back in. Their plans had been waylaid, it was time to regroup. Gyn glanced at his boss. But Drelent simply shook his head. "We still have a chance to retrieve the palantir. It'll just be a little more difficult now," he answered the man's unspoken question.
    "Perhaps." Gyn watched as the large bird turned a piercing gaze towards the campfire, folding its huge wings along its back, "or simply more challenging. Might be fun to bag me a great eagle, now mighten it?" He fingered the wood of his crossbow idly as he stared back at the four.

    Drelent laughed dryly and slapped the man on the back. "Gyn, my friend, I knew there was a reason I kept you around." He glanced into the night and watched as Romyr walked back to camp, his face dark and angry, his arms loaded with wood they had scavenged from the forests.
    "Sit," Drelent commanded the young man and his companions, "and smile, Romyr. Don't worry. You'll get another chance."
    The youth dropped his load carelessly on the ground and slowly glanced at his employer, his irritation uncontained. When Drelent turned towards him to emphasize his instructions the younger hunter simply looked away, working on controlling his anger and seating himself crosslegged before the fire. He had very nearly blown their cover and released his arrow when Gwaihir had literally dropped into the camp.
    "That's a great eagle," he whispered darkly at Drelent. "Do you have any idea..."
    Gyn cut him off leaning forward. "That one is mine. You leave him to me and do what you have been told."
    Romyr shook his dark unruly tresses out of his eyes and smiled back at the ruddy-faced man. "You mind your own self, or you'll wake to find that I have slit your throat, old man."
    "Romyr!" Drelent glared at the youth, "Leave Gyn alone and Gyn don't you be pushing it. We're all a bit tense. We just have to keep this charade up until we get our hands on that damn palantir, seeing stone, whatever is, that rock inside that pile of debris. You all know what happens if we fail."
    Gyn sat back and calmed himself. Romyr breathed in deeply and let his breath out slowly, his eyes flicking up as the elf and human walked back towards the campfire trailing an older man and the great eagle. "They come."
    Drelent stood and smiled openly at the foursome, the dark frown that had decorated his face completely erased from his countenance.
    "Welcome!" He held out his hand to the wizard that walked next to Legolas. "And what an entrance that was. Gave us quite a scare." He smiled at Aragorn, "Your friends didn't warn us you'd be dropping in." He laughed lightly at his own joke.
    "Well met." Gandalf inclined his head slightly and wrapped his large hands around the hunter's. "Yes, we were delayed a bit in coming, but Gwaihir's aid made up for time lost and we're here now." He leveled the man with an open stare.
    Drelent flinched under the searching gaze. He felt as if the old timer could see right through him and he quickly dropped his eyes, covering his discomfort by gently kicking Gyn over to make room for the other. "Please sit. Join us, there is plenty of mead left and the night is still young."

    "I thank you for your most generous offer," Gandalf smiled and cast his gaze at the ring of men, taking them each in quickly. "But I dare say we should set up a bit away from you. Gwaihir's presence tends to make the horses uneasy." The wizard motioned towards the line of beasts picketed close to the remnants of a rock wall within the light of the campfire. The animals pranced and shifted anxiously, pulling at their tethers.
    "I see. You are correct." Drelent's smiled slipped slightly as his plans were disrupted once more. "Well if you should need anything throughout the night, let us know."
    "Thank you. We will." Aragorn placed his arm around Legolas' shoulder and turned the elf away, following the wizard and the huge eagle back out onto the broken plains, near the edge of the meadow, where the fissures in the earth were not so deep.

    Gwaihir joined the three beings as they searched out bramble from the shrubbery that dotted the landscape and scavenged the edges of the forests for bits and pieces of wood to make a fire with.
    Gandalf struck the pile of wood with his staff and flames leapt from the interior of the small mound, sparking and leaping into the sky. They had set up camp in a shallowed-out bowl on the edge of the meadow. Two flat low rocks bracketed the campfire and Gandalf eased himself down onto the top of one of them, laying his staff across his bent knees.
    Legolas slowly seated himself on the ground in front of the other and leaned wearily back against the cool stone.
    "Here, let me see to that." Aragorn knelt by the elf and gently brushed away the stray strands of blonde hair that had become dried into the blood that still caked across the elf's brow.
    "Aragorn, don't fuss with it." Legolas tried to push the human away but he did ache and he felt dirty and tired, neither of which was a feeling he appreciated. In the end he gave up, rolling his eyes to glare at Gandalf as the wizard chuckled at the two of them.
    "Let him have his way, Legolas." The older man lit his long pipe and pulled a breath deep into his lungs, savoring the sweet flavor. The bowl of the pipe lit hot red as the oxygen was drawn through it, lighting his smiling eyes with its faint glow. "You look like the wargs took you out to play with."
    "Thank you, Mithrandir." the elf muttered and winced as Aragorn checked out his battered knees. The gouges that the rough stones had scraped away there were more painful than his pride wanted to admit.
    "Gandalf," Aragorn looked up at the wizard, "would you have water and bandages with you? Ours were taken and I could not find my pack. He has taken only scratches but some are deep and I would not see them become infected."
    "And your new friends gave you none?" The old man stood slowly and walked back near the great eagle that had bedded down behind him, its head tucked back against its wing, its dark black eyes watching.
    "Behind the rock, Gandalf," the eagle answered the wizard's searching gaze, his voice a soft deep trill.
    "Ah yes, thank you, dear friend." Gandalf retrieved his bag and produced the items Aragorn had requested, handing him a small sack of various herbs, should he desire to use them.
    Legolas was watching the camp of the men, thinking over Gandalf's question. "No, they did not," he answered quietly some moments later.
    Aragorn and Gandalf both stopped and glanced at the elf when he spoke up.
    "They did not give us water or bandages. In fact they only offered us meat and mead," he clarified his answer. His eyes had not left the far camp and he was frowning. "I do not trust them."
    "And well you should not." Gandalf looked in the direction the elf was gazing and his face darkened. "They are not as they seem unless I completely miss my mark."
    "That's what Legolas said," Aragorn quietly spoke as he walked back to the elf's side and dropped down next to him, spreading out the things he would need to clean his friend up.
    Legolas focused on Aragorn, smiling as his friend poured water into a small bowl and gently began to clean away the blood and the dirt that stained the elf's knees; it reminded the prince of being tended when he was a child, which was probably the last time he had had scraped knees like this. It really was nothing to fuss about, but he had learned a long time ago that Aragorn would have his way about this or there would be no peace until he did. The map slipped from its hiding place against the ranger's breast and Legolas reached out, snagging it with his long fingers.
    "Give the map to Mithrandir. It will be safer that way." He held the paper out to his friend.
    "Good idea!" Aragorn took the folded packet and walked back around the fire.
    "Map?" Gandalf looked back at the two friends, his bushy white eyebrow arching as he questioned them. "Ah yes, your father told me something of it. It is why we made haste to find you. Now tell me, how is it you came to have it in your possession?"
    "Well, we ran into a man in...," Aragorn started to explain.
    "No he ran into us," Legolas corrected him with a smile.
    "Actually," Aragorn stopped, turning to stare down at his friend, "he ran into you! I knew it was mistake to take you into Adirolf."
    Gandalf interrupted them both with a choked laugh. "You took the prince into Adirolf?"
    Aragorn nodded innocently.
    "Have you not a wit about you! You are bolder I thought," the wizard shook his head.
    "Or more naïve," Gwaihir added chuckling as he watched the young ranger, his eyes lit by the fire's glow looked red in the dim light.
    "We needed supplies," Aragorn tried to defend himself.
    "He wanted a blanket," Legolas laughed.
    "I am not going through this again!" Aragorn looked between the elf and the wizard. Gandalf was barely containing his laughter and Legolas had lost his constraint long ago. The smile on the elf's face banished the frown that decorated the human's and he simply shook his head and looked around the camp.
    "Yes, well I am going to be needing another one too it seems."
    At that confession even Gwaihir started laughing. "Come, young human, you can sleep under my wing tonight. It will stave off the chill." The great eagle turned towards them and lifted his wing slightly.
    "Oh go ahead and have your fun," Aragorn teased them. Turning back to his friend he jabbed his finger at the seated elf. "I am never taking you there again! This whole thing is all your fault."
    "My fault!"
    "Oh give us the map and stop your nonsense," Gandalf laughed, extending his hand towards the ranger.
    Laughing as well, the human placed the paper in the wizard's up-turned palm and stepped behind him, glancing over his shoulder as Gandalf smoothed the paper open on his lap.
    "Can you read it, Mithrandir?" Legolas sat up a bit taller trying to see over the bright fire.
    Gandalf did not answer right away, his brow furrowed as scanned the weathered document,. "Where did you say you got this?" His voice was low and held a bit of awe as his fingers brushed the silvery words that lit up brilliantly in the moon's soft glow. Quietly he spoke a few of the sentences out loud, the language as beautiful and poetic as it was artistic.
    Gwaihir loosed a soft trill and moved forward gazing at the sheet over the wizard's shoulder. He spoke softly in words that neither Aragorn nor Legolas recognized. The two younger beings glanced at each other in confusion.
    "Where?" Gwaihir glanced at Legolas and questioned once more.
    The elf quickly recounted their trip into the town of Adirolf and the subsequent deaths of the original map bearers. He told them how they had discovered the map a few days later and had fled to Moria after barely escaping Paxcyn and his men. Aragorn noted with a secretive smile that elf did not speak of the way they had left the dwarves' dwelling.
    "We were followed by flocks of crebain, Mithrandir. They seemed to find us every step of the way after we left Moria's walls." Legolas glanced at Aragorn before turning back to watch as Drelent and his men settled in for the night.
    Gandalf nodded, listening intently. "Crebain you say? That is ill news." He too glanced back towards the others, his eyes finally resting on the collapsing hulk of the ruins.
    "Can you read the words?" Aragorn asked the question again.
    "Yes." Gandalf murmured, his eyes dropping back down to the map once more. "Yes, I can."
    The human leaned over and pointed to one word. "That one I know." He smiled as Gandalf looked at him incredulously. "It's 'Maiar'. What it means I know not. But my father told me that was what it was."
    "Your father?" Gandalf looked at the man perplexed, thinking for a moment before his face brightened, "Ah yes! Your father does have some of the ancient manuscripts, doesn't he? I had forgotten that," he replied cryptically as he gazed back at the building behind them. "Rescued a few, if am not mistaken."
    Aragorn shrugged slightly, when the wizard said no more and began to read the shimmering text. The human moved back around the fire and reseated himself next to Legolas, gently bandaging the elf's head wound and wrapping his knees in soft cloth for the night.
    The soft sounds of the night drifted into the camp. The fire's popping and spitting from time to time as it hit pockets of sap broke the stillness.
    Finally Aragorn spoke again. He moved a bit away from Legolas, stretching out on the ground between the elf and the wizard. "Gandalf," the ranger glanced over at the older man seated himself on the rock. "What is this place?"
    "This place?" The wizard indicated the darkened building behind them. "Well, what have you heard?"
    "Paxcyn said it was a place of knowledge and wisdom," Legolas answered softly.
    Gwaihir edged forward and settled down, the rustling of his downy feathers quieting as they listened to the old tale. He tucked his head back along his wing, his bright eyes ever watchful in the dark. "Well, Paxcyn was correct. This used to be a great repository of wisdom and knowledge. People like myself and the firstborn," Gandalf smiled at Legolas, "used to frequent it eons ago, in what you would call the Second Age. All those who sought wisdom and who wanted to study what was long lost came to these halls and to those who lived within them to learn. Much of the structure itself was built by the Drúedain and contains a kind of deadly skill that has been lost from the world since their disappearance."
    The stars twinkled brightly in the heavens and Aragorn relaxed on the ground turning over onto his back, his pack bunched up under his head for a makeshift pillow. He traced the patterns of the bright pinpoints of light with his eyes as he listened to Gandalf's deep melodious voice. It felt safe somehow, so near the wizard, and he found himself finally calming down.
    "Anyway," the wizard continued, smiling slightly to himself as he watched his companions begin to relax. "There was an earthquake at the end of the Second Age unlike anything that has happened before or since." Aragorn tipped his head around and met the older man's eyes at the mention of the natural disaster, his own experiences with one tumbling through his mind.
    "The ground was ripped here and all was torn asunder." He waved his hand around the open plains. "This all used to be forests but, when the earth shook, the ground split. That's why there are all those fissures out in the plains in front of this place. They never healed. The plants died off and the building was broken by the quake. The fumes, from the vents that pierced the earth, drove the people away."
    "This building was deemed unable to save and so they only shored it up long enough to remove most of the artifacts and the libraries to safer locations." He glanced at the ruined hulk, remembering it from its day of glory, and smiled sadly.
    "Obviously not everything though," Aragorn spoke up quietly. The tale of the ancient ruins captivated him.
    "No, not all." Gandalf turned his attention to the young human who was watching him. "Some things were left. Some because they were too dangerous to move and some because the time was not right for them to be revealed yet, and so they have waited for that day. Like a few other things we know of." He smiled and winked at the ranger, knowing that the young man had heard that same sentiment used to describe his own heritage.
    "Of course that time has never quite come, though it is now near," the old wizard continued cryptically, "and in time the caretakers died and they never passed on the information of the items still contained in its depths, as they were warned not to." Gandalf reverently fingered the yellowed paper in his lap, pulling a deep breath of sweet smoke into his lungs as he chewed on the end of his pipe, lost in thought. "As often happens, things that should have been remembered were forgotten, even by the wise. This map is the last link to prove the existence of this place which even the wise had almost forgotten."
    Legolas gasped slightly as the information triggered his thoughts and Aragorn glanced up at the fair being as the elf looked back at the hall in awe. "This is Eowioriand?! But I was told it was only myth. The knowledge of this place and its people have fallen from existence."
    "What did you call it?" Aragorn turned to his friend.
    "It is known as Urithral, in the common tongue, Hidden City. Or Lost Knowledge in the words of my people." Legolas turned to his friend. "I have heard stories of Eowioriand. Many were the wonders housed here." Huge blue eyes locked onto the ranger's in amazement. "And so then the stories of old are true. The treasures themselves are guarded by an ancient power. That is what I felt today when we were in the passageway, that was what upset the orcs."
    Gandalf gazed hard at the elf. "You say you felt it?" His brow was furrowed at the mention of this new information.
    "Yes, like an evil shadow in my mind. A dark dread that I could not shake." Legolas glanced back at the building that had only moments ago been bathed in the glory of the elder days, but now a shadow crept over it and the elf shuddered. Turning back to Gandalf he whispered, "Do you know what lies there?"
    Gwaihir shifted slightly, his huge black eye turning to gaze on Gandalf. The wizard caught the simple gesture and answered simply, "Such things are best not discussed under the cover of night."
    "Thank you," Aragorn muttered sarcastically around a yawn. "I really don't want to know. I would like to be able to sleep tonight."
    Gandalf laughed lightly, pulling deeply on his pipe and blowing out a perfect smoke ring, "And well you shall young human. Tomorrow we will go back and retrieve the palantir and leave this place to its guardian."
    "Well, whatever it is, it lives in the left hand passage and the floor in the right hand passage is not at all what you think it is!" Aragorn grabbed the edge of his overcoat which he used for a blanket and rolled over onto his side facing the fire, glancing at Legolas with a lopsided smile. "We already tried to get in that way. The handle just makes the floor drop out underneath you."
    Legolas looked over at Gandalf and nodded emphatically.
    "Ah, is that so?" The old wizard smiled at the two younger beings. "Well, tomorrow we'll give it another try and see if I just can't do something about that."
    Aragorn laughed lightly, "As you wish Gandalf, as you wish." His eyes were heavy and it was becoming hard to keep them open.
    A warm hand touched his shoulder and he closed his eyes. "Sleep now. Tomorrow you'll see." With a slight smile the ranger fell quickly asleep.
    Gandalf glanced from the young human to his elven companion. The prince was watching the exterior of the building uneasily.
    "Legolas, take your ease," he whispered quietly, his soft voice easily carrying across the fire to the anxious elf. "Gwaihir will stand watch. Besides, what lives there would not dare to step outside its dwelling place. We are safe here." He smiled as the elf turned back towards him, the stars reflected in the huge blue eyes. "It will be alright."
    Legolas nodded slowly and settled to the ground with his back to the large rock he had only moments ago been sitting on. Hugging his bow tightly to his chest the elf allowed himself to rest and within moments Gandalf could tell that his half-lidded gaze was merely deep slumber.
    The wizard turned serious eyes on the eagle. "Be vigilant, my friend."
    "I would not dare to turn our backs on the enemy this night," Gwaihir spoke quietly. "There is more amiss here than meets the eye." The eagle looked towards the camp of the men a few yards away. "They are not who they present themselves to be."
    Gandalf followed his gaze. "They smell wrong," the great eagle answered the unspoken question. The old wizard simply nodded and looked back to the darkened shell of the building before him. It would be wise to retrieve what they came for and leave quickly; Eowioriand was a place best left forgotten if Middle-earth would only let it remain so.