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Wars Faraway

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Heavy, ironclad foots trampled hurriedly down the hillside, bright torches blazing angrily between the trees. The creatures grunted and called out orders and curses of their own harsh language, one of them occasionally loosing its foothold on the loose earth, tumbling down. They had weapons, axes and knives, held in tight grips; their breathing was fast and they were excited to be on the hunt – trailing a lone, panicking prey. The leaves themselves in the trees appeared to shudder by their presence. Every animal, both the deer and the wood mouse, had hurried to hide beneath foliage or run far away from the danger.

Not far up ahead, an elf was fleeing on fast light feet. He wore only a tunic and a traveling cloak whipping about him; he had no armour or protection, no shield. In one hand he clenched a long white knife, and with his other arm he held a cloaked bundle pressed close to his chest.

He had been running for over a mile beneath the moonlight and the orcs pursuing him gained strength from the darkness of night and would not stop. He could not stop, for a breath or a break, and it seemed that however fast he ran, the orcs were on his heels and gained more and more speed. Not daring to risk a battle with them – they were too many – he tried to outrun them. Had he not been protecting the precious bundle in his arms he would have met them straight-on in battle, but now he could not, without harming …

An arrow wheezed past and buried in the trunk of a tree on his left. Oh, why did they have to bring bows with them? Had they only been carrying swords and other weapons with shorter range, he would feel a bit safer.

Unexpectedly he turned sharply to the right, his feet unconsciously finding themselves on an old small path. Only a moment later he turned from it, breaking through a shield of bushes and avoiding to be hit by a branch by an inch, ducking beneath it.

The orcs were closer now, but the thick foliage seemed to slow them down a little. The elf had not the courage to take joy or gratification in it yet. It was a matter of minutes before they again would be just so close they could grasp at him; but he could not let that happen. His life was barely worth the child he held in his arms, but he felt not ready to die yet. He had just married – two years was little time for an elf – and if he fell now, the orcs would kill the child too, with no doubt. That could not be allowed to happen. He needed to protect him at all costs.

He flashed by time and landscape. Soon the trees opened up into a plain hillside with only high grass. Here it was open and he was vulnerable, glowing softly in the darkness; it was if the weak moonlight reflected on his skin and hair and clothing. He was a clear target but had no choice. It was the fastest way. Faintly, he heard the sound of loud rushing waters.

Another arrow flew close by, and his warning senses saved his life yet again to avoid it; but he stumbled slightly. He heard a shout behind him. The orcs must think he was hit. He tried to hurry his steps. He had crossed half the field now.

It went dark when the last moonlight went behind a thick cloud. The orcs saw better in darkness than elves, even dwarves, but the elf had the advantage of silence and if he could outrun them among the trees again …

There was not much left now – the wind brought the familiar smell of leaves and pine needles towards him and he took a deep breath. It filled him with new strength.

Then suddenly, a blinding pain flared up in his thigh, and his vision dimmed for a moment and he stumbled; he clenched to the knife as he fell, his last protection. Every heartbeat felt like drums against his chest. The child sensed his pain and cried out. Behind them, the orcs shouted and growled in delight, closing in.

"I will not let them," the elf gasped. Breathing was harder, as if someone was stepping on his lungs. "I will not let them take you," he promised a little louder, stronger, and gathered his strength. He broke the arrow that had pierced the back of his thigh. In one movement, though not as smooth as usual, he was on his feet and running again. The orcs seemed surprised and called out, pausing, grunting amongst themselves in anger. In a moment, the elf could – though limping slightly – run freely.

The moment he reached the tree line, it ended with a shower of arrows. He threw a look over his shoulder, gaining the sight of a dozen or so orcs preparing another shot. He dashed on with more panic than before, pain and adrenaline driving him on like a madman. He lost sense of time and had no direction – the feeling and sound of his heartbeat and the whistling of arrows and the rushing of blood past his ears and the wind in his eyes almost overwhelmed him.

Thirteen arrows buried in the grass and the trees. The elf spurred onwards. The child was crying and he could not silence him, could barely breathe, and managed not to say any soothing words.

For a moment he thought the orcs no longer pursued him; their steps were not heard. Then he realized it was because of the sound of water rushing loudly up ahead drowned their steps. It was close by. Only a large wild river could sound so loud. A river that could save their lives, if he hurried.

He broke through thick foliage and trees and a last black arrow flew past him into the night. He could barely see a thing; the trees stood so closely here, and up above, the sky was invisible.

There was no grass beneath his feet, but rock – a cliff. He stopped right in his tracks. One step further and he would have fallen down a rushing current, a waterfall, of which the night concealed its bottom. The child finally silenced his cries in his arms, but continued whimpering softly. The elf's eyes surveyed the area in alarm, but there was no other way. If he followed the side of the river, he would be shot down. But the waterfall …

He glanced down; it was a long way and the darkness veiled the water. He only heard loud, wild whooshes echoing between cliff-walls. When the orcs broke out from the foliage, he whipped around; they finally stopped when they saw his vulnerable position. He was trapped. They moved forward slowly. One of them held up a bow, arrow ready on the string; another growled impatiently awaiting their leader's orders. Their grunting breaths and the elf's gasps went unheard beside the river.

The elf raised the knife and held the child closer to his chest, taking a careful step backwards. His foot balanced on the edge of the cliff; it almost made him loose his balance and his gaze broke off from the orcs' grim faces and the water. He made a last choice and turned around; sheathing his knife at the same time as he kissed the child's head. A last whispering oath crossed his lips.

"I will not let them have you, little one."

He jumped.

 

()()()

"This is foolishness of the highest degree!" Gimli cried dismayed. "Aragorn, you're supposed to look after him, both of them in fact, and you sent him on a suicide mission!"

The man looked at him sternly. "It was the only way! Legolas refused to part from Eldarion, if only was it to place him in safe hands of a guard. Perhaps it is best this way. I have faith in him. He is strong, able to fight and defend himself, and a fast runner. He will, Gimli, he will make it!" He must. Please Valar, let Legolas and Eldarion live, Aragorn silently pleaded. Let them live and have a safe passage to Mirkwood.

Gimli the dwarf had just arrived from the battle below, set on the Pelennor fields. (A slight irony since they spoke of this era as a warless one. The next-last battle for Middle Earth had stood here, but now that made it the third-last battle). Their enemies had originally been orcs, which someone must have gathered from scattered troops and remains from Sauron's armies. A last attempt to crush Gondor.

It was not a very large battle to begin with, they had thought, but then strange men had begun to mix between the orcs. Men no one recognized and or could decide the origin of. They were not Haradrim, Rohirric or Gondorian, or any other people they knew of. This new threat, an unknown people deciding to siege Minas Tirith, made the men nervous. The enemy's forces seemed never to end; if one orc died another came to its place. How they could be so many and where they came from was a mystery. Some said only magic could hide them in the landscape; but they must have been hiding in the empty shadow lands of Mordor.

They had fought for two days. And these men were also strangely strong, almost like elves; they could fight for hours without tiring, it seemed, and wounds did not hinder them. Gondor's strength was enough to counter them, but since the Destruction of the Ring not two years ago, the land was yet healing and they did not want so many soldiers to die now when the War was supposed to be over.

Aragorn had sat upon the throne during these two years. At first people had wondered, some opposed, his choice of mate – he had taken a male elf as husband and not a Gondorian wife, King Thranduil's son Legolas of the Greenwood.

It was a miracle, many said, when the couple, half a year after they had married, were blessed by a child. Legolas had given birth only a few months before this battle, to a son whom they had named Eldarion. The elf's condition was very rare but elven healers from Imladris had been there to help and confirm, and they explained that elven males had often been able to carry children before the rising of Sauron. The darkness had lessened the numbers of such males, and pregnancies and children in general with elves. But after the destruction of the Ring, the elves had found new hope and children were seen in Imladris and Mirkwood, the last elven lands in this world of Men, where elves yet remained. The child and his parents were first frowned at, but by now they were seen as the luckiest in Middle-Earth, and the people of Gondor loved them.

It was apparent that these new enemies sought to wipe the city to the ground. They had once managed to take a prisoner, one who seemed almost mad. He had lost one arm by the elbow and was laughing in malice between his words. It was one thing that frightened them about him – he felt no pain, at least not much, for he had many open wounds that would make a man crawl on the ground begging to die, but he was ready to fight and almost killed a guard. How this was possible, they did not know.

Aragorn wished only safety for his family. Minas Tirith was a good stronghold, but they were also caught between the armies, the river Anduin, and the mountains behind them that the city was built into. Eldarion would be escorted during the night away from the city, taking a side-route to Rohan or if possible, Mirkwood. Stubborn as he was, Legolas would not let a guard take his son, but himself. Aragorn finally had let him, but had felt immensely worried when Legolas at last ran away from the city, cloaked in nightly shadows. He had taken no horse for elves are speedy and silent; a steed might only gain unwanted attention.

Hence the reason for Gimli's fuming.

"Why did you let him? A King as you should know better, as do I, because I know the lad will only go into trouble - his nature to handle situations cannot be denied! He will only attract trouble-"

"There was some reason behind it, and we are desperate Gimli! And in Mirkwood they both are safe. I would rather send Legolas away than have him fighting here, among these enemies. Orcs are one thing, but these men … You have seen them, Gimli." Aragorn's face was grim and strained. He looked old, in a way he had not looked before; more near his true age. That he was 91 years old was something that few could believe, since his appearance was that of a forty-year old.

"There was reason, yes; very little so. But now we might never see any of them again!" Gimli accused. Then he rubbed his temples, lowering his gaze a little and softening his voice. "Lad, send someone after him, or try to send a message to Mirkwood. The beacons, have they been lit?"

Aragorn nodded. "Aye. Rohan is alerted and I trust that Éomer sends his aid; I ordered the beacons lit once I realized our dire situation two days ago. This new threat … what is it? Who are leading these men into such a barbaric death, fighting painlessly alongside orcs?"

Why was I so foolish to let him go alone?

()()()

The water around him came as a shock.

His son screamed. Himself – he did not know, he might have cried out as well, as he dropped quickly in a barrier between air and falling rushing water, down, down, down …

He came crashing down and was swallowed by blackness. At once, he began to sink. It took a moment for him to get his limbs moving and he made a small kick with his left leg. He needed to get above the water! The child…

He began kicking and used his free hand to swim upwards. Still he felt tired, and his body hurt, and his mind felt a bit dizzy. He could not see a thing, and only when he felt air touch his hand he realized how deep down in the water he had fallen.

The elf broke the surface with a gasp. He took no notice to the fact that here, a crescent moon was shining, a thin ray of light upon the landscape. The water felt cold.

He held the child afloat; making sure the boy could breathe, and tried to find a direction to swim to. The waterfall made currents and he took help of them to slowly make his way towards land. He felt exhausted; as if he could drop down and simply sleep. But he could not abandon the boy so.

He crawled up upon a gravelly shore, holding Eldarion close to his chest. With his legs yet in the water, too tired to move further up the riverbank, he pushed away the child a little to a dried spot and prayed he still was breathing. His own came in gasps. His body was yet in shock, pumping with adrenaline. He imagined sounds or perhaps he did not imagine them; cracking of woods and trees, a bird far away, an owl, the water splashing and the waterfall's restlessness, and a humming voice in his head; a faint cry of a child ...

"Eldarion, please stay with me, please, please live …Saes penneth, saes."

A stream of elvish passed his lips. He reached out with a trembling hand and began untying the lacings that held the bundle tied and the child safe. He bumped against Eldarion's small face with his hand; the child was wet all over, slightly cold, and suddenly let out a wail. Even in his shaky condition, Legolas knew that water grew one cold and he needed to get the child warm, and out of his clothing to dry.

He managed to lift the youngster out of the tied cloak but found not the energy to take off his clothing; he merely pulled him close and let his head drop in exhaustion. Legolas lost consciousness to Eldarion's wailing and a small fist firmly holding his hair.

()()()

The air felt cold, stinging to his skin. Eragon awoke with a gasp, sitting straight up. At first he thought they were under attack. He already had begun to set up barricades in his mind. The magic, which was ever-present in Du Weldenvarden, pulsated about him. He gasped at the strength of the shock wave. It reminded him of dagshelgr that had happened not a day ago, when they were near Síthrem, an elven city – where spells had tied around him and spellbound him, and the magic had been so much at one moment. Now the magic felt just as strong, but not in that same captivating way.

'Saphira, can you hear me?' he called out. He felt that she too was awake, even if she was circling the skies to keep away from elven eyes other than those of Arya and her three companions. 'Did you feel that too?'

'Yes, I did,' she answered. 'But I have no idea of what it was. Maybe it is something in this forest, or some spell of the elves.'

Eragon came to his feet and silently made his way into the camp. By the fire, Narí and Arya sat conversing silently. Both looked up and greeted him as he arrived. He sat down beside them. He felt uneasy and restless. That wave of magic still felt as a warning, one of danger.

"I woke with a strange feeling," he said. "I can't explain it, but it was definitely magic. Did any of you feel this too?"

Arya nodded a bit absently. "Yes, Eragon."

"Do you know what it was?" Eragon wondered. It was not anyone trying to scry us? he thought. But no, it didn't feel like it … It was more … powerful, is the word I can find for it. I did not feel like being watched.

"We are not sure," Narí replied, lowering his voice a little and glancing at the other elf. "But I believe we ought to find out." He cast a glance at the sky. "Daybreak will soon come."

()()()

Morning was cold and gray and the air bit his skin. Gravel crunched beneath his boots. In his hand Roran held a bow, and Baldor was armed with the same weapon, not far behind him. Both were searching for trails of newly passed deer.

After Eragon's disappearance and Garrow's death, Roran and some men from the village had helped each other to save what could be saved from the burned down farm that had once been Roran's home. After that, it took five months before Roran could even think of returning to the place where Eragon's secret, that blue stone, whatever it was, had caused Roran's father Garrow's death. Yesterday he had gone to the farm, his home, where he had lived his whole life and grown up, where Garrow had lived his life. There was only burnt ruins and moss-clad moldy wood left; but looked like he could use some parts of the land for planting and harvesting crops still. At least he would have something to do for a living.

He had felt and still felt slightly panicked, feeling despair and sadness and anger. He had finished his service in Therinsford to help with the mill, and had a little money. But now, with no farm, no real home, no animals – not anything – and with Eragon and his blue stone the only reason for this and Garrow's death –there was no chance that he could prove to the butcher Sloan that he was worthy to marry his daughter, Katrina. Both were madly in love.

She had tried to convince him to speak with Sloan but he couldn't, because if Sloan found out he would just drive them apart – if she married Roran, Katrina would have no house, no farm, home to inherit. All would have to be built up from the start. All these thoughts plagued Roran's mind as he and Baldor tracked the valley for prey.

"Over there," Baldor said lowly, pointing towards a trail running beside the edge of the Anora River, leading towards a blackberry bush. Roran kneeled by the side of it an inspected it; it looked old, so he dared to speak up about what had bothered him all night and all morning.

"Can I ask for some advice? You seem to understand people."

"Of course. What is it?"

Roran hesitated for a moment, trying to find the best way to start, and only their footsteps were heard for a time. "Sloan wants to have Katrina married, but not with me. With everyday that passes the bigger is the chance that he'll arrange a marriage that benefits him."

Baldor stepped around a rock to avoid stumbling on it. "What does Katrina say about it?"

Roran shrugged. "Sloan is her father. She cannot keep defying him for so long or the one she wants may claim her."

"And that's you, then."

"Yes."

"No wonder you were up so early this morning."

A silence fell between them, as they continued to follow the old trail. Perhaps they would just find an old resting place where the deer had been last and slept and ate. I want to clear my mind, that's all, Roran thought. It doesn't matter if I catch anything … even if I would have nothing against a warm meal tonight. During the whole night he had lain awake and tried to think of a solution of their dilemma.

"I cannot stand the thought of losing her. But I doubt that Sloan will give his blessing, since my home and living is a nothing."

"No, I do not think so either," Baldor said and glanced at his friend. "But what did you want my advice on?"

A laugh escaped Roran's mouth. "How am I supposed to persuade Sloan? How can I solve this without creating a blood feud?" He felt frustrated and defeated. "What am I supposed to do?"

"Don't you have any ideas?" Baldor wondered. He was a bit intrigued and he wanted to help a friend, but in a matter like this … A man with his right mind would find his courage and ask the father of his beloved if he could have her hand in marriage.

"I do, but none of them are very attractive. Once I had a thought of telling everyone that Katrina and I are betrothed – of course we are not in reality – and give a damn about the consequences. Then Sloan would have to give his approval."

Baldor frowned. "Maybe," he said thoughtfully, "but that would stir up a lot of displeasure in Carvahall. Not many would like to be on your side. Besides it'd be unwise to force Katrina to choose between you and her family; she might regret it later."

Roran sighed and drew a hand through his hair. "I know, but what choice do I have?"

"Before you do something that drastic, I think you should try to get Sloan on your side," Baldor suggested. "There's a chance that you can succeed after all, if he realizes that no one would like to marry an angry Katrina. Especially since you're around and can make the husband to a cockold." At the thought of that, Roran grimaced and stared at the down. Baldor laughed. "If you fail you can safely go on, knowing that you've used all options. Then the risk is less that people will despise you because you have broken against traditions, and they might instead think it's pigheaded Sloan blaming himself."

"Nothing of that is easy," Roran pointed out.

"Well, you knew that from the beginning." Baldor became more serious. "There'll surely be harsh words if you challenge Sloan, but it will eventually all calm down – if not as usual then at least so it's bearable. Except for Sloan only those who are really prudish that will feel wronged, like Quimby. I don't understand how Quimby can make such good ale when he himself is so taut and bitter."

They had been walking upwards now, to the west, and Roran glanced off towards the mountains. They should turn back soon. The sun was barely visible on the gray sky, clouded but yet a shining point in the skies, yellow and warm.

Roran nodded. He knew that grudges could live on in Carvahall for years. "Thank you for listening. It was…" His words stumbled and he didn't know what to say. He had spoken like this with Eragon; he could recall it was about everything, from deep seriousness to childish fears. They had been, like Eragon had once said, brothers in all but blood; always there, ready to support and listen to each other. Now that bond was broken. It felt like a gaping whole inside of him.

Baldor didn't ask what he had been about to say, but stopped instead resting a foot on a stone and drinking from his water pouch. Roran felt a bit relieved and continued walking up ahead; still thinking only of Katrina. That deer was nowhere in his mind. Oh, what am I going to do? I must marry her. I love her. I cannot watch her marry another man.

A sharp smell sticking his nostrils stopped his contemplations. It smelled like burned meat and wood on fire. Roran blinked in surprise. Who else can be here in our valley this time of year? He turned around in a circle to determine from which way the smell was coming; it appeared it came with the wind from the road. The breeze brought with it a smell of smoke and newly cooked food. It smelt so good he felt his mouth watering.

He signed to Baldor to come closer, who hurried forward. "Can you smell that?" Roran asked.

Baldor sniffed the air and nodded. Together they followed the smoke back to the road – which led into the valley and into their village – and continued on it to the south. In about a hundred feet it turned around a clearing of trees. The smell was strong now; through the morning mist they heard voices. Roran hesitated. They did not want to surprise men who were out hunting, and get hurt or shot by mistake. But something felt … disturbing, unusual. This was no normal hunting party. Maybe it was the size, by the voices it sounded like a group much larger than any family in Carvahall. They were not from around here.

Without thinking, Roran walked away from the road and crawled into the bushes. Baldor did not follow. "What are you doing?" he hissed, not liking the feeling of this.

Roran signed silence, pressing a finger against his lips, and sneaked in parallel with the road as quietly as he could. When reaching the turn of the road, he stopped and in a kneeling position glanced through the bushes into a soldier camp. Thirty dusty, armour-clad men were in sight, helmets and spears sparkling in a sunray that broke through the clouds. Even though they were all dirty from what seemed like a long journey, the emblem of Galbatorix was fully visible on their red tonlets – a red flame outlined with a golden thread. Their leader, or probably owner, was eating stew and bird cooked over several fires. The men carried swords; there were also archers and those with halberds.

His blood went cold when he saw and recognized two large, bent black-clad figures by the opposite edge of the camp. They fit directly into the description of the strangers that had come to Carvahall when Eragon had come with his strange, blue stone. Servants of the Empire!

I could kill them now and revenge Garrow. But when he put an arrow to the string, Baldor, who had resignedly sneaked behind him in silence, stopped him.

"No, that'll only get us killed," he murmured.

Roran glared at him. "Those … those devils, they …" He did not realize that he was trembling. "They're back!"

"Roran," Baldor whispered persistently, "there is nothing you can do. Look, they serve the king, and even if you got out of it alive you would become an outlaw. You would put Carvahall into danger."

"What do they want? What can they want?" Roran muttered. The King. Why did the king allow my father to die in such misery?

"If they had nothing from Garrow, and Eragon fled with Brom, they must be looking for you, Roran." Baldor waited a moment so that his words could sink into Roran's head. When he realized exactly what that meant, Roran's eyes widened and he glanced from the road to the camp.

Roran stared a moment into the unknowing soldiers' camp, his blood soaring and his heart pounding to have revenge and find the peace he wanted. He wanted to kill those two black strangers, bury them with arrows - that was the only justice they understood. His whole body tensed.

"We have to hurry back and warn the others," he whispered, managing to tear his mind from the revenge but he kept his gaze fixed at the dark, round-backed beings. "Only those two strangers have horses. We will get to the village before them if we run."

Chapter Text

Consciousness returned to him in little steps. His ears felt hushed, all sound dampened, as if he had been, or was, below water. Like his hair, plastered to his body, his clothing clung to him like a second skin. Slowly, he blinked his eyes open, raising his head slightly. He was still lying on the thin shore; yes, he remembered now he had come here. The orcs, the run, the fall …

Something felt amiss. That river … that he had come across ... Was it even supposed to be there? He had thought that Ithilien would be mostly grass and trees, a hiding place, and had not heard of any waterfalls there. Especially one so large: he could have fallen at least fifty feet before hitting the surface.

His leg throbbed with pain. The arrow that hit my thigh. He must have had a guardian angel, because the arrow was not buried deep and his muscles were not too damaged. He would be able to walk. He managed to move down with an uncertain hand, finding the arrow shaft sticking out of his thigh. He felt dried blood around the wound. He took a deep breath, and held it. Better do it quickly. I was lucky I didn't break the shaft. He hated doing this. One, two … three.

A hiss of pain left his lips. He tossed the arrow away as far as he could, but he still felt feeble and a bit dizzy. I hope I do not have to do that again …for a very long time.

He managed to roll to the side and crawl a bit away from the water. The elf realized that half his legs were yet in it; he had not had the energy to move more onto land yesterday night. Eldarion lay yet pressed against his chest, now asleep, looking content. No one seeing his face could have guessed what had happened.

A shy sun was filtering through the trees, looking down upon them. Glancing upwards, he saw that the sky was coloured pale blue by sunrise. The air was eerie still.

Laying the child on the ground, he tried to get to his feet. His world spun and his knees gave in beneath him the moment he rose, and he fell back upon the ground. Concussion, he realized. When I hit the water …

It took long moments before he managed to stand and keep his balance. Not until he was sure he could walk at least manageably, he gently picked up the child in his arms and turned to face the river. He could try finding a way up to the start of the waterfall, but …Glancing upwards, towards the plummeting waters, he realized that the waterfall was carved out of mostly flat rock that would be nearly impossible to climb from his spot, even without Eldarion as a burden. There was a path that led past him, into the woods and appeared to lead to its top. The orcs – they might still be there, he thought, but should I find another way or go back? … Mirkwood should be in the opposite direction of the waterfall. I could follow the river, though, and that way I would know where to go back in case I find nothing but wilderness.

The surroundings seemed unfamiliar and almost dark, and in a way the vegetation growing on the hillside, that appeared to lead into a chain of mountains, looked like Fangorn with overgrown tangled trees and leaves creating a carpet on the ground. But it looked like an insecure place to go. On the opposite side of the river it looked the same. Up ahead, trees grew but not as closely to each other, and they were greener and warmer in colour. They looked younger.

This does not look like Ithilien. It does not feel like Ithilien either. But that cannot be possible. I was not swept off with the river, only down the waterfall and it cannot be far. This difference in the very air seems … at least improbable. I have a feeling I have come to a place I have never heard of or been am I?

He tried to reach out with his mind to the trees. They were surely not used to elves' presence here, but they should be able to hear him, at least. Hopefully they would be able to communicate with him. Perhaps they could give him a heading of where to go to find civilization, or some help of where he was.

There was only silence. The trees were mute.

That decides it, he thought. He had not any greater desire to go further away from Minas Tirith than he already was, but perhaps he could meet up with a town or village if he followed the water. Walking would hurt, he was still limping, but he could not just sit and wait for … nothing.

Down here, the river seemed much calmer than the stream above, which he remembered from yesterday those few moments before he had jumped. I need to find a way to contact Aragorn. If I find a village to take cover, I might be able to send a messenger, if any of the villagers are willing. Or else I will just have to wait, rest and eat, and perhaps even leave Eldarion in some trustworthy villagers' care, and go back myself. I know nothing of what has happened, if we are winning or losing this battle, he thought grimly as he began walking by the edge of the tree line. Or who our enemy is.

He tried to think more positive thoughts, to make his trek easier and his mind not so troubled, but he only managed to be worried and almost sarcastic in his thoughts. If Gimli has found out of my escape with Eldarion he will be mad, and when he finds out I went without an escort he will be unbearable, and when he finds out that I was pursued by orcs, he will be ready to slay Aragorn for letting me go at all. I hope I can get back to Minas Tirith before that happens.

He made his way down an old thin deer path running beside the riverbank, and it took only a few minutes to pass through the greener trees; the ground began steeping downwards like a hill. He was surprised when he found civilization very quickly.

Lifting his gaze he could see a valley inside a half-circle of mountains, to which the river appeared to lead. A small village made of mainly brown small buildings was in the centre of the valley. It looked small, harmless, and Legolas guessed it was a village of Men. It was not far; maybe eight miles. Far away, even for his own eyes, by the end of the valley, were other buildings that he guessed were farms that were not part of the village.

But not far from the village was a camp, with tents and fires, and Legolas could spot men walking around with weaponry and shields; he could see around twenty but there could be more of them. Soldiers? But Aragorn has sent no soldiers this way; those do not look Rohirric either, and definitely they are not elvish or dwarvish. I think … that armour …those red tonlets; I am sure that they wore …

His eyes widened as he realized: their unknown enemies had that armour and such shields! Either this village is in league with them, he thought, or they are unwillingly captive or struggling against them. But I cannot be sure until … until the villagers visibly protests or agrees with the soldiers. It is too dangerous for me to bring Eldarion with me there – yet. I have to wait, or I could go on to try finding another village or town … Legolas pondered his possible decisions for long moments.

I will wait, he thought at last. It was too risky to go into the wild. He kneeled on the ground, closed his eyes and tried to paint a map of the area as he saw it in his mind, and remember all the maps of Middle Earth that he had seen.

If I am in Ithilien, I would guess that south, to Gondor, lies directly behind me, somewhat to the east – the waterfall must have been connected to the Great River and were I not so sure I could impossibly have run that far in that time, I would think that waterfall was Rauros. But Rauros is far from Ithilien, and the only way there is through Emyn Muil.

This is not Ithilien, nor anywhere near Gondor. Is it possible to travel across the lands like this? How? With magic?

No, no. That sounded impossible. Not even maiar like Mithrandir could have such power, only the Valar and Eru himself. The frown on Legolas' forehead deepened. Then he shook his head.

He could spot the gate into the village; it was no real gate, just an opening in the wooden walls. It was facing the other end of the valley, to which a road led. I will go around, he decided. It will make me less restless to move from this high, vulnerable spot, and I can inspect those soldiers, maybe even overhear them…about plans and who their leader is. If the village appears to be friendly I will use the road to go into it and pretend to be a traveler … or messenger.

He was so in deep thought that he almost had forgotten Eldarion in his arms, until the child tugged at his hair and began wailing. Legolas opened his eyes. "Hush, hush, it's all right," he murmured, and began humming softly in elvish again. The sound of his son's cry sounded loud to his ears, echoing into the valley. He began moving downwards and to the east; his clothing would help hiding him from prying eyes. The soldier's camp lay on the west side, but he assumed it too risky to walk that way around with Eldarion. They could be too easily heard.

()()()

They left the citadel together; Aragorn would gather his council members to discuss what to do next, and Gimli was ordered to go to the Houses of Healing and have someone to look at his arm, where he had been cut through his chain mail. The dwarf had barely any temper of healers right now, and was impatient to go back into the battle – his blood soared with anticipation when he faced his enemies with axe in hand. He had to sit patiently and wait as a nursemaid all too slowly cleansed and tied his wound.

"'Tis barely a scratch," he muttered. "And nothing to worry about." Seeing Legolas is not here, I guess Aragorn picked me to fuss over. When the nurse finally was finished, the dwarf thanked her and stretched his muscles; he felt a bit sore all right, but the injury would not hinder him from movement or fighting.

Then he went into battle again; to not open the gate, he and some other reinforcements used ladders to climb over the wall and onto Pelennor. The numbers of enemies had reduced now. The Gondorians were having the advantage, finally, and it looked they were going to win this battle. With a war cry in dwarvish, Gimli broke through a line of enemies that were attempting to break the gate and sent them to the ground. The orcs were easier to kill than the Men, both because the Men were smarter and better with the sword – better warriors when the orcs were simply mass-produced to make a large assault force.

His axe was imbedded in an opponent's knees, who fell to the ground with a cry and dropping his sword, which had used to try hack a Gondorian soldier into pieces. Gimli didn't recognize him. The Gondorian shouted his thanks.

"Drive them towards the river and surround them!"

Gimli heard a cry from somewhere above on his left, suddenly; it was answered by a horn, and other voices in a variety of languages – also war-cries came from the enemies in a language that Gimli had not before heard.

"Osgiliath! Turn around, they are coming from Osgiliath!"

At first Gimli thought they meant enemies, but once he had a better view through the chaos of blood and swords and people – all longer than himself, damnit! – he saw a standard he did recognize, but indeed had he not seen it in some two years. Elves from Mirkwood! Did the lad make it and by my beard, isn't impossible to do is so quickly? Mirkwood is over 50 miles away!

He could not determine how many or how close the elves were, but they were a welcome sight, and for once he did not feel so strong annoyance and dislike towards Thranduil.

The elves broke through the enemy lines quickly. The orcs were more afraid than the men in the same army, but the men more surprised, as they had never seen elves before and even less fought them. But the elves felt that these unknown men were strong enough to challenge them and maybe even win, were the elves and the men having the same numbers of soldiers. What these men did not know where of their fighting style and their speed with the sword, and they fell for their blades and arrows.

Gimli cut down three enemies in quick succession, swinging around his axe like a madman. "Come on!" he cried. "Come on, and let me finish the last of you!"

Twenty-nine was that! A pity the pointy-ear wasn't here to compete with me this time, for I'd have beaten him by far. Thirty!

The elves were nearing the gate now. Gimli spotted no horses, so either they had left them behind in Osgiliath, or they had walked – or maybe they had all run, like elves did, as he had seen Legolas do on the plains of Rohan years ago. How they had this energy to fight if that was the case, Gimli had no idea.

Behind the elves came now another force, but with only a hundred men on horseback; Éomer had received their signal for help. They broke up like water around a rock when they passed the elves and so they reached the gates before them. Gimli jogged back across the battlefield. He wanted to greet the leader of the Rohirric, even if he was no so sure with the elves.

It took not more than an hour before the battlefield was cleansed from resistance. A bead of sweat trickled down Gimli's brow. "I swear, this was worse than the last battle I fought and then we were a hundred against Sauron's ten thousand orcs by the Gates of Mordor," he muttered.

Aragorn came through the gate, and even if he was dressed in armour, it was quite clean and even if he looked tired, he was the healthiest in the world compared to most other of his soldiers, who were wounded and exhausted and covered in dust and blood. He hurried to come and greet the elves and the riders; Gimli stood behind him leaning against his axe.

His face lit up a little when he saw the rider's leader. He had imagined that Éomer would send another in his stead, since he was King, but he was ever-loyal to Gondor and lead his own armies. "Hello lad, it is very good to see you. We had started to begin wondering when you would make yourself present," Gimli said with a short grin.

"Greetings, son of Glóin! I came as fast as I could when I saw your signal for aid. I couldn't believe it at first; the War is believed to be over," Éomer replied and dismounted. "I managed to find ninety-three men who were ready to come with me in such short time. But it appears that even if we tried to hurry, we came a bit too late. Though I think my men are slightly relieved that they had to fight only two hours after a ride of almost two days."

Gimli nodded. "You met up with the elves on the way?"

"Yes, they had heard the word by a falcon sent with a message from King Elessar. That is what King Thranduil told me."

The dwarf paled a little under his beard. "Thranduil? Thranduil is here?"

"Yes; I believe he has strong reasons as well since his son is King Elessar's consort," Éomer said not noticing the dwarf's utter horror.

Oh no, now I have to deal with him, Gimli thought. If he sees me … Bah, too late, now is it. But the elf won't be pleased to hear that Aragorn sent his son away escort-less; but he probably knows that already, since Legolas is in Mirkwood …hopefully.

He glanced over the direction of the elves. Thranduil was indeed there at the lead, clad in forestry colours and wearing light armour on his chest. A bow hung over his back in a quiver of arrows and a sword hung by his belt. He wore an elven-like helm decorated with green gemstones; his face wore a look of worry and anger. His voice was low but Gimli saw that he was speaking with Aragorn.

"My son is not here?" Thranduil's voice rose and Gimli glanced at Aragorn. Legolas was not in Mirkwood either? He must still be on the road …

"You let my son and my grandson go alone in the middle of night to escape a battle when you know it is much safer to let him stay inside the city? With enemies lurking around the corner, he could have been followed or caught or worse! And you let him go without a second thought?"

"My lord, let me explain; Legolas was willing to-"

"You are the King of this city!" Thranduil growled. "You let him go, and Legolas and Eldarion are your responsibility."

"My King, please listen to me. Legolas volunteered to take Eldarion into safety of your realm; yes, that is his heading. He also refused to part from our son," Aragorn tried to explain in a lowered voice. "He should be in Ithilien now."

"Send your men after him and bring him back, safely," Thranduil ordered with flashing eyes. "Take some of my soldiers with you. You do know his route, do you not?"

"Yes, I do, and I will, now as Minas Tirith is safe, Thranduil," Aragorn said and tried to keep from growling and baring his teeth in frustration. He and his father-in-law (but he never called him that) never had been on the best terms, because Thranduil was very protective over his little leaf and still could not quite stand the thought that his son was married and especially not that he was married to a mortal man. Legolas was still a little child to him, and to think he was having his own life, even with his own child, was something Thranduil did not want to grasp. Aragorn felt frustration because of that. The elven-king could not talk calmly with him. Usually they talked – or argued - only if there was a dire situation, or if Legolas made them talk.

When they walked inside the city they were both stiff-backed and Thranduil's eyes angry. His soldiers were given some quarters in the city, and refreshments, and the elven-king followed the King's lead to the citadel. Éomer's men made up a camp beside the city walls. Gimli and Éomer himself followed Aragorn a bit further back, observing the elf and the man who so obviously despised each other.

"I believe Legolas would have a fit if he saw them like this right now, thinking they are behaving like children," Gimli muttered to Éomer.

"As do I. But King Thranduil is very protective of his son as is Elessar, I believe; like I am with my wife and our unborn child. I hope that nothing has happened to the Prince," answered the rider. "His heading was Mirkwood?"

"Aye, to find shelter within his father's realm, mainly for Eldarion's safety. I think he would run straight back to fight with us after that, but now he's a bit too late," Gimli said with a small smile, remembering his friend's formation from a calm mysterious quiet elf to a deadly warrior. It was quite fascinating really, and one of the thing that Gimli found it easier to relate to him. Both knew how to fight. "It is over 50 miles to Mirkwood's main city, I know this; my first visit promised Thranduil, in a discreet way, to be my last," Gimli said. "Legolas could not have made it there yet. It has been a little over half a day since he left."

()()()

Legolas had been walking for around two hours, he counted by the setting of the sun, until his leg wound bothered him too much so he had to pause. Eldarion was awake but seemed quite peaceful and content – most of all he was fascinated with the light-gray cloud that hung on the sky above and almost appeared to be following them. He rested in a sling that Legolas had tied together using some fabric that he ripped off from his cloak, which made it easier for the elf to carry him, and made possible for him to defend himself with a weapon without putting the child down. Legolas followed the boy's line of sight. The sky was darkening. It is going to rain.

The child was not hungry, since Legolas had found a way to fed him. He recognized some of the plants here and by the mountainside, under a forest made mostly of conifers, it grew berries, some he knew and some he did now. Crushing them in his hand, he allowed the six-week-old boy to suckle it from his fingertips. Legolas knew that it was not enough to keep him full at length; the boy would need something else to eat.

Stopping for a rest he sat down on a mossy stone. He glanced down at the boy in his arms, who still stared at the cloud and was attempting to reach out to it and grab it. Eldarion only got a hold of Legolas' hair. I planned to take a route around Ithilien and make it to Mirkwood. My father will protect Eldarion. I need to find Mirkwood. I am needed in the battle, I know, and if I make it to Mirkwood I can leave my son in safety and convince Father to lend us some help in form of elven warriors. They are needed. Father will be as concerned as we already are about our new enemies, since we know so little about them. We do not even know where they are from.

Then he shook his head. He needed to think one step at the time. Taking care of Eldarion and making it around to the village's other side was most important right now.

He had, as planned, walked around the valley but there were no paths to follow except the thin winding ones that the harts had made. He guessed that the river, since it was quite large, led towards a large lake or the sea. But it is not Anduin. He knew not why he was so sure about that, but he was sure he was right.

Half an hour later he was on his way again, after have fed Eldarion and eaten a little himself, but he knew he would not need as much food as the child.

After a while he found the silence almost unbearable. The forest around him was strangely quiet, as if silently alive, but with few animals. He kept mulling over his own thoughts until he would drive himself mad with worry, about his friends, about Aragorn, and Gimli … this new battle … He began talking with Eldarion in a low voice, using elvish, finally gaining the boy's attention. Eldarion of course understood only what a seven-month-old child could, and was soothed by his parent's nonsense babbling. The elvish washed over his ears. Soon he fell asleep in the crook of Legolas' arm.

This way Legolas continued his route. Walking around the village could not take more than an hour, but that was because he kept his distance and was always a mile or more away from it. He saw it, smoke rising into the sky, and he saw the soldiers' camp not. And then when the vegetation was not in the way, but human eyes could not see this far. Still he had not met up with a soul, not a single creature or animal; nor had he seen any hunters or farmers on the fields that were beside the village on the north side.

The pain in his leg forced him to stop again. Then and now, he felt slightly dizzy by the pain. I could run three times as fast as I am walking now if not for those orcs' damned arrows!

He made a small camp by an old large pine tree. After making sure Eldarion was comfortable, he took a first real look at his wound, taking off his leggings and light shoes and turning around. It did not look good; dark marks had begun to spread around the small wound. The dizziness … Poison! Those arrows were poisoned. When I first ran, it was enough time to infect the wound, even if I pulled out the arrow once I returned to consciousness. Just what I needed.

He ripped his cloak more as he took fabric and created bandages and tied around the wound. He had no idea how to stop this poison, but it seemed to affect him slowly; his body system was rejecting it but it took its time. Luckily I did not have the arrow point in my blood system longer than I did. It must just be so much that my body can neutralize the poison. He was glad that occasional dizziness was the only side effect, this far.

It was only midday, but he kept his time thinking and talking with Eldarion, feeding him, and keeping an eye on the village and the camp. His wound bothered him more now when he knew that it was poisoned.

Even if he did not feel any direct danger, he did not dare make a fire. He would have wanted sparkling warmth when night came, but even if the fire itself was not seen the smoke would be very visible and he would be found at once.

The night came slowly. At the camp and the village below he spotted fires and other sources of light being lit. With his knife, Legolas had taken a piece of wood and formed a not so very realistic toy horse. Eldarion was fully occupied with it. Legolas had only to stop him when he tried eating its head. "No, no, that is not for eating, Eldarion," the elf scolded him, albeit gently. "Are you hungry, penneth?"

Eldarion could not answer and only stared at him and tried to reach out with tiny hands. He looked happy, blissful of the night creeping upon them and what they had just been through. I wonder what you are thinking, little one, Legolas thought as he took the boy in his lap and fed him with berries.

The sun painted the sky red in long strokes, before it disappeared behind the horizon. The elf lay down with Eldarion cradling his chest, but found he could not sleep; first he laid on his back to be able to see the stars, but none were out this night. The sky was dark and clouded. If there had been stars I might be able to determine by the sky where I am and which direction is Mirkwood. Wrapping his torn cloak close to his body, he rolled to the side and stared out into the woods.

When he finally fell asleep with the image of Eldarion's content face on his lids, he heard – or could just have well imagined – an owl in the distance and the sound of soft voices.

Rain lightly touched his face.

Chapter Text

"You must leave the village until they've gone," Horst said. "Take food from the house and take my mare – Ivor is removing stubs with her by his farm – and ride into the base of the mountains. When we know what those soldiers want, I will send Albriech or Baldor after you."

Roran had come dashing into his smithery gasping for air, and shaking his head that neither he or Baldor were hurt, he had told quickly that he had seen Galbatorix' soldiers just a few miles outside the village. He and Baldor had seen them. With them were also the two strangers, danger for Roran and also trouble for the village.

"But what will you say if they wonder where I am?"

"That you are out hunting and we don't know when you will come back. It's true enough, and I doubt they will go out to look for you then. Its many miles to search and they don't want to miss you. If it is you they want," Horst added gravely with a frown.

Roran nodded and hurried to Horst's house where he quickly found the mare's equipments and saddlebags, and prepared a pack with some turnips, dried meat and bread, grabbed a tin kettle and ran outside. Heaved down by the cargo he jogged eastwards where Ivor was; on the way he met a surprised Elaine, and quickly he explained what this all was about.

Ivor's farm laid some way east outside the village, surrounded by a canopy of trees, of which the man had cut some down and proceeded to remove the stubs of. Behind the dwelling house, the mare was struggling to pull up the roots of an elm.

The horse trembled with the effort and her bit frothed as, with a last pull, she managed to heave up the root so it pointed at the sky. Ivor stopped her with a softer grip on the reins and patted her gently. "There, there, that was well done."

Roran came into view and called for him at a distance. "Ivor!" When he came closer he slowed down a bit and pointed at the mare. "I need to borrow her." Shortly he explained why.

Ivor nodded in understanding of his situation but was still irritated and swore as he unharnessed the horse. When he backed to let Roran saddle her, he shook his head with a frown. "Nothing interrupts work before I start working - only when I am working."

When all was ready, Roran mounted with his bow in his hand. "I'm sorry I made such trouble, but it cannot be helped now."

"Don't worry about it now. Just make sure they don't catch you."

"I will."

"And don't go and hide on my grounds!" Ivor cried after him, as he hit his heels in the mare's sides and hurried down the road and into the forest. Roran smirked and leaned down over the horse's neck.

Quickly enough, he found the Spine's foothills and he followed the edge of the mountain, around to its northern part where he could have a large overview of the Palancar valley and Carvahall without being seen himself. He settled down on a place on the mountainside, tied the horse and sat down to wait.

He shivered as he looked at the dark pine trees and the mountains; being this near the Spine was making him uncomfortable, and he did not like it. Barely anyone from Carvahall dared to come near these mountains, and those who did rarely returned. He glanced at the sky; it was darkening. It looked like it would be raining tonight.

It did not take long before Roran saw the soldiers come marching on the road in double lines, and at the lead where two black sinister forms. At the edge of Carvahall they were met and stopped by a group of men with tools and hoes in their hands. Both parts spoke for sometime; Roran wished he knew what they said but it was clearly too far away. In his eyes it looked like two groups of growling dogs stood before one another and soon, there would be an attack; they waited for the other group to begin a battle.

After a long while, the villagers stood aside and let the intruders pass.

What's happening now? Roran wondered, standing up, but once within Carvahall he could not see what was going on, more than the men's helmets moving among the buildings.

The soldiers did not leave. By nightfall they made camp on a plain just beside the village; their gray tents were arrayed in squares and in the firelight of their torches Roran could spot shadows of guards that patrolled. Which means I will not be able to return in a while. He rolled his thumbs, watching, waiting, but nothing more happened. He had also made camp and now he had much time for thinking. I thought, when those strangers burned my home, they found what they were looking for – that blue stone Eragon brought with him. Obviously they haven't found it yet. Now they think that I know where it is. Eragon must have known he had to leave; that it needed to be protected. He frowned. It explained why Eragon fled but it still felt very far-sighted.

Anyway, so must that stone be of fantastic value, if the king is looking for it and sends too many men to find it. I can't seem to find why it is so valuable. Maybe it is magic, he thought.

He breathed the soft cool air. From somewhere in the valley below, an owl hooted.

Suddenly there was a movement. Roran tensed and prepared his bow, took aim but did not release the arrow; then he recognized the man who was climbing up the hillside and lowered his bow. When he was sure it was Albriech he gave a low whistle.

When finally the man was on the top he released the pack he had been carrying. "It was hard to find you," he said. "I began to doubt if I would at all."

"I'm surprised you did," Roran said with a wry grin.

"Cannot really say it was a pleasant walk, to go outside Carvahall after nightfall. I feared I would meet up with a bear or worse. It's no good to be near the Spine for humans …" Albriech shrugged.

Roran gazed back at Carvahall. "Why are they here?"

"To take you into custody. They are ready to wait as long as they must until you come back from your 'hunt'," Albriech said.

It felt as if his stomach had been turned to ice. Roran sat down heavily and stared at the ground. "Did they say why? And did they mention the stone?"

Albriech shook his head. "They only said they were out in the king's business. The whole day they have asked questions about you and Eragon; it's the only thing they are interested in. They are like barnacles." He paused for a moment. "I would like to stay and keep you company, but I'm afraid they'll notice if I'm not in the village tomorrow morning. I brought food and blankets, and some of Gertrude's medicines in case you get hurt. You should do fine up here."

Roran nodded absently. How long am I going to stay here? He forced himself to look at the other man and smiled. "Thank you for the help."

"Oh, you're welcome," Albriech said uncomfortably and shrugged. He began walking back down the hill, but then looked over his shoulder and added; "those two strangers … I have heard they're called ra'zac."

Ra'zac. Unconsciously, Roran shivered.

()()()

As Roran had predicted it began to rain, just a minute or so after Albriech had left. Roran found cover under a cliff by the edge of his camp, and there he wrapped himself in blankets and rested his head against the rock. He felt not tired yet, and not in the mood to sleep either. There was much his mind was yet processing. The rain tickled his face.

He decided to not make a fire. It would draw attention, even if he had liked the safe warmth it brought. He ate some bread and meat, watching the valley below. A few lights in the soldiers' camp had gone out, and the village was almost invincible save for one or two lit up windows and the smoke from one of the houses. Roran guessed that many men were gathering in Morn's tavern now, full of questions and gossip and talk in general, after an event such as this. Every inhabitant must be wondering what soldiers are doing in this far-away, small, harmless village … just tiny Carvahall, Roran thought.

His thoughts returned to Katrina. It took two hours or more before he finally fell asleep, and he dreamt of her beautiful face and in his dreams Sloan and everyone else accepted their marriage. In his dream there were no soldiers, no blue stone and no ra'zac. Just him … and Katrina …

They had always, since they fell in love, come to almost an agreement, a silent agreement, that they would marry. They had not even spoken of it; it was not needed. He was so worried when Katrina spoke up about it and said it was possible they would never marry. Like behind Sloan's shop when she had said this and he had held her hands and said, he would marry her, even if he no longer had a farm or house. Nothing stood between them.

"I love you", he said. Her hands were soft when he held them in his own.

"I-" she began, but a cry cut through his world and she disappeared.

"Katrina!" he gasped as he awoke. She or anyone else was there. The night was still and the rain kept falling lightly. No, wait … it was not quiet. A cry, that did not came from the village or the camp below, was heard in the distance. It was a cry of a child, he realized. Then it faded.

A child in the woods or the Spine? It does not seem likely, unless there is a runaway …but that cry sounded like from a small child, an infant.

Roran rubbed his eyes and stood up, feeling still tired and slightly cold. He slipped to the edge of his camp and glanced around from the cliff; but he saw almost nothing. The sun hadn't risen yet. He thought for a moment. Then he pulled the cloak he had found in the pack Albriech had given him close around him and began walking down the hill. The mare noticed this and whined softly. "I'm coming back soon," Roran muttered to her.

He kept one hand at the cliff-wall, to make sure he did not get lost or fall. But when the cliff ended, and he did not hear the cry again, he paused to listen. But there was only silence. He turned back tiredly to camp to sleep. My mind is playing tricks with me.

He hesitated a little before he walked back to sleep. I can investigate it in the morning.

()()()

Legolas blinked himself wide-awake. The oak he had been sleeping under had not given much protection against the rain; his clothing was damp and his hair too. Leaves from the ground had sneaked into his locks and tangled them a little. It was not dawn yet.

In his arms Eldarion was crying. Legolas quickly sat, trying to ignore the wave of dizziness that passed over him, and began rocking the babe. "It's all right, it's all right, such…" His cloak was not much left of now; he used his knife to cut it in two, using one part to make a very provisional napkin with and change Eldarion, and the other part did he use to then wrap the child in for warmth.

The boy kept tugging at his chest and his hair, signaling hunger; Legolas did not have any berries to feed him with and he did not want to pick them in the dark in case of choosing poisoning ones by mistake, but he couldn't let the boy go hungry. With Eldarion in the crook of his arm, he walked over to where he remembered he had fed the child yesterday and began tasting his way until he found blackberries, which he crushed and fed the child with. The boy seemed finally content enough.

I do not know how to care of a child in the wild, he thought. I need to go into the village and find proper food, clothing and shelter soon. I have a few gold coins hidden in the lacings of my shoes to trade with; now I'm suddenly glad that Aragorn stubbornly kept telling me that money could be important. I have never liked money or Mankind's obsession with treasure and wealth. He was losing his trail in his thoughts again.

He walked back to the tree and sat down beneath it. Eldarion had occupied himself with the wooden horse – or maybe it looked more like a donkey – so Legolas tried to focus his mind on the trees again like by the waterfall. He found, to his surprise, that this large old tree had a spark of slow-witted intelligence, not yet fully asleep: it was acting like a person who does not like mornings. Who is trying to blink himself awake. For long moments he sat with closed eyes and listened only to the tree and no outer sounds.

Images appeared soon in his mind; sensations, like a squirrel hurrying up a branch with a nut in its mouth or the falling of leaves and the spring rain tapping on its tree roots; such simple things filled the tree's essence and all its emotions surrounded it; Legolas felt it took delight of the rain, and that it was also saddened, a lonely sadness – he could not determine why. Thoughts of Mankind rarely appeared; animals flashed by, but never other creatures, no orcs, no elves, no dwarves; Legolas realized the tree had never been visited by an elf before. Hence the hesitation of its mind, and then the flooding of thoughts. It was like a river he was standing in the middle of, and he could impossibly hold a conversation in the way he could with Mirkwood's trees; only a tiny part of the tree's mind could he study and understand. He tried to grasp the flooding but lost his grip. The image of the sun and the squirrel's soft paws upon the trunk returned to him several times.

When he opened his eyes again, the sun was spying through the branches of the trees, and Eldarion was asleep in his arms, cuddling the toy and suckling on his thumb. Legolas blinked to clear his vision and attempted to move a little; he felt very stiff, and an uncomfortable root he had not noticed before kept poking into his back.

Immediately a sharp pain cut through his leg and he gasped at the sensation, falling back against the trunk. Slower in his movements, he managed to straighten out his legs and began rubbing them to try getting back blood circulation in them. They felt a bit numb and stiff

I have been sitting here for half the night, he realized. He glanced up at the tree. Do you know if I am still in Gondor? He thought, wanting to ask it out loud; but he did not expect a reply.

The tree did not answer and he was not surprised. Legolas' gaze wandered around the glade. Yesterday he had gathered some dry branches and leaves in a pile in the centre of it, still they lay there, ready to be used as a fire. He did not know how long he would stay here, if he would need a fire to keep Eldarion warm.

If I knew which was north, then I would be able to make my way to Mirkwood. But I would almost say, that these mountains are alike to the Misty Mountains, or the Gray Mountains north of Mirkwood. Which means I must have been swept off with the river and down a second waterfall …Wait, there are no such rivers that could carry me to the Grey Mountains!

The night with his dreams, and yesterday with all his thoughts, made him now realize two things: he was becoming tired and dizzy because of his wound, so his thoughts were also dizzying. And two: he probably was not even in Middle Earth anymore.

That was no usual waterfall.

If I am not in Middle Earth anymore, that means these soldiers – who attacked Gondor – must have passed through a sort of magic … gate, or link, like I did when I jumped. There is someone here who is powerful and/or mad enough to create one or more such 'gates' and attempt to take over another land … another world?

That is impossible!

Legolas closed his eyes. His leg hurt. I must be out of my mind. I am going mad. But a slight smile graced his lips. Gimli would agree with me. Aragorn would … He swallowed. ... He'd worry about me and make a fuss; if he was here …

He had tried avoiding thinking about Aragorn, hard. His throat contracted and he swallowed several times. He missed Aragorn more than he wanted to admit, because it hurt to do so. After being married for two years he was growing used to always having him there, by his side, his voice nearby and his touches familiar and comforting. Being separated like this made him grow uncertain, especially since he had to take care of Eldarion on his own. I miss you, my love. He glanced down at the child in his arms. Eldarion will soon begin to miss his Father.

Morning came and stared irreverently into his face. Roran awoke to a sun that painted the sky with colours again. The rain had stopped and the clouds were whiter, being pushed away by the winds. The grass and most of his equipment was still damp. After a breakfast on some of the cheese, bread and water that Albriech had brought him, he stretched his muscles and decided to go and investigate if there was any path leading to the way where he had heard the cry yesterday. He tried to get his mind off Katrina; also off other things since he knew not how long he would be waiting here. Before he left, he secured his unsaddled borrowed mare's bindings, took his bow and arrows and took a few moments to gaze down at the valley.

()()()

Carvahall was waking up, as was the camp. Roran saw three or four soldiers make their way into the village. He could not see any of the ra'zac.

He climbed down the hillside, trailing with his hand on the rock like during the night, and came to stop at the same place. Eyeing his surroundings, he could only see trees and moss and more forest; on his left was Carvahall, and the mountains were on his right. Only thin winding deer paths were here. He chose to go straight ahead, because he did not want to go nearer Carvahall as long as the soldiers and ra'zac were there, nor did he want to go closer to the Spine than he already was. If, he decided, there is a child out there – gods tells me why –then they would surely not go into the Spine. They make stories to frighten the children, and adults, from that place. He eyed the mountains, the peaks in the sky, and the strange darkness that seemed to always lie on the forest and terrain near and on those mountains. Some of them may be true.

After some half an hour, he found a wider path he decided to follow. It continued for a mile, and then another; he walked as far as he dared. The sun brightened on the sky. The trees grew not as closely here, and it made him feel a bit safer. By the direction of the path, Roran guessed it led to the Anora River, in the opposite end of the valley. Still he had not found anything. After he walked and spied in between the trees – without spotting more than a glimpse of Carvahall - for almost an hour, he turned back

Up in the mountainside he found the mare safe and tied; she was eating from the grass. Roran sat down with his bow across his lap and looked down at Palancar valley.

Not much happened; he saw men working on the fields; activity at camp when the five guards changed posts around it; a few soldiers leaving and coming back to the village; but nothing indicated that the soldiers were about to search for him among the mountains, or leave. Albriech was right, he thought. They really are like barnacles, clinging to Carvahall. That stone must be very valuable – if that's what they want and think that I have ... or Eragon has.

He leaned forward a little when he saw two soldiers come from one of the buildings with raised arms and a bit … where they stumbling? Drunk? They went into Morn's tavern, Roran thought. Of course – they cannot just leave the village alone without taking what they want first. I can almost bet that they did not pay a single coin for it.

First he sat watching and counting the time, watching the sun and seeing how the mare went to sleep or eat; then he lastly gave up, because knowing time went so slowly when he could not work or go back to the village made him frustrated. Instead of sitting rolling his thumbs, he took his weapons and found an old rottening tree-trunk that had fallen down some way from his camp, and practiced archery against it.

He spent his whole day this way. When eating lunch, he kept observing Carvahall. After that drunkenness shown by those soldiers, he had thought that the villagers would start protesting against having such mindless people coming controlling and questioning them. He did not want anyone hurt or the villagers to create uproar, of course, it would only end badly; but he had expected at least Morn, or Quimby, the brewer, to protest against these men getting drunk on his fine ales. With his turn of mind …

He shook his head. Maybe they have all realized the situation. There isn't much we can do – but if they do not leave, I will have to either turn myself over - which I won't because I would never leave Katrina - or I have to come up with some plan. If I could trick them into the Spine …

When evening came he had improved his aim noticeably, and he had begun watching the forest and not only the village and the camp: to make it easier, he divided the area in squares and studied each square for a minute at a time. Other than that and taking short walks around the area, there was not much to do.

By evening he spotted one of the ra'zac, followed by some four soldiers; they went from one tent to another at their camp, and out of sight. I wish I knew what is going on down there.

()()()

They were gathered in the throne-room; Gimli kept his distance from Thranduil. Aragorn created search parties out of some of his guard, and arranged with the elven-king to take an elf with each such group. Then left within the hour. But I know it is quite hopeless to search for an elf, Gimli thought. When they don't want to be found, they are not found, at least not so easily. The lad has no idea the battle is over.

Aragorn gave orders to his men to start cleaning up the battle-field; search for survivors and bury the dead, and so on, and he told them to find and heal also those who could be healed of the men from the enemy forces. He would not be barbaric to let them die slowly and painfully laying on a field of death and battle. Aragorn had a frown painted on his temple. He truly did not like that field; two battles that he took part of had now stood there.

"I will join a search-party," he said suddenly.

"Both you and the lad are too stubborn for your own good," Gimly remarked, earning a sharp look from Thranduil.

"I will not be back in a few days; but do not worry; I will take guards with me, also a Mirkwood warrior if you permit me, King Thranduil. I shall leave Minas Tirith in the care of Faramir," Aragorn said. "There are some things have I do settle with the council first."

A grin broke up on Gimli's face. "I guess I will have to come too, to keep an eye on you. I feel not so very safe with a king of Mankind with an elf and a handful of men. There need to be sensible dwarven people as well in his presence."

Despite his worry and wariness, Aragorn smiled. "I have not forgotten the stubbornness of your people. I cannot hinder you from coming."

Gimli looked pleased at that. "Good."

Thranduil watched the exchange silently. Then he said, "I shall spare you five of my warriors in your … search parties, King Aragorn."

"The rest will find the refreshments they need here," Aragorn promised.

"Nay, the rest shall come with me," Thranduil said and bowed to the human king. "Good day." Then he left the hall with his own guards in tow.

"What do you think he is planning?" Gimli asked watching the elf leave and then looking at Aragorn, who had stood up again from his throne.

"A search of his own, I believe; he will scan the whole landscape from each tree to each mountain if he has to, to find Legolas and Eldarion." The man' face darkened a little when he heard the names of his husband and son leave the elf's lips.

"I worry about them, Gimli, I truly do … Thranduil's probably right; I should have made them stay and not sent them away into what I thought was safety."

Gimli patted his back. "I'm sure the lad and the wee little one are all right; they have both inherited elvish stubborn souls and stiff necks … If they have met up with any trouble, I hope Legolas still has some skill with the blade to protect them both."

Aragorn still had a distant look in his eyes as he spoke. "Gimli are you saying…"

"…You ought to stay, as the King of Gondor. What if there's another attack? Your people needs you here."

The man sank back, understanding the dwarf's argument well. He looked between the wide doors of the hall, his friend's worried gaze and his hands before he sighed and nodded. "Could you go with them, Gimli?"

The dwarf frowned, looking slightly uncomfortable. "With the elves? … Fine. I'll go in your stead, if you promise me to stay put and guard your city. After all, they're just a few elves. Why shouldn't I be able to handle it?"

Chapter Text

By the setting of the sun, Legolas saw that it was midday. He had walked a bit closer to the village; he found an old hollow tree, where he could place Eldarion for a time as he snuck closer to the soldiers' camp and studied it, only for a few minutes.

Peering through a thick nest of bushes, he spotted their tents, set up in a square; there were a handful of fires lit, over which they were making stew. Two men appeared to be cooking. Another sat further away, fletching arrows. Their style with red fletching and marks at the point was something Legolas could recall seeing at the battle in Minas Tirith. These men are definitely part of the same armies, led by the same person or persons.

Here the air seemed thick, and cold; he could not determine why. The soldiers muttered amongst themselves but otherwise were quite silent. They looked … uncomfortable. Soon Legolas realized why; a black-clad large figure, looking almost but definitely not feeling human, sat observing them from beside a tent. A large hood cast the figure's features in shadow, but the elf managed to make out a pair of yellow-like eyes. That is no man, he thought. The feeling it gives me … it is uncanny and strangely sharp; all my senses warn me for danger even if I do not see any weapons on that creature …

The creature called one of the men to it with a soft, oily voice and wheezed. Legolas watched the exchange tensely. Something in the air changed.

"…but for the mountains. The men will not go near them-"

"Do not question me," the creature said. "If you have orders, you follow them. If I needed to I would make each man cross those mountains blindfolded." Whatever had been the man's complaint, he quickly silenced under the sharp gaze of the creature. "Search the village through once more. Galbatorix needs that boy, and we wait as long as we have to. I need himalive."

A pair of eyes fluttered over to where he was hiding. The creature rasped an order to one of the men. He turned over to the bushes.

Legolas quickly realized the danger – he had been seen. He slid away from the bush and hurried to the place he had hidden Eldarion. The child was safe and blissfully unaware of the danger. The elf took him in his arms and ran. He might find a hiding place by the base of those mountains, since that Unknown Soldier had said that 'the men would not go near them'.The more reason for me to stay near. I need to keep Eldarion safe. He ran for at least a mile, bending his way slightly north without following any path but still seeking the base of the mountains.

His leg began hurting again; he ignored the pain until he had found a safe spot beneath a canopy of trees. He rested some and fed the child, murmuring nonsense to him softly and still keeping his eyes and ears open for signs of enemies. He had a feeling of being followed.

Not until one and half an hour had passed did he actually catch a glimpse of armoured men and helmets through the trees. He stepped lightly and hid behind some bushes, silently creeping away from them. One of the soldiers, carrying a broadsword, gave a whistle, and a riding man appeared in Legolas' line of vision. Both were some hundred feet away, but Legolas concentrated on their voices to hear what they said. I do not think they have spotted me yet. Eldarion was silent in his arms, looking at him worriedly; perhaps the child understood that he needed to be quiet. Tiny hands tried to grasp him, touch his face.

"…not any signs yet, not a single footprint. I do not want to think they're tricking us, but I too begin to doubt if that sneaking creature was real at all."

"I'll ride back and report to them. Go, take Arnold with you and investigate the hill," said the other soldier before he rode off.

Legolas' mind cried danger, and unconsciously his hand gripped around the hilt of his knife. I can keep on outrunning them, so they give up the hunt, but if they come too close I might have no other choice but to kill them.

The two soldiers, a light-haired slightly bulky man followed by a dark-haired man carrying a halberd, made their way up the hill. One of them muttering to the other.

Legolas felt a presence nearing on his left side; he slid behind a large tree trunk and put down Eldarion gently on the moss. Please be silent, little one, so we go undiscovered. The wound in his leg bothered him. An infection could have set in, and in that case he needed medicines quickly to endure the poison.

Hush …

He glanced to his left; he caught sight of a silhouette, probably a man but without any armour or steel on him, diving behind a bush as soon as the soldiers came within sight. They are too near, Legolas thought, taking a step back with his eyes fixed on the soldiers; his foot stepped on a dry twig. He could not do anything to cover his mistake. The men's attention was caught and they looked around with raised weapons. His hand tightened around his knife. He needed to make this battle quick, successful and go undiscovered for so long that he could escape with Eldarion.

"Who goes there?" cried one of the soldiers.

The elf hurled himself at them.

()()()

The day became night, and Roran's rest was uneasy. The following morning he woke early and practiced archery, before eating breakfast and having his usual watch of the valley. He still had supplies left, the weather was clear and the air cool, without any winds. It was all very still and almost too good.

He had a feeling that something dreadful had happened.

Carvahall looked … eerie and silent. So did the soldiers' camp. Not until lunchtime did activity burst out the way that it used to by early morning. He saw almost no one working on the fields this day.

When he began feeling restless, he stood and began jogging down the path and the hillside, into the forest. There was a call from in there; he longed to go back to the village, hear some kind of news, he wanted to see Katrina; he felt impatient. When would he hear news from the village? Maybe the soldiers are keeping them locked in, so that they can keep an eye on everyone, he thought. But they are only thirty; we are still ten times their number. If not for the ra'zac …

A shiver worked down his spine. He tried to shrug off the feeling that the name left within him. As well as anger, he felt fear, fear that that ra'zac did not seem totally human and also he knew not how dangerous they could be.

He sped up his steps, his boots landing with a dull sound on the mossy path. A shrill echo from a bird in the woods reached his ears. That and his own breathing was all he heard. He continued for one mile and found the energy to run another; then he stopped to catch his breath and drink some water from the flask he carried in his belt. He made to turn back, but something caught his attention; a movement not far down on his left. He quickly kneeled by the bushes and, unconsciously, held his breath.

A figure moved between the trees; then Roran spotted another not far behind the first. They wore red tonlets and swords in their belts. Their voices were strangely loud, and they were complaining; the first silenced the other which had reached his side. Roran's fists tightened. Are they patrolling the area? Is it just these two or is there more hiding in the woods?

The pair was moving closer now, about ten feet from him now; Roran tensed and searched on the ground for something, anything, to defend himself with. His hand closed around a ragged stone.

"It's supposed to be this way. They saw it!" said one of the soldiers.

"It's pointless. Let's go back," the other one argued. "Tell those damned Ra'zac that they, for once, were wrong. There ain't anything here." The man lifted his gaze and looked around. "We have searched for over two hours!"

It was so … quiet, except for the two voices. But just as Roran made it to run or overwhelm the soldiers with the gain of surprise, there was the sound of a twig breaking. Roran drew back into the bush. The soldiers raised their weapons and looked around.

"Who goes there?"

A blur of green and gold flashed out from the woods, behind the soldiers. A figure, that moved too fast for Roran to clearly see who or what it was, grabbed one man's shoulder and cut his throat in one single movement. The body sank lifeless to the ground. Roran stared, finding him unable to move. A white blade swept through the air and met the other shocked soldier's sword with a clang; the unknown warrior was strong and in a series of quick movements he had slid the sword out of the other man's grip. It flew in an arch and landed not far from where Roran was hiding. The soldier gave out a cry, a word that Roran didn't recognize, and the white knife buried in his chest. When the knife was pulled out, he sank to the ground, motionless.

The strange warrior – which looked unlike anyone Roran had ever seen before, tall and pale – whipped his head around and stared directly at Roran's hiding place. Roran tensed and shot up; but before he could either run or fight, the warrior threw himself upon him and they tumbled to the ground and down the sloping path, barely missing a tree. Air was knocked out of Roran's lungs.

He landed hard on his back, with a strong slim hand gripping his shoulder, and a knife pressed against his neck. His cheek was pressed to the side. Something had rasped it in the fall.

Then, as if shocked of what he saw, the stranger paused, staring at him with wide eyes, and pulled away the knife slightly. Roran stared up at his face; what caught his gaze at once were the long, leaf-shaped ears that ended with a delicate point, visible through pale tresses.

An elf!

"Are you one of the villagers from the valley, and not allied with those soldiers?" the elf asked, his voice tipped with an outlandish accent. His breath came in fast, quiet puffs falling on Roran's face.

"Yes." Roran was still breathless from the fall. He glanced at the knife, that was gleaming dangerously. "I'm not a friend with the red tonlets right now..."

"Thank the Valar," the elf muttered under his breath. Roran didn't understand the words. The elf released him and stood, helping him to his feet; the young mortal was still surprised but accepted the outstretched hand hesitatingly.

From below the slope they heard a cry and voices; the elf met Roran's gaze a second. Soldiers were already here. Roran made up his mind quickly. The elf had killed Galbatorix's soldiers, so he was no friend of the king; he could probably be trusted for now. And if he didn't help the elf and it – or rather he – was captured, it would give Palancar much more troubles than there already were. "Quick. Follow me."

"Wait," the elf gasped, remembering something. He dashed back to the place he had first hid from the soldiers before ambushing them, not far away from where Roran waited impatiently, and picked up a bundle that lay beside a tree, hiding partly under the moss. Roran didn't have time to ask what it was. He ran the path without looking back, and even if he didn't hear the elf's footsteps behind him, he was sure the elf followed.

He made a shortcut first over the mossy ground and behind bushes and trees, then made a wide turn and crossed his own path to confuse his followers, if there were any – in the end it was a longer way but adrenaline gave him strength enough to run the whole way without slowing or pausing. He prayed to all the Gods that were that he or the elf had not been sighted.

The elf fell into step beside him. Not until they had reached the cliff did Roran slow down. At camp, there were no signs that it had been detected. The mare was calm and resting, and everything was the same way as he had left it. None of them uttered a word for long moments; fear of being discovered made them totally quiet. The sounds from the woods faded away.

"Can you hear anything?" Roran whispered to the elf, which kneeled by the edge of the camp and looked down at the valley.

The fair being closed his eyes briefly and listened. "They are moving back to the village. I hear shouts. They must have found the bodies." He opened them again and studied the village and the soldier camp; there was activity in both, but the inhabitants of the village seemed to be oblivious of the anger that had flared up in the soldier's camp.

He stood again and went over to where he had left the bundle, behind a small rock, and lifted it; Roran could see now that it was a small child; he stared at the elf in surprise. An elf comes to this valley with a child? It sounded unbelievable. Elves were myths and legends hiding in their forest, and they hadn't been seen or heard of since Galbatorix' became king. Roran had learned that from the stubborn story-teller Brom, who sometimes could not keep his mouth shut when he should. Roran had heard him talk about the Fall of Dragon Riders, where elves were a big part of the story, twice in his life.

The child looked happy and as the elf settled with him in his lap, tiny hands reached out to grab his hair and wide eyes stared around him. The elf looked at Roran when the man came a bit closer. "Can I ask what an unarmed man was doing so far out in the woods with soldiers nearby?" he said, keeping his voice soft.

Roran grunted. "I'm …out hunting. I just did not know that soldiers were patrolling this area; I thought they were enjoying Carvahall's hospitality."

"Ah. I see." A small grin crossed the elf's face, an almost knowing look on his face, and without comment he looked back at the child in his arms, and then over the view over the village from their camp.

"What is an elf doing in Palancar valley?" asked Roran.

"My home was, when I left, under attack by such soldiers as those camping outside your village; I fled during the night with my son to take him to my … father's home, where he would be safer. But I was pursued by enemies and I used a river and a waterfall to escape; that was how I came here," the elf explained shortly.

"You are lost," Roran realized with a raised eyebrow.

"Aye. My home lies far, far from here, but that is all I know." The elf paused. "What should I call you?"

Roran paused. I don't think he is in league with the King. Elves are his enemies. And since he killed those soldiers, I don't think he is a spy either …but I cannot be sure … He bit his lip. He did not like lying. "Roran. Call me Roran."

"I am Legolas Thranduillion," the elf said; he decided this young mortal seemed trustable, and he had guessed he was not hunting, but rather hiding from those soldiers below in the valley. Perhaps they are recruiting soldiers, he thought, and he and his family are unwilling. It could explain why the man was up here. "And this is Eldarion."

The man showed no reaction of hearing the names before; he had probably not much, or no, knowledge at all about Gondor, Aragorn and the fact that Eldarion was the heir to that kingdom. Legolas breathed a sigh of relief. It was always harder to interact with people and gain their trust if they were well aware that he was a Prince of Mirkwood and Prince Consort in Gondor.

"He doesn't look very old," Roran commented, unsure of what to say, gesturing at the child. He felt uncertain about the elf but also thankful; he might have been discovered and captured if the elf, Legolas, had not been there. He refused to be taken captive like that, still not knowing all the king's reasons to take him, and probably not even then. He could not become a prisoner of the Empire – Katrina …

"He was born seven months ago," Legolas explained, smiling when Eldarion saw Roran and attempted to reach out for him. The man was too far away for him to grasp.

"Do you plan to go back to your people?" Roran asked and at a nod by the elf hesitatingly reached out a hand towards the infant. He wasn't used to so small children and froze on the spot when the child grabbed his outstretched hand, gripping a finger tightly. The elf smiled at him gently, and seeing the look on Roran's face, he gently freed him from Eldarion's grip. The elf's skin was soft, Roran noticed, and his fingers long but strong as he untangled the infant's hand. The child whined in discontent.

"I planned to reach my father and leave Eldarion in his care, and then travel back and help during the attack, and secure my home from these soldiers ... This is the first time they have provoked us," Legolas said. "But since I am unsure of where I am, I have thought of only finding some shelter away from them."

"Palancar valley is in the north," Roran supplied. "I have no map, but I know some places in my head." He took a stick and found a spot of soft soil, where he kneeled and drew coastlines and marked where the mountains laid. He was a bit unsure about the location of cities south of Narda. "We're here, north of Carvahall and the Anora River. From what you have told me, I would guess you came with the river to the Igualda Falls. It makes sense. Du Weldenvarden, the large elvan forest, is to the east, but I assume that it's hundreds of miles there." He cast a brief look at the elf. "To travel between here and there would take days, maybe even weeks."

Legolas nodded, but a bit absently. Not a single name or place was familiar. The man spoke of Du Weldenvarden as if no Man at all had been there in a very long time; an elven forest. "I was on foot only half a day and a night before I came here," he recalled. "I come not from Du Weldenvarden … I have never heard of it."

"But how's that possible?" Roran said, unable to hide his curiosity. He eyed the elf with a tinge of growing doubt. "Everyone knows, or says, that the elves have lived hidden there since Galbatorix came to the throne. There are no other places that I can imagine your people to live in away from the Empire … only in Surda or wherever the Varden hides."

A shadow fell over Legolas' face. I am not gong mad, he thought. This is a new land, a new world, entirely, and it feels too real and too deep to be a dream. "Galbatorix?" he asked. He had seen the look of disdain on the man's face when he spoke that name.

"Have you not heard of the king? But how couldn't you know that he … He has been the king of Alagaësia for a hundred years, since the fall of the Riders …" Roran sounded as if he could not believe him. One must be both deaf and blind to not have heard of Galbatorix!

Legolas shook his head; he put down Eldarion with a pat on his cheek and stood, beginning to pace. He always did it when he was feeling uneasy and uncertain. "All of this is unfamiliar. I grew up and have lived a long time in my home-forest Mirkwood, once called Eryn Lasgalen and Greenwood the Great; now my home is within the walls of Minas Tirith. This king, Galbatorix, I know nothing of him nor have I heard his name before; these soldiers clad in red are a new threat to my home, but you seem familiar of who they are and whom they serve. This Empire … We have no Empire."

" … Legolas," Roran exclaimed, using his name for the first time. "You do not even seem to come from Alagaësia!"

"I believe that is because I do not." The elf stressed his last words. "I cannot see how this is possible … My home world is called Arda, Middle-Earth in your tongue, and I have lived all my life there; Mirkwood, Gondor … It cannot be possible for all those lands to simply disappear, to be replaced by this strange new land, with a king I have never before heard the name of, with elves hidden in exile, and an Empire."

"Then who is your King?" Roran asked, approaching him verily.

"There are many kings in Arda; first and foremost my allegiance lies with the king of Gondor and Arnor: called Aragorn, Elessar, the Elf-Stone …" Legolas sighed and sank down into a sitting position, staring at the ground. How can all this be possible? Only very strong magic can make this happen. And this magic is used right now; the soldiers used it to reach Minas Tirith. What if this Galbatorix is responsible for this and has power enough to try enslaving Arda? We were lucky that Minas Tirith was attacked first; hobbits would have been defenseless, the rangers guarding Shire's boarders are too few to defend a full-scaled attack. But enslaving a whole different world … that is impossible is it not? We are far too many for them.

With a slightly shaky voice he began to speak again. "This Galbatorix … I wonder, has he some strong magic ability? I can find no other way to explain how his soldiers managed to find a way into Arda and fight Gondor's forces. Maybe he is responsible for my coming here, as well."

"He was a Rider, or is, I think he still has his dragon," Roran said in a low voice, taking seat opposite to the elf. "I do not know the full detailed history how he became king – only Brom, an old story-teller, knew and dared to speak. Speaking about the king usually ends badly."

"His dragon? There are dragons, with riders?" Legolas asked, looking up in shock. Dragons are wild, intelligent but wild, proud creatures with no mind over others, they steal and kill …They are definitely not to be tamed and ridden!

"It's a legend," Roran explained. "For hundreds of years, there used to be Dragon Riders, an alliance between dragons and elves, to end a bloody war between the races. They became peacekeepers and very powerful, since they can use magic. Brom told us a story, which I have heard twice, about this. The Rider Galbatorix took control over thirteen other riders, the Forsworn, and used them to kill other dragons and riders. In the end he took the power and title as king and created his Empire. He has sat for a hundred years on the throne, and that is where we are today. I can scarcely believe there are any dragons left except for his own. He had them all killed."

Legolas closed his eyes for a split second. So easily does Mankind fall for the temptation of power ... These Dragon Riders must have been truly powerful, and yet, easily overthrown by their own … I think I am quite glad that no such riders exist in Arda. "And I assume that the elves here in Alagaësia resisted and yet resist to his rule?"

Roran nodded. "After Galbatorix claimed the power, the elves and dwarves went underground and have not been heard from since. Surda, a small land in the south, has broken free from the Empire and is no friends of Galbatorix but I don't think they have declared war … yet at least. A rebellion group was formed … they hide in the mountains, with the dwarves it's said, but they're almost impossible to find. The Varden. They have attacked the Empire several times, at least by rumours going around, and try to destroy Galbatorix."

It took long moments for Legolas to let it all sink in. He only shook his head when Roran asked if there were any dragons or Dragon Riders in Arda. "All dragons have been killed, for they caused pain and suffering, to elves, men and dwarves alike."

In the end he took a shaking breath and stared up at the sky. "It is much to process. Yet I want to know more of your world. This resistance … it crates a war. Valar, what have I gotten myself into?" He shook his head again. Roran heard that strange word – 'Valar' – again and wondered what it meant but did not ask.

"I could tell you some of my homeland, if you desire," the elf offered as if he read Roran's thoughts, "and perhaps you can explain more about yours. Why are these soldiers, obviously under Galbatorix's command, here? I watched your village at a distance, during the four days I was hiding in the valley. Since there are soldiers there I dared not to come closer, for they are too many for me to fight against alone."

Roran leaned against a tree trunk. "We are not really sure. It has something to do with my cousin, Eragon, and me – the soldiers keep asking for me in the king's business. That's why I am up here, as I have been for the last two days. If this is a competition of patience, I will win. Your company is quite welcome. It's been quite lonesome as of late."

He reached for his pack and found some meat and bread and other foods, and the elf gladly accepted to share with him; he explained he had eaten only berries since he left his home almost a week ago. Roran managed to find a bottle of precious milk, something Albriech had brought with him two days ago, which the elf used to feed the child with. Roran watched the communication between the elf and the child in silent fascination. Legolas murmured something in a beautiful, exotic language that Roran had never heard before and he assumed it was his native tongue.

He looked at the sky. "It's beginning to grow dark," he observed. "I wonder if the soldiers are still searching for us in the woods or if they have returned to their camp."

"Maybe we can see," Legolas suggested and moved over to the edge again where he had a good view of the camp. A fire was lit at the centre and the men below had begun to light torches. "How many were they from the beginning?"

"Thirty," Roran said, "Minus the two you …" He could not say killed. He had never seen a man die in such a way before, killed by another – natural death of age or disease was common in Carvahall but not death caused by violence - and he knew not if he should be comforted or not for the fact that Legolas was a warrior with no fears when killing an enemy. He mentioned a battle. Did he fight in it? Has he fought in other battles?

Legolas scanned the camp closely, once again catching sight of two black-clad creatures; he saw men moving into their tents. "I see nineteen of them. Some may be in their tents or in the village," he reported. "There are also two large, black creatures there; they appeared manlike at first, but I saw one more closely and I must say, those are no men – one spotted me which was the reason the soldiers went looking for me. They feel unnatural, and their voices are unlike any voices I have heard before." They remind me slightly of the Nazgûl even if those were different, yet with characteristics of Mankind and once great men themselves. These … have never been Men.

"They are called ra'zac," Roran supplied.

"Are they common in your world?" Legolas asked.

"Common?" Roran shook his head. "No. I heard about them for the first time when Eragon …" Here he haltered. "When Eragon had left. They left as well, but now that ra'zac is back and looking for me."

Legolas nodded. "I see. Roran, did your cousin, Eragon, do something to wrong or perhaps revolt against the Empire? I know not much of this Empire, but I am not a friend of it at the moment, since Galbatorix' soldiers attacked my home. If your cousin has wronged it, I cannot judge him," the elf said.

"Well … I think there was some reason behind his leaving and why he is sought out. I'm not sure," Roran said. "These soldiers do not tell why; they only say the king demands my custody." He paused for a moment and looked over his shoulder at the village. "I don't know why, but it all began when Eragon found a blue strange stone in the Spine – the chain of mountains that leads through Alagaësia - when he hunted there, and brought it to Carvahall. He tried to buy meat from our butcher with it, but Sloan refused when he found out the stone came from the Spine." His face darkened a little when he explained; "Sloan's wife died there years ago, swept off by the Igualda falls. He refuses to have anything to do with those mountains. Many agree; they are haunted, it's said, since one of Galbatorix's armies strangely disappeared there once - several hundred men gone completely as if turned into thin air. Eragon is one of the few who dare to go in there to hunt."

"Anyway, this stone brought nothing but trouble. The ra'zac came and asked Sloan out and found out where my father Garrow's farm, laid. Eragon ... he went missing but was found later with many strange injuries. Our farm was burned to the ground and my father, he … he …" The young man's voice choked. Legolas understood and laid a comforting hand on Roran's shoulder for a moment. Roran took a handful of raging breaths before he continued. "It … it was those ra'zac. Not shortly after did Eragon leave the village and Brom gone with him." Roran stared at the ground. "That's all I know. I was gone for a few months, having been offered a work in Dempton's mill in Therinsford. When I came back … I found my home, where I had grown up, nothing but a pile of burned rubble." He rubbed his face stubbornly and refused to show that he was on the verge of tears, of both grief and anger. He did not look at the elf.

"I am sorry I asked this, I did not know it would bring forth such painful memories," Legolas said softly.

"Garrow and Eragon were the only family I had. Now Garrow is dead and Eragon is gone, and the ra'zac have come back to catch me and probably ask me out," Roran said towards the ground. He poked at a piece of gravel by his feet.

Both sat in silence for a moment, awkward on Roran's part. He was happy when the elf changed subject. "It is growing dark. Would you like to sleep? Roran, I could stay awake and keep watch, in case something happens in the camp or village," Legolas said. The sky above was deep and only a handful of stars were visible. Below, the village was almost totally dark, but torches lighted the soldier's camp.

He didn't feel very tired, but it had taken his energy to speak about Eragon again, and Garrow's death. Roran nodded. "Could you wake me in a few hours?" he asked. "Perhaps you need to sleep?"

"I will wake you, though I do not feel so tired myself. Elves tire not so easily."

"Thank you."

Roran grabbed a blanket and lay down on the side upon his bedroll, and watched through half-lidded eyes how Legolas stood and without a sound walked over where Eldarion lay. The child looked to be asleep. Picking the child up, the elf sat down on the edge of camp again and looked down at Palancar valley. It was silent; very silent, but then after a few minutes, in such a soft voice it could have almost been passed as the wind, barely heard over the slight rustle of leaves, Legolas began to sing. He understood not a single word of it, being sung the strange language, but it was beautiful and echoed silently in the night.

Before he closed his eyes to sleep, Roran wondered if he was having the strangest dream in all his life.

Chapter Text

Legolas made sure that Roran was asleep as well as Eldarion when he pushed down his leggings and opened the thin linen that bandaged his leg, to inspect the injury. The man had not yet noticed the wound, nor that did he wear a layer of bandage around his thigh beneath his clothing. He saw the area of black, now with a tint of blue, had spread further and was about the size of a hand across. It looked as if an infection was beginning to set in. It is growing worse. I maybe should ask if Roran has any medicines in the morning; I will not search in his packs without his permission. It'd be stretching his hospitality. He stared up at the sky. He did not have much light. They had lit no fire, since after the soldiers searching the woods yesterday had heightened their guard and they did not wish to be spotted.

I think I need a healer to look at this. I do not know what to do to cure this. His body's rejection of the poison seemed to have slowed down, since it seemed to have spread so much.What was on that arrow?

He put back the bandages and pulled up his leggings again, glancing at Roran. The man had shifted in his sleep but not woken.

What am I supposed to do? Should I go to the village with Roran once the coast is clear, or maybe I should leave for the elven forest, Du Weldenvarden? I would prefer to go into elven territory, and they might have the power and maybe even magic to help me back to Arda, he thought and looked back at the village. If Roran's description is correct, and it lies over a hundred miles between those forests and me, it would take me days to reach them. Between me, there could also be enemies and danger. I cannot risk going that far, into unknown territory, with Eldarion. Or if my wound gets worse, he added in his mind. Fighting against those soldiers had taken much of his energy and had also hurt; maybe the energy he took to fight explained why the black markings had grown as well as the pain.

I should maybe listen to Gimli's advice that I should try to find less trouble as I go, he thought and smiled at the thought of his stubborn, dear friend. His father still disagreed with him over his decision when he had named the dwarf Elf-friend, but Legolas did not regret it, for Gimli was one of the most loyal friends he had ever had. I pray to the Valar that he and the others are all right.

Someone was gently shaking his shoulder. At first he was confused and thought it was a stranger or an enemy. He opened his eyes and did not remember the previous day's events until he realized that it was Legolas, the elf, who was waking him.

"Roran," Legolas said. "You have slept for seven hours. I woke you as you bade me to, but I decided to wait since the night was quite calm and there have been no worries."

Roran sat up and stretched, rubbing his arms. It was growing a bit cold. The blanket had slid down during the night. The sky was still dark. Legolas went back to the spot he had held watch from and sat down, cross-legged.

"Nothing has happened?" the young man asked as he fumbled for his pack and found it, searching through it until he found something to eat. "It both calms and annoys me. I wonder when they will leave?" he muttered out loud.

"Everything is quiet and still now. There was activity at the camp until just an hour or so ago, and it to me signaled a sense of unease among the soldiers. I do not know why," Legolas said. He silently declined when Roran offered him some food. The man sat down beside them. Eldarion was asleep in his blankets, placed not far from Roran's bedroll; he had not noticed until now.

"Unease?" Roran asked.

"In the village – Carvahall, is it not called so? - I saw two soldiers come out from a rather large building in a hurry, followed by a handful of villagers. The pair slipped into camp at once. In the soldier's camp there were fires lit all the time; you can see that one is still burning. Men burst in and out of the tents. A few appeared to be arguing. A ra'zac went to one tent to the other; after that it all went quiet."

What happened; a brawl? Roran wondered. I hope Albriech or someone else can find a moment to slip up here unnoticed and explain what's happening and why those soldiers aren't leaving. He glanced at the elf. I must also introduce my new … companion.

He voiced his thoughts to Legolas, and asked, "Will you come to the village later on?"

The elf answered in a lowered voice to not disrupt the night. "I am not sure. By your descriptions of elves last night, I am not sure if I would be a welcome sight. I will not lie; I do not want to strike fear into your people, and I can imagine that my appearance will cause shock and disputes of what to do. These soldiers search for me," Legolas said. "Besides, I would like to find that elven forest, Du Weldenvarden – they might be able to help me find a way to Arda; but it is many miles there and I could not take Eldarion with me on such a journey when I am not sure even where this forest lies. For his sake, I would rather stay here. I honestly am not sure of what to do."

"Your appearance would certainly stir up some surprise," Roran said. "But maybe we could help you, or at least give you a map and some supplies to ease your journey to Du Weldenvarden."

Legolas nodded. "But right now, I will stay here until the soldiers have gone. They might block the path towards the east. I will worry about what to do after that."

A silence fell between them. The fire that flickered in the camp below was beginning to fade into a soft glow. By the horizon above the mountain, the sky was beginning to catch a blue hue. Dawn would soon be here. Legolas, who saw better in the dark than the man, saw that a frown had appeared on Roran's face but did not ask.

A soft whine behind them alerted him. He stood and lifted Eldarion from his resting place. He found the bottle that still had some milk left in it and fed the child. The rest of the time until sunrise he took care of Eldarion. Roran sat by the edge of camp and stared at the distance.

Legolas found an hour later that he had his eyes almost closed and his breathing was slow and steady. For a moment he studied the man; he was an adult for a mortal but in the elf's eyes he was very, very young. His hair was dark, and yesterday Legolas had seen he looked quite tall, sturdy and muscular; he was used to hard work, since he was son to a farmer and had mentioned he had worked in a mill. Even if he probably had more energy and could work longer and harder than the man, Legolas felt smaller, because he was so slim and tall and his muscle not as visible. I think some hard work would feel good, after two years of sitting by the throne and in councils and dealing mostly with politics … No wonder I found it harder than it should have been to outrun those orcs!

()()()

The sun rose on the sky and below both the camp and Carvahall awoke. But a strange feeling – almost like sadness, stillness – lay like a sheet over the village. Legolas watched it with squinted eyes. Few men went to work on the fields and few people were on the streets.

He shook Roran awake, and the man was a bit annoyed that he had let him sleep. The elf couldn't hold back a grin. The man sounded slightly as his dwarven friend as he said it; the elf did not mention it of course.

Soon Roran took his bow and arrows and went to the old fallen tree to practice archery. Legolas took Eldarion with him and went to follow. He wished he had taken with him his own bow and arrows; he felt more comfortable with them in his hands. Roran did not seem to mind the company.

"Raise your arm a bit more, to the right," Legolas advised. The man was aiming on a spot where the trunk was free from moss and overgrowth, but hit too low.

"Are you an archer?" Roran wondered but did as the elf advised. The next shot was better than the last.

"Mainly, yes. I have always preferred the bow to the sword in battle. It is also a good skill to have when hunting." He followed the next arrow with his gaze as it flew through the air and pierced the trunk with a soft thud. "May I?"

Roran lowered his weapon. "Here, try. I can hold Eldarion for you." When he put away the bow and accepted the child, he was surprised he felt very light. The child was strangely small in his arms and stared up at him in wonder. The boy stretched out with an arm and tapped the man's nose. Legolas could not hold back a laugh at that; Roran had never before heard such a marveling sound.

"I see he is becoming attached to you, Roran," he said with a smile.

He picked up the bow and tested the string. It was shorter than his own longbow and the arrows not as straight as his own, but he knew it was a good weapon with rather much force in it. "What should I aim for?" he asked.

"Hit closer to the center of the spot, if you can," Roran said, in a challenging tone.

Now Legolas felt a grin work onto his face. He took an arrow and shot in the same movement, and it hit the mark. Then he took another arrow, raised the bow and split the first buried in the trunk. Roran blinked at him in surprise.

"How many years did you have to practice, to manage that?" he asked.

"Many years, since I was but an elfling who hit the wrong tree altogether," the elf said cryptically as he went to retrieve the arrows. "I will remake that arrow for you."

When they walked back to the camp an hour later they had changed burdens, Legolas once again carrying Eldarion and Roran his bow. As he had promised, Legolas found some wood and took his knife to shape not one but three new arrows, using a method he had learned from his old weapons-master in Mirkwood long ago. He did not have any fletching and only one arrowhead which he took from the arrow he had split - Roran said they could ask Horst for some material to make new arrowheads in Carvahall later. But he managed to save the fletching from the broken arrow, and thus he finished the one he owed Roran.

"If I had the right equipment I would finish them," he said as he gave the three finished and unfinished arrows to Roran. "But at least you will not be missing one in your quiver."

"Thank you. It hadn't been necessary," Roran said.

"Thank me not. I owed you, and besides, I know how it feels to be on the hunt and discover that you are missing arrows," Legolas said.

They were sitting on the edge of the camp, overlooking Carvahall, and eating a light lunch. They could not tell much of what the situation in the village was from what they saw. There were no signs that the soldiers were going to leave.

Suddenly Legolas tensed, sensing a nearing presence. He heard the footsteps coming closer before Roran did; he kneeled and spied over from where the sound came. "Someone is coming," he murmured.

Roran's face lit up a little. "I do not think anyone but Albriech knows where I hide," he answered. Maybe finally I will hear some news.

Legolas stood back a little because he knew it was best if Roran was seen first by the villager. And if it was so that Roran was wrong and it was a soldier, then the elf could easily jump out and fight.

Some minutes later, a man clad in brown – and definitely not a soldier – made his way up the hill through the trees. Roran looked relieved. "Baldor," he greeted and signed for him to come up. "Why hasn't anyone come earlier?"

"We couldn't," Baldor answered and wiped sweat from his forehead with the back of his hand. "The soldiers kept their eyes fixed on us. I finally got the chance to slip away, but I have to go back soon." He glanced around and shuddered. "You are braver than I thought, staying here. Have you encountered any wildlife trouble?"

"No, though I did meet up with a newcomer …" Legolas moved out from where he was hiding, when Roran gestured his way, and Roran could not finish his sentence before Baldor interrupted.

"An elf! You met an elf lurking in the Spine?" Baldor gasped.

"Actually," said the elf hiding a small smile over the man's reaction – he had encountered a few of those in his lifetime – "I am a traveler who lost my way, and found what I believed was a safe place to hide from Galbatorix' soldiers." His voice was soft and regal. "Then it happened so I met up with Roran Garrowson quite by accident a day ago."

Before Baldor could say more Roran spoke again. "Baldor, this is Legolas. Legolas, this is Baldor. And yes, I met up with Legolas by accident … with the tip of his knife against my throat. But I am uninjured, no harm is done."

Legolas looked at him. "When followed by enemies, how would you react at a figure sneaking and hiding in the bushes? I first believed you were a soldier." He took one more step forward and bowed his head at Baldor, acknowledging him. The man still looked dazed and his gaze traveled to the knife hanging at the elf's belt. Legolas smiled. "Greetings."

"I cannot believe this, Roran! Everyone would call you either cursed or lucky … I'd say lucky! It's not everyday you meet up with an elf!"

Roran invited him to sit on the rock shelf from where they had a viewpoint of the valley and sat down beside him. When the first initial shock had passed, Baldor kept glancing at the elf who sat down on Roran's other side to hear what news he had.

"Have the soldiers said anything more?"

"One of them boasted in front of Morn yesterday evening that the troop was hand-picked for this mission. They haven't been exactly quiet… at least two or three get drunk every night. On the first day, a band of them smashed Morn's tap-room."

A frown flittered across Roran's face. "Did they pay for the damages?"

"Of course not."

So that's the kind of soldiers we are dealing with in Minas Tirith too, Legolas thought. They seem not like unwilling young men taken from their homes to fight.

Roran shifted and gazed down at the valley. Carvahall looked undisturbed at the moment. "I still have a hard time to believe that the Empire put so many attempts at catching me," he said. "What can I give them? What do they think that I can give them?"

Legolas paused a moment before he spoke up. "Information, perhaps," he suggested. He knew that Roran owned no riches and no farm. But there are other things a king could find value in, things that only people can give, he thought.

"That is a point … but still I have no idea what I could know that could gain the king," Roran said.

"The ra'zac asked out Katrina today," Baldor said. "Someone had mentioned you two were close, and the ra'zac wanted to know from her where you were."

"Is she all right?" Roran asked worriedly.

The way Roran spoke of this Katrina told Legolas that this woman, whom Roran never before had mentioned, must be either a very close, cared for friend or a lover. I also spoke my Aragorn's name with that longing, something I tried to conceal until we married...

"You need more than those two to frighten her," Baldor assured him. He gave Roran a trying gaze. "You could consider giving up."

"No. I would rather hang myself and them at the same time," Roran said sternly and suddenly jumped to his feet, beginning to pace. The sternness and anger in his tone that flared up within him was something Legolas had not seen in him before. "How can you say so, when you know how they tortured my father?"

Baldor came to his feet as well and gripped his arm. "Then what'll happen if you do not give up and the soldiers don't leave? They will think we lied to help you escape. The Empire doesn't forgive betrayers."

Roran shook his friend's hand off him. He knew he could try to trick the ra'zac, but he was no such good woodsman that he could keep them lost and unable to find him. If he were not there to give the ra'zac what they wanted, then others nearby – Carvahall's inhabitants – would pay for it. But I cannot turn myself in … for Katrina. But she might be hurt either way. "I will wait and if they do not leave, grow impatient or threaten anyone … Then I will have to come up with something else."

"You're in a mess in every point of view," Baldor said. "We have to get rid of this problem before they decide to attack us."

"I'm planning to make through this alive."

The man was as sturdy and stubborn as a dwarf, Legolas reflected. He did not interfere with the argument. He had not been here at the start of Roran's dilemma and knew not yet all details. He knew not how to help. But I could imagine these soldiers destroying the whole village if Roran does not give in soon.

Baldor left shortly afterwards, and for almost an hour Roran only sat in thoughts staring at Carvahall and did not speak, leaving Legolas to himself. The elf spent the afternoon with his child, who had woken up from his nap. Legolas lifted him up from his bundle and sat him in his lap, talking in elvish with him; the boy stared up at him with a happy giggle. "Do you miss your cradle and your toys in your Adars' bedchamber?" Legolas asked.

Eldarion only replied with some gurgling and a spit bubble, not understanding what the elf meant. But he had begun recognizing the word ada and knew that it was his blonde elvish parent, Legolas was quite sure of that, because when he or someone else said the word, Eldarion would always look at him. The Westron word father was harder for him to connect with Aragorn. But he is only seven months old; he will not begin speaking and walking until several weeks…I hope I can find a way to go back. I do not wish to see my son celebrate his first birthday in another world, away from his Father.

He was a bit surprised when Roran stood and came to his side, where he was sitting on a rock by the back of the camp. The man sat on the ground across from him and watched.

"I have thought over what Baldor said. I still disagree with him. I cannot turn myself in," Roran said.

Legolas nodded. "I have two friends who own stubbornness just like yours," he said. "When put together, I supposed they would be worse, but Gimli let the other to take over the clear leadership, like when the Three Hunters crossed Rohan." A grin flashed over his face. "I suppose what I say must be confusing."

"Who is Gimli? Rohan that is a land I suppose? And the three hunters? Please, tell me some more of your world," Roran said. "It'd put my mind off other matters for a while."

Legolas shifted and tried to find the right words. "Gimli is … well, it's hard to explain. He is one of my best friends, like a brother, but when he first met we despised each other. He is a dwarf, you see, and our kinds have never been acquaintances. Elves and dwarves have not fought battles directly against each other, but we do not mingle much. When I first met him, it was within the walls of the elvish haven Imladris, or Rivendell in your tongue, which is ruled by the half-elven lord Elrond. Here four peoples met – elves, Men, dwarves and hobbits …"

"Hobbits?" Roran interrupted. "I have never heard of such a creature before."

"They are small and friendly, a peaceful folk who until recently knew nothing of wars and the outer world. They generally stand around three feet tall and have curly hair and hairy feet; by many peoples they are also called halflings, the perianath. The first time I met one, I was truly surprised. Through an old friend, Mithrandir, I had heard of them but never ever met one before, and to meet one outside their homeland is rare."

Roran nodded.

Legolas chose his next words with care. "This meeting in Rivendell happened only three years ago, when a very strong enemy … weapon had been found and we would attempt to destroy it. It was not so simple, it could be melted down or so, but it had to be thrown back into the fires where it was once formed; the fires of Mount Doom. This mountain lies within the lands of Mordor, where the Dark Lord Sauron once ruled from as he attempted to cover all the lands in darkness and enslave our people for the rest of eternity. A company of nine was chosen for this mission to destroy this weapon – nine in number to oppose the Nine of the dark lord, the Nazgûl. "

Roran shivered when he heard the name, though he knew not why. Legolas continued; "I was part of this Fellowship, as were two men and four hobbits, the wizard Mithrandir, and a dwarf. Yes, Gimli. We could not stand each other at first, not only because of our race-difference, but also because our fathers held deep disdain against each other, since a misunderstanding fifty years earlier. This misunderstanding had nothing to do with Gimli and me, and Mithrandir tired to make us see sense. Alas, I was too scornful back then to listen to him. Only protecting each other in battle, saving each other's lives, made us understand each other a little more. Our friendship found no base until our company had passed through the mines of Moria - where we found all dwarves slaughtered by orcs, and where Mithrandir fell – and came into the elven realm of Lothlórien. Fair Lórien, which I have only seen once in my life and that, was at winter, it filled us with both grief and new hope for our quest. Gimli and I took the next step in our friendship by forgiving our mistakes and seeing past the grudges our fathers had created for us."

Legolas silenced for a moment. "He and I fought many battles together. Side by side, when almost all hope had failed and we feared that the weapon had fallen back into Sauron's hands, did we face the last of Sauron's forces outside the gates of Mordor? We had only a small army; Aragorn, Arathorn's son, the future king of Men, led his men while we were by his side. Fortune was on our side, for Frodo, a hobbit who had burdened himself with this enemy's weapon, had managed to climb onto Mount Doom and destroyed the weapon at last, ending Sauron's power and the War after thousands of years."

Roran swallowed the words and realized that a warrior, probably older than he looked, was before him – it looked a bit bizarre that he held a baby in his arms with those thoughts in mind.

"You mentioned Aragorn Arathorn's son yesterday, I can recall," Roran said. "But with many names … Elessar … Elfstone."

Legolas' chest tightened painfully, but the expression on his face did not change – he only lowered his gaze slightly. "Elessar, the Elf-stone, is he called because of the green stone he was gifted by Lord Elrond through his lover. It is one of the Elessars or star-stones which capture the light of stars themselves, created by the elf-smith Celebrimbor," he said and paused for a moment. His words had come out of his mouth quickly and in a detached tone – he tried to hide his building up worry and longing for Aragorn with it. "Our history, both of elves and Men, is old; almost as old as Arda itself."

()()()

Later that night, Roran lay thinking of his worries over his situation mixed with thoughts of Katrina and the tales – which sounded almost overwhelming – that Legolas had told him. The elf had put Eldarion to sleep in some extra blankets Roran had given him, and now the fair being stood tall and graceful by the edge of the camp looking down at Carvahall. Roran noticed for the first time that the elf seemed to have a glow around him, a light that seemed to come from within the elf himself – if such a thing was possible. Brom said once that elves had great magic. Though Legolas is from another world …he still has this magic I think, or maybe some of it, since he seems to be glowing by some kind of power from within … If he had more powers, shouldn't he be able to use it to fight those soldiers on his own?

Help Carvahall with magic?

()()()

The sky was dark and Legolas thought of going to sleep, when something happened in the valley. Everything had gone dark; but then he saw movement. Dots of light, made by lanterns, coming from the houses and buildings and gathered like a swarm of fireflies. The lanterns made a thick row by the north-west edge of the village, facing a thinner line of some thirty blazing torches from the soldiers' camp. Legolas' interest was caught. Glancing over to where Roran lay asleep, he thought for a moment before silently kneeling by his side and shaking him awake.

"Roran," he murmured. "There is something I think you should see." He walked back to the spot he had used earlier and sat down.

The man awoke a bit confusedly and crawled over to the elf's side. "Look," Legolas murmured and pointed. "What do you think is happening?"

Roran shook his head and could not answer. For two hours they sat and watched the upset lanterns against the steadily burning torches. In the end the groups resolved and they saw the torches go back to the tents and the lanterns go out or disappear into the houses.

Nothing else happened that night. When all had been still for almost an hour, Roran crawled back into his blankets and went to sleep; Legolas stayed awake that night and had a feeling something dire had happened below, a strong disagreement and exchanges, and he wished it had been daylight so that he could see better. Whatever that was, he thought, I doubt it is over yet. He found not any sleep. A sense of foreboding lay over him and settled over the camp, something that both Roran and Eldarion seemed unaware of.

The next day was clouded. Roran and Legolas spent it talking and watching the valley; Roran learned a bit more about Legolas' home and in kind he taught the elf about Alagaësia, what he knew about other cities and geography, and history. Much of the elf's attention was of course on Eldarion. The shadow of melancholy that had passed over the elf last night was gone. Mostly his face was a mask which Roran could not read, if he was not happily playing with Eldarion, who had begun crawling around trying to explore the camp. When he came further away than three feet from the elf, Legolas quickly swept him into his arms again in a very protective manner.

Below, activity was boiling in Carvahall. Figures moved between the houses and Roran was surprised to see people ride out to different farms that lay outside the center of the village. Two soldiers walked into the tent belonging to the ra'zac and stayed there for over an hour. Roran watched the valley almost transfixed.

()()()

They had just shared a cold dinner when Legolas alerted them that someone was coming. As last time, the elf drew back slightly and they waited. Baldor came through the trees. Legolas saw his face was different than from the first time they met. The man had bluened rings of fatigue beneath his eyes and his expression was grim. Seeing there was no danger, Legolas stepped forward again and settled on the grass. Eldarion crawled back into his lap and Legolas noticed that Baldor barely looked at the child – he had expected the man to be surprised, but he found only grief in the man's eyes. Something has happened, something grave. Last night-

Roran offered the man some cold stew. "Are you hungry?"

Baldor shook his head. He sat down heavily. After a moment of silence, he let his words drop. "Quimby is dead."

The bowl clashed to the ground as it slid from Roran's grip in cold shock. With a curse, he tired to wide away the stew fro his clothing. "How?" he asked in disbelief.

Baldor sighed. "A couple of soldiers tried to molest Tara yesterday evening. She didn't care so much about it, but then Quimby, who'd come to examine a barrelful of ale that Morn said had clabbered, attempted to step between … It would have been no problem if not a soldier threw a tankard that hit his temple. He died at once."

Roran stared at him in shock and then at the ground and at his hands. It could not be possible … Quimby, gone? The brewer and farmer was a part of Carvahall and the landscape as much as the mountains surrounding Palancar valley, he was an obvious feature in the village, someone that was always there. And this had happened just because he had followed his nature, in a nutshell, always interfering to make people behave.

Legolas watched the exchange with questions appearing in his mind, and he wanted to find out if those men would be punished; he knew not who this Quimby was, but these people seemed like innocent villagers that had been forced into trouble. I wish I knew, and could help them.

Roran voiced the elf's thought as if he had read them. "Will those men be punished?" he asked hoarsely.

"Just after Quimby died, the ra'zac came into the tavern and stole the body. We tried to make them give back the body during the night but they refused to talk."

Legolas realized. "We saw you this night," he said. Roran by his side nodded and rubbed his face, still not wanting to believe this. One of the villagers had been killed, because of him; if not for him the soldiers would not have come in the first place.

"Father and Loring talked with the ra'zac and managed to pursue them to return the body." He looked from Roran to the village, and then back at Roran. After a pause he said, "Nothing will happen to the soldiers. I heard them speak. I was going to go back to you when they returned Quimby, and do you know what they gave his wife? … Bones."

Roran stared at him in shock and disgust of this revelation. "Bones!" he cried, upset by the revelation.

"Each one was completely galled, with bite marks visible, and some had been broken to reach the marrow." Baldor looked slightly paler.

Roran looked fuming, because everyone knew that a human soul could find no rest until the body had had a proper burial, and he was revolted by this desecration. "Who could have done this?"

"We think the ra'zac. The soldiers seemed just as aghast as us."

To Legolas, it confirmed his suspicions that this ra'zac was not any kind of Man he knew of. A combination of Nazgûl and orcs, he thought, in appearance ... and behaviour. It was heard of that orcs could often eat their prisoners and victims after killing them.

"Why? For what purpose?" Roran wanted to know, even if he doubted Baldor knew why.

Legolas spoke up again. "I doubt strongly this ra'zac is of Mankind. I have seen them closely, as have now many of the villagers," he said and looked at Baldor who nodded that yes, they had. "But what race they are, I do not know. I have not seen them before I arrived to this valley."

"They spoke among them with clicking sounds, and their own men seem to fear them," Baldor said. There was apprehension on his face for those creatures that now violated their home village, and fear of the unnatural. "I think the elf, you -"

"My name is Legolas," the elf filled in for him smoothly.

"-I think that Leg-o-las are right. These are creatures that don't belong here and definitely aren't human, unless they're cannibals."

Roran stood. They had to do with something he had only heard of from stories and myths. "Something has to be done," he muttered.

Chapter Text

The day grew warmer and also did Roran's tension grow. A layer of bitterness lay over Carvahall, even if from a spectator's eyes it looked warm and peaceful in the spring sun. Legolas felt it too; he felt a bit torn since he both wanted to find Du Weldenvarden and find his way back to Arda, but also help these villagers in their situation. He knew those soldiers or Ra'zac would not leave. He had a feeling that more than Roran chose to reveal laid behind this. His cousin, Eragon, had also something to do with those soldiers – the way Roran spoke of him (though it was not often he did) told him that the young mortal was both angry at and worried for him.

To soothe the man's mind some, Legolas offered to give him a lesson in archery. After some hesitation, looking back at the village where nothing seemed to happen, Roran accepted. His mind was still deeply troubled by Quimby's death.

They spent two hours by the fallen tree and Roran's aim improved but did so only temporarily. When they came back to camp to eat, his mind returned to Quimby, the villagers, himself and the soldiers. WRe have to get them out of Carvahall, even if we have to use force, he thought. Especially the Ra'zac.

During the evening he spent the time grooming Horst's mare. Out of the corner of his eye, he watched Legolas and the child and wondered if the elf had more family, and who was the mother of the child. The elf hadn't given any indication that he was married, but Roran assumed he was. Or perhaps the mother was dead. It seemed more logical to Roran to take both wife and child with him to get them into safety, not only the child.

Oh, how he missed Katrina. He needed to convince Sloan, somehow, that he was worthy her hand in marriage. He had been about to, and maybe he would have been betrothed to her now if not for the ra'zac …

Night fell and still there had been nothing happening in the village or camp, though the sullenness remained like a thick sheet over the valley. Roran felt with Carvahall's inhabitants.

He rolled himself into his blankets to sleep, and for the first time the elf followed his example after have made sure Eldarion was warm and comfortable. The child was clenching to the elf's hair. Legolas laid down on his back on the grass, and stared up to the tops of the high pine trees that surrounded the camp. The sky was clear and stars were spilled on it. It took time for him to sleep. It claimed him to the chiming of Roran's deep and Eldarion's soft breathing, and the pine trees' calm swaying.

He coughed and blinked awake with teary eyes. Smoke filled his lungs. Roran's mind reeled as he came to his feet. We lit no fire … There must be something burning in the village! he thought.

Legolas was already awake, and had packed the man's belongings and saddled the mare. "Roran!" he cried. "Come, we must ride out of here. Quick."

Roran didn't hesitate and mounted the mare, which was trampling nervously on the spot and flickered her ears; Legolas sat up behind him with Eldarion cradled to his chest. They rode higher up the mountainside but soon it became obvious that the wind carried the smoke with them, so Roran tugged at the reins and they turned east in hope to reach cleaner air.

After several minutes, after have struggled through the darkness and the trees – Legolas seemed to have better vision and guided them where to go – they reached a cliff edge and stopped. Here a soft breeze cleansed the air.

Roran took deep gulps of oxygen. The elf slid off the mare and looked back to the direction of the village, trying to see it, but here the trees blocked most parts of the village. But he spotted yellow, angry flames licking at one of the larger buildings. The smoke was dark and welled up, driven towards the mountains. Roran saw it too.

"Do you know what building that is?" Legolas asked.

"That's the hay barn," Roran muttered and felt a sharp twinge of guilt. The hay barn was important, where they gathered new-mown hay to use and have in reserves for their cattle. Tears of anger welled up in his eyes: he knew that negligence with fire was punished with death in Carvahall, since it was so easily spread and could easily destroy every farm in its way and take people with it. Was that an accident or are the ra'zac behind this?

The fire soon grew and swallowed Delwin's house too. The pair could not do anything but stand and watch, helpless to do anything, since if they went down to help to put out the fires, then they would be seen far too easily and caught by the soldiers. Roran struggled with his feelings of cowardice and guilt, and hated himself for standing by without doing anything.

Fisk's house was soon too lit by sparks from the fire. Terrified, Roran looked away. During the rest of the night he did not say anything, and Legolas sensed his internal struggle and did not speak either.

()()()

Dawn came slowly. By then, the villagers had extinguished the fire or they had gone out themselves. Pure luck saved Carvahall that night from being burned to the ground.

Roran had been sitting on the ground staring at the village the whole night. When the sun stretched its beams over the valley, Legolas walked over to the man and kneeled by his side. "We should go back to the camp," the elf suggested softly. "Someone might come and tell us what exactly happened."

Roran agreed with a nod. "…If the soldiers did this, because of me … I can't stay up here hiding anymore. I have no choice, I have to reveal myself," he said darkly.

Legolas laid a hand on his shoulder. He looked as if he was about to say something, but then removed his hand and stayed silent. Roran looked devastated and tired, yet very stern, and Legolas found not what he would say. Should he try to find words of comfort? This is not my business, he thought. But his nature urged him to help people, and if the soldiers had set the buildings on fire then there were a high probability that there would be uproar. Would it not be wrong if I stayed behind and watched?

When they came back to the old camp, after a ride in silence, they found the air clean from any smoke. Roran, who had not gotten much sleep last night, laid down on the ground without removing the mare's saddle or packs or taking a blanket, to rest his body and heavy mind.

The elf unsaddled the mare and murmured softly to her in elvish – he wished he knew her name – to assure her that no harm would come to her. She was still a bit jumpy, as if expecting fires and smoke to reach them any moment, lurking among the trees. The elf checked how much food there was left – he guessed it would last for two days – and decided not to eat any, and fed Eldarion, who had no such qualms as the horse about fire. Once Legolas spoke to him gently and played with him, he was very content. Perhaps the elf in you takes away the fears of the forest and the mountains, little one. Or perhaps it is the ranger in you …

Roran slept through the morning and not until mid day did he rise.

"How long was I asleep?" he asked the elf a bit distractedly when Legolas, who had seen him stir, offered him some late breakfast.

"Half the day," Legolas said. After a pause, he asked, "Do you expect any of the villagers to come?" He glanced at the village. "Carvahall is full of people up and about; I sense there is nervousness about it. There have been not so many soldiers in it today … but I saw one of the ra'zac, inspecting the ruins of the burned buildings. It appeared a group of men tried to confront it. That worries me, for if the ra'zac are further angered or offended ... I'm afraid it will not end well." He let his words hang in the air. The man nodded

"Someone will come," Roran said simply.

His words proved to be right when a man that Legolas did not recognize walked into their camp by nightfall, and wearing a grim expression on his face. Roran greeted the man as Albriech.

"Come with me," the man told Roran. He glanced at the elf, which stood by the mare; Baldor had carefully told him and some other villagers of Roran's new … companion. He was uncertain of what to do with the elf.

"Why?" Roran asked suspiciously. If they are to blame me for the fires … I understand if they turn me over. I would too. Even if I would fight to death to not get caught, after what they did to Quimby.

"Because," Albriech said tightly, "those soldiers started the fire, when Morn ported them from Seven Stooks, but they made themselves drunk on their own ale. One of them dropped his torch on the hay barn when he was going to sleep."

"Was someone hurt?" Roran asked worriedly, thinking about his friends and Katrina.

"A few burns; Gertrude could take care of them. Afterwards we tried to deal with the ra'zac but they simply snorted at our demands that the Empire should pay for our losses and the guilty to be brought to justice. They even refused to keep the soldiers in their tents."

Roran grew more and angrier at the ra'zac, which did not punish their own men for a dire thing such as this, even if it had been a mistake … but he doubted that the soldiers who had dropped torch had done so fully accidentally. "And why do you want me to come back?" he asked.

"Because we have had enough. We need your help to … remove them," Albriech explained with a hollow laugh.

"You would do this for my sake?"

"Not only for your sake. This business is the whole village's business now," Albriech said. "At least come with me and talk to father and the others. I thought you'd be happy to be off these accursed mountains."

Just as I believed would happen, Legolas thought. He had led forward the mare to Roran's side, the horse standing between them. Eldarion was as comfortably as possible secured in a bundle on the saddle. Albriech had not seemed to notice the child yet.

Roran thought over Albriech's words for a long time before he decided to follow with him. Rather down there than here, and if I am up here I am fleeing. If I must flee I can do that later, he thought.

"I can come with you," Legolas said. "Up here I am for no good, and I am no friend of the ra'zac or their soldiers."

When seeing the surprised, unsure look on Albriech's face, Roran said: "I trust him. Besides, we can need his help," he added, thinking of the two soldiers that Legolas had killed. Even if they hopefully would not have to kill to frighten the soldiers away, such strength and swiftness would help them a great deal.

Roran bound the pack to the mare's saddle, noticing Eldarion there and making sure he was secure. He allowed Legolas to lead the horse and them followed Albriech down the dell. Albriech told more what had happened in Carvahall during his absence, but could not give any details of what was Horst's plan to drive the ra'zac and soldiers away. The further they went, the quieter they spoke, afraid to be heard and located. Legolas gave the man his name and enlightened him briefly of how he had come there. He carefully chose not to tell that he was from Middle Earth, but said his home laid very far away.

()()()

When they neared Carvahall, Roran pulled out a hooded cloak from his pack and gave it to Legolas to disguise himself; he was very easily spotted in the village's brown environment and he was far too fair to pass for a human, even if he hid his ears beneath his hair. Legolas had used such a disguise before and even if he was not too fond of it, he wordlessly slipped under the cloak and began to walk noticeable more heavily, to imitate a man.

They had to hide behind trees and bushes. Albriech sneaked behind a water barrel, glancing around to make sure the street was empty – they consciously chose to enter the village from the east to avoid the soldiers and their camp. He signaled Roran and the elf that it was a clear go. Whispering to the mare in his native tongue, Legolas managed to make her quiet so that the only sound they made was that of hooves and footsteps. Dusk helped to cover them as they made their way to Horst's smithy, always on alert of the Empire's servants. Albriech opened the large double-doors just enough for Roran, the elf and the mare to slip inside, and closed it silently behind them.

The light inside was soft and glowing from a candle set in the middle of a ring of people – Horst, Delwin, Gedric and Loring were the eldest there, and the rest were younger men; Baldor, Loring's three sons, and Quimby's boy who was only thirteen years old. They all looked up as Roran entered the room, barely aware of the cloaked figure behind him who tethered her to the wall until it slipped silently to Roran's side. A pair of sharp eyes regarded them from beneath the hood; the men could make out a beardless face.

Baldor recognized those eyes, since he had last visited Roran's camp, but the others did not. That must be the stranger he met in the woods that Baldor talked about, Horst thought.

"We're glad you managed to come back. Did you make it without any incidents in the Spine?" Horst asked.

"I was lucky," Roran said. "Baldor perhaps told you, I met up with," He glanced at Legolas by his side, "a stranger in the woods. He fought two of the soldiers."

"Ah yes, Baldor told us. Come sit, both of you. And you are…?"

The elf paused a moment and then pulled back his hood, and Nolfavrell – Quimby's son – stared with wide eyes. "Legolas Thranduillion, at your service," the elf introduced himself with a small nod of his head.

Horst stared at Baldor. "You forgot to mention a small detail," he said and looked back at the newcomer, and his eyes slid over the long pointed ears.

"I was asked not to," Baldor defended himself.

"I asked him not to tell others that I am an elf, for the reason that when I met with young Baldor here, I was unsure of whether I could trust this village or not, and soldiers were on my tail," Legolas explained smoothly. He felt the boy sitting between two elders stare at him still and was sure that he wondered much and wanted to ask – he looked very young.What is he doing here? If they are expecting a fight, will they also take their young with them? He thought. If there are fifty men in this village it will hopefully suffice to drive away 28 soldiers – but I am not so sure about the ra'zac...

"And what are your names?" asked the elf in turn.

Horst introduced everyone in order – Legolas recognized a few names from what Roran had told him about the village. Lastly he introduced Nolfavrell as Quimby's son; Legolas felt sorry for the boy who had lost his father to the soldiers.

To break the awkward silence that fell over the company because of the elf's appearance, Roran spoke up. "Why did you want me to come? Albriech only told me we have to remove the ra'zac. Do we have a plan?"

Loring, whose face was a large frown of worry and anger, answered. "That's what we needed you for. We're tried to deal with these ra'zac … these intruders." He paused when a metallic, unpleasant hiss run through his thin body from deep in his chest. "They've refused to see reason. They've hurt us with no signs of remorse." He stressed his words and coughed a sound deep down in his throat. "They need. To. Be. Gone. Such creatures …"

"No," Roran interrupted. He and the elf had joined the group, standing between Delwin and Baldor, who were closest to the door. "Not creatures. Scavengers."

The present nodded in agreement.

"The point is that lives are at stake here. If that fire had spread more … dozens of people could have died and those who survived would lose everything they own. That's why we have deiced to oust this ra'zac from Carvahall," Delwin said and turned to face Roran. "Are you with us?"

Roran hesitated and could not decide with a yes or no. "What if they come back or send for more soldiers? We cannot win against the whole Empire."

Legolas saw the man's logic and agreed with a nod, looking over the gathered men. They looked strong in their way, farmers, and brewers and butchers or what work they now had, but he doubted they had ever fought a true battle, swords against swords and on life and death, It was not the same as a scuffle over a disagreement. Could they fight?

"What about you?" asked Horst, speaking to the elf for the first time, not so sure how to talk to him. It was an elf, after all; foreign. "Will you be a part of this?"

"I can see the logic in Roran's thoughts," Legolas said. He had his arms crossed over his chest, like he often had when trying to think his opinion and formulate it. "But mainly the decision is yours, since I have never been here before and has nothing to loose here. Every inhabitant, on the other hand, will pay dearly if we fail to drive the ra'zac and soldiers away; if not we know what to do next. If we are to frighten them away, and make uproar, it will lead to a battle. Battles are not to be easily taken on, if not clear of the possible consequences. We will need each and everyone who are able to defend themselves, and need to make the ra'zac and soldiers stay away from the young, the weak and the old."

An older man who had not said anything before, Gedric, Legolas remembered, held up his hand. "I agree that it's a dangerous, maybe foolish, thing to do but these … scavengers …they have no right to do this injustice. Remember what they did to Quimby. And remember the fire. I agree with Horst, we have to stop them."

"But we have also to protect those who can't fight," Baldor said. "We need somewhere where they're safe."

"We cannot risk those soldiers coming back," Horst said solemnly. "But we can't let them stay here; the soldiers kill us and destroy our property. A man can only endure so many insults before he must strike back."

Loring, the thin man, threw his hand back and laughed; the tiny firelight made his snaggleteeth glow. "First we ensconce us," he whispered gleefully, "then, we fight. We'll make them regret they ever looked at Carvahall!"

()()()

In the end everyone including Roran had agreed to the plan – Legolas had too but done so reluctantly, knowing this would have high risks and dangerous consequences that would change the whole village; but the men were stubborn as dwarves once they had made their decision. They are good-hearted and strong-willed and brave, and I hope some of them have some skill of the blade, for their own sake, he thought, and for the safety of their homes and families.

Legolas' second worry was that of Eldarion. After the meeting he went to take down the child from the mare's back, and found him still peacefully asleep. The men were surprised about the child, except for Roran. Horst went to his residential house and came back with his wife, a dark-eyed woman with brown hair tied in a tight knot in her neck. She promised to take care of the child since the elf wanted to be in the fight. Somehow he felt safer that way, watching the fight and not knowing afterwards how it went; and if the men lost their control and tried to kill the soldiers, or the other way around, he wanted to be there and prevent it.

Horst's wife, Elain, was surprised but happy that she was chosen to look after the elf-child. She approached the elf cautiously when he offered her the sleeping little one; but since she and Horst had three sons together, Legolas was sure she knew what to do. "His name is Eldarion," he said softly.

For their attack tonight, no other men were sent for. Legolas did not know if that was a foolish decision or not. Horst was obviously leading this operation, and handed the men anything that could be used as weapons to drive the soldiers away; hayforks, axes, flails, spades.

Roran weighted a pickaxe in his hands but then put it away. His decision of weapon was vital, he knew, so he picked one that appeared in a story Brom had told, which never left him impassive no matter how many times he heard it. The hero of the story, the nobleman Gerand, was the greatest warrior of his time but put down his sword for his home and wife. But when another nobleman forced his family into a blood feud, he fought again but not with a sword but with an ordinary hammer.

He picked down a hammer with long shaft and rounded edge on one of its sides. Turning to Horst, he asked if he could keep it. Horst looked between him and the tool, and nodded. "Use it well."

Legolas had already his white elven knife, so he felt no need to take any other weapon, especially not something that was not made for fighting. Most of all he would have preferred a bow. He took out the blade form its sheath and studied it; he had cleaned it since he had killed the two soldiers and it glimmered in the candlelight. It was light and sharp and still looked as it had when his father had given him it, many, many years ago. When he saw that most men were armed, he put the weapon back in its sheath, and looked at Horst.

"Listen now," Horst said. "We only want to give them a fright, not kill anyone. Break a few bones if you'd like, but don't loose your self-control. And whatever you do, don't wait and fight. Remember they are trained soldiers."

When everyone had weapons, they sneaked out of the smith into the night. Legolas had pulled up the hood of the cloak and secured the lacings to make sure it would not fall off. Sneaking behind trees and buildings by the edge of Carvahall, they soon reached the ra'zac camp. Most soldiers had gone to sleep, except for the four who guarded each a corner of camp, patrolling around the gray tents. They each had a torch. The both horses that belonged to the ra'zac were tethered next to a dying fire.

Horst gave orders in a low voice, sending Albriech and Delwin to attack two of the guards in the north part of the camp, and sent Roran and Legolas to the other two. The rest of the group waited with horst.

Roran could not see or hear Legolas at all – his steps were so light - when they made their way to the first guard but knew he was there, when a pale hand suddenly became visible signaling to the right. Through the bushes he spotted a guard. The elf murmured so softly to him that he could not hear what he had said. Then the elf slipped into the darkness towards the next guard. Roran moved behind the corner of a house.

Legolas found the next soldier not far away, sitting on a rock and staring into the night. The torch was leaning against the rock almost dangerously close to the man, but he was not burned or bothered by it. The elf kneeled in the bushes and squinted back at where Horst and the others were hiding. His sharp elven eyes could make out a silhouette, a shadow, but it was barely visible. The night concealed them.

Roran gazed at the unknowing soldier with a pounding heart and trembling hands. He held his breath as he waited for Horst's signal. Wait.

Wait.

With a roar, Horst ran forward seemingly out of nowhere leading the others towards the tents. The guards were startled. The sudden noise made the horses distressed, neighing, and the soldiers in their tents awoke.

The same moment as Horst ran forward so did also Legolas from his hiding place – jumping down from a tree. Grabbing the man from the side before he could react, he gave his right leg a wound with the knife, just above the knee. It would slow him down in case he tried to chase after him. Using his elbow, the elf hit the side of the man's head. The soldier fell to the ground with a dazed expression and a cry, even if he was more shocked than hurt by the sudden shadow that came from the trees.

The fire from the torch touched the man's mantle and set the edge of it afire. While the man's attention was caught by it with some panic, trying to put out the flames, Legolas ran across the area and cut a rope that held up a tent. It fell into a heap and the soldiers inside cursed and began to crawl outside.

Chaos had broken out now. Some of the soldiers were already outside. Horst had only twelve men including himself, thirteen with Legolas, while the soldiers were twice as many. Another tent lay in a heap. A solider lay moaning in pain clenching his arm; Legolas realized the man had broken it.

The elf met a sword with more strength than a man could possess, and, knowing he was not to kill, parried against the man with quick, firm movements. Soon he found a gap in the man's defenses and brought his knife up. It scratched in between two pieces of the man's armour, piercing his arm. His other stroke injured him further, this time on the wrist of his sword arm. Seeing out of the corner of his eye how a villager was struggling with a soldier, armed with a halberd. He kicked his present opponent hard in the stomach sending him staggering backwards, and pay no heed to him more as he ran over and surprisingly rammed into the soldier with the halberd.

The weapon rolled out from the man's grip; the villager, first looking surprised at the elf's appearance, took it and pointed at the soldier. Now when he was unarmed, the man panicked and jumped up at the elf, who easily avoided him and grabbed his arms, twisting him around in a painful grip. There was a popping sound as his arm was dislocated, and the man howled. When the elf released him, he stumbled off in another direction.

The ra'zac descended from their tent with terrible shrills and swords in their hands. Roran released the horses and slapped them with his hand, sending them galloping at the creatures.

The soldiers were losing, many of them heavy with sleep and surprised and now unarmed. They fled. The ra'zac disappeared from sight.

Suddenly, as it had begun, it was over. The camp was a mess and the soldiers had fled into the woods. Roran's heart pounded and his breathing came in quick gasps. It had all gone so fast, and he could still recall what he had done but it was quite fuzzy as well; when he overwhelmed the guard, crashed into a tent and walked over what or who was inside of it, hit a man's back and sides with the hammer and broke his bow. Roran clenched the hammer hard in his hand.

Most of them seemed quite all right, no one was gravely wounded. Horst came into view and the smith smiled beneath the beard. "That was the best fight I've been in for years."

Behind them, Carvahall had awoken and people came rushing outside with oil lamps to the edge of the chaos, to see what the noise was; lamps were lit in many of the windows. He turned around when a soft voice called his name, and he heard sobs behind him.

The boy Nolfavrell was sitting by the side of a dead corpse, of a soldier, and Legolas still cloaked was by his side with an arm loosely around his shoulders, gently tugging him away from the body. Tears ran over the boy's face. Blood was streaked on the body's chest and there was a knife buried in it; blood was also on the boy's hands. The elf murmured something in his language and managed to get the boy away from the place, turning his back to it so that the boy would not have to see. His words calmed the boy a little, even if he didn't understand.

"He should never have come with us," the elf said in a low tone, one Roran had not heard him had not used before.

"It was his right," said Horst from behind them with a shrug.

Legolas gave him a sharp look. The smith was surprised and could not hold his gaze for long. "I will take the boy away from here. Is there a place where could take him to?" Legolas asked.

"Wait here. I'll fetch Birgit – the boy's mother," Horst said and disappeared into the forming crowd, of nervous, interested, some fuming people.

All energy seemed to have gone out from the boy, who stared at his hands, and his knees gave away beneath him. Legolas caught him in a gentle grip. "It is over, child. You are safe. Calm," he murmured in his own tongue and the boy looked up at him with wide eyes, meeting his gaze and holding it longer than Horst had managed to. "It is over."

Horst broke through the crowd again and Birgit, a woman with chestnut-brown hair, was on his heels. She hurried forward and the elf gave the boy to her; the child slid for his grip and ran into his mother's arms. She barely bothered to look at the cloaked man.

"This has only complicated things more," Roran muttered. "How are we supposed to get rid of the ra'zac now when we have killed one of their soldiers?"

Gedric came to his side. "I think those ra'zac will be back," he said.

"We must defend ourselves;" Roran said and thought for a moment. "If we take barrels, wood and maybe borrow Quimby's wagons and fill the pockets between the houses, we can more easily block them. Can you fetch the wagons?"

The man nodded and hurried of with one of Loring's sons.

"What's happened?" wondered one of the villagers, staring at the ruined camp and dead soldier.

"Oh, what's happened? I'll tell you what happened," Loring said with a grin. "We drew away those damned muck-bearded creatures … we surprised them with their boots off and lashed them like dogs!"

"It gladdens me to hear that," said Birgit from behind them, and in her voice was a fire that was clear to Legolas. She pressed Nolfavrell against her chest, not caring about the blood on his face and his hands. "They deserve to die like cowards after what they did to my husband."

A murmur of agreement rippled through the gathered villagers.

"Are you mad, Horst?" a man cried angrily. "Even if you scared off the soldiers and the ra'zac for now, the Empire will send more soldiers and they'll not give up until they have Roran."

A rather tall, brawny man with almost no hair on his head stepped forward. "We should turn him over," he growled.

Horst raised his hands. "I agree, no one is worth more than the whole village. But if we turn over Roran, do you really think that Galbatorix will let us go unpunished because we resisted? In his eyes we're no better than the Varden."

"But why did you attack then?" the upset man wanted to know. "Who gave you power to make that decision? Now you've doomed us all!"

Birgit answered this time. "Would you like them to kill your wife?" she said angrily, pressing her hands against the sides of Nolfavrell's face and then showed the man her bloodied palms. It was as an accusation. "Would you like them to burn us to death? Where is your manhood, coward?"

He looked down at the ground, unable to meet her gaze, his face burning red.

"They burned my farm," Roran said and stepped forward, "devoured Quimby, and destroyed almost Carvahall. Crimes like that cannot go without punishment. Are we going to hide like rabbits in a hole, accepting our destiny? No! We have right to defend ourselves." He paused as Gedric and Baldor came pulling a wagon arduously. They received help from Albriech and they placed it on an open surface in the middle of the camp. "We can discuss more later. We need to prepare us first. Who will help?" Roran asked.

Legolas hid a smile. There was a leader in this young man. It remained him a bit of Aragorn; or a mix of Gimli and Aragorn, and a large unknown element, which he could not determine the nature of. He had only known the man for a few days, after all.

Forty men agreed to help to secure Carvahall and Roran joined them. They worked hard and without any pause; they took stone-filled barrels and wood filled in between the houses to make provisional barriers, nail up windows and dragging timber over the road and block it with Quimby's old wagons tipped to the side. This work took not more than two hours: they all hurried. They also poured water over the roofs of many houses, so that fires would not light them.

When rushing from one task to the other, Roran found Katrina waiting for him I an alley between two houses. She embraced him tightly, sighing with relief. "I'm glad you're back and are all right."

He kissed her lightly. "Katrina … I need to speak with you when we are done." She smiled uncertainly, but with a sparkle of hope. "You were right: it was wrong of me to wait. Every moment we have together is precious and I don't want to waste that time we have, when fate can take us apart."

()()()

Legolas, yet cloaked, followed Horst to the man's house, where his wife was waiting. They both had helped with reinforcing the village and Legolas' thought turned then to Eldarion. The smith agreed to lead him to his home, since he was also going to see if he had anything in his home that could be any help to strengthen the village. Currently his wife was trying to feed a wake Eldarion with porridge, in the middle of a spoon when the door opened.

"Horst!" Elain said, surprised. "Is everyone all right? How did it go? I heard noise, and Birgit came past … with Nolfavrell." Her expression darkened. "He had blood all over his face…"

"It went quite well, and the soldiers and the ra'zac fled," Horst said. "But we think they'll be back, and soon. Nolfavrell killed one of the soldiers. We are reinforcing Carvahall. Stay inside." He went to his smithy, to see if he had anything to use to help blocking all paths out of the village with.

"Nolfavrell, what?" his wife gasped, bringing up a hand to cover her mouth. The boy was yet so young. The sudden movement made Eldarion start to cry. He knew not this woman so he didn't feel so very safe – he wanted his parents.

Legolas, seeing as all windows were covered and the door closed, pulled back his hood. He gently took the child from the woman's grip and murmured softly in elvish to him; Eldarion calmed down quickly and grabbed for his hair and face. Knowing that the ra'zac might be back any minute, the elf placed the boy back in the woman's arms. "I believe I have to leave Eldarion in your care for a time, milady," he said calmly.

"Oh, I don't mind, he's sweet and no trouble … I'll look after him," she said hurriedly, surprised when the elf titled her 'milady', since she was not more than a smith's wife. She took a deep breath, still a bit shaken over the attack and the dead soldier. Horst came out form a backdoor, carrying a hayfork in his hand.

"I will lock the doors after you…" Elain said.

Horst bent down and kissed her. "Stay inside and you'll be safe."

Legolas looked away from the scene, feeling his heart wrench in his chest. Aragorn.

From outside there was a sharp cry slicing through the air: "Ra'zac! They're here!"

Chapter Text

"Ra'zac! They're here!"

When Roran heard the warning-cry, he dropped his water-filled buckets and hurried from Kisselt's house – which he had been throwing water on to protect from fire – over to the wagons on the road, where he had left his hammer.

There, at the furthest end of the road, sat a lone ra'zac upon his steed. He was too far away to be within shooting range of a bow. The creature held a torch in its left hand. The other arm looked like he was about to throw something.

A laugh escaped Roran's mouth. "Will it throw stones at us? It's too far away to-"

His words were cut short when the ra'zac lowered its arm, and a ball of glass came flying and hit one of the wagons. Roran tried to move away, but was too slow. An explosion threw the wagon high into the air and Roran was knocked into a wall by a powerful, hot wind. Dizzily he crawled onto all fours and tried to catch his breath. Through the humming noise n his ears he could hear the sound of galloping horses. He forced himself to his feet, but then at once had to dive out of the way when the two ra'zac rode at full speed into the village between the burning wagons.

The Ra'zac stopped their horses and hacked with glimmering swords against the people who lay dazzled by the explosion. The firelight from it gave everything a yellow glow. Roran saw three men die, before Horst and Loring appeared with hayforks and pressed the ra'zac back. Before the villagers had managed to gather themselves did the soldiers break through the breach. They came with raised weapons, and more strength and anger than when Horst and the others first had fought them. They killed without making out who was who in the dark.

Carvahall would fall if they weren't stopped. Roran jumped at the first soldier he saw and hit him with the hammer in his face. The soldier sank to the ground without a sound. When seeing the dead one's comrades rushing at him, Roran fumbled to take off the man's shield and put it on his own arm. He had just removed it from the soldier's arm when a sword came down and he raised the shield to block the strike just in time.

He blocked the swords and then brought up his hammer under the man's chin, so that he fell backwards, unmoving. Roran barely had time to think. "To me!" he cried. "Protect your homes!" Five men were trying to surround him; the shield saved him from being slashed by a sword. "To me!"

Baldor was the first to answer his call, and then came Albriech. A blur jumped suddenly down from one of the roofs, landing atop of two surprised solders; a cloaked Legolas cut one man's neck and buried his knife in the other. Roran caught a glimpse of a white blade. The elf made the three other men back away, as they were more wary of this new threat, which was faster and stronger than any of the other villagers they had fought. The elf parried easily with a solider, which howled in pain as the elf's knife cut a deep gash in his arm.

"Stay together!" Roran called. Now people gathered behind him. Women and children were throwing rocks at the soldiers. "We are more than you!" he cried into the soldiers' faces and stood his ground.

Legolas slid behind him, so that the villagers formed line with Roran at the front. Baldor happened to be at the elf's right side, and on his left side was someone he didn't recognize.

With more than a hundred behind him, Roran slowly walked to attack.

"Attack, morons!" a ra'zac yelled.

A single arrow flew through the air and Roran caught it with his shield, laughing. Challenging these creatures and the soldiers, that did this to his home. The ra'zac glared at the villagers and hissed in frustration.

A sudden tiredness fell over Roran, like a sheet, and he moved slower – he didn't know why, either, and could not do anything against it. It was hard to even think.

A hand grasped and jerked his shoulder suddenly. "Clear your mind, Roran!" hissed a familiar yet distant voice in his ear, in a language he could not understand the words of.

From behind he heard Brigit yell and a stone flew over his head; the ra'zac turned inhumanly quickly and avoided the projectile. At once, the feeling broke and Roran could think clearly again. Was that magic? Did the others feel it as well?

A sudden instinct grabbed him and he threw the hammer – it soared spinning through the air and hit the ra'zac's shield, leaving a large buckle, before it fell to the ground.

The strange power of the ra'zac stumbled. "Retreat," one of them growled.

The villagers were coming closer, closer – the soldiers fended off any nearing hayforks and pickaxes with their swords. They backed sourly out of Carvahall and onto the road. When they had come a good way from the burning wagons, did they dare to turn their backs to the villagers and hurried down the road to wherever they now rested with the ra'zac in tow.

Roran sighed and picked up his hammer. He hadn't meant it to go like this. His shoulders and his back ached, since he had hit the wall. When he saw that the explosion had killed Parr, he bent his head looking at the ground. Nine other men had died. There lay six dead soldiers on the ground. Already was the night filled by wives and mothers' cries of grief.

He blinked away angry tears. His home, that had always held to him innocence, was stained with blood. How could this have happened?

"Come over, everybody!" Baldor called. Roran looked up and stumbled over to him, by the middle of the road.

Only thirty ells away sat a bug-like ra'zac upon his steed. It curved a finger at Roran and said: "You … you smell like your cousin. We never forget a smell."

"What do you want?" Roran cried, angry, devastated, tired. "Why are you here?"

"We want … information." The ra'zac laughed, and threw a look over its shoulder where its companions had disappeared. Before it disappeared into the cold night, it called: "Turn Roran over, and you will all be sold as slaves. Protect him and we will eat you all. We want an answer next time. Make sure you answer rightly."

()()()

An immense grief pounded in Roran's chest as he stared at the village's weak defenses, looking so fragile, and at the wounded men and those who tended them – they all looked tired. The sun was trudging up the horizon and coloured the sky red, and it reminded him of the terrible, bloodstained night that just had passed by.

The Empire has offended my home.

He listened to the painful groans from the men who had been injured in the fight. Gertrude was walking around among them to tend the worst injuries. His eyes looked over them – he did not want to see more blood – to the defenses between the houses – the barrels and wood and rocks and the wrecks of the two wagons. It looked like a slight breeze could break it all apart. They were vulnerable.

The eyes of the villagers were glazed over of chock, grief and exhaustion. Not many would meet his gaze, or anyone's gaze. Shivers of fear and anger rushed through his body and made him tremble.

It shouldn't be like this.

Also Roran felt tired, more tired than he remembered he had ever been before, and his muscles held a dull pain from the battle. He was making his way to Horst's house, where Carvahall's most prominent inhabitants gathered to make a decision of what the village should do, and if Horst and his companions would be punished for starting the aggression and hostility. Almost all morning had the group been discussing, but recently sent word for Roran to come and take part of it, after he had been done trying to strengthen up their defences again.

Elain stood in the doorway and waved for him to come in. "They are in the dining room," she said when he arrived. "Oh and your new friend, he's in the kitchen, with the elf-child. I don't know if he will be on the meeting or not," she added with a slightly lowered voice. Only Horst, Roran and their companions knew yet that Legolas was an elf. Most people were too consumed by grief to have even noticed him; he was like a drawn-back shadow, and in the fighting he had been on their side.

Roran nodded and went inside, first to the kitchens; Legolas sat behind a half-closed door and covered windows, Eldarion on his lap, feeding him with some milk from the household. When the man entered, the elf looked up and greeted him with a nod.

"I think the men in the dining room want to speak with you too," Roran said.

"I suspected as much," Legolas said with a nod. "I was part of this group who started the fight, after all. I will come in a few moments."

Roran left. Legolas had spent his morning first helping some wounded, but mostly been with Eldarion and speaking with Elain, Horst's wife; since he had no place to sleep they had made arrangements so he would live in their house for a time. Roran probably would too; Horst would speak to him. An old cradle was placed in the corner of the kitchen and when Eldarion had eaten his fill, the elf gently laid him down among the blankets.

When he had come after the battle to see his, the child had been distressed; the sounds from the battle had filtrated into the room where he was with Elain, a strange woman the child was not used to, but now in his elvish parent's presence he was quickly calm again.

He had also seen to his wound, and no infection had set in; he decided to see Gertrude, the healer in the village, after she had tended the wounded. Perhaps she had some herbs that could stop the poison. It had not troubled it for a time, except a few waves of dizziness now and then. He was glad for that it had not hindered him from movements or battling.

Roran had just sat down when Legolas, still hooded, slipped into the room with almost unheard steps. When no one looked at him, he leaned against the doorframe and listened to the conversation.

Around a long table sat Birgit, Loring, Morn, Gedric, Sloan and Fisk among others – the elf recognized only a few of them. He identified the almost-bald, burly man that had argued with Horst after the attack on the soldier's camp during the night, sitting in between Loring – a thin tall man – and someone he was not familiar with. Horst sat by the far end.

"…and it was completely foolish! Now you've put whole Carvahall in danger-" Loring was saying but Morn interrupted him.

"We've already talked about this," he said. "It does not matter if what we have done should have been done. Personally I think it was right to do what we did – Quimby was my friend, and to think of what they did to him, and would do to Roran … - but … but I want to know how we can make it out of this."

"Easy, kill the soldiers," Sloan barked.

"And then what?" Morn wanted to know. "They will send more soldiers until we drown in red tonlets. Even if we turn Roran over, it does not help us much more – you heard what the ra'zac said … You might think differently, but I would rather die than live as a slave."

Gedric, who sat across the table, shook his head: "We won't survive."

Fisk leaned forward slightly. "We could leave."

"There is nowhere to go," Kiselt said. "The soldiers blocks the way ahead, behind us is the Spine, and beyond that is the rest of the Empire."

Another man that Legolas had seen arguing yesterday night pointed an angry finger at Horst. "This is your fault! They will burn our houses and kill out families because of you!"

Horst stood up so quickly that the chair fell. "Where is your honor? Will you let them at us without resisting?" he asked heatedly.

"If suicide is the only option, yes." He glared around at the table, his gaze lingering at Roran, before rushing outside. His face was a twisted mask of pure fear.

In the silence and rippling murmurs this settled over the group, people seemed to notice both Roran and the elf for the first time. "Sit. We've been waiting for you," Gedric said and pulled out a chair on his left, and the elf slid down on the seat with a nod in greeting. Roran, who had already taken seat, spoke up.

"How can I help?"

"I think we've all agreed that it's no point anymore in turning you over," Gedric said. "The only thing we can do is to prepare ourselves for another attack. Horst will make spearheads – and other weapons if he finds time t it – and Fisk has volunteered to make shields. Luckily, his carpenter's shop survived the fire. Someone has to look over our defenses. We'd like you to do that, Roran. Many people will help you."

Roran nodded. "I'll do my best."

"Make sure you do that," said Tara, Morn's wife. She was a large woman with strong hands that could break the neck of a chicken as well as tear apart two brawlers.

Legolas spoke up, a soft tenor from Gedric's left side. "I shall also help with what needs help doing."

"You must be the one Roran met in the woods," Fisk said, giving him a quizzical look. "Baldor spoke about you but could not tell much. What brings you to Carvahall? …You fought tonight, against the soldiers." It was a statement, not a question.

Legolas confirmed his words. Almost everyone, including Horst and his companions who had been introduced to him before, gave him curious looks. It's better if I reveal my … nature, as well, he thought. But if I said I am from a different world … perhaps not yet. "Aye. I am Legolas." He pulled back his hood, startling the gathered and drawing a gasp from several of them. "I came here by accident when pursued by foes, and decided that since going back is … not possible for me at the moment, to help you, for the soldiers and the ra'zac are not friends of me, or my people."

The elf sent Roran a glance when the man said, "He killed two soldiers in the woods that could probably have found me."

"You are a warrior?" Morn asked the elf.

The corners of Legolas' mouth jerked upwards a bit, on the edge of a smile. "Among other things," he told them vaguely.

Horst nodded and raised a hand to silence the murmurs that spread throughout the room about the newcomer. "Let's go back to the problem at hand. We must make sure that our defenses are strong. We have children that must be protected. Or we are forced to have more burials."

"Maybe the children could be taken to Cawley's farm by Noststream," Tara said, turning from Horst and looking at Elain, who sat beside her husband. "You should go too, Elain."

"I will not leave Horst," she said calmly.

This angered Tara. "This is not the place for a woman in the fifth month," she said. "You'll lose the baby if you continue to run around."

Legolas' eyes widened a little. How could I not notice that before, when I spent the whole morning talking to her? He wondered. My thoughts must have been weary by battle and I was too occupied to think anything of her appearance or behaviour …Just like Tara behaved now had Aragorn behaved around him when he was pregnant with their child – worrying and warning him to take it easy. Though they had been lucky enough to have nothing else than councilors and the people to deal with then. Here a whole village was in danger from soldiers and the ra'zac.

"It's more harmful for me if I go and worry without knowing what's happening than staying here," Elain said. "I've birthed my sons; I will stay, like I know you and all other wives in Carvahall will do."

With a tender expression on his face, Horst took her hand in his own. "I don't want you anywhere else than by my side. But the children should leave. Cawley will take care of them, but we must make sure the road to his farm is safe."

"And no one," said Loring with a gruff voice, "not a soul must have anything to do with the families in the lower valleys, we don't want those scavengers to trouble them."

Everyone agreed, and so was the meeting ended. Legolas found himself under many curious eyes and a handful of questions. It was decided that no one outside the room would be told, yet at least, of that he was an elf, because it could definitely stir things up and they needed to have the villagers relatively calm - as calm as possible given the situation.

Chapter Text

It did not take long before they all gathered again, with the rest of the villagers, on the small graveyard behind Gertrude's house. Ten dead lay covered by white linen, next to their graves. On each cold chest lay a twig of hemlock and around each neck hung a silver amulet.

Gertrude, the healer of the village, stepped forward and read the dead men's names. Then she laid black stones over their eyes, raised her arms and with closed eyes began to sing a grief-filled keen. Out of the corners of her eyes, tears fell. The village itself moaned as her voice rose and fell, as she sung about the earth and the night and the grief of Men that none escapes. The words were ancient and sung in a dialect the elf had not heard before.

Legolas had only once before attended to a burial of Mankind - that was in Rohan, after the War, when Théoden was buried next to his forefathers - and there were differences and similarities in the ceremonies. To show his respect he bowed his head. Death was not as unfamiliar to him anymore as it had been before the War; he had seen both elves and men die, and he knew that Aragorn would one day die even if that day lay a hundred years from now, and he himself would perish with him in his grief.

He pushed away his thoughts, and distractedly watched from beneath his hood how Gertrude ended her song, lowering her arms. Family members stepped forward and honoured the deeds and qualities of the dead. Afterward the bodies were buried.

His eyes landed on the five unmarked graves beside the ten villagers'. There laid the soldiers. Nolfavrell had killed one, and he and Roran had killed two each. He glanced at the man by his side. There was grief struggling in his eyes, even if his face remained blank, as if he tried to shut out the pain. He and the others have probably never killed before, Legolas thought. The shock must still linger had on them - especially the boy. He remembered his first kill, when he was barely fifty and just come of age. Afterwards he had been feeling terrible; still he felt a tinge of guilt when he killed men. Orcs were easier, for he knew they had been twisted and made just to kill, not to have other ambitions in life. But men, like elves and dwarves, were different to kill, even if they were enemies. They had wishes, dreams, families … he could have been any of them.

After the burials, he saw Roran slip away without a word to anyone. He spotted a young woman, a girl perhaps nineteen - he was not so sure - gazing after the man longingly and quizzically, before her father, the butcher, called for her. Ah. That must be Katrina, he thought.

()()()

He went back to Horst's house where he found Elain in the kitchens, grief etched on her face, making some tea. She looked a bit pale, and the stern calmness that she had held herself with during the meeting was not there. The elf helped her to find a cup.

"I'm just shocked right now," Elain murmured quietly. "Parr, Hale and Bardick and the others, they … they were good men. They didn't deserve to die like they did." She looked at him. He had pulled back his hood some and a few blonde locks had stubbornly loosened from the knots in his hair. "Have you seen someone die in such a way? They were innocent, they were… Oh, why am I saying this? You must know. You are a warrior, you said."

His expression darkened slightly. "I have seen Men die … and my own people die," he murmured. "Even if I wish it never had happened, there is not much I can do to stop it and at first I regretted my choices. I have killed in battle; but I knew I was protecting my home, and it helped to spare many innocent lives."

A silence fell over the room. Elain sipped at her tea. The quietness was broken by Eldarion's sharp cry when he awoke and saw nothing but a shadowed, unfamiliar roof above him. Legolas quickly picked him up and the boy, when realizing he was in his parent's arms, silenced a little.

Elain gave him a bottle of milk. "Here," she murmured. "Keep the bottle for him." She watched the elf feed the child and tiny hands reaching up to grab the bottle.

"He doesn't seem so fond of porridge I gave him," Elaine continued a bit absently, her mind yet on the dead and the fate of the village. "Is he not a bit small for his age?"

"Elves ages slower than Mankind," Legolas explained softly. Even if the doors and windows were closed, he did not want to be overheard by those who did not know about his race. He sat down on a chair and placed the boy in his lap. "He might look like a five or six year old when he is ten."

"Ah … You must be older than you appear, for you look not older than twenty," Elain said, surprised.

"We are different from Mankind … We cannot cease by sicknesses or age, but wounds can harm us, and we can fade in grief. So in a way, we are immortal, and yet fragile," Legolas murmured. He put the bottle on the table when Eldarion had taken his fill and began to wriggle in his grasp, immersing his surroundings and staring up at Elain who sat on a chair beside him.

"I believe he recognizes you," Legolas said bemused when Eldarion tried to reach out for her. "He easily becomes attached to people once he gets used to their presence."

Elain gave a small chuckle, still with teary red eyes since the burial. "Does he have any siblings?"

"Nay, not yet, at least," Legolas said.

"His mother must be very proud," Elain said, then seeing a slight shadow pass over the elf's face and regretting it. Perhaps she was perished, or was ill …But he had said 'not yet.'

Legolas bit his lip, to keep from saying Yes I am, and instead said, "She is proud, very proud … Elven children are very rare, even if Eldarion here has a f- parent that is of Mankind, and is half-elven."

"I'm sorry, should not have brought it up," Elain said, because it was obvious to her that the elf missed his wife or lover - she was unsure which, she didn't know about elvish culture.

A tiny smile graced the elf's face even if his eyes still held a slight distant look. "No, it is all right. I understand your curiosity." He paused for a moment. "Eldarion, let go of that before you break anything." He took the cup, which luckily was empty, out from the child's surprisingly strong grip. Eldarion had proceeded to examine the cup with his two-month old teeth - he had only three. Sour that the item was taken away from him he whined and pulled at his adar's hair. "How ill-behaved you are among guests, little one," Legolas muttered in his own tongue. "Biting on their belongings."

Eldarion, spotting Elain's cup on the table, tried to reach out for it. Elain laughed quietly and took the cup out of harm's way and when it suddenly was not where it was a second before; Eldarion quizzically stared at the table and then up at his parent. He shifted in his lap and accidentally kicked the elf's knee, which made the elf aware of the pain on the back of his thigh.

"I think those cups are a bit alike to one the toy his 'uncle' made for him - he knows not how to use a knife to carve in wood and make it something recognizable, I am afraid," Legolas said with a grin. "If there is anything he misses it must be it, for he is very fond of that toy and must just have been reminded of its existence once again."

Their conversation ended when Fisk came inside the room, asking Legolas if he could help Roran and a group of men with barricades around the village. The elf stood and put Eldarion - who looked a bit sour when his parent left so early - back in the cradle. Elain promised that she would look after him.

()()()

Legolas found Roran easily enough, surrounded by forty-eight men. "We need a wall around Carvahall," Roran said loudly, "the thicker the better. I thought if we took large trees, laid them on the ground horizontally and made the branches sharp, it would be rather hard for the ra'zac to climb over it."

A man made it through the gathered to stand before Roran. "How many trees do you think we need?"

Roran hesitated and tried to have an overview of the village, and estimate the range. "At least fifty. Maybe sixty to do it well." When the men swore and began muttering with each other, Roran cried: "Wait! If you take one tree each and fell it in an hour, we are almost done. Could you do that?"

"What do you think we are?" Orval said. "The last time it took me an hour to fell a tree, I was ten!"

"What about blackberry shrubbery?" another man suggested. "We could put it on the trees: I don't know anyone who can climb through a mess of spiky twigs."

Roran grinned. "A good idea. And you who have sons, ask them to harness your horses to drag the trees here." When the men began to split up, he paused the man who had suggested the shrubbery. "Darmmen, make sure the trees have branches all the way, or it will not work."

"What will you do?"

"Prepare another defensive." Roran ran quickly over to Quimby's house, where he found Birgit nailing wood over the windows.

"What is it?" she asked when she saw him.

He quickly explained his plan to her. "I want to make a ditch inside of the tree-line in case someone makes it across, and slow them down. We might even pit spiked poles in the ditch and …"

She interrupted him. "Where is your point, Roran?"

"I would like you to put each child, woman, or anyone else who is not busy, in work to start digging. I cannot organize everything myself and we have not much time …" Roran looked directly into her eyes. "Please."

Birgit frowned. "Why do you ask me, not someone else?"

"Because I know you hate the ra'zac like I do, and I know you will do everything you can to stop them."

She blinked. "Yes," she whispered and clasped her hands. "Well, as you wish. But I will never forget, Roran Garrowson, that you and your family was responsible for my husband's fate." She stalked away before Roran could answer, but he accepted her anger; it was to be expected because of her loss. It was lucky for him that she had not begun a blood-feud.

Shaking the thoughts off him, he hurried to the place where the road led into Carvahall. It was the weakest point of the village and needed to be more protected. We just cannot let the ra'zac blow their way through again.

He found Baldor and they began making a ditch across the road; but when Baldor had to leave for his father's smithy, Roran finished the ditch by himself - his thoughts returned to the dead soldiers, the sound and feeling of breaking their bones with his hammer ... He fought against being sick and quickly finished digging.

The village bubbled with activity as they prepared for the next attack. He ran to Fisk's workshop, and asked for his permission to let the man's horses pull five logs over to the road. He tipped the logs so they created an upright impenetrable blockade.

Legolas felt a twinge of guilt in his chest, for he did not like to fell trees - they were living beings and he could communicate with them. But here … they were deaf here. Besides, it is needed to protect the village, he thought. He followed a man named Darmmen to fetch axes and saws.

He found about half a mile from the village a rather thick tree with branches all the way, which looked good enough. First he cleared the area around it from brushwood, so it would be easier to pull it away. After a hesitant pause, he raised the axe and quickly cut through one side to the other, and the tree fell loudly to the ground. Glancing at the sky, he realized that it had been half an hour or more; he hurried back to see if anyone had harnessed horses free to lend him.

He found Darmmen, one of Loring's sons, who just had used one of the horses to pull a tree to the edge of the village. He followed the elf back to the tree, and was glad to see that the branches went from the top to the base of the trunk and not too many of them had broken in the fall.

Together, they pulled the tree to the village, where now eleven other trees had been laid down from one side of the road to reach a total length of about fifty ells, the line curved slightly around the village.

Roran was coming over to them, and his temple was covered in a thin layer of sweat and dirt. "How many trees do we have now?" he asked.

"I guess most of them have been cut down by now, and we are placing them out," Darmmen said. Roran looked over the area and saw a young boy driving a group of draught horses on the way back towards the hills, where more trees were.

"Many people are here and helping to place out the trees," Darmmen said. "Some because so enthusiastic that they stated to cut down the rest of the forest too."

Roran nodded. "Good. We can use more wood."

Darmmen pointed at the pile of thick shrubbery by the edge of Kiselt's field. "I picked those by the river. Use them if you want. I can find more."

Roran patted his arm in thanks. When Darmmen went to help the others, Legolas approached Roran and startled him a little when he spoke up, since his footsteps were silent. "What other defenses have you made or planned to make?"

"I'll show you," Roran said. "Do you have any experience with defences like this?"

"Some, for I have seen several battles," Legolas said. "This village's weakness is its structure. Had it been built with a wall around it, or been larger and built like Minas Tirith, in layers so that archers could stand upon the roofs, it would be easier to protect it. But I was not in charge of the barricades then, I'm afraid."

Roran led him to the village's east side where children, men and women were digging a long ditch. It was quite deep, over two feet, and five feet wide. Birgit, Legolas recognized, stood and led the work like a general, and gave water-flasks to those who needed it. Birgit paused to catch her breath.

"I'm impressed," Roran said.

"We furrowed the ground first. It makes it easier," she answered without looking at him.

Legolas spotted a corner where a stack of tools laid, and finding there was not much else to do, he went over and took a spade to help. Roran followed his example.

There he saw Katrina's copper hair and her back where she was beside her father. Sloan was attacking the ground like mad, his face wild and his teeth bared. With all his energy and strength, it was if Sloan tried to scale off the ground's skin and flesh to reach the muscle beneath.

Roran hurried past them and went beside Legolas, who was despite to his slim limbs very strong, and easily as any muscular young man digging into the soft earth. Trying to forget his troubles with physical work, Roran put the spade in the ground and did not look up, especially not behind him where Sloan was.

For hours they worked and did not pause to eat or rest. Roran was surprised when the elf appeared to work twice as fast as the others and he seemed to have energy left to run a mile afterwards. Soon, the ditch stretched two thirds around the village and to the edge of Anora. All the soft earth built large stacks in the ditches inside, which would be difficult to climb over.

Around the afternoon, all trees had been felled and pulled into a protective wall around the village. Roran left the digging to help make the countless branches sharp and twin them together, and make the structure all more impenetrable with the shrubbery. Then and now, they had to pull aside a tree to let Ivor and his cattle inside the village.

It took several hours more before Roran was pleased with the defences.

()()()

After digging, Legolas had looked over the village's buildings or rather their roofs, but few were steady or flat enough for someone to walk upon.

"What's your plan?" Roran asked the elf.

"If we have wooden boards to place on the hay roofs - eventually build platforms - archers can lay and wait there. It is an element of surprise. It will also give a better view once the ra'zac comes," Legolas said. "I am sure many of the villagers have bows and arrows for hunting, am I correct?" Roran nodded. "We need young, light men and women who has any experience of handling a bow. This building, and those three -"he pointed at the carpenter's shop and two other houses "-seems steady enough."

"Fisk is making shields, but he might have some wood left us to use," Roran said. He saw Baldor and Albriech and called for them.

"Yes?" Baldor asked.

Legolas explained his plan. He and Baldor went to find Fisk and Roran chose Albriech to find the archers they needed.

Half an hour later, they had found enough wood for only one platform on one of the roofs. Legolas selected a rather large building by the left side of the road - nearest where the ra'zac probably would attack. Fisk loaned them two hammers. Baldor used a ladder to come up on the roof, and several people who had the time helped sending up wood and nails.

They made a platform, held up by four strong poles - one in each corner resting on the corners of the house, fairly quickly, but since it was growing dark it took more time to finish.

Roran was finally pleased by the other defences and came to see their progress after an hour and a half. A ladder on the side of the house facing the center of the village led up to the platform. Legolas was instructing two young males, sixteen and seventeen years old, upon the roof. They were to keep guard tonight, and not use a lantern or any kind of fire upon the roof - it would be dangerous and far too easily spotted - but a lantern would hang on the wall by the side of the house, beside the ladder.

The sun had sunken by now and the sky was dark blue and red.

"Even if that looks steady enough, it is not safe," Roran said.

"There are strengthening boards beneath it," Albriech said. "I thought it was your idea?"

"No. His," Roran nodded towards the elf. The boys with him tested their bows. "Though it is a good element of surprise."

"Yes. I found another eight boys who looks light enough to walk on that thing and handle a bow," Albriech said, "but I doubt their aim."

The two boys stayed up at the roof in a kneeling position as Legolas slid down the ladder to the ground. He had easily heard each word of the conversation. "Their aim will prove true enough in the heat of battle," he said and continued; "From here, we should have a range beyond the barricades. In case a soldier or ra'zac makes through it, they will hopefully fall for our arrows."

"What about projectiles from them?" Roran asked.

"The carpenter Fisk has made two larger shields that the archers will use to protect themselves with. The only risk is for fires, so we need water to drain the platform with water and have a bucket of it spare," Legolas explained. His face darkened a little. "There will still be risks. If we finds ourselves too much of targets and they have more archers than we do, then I will send down the young men from the roof."

"And yourself?"

"I would rather not risk anyone's life but my own if the ra'zac decides to send fire on us," the elf said firmly.

()()()

It was dark and the stars were shattered across the sky when Roran finally rested, sitting heavily on the ground and chewing on a piece of bread. His tiredness made him see everything as dim, shadowed shapes. Legolas had left for Horst's house, and his face had been shaded by his hood and the night so Roran had not been able to say if he looked tired or not. But the way he walked showed energy. Roran wished he had the same energy, both physically and mentally.

A hand was put on his shoulder. "Here," Albriech said and gave him a wooden shield and a six feet long spear. He moved on, giving each person he met shields and spears.

When he had finished eating, Roran took his new weapons, his hammer and went to the road where Baldor and a few others stood, holding guard. Upon the roof on the left sat a young man, staring out into the night.

"Wake me if you need me," Roran said. They nodded.

He walked around the corner of a house and laid down in the soft grass under the eaves. He put his weapons where he could find them in the darkness, closed his eyes and tried to relax. he had not even been lying there for a minute when a soft voice whispered into his ear.

"Roran."

He blinked upwards. "Katrina?" he wondered. She raised her lantern and the light fell dimly on Roran's chest and her pale face and large, mysterious eyes. "What are you doing here?"

"I wanted to see you. Come with me," she whispered and took his hand. Roran came to his feet and together they walked around the horse to a place where they could not be heard by Baldor and the others. There Katrina put her hands on his cheeks and tenderly kissed him, but he felt too tired to return the gesture. She pulled back and looked at him, pulling back a lock of dark hair from his face.

"What's wrong, Roran?" she asked, worriedly.

"What's wrong? Everything is wrong." A joyless laugh escaped him. "The whole world is wrong; it's lopsided and everything is falling sideways." He sighed and pressed his fist against his stomach. "And I'm wrong. Every time I close my eyes I see the soldiers that bled by my hammer. Men I killed, Katrina. And their eyes … their eyes! They knew they would die and there was nothing they could do. They knew …" His breath trembled. "They knew … and still I had to do it. It couldn't…" His words failed and tears sprang from his eyes, warm, rolling down his cheeks.

At last his feelings and everything that had happened caught up with him, and he cried as Katrina held him - he cried for Eragon and Garrow, he cried for Quimby, Parr and the other dead. He cried for their home, Carvahall's destiny, and he cried for himself. When the waves of emotion had passed; and he was left like an empty shell. He looked up, taking a deep breath, and saw Katrina's tears. He wiped them away with his thumb.

"My love," he said, tasting the words; "Katrina, my love. My love is all I have to give you. But yet I have to ask … Will you marry me?"

She smiled, in hope and joy, as he had finally dared to ask the question - if they could live together, forever. He asked it without Sloan's permission, which he definitely should not, and she answered without Sloan's permission, like she should not, but Roran could not care anymore.

"Yes," came a soft whisper, "yes, Roran."

()()()

It rained that night, but Roran slept inside Horst's house - sent there by Baldor who said he could not sleep outside and drown - and he was happy, and Katrina's words gave him energy to keep on. It gave him hope. We will marry. Yes, he was happy, and it made him able to sleep without any troublesome dreams.

When he woke, rain lashed against the windows and heavy clouds darkened the skies over Palancar valley. It turned the ditch around Carvahall to mud. It scraped it fingers against the buildings of Carvahall. Everything was foggy and blunt in the rapid rainfall.

Roran ate breakfast at Horst's house, finding Legolas, Horst and Elain sitting around the table. Eldarion was in the elf's lap, though he was conversing with Horst. The elf's hood was pulled down and his locks were damp; so was his clothing. Roran realized he must have been out in the rain, perhaps to see if the structure on the roof was still standing, and be a lookout. The child in the elf's lap was smudged around his mouth and tried to reach up on the table, and eat from a plate of porridge with his hands. The elf conversation was cut short and he pushed away the plate, even if the child was too small to reach it anyway.

"Here, take some bread and sit down," Elain said to Roran. He took a stool and sat down next to the elf.

Eldarion saw this newcomer and recognized him with a squeal of delight.

"I see you've been outside. Have you been joining the guards?" Roran asked Legolas.

Elain answered for him. "No. I sent him to Gertrude to have a look on that leg." She sounded a bit accusing; the corners of Legolas' mouth twitched. Roran was a bit surprised, both because Elain did not at all sound like she first had met the elf - now she was talking casually with him - and because he had had no idea that the elf was injured.

"When were you wounded?"

Legolas resisted the urge to roll his eyes. "It is a mere scratch I received in the woods a few days ago."

"A scratch, you say, when you show up with a poisoned wound?" Elain asked. "Gertrude gave him some medicines to take regularly for the next few days."

"Poisoned?" Roran wondered, wide-eyed.

"I will heal quickly," Legolas told him when seeing the man's raised eyebrows. He was glad when Eldarion interrupted them, stretching out to reach Roran with tiny hands. He had obviously been suckling his thumb and covered his fingers in porridge from his cheeks. Legolas gently grabbed the boy's wrists to try keeping the substance off Roran's clothing.

"He is not very clean of himself yet," the elf said as Elain gave him a cloth to wipe the boy off with. Eldarion did forcibly protest but whined. "I think that was the last time I would let him eat porridge."

Elain laughed. Though, it was a frail laugh, since all that had happened, and was about to happen.

It felt a bit strange to Roran - to sit by a kitchen table with an elf sitting there with his food-covered child in his lap, talking in a warm tone, when elves were supposed to be myths and this elf had showed himself to be a warrior, able to fight without a doubt or hesitation. Now he didn't look like a warrior … he was a parent as well; and … his friend? Roran was suddenly uncertain of what to call him.

()()()

The storm had passed over Carvahall and was over by midmorning, and Roran went outside to take the watch. A light rain continued to fall. He quickly was soaked, and tried to ignore the cold. Despite the weather so were Roran's spirits heightened. Katrina said yes! It gave him a strange strong feeling, made the world complete, as if he were an unbeatable warrior with no worries at all in his confidence. What did the soldiers matter, or the ra'zac, or Empire itself, before their love? It was just kindling to the fire.

But after such happy news and their newly won love, his thoughts turned to the next dilemma: how could he keep Katrina alive and safe from Galbatorix' anger? It was the most important question right now. He had thought of it since he woke this morning. It would be best if she went to Cawley's farm, he thought, but she would never agree on that … unless Sloan tells her to go. Maybe I can convince him; he definitely wants her out of danger. He stared ahead at the hazy road.

While he was thinking of how to put the matter to the butcher, the clouds grew darker and heavier again and soon large heavy raindrops fell over the valley. When Roran felt hungry, he let Lorne take the watch and ran between the cover by a house to the next, to go to Horst's house, but he stopped when he heard raised voices from a porch.

There stood a group of men. Ridley was screaming: "…you are blind - if you just follow the aspen they don't see anything! You choose a stupid road."

"Take whatever road you want," Albriech replied.

"I will!" Ridley replied angrily.

"Then maybe you'll tell how it feels to be shot by arrows."

"Maybe," Thane said beside Ridley, "we aren't as ham-fisted as you."

Albriech turned to him with a growl. "You talk like you have sense to. When my family is suffering I am not so stupid that I trust a few protecting leaves that weren't there before." When seeing Thane's eyes grow wide, as if they were about to be pushed out of their sockets, and his face red with anger, Albriech smirked. "What?" he taunted. "Have you forgotten how to speak?"

With a roar, Thane hit Albriech's chin with his fist, but Albriech only laughed. "Your arm is like a woman's." He took Thane's shoulders in a hard grip and sent him flying off the porch. He landed in the mud where he stayed, blinking with chock up at the sky.

Angry at this show of disrespect when Carvahall was so threatened, Roran jumped between the men and Albriech, with his spear as a staff to not let them reach each other. "That's enough," he growled. "We have enough of enemies as it is. We can call a meeting and let arbitrators judge whether Albriech or Thane has the right of redemption, but we must not fight among ourselves."

"Easy for you to say," Ridley spat. "You have neither wife nor children." He helped Thane to his feet and left with the other men.

Roran stared sternly at Albriech and the growing blue-and-red mark beneath his right eye. "What started all this?" he asked.

"I…" A grimace passed over Albriech's face and he touched his chin. "Darmmen and I went out to reconnoiter. The ra'zac had put guards on several of the hills. They can see to both ways in the valley and across Anora River. One or two people maybe can make it past them unseen, but there's no way we can get the children to Cawley without killing the soldiers, and then we could as well tell the ra'zac where we're going."

Trepidation grabbed Roran and squeezed his heard and pumped into his veins. What can I do? It felt like doom was nearby to catch them all. "Come, Gertrude should have a look at you," he said.

Albriech shook his head. "No. She has more urgencies than me." He took a deep breath, as if he was about to dive into a deep lake, and walked out from the covering the roof over the porch made and into the heavy rainfall.

Roran watched him go and shook his head, before walking inside Horst's home. The smith was not there, but Elain sat on the floor with a group of children who were making spearhead. Legolas sat cross-legged in the corner, next to a cradle, and was making arrows. A borrowed bow lay across his knees. He greeted Roran with a nod, who nodded back and gestured Elain to come with him.

Once they were in the hallway he explained what had happened. A sharp curse left her lips, surprising Roran because he had never heard her use such language before. "Have Thane reasons to declare feud?" she asked

"Possibly," Roran said. "Both insulted each other, and Albriech's words were the harshest … but Thane gave the first blow. You could declare feud yourself."

"That's stupidity," Elain decided and took a scarf, laying it around her shoulders. "This is a brawl that arbitrators should solve. If we have to forfeit, then we have to, but we must avoid spilling our own blood." With that she took her leave with a finished spear in her hand.

Roran walked back into the kitchen and found some meat and bread. Then he helped the children with forming spearheads. The elf in the corner hummed a melody under his breath; the air of worry that lay among the children seemed to go away a bit. Looking up, Roran saw that Legolas had soon fletched twenty arrows. The finished ones laid in an old, worn quiver, that probably was a gift or loan from Horst or the smith's sons.

When he was finished with his arrows, Legolas pulled two of them out of the quiver and stood. "Here," he said, giving it to Roran. "The arrows I owed you."

"Thank you." They maybe one day will help saving my life, Roran thought. "Where will you go?"

"Back to the road. I think the weather is growing better," answered the elf and walked out of the door, clad in his dark cloak and the knife fastened in his belt.

()()()

When one of the mothers, Felda, came, Roran left the children in her care and walked back to the road. Legolas had been right about the weather; a sunbeam broke through the clouds and landed on the raindrops, making it look like fire-filled glass falling from the sky. The dark, massive clouds broke up with the wind to move over to the west side of Palancar valley, opposite to a blue sky. The landscape was clearly illuminated on one side and filled with shadows on the other, which gave the fields, mountains, trees and bushes the most amazing colours - Roran stared like enchanted. It was like the whole world had turned into a sculpture of polished metal.

Something moved; he saw it out of the corner of his eyes. There, at the war end of the road, was a man clad in armour that shone like ice. The man gaped at the new battlements in and outside Carvahall, and then turned on his heels and ran into the rainy mist.

"Soldiers!" cried a clear voice from above him, on his left. An arrow flew through the air the same moment, flying in a graceful arch and disappearing into the fog where the soldier just had been. If he had been hit or not, Roran could not determine - from where he stood he heard no sound, neither of a falling body or a cry of pain, nor could he see anything.

Roran wished he had had his bow with him. He had his hammer in his belt, at least, and his shield and spear. At least the soldiers had trouble keeping their weapons dry.

"Did you hit him?" he asked, just so loud that Legolas could hear him.

"I am not sure."

Men and women rushed out from their houses, weapons and shields in their hands, and many pairs of apprehensive eyes gazed over the tangled pine trees and into the mist. Roran found Sloan standing beside him. He held a shield in his left hand and in his right he held a semi-circular formed meat cleaver. In his belt there were several small, sharp knives. The two only looked at each other for a moment and nodded before gazing back at the spot where the soldier had gone.

For a minute nothing happened. Legolas had a creeping feeling in the back of his mind. What are they doing? Why not attack? he thought.

An oily voice was heard over the trees and from where he was, now lying on his stomach to not be detected, Legolas saw a ra'zac on his steed just on the spot where the wagons had stood only two days before. "By defending Carvahall you choose your destiny. You will die!"

Loring answered, furiously: "Show your bug-eaten faces if you dare, you cowardly, thick-headed, serpent-eyed hounds! We will break your skulls and feed our pigs with your blood!"

A dark figure became visible, almost looking afloat, followed by a thud when a spear buried in a door just beside Gedric's left arm.

"Take cover!" Horst cried. Roran kneeled with a raised shield, peering through the crack between two boards. Just a moment later half a dozen spear came flying over the mass of villagers.

A painful cry was heard. Roran's heart wrenched, and he began breathing fasted even if he was not moving and his palms became sweaty.

"Behind us! Northway!" came a clear voice.

()()()

Legolas was yet undetected on the roof, but if he crawled down, he would be a clear target; but he immediately sensed what the soldiers where up to. He saw them. The only way to warn the villagers was to cry out, but it did not stop the soldiers in any way. When looking over the edge of the platform, he spotted one of the boys he had shown yesterday how to fire a bow with better aim. He appeared to be making his way over to the platform.

There was the sound of an explosion and glass and wood breaking; pieces of it spread everywhere. At the north end of the village, a group of six soldiers were removing the remains of the wooden barricade and there were the black-clad ra'zac on their black horses. Silently, Legolas pulled out an arrow from his quiver.

()()()

Roran swirled around, and the rest of the villagers with him; the soldiers swarmed inside the village. Roran did not even know how many armed villagers that were there, so he did not know who would likely win this battle. Katrina. I will do this for her. He took a breath hand attacked the soldier who came rushing at him; he raised his spear. The soldier avoided the first and the second time when Roran shoved the spear at him, but the third time he hit the man's hip. When he stumbled, he hit his neck and the man fell.

On his side, Sloan was like a wild animal, cleaving a soldier's helmet with his chopper. Two other soldiers ran at him with raised swords. Sloan laughed and stepped aside, blocking their blades with the shield. One of the swords buried in it and stayed there; Sloan dropped the shield and took another axe from his belt. He was almost dancing around the now single soldier with blood-thirst in his eyes. "Should I cut out your guts and make you a filet?" he sang.

Legolas was surprised when suddenly a helmet appeared on his right side. The ladder! A curse he had picked up from Gimli left his lips and he drew his knife. Pulling himself up in a kneeling position, he moved over to where the soldier was coming from; just as the man had looked up, a strong hand grabbed his neck, pulled him up and cut his throat. Just as the soldier fell back, bringing the ladder with him - hands frozen in tight grip around the wood - Legolas spotted Roran with a soldier up his neck. Quickly his hands found the bow and he put an arrow to the string.

Roran lost his spear to the two next men he faced. He barely managed to get a grip of his hammer to block a sword that was aimed to cut off his legs. The soldier that had forced the spear out of Roran's grip aimed at his chest and threw the weapon - Roran dropped the hammer and shocked himself by catching the spear in mid-air and turning it around, driving it into the man's chain mail. The soldier looked just as shocked, when the spear penetrated his armour and slid in between his ribs.

But without any weapon, Roran ducked under the second soldier's sword and had to retreat. He stumbled over a dead soldier and cut himself on his calf on an unsheathed sword. He gripped about its handle, just as an arrow sung through the air and buried in the soldier's neck - the man's face contracted with surprise and pain before he fell face-down into the mud.

The last soldier panicked. He rushed back towards the ra'zac under a flood of insults coming from Sloan's mouth. Roran's heart pounded hard in his chest, adrenaline from the fight rushing through his body. Then the ra'zac both reached out and grabbed the soldier's neck, twisting it while the man cried in pain - shocked the villagers stared until the body became limp. One of the ra'zac slung the body behind it on its dark steed, and then they both turned around and rode into the fogs.

Roran shivered and looked at Sloan, who was wiping one of his knifes clean. Never before had he seen the butcher so wild. "You fought well," he said.

"They will never have Katrina," Sloan answered quietly. "Never, if I so have to skin them alive, or fight a thousand urgals and the king himself. I would tear down the sky and let the Empire drown in its own blood before she gets a scratch." Then he shut his mouth in a thin line, put back the last knife in his belt and began drag the rests of the trees to their places.

Roran dragged the bodies of the dead soldiers away from the battlements through the mud. When he was done he straightened himself and looked around, perplexed when he heard only the sounds of rain tapping against the ground. Why doesn't anyone help us?

"Roran," murmured Legolas softly, nodding towards the road. He had climbed down from the roof. "Look."

There, in the mud, was a circle of villagers both standing and kneeling. A sob was heard. Roran hurried over, and stopped in his tracks when he saw the body in the middle; a young boy, no older than ten. Elmund, Delwin's son. He had been hit in the side by a spear. His parents had sunken into the mud beside him, the mother clenching his cold hand, but their faces were blank and lifeless like stones. Losing a child when they were five or six was not uncommon, but when one was ten years old - ready to take over after his father, when everyone was sure he would become a strong, healthy adult - and to lose him this way … It was enough to break a family.

Katrina … the children … They need protection …Roran thought, panicking.

But where? …where? …where? …Where!

Chapter Text

For three and a half days, the inhabitants of Carvahall discussed the latest attack, young Elmund's tragic death and how to solve their dire dilemma. The debate rose and fell in every room in every home. With one word friends turned against friends, husbands against wives, children against parents, only to be forgiven, in their febrile attempts to find a way to survive.

Because Carvahall no matter they did was doomed to be lost, some thought, then they should just kill the ra'zac and soldiers to have their revenge. Others thoughts that if Carvahall truly was doomed, then they should give up, and hope for the king's mercy - even if it meant torture and death for Roran and slavery for everyone else. Another part did not agree with anything of this, and sank down in a resentful, black anger towards everyone who had caused this misery. Many did their best to hide their fear.

The ra'zac themselves had realized that with thirteen soldiers dead, they had no longer a large enough force to attach Carvahall. They had drawn back further down the road and placed out guards to keep watch on the village.

"Probably waiting for reinforcements from Ceunon or Gil'aed," Loring commented at a meeting. Roran listened to that and many other things, but kept his opinions to himself, silently weighting each option with the other. Everything seemed dangerously risky.

He had not told Sloan yet about his and Katrina's betrothal. He knew it was foolish to wait, but he was afraid of how the butcher would react when he found out that he and Katrina hadn't followed tradition, and so subverting Sloan's authority. Also, Roran had too much work on his mind - he kept telling himself that the most important thing right now was to strengthen the battlements around Carvahall.

To make people help was easier now. Whether it depended on fear or respect, or both, people obeyed his orders much easier; at least those who did not blame him for all that had happened. They called him Stronghammer. Roran Stronghammer.

He was pleased with the name.

()()()

When darkness swept in over the valley Roran sat in Horst's dining room, leaning against the wall with closed eyes and listening to the pouring voices of the men and women who where gathered there. Legolas stood by the door observing the gathered. His hood was pulled down and his hair was braided to keep out of his face; his sharp ears caught so many arguments at the same time that he could not sort them out and listen to only one.

It calmed down a little in the room when Kiselt read up on how much they had left of their food supplies. "We won't starve," he summarized, "but if we cannot tend our croplands or animals soon, we could as well cut our throats when winter comes. It would be a less harsh fate."

Horst frowned. "Nonsense!"

"Nonsense or not, I don't think we'll have time to find out," Gertrude said. "We were ten times more than them when they came. They lost thirteen men; we lost twelve, and I have another ten to tend to. What happens, Horst, when they are ten times more than us?"

"We will give the bards a reason to remember our names," the smith answered. Gertrude sadly shook her head.

"And I say we strike now, while they are less then us!" Loring hit the table with his fist. "We just need some men, shields and spears and we can destroy this plague. It can be done tonight!"

Like the others, Roran had heard this many times before. Just like before did Loring's words cause an argument that took everyone's attention. After an hour had no decisions been made and no new thoughts had been voices, except Thane's suggestion that Gedric should skin himself, which almost led to a fight.

At last, when the arguing settled down to some bitter mutterings, Roran limped over to the table as fast as he could with his injured calf. "I want to say something." To him it was like stepping on a long spike and pulling it out; it had to be done, the quicker the less of the pain.

Every gaze turned to him - cold, soft, warm, angry, curious and regardless and a pair of mysterious elven eyes - and Roran took a deep breath. "Indecisiveness can kill us as easy as a sword or an arrow." Orval rolled his eyes but the others were still listening. "I don't know if we should fight or flee…"

"Where to?" Kiselt snorted.

"…But I know one thing: the children, the mothers and the weak need to be protected from danger. The ra'zac stops us from reaching Cawley and other farms in the valley. So what? We know this area better than no others in Alagëasia, and there is a place … a place where our loved ones will be safe. The Spine."

A choir of angry voices rose around the room. "Never that I step into those accursed mountains!" Sloan barked.

"Roran," Horst said and spoke over the others. "You of all should know how dangerous the Spine is - it was there Eragon found the stone that brought the ra'zac here! The mountains are cold and full of wolves, bears and other monsters. Why even mention them?"

A few cast now also uncertain gazes at the elf in the corner, who watched them with a grim expression on his face. He had also appeared from the Spine. Was he trustable? They had began doubting if not he was some kind of omen of their ill luck.

We need to go to the Spine to protect Katrina! Roran wanted to shout. "Because no matter how many soldiers the ra'zac calls for, they will never enter the Spine. Not after Galbatorix lost half his army there," he said sternly.

"It was a long time ago," Morn said hesitantly, but he was actually weighting this option in his hands.

Roran took his opportunity at once. "And the stories have been more dreadful over time! There is already a path leading up to the top of the Igualda Fall. We need only to send the children and others up to the edge of the Spine, but they will still be safe there. If Carvahall is taken, they can wait until the soldiers leave and then make it to Therinsford."

"It's too dangerous," Sloan growled. The butcher's grip of the table was so strong that his knuckles whitened. "The cold, the beasts - no one with sense would expose their families to that."

"But…" Roran hesitated, pushed out of balance by Sloan's words. Even if he knew of Sloan's stronger hate against the Spine, because of his wife's death there, had he hope that Sloan's wish for Katrina's safety would be enough to win over his reluctance. Now he understood he had to convince Sloan just like everybody else. "It is not that bad," he continued in reconcilable tone. "The snow has begun to melt on the tops. The Spine is not colder than Carvahall was a few months ago. And I doubt that wolves or bears would attack such a large group."

Sloan grimaced and shook his head. "In the Spine awaits only death!"

The others agreed which only strengthened Roran's determination. If he did not convince them, Katrina would die! His gaze moved those who where assembled, seeking a friendly face. The only one who looked like he neither did nor did not agree with Sloan was Legolas.

Roran's gaze landed on Delwin.

"Delwin, I know it's cruel to say this, but if Elmund hadn't been in Carvahall, he would still be alive. Surely you must agree that is it the right thing to do! You can contribute that no other parents has to endure your suffering."

No one moved a muscle. "Birgit!" Roran clenched to the chairs to keep himself upright. "Do you want Nolfavrell to share his father's fate? He needs to get away from here. Don't you understand it's the only way to protect him …" Even if he fought them, he felt tears starting to roll down his cheeks. "For the children's sake!"

The room was quiet. Roran stared at the chair beneath his hands and tired not to loose control.

Delwin moved first. "I will never leave Carvahall as long as my son is here," he said and paused, before continuing painfully slowly. "But I cannot deny that the children need protection."

"Like I said from the beginning," Tara declared.

"Roran is right," Baldor spoke up. "We cannot let ourselves be blinded by fear. Most of us has probably been by the top of the waterfall. It's not dangerous."

"Also I have to agree," Birgit added.

Horst nodded. "I would rather not, but thinking of the circumstances … We have no other choice." One by one the others agreed.

"As I do," Legolas, who had not spoken up at all during these meetings the last three days, said. He thought of Eldarion, who was far too small to defend himself; the infant could not stay here, but the elf knew that he had to go to those mountains too in that case, for he could not stay and leave Eldarion to an uncertain fate, all alone. No, he needed to stay with his son.

"Nonsense!" Sloan exploded; the opposite to the elf's soft voice. He stood up and pointed at Roran accusingly. "How will they have food for weeks? They cannot carry so many packs with them. How will they keep warm? They cannot lit fires without being seen! How, how, how? If they don't starve to death they will freeze to death. If they don't freeze to death they will be eaten. If they aren't eaten … Who knows? Maybe they fall?"

"If we all help they will have plenty of food," Roran said. "Fire is no problem if they draw back deeper into the forest, which they have to do anyway since there is no place to make camp next to the waterfall."

"Excuses! Whitewashes!"

"What do you want us to do then, Sloan?" Morn asked and looked at him questioningly.

A bitter laugh escaped Sloan's mouth. "Not this."

"But what?" Roran asked, trying to keep himself calm and not just scream at him that if they did not do this, Katrina would die. Why can't he see that?

"It doesn't matter what. But this is the wrong choice," Sloan said.

"You don't need to take a part of it," Horst pointed out.

"I won't," the butcher said. "Do it if you want it, but as long as I have marrow left in my bones, neither I nor someone of my blood will go into the Spine." With that he took his cap and left with a poisonous glare at Roran, who glared back. The man's hardheaded stubbornness put Katrina in danger. If he does not agree, I have to take the matter in my own hands, he thought.

"Well, if we are to go through with Roran's plan, what preparations are needed?" Horst asked, leaning forward over the table. Everyone looked at each other, but soon the group began to discuss the matter. Legolas sat down beside Tara to join the discussion; he had some experience with both courts in Gondor and Mirkwood, where many wills were put against each other, and he and his friends in Rohan had been there and helped when the people of Edoras evacuated to Helm's Deep. After about half an hour, he saw how Roran slipped out of the room, but made no comment or stopped him. It seemed like the others could handle this from now on. They had not even appeared to notice his absence.

()()()

The meeting ended an hour later and Roran had not showed himself since. Legolas pulled on his cloak yet again and went outside; it was dark and the night starless. He found Roran by the edge of the road, looking out into the night. Consciously he made his steps heavier and louder, but the ground was yet muddy and soft, so when he came to the man's side, Roran startled came to his feet and took his hammer, raising it and swirling around - he stopped the movement in surprise of his own action.

"Alert, I see," Legolas commented with a small smile. "It is only good. Have you kept watching the road since you left the house?" he asked.

"I thought no one saw me go," Roran muttered and put back the hammer in his belt. He sat down on a rock.

"Oh, I believe no one else did, until Horst were to ask you a question and I had to try answer it for you," Legolas said.

"I've been keeping guard," Roran said, a bit absently, staring out into the night.

A silence fell over the pair. A lantern hung on the building beside the road; in its glow Legolas could see the frown on Roran's face. He was troubled once again - the elf had seen that expression on many men and women during the last few days. He too felt troubled, thinking of how to get back to Gondor, and learning everything he could about this new land, and helping the village. He felt he owed them it. He had been spotted by the soldiers and killed two of them in the woods, which must have angered them and the ra'zac much further, and now he had fought with them, killed more soldiers - he was part of this now. No wonder Gimli calls me a magnet of trouble, he thought.

"What decisions did you make while I was gone?" Roran asked suddenly.

Legolas summarized the meeting for him. They would need to help the children and women who would stay by the falls, with carrying food and other items. They were too few to carry what they needed - they were unsure how long they would need to hide and wait, so they were planning to pack food for a month, more if it was possible. They needed to sneak past the guards, undetected, so if it rained, the weather would be very welcome.

"Something troubles you," the elf stated. The frown was left on Roran's face.

"It's Sloan," Roran admitted after a pause. "It bothers me that he is negative and stubborn about this matter. If he convinces more people not to agree with this plan …"

Legolas nodded. "I do not know of these mountains so much - why are they feared?" he asked carefully. "You mentioned Galbatorix' army."

"People have gone missing in the Spine … It is a long chain of mountains stretching over the whole Alagëasia. Eragon was the only one here in the village that dared to go deep into it and hunt. Therefore why he was the one who found that blue stone, which lead all this trouble here - the stone is the king's property." He paused. "Once, many years ago, Galbatorix sent his army through the mountains. Half of them disappeared, without a trace. No one actually knows what happened and there were no signs of bears, wolves or other beasts that had taken them - they were just gone," Roran said, and muttered: "There's something about them. Sinister magic."

Legolas nodded. If it is indeed a kind of magic there, it must be strong, if half an army can disappear: but it also explains how I came here. There soldiers who went missing, they could not be the ones who attacked Gondor … they must be as confused as I was when I came here, and without reason to attack anyone in Arda. Besides it happened many years ago … he thought. If not so that a link between Arda and Alagëasia exists in the Spine, and Galbatorix sent his soldiers through there and they managed to come back. If he had news this way, maybe even surveyed our world for years … He was planning to attack my world when he had control over his own.

I must go there and find a way back, and warn Aragorn. If we could locate the source of this magic and break it… to stop the soldiers from arriving to Arda … Oh, I wish that Mithrandir were still there to help us! We have no one with knowledge of magic or sorcery to turn to. I doubt that if Galbatorix and the rebellions here, the Varden, are at war, which is likely, will help us - they are at war on their own, they have not time to bother of us. Yet at least. The elves …I must ally myself with them, and the Varden -

His thoughts were becoming a heap again; he shook his head and tried to push it away. First he would help the villagers to hide. Then he could try to find the Varden. Even if they might not help them to stop the soldiers from coming to Arda directly, maybe they could help him to find a way back - and if they were at war with Galbatorix they did help Arda, indirectly, if they managed to crush the king's armies and maybe even the king himself.

He looked at Roran, who had not moved much from his rock. He looked as if he was thinking and would not move for a long time.

"Legolas, do you think that the Spine has something to do with your … emergence?" Roran asked.

"Aye. It is very possible. And a thing concerns me now - just by that waterfall did I come here. I remember that I jumped down a waterfall and landed in what you call Anora River. We must make sure that even if the children, the women and the weak camp not too close the waterfall or nor go too near it - I feel there is something about it, and if they happen to come too close it, fall and disappear …What if they so accidentally comes into Arda? Or perhaps, they will fall, but they might not survive such a fall from the height."

Roran looked up. "I haven't thought of that before."

"I do not think we should stop the plan altogether. Just warn them … not to step closer than necessary to those falls," Legolas said. "There is no guarantee, since I do not know how exactly I came here, that they can come back if they find themselves in Arda. Even if that should be on Gondor's boarders by my guess and Gondor would gladly welcome them, but … One should not easily go from one world to the other and hope to get back. It is treacherous, I believe, especially since our worlds differ in many ways. The magic in Arda might be strong but not the same as the one in Alagëasia, and we have not any wizards left in our world, for they have sailed." Legolas paused. Alagëasia feels younger than my homeland, he thought briefly.

"I will warn them," Roran said.

()()()

The next morning, Roran awoke early and stared up at the white ceiling of Horst's house. He laid for a while and listened to his own breaths.

Yesterday he had convinced Katrina, even if her father forbade her, to go with the children into the Spine. To ask something like that of her hurt both of them and she was angry and disappointed with him first, but he had sword that it was the first and last time he asked something like that from her - even if they so faced Galbatorix himself and only one of them could go, Roran was not allowed to send Katrina away.

Soon Roran stood and dressed and went down to the kitchen. Legolas was there, feeding Eldarion, with his hair tied in an unflattering knot. "Good morning, Roran," the elf greeted.

"Good morning," Roran replied, even if he was not sure it would be a good morning - what if the ra'zac attacked again? What if their plan went wrong and they were seen when they escorted the children to the top of the falls? His head was filled with thoughts.

He found some bread, buttered it and went outside to the porch to admire the sunrise. There sat Horst and Albriech on two chairs eating breakfast and discussing how to move the children up to the waterfall without having to go several rounds with food and supplies. Elain was there as well, pulling up the shutters, and she greeted him and looked up at the sky. "It looks like it's going to rain."

"The more rain the better is it," Horst said. "Then we'll be harder to spot when we walk to Narnmor Mountain."

Roran remembered what Legolas had told him yesterday, that the men had to help carrying supplies. He sat down beside Albriech, who tiredly was rubbing his eyes. "Will there be enough men left to protect Carvahall?" he wondered.

"Of course."

Roran chewed on his bread, nodding. "Good."

"Some have already begun to pack," Horst continued.

Roran nodded again and watched as a group children rushed past, screaming in delight in their play, followed by a group of adults who tried to fetch their little ones. It signaled a peaceful picture, like the village should be, if not for the ra'zac. The small children, perhaps only five or four, did not understand the danger that was around the corner and the fact that their home might be ruined when they returned from their hiding place in the Spine.

After a while, Legolas went outside to join them. The elf would go with them up to the falls, but was unsure if he would go back or not, because of his son. Since Elain would stay in Carvahall, and Elain and possibly Roran were the only ones that he would trust Eldarion to be under the care of, he had no one who could look after the boy if he decided to defend Carvahall.

()()()

When everyone had eaten breakfast, Roran, Baldor, Albriech and Legolas helped gathering food, blankets and equipment in four large packs that they slung over their shoulders and carried to the other end of the village. On the way they met the brothers Barmen, Larne and Hamund who also were carrying packs.

Just inside the ditch that circled the village was a large group of children, parents and grandparents assembled and in full activity of packing and organizing the expedition. Several families had let their donkeys act as carriers of packs and younger children, and the animals now stood tied in a line and added to the general confusion with their impatient shrieking. Sitting on a package of clothing was the village's eldest man, the sixty-year old Svart, Ivor's uncle, and playing with an infant with the tip of his long white beard. Birgit and Felda were watching over Nolfavrell and some other children, surrounded by a several other mothers with grim faces and men and women who looked like they rather were somewhere else.

Since no one appeared to lead the disordered packing and preparation, Roran took the task in his own hands. When he noticed that there were too few water flasks, he asked for more of them, but then they had thirteen too many; such delays filled the morning hours.

Legolas gladly helped them with whatever needed to be done. He quickly counted the people and the packs - they would have food for a month, perhaps, but needed more if they were to hide for a longer time. The boys, the old and the women brought their shields and spears with them, so they would not be unarmed. The old men had experience with wild animals, but the boys had not always the strength to fight them; the elf hoped neither beasts nor soldiers would find them. The most willing, fierce fighters, be believed, were the women, who had a rare glow in their eyes even as they carried their youngsters in their arms.

Roran let his gaze sweep over the group, and saw Katrina. She looked up, smiled at him, and continued her work. In the middle of a discussion with Loring, if they needed extra shoes or not, he spotted Sloan standing by the edge of an alley and staring at them with a smirk. The lines on his face deepened in his contempt. But when he saw Katrina, and realized she was not there to only help, his face darkened and he stopped smiling. A vein in his temple pounded.

Roran hurried forward to Katrina but Sloan was there first. "Who has made you do this?" the butcher screamed and grabbed the knapsack that was slung on her back.

She said something about the children, and tired to move from his grip, but Sloan pulled the pack down her shoulders and it fell down her arms. The butcher threw the pack on the ground and its content was spilled out. Sloan grabbed Katrina's arm and proceeded to take her away, under many shouts, but she stamped her heels in the ground and fought back.

Furiously, Roran pushed the butcher away so that the stumbled backwards. "Stop it! It's I who wants her to go!"

"You have no right to!" Sloan growled and glared at the other man.

"I have all the right in the world," Roran retorted, and seeing the people who neared them said loudly so that everyone could hear: "Katrina and I are engaged, and I refuse to see my fiancée being treated that way!"

Legolas heard both heard and saw the brawl. He was among the group of spectators which gathered around the butcher, Roran and Katrina. It was not his place to interference, but it looked like Sloan was ready to beat Roran unconscious. Had the settings been different, under a handful of shadowed trees, and on Sloan's place had been a tall, silver-haired elf with a crown of leaves on his head, it would have been very alike to the moment he and Aragorn had told Thranduil of their betrothal.

A shocked silence fell over the village. Sloan's face twisted and grew red; many would have backed away by such fury, pain and humiliation, but Roran stood his ground with a stern expression on his face.

"How could you," Sloan said slowly, "look into my eyes and talk to me like an honest man, when you wooed my daughter without my permission?" A curse left his lips. "You treacherous scoundrel! I was in good faith but you just robbed my house when I turned my back."

This can draw blood, Legolas thought. He hoped that Roran knew how to handle this situation. If the villagers began to battle amongst themselves, it would be ill, but he knew too well how hard it was for Sloan to accept and surely many others too. He and Aragorn had drawn similar reactions.

"I'd hoped to do this the right way," Roran said, "but then the circumstances changed and hindered me. I never meant to lie to you. Though this has become different from what any of us wanted, I still ask for your blessing."

"I'd rather have a worm-eaten pig than you as my son!" Sloan spat. "You have no farm. You have no family. And you will have nothing to do with my daughter!" The butcher swore again. "And she will not have anything to do with the Spine!"

He extended his hand to Katrina, but Roran moved to stand between the two, with a face as firm as his fists. They stood only a foot from each other and stared into each other's faces, trembling of emotions.

"Katrina, come," Sloan ordered.

Roran drew back from the butcher, so that they and Katrina made a triangle, and looked at her. She stood there, trembling slightly, with tears rolling down her cheeks and looking from one to the other - she took a step forward but estimated. A cry of despair left her lips as she tore at her hair in frustrating indecision. How could she choose between her only family and Roran who held her love?

"Katrina!" Sloan exclaimed, with fear evident in his voice.

"Katrina," Roran murmured.

Katrina stopped crying. She straightened her back and stood still. "I am sorry, father. But I've decided to marry Roran," she said, and went to stand beside him.

Sloan paled and he bit his lip hard. "You cannot leave me! You are my daughter!" He threw himself at her, but with a roar, Roran hit him at the same time so hard with his fist that the butcher shocked fell to the ground, in front of almost the whole village. Sloan crawled to his feet, slowly, his face red of mortification. When he looked at Katrina, he seemed to shrink, to become a shadow of the man he had been.

"It is always so, that those closest to your heart is the greatest pain," he said in a low tone. "You will not have any dowry, you serpent, nor any inheritance from your mother." Then he turned and fled for his shop with bitter tears in his eyes.

Katrina cried in Roran's arms and Roran held her, barely aware of people who came to give advice, congratulate, pity them or express their distaste. The only thing on his mind was the woman in his arms, the woman who held him. We have no choice but to marry now, he thought. It was grimly done of Sloan to take away Katrina's inheritance. Now she would have nothing, nor did him; if they did not marry, she would become Carvahall's first and only beggar. I cannot let that happen.

He regretted he had not told Sloan earlier about their betrothal. He wished he had done, because then he and Sloan might have been able to cooperate to protect Katrina form the Empire. Now … Not now - now I have to protect her alone.

Elain came rushing towards them with her round belly. "Oh, poor little one!" she cried and embraced Katrina, pulling her out from Roran's arms. "Is it true that you are engaged?" Elain asked. Katrina nodded and smiled, but then began to cry hysterically again. Elain tried to soothe her, but every time Roran thought that she had calmed down, Katrina 's eyes filled with new tears she could not hold back. Elain glanced over her shaking shoulders and said: "I'll take her home."

"I will go with you," Roran said.

"No, you will not," Elain answered. "She needs to calm down, and you have work to do. Do want to know what I think? You should stay away until nightfall. I promise that she'll be recovered by then. She can go with the others tomorrow." Without waiting for his answer, Elain lead the sobbing young woman away from the wall of spiked trees.

Roran was left with his arms hanging by his sides; battered and powerless. What have we done? Now, when forcing Katrina away from her only family, he had the double responsibility of her prosperity. I have turned everything into a mess. He sighed.

"How do you feel?" Baldor asked and walked up to him.

He forced himself to smile. "It didn't really go as I had hoped. Sloan is unreasonable about the Spine."

"And about Katrina," Baldor added.

"That too. I …" Roran silenced when Loring stopped in front of them.

"That was darned daft!" the shoemaker growled with a frown. Then he smirked and showed his snaggletooth. "But I wish you and the lass good luck." He shook his head. "Ha, you'll need it, Stronghammer!"

"We all will need that," Thane hissed angrily as he walked by.

Loring waves his hand. "Bah, you sulk so. Listen, Roran. I've lived in Carvahall for many, many years and my experience tells me that it's better for you that it happened now, rather than when everything was peaceful and calm."

"Why?" Roran asked.

"Isn't it obvious? Usually you and Katrina would be the gossip for the next ten months. But now so much is happening that you soon will be forgotten, which might even give you some peace and quiet."

Roran frowned. "I'd rather have people talking about us, than those scavengers around."

"We all would," Loring agreed. "But it's still something to be grateful for, and all will need something to be grateful for - especially when you two have married!"

Seeing the blush on Roran's face, Loring laughed. Roran snorted and began to collect Katrina's belongings back into her pack. He always was interrupted by comments from those why were nearby, which did nothing to calm his mind.

"Do you require help?" asked a voice behind him. Legolas stood there with a smile on his face.

"No, no. I had expected you as well to make a remark," Roran said with a slight frown.

"I was not as shocked nor as amused as most people appeared to be," the elf said. "When I told my father of my choice, there was a very similar reaction to that of Sloan."

"It went well, at least," Roran said, albeit carefully. The elf had not spoken so much of his family before. "You have a son, so …"

The elf picked up the last item from the ground and gave it to Roran. "It took only some sixty years for him to accept it and allow me to wed. He is … mulish, to say the least." At Roran's shocked expression a grin flashed over his face and a small laugh escaped his lips. "You knew not of the slow aging of my people? I have told Elain, Horst's wife; she might tell you one day." His face darkened a little. "Though I was lucky enough to keep my inheritances."

"Can I ask …how old are you, Legolas?" Roran managed to say. Legolas might be an elf but he had not known that they were ageless. The elf looked no older than himself. The elf looked younger than him, except for his eyes.

"Take the age of your grandfather's father, double that, and thrice that still, and then you would near it," Legolas said, with clear seriousness. "My father's reluctance depended mostly because of my age - for my people I am yet very young - and because I am his only child."

Roran regarded the elf with raised eyebrows and a little suspicion. The elf must be older than this village, with several hundred years. How that could be possible, he had no idea. "Your kind is immortal?" he asked.

"We do no age the way Mankind does, but we can die of wounds and grief," the elf explained. "In many ways, we are just as fragile as Men. But aye, we are immortal to the years."

They walked back to the crowd of people and helped to work in silence; Roran's thoughts walked between curiously over the elf, and his beloved Katrina. He wanted nothing else but to run to Horst's house and hold her.

()()()

Despite the delays and the unusual scene the villagers just had witnessed, they were soon ready to go. Around mid day began the caravan of people and mules walk up the hills. A light rain fell over them. They had to walk slowly because of the packs and the children. Roran found himself behind Thane's wife and her five children, but it did not bother him since he did not have to walk so fast and put pressure on his injured calf. The thoughts of his confrontation with Sloan still filled his mind. But, he thought, Katrina must not stay in Carvahall much longer. He was sure that soon, the village would be destroyed and they would have to flee, all of them. It was the only sensible truth.

He walked in the middle of the group. Legolas was scouting up ahead, having sharp eyes, and would warn them in case of ra'zac or soldiers. Nothing had been detected in the light wet mist. The elf had made a decision to keep Eldarion with him in Carvahall; he would go back later. Now the boy was under the care of Elain in Horst's house; she would stay too. Legolas knew it was a perhaps foolish, dangerous decision but could not have his son parted from him for possibly weeks, especially not with people he was unfamiliar with.

After around three quarters of the road up to the mountain, Roran paused to rest his calf. Some others paused too, mostly those with infants. He admired the view of Palancar valley and tried to find the ra'zac camp, which should be by the edge of the road, but he saw nothing, not a single wreath of smoke.

The sound of rushing, roaring water was heard before the Iguana falls came into view. Mostly it looked like a giant white tress falling down from the head of Narnmor, down into the valley around half a mile below. After reaching the top of the falls, they passed a glen with black raspberries and arrived at a wide clearing, which was guarded by large rocks on either side of it. Those who had wandered at the lead where already there and beginning to make camp; the forest echoed with the children's shouts.

Roran put down the heavy pack he had been carrying and took an axe that had been tied on top of the pack and began to cut away the vegetation with the rest of the men. He spotted Legolas arriving, cloaked and hooded, and the elf put down two packs and took an axe to help them. When finished, they cut down a handful of pine trees, which they placed as walls around the clearing on the sides where rocks did not protect it. The air was filled with the smell of wood.

When the battlements were ready, the camp was also arranged: four small fires to cook over, seventeen woollen tents, and many morose faces. No one wanted to stay, and no one wanted to leave.

Roran spotted Nolfavrell sitting on a log, looking down at the valley. He walked over to him and sat down next to him.

"Will you leave soon?" the boy asked. Roran nodded. He was impressed at how determined and composed he seemed. "You'll do you best to kill the ra'zac and revenge my father, won't you? I would do it myself if mother didn't tell me to stay and guard my siblings."

"I will give you their heads, if I can," Roran promised.

"That's good," Nolfavrell said. His chin was trembling.

"Nolfavrell," Roran began and hesitated to find the right words. "You are the only one here, except for me and Legolas, who has killed a human. It doesn't mean that we are better or worse than anyone else, but it means that I can trust you will fight well if we are attacked. When Katrina comes here tomorrow, can you make sure she is well protected?"

The boy swelled with pride. "I will guard her everywhere she goes!" Then he looked apologetic, and added; "I mean, when I'm not looking after …"

"Of course, your family goes before anyone else. But maybe she can sleep in your tent with your siblings," Roran said, understanding.

"Yes," Nolfavrell said slowly, "yes, that should work. You can trust me."

"Thank you." Roran patted his shoulder. He knew he could have asked someone older and more experienced - had the elf decided to stay up here he would have asked him - but the adults where busy with their own, and Nolfavrell could make sure she was out of danger.

He stood when Birgit came. "Come, it's time," she said. Then she embraced her son and walked back to the waterfall, together with Roran and those who would go back to Carvahall. The others stared after them, abandoned and unsure, through the branches of the fallen trees.

Chapter Text

On the way back to Carvahall, the company of men and women and elf were silent. It was growing late; Roran wondered how Katrina was, and longed desperately to see her.

When they were almost halfway back, Legolas, who was scouting ahead again, raised his hand in what Roran supposed was a military gesture; but they understood it and without a word stopped their tracks and knelt in the vegetation. Roran crept forward to the elf's side.

"What is it?" he murmured.

"Two soldiers to the left. They are close enough to see us." The elf was already as he said this reaching for his bow and a goose-feathered arrow

"Wait," Roran murmured. It was better if the soldiers passed by because if they killed them, they announced that they were here and for some reason leaving the village. Legolas understood and lowered his weapon, but still with an arrow on the string; just in case.

Two helmets, red tonlets, and a pair of shields were visible just a hundred ells from where they hid; the two soldiers paced some fifty ells west and then back again, and then westwards again, before they finally moved on and out of sight. Never did they indicate of seeing or hearing the villagers; Legolas heard their voices like far away echoes. Roran let go of the breath he had been holding when the soldiers turned and left.

"That was close," he muttered.

"Too close," Legolas murmured back.

()()()

The rest of the trek went smoothly and without any signs of soldiers. Again Roran saw no signs of any camp that the soldiers must have. If I only knew where…

Until nightfall, Roran continued with his chores in Carvahall. The village seemed so quiet and bleak and it felt like a hole inside of his chest. Now with the children in the Spine, Carvahall felt like a military camp and this change appeared to have made everyone stern, wary and hard-set.

When finally the sun was setting, giving everything a red hue, Roran went to Horst's house but hesitated on the doorstep. He found himself afraid, like before a battle. In the end, he walked around to the back door and that way went to the kitchen, passing through the dining room. To his surprise he found Legolas there, and the crib had been temporarily moved to the corner of the room. At seeing him the elf smiled. "She is in the kitchen," he said without supplying whom he meant.

When Roran came inside the room he found to his dismay that Birgit was there, knitting, sitting in front of Katrina. Both looked up. "How … how do you feel?" he managed to say.

"Fine." A small smile appeared on her lips. "It was just such a shock when father … when he …" She lowered her gaze for a moment. "Elain has been so kind. She let me borrow Baldor's room for the night."

"I'm glad you are better," Roran said softly. He embraced her, trying to show all his love and adoration with the simple gesture, and she felt strangely frail in his arms; he heard her sigh.

Birgit put away her knitting. "Come now. The sun has sunk and it's time for you to sleep, Katrina."

Roran grudgingly let her go. She kissed his cheek. "I will see you tomorrow, Roran."

He made to follow her out from the room, but a sharp voice behind him stopped him. "Roran." He turned around to see Elain, her arms crossed over her chest.

"Yes?"

She waited until Birgit and Katrina were out of hearing range before she spoke. "I hope you keep all the promises you have given that girl, or I will assemble a council and have you banished before the week is over," she warned him.

Roran felt speechless and it took a moment for him to gather his thoughts. "Of course I will. I love her."

"Katrina has just resigned from everything she owned and cared about, for you." Elain looked strictly at him. "I've seen men who spread their devotion over young maidens like one spreads corn to the chickens. The maid sighs and cries and believes herself special, but for the man she is just a pastime. You have always been honourable, Roran, but desire can turn even the most sensible to a preening fool or a wicked, sly fox. Are you such a man?" She let her words sink into him, so that he would clearly understand; "Katrina needs not a fool, an impostor or even love: what she needs is a man who takes care of her. If you abandon her she will become the poorest person in Carvahall, forced to live on her friends. I will not allow that, by the blood in my veins."

"Not me either," Roran objected. "Then I would be heartless or worse."

"That's right. Don't forget she is a woman who has lost both her inheritance and dowry. Do you understand what that means? She is a woman with no silver, no linen, and nothing of what is needed for an orderly home. Such things are all we own; the daughter has inherited it from her mother since we first settled in Alagaësia. A woman without this, would be like…like…"

"Like a man without work or farm," Roran said grimly. Like me.

Elain nodded. "It was cruel of Sloan to forbid Katrina her birthright, but it cannot be helped now. Neither she nor you have anything of value. You will have to start from nothing. It is a frightening thought, is it not? I ask you again – and do not lie - will you take care of Katrina without complaining?"

"Yes."

Elain sighed at his obvious stubborn but honest answer, and filled two clay-cups with cider from a can. She gave Roran one of the cups and sat down. "Then I suggest you should give her a new home, a new inheritance to give your daughters, if you one day have any, so that you and they can stand without shame among the wives of Carvahall."

"If we live for so long," Roran said and sipped at the cool cider.

"Yes." She pushed away a lock of hair. "You've chosen a hard road, Roran."

"I had to make sure that Katrina left Carvahall."

Elain raised an eyebrow. "So that was why. Well, I will not question it, but why in the whole world did you not tell Sloan about your betrothal until this morning? You could have thought of a better strategy than hitting the man who will become your father-in-law."

"I know, but I never found the opportunity between the attacks."

"The ra'zac hasn't attacked for almost six days now," Elain pointed out.

He frowned. "No, but … it's ... Oh, I don't know!" He slapped the table with his fist in frustration.

"Listen to me, Roran. It is better if you try to repair the gap between you and Sloan now, before years of grudges have managed to gather, and your life with Katrina will become much, much easier. Tomorrow you should go and apologize."

"I will not plead! Not to him." A dry laugh escaped Roran's mouth.

"It is worth a month's pleading to have peace in the family. I know this of experience; conflicts just make you miserable," she said.

"Sloan hates the Spine. He will have nothing to do with me."

"You still have to try," Elain said obstinately. "Even if he refuses to accept your apology, you have at least tried. If you love Katrina so, swallow your pride and try to do the right thing for her sake. Do not let her suffer for your mistakes."

Elain gave Roran a last, sharp look, finished her cup and then left with a murmured goodnight. The pained grimace on Roran's face lingered like a shadow. He could not move for several long moments. Then he stood and blew out the candles.

The door to the dining room was open; a handful of candles gave the room a soft glow. He spotted Legolas pacing, trying to soothe Eldarion to sleep, and a stream of soft words that Roran could not understand left his lips. Elain's words were buried in his skull. If he solved this, one day … he and Katrina would have a family of their own, a home, a child … He recalled the elf's words; how had he settled the matter with his father? Or perhaps it was time that calmed his father down? Sixty years, Legolas had said, had it taken between his betrothal and his marriage. No, if that was the option, then … Then he needed to persuade Sloan, somehow. He could not wait like an elf.

Shaking his head, Roran walked up the stairs, using his hands on the walls to keep his balance. Once inside his room, he took off his shirt and boots, and threw himself on the bed.

He hugged the pillow and listened to the sounds of the house; a mouse that scrabbled on the attic, wooden balks that groaned, the wind that whispered against the walls and windows, and … the rustle of slippers outside his room. He saw the door handle being turned and the door opened with a creak. A shadowed figure slipped inside and closed the door, and Roran felt how caressing hair and soft lips touched his face. He sighed.

Katrina.

()()()

It was quiet and dark; he had blown out the candles and gone to sleep, lying on the floor. It felt like he had not slept in a long time; he had not dared to go into the dream world of elves during the day, and at night he had often kept guard. But tonight he only kept guard over the dining room. Eldarion was asleep in his crib. Legolas allowed himself to relax.

He dreamt of Aragorn and of Gimli and his father; they were like shadows in a forest, running away from him, and he could not stop them or call out for them.

A biting cold crippled at his senses and a fear, that he would loose them, took over his heart. He felt – weak. Wait. What is- The sound of scarping feet – a blade being drawn …

A cry pierced the air.

Eldarion!

Legolas' eyes focused and he came to his feet in an instant. The room was dark but he heard and felt clearly another presence in the room. The creature was standing five feet away, a barricade of chairs between them. A foul breath left its mouth, something that had, in his vulnerable state of sleep, given his mind and heart only fear – an instinct of pure weakness and he felt slow and unable to move. He had felt it before. Once, when Roran and he and the others rebelled against the Ra'zac.

The Ra'zac lunged at him before he did, jumping over the chairs; the elf saw a sword in its hand. He drew his knife and blocked the blow, with a gasp at feeling the creature's strength. It easily matched that of a well-trained elf.

He parried with the creature, trying to lure it away from the crib. Eldarion was still crying, but the Ra'zac did not attack him. I am a threat, while my son cannot defend himself, Legolas realized. It will kill me first, to have time to- to-

In the lack of light, he bumped against the table and stumbled; the Ra'zac took the opportunity, and with a terrible screech it managed to disarm the elf. The white knife flew from his grasp and landed several ells away with a thud.

The Ra'zac hissed. Legolas rolled out of the way when the sword swirled just past his head, alarmingly close, and almost slicing off his ear. He fumbled in the darkness, found the wood of a chair and gripped tightly about it and threw it at his opponent.

"Ra'zac! Ra'zac are here!" he cried. There were many others in the house, who must have heard noise and screaming by now. Where is the other Ra'zac? he thought frantically. The soldiers? How did they get into the village, the house?

They know Roran is here!

How?

He firmly threw another chair at the creature but it grew not weaker, only angrier. Legolas dashed for the direction of the door. Something hard and cold suddenly cut through his clothing, his skin and his flesh, across his back. A pained moan escaped him.

Nimbly, Legolas swirled around, aiming a hard kick at the creature, shocked to find something hard as steel beneath his foot, but it was definitely not steel; the creature's skin must be thicker than leather. When he ducked for the blade and attempted to grab the hands of the Ra'zac that gripped around the handle, his back protested fiercely. He managed to get a grip of the creature's hands and turn the sword towards the owner. The hands were large and thick and strong, and felt like metal beneath his fingers.

"Give up, elf!" the ra'zac growled. With inhuman strength he pushed the elf towards the corner; dazed and crying out in pain at the impact, Legolas flew and landed on the table, and tumbled over it to the ground by the strength of the hurl. His head spun. He tried to find something, something to use as a weapon, or his knife … But his bow and arrows lay partly hidden behind Eldarion's crib, leaning against the wall. Oh why had he not taken-

His fingers touched something sharp on the floor, just as two firm hands grabbed his shoulders and hauled him to his feet. The Ra'zac wheezed just beside his ear. "Galbatorix would want you alive, elf, but if you resist it doesn't matter. The King will pay gold to have the head of an elf."

Legolas spat at the creature's face, into its hood. It seemed first so shocked it did not move, and the elf hung in its iron grip. Then a growl of anger left its terrible mouth and it threw him to the floor. Disorientated but firmly set on winning this battle, Legolas reached out with his arm and tried to find his knife. It should be somewhere here…

"You will pay for that insult!" the Ra'zac snarled.

Long pale fingers gripped around a white bone handle. In one smooth movement, Legolas pushed himself up so far that he could bury the knife in the arm of the ra'zac. It howled in pain and the elf rolled away just in time to avoid its sword. His back impacted with the leg of a chair painfully.

Above them there were cries and footsteps. Through the open door the light of several lanterns became visible and a number of men armed with spears rushed inside the house – some of them upstairs and two into the dining chamber. With the new light, Legolas easily saw the Ra'zac. He pulled the knife out in the same moment it stood, and attempted to cut its throat. It moved out of the way but not quick enough. The elven blade grazed its chin, and the hood fell back, revealing a terrible face.

The head was large and smooth, like the back of a black beetle. The blood-coloured eyes were as large as fists and held neither iris nor pupil; and instead of a nose and mouth there was a large beak. Its face was dark and twisted like the one of an orc, yet unlike anything Legolas had ever seen before. Legolas saw this face in a moment, so short he could barely react at what he saw.

With a howl, the ra'zac pushed the elf into the wall, and ran over to the two villagers in the doorway, who were armed with spears. But the creature appeared to flee, throwing the men aside, and rushing outside into the night. From where he laid on the floor, Legolas caught a glimpse of one, no two, black horses.

"Katrina!" he heard a male, despaired voice cry from upstairs.

Eldarion, Legolas thought, and pushed himself to his feet. His whole body ached. The knife in his hand was covered by dark blood. Without caring to clean the blade, he sheathed it and rushed over the smashed furniture to the crib where his son lay. The boy was sobbing loudly, but was unharmed. Legolas pressed him close to his chest and breathed his scent; if he had lost him …

He took a deep breath and with pure will pushed away his feelings of fear, temporary panic, and anger, and tried to grow calmer to also calm his child. "It is all right now, little one," he murmured. "The creature is gone now. Cry not ..."

The whole household was awake. The two men by the door stumbled to their feet. Horst came rushing down the stairs. Legolas came to meet them; everyone seemed tired, confused and shocked. Roran came behind him, led by Elain clad in a white nightgown. Roran's shoulder, arm and clothing were covered with blood.

"We need to get you to Gertrude," the woman tried to persuade the man. Roran gasped and shook his head.

Horst saw a bruise beginning to form on Legolas' chin, and the elf's tresses had loosened from their braids. A few people looked at him with wide eyes, since they had only seen him cloaked before.

"What happened, upstairs?" Legolas asked. Did the Ra'zac take Katrina? Bait for Roran of course, to make him give in, tell where Eragon and that blue stone is. The Ra'zac are stronger than I thought them to be; it will not be easy to go after them …

"Ra'zac," Horst muttered. "They attempted to take Roran, but we fought them off. There were soldiers there too … they took Katrina and escaped with the ra'zac."

Legolas nodded. He was still out of breath since being beaten into furniture and walls far too many times for his liking. "There was one down here as well. It fled with the soldiers."

"We have to save … save Katrina before they … do anything to her…" Roran sounded dizzy.

"He is right," Horst said. "We cannot wait. Put him together as well as you can and then we'll leave. Is anyone else injured?"

Legolas hated to admit it. "A few cuts and bruises." Though it did feel like a bit more than just a few … He could not determine how bad the injury on his back was by himself, other than by the pain. At least the cut did not feel so very deep.

Elain primed and rushed over to the armoire. She returned with numerous cloths that she tied tightly around Roran's bleeding shoulder and broken wrist. Then she turned to look at the elf's injuries, which proved to be a sword cut stretching over his back, and when he was prompted to take off his shirt, they saw that his whole left side was bruised. Legolas told her to just swipe away the blood and not tie the wound, because it would put pressure on his bruises and aching ribs. He did not appreciate fighting in bandages either, but he did not mention that. Elain did what she was told, but with a frown etched on her face and her lips in a tight line. She gave Roran a heated look, which told him that he absolutely should not do this in his state. Roran sternly met her gaze before he looked at the floor, and tried to suppress the pain that filled his senses.

In the meantime, Albriech hurried upstairs to find armour and weapons to take from the soldiers that Roran had killed with his hammer. The bodies laid spread out on the floor of Roran's room. He also gave Roran back his hammer. Legolas had his knife; Horst armed himself with a spear.

Elain put her hands against his chest. "Be careful." She looked at her sons. "All of you."

"We will, mother," Albriech and Baldor promised. Elain forced herself to smile and kissed their cheeks.

()()()

They left the house and ran to the edge of the village, where they found that a tree had been moved from the barricade and that the guard, Byrd, laid on the ground, motionless. Legolas fell onto his knees soundlessly and examined the body.

"He was cut in his back by a knife," he said in a low tone. Roran barely heard him through the swishing noise in his ears. Dizzy, he leaned against the wall of a house and gasped for breath.

"Who's over there?" a voice called. From their posts around Carvahall, the guards came and gathered around their dead comrade, making a shielded group of lanterns. Quietly, Horst told them what had happened and Katrina's situation. "Who will help us?" he asked. In the end, five men decided to help; the rest would stay and guard the breach and awake the village.

Roran pushed himself from the wall and took the lead as the group snuck over the field, down the valley towards the camp of the Ra'zac. Each step was a pain, but it did not matter: Katrina was all that mattered. Once he stumbled, and a strong pale hand caught him. The elf did not say a word. He was not cloaked tonight and golden hair spilled over his shoulders, and his beautiful face had looked stern in the soft light from the lanterns. The other men had been surprised, but now was not the time for questions.

Less than half a mile from Carvahall, Ivor spotted a guard upon the peak of a hill, so they had to go a long way around to pass undetected.

Five hundred ells in front of them, the glow of torches was visible. With his healthy arm, Roran signaled them to stay low and slow down. They crossed the grass with crawling, silent steps. With the others behind him, Roran led them to the edge of a cluster of reedmace. He peered through the bushes towards the eleven remaining soldiers. There was no sign of Katrina. Where is she?

"… over half our force killed by a lot of in-breed, brainless wood-rats that can't see the difference between a pike and an axe or can find the edge of a sword even when it's buried in their guts, just because you have as much sense as my flagman! I don't care if Galbatorix himself licks clean your boots, we won't do anything until we have a new commander." One soldier cried over a small fire at the Ra'zac. Each other soldier looked sullen and tired, their weapons were full of notches and their armours were buckled. The others nodded in agreement with the man, who continued: "Someone who is human."

"Oh, yes?" the Ra'zac said in a low voice.

"We've had enough taking orders from you humpbacks, with your clicking and whistling like a tea-pot – it's so you feel sick! And I don't know what you did with Sardson, but if we have to wait another night we will stick our steel in you just to see if you bleed like us. That girl, you could leave her, she isn't-"

The man's chances to continue were cut short as the Ra'zac jumped over the fire and landed on the man's shoulders, and he fell backwards of the weight. He tried to pull out his sword from its sheath, but the Ra'zac hacked two times at his neck with its beak, and the soldier stilled.

"That's what we're going to fight?" Ivor muttered behind Roran.

The soldiers stood frozen as both the Ra'zac leaned over the dead body, drinking the blood from the corpse's neck. When the creatures rose again they rubbed their hands against each other and said; "Yes. We will leave. Stay if you want. Reinforcements should be here within a few days." Then the other looked up at the sky and screeched; the sound was so loud and high-pitched that it soon could not be heard anymore.

Legolas shivered; it sounded very alike to the cries of the Nazgûl, even if these creatures were not anything near Ringwraiths; they were not ghouls or cloaked spirits as far as he could tell. He glanced upwards when his senses pricked, and the hairs in his neck stood. Above two flying creatures, much larger than birds, were approaching. With them they brought a feeling that gave the elf fear, even if he tried to push it away; it was stronger than that of the Ra'zac. The elf tapped Roran's shoulder.

Dragons?

A nameless fear gripped Roran as he saw two shadows quickly descending from the sky. Soon they grew large enough to cover half the sky. A terrible stench filled the air; Roran coughed and felt nauseous. Beside him, Legolas pulled up the hem of his shirt to cover his mouth and nose.

The soldiers cursed so loud that it echoed and pushed arms and scarves against their faces in a way to shut out the stench, but it lingered everywhere.

The two large shadows lowered themselves to the ground and created a large darkness that covered the camp. The torches flickered but gave enough light so that they could see through the trees how the creatures looked like.

They were smooth like newborn mice and had a black leathery skin, alike that of the Ra'zac. Their shape reminded one of starved dogs, except for the swelled muscled legs, powerful enough to break rock. Upon the neck was a tapered head with a long beak and large red eyes. From the shoulders and the back there were enormous wings. The creatures radiated a dangerous force and a strange, terrifying intelligence. This creature was of a nature far older than Mankind. Something told Legolas that these weren't dragons … at least they were not like he had imagined dragons to be; they looked naught like the descriptions of ancient dead dragons from Middle Earth – they had no scales. If they breathed fire, however, he could not know.

The soldiers threw themselves to the ground in fear and covered their faces from the beasts. Roran was grabbed by a sudden fear that this would be a failure. Behind him, Horst was whispering to the men to stay where they were or they would be detected and killed.

The ra'zac bowed to the beasts, then slipped into a tent and came outside carrying Katrina – who was bound – and with Sloan behind them. The butcher had no restraints. Roran stared, unable to understand how Sloan could have been captured – his house was nowhere near Horst's. Then he realized: "Sloan betrayed us," he gasped. A strong anger filled his heart and pumped out in his veins. "Sloan killed Byrd and betrayed us!" Tears of anger ran down his face; he was unable to stop them.

"Roran, we cannot attack now," Legolas murmured. "Not with those beasts there, they would ... Roran, can you hear me? Roran?"

Roran heard only whispers from far away, but saw how the smaller Ra'zac climbed up to sit on the shoulders of one of the beasts. The other Ra'zac threw Katrina up too him. She looked so small and pale and fragile … Now, Sloan began to look afraid, and tried to discuss with the Ra'zac, shaking his head and pointing at his daughter. Finally the Ra'zac hit him over the mouth so hard that he fell into unconsciousness. With the butcher slung over his shoulder, the Ra'zac climbed onto the other beast and told the soldiers: "We will come back when the danger is over. If you kill the boy, your lives are lost." Then the beasts' thighs tensed and they flung themselves high into the air, blending into the starlit sky.

Roran had no words. He was devastated. Katrina.

All that remained was to kill the soldiers. He stood and raised his hammer to attack, but when he took a first step forward, a terrible sharp pain exploded in his arm, and his head pounded in its rhythm and he fell into blackness. He did not feel the strong arms that caught him in the last moment before he hit the ground.

Chapter Text

A conversation in the corner was clearly heard; even though they tried to lower their voices, his sharp ears picked up every sound in the room and outside it. At first it felt confusing. The scraping on the roof, as if by birds or rats; rising and falling voices; footsteps upon the wooden floor...

He blinked, wide-awake, and for the moment it took for him to remember what had happened and where he was he lay still. He was embedded in sheets, in a bed lined up against the wall in a room in Horst's house. A cradle stood just beside the bed. His back ached, a tinge that did not take up all of his mind but still a constant reminder.

Yesterday night, after Roran had been taken to Gertrude to be properly looked at and treated, Elain had met up with them with a worried expression on her face – Roran had been carried back unconscious – and she had persuaded the elf to let Gertrude bandage his wounds, after much protest on his part. He would heal naturally in a few days. The poison had with the help of Gertrude's medicine gone away from his body now, and where the arrow had struck there was just a tiny, rosy mark on his skin.

The woman had looked at him and shook her head when seeing he had been wounded after his last injury just had healed; it was not his fault, but he was sure Gertrude had been thinking over how the male race was often so rash. Elain had made a bed for him so he would not need to sleep on the floor or the kitchen couch anymore.

Careful with his bandaged back and chest, Legolas untangled himself from the sheets with sleep yet in his eyes, and swung his legs over the edge of the bed. His shirt lay folded on the pallet by the foot of the bed, next to his shoes, and his weapons and belt lay there also. He yet wore his leggings, yet dirty, smudgy and sweaty, smeared with blood at some places and still with the irritating holes by his ankle and his thigh. How long was I asleep? He wondered; through a crack in the shutters over the windows, a sunbeam trickled inside and landed on the floor.

The two people who conversed in the corner, Gertrude clad in gray and Elain with a hand on her swollen stomach did not notice as the elf dressed in his shirt – it too worn by the last few days – and belt, the white knife a familiar light weight against his hip. Legolas had undone his braids before going to sleep; he quickly braided his hair in a simple style that he had done so many times now that it took less than a minute.

"And where, exactly, do you think you're going?"

He stood with one foot in the doorway as Gertrude's voice calmly crossed the room and landed somewhere on his right. Legolas turned around. "I wished to go outside and enjoy the morning sun, and see if Roran has awoken," he said honestly.

"Yesterday you could've lost your head, if the ra'zac had moved faster than you did, Master Elf," Gertrude said seriously. "Horst is with Roran. You can speak to him later. I want to have a look on your back, and maybe Elain could fetch some new clothing for you. Yours are covered with grime."

The other woman nodded and murmured something to the other, before leaving the room.

Reluctantly Legolas went over to the bedside and sat, knowing that arguing with a healer was usually pointless, proven by many healers many times during his years – it did not matter whether they came from Mirkwood, Gondor or Imradis or anywhere else. Eldarion was asleep in the cradle, and Gertrude explained to him that Elain had looked after the boy while the elf had been asleep.

The woman took off his shirt and carefully unbound the bandages; she was surprised when seeing that the long cut looked as if it had been healing for several days, even if it had only been a night. Perhaps his words that Elves healed faster than other races were not just words of stubbornness from his side but the truth. The bruising had begun to fade into a yellow colour.

"Do any of your wounds bother you?"

"Nay, I am fine," Legolas said. He was glad when Gertrude put back the bandages and was finished. It was not like he disliked her as a person; but he had never appreciated being held back by healers and their examinations and fuss – although Aragorn … Aragorn is different. I love him.

Elain came back with some of her husband's spare clothing. Everything was too large for Legolas, but he held up the trousers on his hips with his belt. Elain took his old clothing to mend and clean them. Lastly Legolas fastened his knife in his belt and was allowed to leave the room and find Roran, who was in Baldor's room. Before he left he gently kissed the top of Eldarion's head.

()()()

He found the room and the door was opened in a crack. He knocked on it, but there was no reply, but after a few moments, there was a murmur from behind it. Legolas slid inside and left the door behind him as he had found it.

Roran sat on a bed with his hands around himself and knees pressed against his chest. He was tense; the elf saw it in his shoulders and the look in his eyes. He looked determined. He also looked tired, even if his face was clear and awake and his eyes wide. He looked as if he had been crying. "Have Horst told you what happened?" Legolas asked, softly, carefully.

A deep breath: "Yes. He told me … Legolas, did … Did you cower, in front of those two beasts?"

Legolas tried to choose his words. Roran sounded as if he was challenging him, to see if he was like the villagers or was different, if he had seen such danger before. "In my homeland … creatures alike those existed. They were in the Dark Lord's service. Like anyone first fears the enemy I also had fears, about many things, but when I let fear take over then I made foolish decisions … I was cautious. Sometimes it is right to fear, and sometimes it is foolish to. … I feared but did not let the fear overwhelm me."

The elf cocked his head and looked at the man whose expression had changed. "How do you feel?" Legolas asked softly.

A sound between howling laughter and sobbing escaped Roran's lips. "How I feel? You have no idea. Everything is so … chaotic, so wrong." Then he lowered his voice. "How I feel? I … I don't know." Katrina, his words said, and they said, I miss you, Katrina, and I will save you.

Roran stared at his hands. Legolas stood uncomfortably by the door, unsure of what to do. The man seemed to have shrunk but there was a glow in his eyes that he had rarely seen before; willpower, a purpose – Legolas was not so sure but he saw it as the man suddenly stood. It was new strength in him even if his body looked weaker. His arm hung by his side limply, bandaged. He began to limp over to the door, stumping once in pain and the elf steadied him with his quick reflexes.

"You have decided what to do," the elf stated.

"Yes. The others must ... they must know." Without the elf's help he went through the door and down the stairs. Legolas followed behind him on silent feet. He was a bit wary of the man's behaviour. He had never before seen the man before in such a state, looking near a wreck but with a mind of steel. Still, he did not want to stop the man. What is he up to?

Elain was in the kitchen, with a basket of unclean clothing resting against her hip, as she was about to wash them. "Roran," she exclaimed. "What are you doing? You-"

"Come," the man growled. Roran walked past her with his mouth in a grim line.

Baldor came into the hall form the dining room, looking worried. "You shouldn't be up. You lost a great deal of blood and-"

"Come."

When Baldor was to la a hand on Roran's shoulder, Legolas shook his head and hindered him from stopping Roran. "Do not stop him. Wait and see what he is about to do," the elf said calmly.

The man walked through the door and outside into the village; he heard the others following him; Elain, Baldor, maybe some more from the house. Legolas was last out into the sunshine that dropped onto his face. He did not hide his face or nature now. He had already revealed that he was an elf to many people yesterday night, and besides, Elain had taken his cloak. If not for his strange eyes and his hair, he might have blended with the villagers perfectly in his clothing.

"Come!"

Roran's voice was hoarse but strong. Now the growing small group was following ion his tail to the edge of the village. People left their houses and their chores, watching the group pass by and joining them, wondering, murmuring with the others. Every gaze were fixed on Roran, and there was a leadership in him that Legolas saw clearly now as if it been a candle; a leader born out of desperation and fear, perhaps. They all seemed too occupied to notice the elf, other than a few and some children, who were held by their parents' hands – the young tried to catch their parents' attention, but it was fixed on Roran.

"COME!"

The village echoed by his voice and he continued his call as people streamed outside to reach him. Many were curious, others were feeling sympathy, some were frightened and some were angry. All kinds of people, men and women, young and old, gathered in a mass around him. Legolas stood beside Elain and Baldor, both whose faces were covered with a frown. The elf saw people he had seen many times during the last few days – Loring, and his three sons, Birgit, Delwin and Morn and Tara, among many others.

He stood silent for a long moment, under their gazes and fading murmurs and curiousity; his fisted hand was so tense that his knuckles whitened. Katrina. When he spoke up, he opened his hand, revealing a palm smeared with his own blood.

"This," he said loudly and clearly, "is my pain. Look closely, because it will be yours if we cannot defeat this curse that has been laid upon us. Your friends and family with be chained, sent as slaves to a far away land, or be ruthlessly killed by the blades of the soldiers. Galbatorix will spread salt over our soil so it will forever be useless. This have I seen. This I know." he began pacing, and his eyes flared; his anger was not only his own; that was his goal.

Legolas understood instantly what the man wanted. It was risky and barely logical, but this call – to call a whole people to stand up – Legolas had heard it before from both elves and men, when times were dire and their courage weakened. The villagers are too few to fight more soldiers. If they do not fight, they will be killed or enslaved – so there is only one option left: to leave. The elf quickly realized where to: The Varden. It was a rebellion where Roran and the others would be welcomed. I need to get there too. They might help me home.

But how can he manage to make the whole village follow him?

"My father was killed by the scavengers. My cousin has fled. My farm has been destroyed, leveled to the ground. And my fiancée has been kidnapped by her father, who killed Byrd and betrayed us all! Quimby eaten, the hay barn burned down along with Fisk and Delwin's houses. Parr, Wýglif, Ged, Bardick, Farold, Hale, Garner, Kelby, Melkolf, Albem and Elmund: all of them killed. Many of you have been injured, as have I, so that you cannot support your families anymore. Isn't it enough that we labour every day to barely gain our living, vulnerable to the whims of nature? Isn't it enough that we have to pay harsh taxes to Galbatorix, but also has to stand their frenzied plagues?"

Roran laughed, howling into the sky, and heard the madness in his own voice. Nobody moved.

"I know the true nature of the Empire and Galbatorix now: it is evil. Galbatorix is the very disease that breaks havoc all over the world. When he destroyed the Riders he destroyed a peace and wealth that we have never before had. His servants are twisted demons breed in an ancient pit. But is Galbatorix pleased after he has broken us? No! He seeks to poison the whole of Alagaësia, tries to strangle us with his mantle of misery. Our children and grandchildren will live in the shadow of his darkness until the ending of time, turned into slaves, worms, filth that he can torment at will. If not…"

His voice lowered as he looked over the crowd and the wide eyes. He knew he had power over them, and he knew that no one before had dared to say what he was about to. "If not we find the courage to resist the evil," he said in a low tone. "We have fought the soldiers and the Ra'zac, but it's pointless if we die alone and forgotten or are taken away like property of others. We cannot stay here, and I refuse to let Galbatorix destroy all that makes life worthy to live. I rather have my eyes cut out and my hands cut off than see him triumph! I chose to fight! I chose to rise from my grave and let my enemies bury in it!

I am going to leave Carvahall.

I will cross the Spine and take a ship to Narda down to Surda, where I will join the Varden that for decades has struggled to free us from this suppression. But I don't want to leave alone. Come with me. Come with me and take the chance to make a better life. Throw away the chains that bind you here." Roran saw many astonished expression and many eyes on him; he pointed at the listeners and moved his finger from one to the other. "Which names will they sing of in a hundred years? Horst… Birgit … Darmmen … Thane; they will tell out history. They will sing the 'Epos of Carvahall'; because we were the only village brave enough to defy the Empire."

Tears of pride filled his eyes. "What would be more honourable than to fight against Galbatorix for the sake of Alagëasia? We would no longer need to leave in fear of having our farms destroyed or be killed or eaten. The corns we sow and harvest would we keep, except for some of what is left over, which we would send as a gift to the rightful king. The rivers and streams would flow with gold. We would be safe and joyful and well fed! It is our destiny."

He was pinned by dozens of eyes, and was tense, nervous, and determined; waiting with tears in his eyes and blood on his hands and waited for reactions on his speech. There were none. It took a moment for him to realize that they wanted him to continue his painting of the future which he had begun creating. He straightened himself and continued to speak – and his head was filled with one thought: Katrina. "Our age is coming to an end. We need to step forward and join the Varden if we and our children shall live free." With anger and a soft voice weighting alike on his tongue, he spoke, but also with a burning encouragement, that spellbound the spectators.

When he no longer could paint pictures before them, he looked into the faces of his friends and said: "I will leave in two days. Come with me if you want, but I will go anyway." Then he stepped back without a word.

Everything was so silent. A wind flew though the village. Somewhere, an iron weathervane creaked on a roof with a rusty sound. Holding up her dress not to stumble, Birgit stepped out from the crowd. "Today we saw a …" She stopped and shook her head with an awkward laugh. "It is hard to speak after Roran. I do not like his plan, but I think it is a must, if for other reasons; I want to find the ra'zac and revenge the death of my husband. I will go with him and will bring my children with me." She stepped back again.

After a moment of silence, Delwin stepped forward with his wife, Lenna, and they agreed to come; murmurs rose among the people as the wives of the dead men stepped forward and said they would also come with them to the Varden. There were so many consequences, everyone knew: no one expected anyone more to step up and declare that they too would come. Roran tried himself to melt the consequences in his mind.

No one more stepped forward for a while, then a tall slim figure, which stuck out from the crowd like a sore thumb, moved forward. He was unlike the others; without age, with leaf-shaped ears and eyes no one dared to meet, and with long golden locks pulled back from his face with a few thin braids. He was a stranger, a beautiful stranger, the villagers first thought, until he spoke. They recognized the voice from the hooded man. "I will go too," he said. For a moment Legolas considered of saying more, but then he stepped back to his original place. He could not find a way to explain shortly and understandable about his reasons.

Horst stepped forward. "We do not gain anything more of speaking now … We need time to think. Each and everyone needs to make their own decisions. Tomorrow is a new day. Maybe things have cleared by then."

()()()

The crowd split up to go back to their homes; Roran stood staring at the ground and wondered what would happen now. How many would come with him? How many would stay?

Baldor and Albriech came to his side, and together they walked home. Roran looked around; he saw Horst speaking softly to Elain on their way back, too, and Legolas whose face was unreadable. So were also Albriech and Baldor's faces. It made him uncertain. "Do you think anyone else with come with me?" he asked. "Was I good enough?"

Albriech laughed. "Good enough!"

"Roran," Baldor said with a strange tone in his voice, "you could have convinced an urgal to become a farmer!"

Roran looked at him disbelievingly.

"When you stopped speaking, I was ready to grab my spear and rush into the Spine after you. And I was not the only one," Baldor continued as if obvious of Roran's face. "The question, I think, is not who will go but who won't go with you. What you said … I've never heard anything like it before. "

Roran frowned. It had not been his goal to make the people follow his person, only to make them accept his plan. But, he thought with a shrug, if it is what is needed then I should be grateful for it. He hoped that as few as possible stayed, because they would be helpless and even if they died fighting … who would remember them then? No, he thought, I have to convince as many as possible.

Baldor and Albriech walked slightly ahead and began to discuss the loss of Horst's tools, and what to do with them, if they could take any of them with them; Roran understood because the tools were an inheritance from one smith to his son or apprentice and a measure of a smith's wealth and skill. If Horst lost his tools, it would be … It would be no worse than for anyone else.

"You know how to hold a speech," a voice on his right said. "You have many skills."

Roran glanced at Legolas. "I've never done something like it before. It feels like I am falling into madness, and trying to pull everyone else with me." He sighed. "But I have to do this. For Katrina," he added in a low voice.

"You are a natural leader," Legolas said, but even if the words were to praise him, Roran felt only unsettled. "I have seen many leaders, but I saw that in you before your speech; a will-power that is in the way you hold yourself, and in your eyes as well there is purpose and determination. It is harder to fall into madness with a purpose ahead."

Both stepped inside Horst's house with the evening approaching behind them. The sun had hung quite low when they had walked outside; now it was near nightfall. "I agree with Baldor; many will come with you, or at least, it is their first impulse. I was impressed as well. Few have I heard speak in such a captivating way, holding the audience in a confident grip – such a talent is good to have. Especially now."

Roran nodded in agreement and stepped inside the house after the elf. "But now they have gone home to think and some of them can change their minds," he said worriedly. "So we'll see what tomorrow holds. It still worries me if too many stays behind. Or if even a very few do. Galbatorix will show no mercy for them ..."

Legolas nodded sadly. "I know."

Roran spent the rest of the day inside, going to his room after a light meal and staying there until sundown and he finally found sleep. His body was tired, his mind too, but he was determined about his choices. Leaving Carvahall was the right thing to do. He kept telling himself that it was the truth. He spent hours of thinking, of the choices he had made, and about Katrina, and he wondered if the Empire sought Eragon out so desperately – which surely was the case – and why. Why – a question he had not found an answer to yet. Why was that stone was so important? Why did it come here? Why here, in Carvahall, a harmless little village in Palancar valley? Why Eragon? Why Garrow, and why Quimby, and why Katrina?

Katrina.

He wondered where Eragon was right now. Was he too seeking to get rid of the ra'zac? Was he cowering, hiding somewhere in a hidden place without lifting a finger in challenge? Or had he been captured, killed? He wished he could find the answer of all his questions and not just dream in his sleep.

Legolas had gone back to his room, and found Eldarion awake, the boy crying for him. The elf picked him up and pressed him close to his chest, held him and sung softly, before walking down to the kitchen where he found Elain, Baldor, Albriech and Horst sitting by the table. They all looked stunned, like part of them had become ghosts. They stood between a choice to leave their homes and everything they knew behind them, or to give up their lives. No choice was appealing.

As if feeling the family's distress, Eldarion began to cry again. They snapped out from their silent thoughts and Elain muttered something on her breath, hurriedly, and looked up at him with a weak smile in greeting.

"Do you need …" Her voice faltered and she rested her forehead in her hand, and she pointed wordlessly at a cupboard. "Roran's speech shook me. All of us. Now I am not sure of what to do anymore."

Legolas nodded, and found the cupboard and some milk to fill Eldarion's bottle with. Horst stared down in a mug of ale; Albriech and Baldor's tongues seemed to loose and a rapid discussion began of what to do, how much they need bring with them for such a long, dangerous journey, what to leave behind ... so many memories to leave behind for an uncertain future.

()()()

Legolas spoke not a word while he fed Eldarion and tried to image himself in the same situation: he almost could not. When he had left Mirkwood to follow Aragorn to Gondor and settle in Minas Tirith, he had been nervous and excited and amazingly happy to finally marry the man he loved, but he had held no such qualms as these people. He had always been able to travel to Mirkwood and his father, go quite freely as he wished, and he had not been ripped away form his home. Until now, that was; when he came here. All this time he had suppressed his fears of never ever going back, seeing his father and his friends and Aragorn again … But it was harder to deny his feelings and his stern, calm face was loosing its façade; he was openly showing his feelings, at least more often, and one day he would show anger and sadness and longing, longing to go home. If he found out that there was no way back, he was not sure he could remain calm and sane.

Aragorn.

Baldor and Albriech stood abruptly and Elain was absently braiding a lock of her hair. "Father," the oldest of the men said, "I think we should follow Roran. It is the only way to find sanctuary now from this … this devilry."

"I know," Horst said. "It is decided."

Adar.

()()()

The day after his speech, Roran woke early and went downstairs. Horst was in the kitchen, sitting by the table and turning a mug of ale in his hands. Through the window, Roran could see a number of men leave Carvahall in the direction of the Iguana falls.

"Good morning," Horst said between two sips of ale.

Roran snorted, took a piece of loaf from the bench, and sat down across the table. He noticed how the other man's eyes were bloodshot and his beard and hair tousled. He had not slept this night.

"Do you know why people are on the way up to-" Roran began but Horst interrupted him:

"Have to talk to their families. People have been walking from and to the village since dawn." He put down his mug with a heavy clunk. "You have no idea, Roran, what you did when you asked us to leave. Carvahall is at an uproar. You have forced us into a corner with only one escape route: yours. Some hates you for it although, many of those hated you to begin with because of what you have brought upon us."

The bread gained a bitter taste n his mouth and he tensed involuntarily as anger crept upon his sense. Eragon found that stone and brought it here, I didn't. "And the others?" he asked.

Horst grimaced, and took a sip of his ale. "The others worship you. I never thought that Garrow's son would touch my heart with words, but you did, lad, you did." He looked around in the kitchen, and into the hall through the open doorway. "It took me seven years to build this, for Elain and our sons. Can you see that wooden balk? I broke three toes to get it into place. And do you know what? I will leave all of this because of what you said yesterday."

Roran sat silent; this was his goal. To leave Carvahall was right and since he had decided on that, there was no reason for him to lace himself with guilt and regret. The decision has been made. I will accept the consequences without complain, no matter how grave they are. This is our only chance to flee the Empire, he thought.

Horst leaned forward on his elbows when Roran didn't speak. "But," he said, "if the future becomes the opposite of the beautiful picture you've painted for us, then you have a debt to pay. If you give people hope and then pull it away, they'll crush you."

That future was uninteresting to Roran: if they made it to Surda the rebellions would welcome them like heroes, and if they did not make it, any debt would be paid by their death. When he realized that the smith had nothing more to say, Roran asked: "Where are Elain, and Legolas?"

At the turn of subject, Horst's brows furrowed. "Elain is by the back of the house, with Gertrude. Our elf-guest is still in Albriech's room." He stood up. "I have to go to the smithy and decide that tools to bring with me. Those that I won't bring; I'll either destroy or hide. I won't let the Empire use my work."

"I'll help," Roran offered himself.

"No," the smith said briskly. "This is something only my sons can help me with. The smithy has been my whole life, and theirs …Anyway, there isn't much you can do with that arm of yours. Maybe you can help Elain or wake up Legolas." Roran felt a sting of pain at the mention of his arm: what if he never could use it again?

When the smith had left, Roran walked upstairs and went to the room Legolas had been appointed to, and knocked at the door. There was a murmured reply, allowing him to enter.

Legolas sat on the edge of the bed and was dressing the impatient child on his lap. The boy was distracted by the man's entrance and tried to wriggle free from his parent's grasp, but Legolas pulled him back and muttered something in his own tongue which calmed down Eldarion a little. But the elf-child's eyes still followed Roran with an intense curiousity.

The elf was clad in the same way as yesterday, though he was barefoot. His shoes stood by the pack, which held his few possessions, and the weapons that leaned against the foot of the bed.

"Good morning."

"Good morning, Roran," Legolas said, flashing him a nod in greeting. "Eldarion, stop tugging at my hair." The child did not understand the words and cried in upset dismay when the elf untangled his fierce little fist from around the golden locks, and his arm was pulled through the sleeve of a small, knitted tunic.

Roran felt unsure of what to say. To see the elf and the child interact made his stomach ache; he missed Katrina; he had promised they would marry and one day maybe they would have a child of their own. But, what if she … He swallowed and pushed the thought away: She will be all right. I will save her.

"Do you know how many of the villagers that will follow us through the Spine?" Legolas asked while he laced Eldarion's clothing, breaking through Roran's thoughts.

"People are talking with their families and taking them back from their hiding place," Roran said. "Horst and his family will go, as will Birgit and those who promised yesterday, but I cannot say for the rest."

Legolas nodded briefly and combed his fingers through his son's dark tresses. "We should leave as soon as possible," he said. "We need to be far from here once the reinforcements from Galbatorix' troops arrive." He looked up at the man. "Have you had anyone to look at your arm today?"

"Not today. It doesn't feel much different from yesterday." But it burned with pain every time he tried to move it or his fingers even the slightest bit.

"It smells strangely," Legolas said honestly, not in a tone to offend. "You should find Gertrude and let her examine the injury."

Roran raised an eyebrow at the elf's behavior – it was actually the first time, as he could remember, that the elf sounded so … worried … about him. It warmed him a little to know that the elf seemed genuinely concerned for him. Now so many seemed to only have respect for him with their fear, but Legolas did not seem to feel any of that towards him.

He did not know how to name their relationship: where they friends? Or was it trust and a common goal, to find a way away from the Empire? They were different, he was a man and Legolas an elf, they were from completely different words – literally – and there was very much he did not know about the elf. He remembered how the elf had introduced him slightly to his world and past when they first met – it seemed a very long time ago. Maybe the elf would have chance to tell him more someday.

"Let us go down to the kitchen," Legolas said and stood, with Eldarion on his hip. "I think there is yet some milk left in Elain's storage, which she graciously allows me to use."

As if he recognized the word milk, Eldarion gave a slight noise and it sounded like to try to form words, but only gurgles managed to come from his mouth. Legolas searched through the pack and found Eldarion's borrowed bottle.

They walked back to the kitchen together and Legolas refilled the bottle of milk. Eldarion drank like a starved. The elf remembered he had to ask Elain for a few more bottles, to keep some milk for Eldarion in his pack – they would bring stocks with them for the journey through the Spine could take months, and they could only carry so much food with them. If they had cows or goats with them up there was chance for him to refill his milk supplies during the journey.

Roran stood by the window and peered outside; the street was full of activity and people who went about, and he spotted someone coming back with his family from the mountains.Will they follow me? he thought.

"Have you thought of where they might be holding her?" Legolas asked quietly, his voice soft through the silence that had settled over the room. He spoke not Katrina's name but both knew whom he was speaking about.

Roran's face darkened. "I don't know, but I assume the scavengers are somewhere near Galbatorix' seat, in Urû'baen. Either way if they are there or not, I will find them and save Katrina," he said, confidently, even if he in his mind had begun to doubt. But the Varden must know how to find out where the ra'zac hid, and if they did not help him to save Katrina, then at least he would know where to go.

"You truly love her," the elf said, with a gentle smile. "I have seen what you have done for her."

"Of course!" Roran said.

Legolas' smile lingered. "You should be proud to be such a valiant man, Roran, with a faithful heart and a strong mind. But sometimes it is also good to not be too bold," he added in afterthought. The elf knew that Katrina probably was the thing that made Roran's life complete. Not all men thought the same way as Roran did now.

"I am not bold," Roran said, unrepentantly. "I don't think so – I think I am determined, that's all. Katrina is … well, she is my everything. Without her I wouldn't have had any reason to stay in Carvahall after my father's death. I would probably have lived in Therinsford … everything would have been different." But the Empire would still be hunting me. "What would you do but chase down the scavengers if you were me?" he asked the elf.

"I would," Legolas said. "There are things here I would have done and not would have done differently, of course - we all think different ways. But I would still hunt them down and not stop until I found what I sought, or fell. I recognize myself in you, Roran. Many have called me stubborn. If you ever met them, you would also be called such, but you would also we greatly respected. If you indeed manage to convince whole Carvahall to follow you onto this insecure path, it is not a small accomplishment." His eyes twinkled: "These villagers seems much alike to dwarves, tough and resolute, and I know from my own experience that dwarves are not easy to influence."

He paused for a moment, and he could not read on Roran's face what reaction his words had gained. "Now," he said and put the now-empty bottle away from Eldarion's reach, standing up with the boy resting against his hip again, "you should go and find Gertrude and let her have a look at you. Your wound bothers me."

"I heard you were wounded as well by the ra'zac," Roan said when he stood on the doorstep.

"A mere scratch, I assure you. It has been tended to and will heal quickly," Legolas said. Eldarion pulled at his hair again and the elf did not reprimand the child, but rolled his eyes. The child happily giggled, twining a few strands in his hand and rested his head against his parent's stomach.

Roran nodded - although the elf's earlier words made him doubt if it was true that it was a mere scratch - and took his leave.

()()()

Legolas gathered the flask and went upstairs again, and put the item back in his pack. The pack was only a blanket tied together with a cord as lacing, and it held his cloak and old clothing, Eldarion's flask and some children's clothing borrowed for him from Elain – she had saved them from her sons' infancies – and other such items for the journey.

Most of it was given to him from this house, on courtesy of Horst and Elain. He had been weighting the option if he would bring a basket, or just a blanket, for Eldarion to sleep in. Bringing the crib with him was not an option; it was too large and uncomfortable to carry or let a donkey or horse carry with them, and it was no point in it anyway – Eldarion slept as well in it as he slept in a blanket in his parent's arms, if only he was near Legolas. The elf did not want his items to be carried by anyone else, villager or animal, so in the end he decided to bring with him the blanket from the cradle. During the few days they had been here and Eldarion slept in the cradle, the blanket had gained his scent.

He reopened the pack and put the blanket on top of the items. There was also the misshapen wooden horse he had made for the child in the woods, over two weeks ago – he had carried in his belt all the time more or less unconscious of it. Everything of this - a small blanket-made sack in his lap, sitting on his knees in a house in a land he was a stranger to, and the fact that he only way for him to feed himself and his child was to be given food by more-or-less strangers - made him feel weak and a waste of time.

There was not much for him to do, but to fight the soldiers and the ra'zac, and to hope he could find a way back to Middle Earth. Now when the ra'zac had gone, the soldiers did not attack and he had not the knowledge of how to go back, every day here seemed long and there was no work for him to do. A few times, when he had yet been cloaked, he had been helping the men on the fields or spent hours with Elain, when she was cooking or doing her daily household tasks, which he could help with. Most of the time he sat with Eldarion on his knee and waited. Since he was a stranger, few people trusted him with helping them. He hated to feel this useless. He was nothing but a burden and a stranger, an elf from a foreign land, and people did not trust him. He knew this. Many had glanced at Horst's house twice since he openly revealed himself as an elf yesterday. They wondered, of course, what he was doing there …

He wondered too.

Did I come here for a reason?

While he pulled out the wooden toy for Eldarion to play with before tying the pack, he tried to focus his mind on something else, less troubling, but found no such subject. A frown had appeared on his brow.

He was pulled back to awareness when a pounding noise met his ears. Eldarion was hammering the poor horse's head a bit too violently against the wooden floor. "Eldarion, do not use violence upon such an innocent creature that cannot defend itself," Legolas scowled. The boy looked up at him and cocked his head to the side, like Legolas himself still had a habit of doing.

"No thumping on the floor with that thing," Legolas said gently. "You will leave scratches everywhere."

Not that it mattered … They would soon leave all of this behind.

Eldarion smiled and hit the wooden toy against the floor. Legolas, who had lain down on his stomach go come more into the boy's eye-level, shook his head with a no and tried to move the toy from Eldarion's grip. The boy just hugged it tightly to his chest, clinging to it possessively.

Legolas could not hold back a chuckle and Eldarion ended his hammering with it and instead inspected the horse, and with small round fingers trying to bend one of the legs off. "If you continue this way, one might think you were not the son of the peaceful King Elessar, could they," Legolas mused out loud, resting his chin in his palm.

He wished he had found a way to make Eldarion another softer toy, which would not take as much damage – or at least give the floor less damage – if he decided it was a hammer; Legolas wished he had learned how to knit a cuddle toy. He knew how to sew and mend clothing, but he had never been very interested in such things. Legolas had made only a very small part of Eldarion's wardrobe, and his husband hadn't created any part of it at all. Fortunately, Aragorn had not been closer to a needle and a thread more than necessary. Most if it was either gifts from Thranduil or servants of Aragorn's household had created his clothing, for him to fit in with the Gondorians - and most of his clothing to use when he turned older had already been made.

He grew so very quickly – it felt like only a few weeks ago he had been newborn, so tiny in his arms, and not long before that, he was still inside of him, so small that he first had not been noticed and his revelation has led to much bewilderment, and happiness.

Legolas smiled at his childish-sounding thoughts. At least thinking of home, his father and Aragorn felt less painful now.

A small hand tapped at his face. Legolas' smile broadened. "Yes, little one. That's my nose."

Eldarion giggled and clapped his hands. "I wonder if you know anything of what is going on, penneth, or if you maybe is only very excited about your first adventure. Hm?" he received no answer. "Will you speak soon, little one? I have not even heard you say Ada. Can you say Ada, Eldarion?"

The child seemed to understand that his parent requested him to form a word, but only something alike to a happy "nhaghih" left his mouth. The child beamed and smiled widely at his accomplishment.

Legolas switched back to Westron. "Can you say Ada, little one? Say hello to your Ada."

Eldarion clapped his hands. "Nnnn…nghhiiii-oooo," he said and giggled. He repeated the sound of Ooo a few times, obviously amused and amazed by his ability of making such a sound.

The elf beamed with pride. He knew that elven children generally learned how to walk and speak earlier than children of Mankind, but Eldarion was not fully either of each race. This was one of the first times that the child had tried to form a word.

"Say Ada," Legolas said clearly, trying to make the boy repeat the word: "Ada."

A gurgle left Eldarion's mouth. The happy child did not understand his parent's wish and just looked at him, cocking his head, before turning back to the wooden horse.

Legolas watched him bemusedly, yet hoping that Eldarion would soon be able to call him Ada, and watch him take his few first steps. Will we be in Gondor when that happens, he thought, his frown returning as did his thoughts, or will we still be in Alagaësia?

Chapter Text

"Shall we have a look at your shoulder?" Gertrude asked. She pulled back her hand from Roran's forehead. "After all that happened yesterday I expected you to have a fever, but your family has truly an astonishing ability to heal. I barely believed my own eyes when Eragon began walking around after having his legs skinned and been lying abed for just two days." She did not appear to notice as Roran tensed at the mention of his cousin.

Directed by the elf's concern, he had found the healer and Elain conversing on the back of the house, beside the wood stack that Horst kept filled through the year.

When Gertrude removed the bandage from his splintered arm, a terrible stench was released and Roran had to bit his lip and swallow hard to not choke; Legolas had not been lying, but he had understated it. He wondered how come he had not smelled it before.

"Oh," Gertrude said.

The skin beneath the bandage was like a giant birthmark, reminding of the flesh of caterpillars – it was white and mushy. The bite itself that the ra'zac had cause upon him had been sewn together while he had been unconscious; now it was a long jagged ridge with a crust of coagulated blood. The swell and inflammation had made the stitch to sink deep into the flesh, and a clear liquid trickled from the wound down his arm. Roran gave his ruined arm a glance and then looked away in disgust.

Gertrude tied the bandage back in place and looked into Roran's eyes. "It looks decent, but there's a chance that the matrix starts to rot. I cannot tell yet. But if that happens, we have to burn the shoulder."

Roran nodded and tried to push away his thoughts of 'what if' – what if his arm did not heal? What if it would forever be useless? He could not fight or work that way. He realized for the first time how close the connection was between his body's health and his mind, and how much of his self-concept depended on his body. Roran had always been proud over his body and to see it truncated gave him a growing feeling of panic, especially if the injury was permanent. Even if it healed, he would always be scarred, a reminder of his injury. My arm, he thought, in alarm. He stared at the bandaged limb as if no longer was a part of him, and then he looked at Gertrude who had a sympathetic look on her face.

"If it heals, will my arm be as strong as before?" he asked.

"If the muscles heal well, yes. But it also depends on what you want to do. You-"

"Will I be able to fight?" Roran asked, cutting through her words.

"If you want to fight," Gertrude said slowly, "then I suggest you start learning how to do it with your left arm." She patted his cheek before she hurried back to her own house.

Elain took him back to the house and the kitchen, where she collected some mint-leaves into a kettle of water. She took a log of firewood and put it in the stove, putting it alight, and put the kettle on the cooker to heat up.

"You really love her," Elain said after a moment. She smiled at Roran's surprised face. "Katrina. I am not blind, you know. Not all men would do so far as you've gone for her."

"It doesn't matter if I cannot save her," Roran said grimly.

"I'm sure you will, one way or another," Elain said. The kettle whistled shrilly and she took a cup and filled it with hot tea. "It's best if we begin to prepare for the journey. I will begin going through the kitchen and see what we need to bring with us. Could you please go upstairs and find all clothing, linen and other things you think might be useful?"

Roran stood. "Where should I put it?"

"The dining room suits fine."

()()()

"…and that is where the trail ended. Further north we do not believe he has reached … unless he managed to make the orcs loose their trail and quicken his speed; an elf is almost impossible to find, my lord," the soldier finished silently, under the weight of a heavy gaze.

Aragorn's chest tightened, and he tried to control himself from cursing out loud. Of course, the soldier was right; elves' steps were light and nigh impossible to see if not you had eyes trained for it. They knew for sure that a group of between six and twelve orcs had pursued a lone elf through the night, for over five miles, but then after that wide grass field and the vegetation and the trees in Ithilien, the tracks became unclear and they were unsure if the orcs had split up or not, or had turned back. Everything was vague. All evidence that had been found from the elf's flight was an orc helmet and scimitar blade lying in the grass.

For five days, Legolas had been missing. Five days, where Aragorn's worry grew and so did also Thranduil's. The elven-king did not trust him, not now, when both his son and grandson had gone missing. They had expected Legolas to reach Mirkwood in a day, if he held the same pace all the time; maybe two or three days if he was wounded.

Please Eru, let both my loves be all right. Please ...

Aragorn had gone on a short scouting mission with Gimli, an elf and a handful of guards – the councilors stressed their worry of the king's safety and did demand him to bring a larger escort with him; the five guards were an absolute minimum. The mission had been short, for after just a few hours and still within Gondor's nor then boarders they were forced to turn back because one of their horses had been accidentally stuck in a stone-crack and almost broke its leg, which resulted in two guards going back, and they pursued Aragorn to come back too since his escort was not safe enough. They came back grim-faced and empty-handed. Still the guard, whose horse had been damaged, apologized embarrassedly each time he saw his king.

Thranduil had sent back one of his elves after a day away, only to reveal very little. The trail was vague, going here and there and crossing others since the orcs and men had obviously camped in the woods and prepared for battle there. One of the larger ones had led into an old nest of orcs where there laid many dead on the ground, and also the corpse of a man with sword, shield and a red tonlet, beheaded: beside his head laid an orcish blade. A soot-black trail from the orcs way through the forests of Ithilien was evident, faded, but yet there. It had led to a river – where the track had abruptly ended. One theory was that they had crossed the wide, unsafe stream, or had drowned.

No signs of Legolas.

"You may leave," Aragorn told the soldier.

The soldier bowed his head and slipped out of view. Aragorn rubbed his temples. Gimli was not here at the moment, he was speaking with his kindred, so Aragorn had no one but servants, guards and an occasional councilor to converse with.

"My lord! My lord," a voice cried out, from a servant, and into the chamber stepped seven elves a second later. At the head was Thranduil. His clothing was dusty from the journey but there was no other change on him. "The elves of Mirkwood have returned and desire to speak with you!"

Aragorn stood. "Lord Thranduil-" he began.

"Aragorn," the elven king cut him short. "There is something you must see. Tell your steward to handle the city's governments while you are gone."

A confused but hopeful light cleared Aragorn's eyes. "Have you found…"

"…Something important. It concerns my son."

"Then please, tell me, milord!" Aragorn cried. Oh no – what if – no, it cannot be … Legolas cannot be … Unwillingly, his heart sank, pounded loudly, and it was hard to breathe.

Thranduil stood tall, regal and stern but his hands fidgeted if only so little that only sharp eyes could notice it. "We found blood. Elvish blood. Also, we found a side-trail that led away from the orcish nest and towards another end of the river." He paused for a moment. "Also what we found surprised me: a waterfall. Not even I could see what laid beyond it or how far down it was, because the area was shadowed and foggy; there appeared to be no ways to climb down safely either. The fall and the river were wild and large. But I cannot recall even knowing of a waterfall there before."

Aragorn breathed again. "You think Legolas jumped," he concluded. His heart was a drum in his chest. If the waterfall was so deep … that not even the elves saw the bottom … How that can be possible, I do not know. Is it possible for anyone to survive such a fall?

"Yes. I want you to come with us back to the area where we found the falls," Thranduil finished: adding a little haughtily: "You are yet a Ranger even if you sit on a throne, and I hope you have not forgotten how to use your skills."

A sudden energy shot through his veins. Legolas cannot be gone. I would have known. He is not dead. He is not dead. "Take me there at once." He turned to the servant - Faramir was in the city now with his wife Lady Éowyn, so it would only be an easy matter to fetch him: "Bring me Lord Faramir immediately. I also need my steed saddled."

()()()

A shrill whistling was heard from the floor below, sounding to come from the kitchen, and when he strained his ears, Legolas heard the sound of voices. He came to his feet and picked up Eldarion, who held the toy horse in a tight grip, and went downstairs.

Elain was in the kitchen, and on the table stood a cup of tea. A kettle stood on the cooker; the air held the faint aroma of mint-tea. The cupboards were opened and on the able were placed several packs. On the benches, various items from the cupboards had been put; plates, mugs, foods.

"Hello," he greeted her, and she turned around a little startled since she had not heard him approach.

"Oh, good morning, Legolas," she said. She saw Eldarion on Legolas' hip and smiled at the boy, greeting him too, but he was too busy with cuddling his toy to pay her attention.

"I see you have begun packing. What can I help with?" Legolas asked.

"Roran is upstairs finding blankets and clothing, but I believe he can handle it," Elain said. "Could you help me sort through the kitchen? I don't think the entire dish is needed, just a few bowls …"

Legolas put down Eldarion on the floor, trying to keep him in the corner where he was not in the way. The boy seemed dismayed each time Legolas left the room to put packed items in the dining room, where there also lay some blankets and a pack of clothing. Now and then, Roran came into the kitchen. The elf noticed that his face held not as much weariness as before; his determination to leave Carvahall and bring as many as possible with him strengthened him. The first morning hours were spent this way, and the packs in the dining room gathered in number.

Once they had collected what was most needed, mainly blankets and food, Elain sent Roran to see if other families had more room to spare when they traveled, or if they lacked it and needed more. Elain had some less important items that she wanted to bring with her, even if they were not necessary, and if no one had room for them she would leave them behind.

Because the mountains were too steep and the woods too dense for wagons, they had to use horses, donkeys and themselves to carry the packs, and they could not carry more than that. Since Elain was pregnant, they also needed one of Horst's horses with only lighter packs and saddlebags, so that she could ride when she became too tired.

Everything was more complicated by the fact that some families did not have enough horses or donkeys for the young, old or weak to ride upon, when they did not manage to go on foot fast enough.

Even if people walked from on house to the nest and gathered on the streets and waited outside their homes with their horses, a strange calm had settled over Carvahall. But behind each door there was agitated activity. Most people Roran passed by walked silently, deep in thought, staring at the ground. When Roran arrived at Orval's house, he had to pound at the door almost a whole minute before someone answered.

"Oh, it's you, Stronghammer." Orval stepped outside to the porch. "I apologize it took a little time, but I was busy. What can I help you with?" He turned a black pipe in his hand, nervously. Coming from the inside Roran could hear sounds of chairs being moved over the floor and the clank of pots and pans.

He quickly told him of Elain's inquiry. Orval squinted at the sky. "Well, I've got enough of room for my own things. Ask some others, and if you still need more room, I have a pair of oxen that can carry a bit more."

"So you will leave?" Roran asked.

Orval nervously shifted his weight from one foot to the other. "Well, I wouldn't say that. We're … preparing in case of a new attack."

"Oh."

Perplexed, Roran walked over to Kiselt's house. Soon he discovered that nobody he asked was ready to tell if whether or not they were going to leave, not even when the preparations were obvious, with raised nervous voices and various belongings on their doorstep.

Everyone treated Roran in a way that he found disturbing, and it was visible in small gestures – they apologized for his ill luck, or fell into a respectful silence as soon as he spoke, and murmured in agreement when he stated something. It was like his actions had pushed fear into the people he had known since childhood, made him grow, and created a distance between them. It irritated him, and also, it saddened him, even if it was probably necessary to convince many of them to follow him away from the Empire.

I am marked, he thought as he walked up the muddy road. He stayed by a pool of water, leaned forward and studied the mirror image: a man with bristly beard on his chin and cheek, wisps of hair that sprawled in all directions, and to him intimidating eyes, sunken back into their sockets, stared back at him. He could not recognize himself, but he recognized the anger, grief and obsession staring out from those eyes.

An asquint smile crept over his face and made his face look more terrible; but he liked his appearance. It fit well with his emotions. Now he understood how he managed to affect the villagers. He bared his teeth. I can use this image. I can use it to destroy the ra'zac.

Bending his head, he continued down the street, slowly, pleased with himself. Then Thane appeared and hugged his left arm heartedly, and Roran frowned. "Stronghammer! You have no idea how glad I am to see you!"

Roran wondered if the whole world suddenly had turned upside-down. "Oh?"

Thane nodded excitedly. "All since we attacked the soldiers I've thought everything was hopeless. It pains me to admit it, but it was like that. My heart pounded all the time, as if I was falling down a well, and my hands shook and I felt terrible ill. I thought someone had poisoned me! It was worth than death. But then what you said yesterday made me immediately feel healthy again and I could see the points of life! I cannot even explain the terror that you saved me from. I … I'm in debt with you. If you need anything, just ask me and I'll help you."

Touched, Roran hugged the farmer's lower arm. "Thank you, Thane. Thank you."

Thane bent his head with tears in his eyes, then let go and hurried away, leaving him once again lonely on the street.

What have I done?

()()()

He went through a cloud of dark, smoky air and into the dimly lit tavern that was Morn's Seven Stooks. He stared at the urgal horn at the wall and tried to adjust his eyes to the dusk.

"Hello?" he called.

The door to the rum at the far end of the tavern was forcibly open and Tara came outside with Morn on her heels. Both glared at Roran. "What do you want?" she wanted to know.

Roran watched her for a moment, trying to understand why she was so angry. "Have you decided if you will come to the Spine or not?"

"That's not your business," Tara said angrily.

Yes, it is. But he said instead: "Either way you're thinking, if you are coming, Elain wonders if you have some more room to spare, or if you need more space yourself. She has-"

"More space!" Morn growled. He gestured towards the wall behind the saloon, where there was placed several barrels. "I have, stocked in straws, twelve barrels of clearest winter ale, that's been stocked in a perfect temperature for the last five months! What am I supposed to do with them? Or all the casks of beer? If I leave them the soldiers will drink it all within a week, or they'll break the barrels and empty it all on the ground and let the worms enjoy it all. Oh!" Morn sat down and shook his head while he angrily twisted his hands. "Twelve years of work! All since father died have I run the tavern the same way as he did. And then you and Eragon have to make all this trouble. It's …" He stopped, gasped for air and rubbed his tear-eyed face against his sleeve.

"There, there," Tara said soothingly. She laid an arm around Morn, and pointed angrily at Roran. "Who has promised you to rouse Carvahall with your beautiful words? If we leave, how will my poor husband be able to make his living? He cannot bring his work with him like Horst or Gedric; he can't choose a piece of an abandoned field and till it like you! Impossible! Everyone will leave and we'll be left to starve. Or we leave as well and we will starve anyway. You're broken us!"

Roran looked between her red angry face, to Morn's upset one, then he turned around and opened the door. In the doorway, he paused and said quietly: "I've always seen you as my friends. I do not wish the Empire to kill you." He pulled his jerkin tighter around himself and walked away from the tavern, mulling on their words and his thoughts.

He stopped by Fisk's house and drank from the well, where Birgit joined him. She looked at him for a while when he struggled to pull the winder with only one hand, then she took over and winded up the water-filled bucket, which she gave to him without drinking herself. He sipped at the cool water.

"I'm glad you will come with us," he said. He gave the bucket back to her.

Birgit looked at him. "I understand what's driving you, Roran, became it drives me also: we want to find the ra'zac. But when we do, I want compensation for Quimby's death. Don't forget." She let go of the wind, and it turned wildly as the bucket fell. A moment later a splash echoed up from the well.

Roran smiled as Birgit walked away. Her message gladdened him more than upset him; because even if everyone else in Carvahall let go of the thought of died, Birgit would still help him to find the ra'zac. Afterwards on the other hand – if now there was any afterward – he had to repay her, or kill her. That was the only way to settle such things.

Four hours after they had finished packing, Legolas helped Elain to prepare a dinner. The earlier four hours had he spent with both her and Eldarion, and still the boy had turned more attention to his toy than to learn how to say ada.

Roran came back to the smell of roasted meat, and found the pair in the kitchen and almost stumbled over Eldarion in the doorway. The boy looked up with him and recognized him, crying out in delight and reaching out with his small arms for him – the man looked surprised when something hugged his leg. Elain had cleared the table and was setting it; Legolas stood by the cooker and was preparing a meal.

"Well?" Elain inquired him.

"Everyone seems unable to decide whether they will go with us or not. If there is something we really need to have with us, I think that Orlav have a little space left that we can use," Roran said.

The woman nodded. "All right. Roran, could you please go to the smithy and see of Horst's progress? Dinner is soon ready."

Roran nodded, but Eldarion clung to his leg in a way that drew a chuckle from the present in the room, and Legolas had to pull the boy away from him. "I did not know he would grow so attached to anything but that horse," the elf mused.

Roran left, and Elain put the last items on the table, as Legolas took with him Eldarion's toy upstairs to pack it down, and to find his flask as well, leaving the boy under Elain's watch.

Baldor, Albriech and Horst, along with Roran, came back after a few minutes, carrying two heavy looking, tied oilcloths. "Is that all?" Elain asked.

Horst nodded shortly and put the packs in the hall, untying them to reveal four hammers, three tongs, a middle-sized extension bellows, and a three-pound anvil.

The table was set for six, and the kitchen smelled of food. When they sat down to eat, Baldor and Albriech discussed who they had seen packing – Roran listened and tried to remember who loaned donkeys from who, who did not look that they were going to leave, and who would likely were going to need help to leave. Horst, Elain and Legolas inserted comments sometimes, even if Legolas was busy feeding Eldarion who was obviously trying to wriggle away towards Roran and at the same time eat his fill, and it resulted in half his meal being spilled onto his lap.

Legolas did not know why the boy was so fond of Roran, and it puzzled him. Perhaps there was something about the man's nature so that Eldarion was reminded of his father, Aragorn. Legolas' brows furrowed slightly – Roran was alike to Aragorn in some ways, yes, he was a natural leader, and has some of his distinguish marks, but not many that Eldarion would directly notice. By appearance, their only likeness was their dark hair. He shook his head. He could let his mind linger on that later. Probably it was good for Eldarion to like Roran, rather than being afraid of him, or perhaps not since in case there was a way from Alagëasia they would have to part, and then Eldarion could become gloomy.

"The largest problem," Baldor said, pulling Legolas back from his muses, "is the food. We can only carry a certain amount, and it'll be hard to hunt much to feed two or three hundred people in the Spine."

"Mmmm." Horst shook his finger, swallowing his meat and beans. "No, hunting will not do. We'll have to bring our stocks. Together we own enough goats and sheep to feed us all in at least a month."

"Wolves," Roran reminded him.

"I'm more worried about how to keep track on them, and stop them from running into the woods," Horst answered. "To herd them will be a misery."

()()()

The next day, Roran helped anywhere he could and made himself visible to the other villagers, showing that he was helping them, and not just trying to let them to keep faith and hope to an anguished man's words.

Legolas helped in Horst's house with what needed to be done, gathering the last blanket Elain realized was missing, and laid his own sack with possessions in the dining room. When mid day had passed, he decided to go outside, following Roran's example, not only to help those who could not leave otherwise, but also in an attempt to gain the people's trust. He left Eldarion in Elain's care. The woman had also pointed out the nearby houses for him, so he knew who lived where.

The sun hung on the sky obvious to the sheet of tension that had lain over Palancar valley. The villagers worried that the soldiers would detect them when they left, and worried that another attack would come before they had left, when they weren't prepared to defend themselves. They did not walk between the houses carrying spear and shield; they had knapsacks slung overt heir packs and led a horse to their neighbours to share and easing the burdens on their shoulders.

Outside the fourth house to the left, where Loring lived, was one of the man's sons loading packs upon the back of a horse. Legolas' spotted the second son on the road, trying to herd seven sheep. When the first son went inside again, Darmmen came outside in a hurry, carrying one sack in each hand. He slung one pack over the horse's back and attempted to fasten it, but his fingers fumbled and a curse left his lips – he looked up surprised when the elf took over with nimble fingers and quickly secured first the pack and the next.

"So you will leave with us?" asked Legolas. He had not spoken with this man except for once, when they had cut trees together to build the wall around Carvahall.

"Yes, it's the only option," Darmmen said and rubbed his forehead. "I was a bit surprised to see you here – I don't even know your name, and until two days ago I thought … Well, you were cloaked all the time but you melted with us and I thought you were one of us. How could've been so blind? It's obvious that you are … none of us."

Legolas felt the glances that people passing by were giving him, but ignored them; he was used to be an object of curiousity. "I did what I could to hide that I am elf," he said. He remembered what Roran and Elain had offered to tell him about Alagëasia, and added, to point out whose side he was on even if he was a stranger: "Galbatorix is not a friend of my kind."

"So you hid in Carvahall?" Darmmen asked and squinted at him suspisciously.

"It was an accident that I came here. My home was attacked and I had to protect my son, so I took him with me into the wild; but we were pursued and it eventually led me here," Legolas explained. After a short pause he decided to change the subject. "You are Darmmen, are you not, Loring's son?"

"I am." Darmmen nodded. He had seen the elf go from and to Horst's house, so he assumed that he had slept and eaten there, and that Horst had told the elf about the villagers. He shifted from one foot to the other. The elf unsettled him a little, not that he had shown any signs of turning against them or hurting the villagers, but because in front of him stood an elf – a myth – talking with him. It was unbelievable. Elves were myth and legend and here stood one, dressed like any of the villagers, real flesh and blood – even if he looked very particular with his hair, his pale skin and pointy ears, and those strange eyes.

"I am Legolas," the elf introduced himself.

That's an odd name. "You have a son?" Darmmen asked, switching back the subject. He was curious about the elf, naturally, even if he was also wary.

"Aye, Eldarion is his name. He is very young, not even a year old yet," Legolas said with a small smile. Then he looked back at the horse, which looked like no more packs would fit on its back. "I came not just to make a conversation, but I wondered if there is anything that your family needs help with before the journey?"

Darmmen glanced back at the house. "We're fine, and I don't think we need more room either for our packs, at least not the most important ones," he said. He hesitated a little. "But if you meet up with Elain – Horst's wife – could you please ask her if she needs more space? We still have a donkey that can carry a bit more."

Legolas nodded. "I will."

()()()

The day passed by quickly and when dusk arrived, Legolas had been to a dozen families and helped them, engaged conversation with some of them, and been toppled by questions, both suspicious and curious. He had answered the best way he could – leaving out some information, such as that he was not from Alagëasia but another world, and that he was the son of a king - and even if he maybe had not gained any greater trust or friendship by anyone, they were not as wary as before of him, and did not snatch away their curious children from him. This gladdened Legolas, and when the older villagers and parents noticed that he was at ease and no way wanted to harm their children, they let them ask their childish questions and the youngsters almost seemed to forget the fact that they soon would leave their homes behind them to never return.

When he came back at noon, he found Horst and Baldor in the kitchen. Albriech, Roran and Elain were already asleep. Legolas watched in amusement as Eldarion sat on Baldor's knees, something that made the young man uncertain, and drank his milk from a flask. A drop of milk was running down the boy's chin.

When the elf entered he room, he startled both the men and Eldarion gave a squeal of joy, forgetting his food and spilling it all over himself.

"Um, he was hungry so we fed him… Here you are," Baldor said, a bit awkwardly, and Legolas lifted the child up and in the same moment saved the bottle from falling onto the floor. Horst passed him a cloth to cleanse the child's face with.

"How was your day?" asked Legolas. He hoped that his son had not been too much a trouble for the pair; Baldor looked tense as a bowstring, like he had been afraid of dropping the child in any moment, and the elf guessed that he had never held such a small child before, or at least not so very often. Horst, who on the other hand had more experience with children, looked amused.

The awkwardness in the air loosened as both Horst and Baldor retold of their work today, and reported how many families that would come. Legolas did the same, and they counted with at least two and a half hundred coming with them. Their greatest trouble was to sneak past the guards, if the soldiers yet had any on the hills, without being seen. They were so many and if they brought with them their sheep and goats, it made them harder to hide even if it fed them.

"Once we leave, I will scout ahead," Legolas offered himself. He sat across the table with Eldarion in his lap, the boy tiredly and like transfixed twirling a lock of golden hair in his hand.

There was a pause, then Horst asked: "Have you even done something like this before?"

"Not in this scale," Legolas said. "To guide a group of soldiers through a forest undetected in another thing, for we are silent on our feet and have no packs or animals with us to slow us down."

"You have led armies?" Baldor asked, unable to hide his curiousity. They knew very little about the elf. In truth, all they knew was his name and how he had come to be here.

"I have not led any armies into open battles and war myself, but I have led many smaller operations and scouting missions, to protect my home. When there were larger battles, I fought, but did not lead them," Legolas told them vaguely. "My father taught me such things; he is a military leader."

Baldor nodded thoughtfully. This could aid them, just in case they were detected or if wolves and other wild animals attacked them during the journey.

After a short meal, they separated, and Legolas went up to his room. He did not sleep that night; the tension that had settled over the valley disturbed him. But it did not disturb the child, who slept peacefully in the cradle next to the bed, obvious to the world. Legolas removed his shoes, placing them on the floor beside the cradle, and unlaced his shirt. Running his hand over his back, he found nothing but a faint mark. It would have healed completely within a few days. Pulling down his leggings, he turned around slightly to inspect the other wound. He was pleased to see that it was gone completely.

Dressing again, but leaving his feet bare, he sat down on the bed and waited. He was not sure if he would sit and wait until he fell asleep, or just watch Eldarion's soft content face, or listen to the slumbering house and the child's soft breathing.

He closed his eyes and imagined that he was in Gondor, in Minas Tirith, sitting on the balcony that connected to his and Aragorn's chambers, just above his own garden. That he sat there on a stone-bench with Aragorn beside him and the sun was falling out of sight by the horizon. In his daydreaming, everything was peaceful and calm and there were no men in red tonlets, armed with spears and swords, and no ra'zac, and there was no Galbatorix. He could not even recall the exact moment where he had begun to detest the man, the king over Alagëasia, who threatened his own people and the people of Gondor. If it had been before or after he had even heard the man's name, he did not know. He so greatly wanted to find out the king's reasons and end what war he desired to strike with Gondor, before it begun with full force ...

More greatly, he wanted to lie in Aragorn's arms again.

()()()

Dawn came and found its way into Roran's dreams. He woke up in anticipation, rose and went silently downstairs, walked outside onto the porch and looked at the misty mountains. His breath crated puffs of white, but despite of the cold air, he felt warm, his heart beating with both fear and eagerness.

Legolas was sitting perched atop the railing that led around the porch, eating on a piece of bread, with one arm crossed over his chest, and he followed Roran's gaze. The mountains seemed both near and afar. There was already activity on the streets of Carvahall. A sense of anxiety clung to each passerby. Roran and Legolas acknowledged each other with a nod, but did not speak.

Horst, Elain and their sons joined them for breakfast, which was eaten in silence. Horst led the horses to the front of the house, where the others helped to load packs on their backs and fill the saddlebags. When all was done, Horst shut the door; for a moment he lingered with his hand on the handle, then he turned and took Elain's hand.

"Come," he said. "Let us go."

Their sons stood by the horses, and when Roran lifted his own knapsack and cursed silently when his arm burned with pain. Legolas held the reins of the horse that Elain would ride upon when she became too tired, in one hand, and in the crook of his other arm Eldarion rested, wrapped in a small blanket. A pack was tied over his shoulder.

On the way through Carvahall, Roran was met with gazes from solemn faces. Families gathered outside their houses, beside piles of belongings and baaing cattle. He saw goats and dogs with packs tied over their backs, tear-eyed children and horses with temporary sleighs tied behind them, with cages of fowl and chickens hanging on each side. He saw the fruit of his work, and he did not know whether he should laugh or cry.

They stopped by the north end of the village and waited to see who would join them. A minute later, Birgit arrived with Nolfavrell and his younger siblings. Ridley and his family appeared outside the wooden wall, and had brought over a hundred sheep with him from Palancar valley's east side.

"I thought it'd be better to leave them outside of Carvahall!" Ridley shouted over the animals' baaing.

"Good idea!" Horst answered.

Then Delwin, Lenna and their five children arrived, followed by Orval and his family, and Loring with his sons, and also Calitha and Thane – who gave Roran a huge smile – and Kiselt's relatives. Before the sun had risen fully over the mountains, almost the whole village had gathered just inside the wooden walls; but not everyone. Morn, Tara and several others had not appeared yet, and when Ivor arrived, he had no pack.

"You'll stay," Roran stated.

"Yees," Ivor said, haltingly. He shuddered and crossed his gaunt arms over his chest, turning his face towards the rising sun. "Svart refused to leave. Ha! It's like carving against the burr just to get him to the Spine to begin with. Someone has to take care of him, and I've no children, so, well…" He shrugged. "Anyway I don't really think I'd be able to leave the farm."

"What will you do when the soldiers come?"

"Give them a fight to remember."

Roran laughed hoarsely, squeezed Ivor's arm and tried his best to ignore the fate that awaited all those who stayed, a fate everyone knew of.

A thin middle-aged man marched forward to stand in front of the crowd, and cried: "You're fools, all of you! I've shut my mouth through all this madness, but I won't follow a babbling madman! If you weren't so blinded by his word then you'd realize he's leading you towards your end! I'll try to get past the soldiers and get to Therinsford. At least there are some sensible people, of our own kind, not like the barbarians you'll find in Surda, or maybe you're all set on following into the elf-land, where I know you'll just find trouble!" He spat on the ground and angrily stalked away.

Worried that the man would convince someone to stay, Roran glanced about, but there was no other reaction than some muttering among the people. Now he was even more eager to leave. Roran thought he saw the usually pale cheeks of the elf gain a slight tinge of red – he could not determine if it was in embarrassment or anger, but the man's words had had an effect on Legolas. The elf was offended.

"How long should we wait?" Roran whispered to Horst.

"Albriech, Baldor, take a run around Carvahall as fast as you can and see if anyone more will be coming. If not, we'll leave." The brothers nodded and ran to the opposite directions.

Half an hour later Baldor reappeared with Fisk, Isold and their borrowed horse. Isold left her husband and hurried over to Horst, unaware of that her hair had loosened from the knot in her neck. "I'm truly sorry that we are so late, but Fisk had trouble shutting the shop. He couldn't decide what planes and chisels to bring with him." She laughed shrilly, almost hysterically. "It was like watching a cat surrounded by mice, trying to decide which one he should hunt: one first but then the other."

A wry smile appeared on Horst's face. "I understand exactly."

Roran tried to see Albriech, but he was nowhere to be seen. In annoyance he gnashed his teeth. "Where is he?"

"Over there, I think," Horst said and knocked at his shoulder.

Albriech came walking up from between two houses with two barrels tied onto his back, and with such a heart-stricken face, creating a humorous picture that made Baldor and several other people laugh. On his right side Morn staggered forward, and Tara on his left side, both under the weight of enormous packs, just like the goats and donkeys behind them. Roran was astonished to see that several barrels of ale burdened the animals. "They won't be able to walk even a mile," he said, irritated of the couple's foolishness. "And they don't have enough food. Do they expect us to feed them, or-"

Horst interrupted him with a chuckle. "I wouldn't worry so much about the food if I were you. Morn's ale will prove good for the fighting spirit. It's worth some extra portions. Wait and you'll see."

As soon as Albriech had freed himself from the barrels of ale, Roran asked him and his brother: "Was that all?"

Both of them nodded. Roran cursed and hit his thigh with his fist: three other families, Ivor not included, would stay. I cannot force them to come with us. He sighed. "Very well. There's no reason for us to wait any longer."

Finally it was time. Six men pushed away a tree in the barricade to create an opening and laid wooden boards over the ditch so that people and animals could walk over it. "I think you should walk first," Horst said to Roran.

"Wait!" Fisk came running forward and proudly gave Roran a six feet long staff, made out of blackened hawthorn. "I made this yesterday evening," the carpenter said. I thought you might need it."

"I could not have wished for anything better," Roran said, drawing his hand over the wood, wondered over how smooth it was. "Your skill is astounding … thank you." Fisk smiled widely and backed away.

Aware of all the gazes that were on him, Roran turned towards the mountains: his shoulder pounded with pain and in his chest his heart pounded with anticipation. Behind him laid his father's remains and everything in his life he had ever known. Ahead of him laid fields, an uncertain road, and there rose the peaks of the mountains that they were challenged to cross. But he would not be dismissed. And he would not look back.

Katrina.

He lifted his chin, and began walking with determined steps. His staff pounded against the hard planks as he crossed them and led the villagers away from Carvahall, into the wild.

Chapter Text

They had been riding for a day before they reached the fallen nest; the ground was, as described by the elves, sooty and dark and there were remains of two fires in the middle of a large camp. A few miles north, through forests and open grassy hills, they found the path that the orcs had taken - they found several hours buried in the grass. Orc arrows. They had indeed been following something or someone …

Aragorn's breath quickened, and he gave the reins to one of his guards, dismounted and hurried along the path and reached a thin forest. The sound or rushing, falling, splashing water drummed against his ears. Thranduil and another elf and Gimli were on his heels - and Aragorn half expected to find Legolas soon before him, waiting, having found away to the top of the waterfall - if he had indeed fallen - but when he reached the edge of the wood, his feet stood upon a cliff by the side of a river, and below was a waterfall.

The river roared. He carefully leaned forward, and below there was darkness; it puzzled him because it was the middle of day and the sun lit the woods and gave the grass a warm glow. He could not see the bottom of the waterfall. Perhaps he was imagining, but he heard the sound of water hitting rocks below. No one can survive such a fall.

His heart dropped down to his feet and he clenched the hilt of his sword tightly, as he fell to his knees. Absently, he took a stone and held it for a moment in the air, before he dropped it: it fell, fell and fell, and fell still, until it plunged out of sight. He did not hear it hit the bottom, the sound drowned by the river. Legolas, he thought. Legolas.

A hand was laid on his shoulder. "Lad," Gimli said. "He is tougher than he looks. He is. Maybe he crossed the river-"

"No," Aragorn whispered. "That stream is too wide and strong to cross … he would be dragged along, and, and … What if he was wounded, Gimli? You saw the arrows." He took a deep breath, closed his eyes briefly and then opened them again. Why was he losing hope so easily? Perhaps Legolas escaped. Perhaps this trail had nothing to do with him at all.

"Gimli, I-"

Suddenly another vice interrupted, cut through the air. "Milord, milord!" someone cried, and he could not determine whether it came from the elves or the guards. A man came rushing through the vegetation with hair in disarray. "We are under attack, milord, by both orcs and men! It must be remains of their scattered troops."

Aragorn scrambled to his feet. The river had drowned all sounds of battle and he had been too transfixed with the waterfall to notice - but he could hear now very faintly the sound of steel meeting steel. Aragorn drew his sword. "How many are they?"

"We are not sure; a little over two dozen or so, they-"

A battle-cry rose over the water and an arrow whined through the air, burying in a tree-trunk on Aragorn's left side. His mind flashed immediately: someone here recognized him, for the arrow was aimed at him and not the guard who was more visible from the grass-field and an easier target.

The guard held his sword in a firm grip. "You must leave, milord!" he cried desperately. "They are too many, they could be fifty, or more - please milord!"

Fifty? I have only twelve men, and even if elves are stronger than my guards, it is not enough. … How can they be fifty, appearing so suddenly? A sudden idea came into his mind. "Tell the men to lure the orcs nearer to the river. We can make an advantage of it if we do this quickly enough."

The guard hurried through the forest and another arrow wheezed by, missing him by an inch - the next moment a group of orcs ran into the clearing and saw Aragorn and Gimli upon the dangerous cliff. They leered. Gimli waved his axe in return and was upon them in a flash, but had only managed to fell one of them when two elven arrows flew through the air and pierced two orcs' necks. The dwarf glared at Thranduil and the other elf that had shot - why was he always to be interrupted by long-legged pointy-eared elves? - before turning to face his second opponent.

Soon more men and orcs broke through the trees, and Aragorn saw the dangerous flaw in his plan. The enemies had quickly realized what they were up to and turned their plan against them, trapping them on the riverbank. Aragorn found himself in combat with two men at the same time, balancing on the cliff; he was more skilled with the blade than them. Whatever dark magic had been used to take away their pains was gone now; they cried out in agony and anger instead of laughing in that cruel, animalistic way, before they died.

The orcs leered at them yet when they took their last breaths, but this was no bother for either Gimli or Aragorn. The pair found themselves soon back-to-back surrounded by men and orcs, and the two elves' arrows were too few to fell all the enemies.

Something lunged at his shoulder, and a hand with nails like claws attached themselves to his back. He wore no armor, only simpler clothing and a cloak, so he had nothing to protect him from injuries. It was a foolish mistake now. The orc clung to him and toppled him off-balance, and Andruil slipped from his grip. He landed hard on his back. The orcs rolled off him, smirking, quick on its feet - it raised its scimitar blade.

"Taste this!" Gimli cried, and threw the knife that usually hung in his belt. It buried in the orcs back and its face twisted with pain, giving Aragorn time to move to his feet and grasp his sword again, but the same moment he stood, the orcs gave a road and threw itself at him with the last of its force.

The man was unprepared for this, and his body bent over and his feet balanced on the edge of the cliff. The world spun for a moment, since the orc's helmet had smacked against his head harshly, and the world beneath his feet seemed to strangely unstable. Too late did he realize that he was in fact standing half in the air, and then something pushed him to the left, and he fell - the orc cried in pain, hit by an arrow, into his ear, but it was too late already. It clung to him, and they fell and fought in the air, until the world went dark even if Aragorn still felt like he was conscious.

He felt nauseous; tossed and turned in the air; there was pain as well, dully pounding into his veins.

Then he hit the water, cocooning him in icy cold. In shock, he froze, and began to sink. The orc hung on his back limply.

It took a few moments for him to find his senses and begin swimming towards the surface of the water; the orc slid off his shoulders and when the armored creature was gone it felt at once much easier.

When he broke the surface he gasped for air. The air was thick, smelled salt, and his clothing clung to him slickly. His lungs burned. Andrúil still was in his grasp and with cold fingers he managed to maneuver into its sheath by his belt again. Everything around him was dark as night; but a slight reflection was visible on the water. Waves moved him over and beneath the surface, and he realized that this could not be a river. The salt … The sea? But how?

There was no rushing of a river or a roaring waterfall. There was water splashing onto a shore but no other sounds were heard. Aragorn began swimming towards what he hoped was the direction of the shore.

Each minute seemed like an hour, but then, he felt something beneath his feet and realized that the shore must be nearby now. He swam faster, and once the water was shallow enough he used his legs and walked up to land, waves splashing against his back. Blindly, he found his way up and almost collapsed in fatigue on the sand. It felt like he had been insider the water for hours, yet everything was still very dark.

How can I have landed in a sea, in the middle of night?

Puzzled was an understatement of how he felt. He felt immensely confused. Did Legolas come here as well, if he fell … when he fell? It is possible … but I do not understand what can transport anyone so quickly … only magic. But there are no wizards in Middle Earth anymore…

He managed to find a dried spot, beneath a tree, and he sat and leaned against the trunk with his face against the water. Looking around him, there was almost no difference from between shutting his eyes. The sky was starless and moonless. He shivered, cold and wet as he was.

But then he saw on his left, several miles away upon a shore, lights and smoke. A town, he realized. He weighted his options: he could wait until morning or began making his way to that town right now. The wisest seemed to be to wait. He needed light, and perhaps day could give him some answers. The town would not move. Then thinking about the bizarreness of his appearance here, wherever he was, made him right himself: the town would likely not move.

He pushed his knees against his chest and rested his head against the trunk, closing his eyes. Some hope had rekindled in his chest, even if he worried immensely about Gimli and the others. Legolas might be here. Despite of all the troubles behind him, he smiled.

Legolas.

()()()

Roran awoke by dawn that day, just like the last days, after little sleep where he had mostly lain worried of what would come. It had been four and a half weeks since they had left Carvahall for the Spine. In his chest, his heart felt like it was squeezed painfully every time he breathed.

Katrina…

He missed her greatly and wanted only to revenge those monsters that had taken her; and he was fuming with anger because of Sloan's betrayal. That he had killed Byrd, one of the villagers, who was innocent, to … to …

He shook his head, trying to clear his mind from those thoughts. It only made him feel angry and disappointed, and so worried … almost mad. If I continue to think like this, or about Katrina, I'll loose all my senses, he thought.

It had all been going downwards. Roran was aware that the people followed his lead because they both feared and respected him, as he had saved them from being killed by the ra'zac and Galbatorix' soldiers. Now he was attempting to lead them through the Spine to a safer place. And then he would safe Katrina. If only it wasn't too late …

Many were yet furious with him; almost everyone from the village, in fact. They had lost their homes, their safety. Many were suffering. No, many was an understatement. They had left behind whole lives and the journey through the mountains took its tool. They were tired, thirsty and hungry, many were exhausted, their feet bled and their stumbled. Their clothing were rags and many had cloths wrapped around their hands to protect from the cold during the nights. The children were all unusually still, a thing that worried Roran. Everyone was nervous and had grown thin. Hunger ate them. It was one of the reasons they needed to find new supplies and safety.

Often their animals had been attacked and reduced in numbers because of wolves and bears that hunted in these parts, even when they lit fires once they were away from sight from Palancar Valley and Galbatorix' soldiers.

But they continued, thanks to the strong stubbornness that had made their ancestors stay in Palancar valley despite of sickness, hunger and war. They were a stubborn people, once they had made a decision.

They deserve better, Roran thought. I would be in the claws of the ra'zac if they hadn't protected me.

The only one who seemed less affected by cold and hunger was Legolas; people did not fully trust him or relied on him, even if their fear for him had passed. That was mostly because what he was - an elf - not because of his personality. It caused uncertainty. But Roran felt that he could trust him since he had helped defending the village from the ra'zac.

Narda was close now, less than half a day away. They were planning to go down in a smaller group in the afternoon - Roran would take with him Horst, Baldor, Loring's three sons and Gertrude, and he hoped he could find new ways to travel and more supplies.

They continued struggling their way. When the town was finally in sight they felt relief and fulfillment, that they had made it this far. Roran felt like he had finally done something right, even if he knew that they were not fully safe until they had left the Empire. For fear of being discovered as the group of villagers that were pursued by Galbatorix' soldiers, they made camp under cover of sundown in the mountains, sheltered by trees.

The town looked dark and compact as they arrived, even though light from the houses lit it up; beyond it laid the sea, glimmering under the last red sun's rays. Roran gazed at the landscape, unlike the one he was unused to see, fascinated, and took a deep breath.

We made it.

While the camp was full of silent activity - they dared not to speak out loud because they did not want to be seen or heard by Narda - Roran helped to set up tents and then sought out Legolas. He found the elf sitting cross-legged on a rock by the edge of the camp, overlooking Narda through the trees; the town was a flicker of light by the edge of the sea. The elf-child sat on Legolas' lap, being fed with the bottle that the elf had been given from one of the villagers. To Roran, the little child had always looked unnaturally pale in his eyes - as if he were cold and sick - but then again, Legolas' skin was very pale, so maybe it was just how elves were.

He took seat beside him. The elf greeted him with a soft voice and a nod.

"I wondered if you wanted to come with us down to Narda as we go to buy supplies tomorrow," Roran said. The elf would feel like a good protection, just in case, and he had sharp eyes and ears, always on guard; it could help them in case Galbatorix' soldiers were in Narda already. Under disguise the elf might also be able to be a calming influence on the guards so they could pass through the gate; they had spotted some of them patrolling.

But Legolas, who sensed Roran's plan, shook his head. "No, I do not think Narda is a large enough town where I could go cloaked and not raise any suspicion ... I shall stay and guard the camp," he said.

Roran nodded: the elf had a point. If someone saw Legolas for what he was … Galbatorix would surely give gold for an elf, even if he doesn't come from Du Weldenvarden.

"And I do not wish to be parted from my son," added Legolas softly in afterthought. "I will make sure that no soldiers discover our camp."

()()()

Roran and his selected comrades made their way down the hills towards Narda, trying to keep themselves unseen until they stepped onto the road. Here on the lowland the air felt thick to breathe, as if water hung in it and came into their lungs.

Two guards stood by the gate to the town. When they raised their weapons, Roran unconsciously gripped the hammer in his belt. The guards studied their thin, battered forms and torn clothing as they came closer.

"Where do you come from?" one of them asked.

Horst crossed his arms across his chest. "From around Teirm, if you must know."

"And what brings you here?"

"Trade. We've been sent by tradesmen who rather buy merchandises directly from here instead of from the regular traders," Horst said.

"Oh? What kind of merchandises?" continued the guard.

Here Horst hesitated, but luckily Gertrude broke in. "Herbs and medicines on my part," she said. "The herbs I have are either too old or moldy. I need to refill my supplies."

"And me and my brothers come to buy new shoes from your shoemaker. Northern-styled shoes are very popular in Dras-Leona and Urû'baen," said Darmmen, one of Loring's sons. Then he grimaced. "Or they were, at least, when we left."

Horst gained more confidence and confirmed his words. "That's right. And I am here to get a load smithery goods for my master's account."

The guard nodded slightly. "So you say, but what about him?" he asked, pointing at Roran with his halberd. "What's his business?"

"Pottery," Roran said.

"Pottery?"

"Pottery."

"But why the hammer, if that's the case?" wondered the guard.

"How do you think the varnish on a pot or a vessel gets cracked? It doesn't by itself, you know. You have to hit it." Roran said this blank-faced, straight up into the man's suspicious face as if to dare him to question his words.

The soldier grunted and flashed his eyes over them. "However it'd be with that but for me, you ain't looking like tradesmen. Rather like starved stray cats."

"We had some trouble on the road," Gertrude said.

"I can imagine that," said the guard, who still did not fully convinced and squinted at them. "If you're really from Teirm, then where are your horses?"

Loring's other son, Hamund, spoke up without hesitating. "We left them by our camp," he said, pointing southwards to the opposite direction of where the rest of the villagers were.

"Not enough money to stay at the city, eh?" said the guard with a smirk. He and his companion lowered their halberds with a mocking laugh. "All right, you can pass, but make sure you don't do anything stupid."

They walked past the guards briskly. When finally past the gates and inside the slim safety of the town, Horst grabbed Roran's arm. "What were you thinking? Pottery and vanish? That was the most stupid, idiotic thing I've ever heard of. Do you want to get us into a fight? We can't -" He was cut off by Gertrude who was pulling at his arm.

"Look!" she murmured, nodding a bit to the side.

There was a six feet wide notice board covered by a thin hay roof to protect the bleak parchments from the weather. It was covered in important news and official messages and other such letters, and beside them hung a group of posters with fading sketches of criminals.

On one of the most visible ones was a Roran with no beard.

Terrified, Roran looked around to make sure no one was there and was able to recognize him from the picture. He had of course expected them to be hunted by the Empire, but to get it proved like this was yet a shock. When they had hid and lived in the Spine, it was easy to forget that the rest of the world still existed. Galbatorix must be desperate to have us and must give much many to have us caught, he thought. I can almost bet that there are messages like this all over the Empire. He was glad that he had stopped shaving off his beard, and that they had taken up false names to use while in Narda.

Neither he nor Eragon had been taught how to read, but Garrow had made sure they knew how to count, so that they would know what they owned and its worth, and so that traders would not trick them. Therefore Roran could read that Galbatorix would pay ten thousand guineas for his capture. In a way it made him proud to know he was so wanted; it made him feel important.

His gaze swept to the next poster.

It was Eragon.

It felt as if he had been hit in his chest by a spear. He couldn't believe it. He's alive!

But when the first shock and relief faded, his anger towards his cousin because of his part in Garrow's death and the destruction of their farm first blossomed, but it was later exchanged with confusion. Why is the empire chasing Eragon? Once again Roran wondered just what in the world Carvahall's people had been thrown into. What part of this did Eragon play?

"What crimes is he charged for?" he asked Gertrude.

She frowned against the notice board. "Treason, both of you. It says that Galbatorix would give the title of count to the captor of Eragon, but it also says that those who try must be careful as he is very dangerous."

Roran could not help the feeling of surprise, and he blinked. Eragon? It seemed unthinkable, but then he looked back at how he himself had changed during these last weeks. We share the same blood in our veins. Who knows, Eragon maybe has accomplished as much as, or more than, me since he left.

Gertrude's gaze travelled over the board, widening a little when she saw a note that had no picture, but very large thick letters. "Look at this: it says an elf was seen in the north is believed to attempt fleeing to the south or the east …They'll give quite an amount of gold for his capture too."

That an elf was wanted as well worried Roran too, because if Legolas was spotted with them … it was riskier now. But of course would Galbatorix want an elf, since they had not been seen for a hundred or more years. One outside their homeland was rare - Roran held a smirk when he realized that if Galbatorix caught Legolas, he would not earn anything of it anyway, since the elf was not from Alagëasia at all and could not answer any questions about their elven home or about magic. That little detail was almost a relief.

"If killing Galbatorix' men is worth ten thousand guineas, then what do you have to do for it to be worth be named a count?" said Baldor in a low voice.

"Fight with the king himself," Larne suggested. "Just how much would they give for Le-, I mean the elf's capture?" he said a bit lower.

"Ten thousand and five hundred guineas," Gertrude read. "Or rather, it says: 'Depending on the state of the being, more or less than ten thousand and five hundred guineas will be paid as a reward from the King Galbatorix himself; in case the elf is dead, these is no reward at all but the capturer must return the body to the King or the King's servants immediately, as it is His Lord's property'. Oh, this is worse than I thought." She looked at Roran. "You should choose your friends less poorly, in case you have not noticed; three people I know have prices on their heads."

Roran did not say anything.

"That's enough," Horst barked. "Watch your tongue better, Baldor, and you too, Larne, or we'll all end up in prison. And Roran, do not draw attention again. With such a prize on your head, surely many are keeping an eye out for you." At the moment he was obviously the leader, but it suited Roran fine, since he did not want to attract any interest. "Well, we have things to do all of us," Horst continued. "Come back at midday and report how it's going."

()()()

They decided to split up in three groups; Darmmen, Lorne and Hamund would buy food for the villagers, both for the day and the rest of the journey. Gertrude went alone to buy medicines and herbs - as she had told the guard. Roran, Horst and Baldor followed the sloping streets down to the harbour. They hoped to find a ship to hire to take them to Surda, or at least Teirm. They could not travel on foot much longer, and not without being seen and taken, or worse.

When they saw the ocean under low-hanging clouds and heard the crying of gulls, Roran was slightly taken aback; he had never before seen the sea. He couldn't have imagined that the horizon could be so … flat. The air was filled with the smell of fish - both fresh and rotten - and the smell hid all other scents. But the wind was yet stinging fresh against his skin, and the waves washed against the shore and sang under the bridge beneath his feet.

Horst looked from Roran to Baldor, who were as astounded. "Quite impressive, don't you agree?"

"Truly," Roran said.

"Makes you feel a bit small doesn't it?"

"It does," Baldor said and let his gaze sweep over the harbour. There were some people here and there, among small boats and loads of newly caught fish. Above them circled gulls. Standing beside him, Roran noticed that among the many birds there, there was a strange sort of bird that he had never seen before - it was quite large and white except on the stomach, and had a long and striped beak. When it lifted it he noticed it had some kind of leathery pouch beneath it.

"When I got here the first time when I was young, I had about the same reaction," Horst said. "I was fifteen, looking for a smith who could take me as an apprentice since Bartram, the smith before me, had died before finishing my last year of apprenticeship. Luckily I found one who was ready to finish a man's work, Kelton, who was a raw man but good at his work. Now I don't know whether to thank him or curse him."

"Thank him, I say," said Baldor. "If not, you'd never have married mother."

Roran did not really listen. He was more intent upon finding a vessel that could carry them to Surda than old stories, even if they fascinated him a bit. He studied the port with a frown. "There aren't a lot of ships here," he stated. Two ships lay in berth in the southern parts of the port and a third opposite to them, but between them were only tiny fishing boats and dinghies. Roran did not know anything about vessels however, he had no experience of them, but in his eyes none of the ships looked large enough to take almost three hundred passengers. It will not do with only one ship.

They began walking around and inspect the ships - but they were too old or too small, in need of mending which they had neither money nor time for. One of the ships had lost a mast.

Horst asked questions, but those were laughed at. "You're both too late an' too early," a man told them with a thick accent. "Most o' the ships tha' come at spring left for some two, three weeks ago. In a month, th' northern winds'll begin blowin' an' then them sealers will come back an' ships from Teirm an' the rest of the Empire'll come to take care of the skin, the meat an' th' oil. It ain't nothing but a tiny chance to hire a capt'n wi' empty cargo. But til then there aren't much but them tiny boats 'ere."

"Is there no other way to ship goods to Teirm from here?" Roran wondered, desperately. "It doesn't need to be fast or comfortable."

"Well," the man said and lifted a box onto his shoulder. "If you're ain't goin' further than Teirm, ye might try with Clovis over the'e." He pointed to a line of boathouses that floated between two piers. "He's got some o' 'em barges he use to wagon corns with durin' autumn, an' the rest of the year he makes 'is livin' on fishin' like the rest o' us." He frowned slightly. "What kind of cargo d'ye got? The crops ain't harvested yet an' th' sheep are a'ready cut."

"A bit of everything," Horst said vaguely. He threw the man a copper coin, which the man put in his pocket with a blink.

"Oh, a bit o' everythin' I see, sir. I kno' a getaway when I see it. But donnae worry 'bout ol' Ulric, he ain't saying nothing. Goo' day, sir." He walked away whistling.

They went searching for this Clovis, but it appeared that he was not in the port. After asking about the road, it took them half an hour to walk to his house in the other end of Narda. There they found him planting iris-onions along the path up to the door. He was a bulky man with sunburn cheeks and gray-growing beard. Another hour went by as they convinced him that they wee really interested of vessels, despite the time of the year. Then at least half an hour more went by as they walked back to the boathouses which Clovis unlocked, and three identical vessels came in sight: Edeline, Red Boar and Merrybell.

Each vessel was seventy-five feet long and had open cargo holds that could be covered with tarpaulins and a mast that could be rigged in the middle of deck. There was a group of cabins at the back - or at the stern, as Clovis said. The ships were better built in case of harsh weather, because the center of gravity lay lower than in a vessel with a flat base, which made it harder for the ships to capsize.

"Is there a crew to all three of them?" Roran wondered.

"Well, that is a little problematic. Most of the men I use to hire went on seal hunting weeks ago, as they use to. Since I don't need them until after the harvest, I let them come and go as they wish during the rest of the year … I'm sure the misters understand the situation." Clovis tried to smile and glanced between Horst, Roran and Baldor as if unsure whom he should turn to.

Roran walked along the Edeline and looked for damages, but found that the paint was new and the wood fresh even if the vessel itself looked old. This could work. "If we replace all those men that you miss in your crew, how much would it cost to sail to Teirm with all three vessels?"

"That depends," Clovis said. "The sailors earn fifteen copper coins a day, and the food they manage to eat and a glass of whisky to that. What your men earn is your thing. I won't put them on my payroll. Usually I also hire guards for each vessel, but they are-"

"They are out hunting," Roran said sternly. "We have guards too."

Clovis nervously swallowed and the Adam's apple that was visible on his sunburn throat bobbled. Roran knew that the man was growing suspicious "Well, it'd be more than probable … it would. Not including the payment of the sailors I'll take two hundred guineas in charges, plus the cost of eventual damages set by your men, plus - both as owner and captain - twelve percent of the gain of the trade of the cargo."

"Our journey will not have any gain."

That most of all appeared to make Clovis nervous. He rubbed his chin and began speaking twice but his words died away, but at last he said: "Then I would take four hundred guineas as compensation at the end of the journey. What, if I dare as, is your cargo?"

We are frightening him, Roran thought. "Stocks."

A slight frown appeared on Clovis' forehead. "Is it sheep, cows, horses, oxen…?"

Roran would not give it away. "It is a bit of everything."

"And why do you want to go to Teirm with them?"

"We have our reasons," Roran said, almost smiling at Clovis' confusion. "Could you think of sailing beyond Teirm?"

"No!" the man exclaimed. "There's where I draw my line. I don't know the waters beyond that, and I do not wish to be away from my wife and daughter longer than that either."

Roran held back a sigh but knew he should be thankful there was a man that could take them to as far as Teirm at all. "When could you be ready?"

Clovis hesitated. "Maybe five or six days. No, no, let's say a week; I have things to be done with before I go."

"We pay ten additional guineas if you are ready to sail the day after tomorrow," Roran said. A week! We cannot wait a week. We have to find another transport if do not agree.

"I don't think-"

"Twelve guineas."

There was a pause. "Day after tomorrow, it's decided," Clovis said. "Some way or another I'll be finished by then."

Roran felt relief as the man finally gave in. He drew his hand along the rail of one of one of the vessels and nodded without looking at him. "Can I have a minute to council with my companions in private?"

"As you wish, sir," said Clovis. "I'll just take a walk on the dockyard until you're finished." He hurriedly made it for the door, but on the doorstep he paused and turned around. "I'm sorry, but I seems to have forgotten your names. My memory can be terrible sometimes."

Unconsciously, Roran stiffened a little. "Stronghammer. My name is Stronghammer."

"Oh yes, of course. A good name." Then the man was out through the door.

They should have been relieved; they had found a way out of here. There was still planning to do, and Galbatorix' soldiers were yet on their heels, and their people starving. And how could they make Clovis keep this secret after all? Roran had no desire to kill him or anyone else, for that part, except for the Ra'zac. He, Horst and Baldor gathered in a ring and spoke in low voices even if they were already unheard. There was a vital fact that disturbed them now.

"We cannot afford to hire him," Baldor said.

"We cannot afford not to hire him either. What other choices do we have?" Roran said. "We do not have enough gold to buy the vessels, and not enough knowledge how to navigate them either. I rather not learn it on my own now when everyone's lives are at stake."

"It is still too expensive," Horst argued.

"We can pay the first two hundred guineas. But once we have reached Teirm, I say we either steal the ships with what we have learned during the sail, or that we put Clovis and his men in a condition where they cannot fight us until we can flee in another way. That way we do not need to pay the sailors or the four hundred guineas."

"I don't like to trick a man of their honest work," Horst said. "It's against my nature."

Mine too. Roran drummed his fingers against the rail. "I don't like it either, but can you think of a better option?"

They couldn't. "But how are we supposed to get everyone aboard without being detected?" Baldor asked.

"They will have to meet Clovis a mile or two down the coast, out of sight from Narda," Roran decided.

Horst sighed. "Well, we do it that way, but it makes me feel uncomfortable and gives my mouth a bitter tinge. Call for Clovis again, Baldor, so we can finish this affair."

Chapter Text

Dawn came and Aragorn awoke with it: when he opened his eyes his senses came to full alert. A wide sea opened before him and water gently sprayed upon the shore. The air smelled of salt. His clothing was stiff by both.

He came to his feet and stretched his sore muscles, his back and neck aching from sleeping in such a position. I am not as young as I used to be. He looked back at the sea, before looking in the direction of the town he had seen yesterday: it was perched on a cape, surrounded by wooden walls, with smoke coming from one of the houses. He could not see from here so clearly, but assumed that there was a port and ships in the town.

He began walking along the shore, choosing it was better to do that than going into the woods. There might be more shelter there, but this way he would not loose his way. He could not determine for sure but the town laid at least an hour's walk away.

The morning came and passed by. Aragorn's thoughts travelled between Legolas and his hopes, to Gimli, Thranduil and the others. Had they survived the battle? Were they wounded, or taken as hostages?

It was Gimli, the stout dwarf and a friend through many dangers, that he was mostly worried for. His relationship with Thranduil had never been the best, so he was not so very concerned about the elf, more than what he forced himself to be - Thranduil was Legolas' father after all. He could not be spiteful or unjust in his judgment even if he disliked the elven king. He truly tried to like him, for Legolas' sake, but each time he tired thing just seemed to be worst and Thranduil grew more and more hostile towards him; for clear reasons, in the elf's opinion.

The last mile he had to leave the shore, and go into the dense forest, loosing sight of the town. Soon he found a road - well used and muddy - and he pulled up the hood of his cloak, for he did not wish to be recognized if this was uncertain territory. He followed the road, and soon enough, he saw the gates into the town. Two guards stood by it, and one looked young and indolent, and the other seemed older and sharper. Aragorn slowed his steps a little, to make the appearance of a traveler from far away - even if he might meet a few curious questions at the sight of his stiff clothing and hair, that looked very much like had been thrown into an ocean. A handful of ragged-clothed men and a woman were visible, walking up to the gate before him: Aragorn slowed down more and waited to step forward until the others had passed by the guards, after an unusual long time.

"Who're you and what brings you to Narda?" asked the older guard.

Narda. I have never heard of that city … "I seek food and shelter," Aragorn said.

The guard squinted at him, gripping his halberd and stomping it into the ground to make sure that Aragorn paid it attention, like a warning. "Is that so… Why do you look like you've been dragged through salt and water then dropped back in like a drowned cat? And how come such simply dressed man has such a rich-looking sword?" He pointed at the sheath by Aragorn's side.

Aragorn came up with the first lie that came to his mind. "I was shipwrecked," he said gruffly. He had added a limp in his right leg now, weighting his body on his right side earlier, to make his story more believable.

The guard looked a bit sympathetic now. "Ah. Ill luck, as always these days. Heard everything's just going worse and worse and even them traders from Teirm aren't as safe as they used to be. Storms are breeding everywhere you look at. You should go to the Fisherman's and have yourself some good beer - just down a street and to the left. You're from Teirm, right?"

Aragorn nodded. "Aye, I'm from Teirm," he lied.

Holding up his façade when he was allowed to pass the guards, he limped past them and into the city, and turned left as instructed and not until he was out of sight did he walk normally again. There were not many people on the streets; mostly just a few men, fishermen he thought. Everything smelled of fish and salt and sea. The houses were simply built, as were the people dressed.

He spotted a six-feet large notice board, filled with images of various men - criminals - and texts. Aragorn was unfamiliar with the runes that these texts were written with, although they reminded of dwarven runes: this puzzled him since Lord Elrond, his foster father, had made sure he was well educated in the ways of elves, men and dwarves. This is growing stranger and stranger, he thought. He let his gaze sweep over the pictures: none of the criminals (as he assumed they were) did he recognize. /Where am I?/ he wondered. If this was a dream, and he was in reality lying unconscious by the bottom of a waterfall, it was the oddest and most detailed, and frighteningly vivid, dream he had ever had.

He saw the Fisherman's quickly enough. It was an old, larger building, above which there was a sign that he could not read. When he stepped inside a smell of ale, sweat and warmth hit his face. The place was not crowded, but not empty either. Conversations and laughter rose in the air and he went unnoticed as he made his way to the bar, where an elderly skinny man stood, cleaning a mug. Aragorn knew he had no money and could not buy food or shelter, but perhaps he could be given a look at a map, or be able to ask of the road to Teirm; it seemed like an important and large city by the way the guards had asked. If I can do it smoothly without looking like a lost fool or an obvious stranger, or both, he thought.

"Yea'?" said the barman. "So, what d'ye want?"

Aragorn picked up the accent and voice he had used by the gate. "I was wondering if you'd a map, just to have a look."

The man raised an eyebrow at him.

"I was shipwrecked a day ago," Aragorn supplied. He fell into his role and realized that he had to play charades to find out where he was without raising any suspicion.

"Oh, a shame, far too usual now. Wait, I might have something. The last storm must've been harder out at sea than here. Where did ye ship set out from?" His mood appeared to improve, from suspicion to sympathy. "Ale?"

"Teirm. An' I've got nothing to pay with, I'm afraid," Aragorn said and scratched his chin. "All went lost with the ship, and I'm not sure what happened to the other lads … Thank you," he added, when a map was placed before him. A corner of it was missing and there were traces of spilled water or ale or both on it, but he could make out the coastline and marked towns. Nothing was familiar to him. The writing was strange: he could not read the runes, just like on the board. It was not any language he knew of, yet he had encountered many of those when goring up in Lord Elrond's house and during his travels. It puzzled him.

"Ah, pity that, too many good lads are lost these days, and I mean no' only the recruits forcing 'em all away, but there's been far too many lost ships lately," the barman said sadly. "I feel with ye." He filled a cup with some ale and placed it atop of the map, and Aragorn looked up, glad that he barman was so generous. He nodded his thanks and sipped at the ale. It tasted terrible, but the corner's of Aragorn's lips only quirked downwards a little and he showed no signs of disgust, and managed to swallow.

Aragorn guessed that Teirm - which was obviously another town with harbour - was also a subject of these ill lucks that the barman spoke of. "Troubled times too?"

The barman sighed a little, abandoning the cloth he had used to clean the bar with and leaning forward on his elbows. "It's all getting' worse, and I say, if the king ain't caring one whit about us things wouldn't be much different. It's the rumors, it's making everything go wrong."

"Hey, Siev, speaking ill about Galbatorix will lead only to back luck, so shut your mouth!" cried a man, dismayed, from one of the nearby tables. The barman waved him away.

Aragorn remembered to save this piece of information, leaning forward a little and the barman continued in a lowered voice: "They're all takin' this the wrong way. But could ye believe it when you heard it that he's looking for some lad whose become a Dragon rider? That's at least the rumors. Methinks Galbatorix got real good reason to be worried. I'd be, were I in his clothing."

/Dragon riders? What strange place have I come to?/ Aragorn thought. /King Galbatorix?/ "I haven't heard that story before," he said.

"Nae? Well, he's got more a grip of Teirm than Narda, probably, an' doesn't want to leak out … information." The barman, Siev, shook his head. "No, most o' this ain't just small accidents, the Varden probably lies behind all these troubles, and it'll one day show that Galbatorix has failed his duties. Ha! It'll show of 'em, that."

Aragorn nodded in agreement even if he did not understand exactly what the man meant; this king, the cities, and the land … everything was unfamiliar to him. "There haven't been too many of them recruits I've seen."

"Nae, not here, not here. An' if you don't have any sons I doubt you'll have to worry for a time. But me wife, she cried her heart out for weeks when the soldiers came and took them - just snatched 'em away like that."

Aragorn felt his chest tighten, for he had both partner and son, and worried for them both. Were they here, nearby, also come here by accident as he had?

The barman continued. "Unfair's what it is. Galbatorix-"

"Siev, be silent or you'll befall to ill luck for the rest of your life! You must have a death wish," the man who had shouted earlier said, turning around towards the bar. A smirk appeared on his face. "Though it doesn't really surprise me how your last few months have turned out, with a mouth as large as yours!" The two others by his table laughed with him, before they turned back to their own conversation.

Aragorn's eyes widened when he realized that beneath the man's cloak there was armor, with a red tonlet with embroidery of a flame on it, and the two others were dressed in the same way. What are they doing here? Is this place where they come from originally?

Siev rolled his eyes. "Ignore 'em, lad." When seeing that Aragorn's cup was empty, he took and refilled it. "'Ere. I might be able to scramble together some bread to fill yer stomach with. Don't worry about payin'; old Siev can afford to help a shipwrecked lad. What's your name? I never think I caught it. Sometimes me memory's horrible."

"Strider," Aragorn said, playing his game. "The name's Strider."

()()()

Around the camp, people rose as Roran and the others explained what had happened and their deal with Clovis. Horst told them the last part, and as soon as he said the word 'barges', his voice was drowned in the villagers' annoyed cries. The fact that they would sail upon barges in the cargo like they were just mere stock angered many, worried some, and some were just relieved that they had found a way out of this, a way to Surda and hopefully safety.

Loring, the shoemaker, was among those who opposed to the idea. "Barges!" he cried. "Barges? We don't want any stinking barges!"

"Everyone, silence!" Delwin, one of the villagers, said strongly. "Keep on like this and somebody will hear us."

That silenced the people a little, but murmurs rippled among them like waves. Soon did this fade away too and when nothing but the sparkling from the fire was heard, Delwin continued. "I agree with Loring. Barges are unacceptable. They are slow and vulnerable, and we would be sitting in a cramped space without any privacy whatsoever. Horst, Elain is in the seventh month. You cannot ask her and others who are sick or weak to keep under the burning sun for weeks."

Horst felt but did not look more than a little apologetic. "We can tie tarps over the cargo holds. It will protect from sun and rain, even if it isn't much."

A bit behind them Legolas stood with half-an-eye on the town and the ocean; but yet he saw no signs of threat. He had put Eldarion to sleep in the tent he shared with one of the villagers and come to listen to this meeting, or argument it could rather be called. He did agree that barges were not exactly luxury, but he also agreed that it was the best option they had at the moment; he had not spoken up yet but had a thing or two on his mind. But foremost this was the villagers' decision. But I guess that king Galbatorix would not think me worthy another fate than them if we were caught, he thought. I fought his men, helped these people out of instinct, and even killed two of his soldiers without knowing who they were. And he has a price on an elf's head…Me.

He knew he would hate every moment upon barges, with its lack of privacy and the consequences that it would have on the villagers' health. He had only been on a ship once before - when he, Gimli and Aragorn along with the Dúnadain and the Dead Army took over the pirates' vessels and sailed from Pelagrir to Gondor's aid. He rather had those sorts of vessels than barges; barges were not for people to be stocked upon.

Birgit spoke up. "I wonder about another thing." People made room as she stepped closer to the fire. "With the two hundred guineas that Clovis wants and with that that Darmmen and his brothers have used to buy foods, we don't have much money left. Unlike townsmen our riches isn't in gold but mostly in livestock and property. Now that our property is gone and so is much of our animals, how are we going to buy supplies in Teirm or find transport more south, even if we become pirates and steal those barges?"

Many nodded in agreement.

"The most important thing is first and foremost to get to Teirm," Horst grumbled. "When we're finally there we will think of what to do next. It's possible we have to take more drastic measures."

Loring glared at him sourly. "Drastic measures? What do you mean drastic? We've already taken drastic measures. This whole take-on is drastic. I don't care what you say; I will not go on board on those damned barges, not after all we have been through in the Spine. Barges are for corns and animals. We want a ship with cabins and bunks were we could sleep comfortably. Why don't we wait for a ship to come and to rent a place on it? It wouldn't hurt, would it? Or why not…" He kept on arguing for some time; when he had stopped, Thane and Ridley continued the same way.

Legolas rolled his eyes at the stupidity of Mankind; even though, in afterthought, he realized that elves and other creatures were just as capable of bickering and disagreements, especially when in a pressing situation like this. Or in any given situation, really.

He kneeled next to where Roran sat by the edge of people gathered around the fire. "Make a decision," the elf advised quietly so only Roran could hear. "If we continue thus we will be noticed." By the map he had studied, he knew it were many miles from Narda to the southern land. Walking could take months.

The discussion did not end until Roran stood. The people silenced expecting him to hold a speech, like the visionary one that had urged them to leave Carvahall, and to fight back against the Empire and Galbatorix' soldiers.

"We can choose this, or walking," was all he said.

Then he went to sleep.

()()()

He ate for free but there was no room for spare, so Aragorn decided to leave the inn, taking with him half of the piece of bread he had been given. Outside the air was cooler and fresher. For a while he wandered around absently, glancing at the buildings and people working, listening to any rumors and talk that he could - to see if the barman's words held any truth - and his feet guided him to the shore and the harbors. There were several smaller boats, and one or two fishermen selling fish and calling out prizes. The sea splashed gently, and the air was filled with the cry of gulls. The water stretched out in a flat horizon. The sun was starting to sink.

For a while he stood on the shore, staring at the water - it reminded him of Anduin which was the great river leading to the sea - and it also reminded him of Legolas, who always spoke with painful longing in his voice about the sea and the gulls, even if he did not feel the sea longing anymore, those feelings overcome by his love for Aragorn.

He once again wondered how he could have been so lucky - with his loving husband, their child. He closed his eyes briefly and breathed heavily. Then he opened his eyes again and left the shore, walking back up to town to the gate. He rather slept outside the town than on the street. The air was one of spring or summer, and he knew he would not freeze during the night. He had been a ranger long enough to be used to such things as well.

The guards looked at him surprised as he limped past them. "Already on the way?" one of them asked.

"I've been given some directions," Aragorn said.

"And you'll attempt to walk back to Teirm, with that leg of yours?" The guard shook his head and a raw chuckle left his mouth. "You're mad. Not our fault if you meet up with bears or magicians or whatever else that can be hiding in the woods." But he let Aragorn pass them by unhindered. After all, it was much easier to hinder a man from entering a town than leaving it.

He walked up the road, which he now knew lead southeast, and then into the woods on his left were he was not spotted from the town. It was darkening quickly now. The woods were on the base of a chain of mountains, those that he had seen on the map. He wished that he had had a bow with him, for such a weapon would be a better protection against wildlife, and it also would give him an opportunity to hunt. He would not beg for food and living.

He walked and found an old deer path, which he followed up to the edge of a cliff, where he had an overlook of Narda. There, he lay down by the side of a large tree trunk, wrapped himself in his cloak and waited for night to come.

()()()

Something awoke Legolas. It was like a feather, which quietly and softly came into his dreams and tickled his mind. If it was a mere dream or a foreboding of ill or good, he could not tell, as he opened his eyes.

The camp laid still and quiet. The fires had been put down now and the forest was one large shadow under a handful of stars. He and Eldarion shared a tent with Roran and Baldor - both men had had quite a shock when they first discovered that elves slept with open eyes. The first man was holding watch by the edge of the hill, and the latter was deep asleep. Eldarion lay slumbering in a small basket, covered by blankets, to his right side. The only sounds heard was from the forest, the tremble of the leaves in the wind,

Why did he have this feeling of anxiety, and yet joy, like his heart knew something that his mind did not? Legolas blinked and rose quietly to not wake his son or Baldor, opening the tent flap and walking outside. The air was cool and soft on his skin. His knife hung in his belt, and it was one of few things now that made him feel secure, and made him feel that Eldarion was secure too.

It was midnight. He saw Roran's silhouette not far away, sitting by the edge of camp, and he whispered a soft greeting to not startle the man. A bow laid across his lap and three arrows were stuck in the ground on his side.

"What are you doing up so late?" Roran murmured. "It's not your watch tonight."

"Something woke me, and it felt like a warning," Legolas murmured in reply and kneeled next to him. Below, Narda was a dot of flickering light from windows, but those lights would soon be put out when the inhabitants all fell asleep. "I just want to make sure everything is all right."

"I have not seen anything."

As soon as he had said those words, a feeling of coldness and fear fell over him like a blanket and suddenly his body and mind felt heavy - even if his mind screamed danger. Legolas was on his feet, but Roran found it hard to move and even lift his bow. A dark shadow filled the sky, visible against the stars as black emptiness. A wisp of air hit them; it was like a whisper - Roran shivered.

"Ra'zac," Legolas muttered. "I will wake the others." Just as the words had left his lips, he had dashed back to camp without a sound.

Roran struggled to get to his feet. An alarm shot through the camp. Suddenly the animals went wild, someone muttered something quite loudly, and people rose and walked out from their tents.

A shrill cry erupted from the creature on the sky, and it woke the whole forest. Animals, wild or not, began crying and howling and baaing, a choir of panic, and Roran felt panic when he realized that their own stocks could easily give the ra'zac knowledge of where they were. He took his arrows and out them on the string of his bow, and staggered back into camp. The creature's cry weakened him. "Be silent, and don't move," he told everyone he met.

He found Fisk, Legolas and Baldor trying to calm the animals. When nothing appeared to help, Legolas almost forcefully laid his hands on each side of a shrieking horse's face and muttered something in his own language. The horse's eyes widened, then it snorted and quieted, even if it was still stomping nervously back and forth. Legolas hurriedly did this with all the animals he could, and the herd quieted soon, but he feared it wasn't soon enough. To his horror, Roran looked at the sky and saw the giant black shadow move closer, towards their hiding place. If that thing screams one more time, we have no chance to survive.

Once the ra'zac had reached their camp and was flying above it, all animals were silent except for a donkey that continued to cry fiercely. Legolas, who had fetched his bow in his shared tent, laid an arrow against the string and shot the donkey in between the ribs, and it fell without a sound. He laid another arrow on the string, in case they had no choice but to fight the flying creature.

Then suddenly, hooves thundered against the ground as a flock of wild deer broke through the trees and rushed through the group of villagers and stocks, in their febrile attempt to flee the ra'zac. They were so close that Legolas saw their golden-tinted eyes and the fear in them as they rushed past. The stream continued for over a minute, which the villagers held with tension.

After flying a few circles around the area, the creature turned south and followed the wild heard of deer, and Roran breathed a sigh of relief that they had not been detected. But he dared not to move, nor did any other villager - maybe it was just a trap to make them move, and the ra'zac would come back.

The night fell silent and still again. Some went back to their tents; others sat awake with arrows on their tense bows and waited, waited for hours until dawn came. Legolas sat cross-legged in his tent with a bow across his lap and with an uneasy Eldarion in his arms, murmuring an elvish lullaby; Roran sat among those outside with weapons at the ready and with their hearts pounding loudly in their chests.

Far away echoed a shrill shriek of the ra'zac - then there was nothing.

()()()

A loud, shrill shriek erupted from somewhere in the woods, and Aragorn shuddered before he even opened his eyes. His mind cried in warning, for the sound was like the one of the Nazgûls' winged beasts. But the Ringwraiths did not exist anymore; the Nine were destroyed with Sauron as well as their beasts … What then could it be?

He stood up, sleep gone from his mind, and gazed up at the still star covered sky. A large shadow north of him covered the stars like a blanket. Aragorn gripped his sword, hesitating on the choice of fleeing, hiding or finding the creature. If indeed there was such a beast here, it was a danger also to the town below.

Darkness concealed him as he moved between bush and tree, in the direction of the shadow - it was moving more and more away from him.

Another shrill cry was heard and Aragorn gasped in surprise, quickening his steps as he saw the shadow circle an area not far up ahead - but it was dark and hard to see, and he almost stumbled on a tree root. When he looked up again, the shadow had gone out form sight. He paused, wondering if he should try finding his way back or stay here, or continuing on. There must be a reason for the large creature to circle that area.

He walked onwards with his hand on the handle of his sword. He was once again surprised when a large group of deer rushed past him, wild and panicking fleeing from a danger up ahead, and he pressed himself up a tree to not be trampled down. The animals were so close that he felt their puffing breaths.

It took over a minute before they were gone, and Aragorn walked in the direction they had come from. His body was tense, his senses alert. Up ahead, there was a faint weak light, like from a shaded lantern or flickering torch. People, he realized. There was a camp here. The creature had circled here ... It was probably better to make contact with the people than trying to hide, and being seen by mistake, taken for a deer or enemy and shot. Aragorn wondered fleetingly why these people camped here, where a city was so nearby, and if they did not have room for them in the city - which he doubted - why then not they camped on the small field just outside Narda.

They're hiding... from what?

The camp was just a few yards away, when suddenly something struck him like a bolt of lightning, a feeling and warning. He looked up and saw a blur of pale light and gold move at him, and he moved out of the way just in time - he recognized …

He raised his hands in the air, showing that he meant no harm, and his heartbeat quickened in his chest. The other's fast movements had stilled and Aragorn felt he dared to breathe again - the other would have probably slit his throat, so fast he was moving, with inhuman speed and grace -

He gasped as the stranger's face came into view.

"Legolas!"

Chapter Text

There was a pricking feeling by the base of his neck; it felt like a warning, but he was not sure, because the feeling was also giving a sense of familiarity. Excitement worked down his spine and his heartbeat quickened, and it pulled him outside. Legolas opened the tent flap and trusted his instincts. This could not be the ra'zac coming back …

No, this was different.

Outside, several men and two women were awake, sitting on the moss and gazing at every direction. No fires or torches were lit, but beside one single tent stood a half-covered lantern and its calm weak light gave the camp a crimson glow. With his knife within an easy reach, hanging in his belt, the elf silently made his way to the edge of camp, westward, where his feet and mind led him. There was a small slope and three flat rocks there, and he kneeled upon one of them and stilled there, staring into the eerie silent woods. Behind him footsteps approached, harsh against the night.

"Legolas, what can you see? … Is the scavenger coming back?" muttered a voice that he recognized.

"No, but something is approaching," Legolas replied quietly. "I can feel it."

Baldor gripped his spear and was about to go into the shadowed forest. But Legolas raised a hand and signalled him to step back, shaking his head. "No … wait," he murmured.

Now there were footsteps ahead: boots or heavier shoes stepping over bush, stone and branches shattered on the ground, sometimes pauses as whoever it was tried to find his way in the dark, but still heading towards the camp. Baldor shifted nervously. A dry, loud crack was heard as a twig was snatched, somewhere in the forest, and this shook the other villagers into awareness. They sprang to their feet. Legolas tensed and laid his hand on his knife, and he raised his other hand to signal silence - hoping the other understood - before he moved to his feet and silently crept down the short slope.

When he reached the edge of the forest - the camp was placed in a wide clearing - he waited and listened and watched. Something, a figure, cloaked and tall, came into view among the shadows of the forest. It was moving steadily towards the camp now, and the elf tensed. The feeling of fear and panic did not creep upon them now; this was a man, not a ra'zac. A soldier!

Legolas' whole body tensed like a bowstring and silently, he unsheathed his knife. The same moment as the man looked up, the elf leaped upon him, as they were only a few meters away. The man had barely time to react, or would have, had he been an ordinary man. But he foresaw the elf's move and quickly ducked out of the way. The elf's knife flashed and his hair whipped about him, as he landed with surprise in his heartbeat - the man was fast - but still with the grace of a cat, and he turned and was about to swiftly slit the man's throat - but he froze when he saw the man's face, illuminated by the weak glow from the lantern, his eyes like melted silver … Legolas' knife was in mid-air and he stood there like a statue, his breath caught in his throat and his heart missing a beat. His eyes were wide of shock.

"Estel?" he gasped, and at the same time the man exclaimed: "Legolas!"

For a moment they stood there, looking at each other - Legolas' had missed his warm face, his smile, his eyes, but now his face was tired and his clothing looked ragged, even if the eyes were the same. Legolas barely took notice to that the man was dressed as a ranger, not as a king. Enormous relief washed over him and then the pair embraced. He felt the man's hand on his back and his smile against his cheek. Then came his questions and worries: how had Aragorn come here, and were Gimli or anyone else here too? Were they all right? Was Aragorn uninjured?

"Legolas, I was so worried," Aragorn murmured in elvish as they separated, but still he rested his hand on Legolas' shoulder. "Your father was fuming over me for being an irresponsible husband … Gimli was no better; they are all right and uninjured, though. I was so worried, worried for you that you were hurt, or worse … Is Eldarion all right?"

Legolas' smiled slightly. "Eldarion is asleep for now and he is well. But come. There is much to tell you, and much I would like to hear from you as well. Is Gimli here? Or anyone else?"

"No - I came alone."

He led the man into the camp, where now the villagers on guard had gathered, Baldor, Roran and Birgit at the front. They stood there with spears and shields and bows in their hands, and gave Aragorn suspicious looks.

Roran stepped forward. "Who are you?" he asked, sternly but quietly. They always spoke quietly now when they camped to near Narda.

"This is Estel, a friend of mine from my home," Legolas explained before Aragorn could speak up. He stressed the two last words and Roran gave a faint nod, understanding what the elf meant. The man was yet the only was who knew where the elf originally came from.

"We should speak in my tent," Roran said, but Birgit cut in.

"How can we know he's not lying?" she asked fiercely. "Do you trust an elf's judgement more than ours, your people? This man," she pointed at Aragorn, "may be a soldier under disguise, since he just appeared directly after the ra'zac almost found us."

Roran hesitated before he answered, looking at Aragorn. "It's not about more or less trust. If you were a threat to us, Legolas would have already gotten rid of you. If you do anything that opposes a threat to us, we have no choice …" He let his voice falter and the words hung in the air.

"I understand," Aragorn said, even if he truly did not know why these people were so suspicious. This place … wherever I am, this is a land in war, he thought.

"Roran," Legolas said, addressing the man, "I trust Estel with my life. I do hope that it is suitable for you." It felt so good to be near Aragorn again, holding him if so only with a hand on his arm, and he wished only to kiss him - being near him made him feel on fire, more alive; but what if the villagers decided that he was a threat, and had to dispose of him? Would they even do so? If they do, Legolas thought, I have to fight them even if it pains me.

A bit reluctantly the villagers agreed to let Aragorn come into their camp, after a few minutes of silent talking; Birgit still opposed to the idea. With his hand on Aragorn's upper arm, Legolas led his lover to the tent he shared with Roran and Baldor. The villagers scattered and went back to their guarding posts, including Baldor. Roran closed the tent flap after they had entered the tent; Legolas lit an oil lamp. He knew that this talk could take a while.

Aragorn's face lit up: there by the side of a flat, thin bedding was a child wrapped in blankets, asleep and face content. He gingerly kneeled and lifted the child up, cradling his head, and Roran was surprised when Legolas did neither react nor the child stir: usually Eldarion was troubled whenever anyone else but Legolas woke him up, and Legolas only let the boy in the care of Elain and no others.

"He has grown," Aragorn breathed.

"Estel is the fa- … is familiar with my son," Legolas explained at Roran's raised eyebrows and silently cursed himself for the stammering hesitation in his voice.

They sat down in a circle around the lantern, faces catching a golden hue, and Aragorn sat with Eldarion in his lap. The elf spoke up first and lowered his voice, for he wished not to be overheard, even if it was a large risk that they would be since they only had cover of a wool-tent. "Like me Estel is from Arda," he said.

Roran nodded. "I guessed so."

"Wait," Aragorn said, "this is not Middle-Earth at all? True, when I came into the town - Narda, I believe it is called - everything was unfamiliar, but I cannot think that … I thought this land perhaps was beyond the edges of our maps, but yet in Middle-Earth; we have always been unsure of the world beyond it."

"This is Alagaësia, and I strongly believe this is another world and possibly another time," Legolas said. "Here much is different: you might have heard of King Galbatorix while you entered Narda?" Aragorn nodded. "He is as I said king of this land, and have been for a hundred years. This world holds magic, Estel, magic of which has faded or never been used in Arda: this land feels younger, wilder, like Mirkwood was during the dark years. We, this whole group, are heading for Surda, a freer land south of Galbatorix' Empire."

"I heard talk while I were in Narda," Aragorn said. Then he remembered something and looked at Roran. "I saw you as an image of what I believe were criminals." He tried to speak carefully, so not to wrath the man.

"We are not criminals, even if I've done things I have regretted," Roran said and looked Aragorn in the eye. "I won't lie: we are fleeing from Galbatorix because they are hunting us, me and my whole village. In this camp is what remains if my home Carvahall. We had to choose between flight, death or slavery."

His voice held a stern determination, and pain, and almost hysteria - all this is because of me, he thought, even if he did not say it. Aragorn nodded and felt sympathy, for the man appeared to speak the truth, and these people … they looked like no warriors or a strength that were enemies to a king, but rather innocents caught up in whatever game that was played. He wondered what part Legolas had in this.

"How did you come here?" Legolas asked. "Myself was I pursued by orcs, and my only way of escape was to jump down a waterfall; but I thought at first I was on a beach and had shook of the orcs in Ithilien, not that I was in another world altogether. I met up with Roran per chance; I realized he was a friend when he was hunted by soldiers in red tonlets and armour like those that attempted to siege Minas Tirith."

Aragorn nodded: "I saw such soldiers in Narda." Roran tensed visibly. "Two of them, in the tavern the Fisherman's. When the barman spoke ill of the king, one of the soldiers turned to face him and told him to be silent, and there was threatening too."

"I feared this," Legolas muttered. At Aragorn's inquiring look, he explained: "To reach Surda, we plan to take a route from Narda by barges. Now that there are soldiers in Galbatorix' service there, not only guards at the gate as we saw yesterday - it worries me, for it might be harder to sneak past them unrecognized. Roran is a wanted man for his opposing to the king; and the king knows of me too, for those who went to Narda yesterday tells me that there was a note about an elf wanted. We need to escape smoothly."

Then he went back to Aragorn, who felt curiosity, concern, confusion and worry; this king was an enemy of elves, if Legolas was wanted, and it pained him to know that, since elves were a peaceful but rare folk. But he swore to himself that no one would come near Legolas, soldier or even Galbatorix himself, as long as he was here. "Estel, now tell me how you arrived."

Aragorn quickly told him of how the battle had ended, about their search for him, and the surprise attack by the river. It was obvious to him that Legolas was not telling Roran about their relationship, so he did not mention that either. Legolas' face grew more and more concerned. "So Gimli and my father were battling as you fell?" he asked. His expression darkened. "I hope they both are all right …"

Aragorn briefly squeezed his arm. "I only fear that they will turn against each other once the lines of orcs and men have ended," he said and managed to draw a chuckle from the elf. "Since we have been searching for you for five days-"

"Five days?" Legolas repeated disbelievingly, his already pale face turning paler, the smile immediately fading. "Eldarion and I have been in Alagëasia for almost two months!"

There was a moment of shocked silence.

"No wonder Eldarion has grown …You are right, we are nowhere near Arda," Aragorn said, with wide eyes once he recovered from the initial shock. "This transportation, or what you might call it, must be of a magic that only an istari possesses, yet there are no such left in Middle-Earth."

"I fear it is Galbatorix," Legolas said. "He is powerful, and if he has magicians in his service or is one himself, he could open this gate and control it to let his troops through to out world. We must stop him, find out way back and shut this link. Who knows how many men he has to send? How long can Gondor stand, or Rohan and Gondor united, while still bearing the scars of the last War? Arda is yet healing. If he has so powerful magicians in his service, then …" His voice faltered. "I do not know why this king attacks us. We have not done anything to oppose him. In fact, we have not heard of him before, and yet instead of trying to connect to us and perhaps use this magical … gate … in a good way, he turns it into a war. It bothers me endlessly. Oh, how I wish Mithrandir could help us!"

Roran spoke up. "The Varden might help you. They are rebellions and have their current base in Surda. I think they know about magic, or else they wouldn't be able to fight Galbatorix for so long."

Legolas nodded. "What about the elves in Du Weldenvarden?" he said. "Aragorn and I must go there if we cannot find a way to return to Arda in Surda." He looked at Aragorn. The man was subconsciously stroking his thumb against Legolas' knuckles, hands laid over each other. "What say you, Estel?"

"To go to the rebellions of Galbatorix' rule is a good beginning, though we need a way back. Even if Middle-Earth looses time, we win time. I see a weakness in Galbatorix' plan, for this magic that holds the 'gate' open must be strong and almost constant. If a battle takes five or six days in Middle-Earth, it takes months before words reaches him of the situation. This way, we can maybe erase all of his soldiers from Middle-Earth before he knows of it, and we can find a way back and shut this gate."

For a while silence fell and from outside they heard occasional footsteps, a murmur and the whispers of the night. It was very quiet. Aragorn had much to take in - his mind was a bowl that kept being filled with names, places, and thoughts, and fears of new attacks and fears for his child and his lover and his friends. Legolas sat in equal silence, and his face was unreadable for all except Aragorn, who saw he too was mulling over what had been said. Roran's brow was knitted. Then, the younger man stood. "I will go and take the guard."

When the tent flap had closed again, Aragorn moved as well and placed a kiss on Legolas' lips. A content sigh crossed them. "I have missed you."

"I have missed you as well, most beloved," Legolas murmured and laid his hand on the man's cheek. A beard had begun to grow there, and it felt harsh against his skin, but it was also familiar and comforted him. As always when the man was worried or busy, he had forgotten to shave. He let his hand fall down, his other hand yet clasping Aragorn's larger calloused one. "As have our little one…"

He smiled as Eldarion as if on cue stirred and cuddled up against Aragorn. "Hello, my boy," the man murmured and stroke the boy's cheek. Still with tightly closed eyes Eldarion reached out and gripped Aragorn's tunic in small firm fists. He would soon wake up and be hungry. Legolas searched through his pack and found Eldarion's bottle. He had very little milk left; he had fed the boy with water and porridge mostly during the last week, but he had hoped on finding a way to refill his supplies in Narda, and two days ago when they had been into the town they had not had enough money to buy everything they needed. He had said that milk was not as urgent as some other supplies, such as medicines, since Eldarion ate other things. But with the soldiers here … how are we to get on the supplies and people onto the barges at all? Then he pushed the thought away and settled by Aragorn's side again.

"When dawn comes, Roran and some others will go to Narda and prepare the barges," Legolas said after a moment. "I was planning to stay here, and since you met up with the soldiers and the guards … it is probably better if you stay here as well, and help move the camp."

"You said you had found barges, but this village must be larger than a hundred people," Aragorn said. "How will you move them onto the barges undetected?"

"We plan to use a bay a few miles south … and we have to hurry too," Legolas murmured and let the subject drop as Eldarion woke, and began to wail - then the boy recognized his father with much joy and grabbed for Aragorn's beard. A gurgle left his lips, and another noise, as if he was trying to form words. Legolas smiled and gave the man the bottle. As Aragorn fed the child, the elf leaned against Aragorn's shoulder and breathed his scent. There were many troubles to overcome and dangers ahead, and intrigues and plots to uncover, but for a moment things were all right, at last, when his lover was here with him. It was as things should be.

Their fingers entwined. "He will soon be nine months old," Legolas murmured. "I cannot really believe it. It feels like yesterday when he was just born and so small in my arms …"

"Do you remember when we found out about him?" Aragorn said. "I thought it was a dream, it was too wonderful to be true … And we had no experience with children whatsoever, least of all me! At least Sam and Rosie's children were under your care at times when I was busy; remember when they visited Minas Tirith…" He shook his head with a mirthful smile.

Legolas chuckled. "Poor one, how shall you manage once he is old enough to walk, or Eru save us, once he grows adolescent? My father told me of how I acted when I was a reckless youngster - it scarcely could have been me. It feels so long time ago when he gave me all those lessons, so fidgety and worried he was beneath that stern mask …I do not think he was ready to have me married."

The couple was used at having a conversation that switched between two languages, so Legolas was only half-aware that he spoke Sindarin at all. There was so much he wanted to say. These two months away from Aragorn had been the longest months in his life; for he had been afraid that he would never see the man ever again.

Aragorn had never been fully comfortable talking about Legolas' father. "You are an adult, old enough to make your own decisions. We have his and many others' blessings," he said softly. He put away Eldarion's bottle, and placed a kiss each on Legolas' temple, nose and mouth. The last became a heart-soaring full kiss, which represented their longing and they tried to push away all uncertainties, and they parted only when they needed air. Legolas' gasped in surprise when Eldarion tugged at his braid rather painfully, craving attention; he tried to remove the child's hand but the grip was firm.

"When we yet were in Carvahall, I tried in vain to teach him say Ada," Legolas said with a smile. "All he can do is spit bubbles. I do not think he will grow up to be a diplomat."

"Now, now," Aragorn said with a chuckle. "You are too hard on such a young being. Wait at least one month more." He unwrapped an already dressed Eldarion from his blankets and hoisted him into the air, playfully, which resulted in an excited shriek from the child.

"Hush! Remember we do not want to wake the sleeping ones or the animals," Legolas said quietly but with a wide grin on his face. Aragorn reluctantly put his son down on the ground in front of him, and the boy sat on his romp and stared at his parents as if he expected a gift or to play with them. With a smirk, Legolas rummaged through his pack and found the wooden toy, and out it in Eldarion's eagerly awaiting hands.

"What is that?" Aragorn asked.

"Oh, Aragorn, blame me not for my lacking skills of sculpturing; my teachers as young thought that it was better to know how to read and write official letters rather than making children's toys. That, my dear, is a horse."

"It looks more like a donkey from his angle."

Legolas rolled his eyes, lightly hitting the top of Aragorn's head. "There is a lack of imagination you have, that is all. Squint a little." He waved his hand. "Anyway, I do not think Eldarion is so old yet to understand such things as ugly and beautiful toys."

A silence fell over them; they spoke very quietly now so not to disturb anyone. After a while, Eldarion tired of his horse and dropped it, and did his best to crawl into Legolas' lap. "We should rest," Legolas murmured. "There is yet four hours til dawn comes. There is work to be done tomorrow."

Aragorn laid down on the blankets; after have changed Eldarion's clothing - he had only two sets spare - Legolas wrapped the child in his blankets, unlit the lantern, and laid down next to the boy, content with Aragorn behind him, the man's body creating a warmth that no blanket could, and sighed as he felt a familiar hand lay around his waist and pull him close. They lay there still and breathing, and took comfort in each other's presence and warmth. It could have been an hour or a minute before Legolas heard Aragorn's breath deepen, and he fell asleep.

The elf found not sleep, his mind full of returning questions yet again, and he wanted to be conscious of every moment next to Aragorn. His senses pricked, then the tent flap was opened and a man that he assumed was Roran - he recognized that scent and those footsteps - stumbled inside the dark tent and laid down on the opposite bedroll. There was shifting of a body and blankets, breathing becoming deeper, and then he too was asleep.

Legolas laid staring up into the ceiling of the tent, listening to the gentle caress of the wind above, and felt Aragorn shift behind him; slowly he was lulled into the dream-paths of elves and he wandered on grass fields, forgetting about Middle-Earth and Alagëasia, as well as worries for his friends and the Ra'zac, Galbatorix' soldiers … There was only peace and a child's laughter.

()()()

Roran woke in the morning, glad that he had managed to find some sleep: the last two watches before dawn had not been his. The air was warm and he laid for a moment still, thinking over today's plan, when yesterday night came back into his mind, and he became aware of an unfamiliar breathing on his left. It was deep, slow and even, and definitely not Legolas'. He sat up leaning on his elbows and looked to his side.

Estel, the stranger that had arrived during the night, laid there. I still do not know if I can trust him, Roran thought; but if I leave him behind or have to kill him, I'd lose Legolas' trust as well. I doubt I could fight him and survive it … and I do not want to fight him.

He noticed to his surprise that the man held an arm in a protective, almost possessive, way around Legolas' waist. It was a simple embrace, but not the embrace of two friends … Lovers? A frown flittered across Roran's brow. He had assumed that Legolas was married to a woman of his own kind, and that she was either in Arda or dead. But that embrace … It did not make him unsettled, more surprised and curious, and mostly of all it made him wonder. And if they were lovers … It was not just something you asked. Both were males after all, and it was … abnormal, a thing most people hid and were ashamed for.

As always when in sleep, the elf's eyes were wide open in an uncanny way, which made Roran uncomfortable. His eyes were large and seemed to be glazed over, unconfused even if they stared in an angle up at a point in the ceiling and seemed to be fixed on the same spot. If the elf dreamed, Roran could not determine.

He pushed himself up, untangling himself from the covers, and took on his boots. With one last glance at the sleeping pair, and Eldarion by their side, he opened the tent flap and went outside. There was already activity in the camp and one tent was about to be taken down and packed. Here the air was cooler and bit his skin, as the first sunrise beamed on the ground and the forest around them awoke.

Gertrude was sitting on a pack and Birgit stood next to her, conversing with each other. Baldor, who had taken the last watch tonight, looked very tired, absently rubbing his eyes with his sleeve. "Good morning, Stronghammer," he said as Roran passed by with his bow strapped on his back.

Roran grunted his reply and went to stand on the cliff edge from where he could see Narda. The town held already activity. He could not see clearly, but thought there was at least one guard by the gate.

"Morning, Roran," Horst said when he came up to his side. "There's talk going on. A friend of Legolas suddenly appeared yesterday night, correct?"

Roran nodded. "Yes." He looked at Horst. "He is trustable, I believe. He is like Legolas not a friend of Galbatorix or his soldiers. He comes from Legolas' home."

"I hope you are right. We don't want more fights or troubles," Horst muttered, before he went to help Albriech with the horses. Silently, Roran agreed with him. Too many fights and troubles had been done already, not all of them dealt with yet.

()()()

The sounds of footsteps woke him; there was the sound of a tent flap being opened, then a gust of air onto his face. Legolas' eyes focused again and a smile came to his face at once when he felt that Aragorn was there, still holding him. It was not a dream. The elf carefully turned around so that he faced the still asleep man, snuggling into his chest almost childishly - he could not help it, but it made him feel comfortable and warm. When a murmur left Aragorn's lips, Legolas smiled, and he kissed the man's face. Dawn's light penetrated the thin alls of the tent and made Aragorn's face fully visible: his hair was tousled, and now he realized, smelled of salt. There was a small scrape of a knife or other weapon on his chin; thoughtfully Legolas trailed the mark with his finger, as the man blinked awake.

"…'Las?"

"Aye, I am still here," the elf murmured, holding one of the man's hands against his chest. "How did you sleep?"

"I was afraid I had been dreaming, and would wake up alone," Aragorn said. "But I am glad. It was no dream."

A smile graced Legolas' face. "Come, rise. The sun is already shining upon the world. I will tend to Eldarion … or perhaps you wish to," he said. "Roran's company will leave for Narda soon."

Aragorn sat up and stretched; his body felt like a heap of sore muscles. He groaned. "I am growing too old for this, meleth, sleeping on the ground … I have become used to duvets and soft silken beds."

"I am glad that there are still some things you have not become too old for yet," Legolas said teasingly and consciously laid a hand on the man's thigh. Aragorn made something between a growl and a frustrated sigh, and a tinge of red crept up his cheeks. "I might give you a massage later, if you help me with Eldarion," the elf offered, gesturing towards the man's back.

Aragorn happily agreed on that, and together they woke and fed the child and changed the boy's napkins and redressed him. Even if Eldarion whined when Legolas combed the boy's hair with his finger and kept wriggling when Aragorn attempted to put on his small shoes, the boy was still very happy to have his Father back. To him, two months must have felt like two years, for during the days of travel there had been also very much boredom and little happiness, since everyone was wary and grim-faced, and even Legolas had been quieter than usual, often absent also when he played with the boy and took care of him. His Father's appearance had sprung more life into Legolas, who now smiled and laughed softly.

After tending to Eldarion, the pair sat for a moment in silence and the elf untied the knots of muscles as he massaged Aragorn's back; the man's shoulders were set firm and tense, showing that he had much on his mind.

"It is not so cold today," Legolas commented, glancing through the opening of the tent. "I do not think I will need to carry him in his blanket once the sun has risen a little higher." He quickly packed his belongings, strapped his weapons on his back and with a thumb-suckling Eldarion on his hip he walked outside with Aragorn just behind him.

The villagers glanced at the pair, mainly at Aragorn - a stranger, cloaked and dressed in worn-looking clothing, a sword hanging by his belt. All around him, Aragorn saw wary men, quiet and tired women, downcast children and crying youngsters, everyone dressed in rags, and looking underfed. Tents were being put down, horses and donkeys gathered and loaded with packs, and even if there was much activity, there was little noise and barely any talk. He felt pity wash up in him, as well as sympathy, and a strong will to help these people. If he was able to he would take them to Gondor, probably the green healthy lands of Ithilien, and give them food and shelter and an opportunity to rebuild their homes and life.

What drove them to this? he thought, even if he knew the answer already. War, desperation, fear, uncertainty … Galbatorix' troops …

Now in the sunlight, Legolas looked thinner, a bit withdrawn and his face paler, even if there was a happy light and warmth in his eyes. His clothing was worn and grimy; the belt around his waist too long and the tunic he wore too large, and his hair was unbraided and had lost some of its shine. Yet the relief that was seen in his eyes, the faint smile, still made him look beautiful, to Aragorn the most beautiful creature he had even seen.

Aragorn followed him to the edge of camp, where Roran had gathered several men around him, both tall and short and some muscled but all of them malnourished. Legolas shortly, with just a few words, joined the discussion. Roran would leave now for Narda, and with the help of the men and Clovis' sailors load the barges with food and supplies, while leaving Horst in his place, to make sure that the villagers were safely escorted to a bay a few miles south, where Clovis' barges would fetch them sometimes during the afternoon. Horst, Aragorn noted, was a rather large muscled man with a grim face and an air of authority around him. His hands were large and rough; this man used them each day in his work. Legolas murmured to him that the man was the smith of Carvahall. After a short meeting, they split up, and when Roran's company left the villagers gazed after them - with what feelings, Aragorn could not tell.

()()()

Roran knew it was risky to come with them, since he had a price on his head, but he did not trust anyone else to do what he might need to do, maybe even kill soldiers without hesitation. Besides, he was sure he looked so much different from the pictures of him that no one might recognize him. To Roran's horror, the same guards as they had met before stood by the gate. As last time, they lowered their halberds and blocked the way.

"There are more of you this time," one of them commented. "And not the same as before; except for you." He nodded at Roran suspiciously. "Do you want me think that the spear and shield is for pottery too?"

"No. We've been hired by Clovis to protect his barges from pirates on the way to Teirm," Roran said sternly, calmly.

The two soldiers began to laugh. "You? Mercenaries? You said you were traders yesterday."

"This is better paid."

One of the guards frowned. "You lie. I was a mercenary once. I was hungry more nights than I was full. How large is your company of traders, anyway? Seven yesterday and thirteen today. It seems a bit too many for an expedition such as yours." He looked at Roran, squinting like he tried to look through him. "You look familiar. What's your name?"

"Stronghammer."

"You don't happen to be Roran, possib-"

Roran reacted at once, with no other choice. He pushed up his spear through the man's throat and a fountain of blood smeared the man's clothing and the ground. Roran let go of the spear, took the hammer from his belt and twirled around at the same time as he blocked the other man's sword with his shield. Moving his arm forcefully in a circle, the hammer went down and broke the soldier's helmet. The both bodies laid on the ground in a lifeless heap.

Roran stood there panting for breath and staring at the two bodies. I killed again, he thought, with both disgust and pride and a hundred other mixed emotions. Now I've killed ten.

The others stared at him in shock. Unable to meet their gazes, Roran turned with his back against them and gestured at the bodies. "Hide the bodies before anyone sees them," he ordered briskly.

They quickly did as they were told, and Roran studied the top of the walls for any signs of activity. Fortunately no one was there, or at the streets beyond the gate.

"Done," Orval muttered, climbing up from the ditch by the road where they had put the corpses. Even beneath his beard the man was pale.

Roran nodded. Willing himself, he turned around to face the others, pale and wide-eyed as they were. "Listen to me. When we walk to the harbor we walk quickly but normally, without running. When the alarm goes on - it's possible someone heard what happened - you must seem surprised and interested but not afraid; and whatever you do, don't give people reckon to suspect you. The lives of our friends and families are hanging on that line; everything else is unimportant. Understood?"

"Yes, Stronghammer," they answered in choir.

"Then come with me."

()()()

After Roran had left, Horst arranged the work of breaking up the camp. Legolas helped with a few directions and Aragorn followed, did what he was told to. For once it was a relief not to be shouldered with the burden of leadership.

They ate little; by lunchtime, before the sun was as highest on the sky, they had left the clearing and went through the vegetation around Narda in the form of an eclipse. The walk took almost three hours, because they had to herd the sheep and goats - the few that remained since they had killed many of them to have something to eat, and others had been victims of attacks by wolves. Legolas often handed Eldarion over to Aragorn and herded the animals, using elvish and his natural connection with the earth and everything that lived.

They arrived at the shore, to the spray of the sea and smell of salt, by dinnertime. Legolas realized just what Aragorn's scent had been mixed with last night; the sea. He had smelled the sea. A twinge of longing pained his chest, for even if the sea longing no longer was there, still it pained him to look at the sea and knowing that he no longer could cross it.

A hand laid on his shoulder. "Legolas, how do you feel?" Aragorn murmured. He knew how sensitive Legolas was about this subject.

He took a breath. "I am all right. I … I will manage." He tore his gaze away from the splashing waters and hoisted Eldarion further up his hip. The boy was asleep and almost unbelievable heavy for his age, in the elf's opinion.

Aragorn did not quite believe him. He could not move his hand from his lover's shoulder, if this was as close to an embrace they could come right now. They had spoken with each other and agreed, albeit reluctantly, that it was better they acted as great friends, but not lovers. Mankind was often very misunderstanding and did not accept relationships such as theirs, and did not wish for a confrontation, at least not until they had reached Surda. Legolas couldn't help himself and leaned into the man's touch.

"They should arrive soon, had they not met trouble on the way," the elf murmured.

The villagers had settled on the sand, some sat on the ground and their packs, and some stood; the donkeys and horses stomped their hooves into the ground and nervously neighed, as if they knew they would go on a journey on barges and did not like it. Most children were nervous and downcast, but two smaller ones had escaped their parents grasp and were running around, chasing each other with cries of joy. The adults were hopeful, as hopeful as they dared. Soon they would escape the Empire's grasp, if they managed to take the barges to Teirm - and refill their supplies - and then Surda, and freedom.

Aragorn looked around: this beach was somehow familiar. He had been here yesterday, when he arrived and was making it for Narda, he remembered. Legolas, who had settled cross-legged by the man's feet, was distracting himself from the sea's waves and the gulls in the air by playing with Eldarion, who was delighted, but each time the boy lifted his head and saw the sea he was curious by the large blue glittering thing and tried to reach out for it. Each time he did that, Legolas' attention broke and he too stared at the sea.

It took almost two hours before the barges came within sight: three old but good-looking ships guided by oars at the moment. It steered into the bay. Legolas' sharp eyes caught sight of Roran and some of his men, several sailors and a man he assumed was Clovis. The first barge nearing the cheering villagers was named Red Boar.

Legolas stood, wishing that this part of the journey took as little time as possible. I need to fight these thoughts about the sea and concentrate at the task at hand, he thought.

As the Red Boar, Merrybell and Edeline had all settled in the bay, the villagers took their packs and children and began to mount the ship. Legolas was with the first to put his feet on the Red boar's deck, and subconsciously he hesitated, before he turned Eldarion over to Aragorn and went over to Roran. The man was with the captain, who looked nervous, and angry, to say at least.

"…but I did not agree on shipping hundreds of people to Teirm. I ask myself why you did not say anything about this, but I realize that you're involved with something that means trouble … trouble for you and for me," Clovis said with a muttered curse. "I should throw you all overboard and sail back to Narda."

"But you will not do that," Roran said calmly.

"Oh, why not?"

"Because I need these barges, Clovis, and I'll do anything to keep them. Anything. If you stay true to our agreement, we will have a peaceful journey and you will meet your daughter Galena again. If not …" The threat sounded worse than it was; Roran would not kill him or the sailors, but leave them on a shore if he was forced to. Then Clovis would alert the Empire but it would maybe take a day to reach Narda on feet, which gave the villagers time to flee.

Clovis' face reddened. Then he muttered something and said: "All right then, Stronghammer."

But just as Roran turned towards the shore again, pleased with himself, he heard a noise - on instinct he turned around and protected his head with his shield. His arm vibrated when a belaying pin hit the shield and broke in two. The next moment, when Roran managed to straighten himself, Legolas had rushed over with a drawn knife as a warning towards the captain - shocked, both at Roran and the elf, Clovis quickly retreated over the deck.

"You cannot win over me," Roran said. "I ask you again; will you stay true to our agreement? If not I will put you ashore, claim these barges and force your sailors to serve. I do not want to destroy your living, but I will if you force me to …" He paused for a moment. "This can be a normal journey without any incidences if you chose to help us. Remember that we've already paid you."

Clovis straightened himself. "If I agree then you have to be polite enough and tell where these people are from and why they're here. No matter how much gold you give me, I won't do anything that is against my principles."

Legolas took the moment, glanced at Roran and quietly asked him for his opinion. Roran nodded.

"Have you heard of Carvahall in Palancar Valley?" the elf asked. He had lowered the knife, but it still rested in his hand; he weighted it thoughtfully.

The man looked a bit uncomfortable being spoken to by the elf. "Sometime. Why?"

"Because you now see the village on the shore," Legolas said quietly. Clovis' eyes widened.

"Galbatorix' soldiers attacked us for no reason. We fought back, and when we could not hold the battle anymore we crossed the Spine and followed the coast to Narda. Galbatorix has promised that each man, woman and child from Carvahall and everyone in our company will be killed or enslaved. Our only hope of survival is to flee to Surda." Roran's voice was low. He did not mention the ra'zac, for he did not want to frighten the man too much. Already, Clovis' face was ashen.

"Are you still being followed?" the man asked, shocked over the revelations laid before him.

"Yes, but the Empire how not found us yet," Roran said.

"And the alarm went on because of you?"

When Roran spoke it was very quietly. "I had to kill two soldiers by the gate that recognized me." If possible Clovis' eyes grew wider and the man backed a step, tensing. "Make your choice, Clovis; the shore is near."

For a long moment the old sailor battled with himself, with fisted hands - his shoulders sank eventually and Roran knew he had won. "Oh damn you, Stronghammer. I'm not the king's friend. I'll take you to Teirm. But after that I don't want anything more with you to do."

"Do you swear not to try escaping by the cover of night or anything the like?" Legolas asked calmly. He met Clovis' gaze and the man flinched by the sharp intensity of the elf's eyes.

"Yes. I swear."

The elf held his word for now. The man was yet ashen with shock; he had never before encountered something like this. He was just a sailor who tried to make his living. But he was not entirely trustable, after all, he did not wish anything of this, and wanted them gone. Legolas would keep an eye on him and his men over the next few days, just in case. Not all men, however of their nature, always held their promised words.

Clovis gathered his men, telling them vaguely about their change of plans and the situation, without mention some facts like that these people's village was probably gone by now, turned into ashes, and why exactly they had left Palancar Valley. Roran jumped off the ship onto the shore to find Horst. Legolas decided to speak with him later - he did not know that anyone in Narda had been killed until just now.

Aragorn was on board by the edge of the barge and held Eldarion against his chest. He had not said anything but had seen and heard the whole argument, and been surprised at the trust that Legolas' obviously displayed for Roran. He had indeed been here for two months, not five days. Aragorn could not help the small little voice in his mind, a jealously, against the other man … He sighed and pushed away the thoughts: he should not be so childish - of course Legolas not interested in Roran, and their bond was one of friendship. Nothing else.

Eldarion was oblivious to his Father's thoughts and kept staring at a cloud above their heads, and squealed when he was turned over to another embrace, instantly recognizing his Ada. A small fist grabbed a handful of golden hair.

"He is hopeless with this … much like you used to be at his age," Legolas said, but not managing to smile.

Aragorn rolled his eyes. "I will help the villagers with their packing," he said, but did not move for a time, his hand lying atop of Legolas' arm. He added in elvish: "Can you keep an eye on Clovis and his men? I am still not fully aware of the situation nor is he but I do not want him to do anything … foolish. It will put everyone in danger, especially if there had already been an alarm in the town and two guards have been killed."

"Two eyes, whenever I can," Legolas replied. A frown flittered over his face when Aragorn left; his husband had spoken quickly and almost plainly and there was a look in his eyes that had not been there before. Something unsettled him. It unsettled the elf too.

Legolas helped guiding the work - not lifting so many packs now when he held Eldarion - to dispense the villagers' possessions in the barges so the weight was equally balanced in each ship. Then they led the animals, which stomped nervously and reluctantly came along, into the barges and lastly the villagers themselves. The people too had to be placed in the barges so they did not capsize. Roran, some other men and Clovis also helped to lead this three-hour work. They wanted to leave as quickly as possible, and a sheet of fear had again settled over the villagers; by now everyone knew about the alarm going on in Narda. Soldiers might already be in the woods, looking for them, or preparing ships to sail after them.

An old man, named Wayland, was protesting wildly, not wanting to climb on board "those horrible beasts!" as he put it. Roran was irritated, because Wayland had been nothing but trouble since they left Carvahall - it would have been better if he had died in the Spine. It took long minutes before he had been calmed down so much that they managed to lead him to a corner of Edeline, where he would not bother anyone.

"Hurry up now, landlubbers!" Clovis shouted. "The tide will soon turn. Hurry, hurry!"

At last the debarkation was pulled up, everything on board. About twenty men gathered in front of each barge, prepared to push them out into the water again. Roran was in lead of the men in front of the Red boar; Legolas volunteered and helped with the same ship, since it was the one he would go with later. Aragorn had not protested, even though Eldarion had when he no longer was with his Ada, and Legolas felt surprised gazes on him because no one thought him as strong - true, he was slim-limbed, but that did not mean he did not have any muscle.

With cadenced shouts, they fought against the weight of the large barge, feet pushing deeper into the sand; it slipped beneath their feet. The wood groaned and the air was filled with the smell of sweat. Their struggles seemed to be for nothing, but then the barge loosened from the shore and swayed; it came no longer than a foot.

"Once more!" Roran cried. Foot by foot, they advanced the barge into the sea, until the cold water reached their waists. A wave washed over him, his mouth was filled with water: disgusted he spat it back out. It was a lot saltier than he had expected.

Once the barge loosened from the bottom of the sea, Roran and the other swam up beside their ships and climbed on board using the ropes hanging over the barges' railing. Easily and quickly, Legolas moved up onto the deck - he was very used at climbing - and offered Roran a hand to the elf, pulling him up. When the men looked like drowned cats, Legolas looked merely as he had bathed with his clothing on; his hair was plastered to his body, as were his clothing, but it was untangled.

Aragorn could not help the tinge of jealously in his chest, as Roran's hand came in contact with his lover's. Then as soon as the feeling washed over him, it was gone again. Legolas twisted the water out of his hair - a wave had splashed over him - over the railing, and went over to Aragorn. "It worked," he murmured and accepted Eldarion.

"This far …" the man agreed silently.

The sailors had in the meantime taken long barge-poles and now used them to push the ships out to the open water; the sails were prepared and hoisted, and Clovis ordered the men to take away the barge-poles and take out the oars. The sailors manoeuvred the ship so that the stern pointed out of the bay. The sails caught the soft wind. The Red Boar was at the front as they headed for Teirm, and the wide uncertain sea.

Chapter Text

The waves rolled them up and down across the waters. Even if the sea was calm, the people on the barges were nervous, fearing that they would be discovered and followed by Galbatorix' men. The villagers, their animals and packs filled all the space on the barges; privacy was very little and rare, and the tension between many of them awkward.

Aragorn was thwarted by the fact that he almost never found a moment to hold Legolas in a proper embrace, kiss him and speak softly. They spoke together in Sindarin whenever the subject of Middle-Earth or their family and friends was brought up - they wanted no one to overhear them. This close-up contact with everyone, with so little space and even at night made their situation chaotic, tense; and the air was filled with salt and animal's cries and small children's squeals. He could not pace even three feet without being blocked - or as long as the sun was up, at least. Legolas was uncomfortable too, even more so than Aragorn.

Sea Longing had come creeping upon his senses like a serpent and now he could not get rid of it. It hurt in his heart and soul.

I wish we had had larger ships, not barges, he thought longingly. The star-dotted sky was above their heads, reflected on the dark waters below them. At the moment he sat in a rather peaceful corner on deck, cross-legged, with Eldarion in his lap: most people had gone to sleep at this hour and only a few sailors were awake, keeping watch. Eldarion was despite the nighttime wide-awake and was playing with his toy. The boy's eyes glittered in the soft glow of a partly covered lantern, hanging on the rail. Aragorn laid wrapped in blankets beside him, asleep, the man's head gently touching Legolas' thigh.

It had been one day and one night since they had left Narda, the town far from sight, and the coastline was just within seeing range - they would have preferred to go out of sight from the shore, but the barges were not made for such deep waters, and Clovis refused as well. He knew not the waters beyond. In their fear of being spotted, only two lanterns were lit aboard deck and seven below in the cargo, where the villagers were, there the lights could not be seen.

Legolas gazed out at deck, where two of Clovis' sailors were making a silent exchange of words beneath the light of a lantern, and then further out, at the sea. The barge's movements were steady, as a pace, lulling - but the elf kept awake. If he closed his eyes he dreamt about sailing, sailing until the shore disappeared and everything was covered with white fog and he lost everything he had. He was afraid, he realized, afraid that he would lose himself to the sea longing …and thus loose Aragorn and their son, their whole life, everything. Whatever lay beyond the sea - which before had seemed crystal clear - seemed now uncertain.

He closed his eyes briefly and suppressed a shudder. Eldarion in his arms was oblivious, innocent, and so young that he did not understand; Legolas partly wished that he once again were a naïve little elfling who did not have to care of the troubles and dangers of the world. About wars, kings and … the sea. The sea …

Stop thinking about the sea! Focus on something else. The stars ... or the memory of the green grass and shadowed trees in a clearing in Mirkwood. Surda, the Varden - how to get Eldarion back into safety … Legolas sighed and leaned back his head against the rail. If only things were more simple than this.

Dawn arrived silently. When Aragorn awoke Legolas sat exactly as still as when he had fallen asleep, except now Eldarion slept in his elven parent's arms and the wooden toy was resting on the elf's knee. The elf's eyes were focused on the sky.

"Good morning, love," Aragorn said, standing up and stretching. "Have you slept at all?" he asked, noticing the look in the elf's eyes and his slightly slumped shoulders.

"I was not tired," Legolas said, hesitatingly looking at the man. After a moment he admitted silently, "There was too much on my mind for me to rest."

Aragorn sat down again, and not caring whether anyone was watching, took Legolas' hand in his own. "It is the sea. It troubles you."

A shiver worked down the elf's spine. "Yes."

"Rest, love, do not be troubled," Aragorn murmured and pulled him into his arms. With a sigh, Legolas leaned back and rested his head on the man's shoulder. "I am here." He would not let the sea take his lover from him.

I will protect you.

()()()

Eight days passed by, then ten, twelve, and fourteen; yet had no unfriendly ships been in sight. Actually, no ships had been within sight at all; except for an occasional small fisher-boat, spotted by Legolas. When one appeared they would steer the barges in a wide turn, so that they would not be seen. They could not risk someone reporting this to the Empire, or saying a word about it in a tavern to their friends, in case someone overheard. It was far too risky.

Roran was a bit puzzled that no ships were pursuing them, but Clovis explained to him that it took several days for a ship to plan a route and report it and having it approved by the Empire - maybe the first ships that were to hunt them left the harbor today, or tomorrow.

It did not soothe the tension on the barges.

On the fifteenth day, Clovis' nervous face broke up in relief. He stood by the stern with Roran; he pointed at a sea cliff. "Teirm lies in the bay just beyond that cliff," he announced.

Legolas sat perched on the railing, watching the blue-painted sky and the green and blue waters that splashed against the Red boar; gulls cried above them crying their sad songs. Their journey had been slow, since they had several times gone ashore to hunt. They had almost no food left; they had only a few slices of dried meat and the like in their cargos. They were low on water too. The mood on the three barges was rapidly shrinking like a stone in water. But the weather had been them friendly, and there had been no storms, no heavy rain - even if rain might help conceal them from unfriendly eyes.

"Can you see the city yet?" a soft voice asked behind the elf.

A smile appeared on Legolas' lips when a familiar hand lay on his thigh. "Just barely - there is smoke ahead, coming from many chimneys. But the cliffs on the coast are in the way. The city is yet some miles away." He looked to his left, where Aragorn stood.

They had kept their relationship cautious, since it made the villagers uneasy - some even considered it a crime that two males were lovers - so they stole a few moments and kissed when no one was looking; embraced loosely when others looked another way. Legolas wished that they could do something as innocent as holding each other without gaining glances or comments. No one openly hindered them or used violence against them, but it still hurt to not be accepted.

He laid his hand atop of Aragorn's. "I am glad you are here," he murmured sincerely. The thoughts of the sea gnawed him still like an itch on the back of his mind, but Aragorn's mere presence had soothed it a little, and he had managed to sleep peacefully last night.

"I am very glad to be with you, no matter the circumstances," Aragorn said with a smile. "Though I wish we could come back to Gondor at once, for it worries me not to know what is going on, if Gimli and your father survived the battle … If any more of Galbatorix' troops have advanced …"

"We will find a way back," the elf murmured, and resisted the urge to lift Aragorn's hand to his lips and kiss it softly. Instead he rolled his thumbs over the back of the man's hand. "Have hope, Estel." He paused for a moment. "Where is Eldarion?"

"With lady Elain, asleep; she volunteered taking care of him for the moment," the man said.

Behind them, on the other side of the mast, voices rose. Villagers and sailors were scattered about the deck, and below in the cargos, working on the ship and gathering their belongings. Clovis stood by the stern, and Roran was beside him, standing with his legs apart and arms crossed over his chest.

"Don't you want to go into the harbor?" Clovis asked.

"Not with the whole company. Call for Flint and Torson and let them land the barges here on the shore. It looks like a good spot for camp," Roran said.

The old weather-bitten sailor grimaced. "I'd hoped to get a hot meal tonight." But after a moment he complied with Roran's wishes and called over to the other barges, his bellowing voice echoing across the waters. This brought up displeasure among the sailors - even if they did not protest - for they had hoped they would be able to spend the rest of the day and their payments on the city's entertainments.

Legolas slid down from the railing and walked over to the stern as the Red boar was maneuvered closer to the shore. Aragorn went below to find Elain, or lady Elain as the man kept calling her, Eldarion and their packs. "Will you go into the town, as in Narda?" the elf asked Roran.

Roran looked at him and nodded. His trust for the elf had not faltered but he had begun to feel uncomfortable with Legolas, since Aragorn arrived and the nature of their relationship came out. "Yes, I don't trust others to know what needs to be done. I will leave Horst in my place; but I'll explain more when camp has been set. We must make sure that Clovis does not try to leave with the barges."

Legolas nodded. "Perhaps," he said, "I could follow you as well, if you allow me."

For a moment, Roran's gaze upon him betrayed his suspicion and unease. A frown flittered over Legolas' face. "Does your distrust come from mine and Estel's relationship, I do understand - it is uncommon among Mankind for males to love males have I heard," the elf said very quietly.

"I don't trust you the less. It just makes me and many others … uncomfortable." Roran tried to find the right words, but failed.

Legolas felt, despite of his calm exterior, anger to grow inside of him, and impatience too. He did not understand, not truly, why Men had so little understanding for love and that what mattered was your lover, not your lover's gender. "We have hid it as much as we could, Roran, because you asked us to. But Estel and I wed four years ago, and that gives us every right as a married couple has. If you had to wait for sixty years to marry Katrina would then withdraw and hide your love after you had married, simply because of what others thought?"

His words pierced Roran, and the man knew the elf was right. His heart felt stung. "This has nothing to do with Katrina …"

"But she is your lover, your fiancée, correct? Would you remain calm and do as they said if people asked you to after your married pretend that you were mere friends?" Legolas knew that this would probably only anger Roran, hurt him, and the elf did not know why he could not keep himself more calm. "I doubt so, the way you accounted of your marriage-to-be." All the time he spoke managed to do it quietly, so that Roran was the only one to hear. His voice was tight.

"I … I understand," the man said after a while. "But I have never met two male lovers before."

Legolas looked him in the eye. He took a breath, and managed to regain his composure. "It makes no difference if two lovers are males, females or both as long as they love each other - that is what I, and my people, believes. Even if I cannot tell you to trust us or believe that, I ask you to accept us, at least, as we are. Our hearts' direction should have no influence on your people, or you."

Roran saw over the elf's shoulder how Estel descended from a staircase up on deck, with a pack and a bow over his shoulder, and a child in his arms. "I cannot make a decision yet, but … perhaps you can come with us to Teirm. I all might be a large trap and you are a good fighter." Then he hesitated, asking himself if he should ask this question: "I just wonder, about Eldarion, your son…"

"Ah. I knew you would one day ask about him." Legolas cut him off, but the elf at least sounded calmer now. "I know not how to explain this properly, but he is our son by blood." At Roran's raised eyebrows he explained very silently; "My people has always held magic, strong or not, and after the fall of our large enemy new hope had come to our lands. The numbers of elves are fleeting. Most have set sail, to the Undying lands. We have not many children. After the War I wed Estel, which resulted in hope among our peoples and, in a way, magic helped us to conceive Eldarion."

"Oh." Roran's brows were yet raised up to his hairline, still groping to trying to find something logical about this.

The tiniest of smiles appeared on Legolas' face. "We were of course overjoyed, even if something like it had not happened for centuries."

Awkwardness sunk over the pair, until Aragorn came up to them and slid Eldarion into Legolas' arms. The boy was wriggling and giggled happily. Roran acknowledged the man, before he left the couple to find Clovis. They were near the shore now and the Edeline had already lowered the gangplank, some people stepping down onto steady earth again.

"What did you speak about?" Aragorn asked Legolas.

"He expressed that he was uneasy with us, that he did not quite trust me or you anymore - he did not understand our love. I tried to explain to him and I hope he will accept us anyway, and perhaps ask his people to stop commenting," Legolas said. "He also wondered about Eldarion … I told him the truth, but no one heard us. I could not lie about such a thing."

The man nodded. Again that jealousy had crept up on him as he had seen his lover with another man, even if they did nothing of the sort. "Let us leave the ship. I long to walk on solid ground again." He offered his hand, which Legolas took with a smile. A sailor or villager behind them muttered something under his breath - the elf heard him and did his best to ignore it.

"I wish that they could stop doing that," he murmured, as they stepped ashore with people and animals carrying various packs and items beside them. A light breeze carried the smell of sea and salt over them.

"Me as well."

()()()

Roran sat upon a stone upon the hill above their ashore camp. The landscape here held occasional forests, and winding green hills. From his viewpoint he could see Teirm as a dark dot south of him. Soon did Birgit, Gertrude, Loring, Nolfavrell and Mandel - Felda's older son – arrive. Felda had talked with him about Mandel's gambling with the sailors, and he had thought it good for the young man to come with them and learn how serious their journey was, and that he shouldn't gamble away items such as food.

He had spoken with Clovis, as well, and warned him not to try fleeing or taking the barges away. He had also warned Horst that if the man did, then they would either destroy the steering mechanisms of the barges or put the sailors in a condition where they could not fight. They could not risk someone running of and telling the Empire where they were. If Roran and his company did not return from Teirm within two days, then the villagers would leave quickly for Surda - with Horst in the lead - and find supplies somewhere else than Teirm.

But just as they were about to leave, two cloaked figures walked up the hill. One was hooded, and the other was not. Roran recognized them instantly. "Legolas, Estel," he greeted.

"We desire to come with you, Roran," Legolas said.

The other five villagers glanced at each other uncertainly, but Roran waited a moment and then nodded his approval. "We'd need your skills in battle … just in case..."

"That was what we believed," Estel murmured to Roran once they had begun walking. Roran nodded. They could risk being recognized, though: Gertrude had been in Narda, as well as himself, and he was wanted as was Legolas. But if they kept a low profile they might look like a large family traveling together - if not young Mendel ruined his plan.

They walked in a large turn, so that it looked that they came from the south. When they neared the gates to Teirm, they began to walk slower and Roran let a slight limp creep into his walk. Estel and Legolas separated from them a bit, with Nolfavrell and Birgit, walking behind them. Several other people were on the road, no one taking any notice to them. Roran looked down at the ground and hoped that the evening light did not give away his features so that anyone recognized him.

On the way they had quietly made up a story, in case someone asked them. They were two families from Urû'baen, traveling together. Estel - to his dismay - would pretend Birgit was his wife and Legolas and Nolfavrell their sons, and Roran and Mendel were cousins. Gertrude was Mendel's mother and Loring his father. They had repeated this story so many times so that they could answer it without thinking. Legolas was rather displeased - everyone looked at him believing he was a nineteen year old, and now he had to act Aragorn's child. The elf grimaced. Hmpf.

At least Nolfavrell looked happy and pleased, since he could speak with the elf directly, and pretend they were brothers, trying to find something in common. When they still were in the forest, out of sight from the city, he stayed close to the elf and asked him about his people, his home, and Legolas tried to answer the best way he could without giving away any information about Arda. It was a bit tricky, of course, when he explained that the noldo often had dark hair, and the sinda light hair, which led to questions of who those people were.

"So, are there different kinds of elf- I mean your people; are you in different tribes?" Nolfavrell asked, catching Birgit's sharp eye and reminding himself not to mention the word elf or elves.

"Aye, since some of us moved north, some south, and so on my kind split into different groups with different dialects and leaders."

"So you have a king and a queen?"

Legolas glanced momentarily at Aragorn. "My homeland - or the region where I was born - is ruled by a king named Oropherion." He had mentioned to Roran that his known name was Thranduillion, so he could not say Thranduil; it would be far too obvious then who he really was. He and Aragorn had kept such details of their heritages secret, since they knew that Men (and other people too) usually acted much differently with a royalty; they did not wish for that.

Such and other questions filled the morning air, but once the city came within sight, they hushed down.

The gate was ahead them, colored orange from the flickering torches on the walls. Arches paced the walls all around the city. The gates were open, and three guards stood by them. The guards looked over the comings and goings, but did not stop them and did not ask them anything. They easily slipped into the crowded city.

Roran straightened a little. He, Loring, Gertrude and Mendel gathered by the corner of a house. "Everything's well this far," Loring mumbled.

Once Legolas and the others had joined them, they left to find a room in a tavern to rent for the night. The city they walked through was built in steps - in a way like Legolas had described that Minas Tirith was built - with flat roofs, and the lowest buildings set by the water and the highest buildings by the gate and the citadel. This way, a people could easily stand upon one house and jump to the other. The city would be nigh impossible to win in a fight, since archers could stand on every roof in the city. The streets from north to south led out from the citadel like sunbeams, while the streets from east to west were built in soft arches. The citadel was the main point in the city; the closer they came, the larger and more expensive the houses - or residences - looked. But farther out, people lived poorly, their bodies this and clothing in rags. Orphans lived on the streets and begged those who passed by for food.

Legolas' heart clenched. He wanted to help these people, these children, who had nothing to live on and probably would die within a year. The ways of Men made him frown, once again, as just a few streets ahead there were people living in complete luxury, and they did not help these poor people. It's an unfair world.

When the sun hung low and red on the horizon, they found a very inexpensive tavern, the Green Chestnut. It was noisy and full of drunks, talks and stinks floated in the air, and the ale was terrible. The only benefit it gave them was the low price, which allowed them to share a room almost freely. They went to sleep without any dinner, to save their precious coins. The room was small and dusty, and they lay down on the floor close to each other so that none of the other visitors at the tavern would try to steal their purses.

That night, neither Aragorn nor Legolas found any sleep. They laid awake and held hands, staring up in the roof. Legolas almost regretted coming here, when he could have been sleeping in a tent with Eldarion and Aragorn. He was not even sure that the boy was asleep, calm and all right and happy. What if something happened? Even if Elain was a good woman and gladly took care of the boy in his absence, there were things that could happen to his son. Or the villagers.

What if Clovis breaks the deal and flees?

()()()

The next morning they awoke and left the tavern before dawn. Legolas was very happy to get out of the stuffed smelly place. Whole night had he heard sounds from the other rooms in the tavern, vibrating through the floor; talking, laughter, and also some more inappropriate sounds. They would search for supplies and ways to travel.

"I've heard of a very good healer in their parts," Gertrude said, "by the name Angela. She's supposed to manage making the most amazing cures and maybe even do a little bit of magic. If there is anyone here who has what I need, it's she."

"You shouldn't go alone," Roran said. "Take Mendel with you." He looked at the man. "Follow her and do your best if you are attacked. Your nerves might be tested sometimes, but if you can don't try to make a display, if you don't want to betray your friends and family."

Mendel nodded obediently and brought his hand to his forehead. While Roran and the other continued their hunt, he and Gertrude disappeared down a crossroad.

They continued, and Roran felt like a beast on the hunt, patiently following his catch. They needed ships, and supplies, but had money to buy neither. It would be hard to steal supplies and smuggle them out from Teirm, and it felt not right to steal from people that were like them in Palancar valley, doing their best to survive for their living. If they found no food in Teirm and stole food on the road, from farmers, then it'd be cruel since those people were innocents and would probably not survive a winter if someone stole their crops to feed three hundred people. It would be murder, and those facts weighted like granite on Roran's shoulders. They would be as cruel and horrible as their enemies if they did that. Even if they continued to hire Clovis' barges, they could not afford food, and it did not solve anything.

By the harbor, Roran spotted a large ship with three masts and two rows of oarlocks, far larger than any ship he had seen in Narda. There were twelve powerful ballistae ready to be fired, if need be, placed on deck. What was most important, however, was that it looked large enough to have room for the whole village. He pointed discretely at the ship. A rather large writing on its side indicated its name: the Dragon Wing.

"That's what we need," he said.

Birgit snorted. "We'd need to sell ourselves as slaves to have enough money to hire that monster."

With a sigh, Roran led them on. He was beginning to lose his patience. The day had almost passed by now. They stopped by a bakery and bought a piece of loaf, which they shared - Legolas declined saying he was not hungry - with Loring paying for the food. The man mentioned shortly and innocently to the seller that they were looking for supplies and a ship.

Legolas flinched when he heard footsteps behind him and someone knocked at his shoulder - he stood furthest away from the shop in the group. A man with large stomach and black hair, smelling like he had money enough to feed Carvahall for a month, stood behind him. "I'm sorry for listening, but I heard that you wanted a ship and equipment for a good price. You should probably go to the auction."

"What auction?" the elf asked in a dark voice, with smoothness robbed from it; he sounded like a Man.

"Oh, it's a sad story, but far too common nowadays. One of our traders, Jeod - or Jeod Longshanks as we call him - has had the worst of lucks. In less than a year's he's lost four of his ships and when he tried to send his supplied by crossing land, barbarians attacked the caravan. His financiers forced him to liquidate, and now he must sell everything he owns to cover his losses. I don't know much about food, but the rest you need will you probably find at the auction."

Legolas glanced at Aragorn in slight amusement and surprise, for Longshanks was a word of contempt that several men had used against Aragorn when he was known as Strider, a ranger from the North. It was a very dissipating word, to many. He saw that Aragorn was thinking the same thing.

A sparkle of hope lit in Roran's chest. "When will the auction be held?"

"Oh, you're able to read it on every notice board in the city. It's the day after tomorrow."

That explained why they had not heard of the auction before: they had avoided all notice boards so that no one would recognize Roran.

"Thank you, sir," Legolas said. "You can have saved us much trouble."

"It was a pleasure," the man said before he left the shop with a bag of newly baked bread in his hand.

When they left the shop, Nolfavrell eating on a piece of bread and Roran with a glow back in his eyes - hope - Legolas leaned a little against Aragorn. "This Jeod Longshanks almost sounds like he is a Ranger disguised," he murmured, managing to drawn the tug of a grin from Aragorn's lips.

Roran spoke up when they gathered in a corner of the street. "Should we investigate this?" he asked them.

"It's all we have to investigate," Loring said.

"Birgit?" Roran asked the woman, turning to her. "What do you think?"

"I agree with Loring. You don't have to ask; it's obvious. But we can't wait til the day after tomorrow."

"No, we cannot," Legolas agreed, his hand on the hem of his clasped cloak to see that the lacings were still tied, his hood in place. "We should find Jeod now, and make an agreement with him. We might be able to pursue him to bring down the price on the things we need."

Chapter Text

After asking a passerby of the road, they found Jeod's residence easily enough. It was a large, white building with two stores and a balcony, very expensive and grand looking. It held a small green garden - which was just grass and a single small tree - and a path leading from the iron gates to the door. When they walked up to knock at it, Nolfavrell's eyes were wide. "This is his house?" he whispered to his mother in disbelief.

Beneath his hood, Legolas smiled. This city was alike to Minas Tirith, in a way, built in levels; and he wondered how the boy would react if he saw the gondorian city … or an Elven one.

A servant with white, polished teeth, totally clad in black, opened the door. He looked at the six strangers with disdain, and then gave them a shining smile. "How may I oblige, sirs and my lady?" he asked.

Roran spoke for them. "I would like to see Jeod, if he's available."

"Have you arranged a meeting?" the servant wanted to know.

"Our visit to Teirm is far too short for us to arrange a meeting," Aragorn supplied smoothly.

"Then I am sorry to tell you that you should spend your time somewhere else. My master is very busy, and cannot give his time to each and every ragged beggar at his door who asks for doles," the servant said, and gave them a shining smile and was about to shut the door.

"Wait," Roran said. "We are not here for doles; we have a proposal to Jeod, concerning affairs."

The servant raised an eyebrow. "Oh yes?"

"Yes. Please ask him whether he will greet us or not. We have travelled far longer than you wish to know, and it is most important that we can meet Jeod today."

"May I ask what your proposal concerns?"

"It is confidential."

"Then, sir, I will voice your request to Jeod, but I must say that he is very busy at the moment and have probably not any time for you," the servant said, even if his face had tightened as if he did not like this at all. "What name shall I give him?"

"My name is Stronghammer."

The servant looked amused, his lips twitching; then he slipped inside and closed the door after himself. The group stood on the doorstep and waited anxiously, even if the tension loosened up when Loring muttered: "If his head was larger, he wouldn't fit in the outhouse." Nolfavrell laughed.

"Let us hope that the servant is not alike his master," Legolas murmured to Aragorn, slightly wryly.

Not shortly afterwards the door opened again to reveal the servant with a very molest face. "Jeod has agreed to meet you in his study." He looked as if the whole idea made him feel sick, but he stepped aside and gestured them to step into the house. Nolfavrell's eyes widened again, as they stepped into a grandiose hall with high to the ceiling and furniture that spoke of many riches; polished wooden furniture, in the corner a cosy chair, and even some marble statuettes. Most of the small company was astonished that this kind of luxury existed. Legolas merely felt uncomfortable and almost expected that Jeod was a lousy, overconfident man with no mind for others - but then again, why then did he let in six ragged complete strangers into his house?

The servant led them through a corridor of polished dark wood, past serial alike doors and opened one of them, ushering them inside. Each wall was clad with shelves and shelves with books and more books, and if Legolas could read the script that the people here used, he would have been astounded at the treasure that was in this room.

A tall man, with graying hair, stood behind an oval desk. He looked as tired and wary as the others felt, with a deeply lined face and eyes filled with troubles. When he turned towards the arrivals, a terrible scar that led from the vertex to his left forehead gleamed in the light from the lamps on the walls. There was a window behind him, covered with curtains. The man looked thinner than was healthy, not at all the man who was surrounded by luxury.

So that's Jeod, Roran thought.

In Roran's eyes the scar meant there was steel in this man; buried for a long time, maybe, but steel nonetheless. What more that also proved this was the sword that hung on the wall, between two shelves. Either that was a decoration or this man had fought in battles.

"Please, sit," Jeod said and gestured at the set of brown-leathered armchairs in front of the desk. "I am not so very formal in my own home."

As the strangers sat, Jeod looked at them curiosity. A tall, slim, cloaked and hooded figure did not sit - there were not enough chairs - but stood behind a silent, dark haired man with steel gray eyes. There was a woman, and two other men, and a young boy looking not older than fourteen or thirteen. They looked wary, and their clothing old and worn by weather and wind and a long travel.

"May I serve you a few cakes and a few glasses of orange-liqueur? I don't have so much time to speak, but I can see that you have travelled on foot for many miles; and I know that my throat would be dry after such a journey."

"Yes, please," Loring smiled widely. "You are most generous, sir."

"Just a glass of milk for the boy, please," Birgit added.

"Of course, ma'am," Jeod said and called for his servant; as the man left to fetch the drinks, Jeod leaned back in his chair and surveyed his guests. "I understand that you know my name, but I know not yours."

"Stronghammer, at your service," Roran said. They had repeated their story and pretended names many times and he hoped that everyone knew it like the back of their hand now.

"Madra, at your service," Birgit said.

"Kell, at your service," Nolfavrell said.

"Wally, at your service," Loring said.

"Strider, at your service," Aragorn said.

"And I am Beren, at your service," Legolas finished in a darker, rougher voice than usual, ripped off its elvish tilt.

"And I am at your service," Jeod replied. "Rolf mentioned that you wanted to speak affairs with me. It is no more than right to let you know that I am in no position whatsoever to buy or sell goods, nor have I gold to invest any ships to transports wool, foods, jewellery or herbs across the restless seas. So what can I do for you?"

Roran leaned forward on his elbows and looked at the carpet-covered floor for a moment to gather his thoughts. If he let his tongue slip, they were all in danger. "To put it simply, sir," he said and looked at Jeod, "we represent a group of people who - for several reasons - needs to buy a large load of supplies for very little gold. We know that your properties with be auctioned in the day after tomorrow to pay your debts, and we would like to put a price on the items we desire. We would have waited to the auction, but we are forced to leave soon, because of our circumstances, and cannot wait for another two days. If we will make a deal it will be tonight or tomorrow."

"What kinds of supplied do you need?" Jeod asked.

"Food, and what else equipment is needed for a long journey at sea."

An interested light appeared in Jeod's tired face. "Do you have any ship in mind? For I know each and every one that has sailed these waters for the last twenty years."

"We haven't decided yet."

Jeod accepted that without any prompting. "Now I understand why you come to me, but I'm afraid you misunderstand. All this," he said and gestured at the room with his gray hand, "belongs to my claimant, not to me. I cannot longer sell my belongings. If I did so without permission I would likely end up in prison for fooling my claimants on the money I owe them."

He silenced when Rolf, the servant, entered the room with a plate and put it down on the desk, before slipping out of the room. They accepted their drinks, but Roran felt like a shadow had fallen over them. He sipped at the soft liqueur and wondered how they could leave as quickly as possible without being impolite, and to begin their search anew.

Jeod emptied his own glass in one go. "I cannot help you much, but if you give me a list of what you need I might be able to tell you whom to turn to for the best help," he said.

It seemed innocent enough; Roran saw the faintest of nods coming from Legolas, Loring and Birgit out of the corner of his eye. He began counting the things they needed, might need, and was less needed but they could afford if fate smiled upon them. Sometimes Birgit or someone else interjected when he forgot something, such as oil for their lamps, and at those times Jeod glanced quickly at them but at once, his gaze fixed again on Roran. The man's eyes also wandered to Legolas and Estel more than to the others - the man's interest started to worry Roran; it was as if the trader knew, or thought he knew, what Roran and his group were hiding.

"To me it sounds," Jeod said when Roran had finished, "that you are a group of maybe even a hundred people or more that with supplies are to be transported to Feinster or Arughous, or maybe even further …I do have been very busy the last few weeks, but I haven't heard of any such large company in these parts, and I cannot imagine myself from where they could have come."

With a blank face, Roran met Jeod's gaze without a word. Inside he was boiling in hate of himself, for telling Jeod all this and giving him so many clues so that the man could make this so very accurate conclusion. It also frightened him.

Then Jeod shrugged. "Well, however this may be, it's your business. I would suggest you to turn to Galton by the town square about the food, and to old Hamill by the harbor about the other equipment. They are both trustable men and will treat you with esteem." He reached out and took a small cake from the plate. When he had chewed on a piece, he turned to Nolfavrell: "Well, young Kell, do you think it is nice in Teirm?"

"Yes, sir," the boy said with a grin. "I haven't seen anything as grand before, sir."

"Not?"

"No, sir, I-"

It felt like they were heading into dangerous waters, so Legolas spoke up in his roughed, darker voice: "I am curious, sir, of what small shop that lies just beside your residence. It seems a bit particular to have such a shy building among all these splendid ones."

For the first time, Jeod's face lit up by a small smile, and he looked several years younger. "Yes, it was owned by a healer and herb-knower that was a bit particular herself: Angela. One of the best healers I have ever met. She had that shop for over twenty years, and then she sold it and left for an unknown road." He sighed. "A pity, for she was a very interesting neighbour."

"It was her Gertrude wanted to meet, right?" Nolfavrell asked his mother and looked at her, and the others sent the boy a warning glare. The name wouldn't say Jeod anything, but if the boy didn't guard his tongue better something far more serious might be said.

But that name actually did say something to Jeod. The trader's eyes widened, astounded, and he penetrated Roran with his gaze as if he tried to see the face beneath the beard. "Impossible!" He clenched to his chair, his fingers whitening. "Roran … Roran Garrowsson."

()()()

They reacted in a flash; Legolas the quickest, drawing his knife from his boot and leaping over the desk with inhuman speed and grace, pressing the weapon against Jeod's throat. He had no desire to kill this man, but since he knew whom Roran was, they could be stuck here in a trap in Teirm and never reach Surda, in case Jeod escaped and alerted any guards - if not Jeod was stopped; killed.

The others came to their feet in something alike to panic, but everyone were armed with their hidden knifes now, even Nolfavrell, ready to fight and defend themselves. Roran stood too, tugged the hammer from his belt, but froze with it in midair when he registered the words: Garrowsson. This man knew who his father was, but the Empire did not - it had never been mentioned on any of the notice boards in any city they had passed through.

However Jeod looked quite calm and collected despite of their weapons and Legolas' knife very near his neck. "It is Roran, is it not?" he asked softly.

"How did you know?" Roran couldn't help asking; how much it irked him that Jeod knew, the man did not seem that much of a threat. The man was clearly outnumbered.

"Because Brom brought Eragon here, and you are alike to your cousin. When I saw that you were wanted as well as Eragon, I understood that the Empire must have tried to capture you and you had escaped. But, I'd never imagine that you would take the whole Carvahall with you." His voice quieted, as his gaze sweep over the others in the room, lastly glancing up at Legolas. He met the elf's steady gaze without blinking, and now this close up, he could make out some distinct features through beneath the shadow of his hood.

A soundless gasp escaped him. "Nor had I expected you to bring an elf," he murmured.

Legolas glanced at Roran, who nodded a little, and he stepped back but still holding his knife. He would not harm this man - if not necessary - there were a lot of things they wanted to ask him. "How did you know what I am?" the elf asked sharply.

"A hood makes little protection from a trained eye," Jeod said. "Though I must hope you have kept your disguise all your time in Teirm." But the elf had first fooled him to believe it was a young man, when he stepped into the room; but there was something about him when he spoke, like he were dignified, and those sharp eyes … and now those distinctive features in his face came visible - long leaf-shaped ears and inhuman beauty.

Roran interrupted. "Eragon was here?"

"Yes, and Saphira too."

A frown flittered over Roran's face. "Saphira?"

"So you do not know?" Jeod said, mildly surprised.

"Know what?"

For a long moment, Jeod examined him with his gaze, and then he spoke softly, as if afraid to be overheard. "I believe it's time for us to rid us of our masks, Roran Garrowsson, and speak openly. I can answer many of your questions - such as why the Empire wants you - but in return, I need to know why you are in Teirm … the real reason."

"And why should we trust you, Longshanks?" Loring spoke up, using the name that the man on the street had, seeing it fitting.

"I was Brom's friend for over twenty years before he became a storyteller in Carvahall," Jeod explained, "and I did my best to help him and Eragon as they stayed under my roof. But since neither is here to speak for me, I'll lay my life in your hands. I could call for help, or fight, but I will not. There is no direct danger here. All I wish for is to hear your story and for you to listen to mine."

"Maybe he's just trying to save his own skin," Birgit said, looking Roran in the eye.

"Maybe he is," Legolas agreed unexpectedly. "But we need to know what he knows."

Roran nodded, and pushed over his chair to the door and blocked it with the furniture, sitting down so that no one could come inside. "Well then. You wanted to talk? Then we talk, you and I," he said, pointing at Jeod with his hammer.

Jeod did not flinch, but his eyes focused between Roran and the object in the man's hand and back at Roran. "It'd be best if you started."

"If I do, and am not pleased with your answers afterwards, I must kill you," the man warned the trader.

In return Jeod crossed his arms. "May so be it then," he said, rather calmly even if his lips were a thin line. Against his will, Roran was impressed by his courage.

Many times, Roran had remembered everything that had happened and in his mind gone through it all again, but he had not before described them in detail for someone else. When he did it now he begun to realize just how much had happened in this short time, how much he and the villagers had been through, how easy it had been for the Empire to ruin their life in Palancar valley. He told him of everything, of their attacks on the soldiers, the ra'zac, Sloan's betrayal, Katrina being captured, and also how he had met Legolas in the forest - he only left out the small information that he came from Arda. It hurt much for him to retell every single one of the harsh memories, but he was rewarded by awe written on Jeod's face.

"Astonishing!" the trader exclaimed when Roran was finished. "Yes, this is truly one of the most astonishing tales I have ever heard. Just to imagine that just now, the whole Carvahall hides outside Teirm, one of the Empire's largest cities, without the King's knowledge …"

"That is our situation, and it would be best if you explained us why we should risk ourselves now by letting you live," Legolas said from behind him, no longer bothering to fake his voice to sound like a Man's.

Jeod's reply laid on his tongue when suddenly sometimes tried to open the door but Roran's chair stopped whoever it was. Someone pounded heavily at the door. "Jeod! Let me inside!" cried an angry female voice. "You can't hide in that hole forever!"

Nervously Jeod lifted his gaze to Roran. "May I?"

But Roran could not take the risk; he met Legolas' gaze, and in a flash the elf had pressed his white knife against Jeod's neck again. The room had fallen absolutely quiet.

"Make her leave," Legolas muttered. "And quickly too." They could not hazard their lives with yet another outsider being involved in this dangerous game.

Jeod raised his voice. "I am in a meeting."

"Liar!" the woman cried. "You have no money, you have nothing! Come outside and face your own wife! Or aren't you enough man to do so?" When she silenced, Jeod didn't reply. So she raised her voice more, screaming now, and called him a coward in every way she knew. The insults flew from her mouth like years of anger was pouring out. Legolas noticed that Jeod was tensing. He would not keep still and calm much longer, if this continued. He knew how Mankind was not the one to turn a deaf ear to insults. "Coward! My father would never have lost so much money-!"

"Silence, woman!" Jeod ordered and finally the hall outside fell into silence. A vein in his temple appeared to be pounding. "Luck may turn for us, if you only knew how to stop your tongue."

"I await you in the dining room, dear husband," came the cold reply after a beat of silence. "And if you are not here for dinner, then I will leave this damned house and never return." Then she moved away from the door, letting go of the handle, and her steps echoed down the hall and out of hearing range.

Everyone released a held breath in unison.

Slowly Legolas lowered his weapon from Jeod's neck, and Roran shifted in his chair. The room felt tenser now, and they spoke in low voices. Jeod's face was quite pale as he rubbed his neck. "If we cannot agree, it'd be better if you kill me; it would be easier than having to explain to Helen why I screamed at her with no reason," he sighed.

"I feel with you, Longshanks," Loring said, sympathizing.

"It is not her fault, not really. She doesn't understand why everything has suddenly turned so ill." He paused for a moment. "It maybe is my fault since I never dared to tell her."

"Tell her what?" Nolfavrell asked, unable to hide his curiosity.

Jeod strongly met Roran's gaze. "That I am an agent for the Varden."

()()()

"…and when was the last time you saw them?"

"Just a few hours ago, sire. After we'd defeated the orcs, the soldiers fled, but there has been no trace of King Elessar or your son the prince consort Legolas, milord ..." The man nervously shifted from one foot to the other, his knuckles turning white from the nervous grip of his spear.

Tall, armour-clad and fuming stood the elven king before him. The poor gondorian couldn't help stepping backwards once, twice, before he caught himself and forced himself to stand like rooted to the ground. "We will double our searches, milord."

Lord, he hoped that he would not find broken bodies at the bottom of the dark, far-stretched waterfall. Since the king's disappearance, no one dared to go near the large wild streams and the fall; though one soldier had stepped forward, stumbled on a loose rock and fallen down. The oddest thing was, the man had vanished in thin air, shocking everyone including the elves - it was like the soldier had fallen into a barrier of something and slowed down for a moment, then just been gone.

A rider had been sent to the steward Faramir. Until he or his orders arrived, no one would step near that waterfall. King Thranduil was one of very clear words.

"I do hope so, soldier," the elven king said. "Has there been any damned reply yet from the calling-himself steward?"

The soldier flinched. "N-not yet, milord. I am sure he hurries, milord." It was an unnecessary comment.

Thranduil's eyes were very sharp, those of a much worried king and father; most of all father. He did not want to carry these news back to Minas Tirith if not he absolutely must. "Hm. Now what are you still staring so, has your feet been fixed to the ground? You are dismissed."

()()()

Somewhere beneath a thin canopy of trees, a man awoke with a splitting headache and much confusion. In his left hand he gripped a spear, broken in two; he felt a bit panicked, paralyzed. Sunlight flittered thought the trees and fell onto his frowning face. His clothing was wet; there was rushing of water beside him.

And he was surrounded by the smell of smoke; burning wood, ashes. Coughing, surprised he sat up, his mind and body protesting with much pain. The smell, it was far too fierce to come from a small fire …But yet the smoke was not blinding him, even if it did water his eyes. Light grey came from his right side, from between the trees.

He came to his feet and finally let go of the spear, useless as it was. Otherwise he was unarmed. His armor and chain mail felt heavy. With some difficulty he left the clearing and followed the water; it was a river. He must have been washed ashore, somehow, but he had no memory of how he had come here. In vain he tried to see through the vegetation, a trail of his comrades and the elven warriors, but there was nothing. Only the panicked sound of a fleeing upset bird, somewhere ahead. He had been for a long while of his life been a soldier in Minas Tirith, and he had travelled much within Gondor's boarders, but his surroundings now seemed unfamiliar.

By all right, there should be a waterfall here and a small campfire, other Gondorians, and King Thranduil with his elves …

Wait- the waterfall, he had fallen… Yes, he remembered now. He had slipped on a wet rock, when he had inspected the waterfall's edge gazing down - and falling - down, down, down …

And then nothing. He could not recall hitting the water, or being below the surface. In midair, everything had disappeared in a dark blur and he had just left a small shout, a warning to his comrades perhaps.

So where was he? If the stream below had caught him, shouldn't the campfire be behind him along with the smell of smoke, not ahead? The wind was blowing this way … Rightly he shouldn't feel any smell of smoke at all. There was sounds … the forest itself sounded upset - and wasn't there the clear cracking sound of fire?

He hurried his steps; he spotted a small cliff covered in moss, opening up in a small clearing. Maybe he could get a better view. This might be a valley in Ithilien. He was right; it was a valley, he saw that once he reached the edge. It was a round valley surrounded by mountains, green hills and forests covering almost all space. The river sloped down and seemed to disappear into the vegetation. But what caught the man's attention was the center of the dale, gleaming in the sunlight. Heat seemed to radiate from it.

Below was an angrily blazing inferno, in the ruins of what once was a village.

Chapter Text

Roran stared at the man in shock. Was this man a part of Varden? … That must be why he had not called for aid when he realized who they were. Jeod did not seem to be lying, even if they never could be sure; unless ... A small hope lit in him. If Jeod worked for the Varden, there was a chance that he could help them to find the rebellions: and Katrina.

Jeod looked into their shocked faces. Legolas lowered his knife and put it back in his belt, albeit he always kept himself ready to draw it again. "Yes, I am an agent for the Varden. I will start at the beginning. Have you heard anything about a new Rider the few last months, one who oppose Galbatorix?"

Roran nodded, sceptically. "A few mutterings, yes; everything was vague. Nothing to believe in."

"I am not sure how to say this right, Roran, but … there is a new Rider in Alagëasia. And that is your cousin Eragon. The stone he found in the Spine was one of the last dragon eggs, one that I helped the Varden to steal from Galbatorix many years ago. The dragon hatched for Eragon and he named her Saphira. That is why the ra'zac came to Palancar valley for the first time. They came back because Eragon has become a dangerous, terrifying enemy against the Empire and Galbatorix hopes that through you be able to hinder him."

Roran stared at him; his first reaction was laughter. Hysterical laughter that welled up his chest, and he laughed but the rest of the room was silent. Eragon - a rider! Ridiculous!

And yet …

His sneaking in the woods, suddenly silent and out of his usual self - all those hours god knows where … It fit with Jeod's explanation, it fit with the ra'zacs' arrival and behaviour, it fit with everyone's actions, the Empire's intense hunt, the soldiers and-

He was stilled into a shocked silence. Eragon. Was a Rider. Eragon! His father had died because Eragon was a Rider, had hid a dragon of all things and had been too scared or too weak or simply too selfish to say a word about it - Garrow had died because of him! His shock and disbelief was replaced by agonizing anger.

"If the stone really was a dragon egg," Birgit said by his side, "then were did it come from?"

"Oh, that is a story I know very well," Jeod said. He told them a most amazing story, and Roran listened in fascination, anger, hurt, and growing surprise.

Brom - old, grumpy Brom - once had been a Rider, helping the Varden to steal a dragon egg from under Galbatorix' nose, originally planning to steal three but only managing to get one. During the claiming of that egg Brom had killed Morzan, one of the Forsworn. An unwritten agreement between the Elves (at the mention, Legolas leaned a bit closer), the Varden and the dwarves had been made, that the egg would be escorted regularly between the Beor Mountains and Du Weldenvarden, as they awaited the next Rider - that would be on their side. Since eggs could wait for hundreds, even thousands, of years for one right person to whom they would hatch, it could be a very long agonizing wait. During one of these transportations from the elven forest, the escort had been ambushed and killed or captured; an ambush made by a Shade no less. Magically the egg was transported supposedly to Du Weldenvarden, but it missed with a long range and so ended up in the Spine.

Perhaps Fate interfered. With growing fascination, Roran listened to the tale of how Eragon found the egg and it hatched for him. He hid it, letting it grow up in the forest. But the ra'zac managed to trace the egg to Carvahall. Eragon was forced to flee with Saphira, along with Brom, which resulted in the burning of Roran's farm and Garrow's death. When Jeod explained how and why Garrow died, Roran's anger blossomed again.

"What was he thinking?" he exclaimed.

Jeod shook his head, sadly. "I doubt he knew himself. Dragons and their Riders grows so attached and entwined that it is hard to separate them. Their very minds connect and, on a level, become one. Eragon could not hurt Saphira, like he could not cut off his own leg."

"He could have cut it," Roran said angrily. "Because of his decision I've been forced to do just as painful things. He could have very well cut off the leg."

"You have every right to feel like you do," Jeod said, "but do not forget that you and Carvahall's safety was the reason he left. For him he thought he sacrificed himself to keep you safe. Even if his leaving did not have the affect he wished for, it would be much, much worse if he had stayed."

He continued his tale, and Roran listened without any more interruptions until the man mentioned how Eragon and Brom had used the register of shipping here in Teirm to find out where the ra'zac were hiding. "Did they?" Roran asked hopefully, sitting up straighter. "Tell me, for heaven's sake, you know how important it is to me!"

"We did: we believe their nest is in Helgrind, in Dras-Leona. It is most likely and later from the Varden I have heard that it matches with Eragon's own stories."

Roran gripped his hammer excitedly. Now it felt like Katrina was just a few inches away; she was near, he could almost grasp her. A heavy weight lifted form his chest. This entire struggle wasn't for nothing. He just needed to take up arms, find Dras-Leona, and then-

"You cannot, Roran."

He was caught off-guard. "What do you mean?" he asked Jeod, who looked downfallen.

"No man can take Helgrind on his own. It is a large solid rock, impossible to climb. It is most likely the ra'zac have their nest at its top, and the only ones that can reach it there are flying creatures. A dragon might be able to lift a man to its top, but not undetected. And even if you did, you have to find a way to fight and defeat the ra'zac and their two winged beasts. No, I do not doubt you are an excellent fighter - you and Eragon do share blood, after all - but these are enemies beyond human's grasp."

Roran shook his head in disbelief of his words, and firm knowledge of his own. "I will not abandon Katrina. It may be hopeless but I must try save her even if it takes my life." His heart seemed to swell more love for her, and the light was visible in his eyes. He still held his hammer in a strong, fierce grip.

"It would do any good to Katrina if you get yourself killed," Jeod pointed out unnecessarily.

Roran held back a sigh.

"He is right, Roran," Legolas said. "And if you go to Helgrind now, who will the villagers follow? They will all be endangered more than they already are."

"We should continue to Surda," Aragorn agreed, speaking up for the first time.

The others agreed; Roran rubbed a hand over his face, but knew they were right. He could not abandon the villagers - his people - they needed to follow their plan, reach Surda. Then he could go to Helgrind. Alone, if no one wanted or could follow.

"Once you reach Surda you can probably find help to save Katrina," Jeod added. "Eragon both as a Rider and as your cousin will surely be glad to help."

"All right," Roran said, somewhat tiredly. There was no way he could defeat the ra'zac and their winged beasts alone. They were strong, and besides held this magical power to spellbind people with their breaths or minds … "Let's hear the rest of this gloomy story."

()()()

The man stared at the fire for a moment in shock; how in Arda could they not have noticed such a large blazing fire before? It was large and obviously very wild, set alight maybe hours or even over a day ago - but still they hadn't seen or noticed a single sign …

And the village, now lain in ashes; he did not consider himself a specialist of geography, but he should know if there was a village here in Ithilien. He served lord Faramir, so he should know of the lands!

The soldier's senses kicked in; he should find and warn someone, find help and put out the fire before it spread further. The surrounding trees could be set alight. The whole valley could be filled with the danger. He needed to find survivors, villagers, anyone…!

He hurriedly searched the hillside until he found an old thin path, winding here and there, but eventually reaching a muddy road. There were trails here after hundreds of footsteps, and wagons. But there wasn't any other sign of human life; no cries of panic, nothing from the village, nothing at all.

There wasn't any building left intact from the fire. It seemed to be burning in ashes. Maybe with a stroke of luck, some rain and less wind, it would die without spreading beyond the village boarders - some walls surrounding it made of trees seemed to have stopped it, or at least slowed it down for a while.

The soldier ran as close to the village as he dared. Thick smoke encircled him and made him cough heavily. "Hello?" he cried, raising his voice. It sounded strangely hollow and alone. "is anyone here?"

No reply, but the sound of fire. A few seconds passed and the soldier ventured deeper into the smoke and heat, covering his mouth and nose with the hem of his shirt. His eyes watered. There was a loud crack and he looked around, but could not see - only hear - how a roof collapsed into one of the buildings.

"Hello? Can anyone hear me?"

He coughed up smoke.

"Anybody!"

There should be panic, screams, voices - fleeing people - anyone - but there was nothing. Not even cattle. Each field around the village was empty and with his limited, clouded sight he could not see any sign of life at all.

Ilúvatar, he though, blanching in horror, there are no survivors.

Waving a hand in from of himself in a useless attempt to clear the air, he stumbled out of the smoky haze in what he hoped was the direction he'd come from. His lungs pained him, it was harder to breathe; the smoke was thick and black at most placed. It seemed like a lifetime before he reached clean air again. He took a few breaths to get rid of the choking feeling, and coughed.

There was no way he could put out this fire by himself. He could only pray that the villagers had fled before the fire killed anyone, and the rain would soon fall like in a storm and unlit this blaze. In the meantime he needed to find shelter and try to find some trail, maybe, after the inhabitants. Maybe there were other farms or villages down the valley - in that case he needed to warn them.

He walked down the road; it should lead him to another town. Maybe the villagers fled and set up a camp a few miles away from here. Then, the soldier paused in his steps: maybe he should hurry back to the waterfall, find a way to climb it, and tell his comrades first? Send a signal, of some kind, at least. He was torn between decisions and stood shifting from foot to foot, uncertain.

Well, he thought, it might be best if I hurry back and finds contact with King Thranduil and my commanders. They'll know what to do.

With yet some doubt in mind he turned away from the ruined village, the fire and the road and back into the forest in the general direction from where he'd come - he wondered if it was possible to climb such a high waterfall.

()()()

After Jeod's story - of Brom's death, of Murtagh son of Morzan, of Eragon's capture and escape from Gil'aed, of the desperate flight to save an Elf and a great battle of dwarves, men and urgals at Farthen Dûr and of how Eragon there defeated a Shade, and how Varden left the Beor mountains for Surda, and how Eragon right now was deep in Du Weldenvarden to learn many secrets of magic - Roran and the others drew back in the corner of the room to discuss. Was this story believable? Was Jeod trustable? Perhaps if he was, he could help them. Anyway, they needed to make sure he or his household didn't breathe a word about them being here in Teirm.

"I can't say if he's lying or not, but there aren't many that are able to tell such an amazing story while threatened by a knife against his neck: as far as I know, such men deserve to live. A new Rider - Eragon as a Rider!" Loring shook his head.

"It's so strange, I don't know … But it must be true," Birgit said. "Why else would the Empire follow us so intensively?"

"I agree," Legolas said. He had moved from behind Jeod, to stand next to Aragorn, although he was ready to any moment leap back to his original place with weapon in hand. "Although we should make sure Jeod does not tell a soul of this meeting."

"We might get him to help us," Aragorn suggested. "Maybe he could come with us to Surda? He is an agent for the Varden, and he has nothing left here in Teirm."

Roran nodded. That could be an option … "Nolfavrell?" he asked.

The boy looked proud when he was spoken to in this matter, but he bit his lip, gnawing at it in thought. "I think we can trust him," he said. "Jeod seems to be truthful."

"Very well. That decides it," Roran summarized. He turned back to the trader, who still sat sunken into his chair. "Two last questions, Longshanks. How does Brom and Eragon look like? And how dud you recognize Gertrude's name?"

"I knew of Gertrude because Brom mentioned he had left you a letter in her care. And for their appearances: Brom was a little shorter than I am. He had a thick beard and a bend nose, and he carried a wooden staff. I might add that he grew grumpy at times. Eragon was … young. Brown hair and brown eyes. He had a scar on his wrist, and he never ceased asking questions."

Roran nodded once, twice. Yes, that was Brom and his cousin. Pleased, he put back his hammer into his belt. The others hid their knifes yet again, which they had had ready to raise. Then they sat again as civilized creatures and Roran removed the chair that blocked the door. "What now, Jeod?" he asked. "Can you help us? I know you have much trouble yourself, but our situation is desperate …Can you, as an agent for the Varden, guarantee the Varden's protection for us? We are willing to serve those to protects us from Galbatorix' rage."

"The Varden will be more than willing to welcome you," Jeod assured them. "I think you have already alleged that. About help…" Here he paused, looking over the room to the dusty books covering every shelf on every wall, and even if he looked like a pre-aged man, his eyes held a glow. "For almost a year I have know that my true identity - along with some other fellow sailors' - has been betrayed to the Empire. I have not had the courage to flee to Surda, because of that. All my affairs and my trades has been ruined step by step, and I have not been able to protest or do something about it. Worse so, I have not been able to send any goods to Surda or the Varden and they haven't dared to send any messenger to me. Because of that I long feared that lord Risthart - Teirm's governor - would lock me in the dungeons, since I am no longer of any interest for the Empire. I have waited for it every day since I was put in bankruptcy. Perhaps they expect me to flee, and want to catch me and let me guide them into the Varden's arms. But now with your arrival, I do have an escape that they could not imagine."

"So you have a plan?" Loring asked.

The hint of a smile flashed over Jeod's face. "Oh yes. I expect you to have seen the large ship Dragon Wing in the harbour?"

Legolas was a step ahead of Roran and the others. "You intend to commandeer her," he stated.

Jeod nodded. "Not only because she is the fastest ship of her weight, or it would infuriate the Empire immensely. The Dragon Wing is owned by a shipping company that work as a cover for the Empire; supplying the armies that has lately mobilized worrisomely so. Farmers have been called as soldiers, their horses and oxen have been taken by the armies. I am not sure what it all means, but it is possible that Galbatorix intends to march towards Surda. Anyhow, The Dragon Wing is supposed to sail to Feinster within a week. Thanks to that, she is full loaded for a long journey for hundreds of people. We would have food for the whole village."

"We do not know how to handle anything larger than a barge," Legolas said even if his lips quirked just so slightly upwards. There was a chance they'd all escape from here soon. He neither liked nor disliked Jeod, but he would prefer bringing the man with them - he had so much information now that the Empire could not be allowed to know of - and now he was on their side. But I wonder how to steal such a large, well-guarded ship in this city? Soldiers must be everywhere, Galbatorix' eyes and ears in every corner. It will not be easy, he thought. "I hope you know how to sail her yourself."

"Some of the men from my crew of my prior ships are yet in Teirm. They are in the same situation as I am; they can neither fight nor flee. They will me more than happy to help and get away from here."

Roran nodded and grinned widely. He liked the plan: it was quick, unexpected, and essential. He was not too fond of bringing more people into this already, but knew they needed any help they could get, and these men were sailors once helping the Varden, after all.

"But you mentioned that none of your ships or other traders' ships that serves the Varden has reached their destination during the past year," Birgit said, squinting critically at the man. "Why should this succeed when all others of your journeys has failed?"

"Because now we have surprise on our side," Jeod replied quickly. He was leaning forward on his desk now, lowering his voice in enthusiasm and new hope. His eyes gleamed. He did have a thought out plan. "The law requires the traders to leave a planned route to the harbour authority for approval at least two weeks before leaving shores. It takes time to prepare a ship, so if we leave quickly and unexpectedly, it might take at least a week before Galbatorix can send one his ships after us. Are we lucky, we might not even see the mast of our followers."

Roran nodded again. He liked the plan. He too was leaning forward in his seat.

"So," Jeod continued, "if you are willing to do this, this is what we must do…"

()()()

Sweat felt like it was pouring down his back; the hot sun, mixed with the tinge of smoke, beat down his body. He had found his way to the river and the waterfall. The first thing he noticed was that the fall was far too small to be the one he had fallen down in the first place. But, he didn't give up yet. He found old deer paths and within an hour or a little more, the Gondorian soldier found his way to the top. He was greeted by the disappointed sight of nothing, except more forests by the feet of a mountain. No trails, no men or elves, no camp or campfire … Nothing.

There was a wide clearing a few minutes' walk from the top, where he found old tracks and remains - ashes - of campfires. But it was barely visible, it could be months old. There wasn't much to see: a few fallen trees surrounding it. It appeared they had been cut down to build a sort of wall. Weather and nature had erased any footprints that might have been left in the soft mossy ground.

Thwarted, the soldier climbed his way down again. The road was his next option. At least then he would have something to return to and follow. Out in the wild he could too easy get lost, and he had no provisions. He drank mouthfuls of cool water from the river, splashed some water over his face and shoulders, before continuing his journey. He hurried too, the fire in the valley worrying him. Wherever the road led to, he needed to find and warn people nearby.

He had never been too fond of wandering in the wildlife, unprotected at least. He had his armour, but no spear, so if he met a bear or an enemy, he could not make much of a fight. More of a run.

He wandered for hours end. A few miles south (according to the sun) of the village, he found remains of a large camp. There was even a linen tent, left as if in a hurry. He found also a broken spear. But no one was there. When he was unable to stand the silence anymore and called out, no one answered.

The road held deep tracks as if one or more wagons had been dragged on it. There were hoof-prints as well. It could be the inhabitants of the valley, or traders, but it looked very much like soldiers had passed through here. He had found a broken weapon after all. It could explain why the road was deserted and the village … emptied, set on fire. Had there been a battle? How in Arda couldn't they have noticed it? Where the orcs and the men serving the Flame occupying this part of Ithilien? If he still was in Ithilien, that was.

The sun lowered on the horizon: it was soon midday. He needed to find some water soon, or else he had to turn back … and he didn't fancy that idea.

It was when a shell of darkness had lowered itself over the valley he reached its southern entrance, and spotted smoke coming from the horizon of wood and mountain: not a thick one, more like ten or twelve individual boggling wreaths that indicated buildings. A village? He hoped so. He might find accommodation. One of the men in his company said he had been born in a farmer village in Ithilien's outskirts; maybe this was the village or they had heard of it here. He should trade himself a horse and a map and ride back to Minas Tirith as quickly as possible.

It was larger than a village, it was a town. Now at nightfall, doors and shutters were closed, only a little light slipping outside onto the road. There were several buildings there, but scattered, looking to be randomly placed. The soldier found his way into the town center, which held a large well and much space for traders: their wagons were few now, closed and covered. There, an inn, with old doors and a weatherworn sign hanging by its side. It read The Miller's and underneath the name Efridson was written; probably the owner. Through the windows he saw light, warm and inviting, and heard laughter, talk, muffled.

When he stepped inside the tavern, everyone fell quiet and many suspicious eyes looked at him with something akin to fear. Then he realized: his armour. He was a soldier, clearly. These were peasants, farmers: simple people. The innkeeper, a tall man by the bar, looked at him with squinting eyes. There was distrust. The gondorian stepped forward, his footsteps sounding loud in his ears as he crossed the room. This was unnerving …

He leaned against the bar, trying to look as harmless and friendly as possible. "Excuse me, I-" he began, but the innkeeper had put down the cup he had currently been cleaning with a piece of cloth and gave him a sharp look.

"Yes, excuse you. Ah yes, the King's soldier must always have the best," he said, his voice sharp and accusing, holding sarcasm. Then the man turned his back, picking out a canteen of ale and pouring the cup with it. The gondorian soldier frowned a little; he had not had a chance to explain himself!

"Sir, I think you must leave the village-"

"And why would we do that? Galbatorix' orders, huh? Well we ain't nothing but a peaceful town, and I say you're not going to take anything from us."

Feeling frustrated with the silence of the rest of the room and the innkeeper's obvious annoyance, he bit down his teeth to hold back a heated retort. What did the man think - that he and his men (who weren't there) would rob and plunder once the villagers were gone? "I have no orders from 'Galbatorix'," he said, "but there is a large fire up the valley and it can easily spread here."

The innkeeper raised an eyebrow. A murmur rippled through the assembled men that were scattered in the tavern over mugs of ale. "A fire?"

"Yes, sir. I believe it is safest if you-"

"Bah! You're just making an excuse for us to leave so you and your 'friends' can go about and take what you want. I'm not blind of what's happened in others towns these last few months. Nay, you're going to take your friends and leave or I'll chase my dogs after you!"

Another voice was raised and cut the innkeeper off. "Let the man speak, Efridson." A lank man with dark hair looked at the gondorian. "So - what happened?"

"I am not sure. I found a village nearby a river, or rather the ruins. Everything is set aflame. I found no survivors. It seems like the fire has been on for days."

Now people stood up. Some had already begun to leave, dashing outside to warn people or trying organize help in an attempt to put the fire out. The dark haired man neared the gondorian warily. "But if you aren't under the king's orders, then whose orders do you obey?"

"I serve Lord Elessar," the man said proudly: Elessar was a mighty man and king. The statement was met with only a raised eyebrow, and a shrug.

"Never heard of him. But never mind right now. Will you help us?"

"Of course," the soldier replied. "We should organize some groups to go out and cut the wood around the village … that way the fire will not spread as easily." He had not handled a situation like this before, at least not on his own - he was no captain or officer - but he had heard general advice of what to do if there was a large fire. Make sure the fire didn't spread, and if it did not have any fuel - wood - it did not spread so easily.

The dark haired man nodded and they went outside, leaving a innkeeper behind them who just shook his head. No matter what, he was firm in his decision not to trust any solider.

Outside there was full activity, people running across the muddy roads from house to house to fetch axes, buckets. The houses were waking. There was a cry from some cattle being disturbed. Light seeped from every open door. Every man appearing to join the gondorian - expecting him to lead him to the fire - held lanterns in their hands. Some came with wagons and horses. In the wagons they had buckets filled with water.

It will not do much difference, that, the soldier thought. Shielding the fire from the rest of the valley is priority. A few buckets of water cannot put it out. Then he voices his thoughts, gaining everyone's attention, and he urged them to hurry and bring as many men and strong boys that could handle a saw or an axe with them. Quickly he counted them: there were at least three dozen people there, and more were coming.

In his opinion far too much time passed by until they were on their way again, walking, running or riding, down the road. Each minute during the hours - he wasn't sure how many - felt agonizingly slow.

Ahead, blazing red. It had at some point spread over the wooden walls made of fallen trees, and into the edge of the forest beyond. He wasn't used giving orders as much as taking them, but he found faces with wide eyes looking at him expectantly.

"The river! Fetch water there! You there, take those with wagons and buckets, hurry to the river and transport water from there onto the fire. The rest, go in groups of three or four and start cutting down the trees. Does anyone have a map? No? Just don't be too close to the fire - we must have time to cut down the trees. We must create a thick enough space between the forest and the village. Hurry, hurry!"

The next few hours were a blur. He hoped it would start raining sometime. The fire couldn't be tamed by the water, no matter how many gallons they together threw at it, but the firebreak proved much more effective. When morning dawned, the gondorian drew back a mile up the road, gathering many sweating, ash-covered men around him. Not a single cloud covered the sky … yet. Rain, rain, rain.

The men were tired but some were talking with angry voices. "Who could've done this?"

"Who do you think - the Empire's soldiers of course."

"But I don't understand. Carvahall might not have been their best friend, but it was a harmless village. No one there would harm a soul, I can swear."

"I found no survivors…"

"Harmless? Have you heard nothing? I'm a trader, and I came just from Narda - there are talking about everywhere. They're chasing them. The empire are after Carvahall, Roran Garrowson to be exact. No, I don't know why."

"Garrowson? I remember the lad; I offered him to work at my mill, but the lad left when the season was over. Heard his father died."

"Are you blind? I saw them!"

Silence fell. "Saw who?" asked an elderly man the younger one who had spoken.

"The soldiers. There are traces everywhere. I was out hunting, and they passed by Therinsford from the north. I couldn't do anything and I didn't dare go near ..."

"How many were they?" Suddenly a finger was pointing at the gondorian, who hadn't spoken during the discussion. "Did they look like him? Was he with them?"

"No, I don't think he was. Besides they all had red cloaks and tonlets. I'm not sure how many they were - over thirty at least, maybe even fifty. This man wasn't with them I think, besides he wears a blue tonlet."

The older man cursed. "What next? Will they force us on our knees, kill our families and burn down our homes? We must hurry back to Therinsford."

All eyes lastly turned to the gondorian, eyeing him with some distrust, suspicion, and some curiosity. "What's your name, soldier?" the older man asked.

"Beregond is my name," the gondorian said, "son of Baranor." He looked back at the people around him, and wondered where in Arda he was, and how these people could not have heard of Elessar…and probably not Prince Legolas either... When he asked them if they knew of Lord Faramir, and even King Éomer of Rohan, he was met by blank stares.

His next question however was met with anger and displeasure. partly that he hadn't heard of the man, and partly because no one appeared to like the man the slightest; but had to keep a façade of near worship up, at least in the presence of one of Galbatorix' servants or soldiers, if they held their lives dear.

"Who is Galbatorix?" Beregond asked, and the villagers stared at him.

Chapter Text

After scrutinizing Jeod's plans from every thinkable point of view, they had agreed on it with just a few changes. Nolfavrell had been sent to fetch Gertrude and Mandel, since Jeod had offered them to live at his house for time being. He had food, comforts, and shelter from soldiers, so they found no reasons to decline. Besides it was better this way, much easier for them to plan in secret without needing to meet outside the walls of the house.

The only things – or people – bothering Legolas about this were the servant and Jeod's wife. They might not purpose any open threat, but if any information leaked out … There could only be disaster. They'd be trapped like rats in a hole, nowhere to go, and the villagers hiding outside the city would then be found…

Jeod had gone to tell his wife, confess the whole truth. He loved her; anyone could see that, even if their marriage held many strained years. Legolas only hoped that she did not do anything rash, in case she disapproved or refused to go with them to Surda. But the servant didn't know about anything. He didn't seem so very interested in his master's business anyway. Once Jeod sold his house and everything he owned, he would no longer have a need of a servant; the man knew this and knew that these would be the final few months he'd be in this house. Perhaps that was why he did not care too much of the strangers either. It wasn't his business.

There were two small beds in this room – they had decided to sleep in groups of two - and this would be Legolas' and Aragorn's. The room just to the left would Roran share with Nolfavrell; Mendel would share with Loring and the women had their own chamber.

At the moment, Legolas sat cross-legged on one of the beds; his hood was pulled down now, his hair flowing freely over his shoulders, but the door was closed, the windows covered. Aragorn sat beside him, one leg slung over the edge of the bed. The man could feel his lover shift, of nervousness or unease. It was being away from Eldarion for several hours, he realized; he laid a soothing hand on Legolas' knee. The lit hearth across the room gave it a warm soft glow, reflected on the elf's skin.

"Do not fret, my love. He is safe," Aragorn mumbled.

"I know. Yet I cannot help feeling anxious. When I was apart from him in Carvahall, I always had the chance to go back to him. Now I have to wait, either we find a chance to sneak outside the city or once we commandeer the Dragon Wing and flee. Neither option soothes me." Legolas leaned into his lover; it'd been a while since they had had the chance to be alone together. Unconsciously his hand had settled upon his husband's, and he was now stroking it carefully. "I miss him, my love."

"I do too," Aragorn whispered. Momentarily he closed his eyes, as he kissed his lover's chin and breathed his warm familiar scent – of pine trees and flowers and that scent that was pure Legolas. Those five days when he had been away from his lover and son, his heart had ached both day and night. He understood how the elf felt. "Elain will look after him."

"She is a good caretaker … and mother," Legolas agreed quietly.

"She is due soon, is she not?" the man asked. He was not as close to Elain as Legolas was, but he knew that his husband valued her highly.

"Aye. In just seven weeks …" The elf glanced up at his lover, unable to hinder himself from stroking the stubby cheek. "I worry some of her too. What if we do not make it to Surda 'til then? I would not want her to give birth out here on the run … possibly on a ship somewhere by the coast, hunted by the Empire…" Then he quieted.

His gloominess worried Aragorn. The man embraced him. "She will be safe as well as her child," he said confidently. "Besides, I am a healer. I will assist her, if she lets me."

Legolas smiled a little. "You have not handled that many childbirths."

"I handled the birth of our son – the most amazing moment of my life," Aragorn pointed out.

And suddenly a laugh escaped the elf. "Oh I remember … I was hurting, at the same time it was magical, and I was so mad. For a while I wanted to go so far to castrate you!"

Aragorn grimaced. "You did scare me, especially when you announced it loud enough for Faramir pacing outside the door to hear! Although I am sure you would not be vey happy afterwards if you really took your words into actions."

Now Legolas turned in his embrace to look fully at him. He grinned. "I am sure too, my love." He kissed him fully this time: they fell back onto the bed, kissing, touching, and Legolas smiled. "Very sure," he confirmed.

For a long while they were unaware of the outside world; it wasn't until they heard a bell ring, announcing dinner, that they pulled apart. A few second later, steps were heard and someone knocked at the door. Flushed, the elf stood up and tried smoothen his hair before pulling up his hood, while the man walked up to the door to open it. The servant, Rolf, stood there with his white teeth glimmering in the hearth's firelight.

"Good sirs, dinner is ready," he said. He glanced inside the rooms shortly, at the hooded man, before going to knock at the next door.

Legolas was still grinning. He then looked down at his clothes and then at Aragorn's. They really should wear something more … dignified – they looked naught more than a pair of weary weather-bitten travellers at the moment (as they were) – this was a rich man's house, after all. They should at least wear something cleaner. Then the elf shrugged. It could not matter much; Jeod was an ally already, not a politician you try to impress. This wasn't Gondorian court.

"You know," Aragorn murmured quietly as they walked downstairs through the hall, "I might have some trouble with my behaviour at the table tonight. Will you forgive me?"

Legolas soft laughter sounded like bells. "Sometimes I wonder if Lord Elrond raised you, or if his twin sons did!"

()()()

Beregond was sitting back at the tavern, a mug of ale in front of him. His head was full of questions, but he let the people talk. They spoke of Galbatorix, the history they knew. They spoke of gossip of rebellions, of battles far away that had taken the lives of their sons; they spoke of their home, their village, their land. Alagaësia. It was so much to take in. He wondered if he was going mad … or if these people were. Maybe they lived so remotely that they had isolated themselves from the rest of the world and come up with one of their own?

He couldn't help flinching when they mentioned the word dragons – and the fact that the so-supposed king, Galbatorix, had one of his own. Dragons were extinct! The last one, Smaug, had been killed by the time of the Battle of Five Armies. That was a long time ago. But when Beregond told them that, they looked as if he was mad; they shook their head furiously.

"Extinct? Then what else can break all this havoc all-over Alagaësia?"

"I've heard, last time I went to Narda, he's searching for this boy … a Dragonrider, a new one, against the king at that! Has this man lived in a shell?"

"Though I've heard they're dyin' now, won't be much left of them once the king's find them eggs."

"Probably has them all already. Haven't you heard 'bout the battle?"

Beregond shook his head. They were out of their minds. There were no dragons anymore. So he decided to leave. He didn't have anything, no spear, no supplies, but maybe he could trade for them. At least a weapon.

He thanked them for the ale, though he had no money to pay with. The bartender, who looked grim and sour, gave in to other men's stubbornness and said he didn't need to pay. He had warned them about the fire, after all. Realizing his opportunity, Beregond managed to ask his way to a smith and ask for a weapon, a simple spear. His wish was granted.

When he stood by the outskirts of the village, only a few faces peered out of the windows; in his opinion, they all looked relieved of having him gone.

()()()

The dinner-table was simple and undecorated, but the dishes were delicious even if they were few, and they ate with silver cutlery, giving an air that this was yet a wealthy home. The villagers ate happily, now that they were able to eat practically as much as they wanted; but Legolas felt a sharp twinge of guilt, knowing that the rest of the villagers were forced to live on small rations, hiding outside the city walls; while they inside now tasted luxury. The guilt took away much of his appetite.

Roran was seated across the table, Jeod next to him, Loring on his other side. Beside the man sat Nolfavrell, Birgit, and Gertrude and Mendel, the two latter having arrived just half an hour earlier.

Helen was there as well; she was dressed in a deeply red dress, but it held little embroidery on it. The household all-in-all seemed little decorated, now when Legolas had time to think of it; small signs that Jeod's affairs were non-existent now and their wealth was shrinking. All the time, Helen was glancing at Roran, seizing him up, and comparing him with Eragon who had visited months and months ago.

Legolas was both uncomfortable and feeling inappropriate with his hood up. The only reason he still kept it on – since Helen knew of his species through her husband – was Rolf, the servant. Somewhere half-way through the meal, Jeod signalled the man to leave, told him he was dismissed for the remaining of the hour relieved the elf, and he removed his hood at Jeod's nod.

Helen's gaze flinched over towards the elf; Legolas felt her perplexed emotions. She probably was uncertain of what to do or think, having such curious guests – or runaways, rather – in her home, just have known her husband has been a secret agent, that she had a choice of leaving him or flee with him to Surda; an elf at the table … It must be much to take in.

Aragorn was seated next to him; the man was mostly quiet, only speaking when necessary, but everyone silenced when he spoke. There was an air around him … They could not really explain it, but it felt dignified and even if the man tried not to, he gave an impression of being noble, a royalty. None except Legolas knew of his true identity – as Aragorn, Elessar, King of Gondor – but rather as a ranger, Estel. None knew either that Legolas was royalty as well. The elf had never bothered to tell. It would easily make the people awkward around them both, and anyway, it was just a minor detail.

All the while they ate and talked over wine that was offered, Aragorn had nudged the elf's ankles beneath the table with his foot, teasingly. Once, the elf had glanced at him with a glare. The man had grinned, and the elf shook his head, at the same time talking to Roran, so only Aragorn – having known Legolas for many, many years – could read that his body language was signalled at him rather than Roran. Silent, gentle flirtation followed.

Aragorn thought it was painful to sit this close to his lover, without touching him, too openly at least. Had the Valar been a little less cruel they would have made him sit on the other side of the table; then he wouldn't be so temped.

Nearly an hour later, with stomachs full, they went back to their separate rooms. Jeod told them that tomorrow they would be free to enjoy his hospitality as they wished. There were some things he had to do before they made actions of their plans; and they needed to rest and go through the plan again.

"Oh I have missed you, My Greenleaf," Aragorn murmured and kissed the elf as soon as the door was closed behind them. The man fumbled with the lock, to make sure they weren't interrupted.

"Estel," Legolas whispered, his eyes half-closed. "A-Aragorn…"

He couldn't speak any further, until Aragorn's lips covered his own, and strong hands slipped around his body, starting to sneak beneath his tunic. The elf melted into the touch; since their marriage, it had been hard to be separate from each other this intimate way. During the first months of their marriage, that time of separation usually wasn't restricted to more than a day. Now, several months had passed – at least for Legolas – since they last had made love. It must have been some kind of record.

Aragorn backed towards the closet bed, pulling the elf with him.

"Estel – what if we're heard?" Legolas murmured, but did not protest more than that under Aragorn's ministrations. One of his hands was tangled in the man's hair.

"We'll just have to be a little discreet," the man muttered.

A breathless laugh escaped Legolas' lips. "It is such a long time since you wandered as a ranger … Do you know anymore how to be prudent? The walls of our chambers in Minas Tirith are thicker than these … I wouldn't want to embarrass our hosts- Oh!"

They fell back onto the bed; Legolas effectively straddled his lover's hips and smirked down at him. The strong hands that had sneaked up his back, pulling up his tunic, felt almost like feathers. He moaned. Leaning down until his face was just an inch from his husband, he let his left hand travel up Aragorn's stomach at the same time; tracing the navel, then further up. He relished at the feeling of a muscled hairy chest.

"It feels like ages since we did this," Aragorn muttered. The corners of Legolas' lips twitched. When he finally closed the gap between them, his hair fell down almost to hide them both behind a curtain. Nimble fingers were pulling at his soft locks, undoing the neat braids.

"Make love to me?" Legolas whispered, trailing a series of kisses down the man's throat.

Aragorn was more than happy to oblige.

()()()

In the evening seven days after Legolas' disappearance, Thranduil had gathered with Faramir the steward, a number of gondorian elders – councillors from the court – and King Éomer in the main building of the Ithilien settlement.

Around the table in the hall there were many raised voices as well as hushed conversations: Westron mixed with Sindarin; there was chaos and no one knew what to do. Thranduil was developing a headache; he was tired of this. He needed order!

They had discussed of their current dilemmas. The king of Gondor and his consort were gone. There had been a group of elves sent to find a way down or around the waterfall, to search for them. It was unlikely they were still alive; the thought tore at Thranduil's heart like a knife. Already, rumours of all kinds had spread, and any time now there would be an announcement that Elessar was dead; bells of mourning would ring all over the kingdom.

Then were this new threat, the soldiers with red tonlets marked with a flame. They had no information of who their leader was, yet. The best soldiers had been organized to search for them, if there were any survivors that fled the battle at Minas Tirith, and in that case bring them here to be interrogated.

At least, they'd tried to discuss it and find solutions to various problems but when there were many different people and opinions gathered, there was chaos. Hence Thranduil's fuming irritation.

Finally he'd had enough. He stood tall and commanded silence, using a voice that made his subjects cower.

It was at the same moment that someone knocked at the large doors twice, before stepping inside. It were the elves that earlier had been sent to scout. They looked weary. No sound was heard as they stepped inside, looking at Thranduil for permission to speak. The elven king nodded.

"My lord, we found a way down. It was dark and the vegetation thick, and the waters deep and cold. We searched until sundown, but we found neither their bodies nor any signs of them."

Thranduil took a deep breath. "And there were nothing indicating they had survived the fall and left the site?"

"No, my lord, I am afraid that is not the case. It is possible they drowned," the elf reported, his voice slightly unsteady at the thought of the prince and the prince's young one drowning in those cold dark waters.

The currents caused by the waterfall were too strong; if they tried to search the lake that the waterfall led to, they could very well be pushed to the bottom and unable to swim to the surface.

A quiet curse left one of the gondorians as the elf voiced this. "Then," the man said, "then there is little we can do." The old man looked around the table, for lord Faramir. "Milord, shall we announce…?"

But Faramir shook his head. "No, not yet. I would like to have a wider area around the lake searched through. Now it is too late though. We need daylight. If we have not found King Elessar or Prince Legolas and their heir, or any signs of them, in two days, then we must announce their demise. But we should not despair yet."

Thranduil would have wanted to search forever, if he had to, to find his son and grandson.

()()()

Roran was tired but felt like he had accomplished a great deal, and for that he was pleased. They had a way out; they would have supplies and weaponry; they also had Jeod to guide them.

After dinner, he didn't retire to his and Loring's room. Instead he went to the back of the house, where a door led to a back yard. He was surprised to see Brigit waiting by the door, as if she'd known he would come.

"Do you hate him?" she asked.

It caught Roran off guard. "Who?"

"Eragon. Do you hate him?"

Roran glanced outside at the darkening sky. "I hate him because he caused my father's death, but he is still my family and because of that I love him … If I didn't need him to save Katrina, I probably wouldn't have anything to do with Eragon for a long while."

"Like I hate and need you, Roran Stronghammer," Birgit said, reminding him clearly of the fact that he had to pay a debt for causing her husband's death.

He snorted humourlessly. "We are entwined, aren't we. You need me to find Eragon and avenge the ra'zac for Quimby's death."

"And avenge you afterwards," she added.

"That too."

Roran looked at her again; somehow it was oddly comforting to know that they shared the same urge, same fierceness that would make them double their steps when others hesitated. She would prove a good spirit to drive the people of Carvahall on, and to defend them; she would also prove a threat that he must deal with sooner or later.

()()()

Night fell over Teirm, and a silence settled in Jeod's household. The servant Rolf was up a little later than the others, cleaning up before going to sleep; Jeod and his wife had retired to their chamber, and the guests were in their rooms.

Legolas wished he could open the window in just a crack, to look outside at the stars. It felt a little strange to sleep again on soft sheets, with the warmth of a dying hearth giving the room a golden flush. He also felt immense comfort, naked and cuddled up against his lover's chest, basking in the afterglow of lovemaking. Aragorn was half-asleep, but the elf's mind felt very clear. He laid still and just breathed his husband's scent. It felt like being at home again. The only one missing was Eldarion, sleeping in a cradle beside the bed.

"Aragorn," he murmured, "do you think it will work?"

The man mumbled something incoherently, blinking. "Love … why don't you sleep?"

Legolas did not answer to his question. "Do you think it will work to commandeer the Dragon Wing?"

"It must," Aragorn said simply. He kissed his lover's temple, sensing he was worried. "Do not fret, Legolas."

"I worry … what if it fails … what if the villagers get caught? And our Eldarion…" The elf's voice faded, a lump forming in his throat. Aragorn's arms around him tightened immediately.

"I will not let any harm become them. I swear," the man said passionately. "Please do not worry, not tonight. No one knows that they… we are here. They are safe. Eldarion is safe. Besides they have weapons to defend themselves."

Legolas sighed, muzzling his cheek against his husband's neck. "Yet I wish he was here with us. I cannot sleep peacefully without him."

Aragorn's hand was caressing his back. "Tomorrow we might have a chance to go outside Teirm, back to the camp, and see Eldarion."

"I hope so…" the elf mumbled, feeling some fatigue climb onto his mind. He was still feeling worried, and afraid, for Eldarion's safety, longing to be able to hold his son again. In search for comfort he sought out Aragorn's hand, entwining the man's fingers with his own.

Chapter Text

The whole next day was spent eating, resting and sharpening their weapons. Most of the company spent the day inside, behind firmly closed doors and windows. Helen was not seen very much; she had probably locked herself in her chambers to think of everything her husband had said. She had really only two choices: staying in Teirm, leaving Jeod, and barely have enough money to live. Or she could leave everything behind and follow Jeod to Surda. Rolf the servant was often seen, in one or the other room, with his shining white teeth, but the guests avoided both him and Helen. Jeod was not seen at all.

Mandel was sent by Roran back to the villagers' camp with a message for Horst. Exactly what that message was about, the others weren't sure. Legolas took that opportunity to go with him, to see Eldarion. As he peered through a window to see the pair leave the house, Aragorn wished he had come with the elf. What if they encountered trouble?

The trip beneath the early morning sun was swift. They weren't stopped by the gates out from the city; they found their way back to camp easily. Legolas walked a little way behind Mandel, covering any eventual tracks.

In the bay where the barges were tied, the beach was covered in tents and people. One single small fire had been lit, someone was cooking over it. While Mendel left to find Horst, Legolas tried to find Elain, asking his way through the camp.

As he found her, she was sitting beside the tent, partly shadowed. She looked uncomfortable, but smiled as he approached, recognizing him on the cloak and the light way he moved. "Legolas," she greeted. Then she frowned. "Is everything all right?"

"We have found a way from here," he told her, quickly explaining their plan. Elain nodded. "It'll be dangerous though," she said.

"It is our only option now, and the Dragon Wing has all the supplies we needs," Legolas said. He looked at her concernedly. "Are you feeling well, Elain?"

"It's just the little one," she admitted, "and the warmth." Not that she though he'd understand how she felt; it wasn't as if he knew how a pregnancy in the 8th month felt like. "Eldarion is sleeping, by the way. It seems like not even a thunderstorm could wake him up. I'm a little afraid we have little to feed him with …" She swept a hand over her brow tiredly. Her other hand rested on her large belly.

Legolas nodded with a small sigh. Their rations were running very, very low. They needed to hurry with their plan, or the villagers would starve to death.

Eldarion was as she'd said asleep, wrapped in blankets. Legolas gently lifted the child; held him close while breathing the familiar smell of his son. Tiny hands reached out and managed to get a firm grip of his hair. Legolas felt instantly calmer. His son was fine and so were the villagers. Untouched by soldier or discovery, but not from hunger … The elf laid the child's cheek against his own, planted a soft kiss on Eldarion's temple. "Hello, little one. Have you missed me?" he mumbled.

As he came outside again, with Eldarion sleeping in the crook of his arm, Elain was sitting at the same spot as earlier. However the people around them were restless, they moved back and fourth. Snapping words from many conversations around him, Legolas realize that Horst must have announced that they'd plan fleeing very soon by the Dragon Wing.

"Are you mad? You tell Stronghammer, that I ain't not walking within sight of that city…We'll be caught!" the old man that they'd had trouble of getting onto the barges in the first place cried angrily at Horst.

This and other various reactions, from relief to anger to joy, woke Eldarion up. He began to wail, but once he recognized his Ada he made a happy sound and his grip of Legolas' hair tightened. Shifting his grip so that the child rested against his hip, the elf made his way over to Horst and Mendel. The latter was fastening his belt around his waist, and the elf noted that he carried a pouch that hadn't been there before.

"Shall we go back to Teirm?" the elf asked Mendel.

"I suppose."

Legolas nodded, unconsciously stroking Eldarion's hair. "What about Clovis and the barges?" he asked.

Horst saw the elf for the first time; his steps were so quiet, it was only Eldarion's small incoherent babbles against his parent's stomach that betrayed the elf's presence. The child had begun learning how to speak, though not able to form any understandable words.

"If Clovis tries any tricks, we'll stop him from leaving – sabotaging his ships, capturing him if need be and keeping him and his men locked up," the man said instead of Mendel. "We will not let him or his men reach Teirm before us."

"I hope so." Legolas was sure that Clovis would eventually betray their presence, and once they headed for the open sea, ships would quickly be prepared to follow them hot on their trail. After all, managing to capture Roran was worth a fortune, and a man like Clovis would not say no to money – it was enough to feed his family for generations, if he betrayed them. The thought made Legolas frown.

A few minutes later, he and Mendel were walking back to the city. He disliked leaving Eldarion behind; Eldarion had sensed that his parent would leave for several more hours, and the boy had cried loudly in protest as Legolas put him back in Elain's care. It tore at the elf's heart, but he promised the child he'd hurry to be back. Eldarion did not stop crying or wriggling in Elain's arms.

()()()

The hours until nightfall felt agonizingly slow. When they went to sleep, Legolas found none, even if he laid in Aragorn's strong arms. His husband was deeply asleep. Trying to get his mind off his worries, the elf focused on watching the man's chest rise and fall; however his thoughts kept returning to Eldarion and Elain and his friends in Middle Earth. It was not until the night had passed far that he fell asleep.

A short time afterwards, he was awoken by Aragorn. The morning was early; the sun hadn't yet risen. Quickly they dressed and gathered their belongings, armouring themselves with swords and bows.

The others waited in the hall already, trying to rub sleep from their eyes. Nolfavrell was unable to hide a yawn. They were all dressed in long cloaks, hiding their faces. Jeod was present with a thin sword at his side; the weapon seemed to complete his long-limbed character and was a reminded of that this man could fight. The man unlocked the door, casting a longing glance inside: Helen was nowhere in sight. With a tired, sad sigh, he turned around and closed the door behind them. Legolas noticed that the man shivered.

They melted into the night with their dark clothing as they half-ran through the empty streets. The Dragon Wing was settled in the harbour outside the city walls, where also many houses were built; much to their fortune, because the villagers would not have to get inside Teirm itself to reach the ship. The city gates were closed only four hours a night, so that the trade wouldn't be disturbed, so it was open when they reached it. Their hearts pounded heavily in their chests; the beat quickened when a guard halted them, lowering a spear.

"What's your business?"

Jeod gave him a parchment he had prepared. The guard studied it for a minute or so – the nervous cloaked people waited, each breath felt heavy. Then the guard nodded and gave back the parchment to Jeod. "You can pass."

Roran breathed a sigh of relief. Now they walked slower, even if they hurried out onto the harbour. Once they stepped on the wooden bridges, their footsteps echoed over the water terribly loudly. When they had stepped out of hearing range, Jeod commented quietly: "Luckily that man could not read."

In the harbour's dim light waited the five men that Jeod had contacted and hired for this mission. Like himself, they were trapped in Teirm, and this was their only ways of escaping the Empire. Each man was broad and muscled and scarred to even gain Roran's respect. In turn he appeared to gain theirs. However the men weren't so happy to see Birgit.

"You never told me there'd be a women with us in the fight," one of the sailors said to Jeod. "How am I supposed to fight if the wench's in the way?"

Nolfavrell growled only as a thirteen year old can. "Don't speak of my mother like that."

The man's frown deepened. "And her little one too?"

Jeod, in kind, was very calm. "Birgit has fought the ra'zac, and her son has killed one of Galbatorix' best soldiers. Can you boast with the same, Uthar?"

"It's not right," another sailor cut in. "I wouldn't feel safe with a female beside me; at sea they'll only bring bad luck. A woman shouldn't-"

Whatever the man was about to say was cut short as Birgit fiercely kicked him in between his legs, and then grabbed the other man – Uthar – pressing a knife against his throat. For a few moments she held him in place, before she let go. The other man was on the ground, cursing and wailing. Legolas smirked under his hood. He would not make such a mistake to underestimate Birgit, or probably any of the women of Carvahall – it would be as dangerous as if he insulted Lady Éowyn. At least they haven't noticed Gertrude, he thought.

"Does anyone else have any objections?" Birgit asked. Beside her, Nolfavrell stared at her with mouth agape. No one said anything. Looking reluctant, Birgit sheathed her knife.

"Are you prepared?" Jeod asked the sailors. They nodded, opening their vests to reveal many lengths of rope and a heavy club.

Legolas could spot two guards, with lanterns glimmering in their hands, pacing back and forth on the great ship's deck, before the others saw them. They hid besides a storage building, where they paired themselves in groups. Roran slipped away with Uthar into the darkness; the others waited.

One minute passed; two, three. When they felt sure that their friends were ready, Birgit stepped forward, walking up onto the ship. The guards notice her immediately. "Halt!"

The talk that followed was angry as well as curious from the men's side – what was a lady doing out her on her own? - But soon it grew into a verbal battle. Legolas had pulled his cloak tightly around himself, lightly creeping behind Birgit – who had the guard's full attention – and onto deck. He went like a shadow, unnoticed. At the same moment Roran and Uthar climbed up onto deck by the stern, wet and cold and gasping. Both men rushed forward and cut the distracted guard's conversation short by clubbing them unconscious, before the men had any time to lift their weapons. Birgit only acknowledged them with a nod. At her signal, the others hurried onto deck. Gertrude stayed to watch the deck, as the others slipped below.

Legolas, as planned, was a step ahead of them, sneaking into the cabins and rendering their unsuspecting inhabitants unconscious. While he dragged two of them onto deck, the other men and women had split up to search the whole ship. All-in-all they found five people aboard, who were tied and gagged and placed on deck so they could watch them over.

Jeod beckoned them over for a short moment. "Roran, Uthar is the captain of the Dragon Wing. You all take orders from him."

"Understood."

()()()

The camp was not asleep. It was quiet and dark, except for an occasional lantern; but definitely not asleep. Everyone was alert and awake. Only the youngest children still slept. Tents had been put down; everything had been packed. They needed to move quickly now.

Elain squeezed her husband's hand worriedly, supporting the elf-child with her other arm. "Do you think they've made it undiscovered?"

Horst's expression was impossible to read. "By every God there is, I hope so."

()()()

Activity was non-stopping at the Dragon Wing. While the seasoned sailors prepared the rig and the sails, the villagers were emptying the cargos of the items they didn't need. They needed as much space as possible to house the whole village.

When two hours had passed and the sky was tainted with the faintest of dark blues, someone cried hoarsely a warning. "Someone's coming!"

Everyone threw themselves flat onto deck, except for Uthar and Jeod who began pacing the deck as if they were guards.

But there wasn't any soldier or threat that approached. On the quay, dressed in a simple dress and carrying a small pack over her shoulder, was Helen. Jeod called out; steps were heard walking up the gangplank. Roran glanced up; but seeing who was approaching, he let out the breath he had been holding. Helen did not say a word; she just put her belongings in the largest cabin before walking to stand beside Jeod. Roran had never before seen such a happy man.

Their speed redoubled as they finished the last preparations. The horizon was brightening. Then Legolas, who had climbed up in the rigging to help, cried out with his clear voice, pointing north. There a large shadow silhouetted the morning light. The villagers were here.

Quickly all twelve ballistae that were on deck were manned. The villagers had walked about two thirds of the way to the ship, when the guards on the city walls saw them. The first alarm set off; loud voices, a horn. Uthar reacted at once. "Lit and fire!" he cried.

Nolfavrell opened the lantern he held and quickly ran across deck, lighting the tip of each spear of the ballistae. At the same time a spear was lit, the man behind the large bow let go; fiercely red spears archer over the water, towards the harbour.

"Reload!"

A nearby ship was set alight. The fire spread quickly enough. Another set of twelve spears was sent flying. The fire rose like a wall by the shore that faced the wall. Roran had hoped it'd obscure the ship from the city archers' sight; but still as he thought that, an arrow buried in the deck just in front of Gertrude.

"Fire!"

On the shore, the villagers had begun running. As they reached the northern end of the quay the archers on the wall sent arrows their way; children screamed in terror. Legolas, who now was in the lookout, had drawn his bow and with much precision managed to kill several of the men on the wall, but there were always more men coming to take their place. Like thunder, the villagers ran up the gangplank of the large ship. In a few minutes, still under bombardment of arrows, the ships interior was flooded by villagers. Those who found no space below deck stayed aboard, cowering beneath Fisk's many shields.

All ablebodied men had gathered around the largest mast, as Roran had requested in his message; they awaited orders that were quickly given.

One by one the captures were rolled down the gangplank and onto the pier. Then the gangplank was pulled back onto deck. Almost every man was acting as rowers, trying to get the Dragon Wing away from the harbour as quickly as possible. Far too slow than they'd like, the ship turned to starboard, towards open waters, and then with quickening speed, she left the harbour. Behind her a red inferno ate at everything between Teirm's stone walls and the sea. The sun was rising; its orange colour matched the flames.

A fleeting though crossed Roran's mind as he rowed. How many have I killed now?

As an echo of his thoughts, Jeod said: "This will harm many innocent people."

Sharp guilt made Roran's reply angrier than intended. "You'd rather sit in the dungeons of lord Ristharts? I doubt many will be hurt in the fire, and those who won't be won't face death yet, unlike us if the Empire catches us."

"You do not need to lecture me, Roran. I know we did not have a choice. We did what we must. But do not ask me to find pleasure in the suffering we have caused to make our freedom."

Roran found no reply.

Legolas slid down onto deck, his expression blank. He walked quickly through the mass of people, scanning them until he found Elain beside Horst, with Eldarion in her arms. Wordlessly, overwhelmed with relief, he gently took the boy and pressed him against his chest. Eldarion was unharmed... But the boy cried; the terror and fear that had pressed around him in their panicked escape, hadn't yet left him. The elf never wanted to let go of his son ever again.

Elain's eyes looked like glass as they gazed over the elf's form – his shoulders slumped, eyes half-closed beneath the hood – past him, back at the city and the large fire fading into the distance.

Legolas looked at her briefly; a breathless "Thank you, thank you," left his lips. She nodded but said nothing, leaning against her husband instead. Still with his precious child in a soft, firm embrace, placing occasional kisses on his brow, the elf crossed the deck again, to the stern were Aragorn was currently tying a rope. Aragorn had sailed before; he knew much of ships. Uthar seemed pleased with that.

The elf held Eldarion with the crook of one arm and reached out with his other hand to help him. Aragorn started. "Legolas! I could neither hear nor see you. You almost gave me a heart attack!"

Now when they were away from Teirm, and they were – for the moment – safe, Legolas felt calm enough to smile. "I am sorry, love. Mayhap it is your age that has caught up with you?"

"Me – old?" Aragorn looked aghast. "If I am old, then what are you?"

Legolas' smile grew at the light banter. "Have children nowadays no respect for their elders?"

"You did not answer my question," Aragorn pointed out.

The elf shook his head, trying to hide his smile. He shifted his grip of Eldarion. "All right, Estel. I think it I more proper if we save bantering for later … Teirm and its fires are yet in sight. Let me help you finish this," he said, gesturing at the man's current work.

()()()

Beregond had walked for days, following the old thin road. He had hunted down two rabbits for food, and found a gentle stream to drink from and refill his flask with water. As for yet, he had not met a soul. From the directions he had been given by the people of Therinsford, he should follow the road south to the city Yazuac, and then follow the River Ninor to Gil'aed. That was a quite large city. From there he could easily make it to any other city in the Empire. His heart told him to follow those directions; his mind, however, told him to look at the sun and make his way south-east and towards Gondor's boarders. Were those villagers sane?

Or was he the one who was mad?

Perhaps, he reflected shortly, he was ill and feverish, hallucinating a whole world while in truth was in the Houses of Healing ... or lying by the bottom of a large waterfall.

He rubbed a hand over his eyes. He was tired; that must be it. Glancing up at the sun, he determined he should stop and rest within the hour.

However, after a while he noticed something out of the ordinary. There was the sound first; a faint … voices, perhaps … But not the sound of birds and nature and the wind rustling in the leaves, at least. The second thing was the thin smoke that drifted over towards him; it smelled of fire, and food. Lastly he saw the origin of the smoke. Between many layers of pine trees, the gondorian spotted a large party of Men – how many he wasn't sure – but they were at least two dozen. Their armour glinted in the sunlight, their weapons clinked.

Galbatorix' soldiers?

Beregond blinked. Maybe the villagers had not been as insane as he had thought.

He moved closer, but was cautious, avoiding dry sticks and twigs on the ground. A few moments later he was very glad for that caution; he saw red tonlets and red mantles, and instantly recognized the armour. These soldiers were alike to those who had attacked Gondor's boarders and eventually had reached Minas Tirith. So, these men were foes. Had they survived and fled? Where they part of the group that had pursued Prince Legolas?

He drew closer, slowly, taking cover of the bushes. He needed to be silent. If someone looked his way, his armour could give him away.

Then an idea formed in his mind. He carefully stripped away the tonlet he wore, gray-blue with the White Tree and seven stars embroided on it, and took off his chest plate. Then he just changed the layer; the tonlet beneath and the metal chest plate on top. Now no one could recognize him as a gondorian, only as a soldier.

He approached the camp again; he consciously was louder than earlier, so to draw attention. As he set his foot in the clearing, men stood, fumbled for their weapons; chatter died and spears were all pointed at him. Someone who apparently was the leader stepped forward, eyeing him suspiciously.

"You are not part of my troops," the man said, his voice gravelly and stiff. "What is your name, soldier?"

"Alun son of Efrid, sir," Beregond lied as he remembered the villagers of Therinsford; their native names should more easily fit in here.

"And from where were you sent? Name your captain."

The leader did not move closer, nor did he step back. The spears held around him like a forest appeared to hang in mid-air. "I was sent from Gil'aed. By captain..." Beregond's mind worked vehemently to think of a name; lord Aragorn or lord Faramir would be far too obvious, but he might change the names slightly. He didn't know of any of Galbatorix' officers! "Eregorn."

He saw one of the men holding spears pale; there was a murmur. Had their seen through his lies and façade?

It was very likely. Beregond prayed silently to the Valar that they could help him out of this and cursed his own stupidity. I should have stayed hidden!

"If that is the case, Efridson, then why do you come from the north, when we all know that Gil'aed lies south of us?" the man wanted to know. His eyes were strangely cold. A thought hit the gondorian: this was the band of soldiers that had burned down the village.

"I was … lost, sir," Beregond said lamely.

"So I see. Well I do know that there is no captain in My King's lines named 'Eregorn'. However, I do know that there is a rebellion …" The man's cold eyes glistened. "Seize this man!"

Beregond reacted at once in self-defence. He was not a man to flee; he stood his ground. He fended off an attacking sword with his spear. Oh what had he not given for a sword right now?

But a spear was not a weapon for hand-to-hand combat. Steel-gloved hands grabbed him from all directions; something heavy broke his spear, and then hit his chest. He fell back gasping for air. It gave enough time for the soldiers around him to overwhelm him; he was hauled to his feet, arms held firmly by many others. He had no weapons at all.

The cold-eyed man shook his head at the angry gondorian, who tried in vain to break free. "I must say you have a good bit of courage, walking right into your enemies' arms …But it's wasted. How very foolish of you, Efridson."

The gondorian had no time to think of what he meant, before he was rendered unconscious and dragged away.

()()()

By midday, the oars had been put away, the sails now filled fully with northern winds. Uthar had lectured the villagers of the importance of discipline onboard, as well as organized who to do what – cooking, learn how to become sailors, who would to take care of the wounded, et cetera – and where they would sleep. Even if the Dragon Wing was large enough to fit the whole village, it gave not much extra space. The risk of diseases would be great; and even if they had much food, they would still have to have tight rations to feed everyone.

Legolas and Aragorn had settled their belongings next to Elain and Horst and their sons', which was in a smaller cabin. The bed – an old, small thing, but a bed nonetheless – was given to Elain for her comfort. Beside the bed they'd placed a small basket for Eldarion to sleep in.

At the moment, Legolas had climbed up in the lookout, and was gazing over the waters. As a faint dark line, he saw the coast; far, far away were dark smokes rising. Teirm, yet burning.

But there was also something else. Legolas shadowed his eyes with a slim hand; frowned a little. A dark spot on the sky that was coming closer and closer; it grew, and it was far too large to be a bird.

"Ra'zac!" he cried. Automatically, his hands flew to his bow. It was unstrung at the moment; during the seconds it took for him to prepare the weapon, he kept his eyes fixed at the sky.

A giant gray figure, somewhat alike to a dragon without scales – if dragons ever looked like anything Legolas had heard from tales that they did – and next, like a thick wind, a fear and panic, a stench; aye - this was a ra'zac on its monstrous winged steed.

Below, on deck, panic broke out. People searched for cover; men and women alike grabbed their weapons; some rushed below deck with their children. Glancing down for a split second, Legolas spotted Baldor also preparing a bow, kneeling on deck surrounded by Roran and some others.

Legolas took aim at the strange creature; Roran below saw this clearly. "Shoot!" the man cried. "Legolas, shoot!"

The arrow buried deep in the creature's side, around the area where Legolas guessed its heart was. A terrible scream of pain filled the air. Legolas knocked a second arrow on his bow; at the same time, Baldor's arrow flew and hit the mark, but only barely. The creature was just within range. Legolas had always been a bit careful using this bow, which he had borrowed from Albriech, since it was not of elven design and thus was not made for elven strength. He pulled back the string of the bow as far as he dared; he blinked in surprise when, as he let go of the arrow, the bow broke under his strength like a twig.

The arrow arched through the sky; it hit the creature's head, but because of its angle it slid over the creature and landed with an unheard splash in the sea. The ra'zac and its winged beast fled; the creature used its left wing as if it was in much pain.

Even if we did not kill it, we might have the fortune that it does not manage to reach the shore, the elf thought grimly; even if he knew his words were a lie, as the beast flew across the blue waters and disappeared among the foggy hills that made the coast.

When he climbed down to deck again, there were several voices in the air; celebrating, he realized. Loring commented Baldor on his shot, and seeing Legolas, did the same to him; also raising an eyebrow at the broken bow in the elf's hands. When the man turned to speak to someone else, the elf's sharp ears picked up something about 'I didn't think that thin lad had that much muscle'. He had to smirk.

However, Roran was not cheering with them. His face was very grave. "Why the gloomy face?" Albriech asked the man.

"You should save your cheering until later," Roran said; when he spoke everyone else silenced. "True, we hurt the ra'zac beast. But that wasn't a victory."

"How so?" Loring demanded.

"Because now the Empire knows exactly where we are."

Chapter Text

Legolas noticed the breeding of a storm before the others; it was like a change in the air, it grew thicker; the sky was given a darker tint. It was the weathered sailors who discovered it next. They seemed to have developed an extra sense, able to predict a storm quite early, determining it from the direction of the wind.

The Dragon Wing was full of activity, as people and possessions were moved below deck – pressed together with near no privacy – so they would not be above deck as the storm hit. After an hour or so, rain began tapping on every open surface.

The elf climbed down from the lookout, to help tie the ballistae on deck with extra ropes so they would not slide an inch. The waves grew larger and the clouds darker. Uthar's predictions were not very comforting; the sailor knew these waters, whether there was a calm season or a stormy one. This happened to be one of the latter.

Legolas had also noticed, in the distance, another alarming fact. Three tips of masts were following them. Ships that could only belong to the Empire. Hopefully the storm would be to their gain and they would loose their followers.

Aragorn was below deck, with Eldarion clinging to him, as the first large wave hit the Dragon Wing's side, making the ship tremble. The child wailed. "Hush, my boy," the man soothed."It's not dangerous." But Aragorn was as worried, like Eldarion was afraid - and he knew that his words were a lie.

Where was Legolas? Was he above deck? Oh, why the Valar was the elf always so … so reckless? He wanted Legolas by his side, within sight. Who knew what could happen up there? He didn't look after himself well enough…he did not care what happened to himself as long as those he cared for was safe; Aragorn was more than worried for him.

The storm just grew, without faltering. The air below deck was stiff; someone was sea-sick and ill in a corner; children were crying. The lanterns, which had been placed at even intervals, swung in the crooks they were hanging in from the ceiling. They gave pale faces golden glows, and in the next moment cast long shadows.

Someone came down below deck, and then the hatch was closed loudly. Darkness fell stiffly around them. Aragorn was torn between going outside to find his lover, and watching over his son.

It was Horst who'd come down. He hurried past them, towards his wife and sons who sat near the hatch. "The captain says the storm will last for days."

Elain shuddered, but said nothing. Beside her, Albriech spoke. "What about the ships that are following us?"

"They're still there, glued to the horizon…" Horst sighed. "All we can do is to wait and ride the storm. Hopefully we'll shake them off."

()()()

The ships at the horizon came closer, as well; black sails were visible, and soon the ships were within firing range. Roran strongly suspected there was a wizard aboard at least one of them: despite of the cold waves rolling over them and the harsh rain, arrows sliced through the air. The projectiles cut through ropes and damaged the ballistae and other parts of the ship. By the attacks, Roran concluded that the Empire no longer cared about capturing him alive. Now they'd do anything to stop him from reaching Surda.

()()()

Hours had passed, and the wild weather was only growing worse. Rain lashed the ocean and the ships riding it. The sky was a thick dark gray curtain.

Legolas was replacing a rope that had been cleaved by a magically guided arrow; it was a hard work, the wind tore at him and his clothing and his hair, threatening to blow him away. But he was patient, not about to give up just yet. His left hand was locked in a firm grip of the railing, balancing him, and with his right hand he was skilfully tying a knot.

A lightning flashed; a millisecond later thunder shook the air. The deck was cascaded in white marble-like light, every detail of the Dragon Wing visible in explicit clarity, before everything once again became a dark rain-blurry world. Night had fallen a long time ago.

Just as he had finished the last knot, a large wave of ice-cold water washed over the ship's railing and deck and her passengers; the elf lost his breath in surprise. It took a moment for him to regain his balance.

Carefully he manoeuvred himself along the railing to the next damaged rope, which was flapping and tossing freely in the wind. Still using his hand to secure himself to the Dragon Wing's rail, as he took hold of the rope and pulled. It was very tense once it came in level of the iron ring it had been strapped to. Legolas had to use both hands to tie it down.

Another large cold wave; it was the force of a wall falling down, almost drowning the men on deck like cats. The water was strong and rushing; air was knocked out of the elf's lungs. He felt something hard, wood or maybe iron, bump against his knees painfully. His hold of the rope was slipping, and it was his only security, his only link to the ship. He was slung over the railing; for a moment he was unsure of what was up or down. Then his side connected against the Dragon Wing's hull. A cry of surprise more than pain left his mouth, but he barely heard himself. He choked up salty seawater.

His grip of the rope was slipping. He felt and saw that the railing got further and further away. As the ship rode another large hill of water, he barely had to time to hold his breath before he was pushed below the surface. Adrenaline pumped in his veins; there was panic, as well.

Oh Valar, he did not want to die like this, drowning, so far from home. He didn't want to die like this. Had he told Aragorn enough how much he loved him? And Eldarion, his little boy, his treasure?

Did they know how much they meant to him?

I cannot die here!

His body hit the ship's hull again. Pain exploded in his body. His first instinct was to let go of the rope; however he fought the urge and instead gripped it tighter. Slowly, slowly but certainly, he started pulling his way up. With the raging sea and the wood slipping beneath his feet, he couldn't get much foothold on the ship's hull; he used the bare strength of his arms. It was the panic that drove him on. He could not die like this!

Each second was too long, until he finally managed to get far up enough to see the deck. Someone else had seen him, as well; suddenly hands grabbed his arms and hauled him up on deck. The elf found his balance, albeit a bit unsteadily, while spitting out water strongly tinged with salt.

"What do ye think yere doin', lad? God heavens, this ain't no' time for a swim!" a voice said; or bellowed, rather, but the storm was hard to shout down. Legolas blinked; he didn't recognize his rescuer so well. It must have been one of Jeod's sailors.

Instead of replying, both elf and man took a steady hold of the railing and guided themselves to the hatch. Once below, with the hatch securely closed, they got a better look at each other. Legolas had been right; it was one of Jeod's sailors, a tall man with a peculiar scar on his left chin. The elf wore no coat or hood, his hair tied back in an unflattering ponytail. It easily revealed his pointed ears. Since he was among only friends, not foes, he found it no use to hide himself under that cloak. The sailors were on their side, after all, fully and throughout, unlike Clovis' men who had helped them only for money. In turn the man looked at the elf, with surprise.

"Oh, it's ye." He sounded curious. He had not spoken to the elf before, in fact he knew not his name. So he asked, as if it was the most natural thing in the word.

Legolas was pulling out water from his hair. The man's words amused him and gladdened him. He thought about the Mankind of this world's approach towards the elves, how they feared them and knew almost nothing about them but their race; he had asked Jeod some about the subject, who had replied that there was much distrust between Men and Elves. They were very different; the only thing they had in common, it seemed, were the Dragonriders.

"I am Legolas," he said. "A pleasure to meet you, Mr…?"

"Blackbeard, th' men call me," the man said.

Legolas dipped his head. "Thank you for your assistance, Mr Blackbeard. It was most welcome."

The man's laughter was rumbling and deep, both unexpected and a welcome pause in the unease and tension that laid over the ship like a blanket. "It must've been a stroke o' luck, that. I think ye'd not prefer bein' shark food or worse, lad."

()()()

When Legolas found Aragorn and Eldarion, the latter in an uneasy sleep in the man's lap, the elf was wet to his skin. Without a word, the lovers embraced, careful not to hurt Eldarion. The boy looked afraid, even in sleep. He had never been on a ship until when they hired Clovis' barges; he had never, until now, experienced a storm.

The man had not eaten yet, so Legolas went to find some water and bread, and milk for Eldarion. Each minute he was away – only four or five at the most – Aragorn was fretting more and more. He disliked having his beloved out of sight.

They ate without speaking; but around them, people talked in low tones, children wailed and cried, from above deck a shout was heard; the wind was howling; the rain thundered. The wood was creaking. The lanterns in the ceiling swung from side to side. The air was warm and stiff, because of the many people crowded under deck.

Neither Legolas or Aragorn wanted to think of any more storms. The elf quietly told his husband of his nearly-falling-overboard, but Aragorn wasn't very quiet about that, worriedly taking off the elf's tunic to reveal a bruised chest and back.

"Foolish elfling," he muttered but Legolas managed to smirk at him, weakly. "You are red and blue all-over …" He wished he had something to put on the bruises to stop the swelling.

Legolas put on his clothing again. "Do not worry. It will be gone in a few days."

Aragorn sighed and rolled his eyes.

()()()

For the rest of the uneasy night the pair sat in a corner in each other's arms, giving and receiving comfort and new strength. Eldarion woke occasionally, crying in distress; Legolas was greatly worried, because his son ate less than before and had a hard trouble keeping the food down. Aragorn found no comfortable position to sleep in; he had not slept for over a day. Legolas was worried by that too, fussing over him. The man's skin was paler than before, and there were dark rings beneath his eyes. And even if his eyes left heavy, Aragorn did not – could not – close them, in fear of losing sight of his lover, even if he was curling up against him, one of the man's hands tangled in the elf's long hair.

Legolas sang, quietly, an old elven melody; it calmed Eldarion a little even if the storm raged on and the ship tossed and turned; but everyone inside the creaking ship silenced to listen to the soft voice, unable to determine from where it came or what the words meant. But it still had a calming effect on them all, children managed to go to sleep; and also Aragorn found, slowly and unwillingly, that sleep took him over as well.

A Elbereth Gilthoniel,
silivren penna míiriel
o menel aglar elenath!
Na-chaered palan-díriel
o galadhremmin ennorath,
Fanuilos, le linnathon
nef aear, sí nef aearon

The storm lasted for two whole days.

()()()

He dreamt of a wide ocean.

It lay calm and the surface was like glass, unwrinkled; there was a ship as well, but he was too far away in his dream to see it closely. Thunder and rain suddenly appeared, crashed and raged around him, angrily, stubbornly, like a thousand mad voices. The ship could not win over the storm; it was a hopeless battle. It toppled over, disappeared beneath the curling dark waves, out of sight – sinking to the bottom of the ocean – and he sank with it; he was suffocated, pulled down, down- and there was his lover and his son, they were there, falling, drowning, he couldn't quite see them…it was so dark-

"Aragorn, Aragorn! Awake!"

A strong, soft hand was pulling at his shoulder, pulling him up again. The man blinked heavily, as sleep lifted from his mind and he realized it had only been a dream.

"…Legolas?" he asked.

"The storm has passed, my love. It finally has passed." Legolas' face was near his own, and relief shone in the elf's beautiful eyes.

And yes, the man noticed now, the elf was right: the sea must have stilled, the because the ship had. The only movement was that of a light breeze.

"The captain is meeting with Jeod and Roran in the fore-cabin, planning what to do next," Legolas continued. "I think we should go up to the deck. They will tell us of their plans."

Aragorn nodded tiredly, rubbing his eyes. His lover helped him to stand, and he noticed that the elf was balancing a wide-awake Eldarion his hip. The child was looking around the cramped space, where he had been for the last two days, with almost fear. He was worriedly sucking at his thumb. "You long for the sunshine, huh?" Aragorn asked the child quietly. Eldarion just looked up at him with wide eyes, continuing to suck.

The morning coloured something between blue and green, and felt moist. But it did not rain anymore and the wind was very calm; the sun peered out from between a few clouds. To the west laid the Beirland islands.

And three black sails still were in the horizon, north about them. Legolas sighed. "I had hoped that they would capsize during the storm," the elf murmured to his husband. "I am worried; they have a wizard aboard. Is he strong enough to protect the ship from being damaged by the storm? If that is the case, we are dealing with someone very powerful … Are these wizards stronger than Mithrandir or Saruman?" the elf wondered.

"I do not know. I rather do not want to find out," Aragorn said grimly.

The Dragon Wing had been damaged not only by the magically guided arrows, but also by the weather. A mast had been cracked, half of it now deep in the ocean. This meant less sails, and less speed. It made it all the easier for their followers to reach them. They would have to use the oars more often.

The pair decided to wait outside until the men in the fore-cabin came out again; Aragorn went to help on deck, while Legolas took Eldarion to a more solitude spot where both he and the child could have a little more space. The child's wide eyes darted here and there; he stopped to suck at his thumb, but kept it in his mouth, distracted. He looked as if he had never seen the ship before – he had forgotten much of it while below deck – and now he took in every detail, the railing, the sky, all the ropes and large white canvases that were sails, and especially the people that worked on deck or walked by the pair. More than once, Eldarion tried to reach out after people, either with a confused or curious sound or a giggle. Every time he failed to reach the person he wanted to touch, he stared up at Legolas in confusion, before returning to his play.

But the wood elf was distracted as well, his gaze returning to that spot in the horizon where the black sails were. He was sure it was only a matter of time before they would once again be within firing range, and they'd bombard the Dragon Wing with arrows.

People were in full haste of clearing the ship of the debris and other things, as Legolas saw the cabin door open and Uther, followed by Jeod and Roran, step out. Everyone looked grim and stern, but Roran also looked slightly pleased. Legolas concluded, as he walked over to them, that the man had managed to convince the others about a plan that the others disliked.

"Roran," he greeted the man once he was nearby. "What are we to do now?" he asked. He glanced behind him, at the ships following them.

"We are going to cross the Eye of the Boar," Roran said. "It is a maelstrom … I had some trouble convincing the captain of doing it; but if we succeed, Galbatorix' ship will either we pulled down to the bottom of the ocean, or if they don't have the nerve, they'll have to sail around the islands. Either way will give us time to reach Surda before them."

Legolas nodded. A maelstrom … and one storm had been enough! The elf had little experience with the ocean, but he knew what a maelstrom was. They were extremely dangerous. "Where is this maelstrom, the Eye of the Boar?"

"Between the islands Beirland and Nía," Roran explained. "We'll reach it today."

The elf's heart sank, but he nodded again, and shifted his grip of his son. Then elf and man parted. Legolas immediately went in search for Aragorn again.

He found him by the whole mast, face still slightly pale, and he was frowning. "The captain tells me we are going to cross a maelstrom," Aragorn said. "It does not bode well. Obviously very, very few has crossed it before to tell about it." Then he switched into elvish, automatically, and he stood closer to his lover. "It will be dangerous, and I cannot stand the thought of this being our last hours together."

Legolas felt his breath caught in his throat, and his heart seemed to beat faster, in fear, and in love for his husband, the weight of his words like a stone in his chest. It felt like his heart wanted to break when his lover spoke like that … sounding so … fragile – it frightened him – and he did not want to speak of death. "Estel, my love, we will last it," he murmured, seeking comfort, laying a hand on his lover's elbow and holding him close. Then he managed a weak smile: "We managed the storm did we not?"

"We did," Aragorn agreed in a murmur. But the frown remained. He had laid a hand on hi lover's arm, and his hand was warm. "Legolas … Legolas, promise me that you will be careful. Once we are within the maelstrom's power, be careful. Can you stay with Eldarion under deck?" Gray eyes were pleading at him.

"Aragorn, I am not weak," Legolas said stubbornly. But then he met his lover's gaze, and then he looked down at the child in his arms, and sighed. "All right. I will stay below deck once we pas through the maelstrom. But I do not like to be unable to see or do anything, while so many will be above deck risking their lives. Please, my love, do not ask something like this of me again."

The man's grip loosened a little, and he looked relieved. He so much wanted to kiss him, but knew he could not; they did not have enough privacy. "I will not, I promise." But even if he promised not to ask Legolas to stay away from danger, it did not mean it took away his fears.

xXxXxXx

When Beregond woke, the first thing he felt was thirst and hunger; he hadn't eaten for over a day or more; the next thing he noticed was the sound of voices, footsteps and metal clinking against metal. His eyes felt dull and heavy. It took a few moments of blinking before he could focus his gaze anywhere.

He was in a tent, of sorts. Not a small sleeping tent, but it looked like the one officers had meetings in when in battle. He was sitting in a chair; he couldn't move arms or legs or even his head. But the ropes tied around his wrists and ankles looked loose as fragile … so why couldn't he move an inch?

Beregond frowned. But every time he tried to move, he got the same result. He was immobile.

Someone entered the tent, he heard but couldn't see who it was. A sunbeam fell into the tent from behind him as the flap was opened, and then disappeared as the tent was closed again.

The person came into view: it was the soldier with the cold eyes from before. Now he held no spear in his hand, actually no visible weapon at all.

I'll be interrogated, Beregond realized. He tried to remember every word from before he had fallen unconscious – the soldier had said something about a rebel, hadn't he? Named 'Eregorn' or the like? That was how he had fallen into the trap he had set up himself. I should have said another name, he thought, and then: I should have stayed away in the first place. What a show of stupidity he was!

He knew he could not give them any answers if they asked him about something he did not know – everything of this place was new and unfamiliar to him, except these soldiers' armour which he recognized. And if the man questioned him about King Aragorn Elessar – linking it to 'Eregorn' or rather Aragorn – he swore on his soul he would give any answers that could harm the king or his people.

Although, he thought as the man turned his back for a moment to fetch something; then turned back – it was a whip and a knife. Beregond tensed. I am not sure all things are going to be so very easy...

Chapter Text

The ship started leaning and the wood creaked and hummed; it were the first sharp signs Legolas noticed, marking that they were now within the Eye of the Boar. Around him, people were afraid – their fear radiated like a thick sheet around each and everyone. The elf was sitting beside Elain on the floor, pressing a scared Eldarion close to his chest. Horst and his sons, along with almost every other man had gone to the oars or help on deck. The children, the women and the weak or old were below, waiting anxiously for the danger to pass.

He had noticed his singing calmed almost everyone down; when the ship's movements grew faster as nature's forces pressed around it, he started to sing again. All kinds of elvish lullabies or tunes that he could think of. Beside him, he felt Elain reaching out with a hand, which suddenly squeezed around his own. He looked at her worriedly; she was pale and trembling, with her other hand on her large belly. Gently he squeezed her hand back, to reassure her that he was there.

"Do you think we'll make it?" she whispered quietly.

Legolas prayed to every god and valar that he knew of. "We will," he mumbled back, wishing he could promise it for certain.

()()()

Aragorn was standing in the Dragon Wing's lookout; the tall mast was swaying with the ship and the wind, and beneath him every person on deck was tiny – it was like he was watching a mass of ants. There were preparations and movement everywhere; the ballistae were secured with extra ropes as well as other large things on deck; men hurried to the oars; some went down to or came up from below deck.

They were as ready as they could be to face the maelstrom.

He could see it up ahead – roughly four sea miles across, wild and turning, round, round, round; it looked dangerous and would be worse than that. They would need a good wind and every man's strength by the oars to cross that beast. They would have wanted to wait another hour or so for the tide, to have the easiest crossing, but there was no way they could wait now. Already they had been too late for the high tide. The maelstrom was spinning faster and faster, radiating force and energy.

The ex-ranger looked behind him; the three ships with black sails were yet there, like pulled behind them by an invincible rope. All three were closer the Dragon Wing now than they'd been a few hours ago: the larger ship's heavy load of villagers slowed it down. But Uthar, the captain, was sure he could keep the distance till they passed into the Eye of the Boar – the maelstrom – and hopefully loose their followers there.

Worry gnawed at him, for his son and husband who were – the latter very unwillingly – below deck. What if they didn't make it?

A call below him was heard; mixing with a drum's steady beat. The many oars moved back and forth, dipping into the greenish waters, pushing the large ship towards the spinning waters. Aragorn stood there and stared at the water, as minute after minute passed by. The Eye came closer, grew in size, and spun faster the more time that passed by. It was a fascinating, terrifying scene. Soon, Aragorn decided to go down to the deck again; he had no rope up here to secure himself with so that he didn't fall, and he would be needed to help rowing.

A little over half an hour passed by. They were pulled into the Eye's territory. Luckily, the streams' direction followed their own, and so would ease their crossing. By now, the Eye was fuming, twisting not only the water but also breaking havoc on the wind. One moment the Dragon Wing's sails were full of wind, the next they slouched. The ship cringed.

Aragorn changed place with one of the tired oarsmen. He looked shortly over the railing before he went below deck where the oars were; he saw how close the Eye's centre they were. It was around eight sea miles wide and its sides had a forty-five degree angle, full of deep furrows; and each stream circled it and finally reached the Eye itself, to be swallowed. The ship was leaning now to the starboard, pulled at by the Eye's force. The air sung with deep voices as the sea boiled, wild and raging.

He rowed and rowed and rowed, to the drum and Uthar or someone else's sporadic cries. Soon enough he was sweating and his limbs were heavy, like they were made of glue. The hardest part was yet to be overcome; to break free from the maelstrom. It was hard enough as it was, even if they were just within the maelstrom's outer rim.

Please, Ulmo, he thought, let us get through this alive. Let us live – let Legolas and Eldarion live …

The maelstrom had increased their speed immensely; but now they were slowing down. The drum's beating was slightly faster now, with their hearts'. Some where already panicking. What if they didn't break through? Was this the end – were they going straight into their watery graves?

Aragorn did not stop his movements with the oar – forth, back, forth, back – but closed his eyes for a moment. Please, Illuvatar, do not let us die here.

It seemed like whatever they did, the ship appeared not to be moving; they could not fight the maelstrom. The thing that kept them alive was that they were so many so when an oarsman was tired, someone rested was there to replace him. Aragorn's muscles ached. A man in front of him – he couldn't focus on who – almost fainted of exhaustion, sank to the ground, but another man quickly took his place.

Do not let us die here.

He had no idea of the time. When he couldn't do it anymore, gasping for air and feeling like each muscle in his body cramped, he moved off the bench and sank to the ground. Another man rushed to him and took over. For several long moments, Aragorn sat with his head beneath his knees and tried to regain his breath and thought about something else – anything else – just to not focus on his aching body.

With a shaky breath he crawled to his feet. Wobbly, like a drunk, he made his way up through the hatch, to the deck. The air was cool and comforting even if the maelstrom raged nearby and the air still sung with it.

Soon he realized that the Dragon Wing's speed was increasing again; step by step, they were taken further and further away from the Eye. But also, the three ships following them lingered, and they were much closer too. So they had not backed to sail around the islands …

There was a cry: an arrow – magically guided, for no arrow could reach that far and be so accurate – hit the deck, splitting a rope. It was on fire, but the fire held a strange green glow.

"Water! Quickly!" someone shouted.

But water didn't unlight the arrow. Another one slid through the air, landing on the railing. Aragorn acted on instinct, taking out the knife he always kept in his boot and started hacking away the wood around the arrow, and then threw it into the ocean. Other men on deck followed his example, as one arrow and then another came flying. Successfully they hindered the fire from spreading, even if it left the Dragon Wing scarred.

They kept their speed; so did the three ships behind them. They sailed another turn around the maelstrom, but managed to stay at the same distance from the Eye and not falling into it. Aragorn realized that the other ships weren't that lucky. They must have fewer men, much fewer men, aboard able to help with rowing. And even if they had a magician or wizard aboard – who could counter a force of nature as strong as this?

When he felt rested and ready enough, Aragorn went below deck again to replace another tired oarsman. Slowly but surely, they were breaking out from the Eye's grasp. Aragorn was beyond relieved; suddenly rowing did not feel so heavy. They were going to live; Legolas and Eldarion were going to live, and that was all that mattered. He rowed with renewed strength and faith.

They broke free, and the Dragon Wing now faced the Beirland islands. The ocean ahead looked smooth like oil, calm, steady, and behind them the Eye appeared smaller and smaller. Somewhere in its middle there was panic and three broken masts and black sails, swirling round and round and round.

()()()

Then it was over; the ship's swaying and the roaring waters and the creaking of wood. The Dragon Wing was once again upright.

They released their breaths as one person, and Legolas' softly singing voice faded. Beside him, Elain slowly released her very hard grip of the elf's hand. Eldarion had stopped crying, though he still was tugging at his elven parent worriedly.

"I will go above deck," Legolas mumbled to Elain. "Are you all right?" he asked worriedly. She still was pale.

Elain gave a weak smile. "I will be. Can you help me up? I want to come with you."

The elf helped her to her feet, and with Eldarion in one arm and with Elain's hand on his other, they walked up through the hatch. The sky was clear, the air fresh and the sea was calm like nothing had happened. However when he looked over his shoulder, towards the stern, he saw a swirling mass of green and gray just a few sea miles away.

Elain let go of his arm, and walked over to Roran who stood by the railing. Horst saw her and came rushing towards her; Legolas looked around, adjusting his grip of his son. Eldarion had easily caught hold of his hair again. "Where is your Father, little one?" the elf murmured mostly to him. He could not see Aragorn anywhere …

Oh Valar, what if- No-!… no…please don't be-

The elf crossed the deck, to the second hatch, and went below to where the oarsmen where. Hurriedly he searched bench after bench – near the front of the ship he finally found whom he was looking for.

Aragorn was exhausted and once he got nearer, Legolas felt the man was sweating, heat radiating from his skin. Gently he sat down beside the man, who was leaning over the oar trying to catch his breath, and laid an arm around his shoulder to support him. Aragorn looked up.

"We made it?" he asked wearily.

"Yes," Legolas answered, his heart calming down; Aragorn was alive. "We made it."

"Thank the Valar …" Aragorn breathed out. "You're not hurt are you?"

The elf smiled. "No, I am all right. Eldarion too." He had placed the child on his lap more comfortably, and the boy tried to crawl over to his father's lap. Aragorn swept him into his arms and took comfort in embracing him.

"I think we will reach the islands, Beirland, soon, in a day or so," Legolas murmured. "But I do not know if captain Uthar is planning to dock there or continue along them towards Surda's coast. I think there is a city near the boarders where we will refill our supplies or maybe stay there. Once we reach that city, we will be beyond the Empire's reach after all."

Aragorn nodded. "For a time at least," he concurred. "But how long time will pass until Galbatorix realizes that Roran has come to Surda? What will happen then?" He knew there could be a battle, if Galbatorix was going so far to hinder Roran and the villagers – and them - to reach the Varden.

Quietly Legolas agreed. Together they stood, Aragorn holding Eldarion and softly speaking nonsense elvish to him, and made their way up to deck. By now, the maelstrom behind them was just a tiny fog.

Uthar stood by the wheel with Roran, Horst and Elain and Jeod. As they came up to them, Legolas asked, "Captain, what will we do next?"

"Dauth is just two days away, if we still got the wind, with us," Uthar informed them. "We'll make port there. We need to mend the mast and refill our supplies."

"I know the governor," Jeod added. "We will be warmly welcomed."

()()()

It was a gloomy procession that entered Minas Tirith that evening. The elves were quiet and so were the Men. Gimli the dwarf leaned against his axe when they reached the wide white area in front of the citadel. It was if the city shared their gloom; the White Tree was quietly swaying in the wind. Faramir had his head lowered.

The elven king stepped forward to greet the gondorians who rushed out to meet them. "Lord Thranduil … Where is the king Elessar?" they asked.

"He fell," Gimli spoke up thickly, before Thranduil could say it. "He fell," he repeated again, even though his stubborn dwarven soul refused to believe in it. Both Legolas and Aragorn could not be gone; especially not Eldarion. He just couldn't accept that. He knew he would hurry back to the waterfall and search, for the rest of his life, if he had to, to find a single sign of his dear friends and their son.

The soldiers stared at them in shock. "…Dead?" they echoed. "The king is dead?"

Obviously the word had not spread beyond Ithilien yet. The elves, dwarf and men had searched for two days and now, without finding any signs, had returned with the news. They had almost had to tie Thranduil down and drag him back to the White City, to announce that Elessar had fallen as had his consort and child.

"He fell down the waterfall," Thranduil righted them. He sounded angry – Gimli assumed so even if it was hard to tell, with the elf's temper always hot it seemed. He was a lot more annoying than the son of his … a son who would not come back.

Chapter Text

Three days passed by, with neither storm nor rain. There was no sign of any followers. Because there was a lack of wind, passing around the islands took longer time than expected; but soon enough, they saw the coast, and perched upon its cliffs was a small friendly-looking city. Dauth was built where the Jiet River mingled into the sea.

The villagers aboard the Dragon Wing were tired and hungry, but seeing the city – land, Surda, their goal – rekindled hope and gave them relief.

A quite large group of people had gathered in the harbour as the majestic, battered ship rounded the western pier to dock. Most villagers were gathered on deck, gazing out over the railing longingly.

Legolas helped the large-bellied Elain to the gangplank as it was lowered, hundreds of people in their tow. Aragorn was beside them, holding a sleeping Eldarion gently in his arms. Horst, Elain's husband, was helping tying the ship to the dock.

The elf was tired and too distracted to have pulled up his hood, so now his hair flowed freely over his shoulders and his distinct elven features were visible to anyone. The townspeople's eyes glued on the large mass of villagers, and the elf among them; they climbed more or less uncertainly climbed down onto the ground, for once feeling something steady underneath their feet. All kinds of people were there; young and old, women and men and children, everyone looked weak and battered, almost no one had clothes without any holes in them. The townspeople watched them with caution and wonder.

Horst came down from the ship along with his sons, swaying slightly. "I will take her," he told Legolas, and Elain gratefully leaned against her husband again.

"We made it," Aragorn murmured. He laid his hand on Legolas' shoulder. The elf nodded distractedly, eyes scanning the crowd. No one watched them with open suspicion, so the villagers would be welcomed here, he assumed. It was best if they could stay here. Legolas was worried about Elain; her far-termed pregnancy put a heavy strain on her. There were risks that she'd miscarry … The elf would never want that to happen to his friend.

A tall woman broke through the crowd, with a page in tow. She eyed the ship and its people with wide eyes, and then her eyes landed at Jeod. The old trader, sailor and agent stepped forward to greet her.

"My lady Alarice," he said with a bow.

"Jeod, my friend. It has been a long time," lady Alarice, the governor, said. "What brings you here?"

As their spokesman, Jeod told her who they were and why they had come. The lady looked pleased at this. She had heard much news from the Empire and of course from Surda; it wasn't unknown that Eragon's cousin was wanted. "Come with me to my residence, we can speak more privately there," she said. She also promised them sanctuary in her town. Her people seemed to agree; they greeted the villagers as heroes, gave them room for the night and food and other supplies.

Roran, Jeod, captain Uthar, Legolas and Aragorn followed the lady to her home; the residence was as impressive as Jeod's had been, with wide spaces and beautiful furniture. They gathered in a hall or dining room, and food and drinks were brought out. In more detail, Roran retold of their journey, from the moment the soldiers arrived to Carvahall, to where they now sat. Now and then Jeod or Legolas would put in a comment or a few words, but mostly they were quiet.

Lady Alarice looked impressed. "That was no little feat, Roran Stronghammer," she said. "But what do you intend to do now?"

"We'd like to stay in your city, milady. My people at least…But I need to search for Katrina, alone if I have to."

"I understand," she said. "Your people may stay for as long as they wish. I will contact king Orrin, he might give his support; we could build a settlement for your people. But you will continue yourself to Aberon, Surda's main city?" Roran nodded. "You have come in the last minute, however if it is at an appropriate or inappropriate time I cannot say. As we now speak, Galbatorix' troops are attacking the Varden's. The battle takes place at the Burning Plains. Many of the able-bodied men of my city are there already, to aid the Varden."

At the mention of a battle, Roran's energy sparkled. "The Burning Plains?" he asked. "How will we reach them?"

Jeod frowned. "You will join them?"

"We need to help the Varden," Roran reasoned. "I cannot force the villagers to follow me – if I have to go alone I will go alone, but I will help the Varden in this battle."

"I will come with you," Legolas said.

Aragorn was displeased at that, but knew of his promise; he could not stop his lover. He'd rather make his lover and child stay safe in this city, and try contacting the Varden himself. "You have my aid as well," he said.

Lady Alarice observed the man and elf with fascination – she had never seen or met an elf before, it was such a foreign race. However this elf could not give her any news from Du Weldenwarden, since he and his companion – Estel – were from a land far, far away. The latter puzzled her greatly, but there were other more urgent matters at hand.

"If you follow Jiet River, you will find the Burning Plains easily."

"Good," Roran said.

Quickly they finished their meal before they went back to the harbour, and gathered the villagers around them. There were two options: either staying here or coming with them and help the Varden in the battle. They had force, since they had weapons and ballistae upon the Dragon Wing, and they would have the element of surprise to their advantage. Long moments of heated discussions followed, but in the end, the villagers were convinced to follow them. If they helped the Varden now, they would find a new brighter future; they would help winning the battle. Roran was convinced that he had to take part of and survive the battle; because he had to save Katrina. If the Varden was defeated, he'd never see her ever again … and he could not let that happen.

Just a few hours later - at the most – they were aboard again, after having eaten and rested. They were fully supplied with food, water and other important items, and had also been gifted with some new weapons and lady Alarice's blessings. Roran stood on the shore and bowed to her. "Thank you, milady," he said, truly grateful for her warm welcome and her help.

There was no time to mend the mast and replace it, but they managed to mend some of the sails thanks to local sailors. In the last minutes before they left, Legolas sat in a corner aboard and ate – ain Aragorn's insistence – a bowl of warm stew. Eldarion was in his lap, clinging to him, but watching wide eyes the activities on the ship. After helping with rolling aboard some barrels with fresh water, Aragorn was ever-present at his lover's side.

"You need to eat more," he commented as Legolas slowly spooned the stew, looked at it doubtfully, before starting eating it. The food was thin as water.

"My eating habits are perfectly fine," Legolas said.

"Oh?" Aragorn raised an eyebrow. He could be angry or irritated, but having a little banter with his friend and lover was a refreshing, welcomed event. It had not happened for a long time.

Legolas glared at him, albeit playfully, and pointed at him with the spoon. "What about you then, my dear friend? Maybe you are becoming influenced by the hobbits. I knew that all those years guarding their boarders would result in something else than just your foul habit of smoking."

"I do not eat too little – you do. Eating a little too much is only well, in my position; my work drains me of much of my energies," the man said, arms crossed over his chest. "You are too thin, it worries me."

"You know I have always been on the thin side. I am an elf," Legolas argued back, but ate another spoonful anyway. "Does this taste horribly much of butter? Oh, it does. Oh – you made it yourself did you not?"

"Stubborn," Aragorn muttered. "Now eat."

The elf rolled his eyes. "I am eating! What does it look like I am doing? Making a spoon-ballista to fling food at you, meleth?"

Aragorn's laughed. "I better hope not. This is my only coat."

"You were a ranger not too long ago. Dirty clothing must be nothing new, especially not after this journey. You already look as if you have fallen into a river of mud."

It took a while, but Legolas finished the stew eventually and cleaned the empty bowl and spoon, before putting them back into the pack it'd come from. They were ready to leave now; the ship was prepared, the villagers aboard. Uthar cried out orders already. People were manning the oars. On the shore, the townspeople were waving goodbye, lady Alarice standing on the pier.

So they left Dauth behind them, as they rowed the Dragon Wing up the wide and deep Jiet River. Oars were dipped into the water and pushed up again to the drum's steady beat. Legolas rowed for a time, and then changed with Aragorn. The midday sun was warmer here, and below deck the air was warm and stuffed. As one of the lovers rowed, the other took care of Eldarion. The little boy was oblivious of what danger they were rowing towards to; he was mostly oblivious to the tension aboard the ship, among the many people. They were all tired of being stuck aboard it, and the tension worsened by the fact that they were sailing straight for a battle.

After Legolas has rowed his second time, he went onto deck and for fresher air. However the sky was darker, the sun lower; ahead there was dark smoke, like a thick barrier, and faint sounds … of battle; metal against metal, and cries … "Listen!" he cried out. Roran who too was on deck came to his side. "Do you hear?" the elf asked. "There is a large battle up ahead."

"Have you ever fought this large a battle before?" Roran asked. He was already holding his hammer in a firm grip.

"Aye." Then Legolas was already gone below the hatch, to find Aragorn and Elain – to ask if she could look after Eldarion during the battle. His husband would want to fight, he knew that.

Two minutes later, elf and man boarded the deck again. Aragorn rested a hand on the sword at his hip, which he had not used for weeks. To the right the thick smoke opened up a little; they glimpsed a bare ashen land, with flames here and there licking the surface. Where the land met the river, the water seemed to fume and splutter. Everywhere there were Men fighting Men – the world seemed dark and foggy, and possibly only Legolas could see who was fighting whom, which soldiers belonged to the Varden and which did not. They could not determine how large the Varden's forces were – however, if they came now to aid them, Galbatorix' troops would be surprised. That little nudge might help the Varden win.

The Dragon Wing was full of activity. The ballistae were loaded with long deadly spears. Those who could not fight quickly went below deck. The others grabbed their spears and shields, waiting with anticipation.

They were engulfed with the black smoke. But once their eyes got used to the light, everything was clearer. The Burning Plains were true to their name; wide and filled with battle and death and fire. To Legolas it looked like the side of Orodruin*, or the glimpse of it he had seen with his sharp eyes, from the battle in front of the Gates of Mordor. The elf drew his knife – he still had no bow to replace the one he had broken by mistake.

As they saw more clearly they also heard more clearly – cries, shouts, the clang of weapons and the roar from some giant beast. Then a voice echoed over the water: "A ship, a ship! A ship is coming from Jiet River!"

The battle did not commence, but the words were some kind of signal. Suddenly the air seemed to vibrate; there was the roar again, and a loud pounding sound. Again and again, and it came closer too. Each bang was so powerful that the men and the ship trembled; Aragorn gripped his sword-hilt and Andrúil sang metallically as it was drawn. Legolas raised his own weapon, ready to battle whatever was nearing them. Another bang; then there was a loud yell, from a human or elvish voice.

They looked at the sky. A large sapphire-hued shape was closing in; it had wings and it breathed fire. Legolas' eyes went wide, even if he had expected something like this. The Varden did have Eragon, as a Dragonrider, on their side. Yet this – the dragon was larger than he had imagined, and radiated of power.

As did the figure sitting on the dragons back, just where the creature's neck met its shoulders. The elf's sharp eyes saw that the young man there looked alike to Roran, and yet he looked distinctively elven – sharp features, pointed ears. How can that be possible?

The dragon spread its wide wings and hovered over the ship. Nothing was said, and no signal was made; yet as Legolas glanced at Roran, he understood that something more was going on, that he was communicating with Eragon in some way, because he suddenly nodded and the dragon turned and was off again, towards the battle.

"That was Eragon?" Horst exclaimed, astonished. "I could almost not recognize him! Imagine – a Dragonrider! Who could believe it?" He shook his head with a smirk, and shot a look at Jeod. "Seems you weren't lying then, Longshanks?"

The man just grinned in reply.

Roran was at turmoil; a million feelings passed through him in a moment. Shock, relief, joy, anger … He was unsure whether to hate or love Eragon. However he would not follow his advice, which he had been given when Eragon spoke in his mind – to sail down the river and stay out of the fight. Nay, he couldn't do that. Suddenly he ran to the railing where the captain was. "Lower the anchor!" he said.

"What?"

"Lower the anchor! Stay here with the rest of the men; use the ballistae to make as much destruction as you can and make sure the Dragon Wing is not boarded. Protect our families with your lives. Understood?"

Many wide eyes were glued at him. For a moment Roran feared that the old sailor would not obey, but then he grunted and said, "Aye, aye, Stronghammer."

As Uthar cried out orders, Legolas and Aragorn moved over to Roran, having heard his orders. "And what will you do, Roran Stronghammer?" the elf asked. Both were ready to leave the ship and fight on land.

Roran's eyes were shining. "Do? I will change the destiny of Alagëasia!"

()()()

The ground was warm beneath their feet, the heat radiating through the fabric of their shoes and boots. Roran threw himself into battle, recognizing Galbatorix' soldiers on their armours and tonlets; Aragorn and Legolas followed suit. Both were relieved to find that none of these soldiers seemed to have that strange enchantment not to feel any pain - unlike the soldiers they had battled in front of Minas Tirith. Now fighting and defeating their enemies was much easier; but it still tore at Legolas' conscience. He disliked killing Mankind, even if they served Galbatorix. Most were unwilling…

He forced those thoughts away as he concentrate on fighting; moving quickly, taking the soldiers by surprise. The last look on their faces was of shock at having an elf there. Someone cried out to another – "An elf! Du Weldenvarden's come to fight!" – and hurled at him, but Legolas was too quick and agile for them, easily blocking a blade and twisting his knife, so that the man pierced himself on his sword.

"Aragorn, Aragorn!" he cried, to let the man know where he was. "For Greenwood the Great! For Gondor!"

Aragorn's powerful voice was right next to his own. "Andúril! The Flame of the West!"

The soldiers were surprised by their appearance, for they behaved like they had an armada behind them to support them, to appear in any second – or maybe even a magically hidden armada, which killed them without being seen. Legolas was pleased over that reaction, which scattered the first large group of Men they met.

However it did not last throughout the battle. The further into the lines of fighting men they came, the trickier it was to fight them. Some men seemed also harder to kill … not because of their skill, but it was like a shield around them; the elven blade and the sword slipped without drawing more than a scratch. Magic, Legolas realized; Galbatorix or someone else is protecting them by magic.

It was then he felt it – a tug of power, of magic, nearby. It was very near, hurled at them like a spear. The elf was unprotected to this, as he felt something powerful and dangerous – another mind – push against his own mind. He had never practiced magic of course, so he knew not what to do; he reacted on instinct and tried to push the stranger away, and still concentrate on fighting. It sapped much of his energy, but he continued. He was not about to let his mind be looked at by some stranger – it was the most private thing of his whole being. He was determined at this; it took long moments of battling, before the stranger gave up and the pressure disappeared. Legolas was breathless.

"Look out!"

The elf spun around and threw his knife; it buried in a soldier's neck. The man fell into a heap. Legolas sprang forward and pulled it out from the body, nodding his gratitude to Roran.

"How does it look?" the elf gasped.

Roran couldn't answer to that question. The two parted again – but Legolas could then and now see him like a flash, hammer swung through the air.

It was not hard for Legolas to find Aragorn again, for he heard the man's battle cry and saw Andúril reflecting the death it brought upon the battlefield, before he saw the man himself. The king and ranger were surrounded by many Men. Legolas reacted in an instant, leaping into them like an aggressive flash. He landed atop of a man, both tumbled to the ground; the elf was quickly on his feet again and cut the man's throat before he had the chance to rise. Another man stumbled backwards into a fire, screaming in pain.

"Le hannon!" Aragorn's voice cut through the sound of battle. [Thank you]

The elf bared his teeth. His hair had loosened from their braids, in slight disarray. It gave him the air of being a wild cat. The white knife in his hand was splattered by blood, glinting in the ashen firelight.

"Tolo, Aragorn!" he called"We must stay near the ship and protect it." [Come, Aragorn!]

Together, they fought their way back towards the shore, so that they stood back-to-back, defending the ship which was beside them. The ballistae made much damage; fire-lit spears flew in arcs over them, landing in the mass of battle. Legolas could faintly hear Uthar's voice yelling orders.

The time that passed by was irrelevant. Out of habit, Legolas had quietly counted his kills; he did not realize until now. His mind seemed to believe he was competing with Gimli yet once again. It could have been over an hour, two hours, three hours, until the battle took a sudden turn. The troops of Galbatorix shattered. Slightly confused, Legolas looked around; when he looked at the sky his eyes widened.

"Look!" he cried.

There in the sky was a dragon; large and red, like blood-covered copper, its rider a black dot on its back. Its roar screamed of blood-thirst. Eragon was there too riding his blue armour-wearing dragon. The dragons flew apart from each other; the red dragon melted into the smoke and disappeared from sight as naught but a shadow. Eragon lowered himself down the sky, to land out of sight, among ashes and smoke and dead bodies. The elf tore his eyes away from the sight.

By his side Aragorn had seen it too. "By Eru! Was that Galbatorix – he too is a Dragonrider!"

"I pray it was not," Legolas answered. If it was, they had no chance to win this battle; that man was so powerful in his magic. He could probably kill half of the Varden's forces with only words, if he got the chance.

Why he did not know, but Galbatorix' forces pulled back. Minutes passed; cries and clangs of metal died away, the wind made the warm smoke tremble. Soon the battlefield was emptied of enemies, and the forces of the Varden drew back to their encampments with their wounded. The ground was covered with dead and dying men, beyond help.

Legolas took a deep breath and put back his knife in its sheath. He laid a hand on Aragorn's arm, for support and comfort, and the touch led into a firm embrace. Things were going to be all right; they were going to live, the Varden were here, and the villagers would be safe. Eldarion would be safe. The elf had rarely felt such strong, hot relief, and an urge to cry overwhelmed him; he held back his tears and just breathed his lover's scent. Aragorn's hands on his back were comforting and familiar even if they were covered with blood.

It was over, for now.

()()()

They rushed aboard the Dragon Wing like mad. Legolas had washed his hands in the river, trying to get rid of the grime and the blood – he could not wait to hold his son again, close to his chest, but he refused to touch him with hands covered with death and battle.

People had nervously begun climb up onto deck again. The elf swiftly passed by these people and went below, to the corner where his belongings were and where Elain sat.

"Is it over?" she asked.

The elf nodded, dropped to his knees and gently cradled Eldarion to his chest. "Yes, the soldiers retreated … I do not know, but they might attack again; there was a Dragonrider with them. He was probably their leader, and it seemed he was wounded; hence the soldiers drew back …" He sounded breathless. "Thank you so much for looking after my son," he added softly, managing a smile.

Aragorn arrived at that moment. "Legolas," he said, and the elf looked up. "Roran will go to meet the leader of the Varden. We should come with him."

Legolas nodded. "I will take Eldarion with me." When Aragorn was about to protest, the elf said; "The battle is over, Aragorn. Eldarion will be safe. Besides, we three are warriors. We will protect him." He could not stand the thought of leaving his son out of sight again.

The man reached out a hand and helped the elf to stand; as they left, they met Horst on the way, hurrying to find Elain. The man looked bewildered but all right. It relived Legolas; Elain would not be alone and worried below deck, wondering what happened to her husband.

Roran waited just below where the gangplank met the ground. "Their camp is over there. I saw it." He pointed at the riverbank further north. His expression was unreadable, but his eyes were darkened.

Under the warm smoke, they found a pathway around dead bodies and angry fires, to the camp. Legolas was cradling Eldarion softly, and let the boy tug at his hair as much as he wished; he had the boy's face pressed against his chest, so that he could not see the death and destruction around them. He was far too young for such a sight … No one should witness such a sight at all.

On the ashen terrain they found Eragon, with the dragon. The creature looked even larger now, and wide intelligent eyes gazed upon them. Legolas met the piercing gaze directly, more curious than anything else. Then he let his gaze focus on the man by the dragon's side. He was very alike to Roran, but his eyes, his eyebrows and his ears were more pointed; his cheekbones were higher as well. He looked like a half-elf: broad and strong like a man, but slim and graceful like an elf. He had no beard, but his dark hair was cut short like a man's.

Wordlessly Roran stepped forward and hit the young man's chin with a firm fist. The Rider swayed at the impact.

"I think I deserved that," he said after a moment. His voice was distinctively human; young as well. Legolas estimated the Dragonrider was just come of age, as Mankind counted the years.

"Yes, you did," Roran agreed. "We need to talk."

"Now?"

"It can't wait. The ra'zac has kidnapped Katrina and I need your help to save her. They've had her all since we left Carvahall."

"So that was why you brought the whole village with you..." Roran's cousin looked grim and haunted at his statement. "There's a thing I need to do first," Eragon said. "You can-"

"We'll come with you," Roran cut him off.

Eragon's eyes turned to look at Aragorn and Legolas; his expression was unreadable, but Legolas was certain by the look in his eyes that the man had not expected them; or maybe not him, an elf. The blue dragon looked at them too; and suddenly Legolas felt the same kind of intrusion as on the battlefield, only much softer now, not to invade but to say: 'I have always wanted to meet Eragon's living-brother. But who are you?'

It was a rich female voice. Legolas' eyes widened when he realized that it was the dragon who spoke. Obviously Roran had heard it too because he exclaimed; "She can talk!"

The dragon sounded amused. 'Of course. Did you expect me to be a mute lizard?'

Roran blinked in surprise and fumbled after a reply without offending the intimidating, doubtlessly intelligent creature. "I'm sorry. I just didn't expect dragons to be so intelligent."

She appeared to be smirking, though it was hard to tell. Legolas stepped forward, as Eragon repeated the dragon's earlier question. "I am Legolas Thranduillion, O Mighty Dragon, and this is my friend Estel, son of Arathorn, and my son Eldarion. We come from far away from here."

"You aren't from Du Weldenvarden, sent by the queen Islanzadí?" Eragon asked. He recognized no forms of Ancient language in the elf's name, nor did the elf speak in that language. There was a faint soft dialect though. If the elf could speak the Ancient language or not, however, he wasn't sure; and he did not want to enter the elf's mind.

They would have to repeat their tale from beginning to end soon, Legolas knew, since the Varden were no enemies and maybe could help them to find their way back; so he answered truthfully. "No. I am from a land called Gondor, in the realm of Arda, Middle Earth in your tongue. We came here by accident, when out home was attacked. We believe we were transported here by magic – but we do not know how."

The man in front of them appeared to be full of questions, but stored them away for later. The dragon – Saphira, Legolas now remembered that Jeod had said her name was – inspected them curiously with her large eyes. Aragorn, like his lover had, unwaveringly met her gaze.

"Come with me," the Dragonrider said. "You'll need to tell lady Nasuada – she is the leader of the Varden – and King Orrin of Surda everything."

Chapter Text

They were led through ashes and then reached a forest of gray-tinted tents. Near the large camp's centre was lady Nasuada's tent. The flap was opened; on each side of the opening stood a guard. They bowed respectfully to Eragon as they passed by.

In the middle of the tent was a table, covered with a map and various instruments. The elf Arya was there, clad like man, and covered with grime and blood. She regarded the Rider followed by two Men and an Elf, with silent interest. Lady Nasuada was sitting beside her, and her face was blank.

The two strangers from Middle Earth regarded her curiously, for rarely did people with such dark skin come to Minas Tirith. Her skin was darker than that of the Haradrim, who rarely stepped inside Gondor's boarders.

"Milady," Eragon said respectfully, "let me introduce my cousin, Roran Garrowsson, and his, friends, Estel son of Arathorn, and Legolas Thranduilion and his son, Eldarion. Roran, Estel, Legolas; this is lady Nasuada, leader of the Varden and this is Arya Svit-kona, the elves' ambassador."

Roan bowed awkwardly to them both, Aragorn did the same, but with elegance and confidence. "It is an honour to meet you, my ladies," the king copied the gesture as well as he could with Eldarion in his arms.

Arya stood. She was tall for an elf, and her black locks were pulled back by a leather tie. Her eyes were sharp, like those of a hawk. In a way she reminded Legolas of lord Elrond and his twin sons; she held the grace of Arwen Undomiel, but the fierceness of her brothers and there was also something else, something entierly unfamiliar, about her. For a moment she waited, as if expecting someone else to speak. Then she brought her hand across her chest in an elven gesture that Eragon was familiar with – but not the others – and said; "Atra enterní ono thelduin."

It was a phrase each elf in Du Weldenvarden knew by heart; it was the proper way of greeting another. But Legolas did not know this, naturally, and he had never heard the Ancient language before. He understood at once that the female elf – his kind and yet not – expected he was from Du Weldenvarden, the elven forest; a friend. He was urged to greet her in his native tongue, but he doubted she would understand. "Greetings, milady," he said.

A faint frown crossed Arya's brow; how come Legolas Thranduilion did not return the gesture of greeting in elvish ways?

Eragon quickly cut in, doing his best in explaining who the latter persons were and how they'd come here, as well as why Roran was here, with the whole of Carvahall.

"Please sit," Nasuada said. "I hear that there is more and more to tell."

So they began. Roran spoke first, at the beginning uncertainly, but in the end he was so caught up in his story – so recent and dangerous, which so much emotion in it – that his feelings ran through his voice. The capture of Katrina and the betrayal of his home tore at his heart. Now he included all details he thought was necessary, and also what he, Legolas and Estel had speculated about their arrival to Alagëasia. Magic was surely involved, but they wanted to find a way to use the magic backwards and go home.

Roran also told them about the battle, and Eragon explained that his cousin had killed two men, the Twins as they called them, which had caused them much pain. The Twins had been thought to be dead, when they in truth had been serving Galbatorix. They were a danger, for they knew how to use magic.

"I realize the Varden is at your debt," Nasuada said to Roran with a dark raised eyebrow. "For you hindered them. Who knows what danger the Twins would have caused before Eragon or Arya could confront them? You helped us win this battle. I will not forget that. Our supplies may be limited, but I will see to that everyone on your ship will have food and clothing, and the wounded and sick will have treatment."

Roran breathed out in relief, unable to word how grateful he was.

Then alternately Legolas and Aragorn spoke, about their world. Eragon and lady Nasuada began to ask question after question, and they found themselves telling of the many legends of their world, its dark and long history, and most of all about the War of the Ring – Sauron – about a king with a sword renewed taking the throne. They also spoke of their new - until recently unknown - enemy and how they arrived at Alagaësia. About how they suspected magical openings or the like. They silently made an agreement, and finally revealed to Roran – and the others – that Estel was Aragorn, the king of Minas Tirith.

When their voices finally quieted, hours must have passed by. The tent was quiet; a candle flickered on the table. Eldarion had fallen deep asleep against his elven parent's chest, bored by the adults talking.

"If we can help you and your people in any way to win this war against Galbatorix," Legolas said after a moment, "we will do what we can. If Galbatorix is not stopped, if the resistance here in Alagaësia and Surda is defeated, then he will focus solely on Gondor. We have no magicians or wizards to aid us, no power to counter his; we may possibly outnumber his soldiers, but if he uses magic, we have no chance. And if Gondor falls, he could easily try to defeat Rohan or any of the last Elven Kingdoms."

Roran was watching Aragorn warily. "You really are royalty?" he asked. The man looked nothing like he had imagined a king to be like.

"I am," Aragorn said. "But I was a ranger for most of my life; my heart yet am."

"And you?" Roran suddenly looked at Legolas. There was a frown on his brow. "It wouldn't surprise me."

And Legolas could not help smiling ever so slightly. "I will not lie to you. My father, Thranduil, is the son of Oropher. You might recall that the king of Mirkwood is the son of Oropher; I told you when we were hiding in the Spine months ago."

"Unbelievable," the man muttered under his breath, but both elves in the room heard him; "Kings and princes and Dragonriders and world-travelling wars …and they have been with me for weeks, months. The world is going mad."

Nasuada looked surprised but grim; there had just been battle where many lives had been lost, and more battles lay ahead; but she like Arya could not have been expecting the arrival of two strangers from another world. She was intrigued and curious. And she feared as well. Nasuada could not do any magic; she felt it was not trustable, that such a strong force could be bent to others will ... But she knew about magic, that it took much energy and power – for example no one could explain how Galbatorix had all of his power since it drained from his own body. To open a gateway to another world must be a hard, complex and dangerous thing to do. She couldn't imagine anyone surviving doing it – except for Galbatorix.

It took minutes for the information to sink in the slightest bit. Arya spoke up. "Do no races in Arda know of magic – not even the elves?" she asked. At least now she understood why Legolas had acted so strangely when she greeted him.

It hit Legolas that she was young, by the elves' ways of counting. "Nay," he said; "though there were five wizards – maia - sent to us by the valar with different purposes, but they are either dead or gone now after the War. There might have been magic – and there is yet what you could call magic – among some powerful elves, such as the White Lady Galadriel of Lothlórien and Lord Elrond of Rivendell… But they like most of my kind have sailed now, away from Arda never to return."

Arya looked disturbed. Her face betrayed little emotion but Legolas saw in her eyes that she had a trouble understanding this. "So the Maia was servants of these 'Valar' and your God?"

"They are," Legolas confirmed.

"Though Gods …" Arya quieted, suddenly, stopping herself from saying what she had been thinking. She had always believed gods not to exist, for there was no proof of it, no matter how many people there were who prayed to them, even fanatics. But if she said that, Legolas might be offended – if he and his people believed in gods - and a feud between elves could last for centuries.

"What we should be doing now," lady Nasuada softly cut in as if reading Arya's thoughts, "is not discussing the Higher Powers from above. Eragon – now I need to know what happened when you met the second Rider. And I want to hear every detail, swiftly as well. Enough time has been spilled already." She shot a look at Roran and the others. "You may leave."

"No, let them stay," Eragon said. "They should hear this."

Quickly he retold the history of the Forsworn – the thirteen Dragonriders who had joined Galbatorix – and the eggs in Galbatorix' possession, as well as about Morzan – the last of the Forsworn – and Murtagh his son, so that Roran and the gondorians could understand the weight of his tale.

The other Dragonrider's appearance onto the battle-field had shocked him. They had thought that none of the eggs had hatched; but now it had, at a least wanted time. The dragon was large but it was also young. Its rider was strong and powerful, skilful with the blade ... "I realized then that we had fought with the swords before," Eragon said; "so I threw myself at him and ripped off his helmet."

"It was Murtagh, was it not?" Nasuada asked softly.

"How did you know?" Eragon asked, surprised.

"Well, it seemed logical that he survived too if the Twins had. Did he say anything of what really happened that day in Farthen Dûr?"

The Dragonrider recalled the fierce battle and the upset, angry and heated words thrown between them. With hot tears behind his eyes, he told them about the kidnapping of the Twins and Murtagh, and the death of Nasuada's father Ajihad.

Nasuada and Arya's faces fell as well. "It is a pity, for Murtagh has already gone through so many hardships. I appreciated his company in Farthen Dûr, and I thought we had him on our side when he fought for the Varden. It is hard to imagine him as an enemy."

Then Eragon silenced for a moment, took a deep breath and told them of how Murtagh had stolen Za'roc, and the horrible bitter truth:

()()()

Murtagh's strong hand's tore his red sword Za'roc from Eragon's hands, with a face screaming of agony. "If I'd become my father, then I should also have my father's blade. Thorn is my dragon and a thorn will he be for all our enemies. That's why I should be the one to wield the sword Misery. Misery and Thorn, it fits well together: and Za'roc should have gone to his oldest son, not his youngest. It is my birthright!"

()()()

"It cannot be possible …" Nasuada gasped in shock.

Roran looked disgusted and wide-eyed, staring at his cousin … Morzan's son. That look hurt Eragon more than anything else could have. He looked at the gathered despairingly; Arya's face was grave, but the gondorian king's face was unreadable. However, when Legolas looked up, he saw sympathy in the elf's eyes. "A son is not his father," the elf murmured quietly.

There were parallels, Eragon realized; he and Aragorn, not wanting to be like their fathers … He knew since Legolas had told them, among other things, of Isildur's betrayal and that Aragorn descended from that man. And Legolas and Aragorn were married, so the elf had comforted the man when disturbed by his link to Isildur… A bond to someone else than Saphira - a lover - one that I don't have. But this thought was short and fleeting in Eragon's mind; he refocused on the matter at hand.

"Could Murtagh have been lying?" Arya asked.

"Hardly. He swore me the same in the Ancient language when I questioned him."

Arya sighed. "The Varden are enough immobilized as it is. If it is known that this new Rider is Murtagh, there will be more panic; those who trusted him in Farthen Dûr will be upset. And if it comes out that Eragon Shade-Bane is the son of Morzan, we will have few recruits and little hope of winning this war. It must stay a secret. Not even King Orrin should know, and especially not Du Vrangr Gata."

"What is Du Vrangr Gata?" Aragorn asked.

"It is a group of magicians serving the Varden," the female elf explained.

"You are right, Arya, we must not let them know," Nasuada said heavily, rubbing her forehead. "I knew one of his eggs would hatch one day, but I had thought it would not right now. Galbatorix has had those eggs for such a long time without them hatching."

"There is a certain symmetry in it, though," Eragon said.

The air in the tent had seemed to become thicker. For several moments they discussed Murtagh's impact on their next strategies, as well as how and why Galbatorix was opening gates of magic into Arda and how to stop it. If possible, they wanted to open a gateway and send Legolas, Aragorn and Eldarion home through it, and find a way to seal everyone of these gates after that. On the other hand, they could turn this to their advantage: these gates. If they could make an alliance with Gondor, find help, soldiers and supplies from there, it could very well determine the outcome of the war against Galbatorix. Aragorn and Legolas were open to these ideas. They had men to be spared, if Galbatorix did not attack Gondor's boarders – or any other of Middle Earth's lands - again for a time. First and foremost Arda was their priority.

"Do you think it would be possible to open a gateway to my world, Dragonrider?" Legolas asked Eragon.

Eragon hesitated. "I am not sure. It will take a great deal of energy and a complex spell … It's dangerous, since the magician takes energy from himself to make a spell. If he overexerts himself he could very well die."

Legolas nodded, but frowned. "How come Galbatorix is so powerful still, if he has managed to open several of these gates? Or is it possible to take energy from another source?" He recalled Galbatorix had been a king for a hundred years. As far as he knew he was human, made to live a short life; or maybe he had altered like Eragon, to be like a half-elf. It did explain his long life, but not where he got his energy from.

"Sometimes," Eragon said vaguely, "if I heal someone, I could take their own energy and heal them with it."

Arya nodded. "That is true."

"But before we can even consider such a spell, we need to rest," Nasuada said. "Our minds are heavy after this bloodied battle. However I would like to speak with you, Eragon, and Legolas and Aragorn, milords, tomorrow."

"Of course, milady," Aragorn replied kindly. "When shall we meet?"

"I will send you to my tent around midday; there are other affairs I have to deal with first." Then she stood and bade them goodnight.

()()()

The villagers would not sleep on the ground but in tents; a thing they were relieved of. As promised a handful of healers came to have a look at the ill ones, and then several packs with food and other supplies arrived. The villagers hoorayed. Aragorn and Legolas helped them unpack, and then put up a tent at the edge of camp, next to the river; Jiet looked black now. The sun was a mere thin line of red and orange in the west.

The elf cradled up against Aragorn's chest. They'd fed Eldarion and put the boy to bed, beneath a layer of blankets. The night was not so still; they heard faint voices and footsteps and the clinkering of metal. The camp was at full activity. Torches were lit everywhere. They needed to be prepared in case of another attack.

But now it was calm before the storm; two lovers laid in each others arms. For a moment they closed their eyes and imagined they were in their chamber in Minas Tirith; with curtains blowing slightly in a soft wind through the open windows, with an admirable view below of wide plains and silvered mountains, and with moonlight falling upon the white floor and walls and the bed in the room's centre. When they opened their eyes again, they were back in a gray-hued tent.

"Do you think it is possible, my love, to go back home?" Aragorn wondered absently, as he twisted a lock of his lover's hair in his hand. His voice was soft and warm as he spoke the elven tongue.

"I hope so," Legolas answered quietly. He let a hand wander over Aragorn's cheek. He had more beard than ever.

"It cannot have passed much time in Arda, can it?" the elf continued. "There is a time difference … and now I have been here for at least ten weeks, probably more …"

Aragorn's heart clenched at the worried sound in his lover's voice. But he was right; in Arda it could not have passed more than a week. He had come here after five days, after all, but Legolas had been here for almost two months when that happened.

"Somehow we must find a way back," Aragorn murmured, and bent down and kissed Legolas' temple. The elf shifted and met his lips in a heart-soaring kiss.

"I have missed doing that," the elf whispered.

"Well – now we are all alone …"

Aragorn cupped the elf's face and kissed him again; Legolas hid a grin and his eyes twinkled. With a sudden movement, he had turned them around and was straddling the man's hips, before leaning down and catching the man's lips again. Aragorn's stubble teased his skin, so when he pulled back he scratched his cheek.

"What?" he asked at Aragorn's look. "When was the last time you held a mirror and a knife?"

The man rolled his eyes. "You worry about my beard of all things, now when the battle is over?"

Legolas laughed, quietly so not to wake Eldarion. His laughter was like silver dancing on the man's skin. "Oh, just shave, my dear. Tomorrow, maybe. I am sure I could get my hands on a mirror somewhere. It will do wonders on your looks."

"You little-"

He was cut off by another kiss, and shifted his grip of the elf to let his hands rest on his back. "If you wanted someone with no beard, you should've married an elf," Aragorn managed to grunt out between the longed-for, close kisses. It felt wonderful to be with his husband again, touch him, and be comforted by the familiar warmth and voice and caresses.

"I love you, my shaggy husband."

"And I love you, my juvenile elfling."

()()()

Roran sat on the floor in the tent where Eragon – Dragonrider, son of Morzan, Shadeslayer, his cousin usually slept. Now, they'd come to talk. Roran stared at Eragon, then at the ground. His mind was in turmoil.

Eragon had told him everything of how he had found Saphira's egg, and she had hatched for him; their escape; Brom's death; the battle for the Varden; everything. It ached in Roran's heart with confusion and anger and hate and also love, strong brotherly love for his cousin. They were brothers in almost every way.

Eragon had done so many wrong things … things he could have done differently … things that had killed Garrow, things that made everything go wrong and ruined Carvahall. Things that had taken Katrina away from him. Rightly, Roran should hate him, but he found he could not, for their family ties brought them together and Eragon had apologized over and over. He truly was sorry.

He had thought taking away Saphira from Palancar valley and leaving – fleeing, sacrificing himself – would take all danger away from Carvahall.

The man crouched on the floor was silent for so long that Eragon was afraid he would not say or do anything at all. He would not try to look into his mind, though, to see his feelings; he would not break into Roran's private life. But from this angle, he could not see Roran's face, read his eyes.

"You've made mistakes …" Roran said at last, thickly, "but they weren't larger or worse than my own. Garrow died because you kept Saphira a secret. Many more died when I refused to give myself to the Empire …We carry the same weight, the same guilt." He looked up at the face of his cousin; strange with its pointy angles and cat-like eyes, but still Eragon's; familiar. "Brother?"

Eragon was filled with happiness and relief, and clasped Roran's arms. "Brother."

"Galbatorix should give up at once, when we're together," Eragon joked. He had to wipe a hand over his eyes, feeling them wet with unshed tears. "Who can stand up against us?"

Then silence fell again. The pair looked at each other. Then Roran said, "Will you help me find Katrina and save her from the Ra'zac?"

"Yes," Eragon said. How could he not? He loved Roran, they were brothers; they were the only family they had now. Though that family would – soon, hopefully – include Katrina. She was everything Roran had, he had done all this for her, to save her. A sudden instinct grabbed him and he was on his feet, and took a bowl and emptied a water-sack into it. Roran watched him confusedly.

"What are you doing?"

"Look." The Dragonrider focused his newly won energy and spoke two words. "Draumr kopá."

The watery surface trembled, then changed colour to a gray. There was almost no light at all; there was no background but there was Katrina, looking asleep. She was leaning against an invincible wall and invincible chains bound her. Her hair was a copper-coloured disarray falling over her shoulders, contrasting to her pale skin, But it lit faith in Roran like fire.

"She's alive!" he exclaimed breathlessly. He looked ready to dive into the bowl and pick her up. Eragon began to realize just how strong his devotion was to her, how much he loved her – he would die for her safety and freedom.

He was tired after the battle and didn't manage to keep the link of magic flowing; the image disappeared from the water, and Roran pushed back on his heels. The hope shone in his eyes.

"Yes," Eragon repeated. "She is alive, and probably kept at the Ra'zac nest in Helgrind." He turned around to face his cousin, and laid his hands on his shoulders. "Yes. Together we will travel to Dras-Leona and save Katrina, and we will kill the ra'zac and avenge our father."

Chapter Text

Dawn came soft and hued in red, blue and gold. Its light fell across the large camp, tent after fire after tent.

Legolas stretched like a cat and yawned. Gentle rays fell through the fabric of the tent's walls, filling it with a warm glow. In his blankets Eldarion had awoken and started crying. The elf pushed himself up to his elbows and crawled over to the child, lifting him into his arms. "Good morning, little one. Hungry, are you?"

Eldarion tugged at his chest in reply. With the child in the crook of his arm, the elf started searching his pack until he found the bottle he'd been searching for and the newly-refilled reserves of milk. Yesterday he had made sure to have milk for the next two or so days, thanks to the supplies the Varden had granted them with. He had also managed to claim some pieces of linen, of which he planned to make some more clothing for the boy – it could not be that hard to sew, could it?

After feeding and changing the boy's napkins, Legolas put him back on the tent-floor with his toy, letting him play. However Eldarion held his hair in a firm, stubborn grip, preventing Legolas from moving over to wake Aragorn. The man was deeply asleep still, so the elf used his voice to raise him.

"Awake, Aragorn. Aragorn!"

The man grunted and sighed and rolled away, back to wherever dreamscapes he was in.

"Aragorn, it is time for us to wake. The camp has already awakened."

When the man cuddled deeper into his blankets, Legolas rolled his eyes skyward.

"Wake up, my love. The sun has risen … Why do you keep ignoring me?"

There was no reaction at all.

"We're under attack!" the elf cried in his native tongue which also the man knew by heart. He refrained from saying it loudly in the common tongue; he could falsely alert people in other tents. Eldarion stared up at his elven parent with wide eyes.

The cry woke Aragorn - the man sat up, as if shot, gasping in surprise and fumbling after a weapon. It took a moment for him to see Legolas, through sleep-blurred eyes, smirking in front of him. "Legolas Greenleaf! What did you do that for?" He had finally been able to sleep deeply, contently and safely.

"You needed to wake up, so I woke you," Legolas stated. His smirk didn't fade. "The sun has risen and we have slept for many hours. See, even Eldarion is awake." The elf gently took his son's small hand in his own. Eldarion instinctively gripped the elf's long middle-finger, refusing to let that go too.

The king rubbed his eyes with his hand, trying to suppress a yawn. "You gave me a start," he muttered. "Especially when I found no weapons nearby... I thought we were in a fight!"

"The weapons are in the corner of the tent on your left side, if you have to know," the elf informed him. "And no enemies are in sight. Aragorn, once you have dressed, could you go to one of the fires and see if you could find anything to eat? … I cannot move from here myself ..."

As if to prove his point, Eldarion still did not let go of his hair, even if the child had to release his finger to be able to crawl into the kneeling elf's lap instead of sitting on the ground. Once he had settled himself he reached out for his parent's hand and gripped it with his own, beginning to investigate the slim long fingers with his own hands, staring at them with wide eyes. Legolas smiled proudly and let the boy do as he wished. Aragorn laughed.

"All right," he said and untangled himself from the blanket. He leaned over and kissed his husband's face. "I will see what I can find. Has Eldarion eaten yet?"

"How else could he have the energy to try tearing my hand apart?"

()()()

The camp was bustling with activity. Now with clear morning sunlight, it looked much larger than the day before. There were too many tents and people for him to see the distance but he knew that somewhere north-west about them, the Burning Plains yet glowed and still was covered by bodies and blood and death since the battle.

Aragorn stretched and fletched his arms, stretching the muscle. He felt a bit sore even though not tired anymore. He was growing old … He did not like to be reminded of the fact. However Legolas now and then teased him softly, calling him a child – considering the age difference between them, the elf was very right. Legolas was several times twice his age.

By one of the nearby fires, covered by a kettle with some boiling thin soup, were Elain, Horst and their sons, talking quietly while waiting for the soup, which Elain stirred in now and then. Her face was strained, as if she'd aged. She was due to give birth within two weeks – she was worried, for this was not the place for children.

The ranger joined them and they agreed to let him take some of the soup with him for Legolas. He knew they were still wary about him, and trusted Legolas much more. That was probably thanks to Eldarion, he reflected; Elain had during the battle, and at other times when they weren't near themselves, taken tare of the boy which they were very grateful for. Taking care of a not-even-one-year-old and being pregnant made her tired; Aragorn saw than in her eyes. He would return the favour someday. He was a healer; he could help her deliver her child. Though, he didn't mention that, when he sat down to speak with the smith's family, while waiting for the food.

They talked about everyday things – the family did ask him about him being royalty, when he stood up to leave after having filled two bowls with soup. He raised an eyebrow of surprise; he had not thought that they'd know yet. But they were close to Roran … he must have told them.

"It's true," he said and smiled kindly at their agape faces. "I came to the throne of Gondor just two years ago. But, how did you know? Has word spread to the whole camp?"

"Roran told us," Horst said. "Scarcely could I believe it. I mean … you don't look exactly like a king."

Aragorn glanced down at himself and his battered clothing, before catching himself doing so. "I was a ranger for many, many years before I settled in Minas Tirith – a city in Gondor. Most of my years have I spent travelling across my home-world," he said.

"You didn't grow up in a palace … milord?" Elain asked hesitantly.

"I grew up with the elves."

"That must've been wonderful. I mean," Elain added blushing a little shyly, "Legolas is very fair and kind and very, very beautiful, if you don't mind me saying that, and well, if the elves are like him, it must've been wonderful to live with them."

Aragorn thought of Imradis, his foster-father and the half-elven twins Elladan and Elrohir, his foster-brothers; his first years of childhood had been bliss. It had been bliss until he found out about his heritage and started to feel out of place among both Men and elves. But he smiled. "Yes. It was a wonderful childhood."

Before he turned to leave, he added, "But please, do not call me 'lord'. My name is Aragorn."

()()()

An hour later, they had eaten, and were sitting in the tent with a kettle of warmed water, and they had undressed to clean themselves. The elf noticed something he had not seen yesterday; a cut along Aragorn's muscled chest, beginning just below where the green-and-silver necklace – that Legolas had given him many years ago - touched his skin and reaching halfway to his navel.

The elf's own skin was unscarred and the injuries he had gained on the journey were almost completely gone, except for the rather large bruise he had received aboard the Dragon Wing. A large, yellow-tinted mark marred his side and thigh.

"How did you get this?" Legolas murmured, trailing the injury along Aragorn's torso. It wasn't deep or bleeding, covered by a thin crust, but the elf silently scolded himself for not noticing it until now.

"A soldier jumped at me from behind," Aragorn admitted. "We stumbled to the ground and I cut myself on his knife. It is a mere scratch. Do not worry, it will heal."

"I should have noticed yesterday," the elf said, shaking his head and he found some rags in his pack, poured some cold water into a bowl and dipped the rag into it, and began to clean the man's wound. Aragorn hissed with sharp pain at the contact.

"You were tired. We both were."

"But still ..." He sighed. "But you are probably right. I was tired."

Both used the rag and the water to wipe off the sweat and dirt from their bodies. Then the elf reached for the man's shirt, frowning at it in displeasure – it was ragged and thorn, and had several cuts and many layers of sweat, dust and dirt on it. Legolas searched through his pack, found at the bottom of it an old shirt he had borrowed from Baldor. It looked it could fit Aragorn well enough. He had to use his old cloak and trousers though. The man didn't protest as the elf dressed him.

"We should find some new clothing … or at least mend and wash those. Your trousers are in a horrible condition."

"Of course. If I remember right, you said I look as if I had fallen into a river of mud."

"When was the last time you actually washed them?" Legolas asked. Come think of it, he had not seen those trousers for a long time before.

"I used them as a ranger last time I wore them," Aragorn offered as information. "But I did have them washed before I came to Alagëasia!"

"Barely noticeable; but then again, I should not be surprised." The elf's own clothing did not look much better than the man's. Only Eldarion's clothing was in an all-right state. They really needed something new, to be presentable later today when meeting Lady Nasuada and King Orrin. They might have passed through many hardships and a long road to get here, but they were King and Prince; they represented their people and homeland – and part of their home-world.

Half-an-hour later they stepped out of the tent. Legolas had tied his now damp but cleaner hair into a knot in the base of his neck. He carried Eldarion, but still wore a knife in his belt. The child as usual was curious and looked around the camp and the many people milling about with wide eyes. Men, women and a handful of children from Carvahall mingled about; soldiers were armoured, women were carrying large bowls of water for the day's use. A fire was lit nearby, and someone was roasting a piece of meat over it, the aroma drifting over to mix with the other various smells and sounds about.

They sough out Roran, asking their way. After some minutes they found him with Jeod in the tradesman's tent. Legolas called out, asking if they could enter.

The tent was larger than their own, but as their own gray hued, without furniture. Packs were lined up against a wall. Roran was pacing back and forth. His face looked haunted; he was thinking about how to rescue Katrina, Legolas realized.

"Legolas, Estel – or maybe I should call you Aragorn? Would you like some tea?" Jeod asked.

Aragorn raised an eyebrow – so Roran had told Jeod whom they were. But the man seemed rather open and comfortable about it, and Aragorn was glad about that. He smiled. "If it were not too much a bother," he replied. "Call me what you feel comfortable with," he added.

"Tea would be welcome," Legolas said. Eldarion did not say anything, just stared at Jeod and then tried to reach out for him.

Jeod smacked his lips. "Who could have thought, we've been travelling with royalty all this time. Yes, Roran has told me. Helen?" he called out.

His wife looked inside the tent. She looked tired and angry; she was carrying a kettle, filled with water. The woman glared at her husband, then lowered her gaze a little realizing they had company. "Yes, dear husband?" she asked frostily.

"Please, Helen, could you make us some tea?"

Silently, angrily, she did as she was told. The silence that fell inside the tent was tense-knitted, and it wasn't until she left again that Jeod spoke up. "My position at the Varden is not as high as she had hoped – I believe she came with me in the belief that lady Nasuada at once would give me a place among her councillors or give me land or riches, as a thank for helping to steal Saphira's egg; not live like a simple warrior, sleeping in tent, cooking your own food. I do love her and I want her happy – but right now, that does not seem possible."

Aragorn nodded. He was cradling the warm cup with both hands. "I understand," he murmured.

"But," Jeod continued with a wry grin. "I assume you did not come to hear about my troubles."

"We wondered what will happen next," Legolas said, and turned to Roran.

"I am going to save Katrina, and Eragon will help me," the man said. His jaw was set firm; his back was straight.

"I do not mean to discourage you, but Lady Nasuada might not let Eragon and Saphira on such a dangerous mission, right in the middle of the Empire – alone and unguarded," Jeod put in.

Legolas sympathized with Roran. "I wish we could help," he said, "But I imagine you desire to go alone with Eragon and save her?" The fewer they were, the more stealthily they could cross the Empire and take Galbatorix by surprise and save the girl who Roran loved so much.

"I don't know," Roran admitted. "I would gladly accept your help, but I can't force you, and it'll be dangerous. Either I will save Katrina or I will die trying. Eragon has promised to help me, and I have promised to help him. We will save Katrina and avenge our father by killing the ra'zac." He looked the elf in the eye. "If we don't succeed we might die … And well, I wouldn't want more people risked than necessary."

The elf nodded. He wanted to aid Roran, for the man had helped him much, by letting him – and Aragorn – to come with them to the Varden. The man could have been much more suspicious of them, and maybe even killed Aragorn; but he had not. He had trusted them, for which Legolas was grateful. He trusted the man in return. If he could help now, he would be returning the favour.

However Aragorn was worried. He was not displeased of Legolas choices, not really; it was only right to help Roran. He had loved Legolas for so long so he was quite aware of what the elf was thinking. And on the Dragon Wing, he had sworn not to ask Legolas to stay away from a battle or the like again, so he could not command Legolas to stay in the camp. The man himself wanted to help Roran. But he was worried, because Legolas would probably get himself into danger, yet again. It was Eldarion, he realized, that worried him. He did not want anything to happen to his child, or his lover and himself so that Eldarion would become alone – an orphan …

Eldarion broke the silence. He was growing bored with the adults' talk, so he twisted in Legolas grasp and tried to reach for something interesting and fun to play with. The nearest thing was the cup of tea in his parent's right hand; the child tugged at its edge, and Legolas was distracted, and could not stop the cup from falling. In the last moment he reacted and managed to catch it, but its hot content spilled over both Roran and himself. Eldarion yelped and then, all of sudden began to laugh. He was obviously very amused by the look on Roran's face.

The elf rolled his eyes at the child.

"I am so sorry-" he began.

Jeod chuckled. "Do not worry. At least you saved the cup." He glanced at the child amusedly. "He must've been bored by us adults."

"I should have left him in the tent," Legolas said but couldn't help grinning. Now he had to wash again and try wipe of his clothing. "Were you burned, Roran?"

"I'm fine. He gave me a start, that's all." The man looked down at his shirt. It was wet, warm and had begun to smell suspiciously like mint.

()()()

"This is folly. We cannot let you do this, Eragon!" lady Nasuada exclaimed heatedly.

"I swore to help Roran," Eragon tried to defend himself.

"You promise too much, to the wrong people at the wrong time. If you continue to swear your allegiance to each and everyone, you will be crushed, you know this, Eragon. You must think. All promises cannot be kept."

The Dragon Rider sighed. "I know, milady. But Roran is my cousin, no, he is my brother. And if we can kill the ra'zac, and the lethrblaka, we will have rid the world from one of Galbatorix' most dangerous allies."

He was a bit disappointed to find that his dwarf-friend Orik, who was yet dull-eyed with sorrow for the death of his adoptive father King Hrothgar, took lady Nasuada's side. "She is right, Eragon. You alone in the middle of the Empire – it is far too risky. We cannot risk losing you, for you are the last hope of the Varden."

Then the Dragonrider felt immense relief and other warm, kind, confusing emotions when Arya actually supported his idea, even though vaguely. That she supported him meant the world, or nearly, to Eragon; he did not deny it, to himself at least, he was still smitten even if she had rejected him in Du Weldenvarden when he had been there for training.

"It is a foolish idea mayhap, but Eragon has a valid point. If the ra'zac is gone, it is only to our advantage." But then she began to describe how badly she disliked his plan – even if it was well thought out – and Eragon realized that the more time that passed the less were the chances that he could ever help Roran to find the ra'zac and rescue Katrina, unless he sneaked out of camp at night. With Saphira, that would not be an easy task.

They had been arguing back and forth whole morning. Roran was with the villagers, just waiting for a sign that they'd leave. If Eragorn could not come – if he was forbidden to – Roran would have to go alone. Eragon would never want that. He'd be far too vulnerable, since he knew no magic whatsoever.

Soon their argument was so heated that Saphira interrupted, growing and roaring, almost breaking the tent apart. Then she began to talk, describing a detailed plan with several ways out depending on the situation, on how they would strike Helgrind, kill their enemies and rescue Katrina. It was beyond the details a delightfully head-on plan.

They needed to rescue Katrina, because as long as she was captive she was a weakness to Roran and then through him, Eragon. Galbatorix could use her to manipulate Roran and then also the man's cousin and the Varden might fall inwards. Roran would do anything for Katrina's safety, so if Galbatorix threatened to kill her, he would have no choice but to agree on whatever the demands were. So they needed to save Katrina and hence mend this leak in their defences before Galbatorix used it to his advantage.

If they could eliminate the ra'zac now then they'd gain time, because certainly the creatures had control over some troops and those men would be demoralised.

It was also a good time to do it now, when Galbatorix had his troops on the boarders of Surda. Then he would be unprepared for an attack in the middle of the Empire. Lady Nasuada, Arya and Orik had to agree with that, and they supposed it was best if Eragon and Saphira then flew north to meet up with queen Islanzadí and her elven troops, once they announced their presence and began to attack the Empire's cities.

Saphira choose her words diplomatically. Eragon was patiently silent, sharing her thoughts and thus knowing when to speak up himself. When Saphira said that even if Eragon was forbidden to come, she had decided to follow Roran, claiming it would be a good adventure; Eragon couldn't help the smile that tugged at his lips. Saphira was totally right; she stood under no command but possibly Eragon's and her own. No king, queen, lord or lady could stop her.

Long minutes of tense, pulsating silence passed after the dragon's words. Lady Nasuada's face was unreadable, and Arya's was grave, but yet … It'd be unfair if they stopped me,Eragon could not help from thinking. 'Would you really go with only Roran?' he asked Saphira.

'Certainly. We haven't had a good adventure for a while.'

He reminded her that 'a while' was just a few weeks. She appeared to be smirking in reply.

At last Nasuada spoke up. "Very well, Eragon. I grant your wish. But, if there are any signs of Murtagh – do not face him, but turn back at once to this camp. And after you have rescued Roran's fiancée and killed the ra'zac, you must return at once."

Eragon bowed to her. "Of course, milady."

"And Eragon…" He looked up at her. He had been turning around to leave the tent, his heart beating with joy and relief. He would rescue Katrina, gain Roran's full trust again; they would kill the ra'zac and avenge their father, and give Galbatorix a hard blow in the process. "…Be careful."

Chapter Text

The road was rocky, and he bumped in the saddle; at the moment he was solely concentrating on keeping his balance by pressing his knees into the horse's side, without urging the animal to go faster. His hands were tied behind his back and his eyes blindfolded; he did not know what time a day it was or where they were, and had only a vague idea of how long they had been travelling. He yearned to look upon the sun again.

At the moment the company of Men and horses seemed to be climbing up a hill or a mountainside; Beregond felt like he was sliding down in the saddle all the time, and his taught back ached.

The soldiers didn't speak much, too tired or disciplined to do so. Beregond wished they had spoken, so he'd be able to pick up some clues of where they were going … and what was going on. He was still confused, and his body yet ached from the beatings he had received when he'd been unable to give the soldiers the information they wanted. Could they not understand that he was telling the truth? He did not know anything about what they were asking him about!

Oh, Valar, he was so stupid.

At last, a rest; his legs throbbed. A man called out the company to halt. "We'll camp here for tonight, men. You, take the prisoner over there, and secure him. We don't want him to run away."

Two pair of arms hauled him down and it took a moment for him to regain his balance on the ground which he could not see. Then he was led away and forced to sit, he heard the rustle of ropes and the men mutter amongst themselves. He hated to feel blind and defenceless - if only they would take off this blindfold!

()()()

There stood six guards outside lady Nasuada's tent – two men, two dwarves, and two urgals. Just a few weeks prior had the Varden allied themselves with these creatures – they were not evil, as one might think - just very prone to fight, loving battles by their nature. They needed battles; to raise their status and marry they had to kill. And to make their race survive they had to fight for Galbatorix – he promised them new lands, but he had betrayed them, and so they had turned to the Varden. Lady Nasuada reluctantly allied with them; they were a quite large, valuable force, even if their race had fought, been despised and hated by humans for generations.

"Enter," lady Nasuada's voice called out.

Man and elf entered the main tent with silent steps. They had cleaned and mended their clothing as well as they could and washed their hair, hoping to look presentable enough. Legolas had braided it in the way that showed his status as a warrior – not that anyone here in Alagëasia knew what the braids meant. They walked side by side, shoulders touching lightly. Eldarion was not there. Since they suspected this would be a long talk, stretching into the late hours of night, they had left him in the care of Elain and her family.

"Milady Nasuada," they greeted and bowed to her.

Lady Nasuada was dressed in a dark gown, almost appearing to melt into the colour of her skin. Her hair was tied back in a knot. Her expression was well guarded as they greeted each other and took seats. They already knew what to discuss – their different worlds, their situation, the war and the magic, as well as an alliance. They both knew it was best to ally with each other. The Varden needed more forces and Gondor needed magical help to protect their country from Galbatorix' troops.

The meeting took a few hours, but it was straight-on, without much nonsense arguing. Lady Nasuada and the king and his prince realized that all of them preferred it that way; they were not councillors. They needed quick, simple solutions and could not spend their time arguing. Little time was spent speaking about Arda's history. Elf and man learned instead more about Galbatorix and Alagëasia in general.

After about two hours, one of the guards came forth, bowing to Nasuada. "King Orrin has arrived," he announced.

She nodded her head. "Good. Send him in."

"Yes, m'lady."

Orrin, the king of Surda, son of Larkin, was a quite tall slightly lumpy man. He was cloaked in silk and other such rich materials but at the moment no crown rested on his head. He had gray eyes, that, when Legolas looked, he saw held a kind of naivety. Not one of age but of kindness, perhaps.

Both the elf and his husband stood and greeted the king with a small bow at the waist. Since they made friends and allies with lady Nasuada, and the Varden, allying themselves with Surda was as important.

They weren't so sure what king Orrin was most surprised of – him, the elf, or meeting royalties (or people at all) from another world. Lady Nasuada had explained to him about the strangers. When the man looked upon them, his expression was open like a book, in Legolas' opinion.

"King Orrin," Aragorn greeted. "It is an honour to make your acquaintance you at last."

"Lord Aragorn … Prince Legolas ... A pleasure to finally meet you." The King took seat and his clothing rustled. "I understand that you wish to ally with us?"

"Yes, lord Orrin," Legolas spoke up after he'd seated again. "Although, since we do not yet know of any way to open a way to our homeland, Arda, we cannot promise you any troops or other such support, only the loyalty of me and Aragorn and our weapons."

()()()

Half an hour later, they were back in their tent. Somewhere had been there – a servant most probably – and put some furniture in it, thanks to lady Nasuada and king Orrin. It was no luxury, but because of their status they had been given some comforts. There was a bed – wide enough for two – even if it was thin, and a small cabinet with clothing, linen and sheets and other things, and two chairs and a small table, as well as a cradle for Eldarion. Several pots, pans and a kettle stood in a corner. Upon the nightstand table laid a handful of books and maps; obviously they had not realized that the elf and man could not read the runes that the people of Surda – and Alagëasia – used.

"I will go with them."

Aragorn breathed in and out heavily, as if burdened, and his chest felt heavy. He did not want Legolas to leave … but he understood why the elf did it. It was doing a favour to Roran, Eragon, Carvahall and the Varden. But it was so dangerous…

"Just be careful, my love."

Legolas smiled against his husband's cheek. He was being held in an almost lung-crushing embrace. He hated being separated from his lover and son but if everything went well, he would be back in just a few days, with Katrina safely with them.

"You know I always am."

"You – always careful?" Aragorn muttered. "That is as possible as finding an orc picking flowers."

Legolas grimaced.

"All right, maybenot always – just most of the time ..." Legolas lifted the man's chin to meet his gaze. "I will come back, Aragorn. I know you dislike this, and I might not like it either, but I must to this for Roran. It is only fair. He led us into Surda and Varden's protection, and this is my thanks to him; I promised him that I would return the favour one day. I will help him save Katrina, and then I will hurry back, my love."

"Oh, meleth, why do you promise so much?" Aragorn asked, his voice vibrating from his chest. He did not let go of his lover, just pressed him closer, and then took his lover's lips with his own in a soft warm kiss.

"Take care of Eldarion, Estel. Do not let him out of your sight, all right?" Legolas whispered.

"I will protect him. Do not worry." He kissed the elf's temple.

Legolas pulled back a little from the embrace with a tiny, cheerless smile. "I always worry for you and our child, meleth."

()()()

It was early morning and the sun had just risen when Roran met up with Eragon outside the Dragonrider's tent, which was placed in the edge of camp, for some solitude and space. Saphira lay on the ground, like a giant snake, resting, with warm smoking breath puffing out of her nostrils. Her huge eyes were closed. Roran was still uncertain when about her, not knowing what to make of her. She was impressive and strong and dangerous, and intelligent as well; he was sure he would not last long in a fight against a dragon.

Eragon came out wearing a thick coat and gloves, and carrying other such items with him. Roran raised a questioning eyebrow. "What do we need that for?" It was still very warm.

"We must fly as high as possible, and the air is very much colder and thinner up there," Eragon explained. "That way we won't be so easily seen, and Saphira won't appear larger than an eagle."

Roran nodded and began to help him, and they carried out the small packs with supplies they needed, the Dragonrider's armour from Farthen Dûr, and Saphira's saddle. As they did, Eragon asked; "You mentioned that Legolas or Aragorn might come with us?"

Earlier that day they had met and talked. "I don't know if they'll come. I mean, they have Eldarion to think about. But can Saphira carry so many people?"

She snorted, and Roran flinched, startled. She was been awake all the time. I am not a weakling, she said, her voice resonating deeply in their minds. I have carried three people at once before, and I was younger and smaller back then.

Arya was very light, Eragon said to her, remembering their flight from Gil'aed with Murtagh, when they had rescued felt like a long time ago …

Yes, and Legolas is an elf too, Saphira said.

But Aragorn is not, Eragon argued.

It was that moment that Legolas appeared, very quietly, startling both young men. The elf was dressed in cleaned, mended clothing and like the day before had a long knife in a belt at his side. Roran noticed that he hadn't gotten any weapon to replace his broken bow yet. Cautiously Legolas neared them; he bowed to the dragon and her Rider.

"Will you come with us?" Roran asked.

"If you permit me to," Legolas said, and added; "Aragorn will not come; he will stay with Eldarion."

Saphira eyed the elf curiously, having more time to look at him than she'd had yesterday. He was tall, like Arya, light and slightly delicate, but he was lighter than the she-elf, in both skin and hair. His hair was a shade of gold and silver. He did not flinch when the dragon leaned her head down, and he felt the warmth of her large breaths slip through the fabric of his clothing, landing on his skin.

'He doesn't look so bulky, so he will probably be easier to carry than Orik. In fact it looks like he's been made of feathers and pressed together, so thin he is. If he turned sideways, he'd probably become practically invincible.'

'Saphira!' Eragon scolded at her, having heard her thought. But he turned to Legolas and said, "She permits you to come with us and ride her."

"I am greatly honoured." Legolas bowed briefly at the neck, not at the waist for he had a sense that neither Man nor Dragon liked formalities very much.

Eragon was not so sure what to make of him yet. He knew little about him, other than what his cousin had been willing to share, and of course what Nasuada had told him, but she knew until recently naught more than him. That the elf and his companion, and his son, came from another world he knew; but he knew nothing of his background, his home, his history. And since he knew very well that Elves were immortal certainly Legolas' history must be long. Surely Elves in Middle Earth also were immortal?

Saphira asked through him permission to talk directly to the elf, and Legolas gave his consent after just a short moment of hesitation. Of course he must be doubtful. What Eragon knew he had never met a dragon before – all in his world were apparently gone – and elves did not so easily let others enter their mind?

It took not long before they were all ready, and with one giant leap Saphira rushed into the sky. From behind him, Eragon heard Roran's sharp intake of breath and said man's arms tightened their grip around his waist.

"Roran, let go a little, I cannot breathe."

"Sorry." Although he was like a tense bowstring, Roran did as he was bid.

Legolas was not as tense as the man, but he was nervous as they quickly gained height, rose up until the camp beneath them was tiny and the people like a myriad ants. He forced himself to stay calm, concentrate on balancing until he found the right way to do it subconsciously, so that he would not fall off Saphira's back because of his nerves.

Once he felt secure enough, he glanced down. With sharp eyes he surveyed the area of the camp which appeared to be smaller and smaller. Saphira had reached the height she desired and they moved only forward, away, away; Legolas sent a quiet prayer to the Valar to keep his husband and son safe. Then, the camp disappeared and he looked ahead instead.

Clouds folded and unfolded around them and the air hissed, bit against their skin. Although he was not affected the same way by the elements as Men, he too had donned thicker clothing and gloves. Like Eragon had warned them, they were far up in the sky, where the air was thinner and colder.

Even with Saphira's speed, which was great, many times faster than any horse or other being, they had a long ride ahead, and Legolas tried to enjoy this experience no matter how serious their mission was; after all, this was the first and probably next-last time for him to ride a Dragon.

Chapter Text

Little by little Legolas' unease disappeared, and he enjoyed the wind through his hair and the view that sped by beneath them, and the soaring feeling of his whole body, heart and mind, as they moved ahead. He felt strangely free, and to fly filled him with excitement, that of a child; had they not been on this serious mission, he would have stretched out his arms and laughed; and had times been better he'd have wished this to continue for ever, to fly to the ends of the map, just watch and feel the world rush by.

In front of him, clinging to Eragon, Roran shivered as the cold bit him; he was the one of them who was most affected by the weather.

Sometimes they climbed upwards, at times down; it depended on what the elf's and Saphira's sharp eyes saw far below. Each time they crossed a field, they rose, since it was very possible that men were down there guarding their kettle, and the dragon must not be seen and recognized. From their height, she would appear as a large bird or hopefully, nothing at all but a dot in the distance which no one would care about. Occasionally she flew strategically into white, gray-hued clouds to shield them from any prying eyes.

The weather changed as time passed by. After a while, Roran fell asleep, and Legolas made sure he did not slide off by holding his hands on each of his sides.

Legolas spoke with Saphira through his mind then. It was a strange experience and he was not sure how it was possible, but he quickly found how to shield certain things and thoughts, and how to share others. The dragon was given glimpses of memories of his home and in turn, she gave him some of hers, and this world from her point of view. He found that she was quite young, and had had many experiences in a short amount of time. Battles, pain, joy, learning; she had met Men, Dwarves, and Elves, and fought with Urgals and Kull – which, Legolas thought, were like a replica of Saruman's Uruk-Hai, only larger and even stronger. She spoke the language of the Elves of Alagaësia, the Ancient language, and explained to him about Arya's greeting when he asked. Apparently she had learned that through Eragon.

'It's their ways of greeting, and you were supposed to answer accordingly,' she said. 'But you didn't know this, of course. I suppose she knows now about your past and where you come from, so she understands and won't be offended by it.' Legolas nodded, although the dragon could not see it.

'I wonder, but perhaps you cannot answer my question; why is lady Arya, an elf, alone among Men and Dwarves?' Legolas asked her.

Saphira was quiet for a moment. When Legolas sensed she hesitated to answer that question, he said, 'I understand if you have sworn an oath or another to not reveal anything about her, or her people. Some things must be kept secret in times like these.'

After a while Saphira spoke up; 'She is an ambassador, sent by the Elven queen.'

'Queen Islanzadí of Du Weldenvarden,' Legolas remembered from his meeting with lady Nasuada.

'Yes. Arya is highly valued by her.'

'Ah, I see. That does answer my question,' the elf said. 'As I have understood, elves and Men do no mingle much in Alagëasia.'

'No, they don't. They aren't at war, but the Elves are still hiding in their forest. But they'll come out now, to fight Galbatorix alongside us.'

Legolas felt Roran come awake with small, startled cry when Saphira steered sharply to the left and then up; the elf lost link with the dragon for a moment and grabbed Roran's arm to steady him. When they were flying straight again, Saphira's mind contacted his. 'I'm sorry about that. I think I spotted a large group of two-legged beings below.'

She flashed a mental image, a short piece of memory. Legolas looked down and aye, far, far below was a group of men – or at least he thought they were men. Although his eyes were very sharp he could not determine what sort of people there were, but they looked less than fifty but more than a dozen; too many to be simple travellers. His browns knitted – soldiers? What were they doing in his empty lands? There were yet many miles to the nearest city or village. If it indeed were Galbatorix' soldiers, then they must be heading for Morzan's troops in the North of Surda.

When the elf shared his opinion with Saphira, she agreed, and sends this information onto Eragon. The man didn't speak to him, but Legolas saw him momentarily glance back at him, nodding a little. Maybe because such was custom or he didn't want to intrude on privacy, but Eragon didn't enter his mind to talk – and the windy air around them was too loud for them to speak out loud – though it did not bother Legolas.

The elf had during the journey, and by talking with Saphira, began to understand how to control the mind better. Hesitatingly he reached out and found something vast, yet short, there was a depth of knowledge and yet so much youth; a barricaded mind, strongly guarded, which he supposed was Eragon's. The young Man must have been startled and fought for a moment, and Legolas tried to send him a short message repeatedly – 'It is only I - Legolas'.

Finally Eragon let the walls slip. 'I believed an enemy was intruding,' the Dragonrider said. 'I did not expect you to make contact, Master Elf.'

'Please call me by my name, Shadeslayer; otherwise I feel so old.'

'"Shadeslayer" - where have you heard that?' Eragon wondered curiously, and Legolas was reminded of how young the Man really was. 'And do call me by name too. I don't appreciate titles.'

'I learned that and many other things of lady Nasuada,' he explained. A small smile tugging at his lips; so Eragon disliked titles? A trait he shared with both himself and Aragorn …'From what I have heard, killing a Shade is no little feat,' he continued.

In his mind, Eragon laughed mirthlessly. 'It was pure luck, I guess. I wouldn't have been able to do if not for Arya … and Saphira of course,' he quickly added and felt his cheeks flush.

He could not see that man's face but read the tone of his voice well enough, to know that he was embarrassed; Legolas raised an eyebrow. Was he ashamed that he had needed help? Or perhaps, which was more likely for a Man, he was embarrassed that a female helped him – the elf had learned one thing among Men and that was how women were treated as a lower part, not an equal. Yet another thing that puzzled him…

After a short silence, he asked; 'Do you know when we will arrive at Helgrind?'

'Maybe in two, or three hours,' Eragon informed him.

'Does Helgrind have any other inhabitants except for the Ra'zac and their …steeds?' he wondered, lacking a better word for the winged, gray beasts.

'Not that we know of. The ra'zac and the lethrblaka – that's what they're called – might be guarded by soldiers, but I'm not sure. But almost certainly there will be some kind of magic protection or barrier.'

()()()

"Finally," one of the men sighed. "We're here. Yazuac."

Blessed sunlight shone into his eyes, as the blindfold was at last removed, and he blinked, temporarily blinded. He had not seen a thing while on the road, except when eating and answering nature's call. But those times the soldiers had camped at some shadowed, unfamiliar place and he had no idea how the road looked like in between. All he knew that the road to – somewhere, wherever they were – had been long, bumpy, tense and left his legs and back aching.

They stood on a square in a town or city, people bustling around them, soldiers at all of Beregond's sides. More soldiers came down from stairs or out of buildings to join them, the city guard perhaps; they all wore the same kind of armour.

The horses were led away. The leader of the soldiers had a discussion with one of the newcomers; heated apparently, with looks in his way, so Beregond had a strong idea what they were talking about. He wondered what would face him now – more questioning, punishment? Perhaps they would just tire of him, lock him away … or kill him.

Somehow it would not surprise him.

He was led away through a street, decorated by an overhanging stone-arch, into a large building. Any passerby he saw bowed their heads at the soldiers, but in more fear than respect, and eyed him curiously.

Some kind of city leader – a governor perhaps, or a military officer more likely – met them within a great hall, but despite the apparent richness of the building itself, it was little decorated, as was the man. He was tall and dark-haired, and his skin was unbelievably pale. He prepared himself to be strong in this, whatever would happen, and not beg by these people's knees for his freedom, even if he would tell them the truth of what he knew – nothing.

"What's this?" the pale man asked. His voice was snake-like.

"Some rebellion, Captain," spoke up the leader of the soldiers. "We found him some miles south of Therinsford, a small village in the North. He's brave but foolish, refusing to tell us anything about the rebellions."

"Is that so?" The Captain turned his gaze directly onto Beregond's. Even if his eyes were sharp and dangerous, like a hawk's, Beregond defiantly met them with his own. He didn't answer, and the man hadn't expected him to. "Insubordinate might he be but not much longer. Take him to the cells, and make sure he is well guarded; give him some water but no bread. I will see that he will be interrogated … thoroughly."

()()()

"Is that it? Helgrind?" Roran shouted over the wind, and was barely heard by Legolas' elven ears.

"I believe so!" he answered but doubted Roran heard him. A second later, his words were confirmed, as Eragon hesitantly entered his mind – Legolas let him tap inside – and said; 'Yes, we are there. But we must land a bit away from it and await darkness. It'll give us cover.'

Saphira circled the air until she found a landing spot and then, carefully but quickly began to descend, trying to be swift so that she'd not be seen. Once she had settled, Eragon climbed off her and was followed by his cousin. Legolas lastly and elegantly reached the ground. Roran stretched; his body ached, he was unused to riding such a large animal, and his legs yet shook a little from being so long up in the air.

"We'll camp here," Eragon said.

"Thank god," Roran groaned. "No offense, but after all this I won't gladly ride on a dragon again."

They took of their thicker clothing and packed them together, tying them to Saphira's saddle. They lit no fire, but gathered some dry branches, as they could be necessary later. The night could be cold and if they lit a fire here, it was much shielded from sight; they would not be discovered. From his pack, Roran picked up some bread and cheese and water which they shared, taking away a little of their thirst and hunger. Legolas was the least hungry of them; to not have eaten for a few hours did not bother him, and he could last a few hours more without any nourishment, being an elf. He had an inkling that Eragon could to, since he was practically a Half-elf, but he wasn't sure.

Saphira had settled on the rocky ground like a snake, wrapping her tail around her. Here the landscape was dry, sandy and rocky, with only thin bushes and trees. It gave Legolas little comfort.

'Will we attack soon?' the dragon wondered, asking Eragon, impatient as ever. Although she was tired, she was ready to fight; she wanted to kill the Ra'zac and the lethrblaka, free Katrina and then be out of here as quickly as possible. They were too easy a target in the middle of the Empire, alone, with no other protection than themselves.

"Not yet," Eragon answered out loud. "We have to wait until night or possible tomorrow. Can you remember the last time we were here, Saphira? The priests of Helgrind led out prisoners, slaves more likely, as offerings and the Ra'zac took them away – at least that's what we suspect."

"And?" Roran wanted to know.

"And if the Ra'zac indeed is here, then we'll notice it."

"So not we have to wait, until they come out from the city with the prisoners. Do you know when that might happen?"

"Either tonight evening or at dawn."

Grabbing a blanket, Roran rolled himself into it and sat onto the ground. "Wake me when you see them," he grunted out before closing his eyes to rest. He'd not been able to do so properly upon Saphira's back.

Legolas, who'd not spoken yet, nodded. "I will stay awake and look out." He walked over to a rock, among many bushes, from upon which he had a rather good view of Helgrind, and with his sharp eyes he saw the city beyond it. There was large plains and many rocks; Helgrind was like a spear in the landscape, made of polished-looking dark stone; it reminded him much of Orthanc. The sun hung low on the afternoon sky.

He was ready to wait, holding his patience in check. To succeed on madness-missions like these one needed to stay calm, focused at the task at hand, and ever watchful and alert. At any indication of danger or movement there in the distance, he had weapons ready, and could open up a link in his mind to Saphira or Eragon to warn them.

Hours passed by; Roran slept. Eragon was quiet, perhaps talking mentally with Saphria. However he sat also so that he could see Helgrind, much like Legolas, and would notice movements like him. The sun lowered, glowed warmly, giving the world a golden tint; and then Legolas spotted it.

"Look," he murmured, "over there, by the city gate."

Eragon immediately looked over at the city, frowning a little. "I can't see it… Oh." Now he spotted it too. It was a large group of people, a procession moving slowly forward; the priests. He laid flat onto his stomach and crept forward, so that he would have a better view without being seen.

Legolas kneeled at Roran's side, gently shaking his shoulder to wake him. "They are here, Roran," he murmured.

The man rolled his shoulders, blinking several times, to get rid of sleep, before he moved over to Eragon's side to lie in a similar position. Legolas settled on Roran's side.

The procession slowly came also in Roran's view, but it took a while; the people below moved in halting, strange movement because of shortened or twisted limbs. Now that he saw more clearly, Legolas' eyebrows raised his hairline in surprise, and also fascination. Every one of the twenty-four priest, both men and women, in the line had lost one or more limbs – hands, arms, even legs – and by the looks of it, it was of free will. It shocked him that Mankind – or anyone – could practice a religion as cruel as this.

The followers of the procession were more ordinary people without any such brutal scars; farmers, townsfolk, beggars. A rich-looking man, maybe the governor, was also present. Legolas heard how bells and ringing sound, exotic and chilling, echoed over the plains. The sound melted with the image before them. The bells' ringing mixed with cries of rapture and raw song in a broken unflattering speech, mixed with the Ancient language and the Common tongue – singing in a way which Legolas never wished to hear it again. The sounds created a gloomy cacophony.

In the lead of the group was a man or woman – he couldn't determine which – carried on a litter by six slaves. He or she was naught more than a trunk and a head without legs and arms, a terrible instance of a Man. It was obviously the priests' leader, oiled in and decorated; beside him Legolas heard Roran breathe a curse, probably of pure disgust and disbelief.

"What is that thing?" Roran hissed.

"The leader of Helgrind's priests," Eragon murmured.

"Can they use magic?" Legolas asked quietly. How taken aback he might be by the Men's ways, he had to concentrate on more practical matters.

"Possibly. I cannot tell, because if I try search the area with my mind now, they will discover me if there is a wizard among them. I'll have to way."

The parade's goal was a large flat rock, rusty in colour, nearby Helgrind itself. It was polished, obviously used for the same purpose for generations. The leader priest began to chant, and though much was spoken in the Ancient language and he couldn't understand the words, it make Legolas shiver. He was sure that the speech held dark words, twisted lies; things of evil and madness and bloody rituals, some things that should be left unsaid.

The speech continued for a long while. Then, when it was done, knives were raised and cut through the leader's shoulders. Legolas stared agape, as the blood was gathered and distributed among the assembled.

They drank till the last drop was gone.

"You forgot to mention that those meat-higglers, those blood-thirsty, evil-minded idiot-worshippers are cannibals," Roran hissed.

"Not really; they don't eat the flesh," Eragon corrected him.

"It's still disgusting. I can't imagine why they do it," his cousin muttered darkly. Glancing over at Roran, Legolas saw that he was pale.

The arm- and legless being turned to the assembled with lips red by its own blood and began to speak in the Common tongue, but the elf tried not to listen, to let the words pass him by without paying heed. They had not come here to hear about or witness this vicious, bloody religion. Like before, the speech was long, broken by wind and occasional cries of bells; then it was over, and this lad stepped forth. In a beat Legolas understood what was going to happen; and he tried to be deaf, felt a bit ill and closed his eyes briefly.

A sharp scream echoed through the air.

Bells rang and voices sang in ecstasy.

Roran drew in a sharp breath. "By god…how…why…" His voice faltered and died.

The flat rock was covered with blood and the boy – maybe seventeen years old, probably not even come of age – had tears of pain on his cheeks but there was also joy on his face, so twisted and wrong that Legolas had to turn his eyes away, even as a priest took the boy's wrist where now his arm ended and healed his wound with magic, taking away both blood and pain. The cries silenced, but the stumped limb remained, and the ground was still brightly red. The elf felt very land beneath them groan with distaste; the trees may not be aware here like in the elf-forests of Arda, but they still felt the evil taking place, and recoiled.

It was over then. Two slaves were tied to the altar with iron, and the procession began to walk back to the city; and the boy was beside the leader, near to laugher. Legolas had a fierce urge to jump down, free the slaves and viciously cut down the priest leader who made so many mangle themselves – but he forced himself to remain still if not he would ruin their plan and get himself killed in the process. They may be of Mankind, but they were many and armed, and surely several of them possessed magic. He bit his lip, his blood boiling with rising adrenaline, and he felt slightly ill; the clear-cut image of what just had occured would continue to burn behind his eyelids for many days to come.

The Elf carefully pushed himself up to sit. Roran only managed to get to his elbows, his face very pale.

"Well," Eragon said then, like thinking aloud. The single word seemed to wake up his cousin, who twisted his head to stare at him wide-eyed, as if this was the most incredilous thing he had ever heard. Legolas understood his reaction quite well.

"What do you mean 'well'?" Roran suddenly demanded, as loud as he dared.

Eragon grunted. "I've come across Dwarves, Urgals, and Elves, travelled with them and seen their cultures; and never did they do something as strange as these people, that Men, do."

"I have never seen the likes before," Legolas admitted. Not even orcs were like this. They might have been cruel, and still are, but they do not mangle themselves as a sacrifice to any god… For then, what use would they have in battle? Albeit prisoners were a whole other matter... he couldn't help thinking, a small frown flashing over his brow.

"They're as terrible as the Ra'zac." Roran, who tried to get his mind off onto other matters, looked at Helgrind. "Can you find out if Katrina is in there now?"

Eragon nodded; the priests were inside the city now which was as far away as they would get. This was their chance.

"I can try."

Chapter Text

The floor was cold beneath his feet. For the umpteenth time he paced it, measured its length. The cell was almost four paces wide and three paces long and dark, with only a few torches in the corridor outside it lighting it up, its air clammy against his skin. All walls were made of solid stone but for the forth wall, which also held the door, which was all made of black iron and locks.

The guard seemed amused at his behaviour. "Continue like this, and you may dig a hole through the floor," he commented. Either he was allowed to speak with the prisoner, or he was just disobeying the rules.

Beregond grunted and held back a retort. He didn't answer. His sides and back ached terribly from the beating he had received over the last days.

"Maybe its true then, all the rumours. Because your home isn't in Alagëasia at all is it?" There was a hollow, mocking laugh. "See who's been living in a box for the past century. No wonder my fellows caught you, and lucky that. After all, no one wants a madman running around."

I'm not a madman, Beregond thought, starting to get angry; time, torture and isolation tearing on his patience. He had to bit his tongue hard to keep quiet. He'd not amuse this guard by giving him the reaction he sought.

"What was your name again, soldier? The personal guard of a lord, huh? At least the Captain got something understandable from your mind, even if it doesn't make any sense."

'Got something from your mind' – or pulled, rather. Beregond suppressed a shiver at the memory. It had been the most strange and painful experience of his life. The Captain – whose name he still didn't know – had used some kind of magic, a force…to open his mind and read it, his thoughts. There were only truths there. The interrogation had consisted of only that and no word had been uttered out loud. Somehow, between many silent curses, Beregond had managed to get control of himself and push the Captain's mind away from his own. He had never before felt so weak, exposed and naked.

Two times the Captain had seized his mind and two times, he had fought back but lost. Surprisingly the man had not controlled his mind or body, simply searched through his memories, each one suddenly so vivid that Beregond struggled. The Captain slowly but surely found out the whole truth, and more to that, everything he knew about king Elessar, his Consort, lord Faramir, lady Éowyn…any great lord, lady or creature of Middle Earth.

Middle Earth. His home. And only the Captain truly believed it.

Word had spread now among the soldiers that he came from another world. Not many thought it was true. After all, King Galbatorix was possibly the only one with that power, to send people back and fro between worlds; how then could this simple, foolish man have come from a supposed 'Middle Earth' to Alagëasia?

Right into their lap?

Stupid, stupid, stupid.

The guard continued his mocking. "Where you born with this disease or have you simply hit your head later on?"

"Be silent!" Beregond hissed through clenched teeth.

The guard laughed and Beregond had an oh so strong desire to find a rock and throw it at his head.

"You ought to know your place, prisoner. I could have you punished for offending me."

He was already planning how to not be a prisoner much longer. He needed to escape.

One positive thing had come out from the Captain's interrogating. Beregond had actually managed to glimpse his thoughts, some plans, and things about this world. Just a little before the Captain shut him out. He knew that the king's name was Galbatorix and that he practiced magic, powerful as well; he was dangerous, and seemingly immortal, as he had been sitting upon the throne for a hundred years. He had hundred thousands of soldiers to control. And he had his mind set upon another world, Middle Earth – which was why the Captain indeed believed that Beregond came from there.

He needed to escape, and somehow find the gate or rift to his own world, and warn his king, and warn lord Faramir. Galbatorix was the one attacking them. What on earth for, he did not know. Power – greed – was most likely, but he could not dwell on that. Right now he only cared about getting out.

()()()

"Do you see them?"

Eragon looked up from staring into the fire; Roran sat across from him, like dazed looking into the flames that licked the dry wood. "See who?" he asked.

"The men you've killed. Do you see them in your dreams?" Roran asked again.

There was a slight pause. A twig in the burning pile broke with a small cascade of reds and gold flying into the air. In the glow of the fire, their faces were illuminated, deepened and more serious it looked like, and the shadows around and upon them made the two Men look almost sinister, their eyes heavy. Legolas did not seem affected the same way, like the shadows somewhat avoided him; it might because of the slight but clear blow that came from within him – a thing that puzzled Eragon.

"Sometimes," he admitted, looking at Roran again.

"I never wanted to be a warrior," Roran continued quietly. "When I was younger I dreamed about blood and honour like all boys does but it was the soil that was important to me … that and my family. But now I've killed …and killed and killed, and you've killed even more." He looked at Eragon, and then his eyes flickered to the elf's still pale form, which looked almost eerie. A silence settled over the company, and Roran awaited the elf's voice.

Legolas could not remember the first time he killed. How ever he did remember the first time he killed a Man. He had been much younger then, and it was half-by-accident, and for a long time afterwards he had felt terrible. He had been two centuries old then, inexperienced and curious, and been allowed on a mission with some older patrol guards. There was a company of Men they found in a clearing. They had no meant to hurt them; the Men had been so far away from Mirkwood's real borders that they did not bother them at all. They had been innocent, those men. But then the Men had seen the elves and attacked them. It had been over very quickly, but Legolas still recalled his fear, his panic, the adrenaline in his veins, the blood on his hands and his arrows. One arrow through the neck – that was how he had killed his first Man.

Back then his father had finally begun settling on some more peaceful agreement with Mankind, respected them better, and kills between the two races were rare. And then his happened. Legolas remembered how his father had been at uproar, and almost broken all accords if not for the calming words of a wise elder councillor, who knew how to deal with the Elvenking's temper.

"I did," Legolas said, his voice soft: but there was a depth of pain in the voice and Eragon realized that he must be so much older than him, and many others that he had met. "At first. But that is a long time ago. With time, I had to realize that nothing could change the fact that I have killed Men, and I had to do it to defend myself, my friends, my people; what use is there to have regrets now?" He silenced for a moment.

"At first it was just urgals," Roran said, nearly whispered. "And then Men…and then more Men and urgals…This last battle… I know that we are doing the right thing, we fight Galbatorix, but still it's not the same thing as easy. This isn't easy."

"Killing is not supposed to be easy," Legolas gently comforted him. "If we found it easy to kill and had no remorse at all, we would be no better than the Ra'zac."

The forest was quiet around them and Saphira rested, with warm breaths of air, but the three companions were very awake and alert. Eragon was aware of every slight movement, every whisper of sound, and each strand of grass beneath his hands. He suddenly found words again. "Because of our abilities, the Varden expects me and Saphira to be at the front lines and kill armies – I know this. And we do it. We've done it. We'll continue to."

'Until Galbatorix is dead. If he ever can be defeated …' were the unspoken words.

The stars above them seemed suddenly very melancholy and in the night, the small company felt very alone.

Roran nodded slightly. The pain in his eyes had changed into understanding, and he felt lighter at heart knowing that his cousin, a Dragonrider, too dreamt of past deeds and dead men; that he was not alone with this. He wished Legolas has said more, spoken more clearly, but he could not expect the elf to explain things and thoughts to him. Legolas was an elf, after all, and his very being held so much depth he could not begin to grasp – he was immortal, he had seen ages and would probably see many more.

"I have been thinking," Eragon said after a moment, "and realized that tomorrow we're going to have a problem."

"Magic?" Legolas guessed, and the Dragonrider nodded.

"Yes. There are so many ways to use it, and half my time I keep wondering how others can attack me and what I must do to protect myself and Saphria. For example – one might light fire by gathering heat from the earth, create a flame of pure energy, use friction or summon a flash of lightning, and so on. And for each one of these ways there are uncountable others to protect yourself."

"And?" Roran asked.

"The problem is that there is no single protecting spell against all these ways to create fire – or create anything else with magic – unless I could manage blocking the event altogether."

"I still don't understand what this has to do with tomorrow," his cousin said.

"Do you say," Legolas asked, "that during the hundred years Galbatorix has sat on his throne, he may have put layer after layer of different spells onto Helgrind to protect the Ra'zac – and there is no way to shield us from all of them?"

'Exactly,' said Saphira in his mind, and probably Eragon are too. 'Our only chance to actually kill the Ra'zac might be with swords and claws, not magic, for in Helgrind we might not have time to find a blocking spell to each one we have to counter.'

Roran's eyes widened. "Oh." Then another realization dawned on him; "So you say this because I will simply be in the way?"

"No!" Eragon assured him. "You might not be as swift as the Ra'zac but I don't doubt you will give them a reason to fear your weapon, Roran Stronghammer." His cousin's eyes lit up at the compliment. "The greatest danger to you is if you are separated from me or Saphira; the more we hold together, the more chance of success we have." Momentarily his eyes flickered over to Legolas. "And with you, Legolas, the odds have risen. Three against four, although, is still better when one is among the four."

The elf nodded thoughtfully. "Can it be possible for us – me and Roran – to learn magic?" At Eragon's surprised and slightly hesitating expression, he continued to say; "I mean not right now. But perhaps in the future, simple shields or mostly used spells; things that would not drain us of much energy. Is such a thing possible?"

"It'd be useful," Roran added. "And I am of your blood, your family. If we'd learn, it'd spare you much trouble."

Considering the idea, Eragon consulted the idea briefly with Saphira. The night lay quiet and thick around them. Legolas hoped that he had not somehow offended them.

"I don't know," Eragon said at last, sounding a bit apologetic. "I have never heard of how someone who is not a Rider learns to use magic. I've not studied it." From the rocky sandy ground he picked up a stone, edgy and large enough to fit his palm. He gave it to Roran. "Concentrate on this stone, trying to make it rise a bit into the air, with the words: 'Stenr rïsa'."

Roran stared the stone, and then said those words with such intensity that Eragon half-expected the rock to fly out of sight.

"Stenr rïsa!"

Nothing happened.

He repeated the words with a growing frown but still nothing happened, the rock was still like dead and Roran couldn't hide his disappointment. "Well," Eragon said, "you'd keep trying. That's the only advice I can give you. But-"he rose a finger "-if you should happen to success then tell me or if I'm not nearby then another wizard, immediately. You can kill yourself and others if you try something you're not ready for and begin to experiment with magic." At his words Roran nodded, but still with his gaze at the stone.

Eragon decided to try with the elf. He put the stone in front of Legolas. "But I think, since you are an elf, you should have some kind of power even if you've not yet learned how to use it." He thought back on Du Weldenvarden; there, every elf seemed to have some extent of magic, even though the strength of it differed between the individuals. Legolas was from Arda, yes, but still, he should have the same kind of force deep inside of him; if only he could reach out and grasp it …

Roran had shifted to sit beside his cousin, watching him and Legolas in fascination. He understood partly why Eragon thought Legolas had better success than him; he was an elf, an immortal, he held some kind of life-force that he, a mortal, didn't have.

The wood-elf studied the rock, and realized perhaps he needed to control his mind the same way when he spoke mentally; but there was more to it, he needed to somehow find and use is fëa…It was the force that could lift that stone; he must have enough power for that in his fëa, his soul. Brows slightly knit in concentration, he tried to reach out for it, as he slightly did when communicating with trees – then he found the tree's inner soul; now he had to find his own, nestled within years of memories and emotion and something he couldn't quite recognize. Gently he cradled it and then more forcefully tried to send it at the stone's direction, before it slipped away.

"Stenr rïsa," he murmured.

It flickered, just a tiny moment, and suddenly moved an inch upwards - he heard Roran's intake of breath. Immediate the spell was broken and the stone fell back onto the ground with a thud. Gingerly Legolas picked it up. "That went better than I thought it would," he murmured. He had felt a short moment of tiredness, as if some of his energy had been drained. Even if the moment had passed quickly, he understood Eragon's warning to Roran.

Eragon was pleased both with himself and the elf; he quickly came to realize that if Legolas could continue to learn at this rate, he could become powerful and effective in the war against Galbatorix; the Varden needed every such magician that they could find.

"How did you do that?" Roran asked, wide-eyed.

"Well, I tried to reach out with my fëa…" Legolas tried to explain, though he really could not find words for it. Roran just looked at him blankly. Realizing his mistake, the elf hurriedly clarified: "My fëa is my soul, my spirit. All Children of Ilúvatar – meaning, Elves and Men – have a fëa."

Slowly the man nodded in understanding, although he had no idea who Ilúvatar was, and at the moment he didn't care so much. He assumed it was some kind of god that the elves of Middle Earth worshipped. But hopefully not the same way as Helgrind's priests, his mind added.

"Does magic only takes energy from the wielder?" Legolas asked Eragon curiously. "I felt as if I had lost a tiny bit of my own."

"In a way, yes," Eragon said, deciding to be vague, since there were some secrets that should not be spilled. "For example, I healed someone else's wound, I can use my own or Saphira's energy – if she is there to assist me – but I can also use their own energy."

Legolas nodded. "Ah. I see."

An idea hit Eragon; he turned to Roran. He knew about the injury that the ra'zac had inflicted on him much earlier and it needed to be healed. If he did it now, both would have much larger chance of surviving tomorrow. "Show me your arm," he said. "Your shoulder."

Hesitantly Roran did as bid. He raised an eyebrow. "Yes?"

"I need to heal it. Look," he interrupted when Roran began to protest, "I know it will take my energy, but I will recover until tomorrow. You need to be hale tomorrow when we fight." With that he laid a hand on the wounded shoulder, which had never really healed. Legolas leaned forward and watched in fascination, as Eragon spoke some words in the Ancient language and the skin began to knot itself. The wound was covered in new skin and the scar disappeared; wounded flesh was replaced with new, muscle twisted beneath the glowing blue mark on his hand.

Roran felt a tingle but not pain; he stared at his arm. When Eragon was done he sat back heavily and immediately searched his pack until he found some bread, which he ate greedily. When his energy had been sapped he grew both hungry and tired.

Experimentally Roran twisted and turned his fingers. Then he bent his arm, reached for his hammer and swung it a few times. "Oh! I think it's even better than before!" With a wide grin he looked at Eragon. "Thank you." The Dragonrider just nodded.

Dawn was much more nearer now; they would have to sleep to gain some vigour before morning came. But there was one more thing Eragon wanted them to know before that, since they were talking about magic; they had to learn how to use and shield their minds. Legolas almost immediately knew how to do so, but Roran had to learn. They had to protect themselves from prying enemies – and allies too, as Du Vrangr Gata. Conspiracies were present everywhere and their minds were a last refuge, a place with their secrets that no one should know and take advantage of.

After he had eaten, Eragon tested their mental shields, beginning with Roran; he met a thick barrier of memories of Katrina, such burning passion and love that it took his breath away. Yet as he continued to prod at the wall, it fell at a point and he heard Roran's inner curses – Damn! Forget it, just keep thinking of Katrina. Think about Karina. That night when she agreed to marry me, she smelled of flowers… Is that him? No! Focus damn it! - Before he left his mind.

"You understand the main idea, but you must learn how to keep the wall up even in the heat of battle. You need to think without thinking…One think the elves learned me is that it might be useful to just ramble a part of a song or poem, repeat it until you cannot think of anything else."

Legolas was curious if he or Eragon was the strongest in this. He doubted his age would help him, since he had not trained in mind-shielding before; Eragon would have the upper hand of knowledge. "Try me," he said.

Again, Eragon tried to enter someone else's mind but the elf's wall was so … vivid, it was like a well; deep, and shadowed, and it was wide too. It consisted of a memory…he could not really see what it was. It was dark, pitch black, but in occasional dots of light he could spot stone and broken stairs, and far away a fiery beast surrounded by flames…

Then he realized – there was fear. He felt fear from the Elf, and the fact took him so much by surprise that he retreated.

The elf raised an eyebrow at him.

"What was that?" Eragon just wanted to know. "What did you think of?"

"Moria," Legolas answered simply. It was one of his stronger memories. "A dwarven mine. It had been turned into a dark place when I came there … Orcs – dark, twisted creatures – had taken it over, every light had gone out, every dwarf had been slaughtered. My company and I had to travel through it, for the door was sealed behind us and we could impossibly dig our way out. We saw no sunlight for many days… We lost one of our companions to the Balrog – an ancient beast made of flames and shadow." He silenced briefly. Roran shuddered at the description of the place, and the tone in the voice which the elf used to describe it. "Only once has an elf slain a Balrog; it was lord Glorfindel - he went to the Halls of Mandos and back to Arda. He was reborn, and his soul spared death. The Balrog of Moria was killed by a wizard…Mithrandir."

Then he shifted where he sat, and switched subject – he did not want to linger on the prior so much longer. "We should rest before dawn comes," he advised, and his voice sounded more neutral. "It is just a few hours away."

Roran agreed with a grunt. "I'll keep the watch."

"Are you sure?" Eragon asked him.

"I'm not tired." He wasn't in a great mood right now. He was yet a bit irritated that he had not been able to move that stone the slightest bit, while Legolas had done it – seemingly – so effortlessly. He also knew he was being childish, jealous like this, thinking it so easy – but he couldn't help it. If there was only some way for him to use magic to save Katrina now

"All right then. Wake me just as the sun comes within sight." Eragon wrapped himself in blankets and rolled onto the side, so that he faced the dying fire. He was asleep his head hit the ground.

Legolas had actually never slept before so that Roran – or any other man of Alagëasia – had seen it. He settled beneath a nearby tree, a bit away from the Men, and with eyes wide open and arms settled on his chest, let himself slip into slumber and elven dreams. But his mind remained alert, and he would easily awaken at the sligthest sound or movement.

()()()

Night crept over the landscape and landed on the town. Down in his cell, Beregond noticed only the difference between day and night by the deepened darkness and the slightly colder air.

Thank god there was another guard at night than the one at day, the talkative one; he was left alone in silence and at the moment it suited him good. He needed to think…come up with a plan. Should he try to steal the keys, distract the guard some way? Or try using something else and forcing the locks open?

Freedom – he longed for it, like he longed for a hot meal and to get away from this goddamned world, where everything was strange and upside down, where ordinary-looking people used magic, where a mad king ruled.

But onto the task at hand; think. He had explored the door in the darkness and found no weaknesses. He could pick the lock if he found something bendable to do it with, but he needed night's cover and a lazy guard. And none of his guards had been lazy or unfocused, no matter how quiet they were.

Chapter Text

"Don't struggle," the guard muttered quietly in his ear and Beregond clenched his teeth as he was forcibly led through the corridor. They weren't going to the torture chamber… it puzzled him; his brows knitted. The guard smirked. "You're going to south - far, far south. Obviously, the Captain got something special in store for you."

Beregond had begun to detest journeys, whether they were on foot or by horse. He suspected that this one would be one of the latter, and very long; he wished he knew what he destination was, and what the Captain wanted with him at all.

()()()

They have been gone for almost three days now…When will they come back? Elain wondered, stirring the soup, one hand on her belly. She knew she was due soon; her body gave her sharp signs everyday now. She had wanted Legolas to be there for the birth …

She was worried for both Legolas' and Roran's safety– and Katrina of course. The wood-elf had come to mean much for her and grown a dear friend and she had known the latter two since they were toddlers. From where she was in the Varden's camp, she sent them silent prayers to find her and bring her back alive and well. Right now, she could only hope.

"Mother? Are you feeling well?" Albriech's voice floated over to her. Drawing a breath, she nodded. She had been so lost in thought that she almost dropped the spoon into the soup; and her son had startled her.

"Yes, yes," Elain murmured. She gave her son a half-hearted smile. "I'm all right. I just worry for Roran and Legolas."

"Oh…" Albriech helped her by grabbed the large kettle and put it away from the fire. "I'm sure they'll all be all right, and bring Katrina … home." He grimaced a little – this was the Varden's camp, a military camp, not their home. Not Carvahall.

Elain crossed her arms over her chest lightly, like she was cold and tried to warm her arms. "I'd hoped them to be here for the birth…I wish they'll come back in time," she whispered. Then she shook her head again, and chirped in a lighter tone, "But com now, Albriech; could you call for your brother and your father, please? Dinner is ready."

()()()

His heart longed to see Legolas again; the nearest he could come now was Eldarion, since the child was a part of his lover, but still he wished that Legolas had not left.

Here, among the people of the Varden, he felt strangely lonely and out of place.

Briefly he closed his eyes and wished that none of this had happened that Legolas had never fallen into this world and that Galbatorix had never found out about Middle Earth and attacked them. The latter worried him too. Right now, another assault could be launched against his home and he would not know. It was his duty to protect Gondor from dangers like these – and he failed …

"Ada," Eldarion gurgled and tugged at his arm, totally oblivious to his father's distress. Aragorn smiled down at the boy and his play but his heart felt not in it.

"Aaa-da..." the boy repeated, starting to sound irritated. "Aaadaa! 'Ood!"

It took a moment for him to understand his wish. "I am sorry, my boy," Aragorn murmured, "that your father is very distracted and worried right now. Hungry are we, Eldarion?" He offered the flask and Eldarion's face lit up, and he ate with greed.

The boy's mood had improved greatly since Legolas' departure. The first day he had been crying and screaming, fighting against being gently cradled; the next he had been quiet, which had worried Aragorn even more. Not until now had he begun to giggle and make other sounds, try speaking and crawl around the tent exploring the corners, and actually eating without protesting.

"Not too quickly now," Aragorn murmured. "Or you will be sick."

He had missed holding his son and speaking to him; being with him only, taking care of him without any political matters that came when being a king. Mostly it had been Legolas who took care of the boy, even if they wanted to share the care equally. Now Aragorn had begun to realize that it wasn't so simple to take care of such a small child. There was so much to be done, and the boy demanded full attention. Aragorn was too proud to ask anyone for help, not even Elain – although she would be glad to – firstly because he did not know anyone so well to trust them with his son and secondly because he wanted to be with his son every minute, every second, and not leave him alone.

The thing that he still had troubles with was the fact that Eldarion could not speak. Not very much anyway. He did not create any full phrases, just a handful of words at the most, and Aragorn found it hard to understand even the simplest wishes. It made him feel a bit melancholy – he had missed something, and when Legolas and Eldarion had been parted from him for months, he had lost seeing his son grow when he grew the quickest. When he found out that for his beloved ones almost three months had passed, and for him only a few days, he had feared that Eldarion had begun to forget him. He had been overjoyed when he found that Eldarion was happy to see him and did very well recognize him.

A small hand tugged at him again, this time at the neck of his tunic. Aragorn smiled down at the boy fondly. After letting him burp he put him to bed, to sleep through the afternoon. He'd need it after all today's activities. He certainly looked tired.

The man himself was very tired, for he slept not very well any longer; too worried about his lover to do so. Sometimes when he actually did sleep he dreamt about him but usually those dreams turned into horrible, dark nightmares and he awake bathing in his own sweat and only by luck had avoided waking Eldarion too. Three days… Legolas had been away for three days. He would have to wait three or four more.

So badly that his chest ached, Aragorn wished time would go faster.

()()()

He awoke just before dawn and stretched his limbs. Roran had fallen asleep; but Saphria was awake, so he did not blame him. Instead he just shook his cousin's shoulder to wake him.

Then he turned to Legolas and first assumed he was awake; his eyes were open. But strangely enough he was strangely still, and his long pale hands were crossed over his chest…

Eragon's eyes widened. Is this how elves sleep? With eyes open? he thought. Legolas looked so…eerie, like dead.

Oh god. It wasn't possible that he was- right?

"Legolas?" he asked, and a bit worried. "Legolas? Are you all right?" he repeated louder.

The elf stirred and his eyes focused, and Eragon breathed out in relief. Oh thank god.

"Is something wrong?" Legolas asked as he stood.

"I thought you were ... uh, never mind. It's time to leave. Oh and Legolas… do all elves sleep with their eyes open?" Actually he had never before seen any elf sleep, not even in Du Weldenvarden, and he had wondered about it.

"My people, yes. But I cannot say anything about the elves of Alagëasia," Legolas explained with an apologetic smile. "I am sorry; I should have told you before. I might have startled you."

Oh, he had startled him. Eragon briefly glanced at Roran, and wondered if he already knew about elvish sleep. His cousin was blinking his eyes awake, and preparing himself for battle.

Soon they stood armed and ready; they had packed and erased the signs that they could from the camp; Eragon and Roran wore each an armour, the latter also carrying a wooden shield. Legolas wore no armour or shield; and since he only had his knife, Eragon had in the last moment offered – or rather persuaded him – to borrow his bow, which he had been given by Queen Islanzadí. The elven weapon was strong and would help the elf greatly, and Roran had mentioned Legolas was a good archer. Thanking him sincerely, Legolas slung the quiver over his back and held the bow, tested the string.

Eragon had placed a magical shield around his cousin. It would not stop, for example, attacks from another person's mind, but he doubted that the Ra'zac knew how to do so. Since they could paralyze their victims with their foul scent, they didn't need the ability. The shield would block that scent and, at least for a time, make him unable to be harmed by weapons, knifes and swords wielded by hand.

The elf had been offered such a protection too but declined; he was strong and swifter than a Man, so he could dodge the Ra'zac. What he didn't say was that he did not want to drain Eragon's energies – he understood the dangers well enough. If Eragon overexerted himself with using magic, he could die.

Roran was trembling in excitement. "If I die," he said to his cousin, "will you take care of Katrina?"

"I will," Eragon said.

"Tell her that I went into battle with joy in my heart and her name on my lips."

"I will."

'Are we ready to go now?'  Saphira growled impatiently.

()()()

They hid their packs in a bush, and then settled on the blue dragon's back. As they with one leap reached the air, Legolas' heart skipped a beat in surprise. He had his bow ready and his long white blade within reach; in front of him, Roran sat ready with his hammer.

They flew higher and turned slightly northwest as Saphira neared Helgrind. Far away in the distance, the Spine was visible through layers of moist haze – both former Carvahall inhabitants gazed at the mountains of their childhood longingly, before they with a sigh turned back to the task at hand; while he looked at the mountains, Legolas shivered. There was something sinister about them, something strange and powerful – magical – because their power had brought him, Eldarion and Aragorn here …and it was Galbatorix' source to reach Arda.

Helgrind was black and rocky, without any living thing on it and almost no footholds, so it was impossible to climb; Ra'zac had a smart location to hide. But near the top was a cliff, wide enough for Saphira to land on it.

Eragon searched with his mind, and found no trace of the slaves from the day before – so they must have been killed then. But he found two more minds belonging to people caught in Helgrind, other than the Ra'zac and the lethrblaka. It didn't surprise him as much as the mind of a flower that he sensed just right in front of him – where there was solid rock. He couldn't see the flower at all, but he was sure it was there, and that it had sunlight – but how could that be?

'Saphira,' he asked, 'did you notice that too?'

'Yes. Be still, little one, and let me try something.'

Saphria stepped forward, cautiously, and lowered her head against the wall of rock. Unexpectedly her head moved right through as if it'd been air, and not stone, and then Eragon realized. Oh he was an idiot! Of course Galbatorix must have used a magical protection like this to hide the Ra'zac nest. 'Go on,' he told Saphira, 'let us through.'

When the dragon moved through the wall and into a cave entrance beyond it, Roran gave a startled cry, and Legolas had to screw his eyes shut on instinct as the stone rushed against him – and through him. He didn't even feel the slightest tingle, no pain – it was if he had passed through air. When he opened his eyes again, he saw they were in a cave almost fifty feet high and as wide, but deeper in it grew larger. It was also dark, and it took a moment for Legolas' eyes to adjust to the new light.

"Don't do that again without warning me," Roran muttered as he dismounted Saphira.

Glancing back, the elf saw sunshine and the open landscape from where they'd come, and no sign of the stone wall. "What was that?" he asked. "Was it an illusion?"

"Yes," Eragon said as he slid to the ground. "Galbatorix must've planted it."

When they were all on their feet, they began to move deeper inside. The floor of the cave was filled with traces and patterns of claws, a proof that the lethrblaka had landed, lifted from and walked around here.

The cave was filled with a sharp stank that attacked his nose and Roran tried to shut it out from his senses by concentrating on finding Katrina – it smelled death, bones and rotten flesh, fresh blood from the floor; he shivered. His breath was sharp and loud in his ears, and echoed against the stony prison along with Eragon's and Legolas' quiet ones, and his hearing seemed to have sharpened. He was aware of something … something deep inside in the gloom, unknown creatures, and of dripping cold water down the walls around him.

Legolas thought briefly back to Moria and felt strong dislike course through his veins. This place was far too alike to the abandoned, dark mine for his liking.

Suddenly he felt rather than saw movement on his left side and swiftly turned with a hissed warning. He knew he was a clearer target than the Men because of his glowing skin, which was very visible here among the shadows; he could suppress the glow a bit but still was very visible.

It was a lethrblaka, large and gray and hairless as he remembered, like a twisted version of a dragon; it rushed at them with flapping bat-like wings. Then its head collided with his side; his mind registered the sound, the sharp pain and the shock of the impact, the horrible eyes of the beast that he saw for the shortest of seconds, and then he flew through the air and crashed against the ground. A moment later, when the men and the dragon had realized what was happening, they attacked the creature. Legolas lay dazed and aching, trying to collect his mind and control of his slack-feeling body. Momentarily he felt deaf, but was proved wrong when a familliar voice cut through the air:

"Legolas!" Roran cried. "Are you all right?"

"Of course," Legolas wheezed without being able to remove the sarcasm. "I am fine, Roran!"

With trembling legs he got to his feet, unable to decide which way to look at, at Eragon or Roran; he was a bit dizzy and unsure which way was left or right.

The lethrblaka and Saphira had engaged in a violent fight, they clawed and roared and tumbled, only limited by the space of the cave. The dragon breathed blue hot fire but it bent around the creature, without doing any harm – A magical shield! Damnit! Eragon realized. Another lethrblaka had crept out from a small cave entrance and now leaped upon Saphira as well. The stench from the two creatures together almost made the men and elf grows ill.

The lethrblaka were both quick and strong and yet, Eragon couldn't feel them in his mind – but they sure were no illusion, as Saphira tore at their flesh. If it really was like that, that their minds could not be detected … then it was no wonder the Ra'zac had been so successful serving Galbatorix.

Then the ra'zac arrived, like launched on Saphria; they twisted in mid-air and saw Eragon and his companions. They growled and raised their scabbards.

Legolas had reached the men's side now, and drawn his bow; he let go of the arrow. It soared through the air. At the same time, the Dragonrider shouted "Brisingr!" and a ball of blue flames shot from his hand at the advancing ra'zac. The creatures ducked; the flames barely touched them, and the elf's arrow wheezed past without doing any harm. Legolas cursed. He had not missed his target for years and would not begin doing so now!

In a flash he had shot another arrow and this time his aim was true. It buried deep in the thigh of the ra'zac to the left. The creature cried shrilly in pain, and Legolas resisted the urge to cover his sensitive ears, because he couldn't let down his guard or drop his weapons without getting himself killed. Breaking the arrow, part of it yet buried in its flesh, the ra'zac jumped at the elf in anger. Quickly he drew his knife and steel met steel in a sharp echoing clang.

With a step backwards, he managed to hastily sling the bow across his back, and turning full attention on fighting the ra'zac with his knife. He blocked the next blow, swirled around and attacked. He had to take the creature by surprise, do unexpected fast movements and drive it into a corner.

Saphira was damaged now; her wounds were small but deep and caused her pain. At the moment the lethrblaka circled her, waiting to attack, wanting to tire her. Eragon knew that even if she managed to kill the lethrblaka, they would mangle her before then. With a quick breath, he constructed a spell with each one of the twelve words to kill in it and sent the magic at the creatures. He was glad that he'd had precautions and made the spell breakable, because he found at once that the lethrblaka were protected by some magic shield that made it impossible for him to harm them. Before the spell would sap too much of his energy, he cut the flow.

Behind him Roran shouted; "Yes!" as the second ra'zac attacked him, and a sword landed on his wooden shield with a thud. The ra'zac tried again and again to kill him, but each blow missed him – his magical shield was working well. Eragon hoped that the lace of spells around him would hold until the lethrblaka were dead.

Legolas was busied with the first ra'zac and momentarily Eragon regretted not giving him a magical shield too, if only one single spell woven to deflect any material thrown at him, or the blows of swords. However the elf seemed to be doing all right, despite his earlier hard landing. He was quick and agile and strong.

Saphira broke the wing of one of the lethrblaka and it cried so loud, the noise so terrible, that Eragon felt dizzy and saw red, and Legolas staggered. The ra'zac took the opportunity and wounded him on his right arm. With a loud curse that would have shocked his father to the bones, he shifted his blade to his left hand and blocked the next blow.

The lethrblaka with the broken wing flew across the cave, into a wall, and the cave shook like thunder and bits of stone rained down. Leaping over to it, Saphira killed it with her teeth in its neck. The dragon was bleeding and breathing heavily, but she was angry and full of energy and blood-lust and would absolutely not give up now. The remaining lethrblaka threw itself at her. She growled and met it half-way. Entwined and battling, claws against scales against skin, they fell over the edge of the cave – Eragon's eyes widened and he cried out, both loud and mentally.

'Take care of yourself!' Saphira answered. 'This one won't get away.'

She flew out of sight, with the lethrblaka still clinging to her.

Eragon was pained but knew she was right; he needed to make sure Roran and Legolas weren't killed, find Katrina and kill the ra'zac. In his mind he searched for Katrina and her cell, and with a few muttered words sealed it so that she couldn't be used as hostage. Then he turned to the battle. His link with Saphira was weakening – she was flying further and further away from Helgrind.

Roran seemed to be doing fine and had not a scratch, but blood splattered the wood-elf's wrist; he frowned a little as he fought with only his left hand.

"Come on, hurry!" Roran cried. He pointed with his hammer at the tunnel, through which the second ra'zac had run. "It's getting away!"

"Go!" Legolas called, in a demanding tone which would not be questioned and the men were sure that he truly was the son of a king. "I'll handle this one!"

"Are you sure?"

Legolas did not reply, just continued to fight the now screeching ra'zac with clenched teeth. He had managed to injure its left side and knew that the creature was getting hesitant, not so sure how to fight him anymore. He was not angry as he fought; he was like ice, concentrated, and did not let any emotions control him. Yet he was fierce, determined; he knew what he was doing. The ra'zac had to fall. That was his only goal right now; he allowed Roran and Eragon to handle the second ra'zac.

If only its skin wasn't so thick! It was like leather and difficult to harm and cut through. It was if only extra strong and lucky blows actually landed on it. The creature growled. "I know you, elf," it hissed. "I've fought you before - this time I will kill you, if so I will be the last one of my kind."

"You failed then and you will fail now," was Legolas' answer, his voice low; he remembered this creature as well. Last they met, in Carvahall, he had spat in its face.

"You will remember me, elf! Us! Out kind!" the ra'zac hissed. "You'll sing of us in terror as remembrance and make every one of your generations fear us."

"Why would I remember you?" the elf retorted between a series of blows, each one blocked and returned.

The eyes of the ra'zac gleamed. "Because then I'll tell you an sssecret," it hissed and if it had had a mouth, it would have smirked. "But I need your word, elf! Promissse me to let me live on, let my kind not be forgotten!"

He wanted to kill the ra'zac without any words but if the creature had information … it could be important, for it and its companion were at a special favour of the King. "I will not give you my word until I have heard your secret."

"He's almost found it!" the creature said, its voice raw, the Common tongue heavily accented when spoken by it.

"Found what?" the elf demanded. He? It?

"The name - the true name!"

Legolas did not know what the ra'zac was speaking of; but he wanted to know, he needed to know; it could be important. Eragon had to know, and lady Nasuada … they would surely understand. "The name of what?"

"I cannot tell you!" The ra'zac hissed in frustration.

"Then we have no deal," Legolas said, and the ra'zac growled and cursed.

"You devil elf! You are like the stupid Rider; he who I feel is going to kill my sister of blood! Curssse you! If you kill me now, I hope Galbatorix will find you and sssqueeze life out of you, elf! Let him have his ways, because he has more hearts than you or your Rider!"

The battle was like fire against ice. He managed to land a harsh blow on the creature's head. Though it appeared wounded by it, it responded by almost piercing his side; only his quick reflexes saved him from being cut in half.

With awakened energy, like the stinging pain in his arm, he suddenly managed to push away the Ra'zac's sword with a kick. Surprise shone in the dark eyes of the ra'zac. Within seconds Legolas had used that moment to cut off its arm. A sharp wail almost deafened him as the ra'zac collapsed on the floor, covered in its own slimy blood which was a sick green colour, not red.

"You'll pay elf, you'll pay – you'll see!" the creature cried and cackled in its own tongue. Legolas felt dizzied by the screams that left its horrid mouth, but managed with one last stroke cut off its head. Blood oozed onto the ground. The body of the ra'zac fell heavily to the ground and the cackle was cut off short.

()()()

A terrible scream echoed through all the entrances and ways of the cave, and where Roran and his cousin currently were, in a corridor of darkness, they shivered.

"The ra'zac isn't dead yet," Roran muttered. He was torn between going back to help Legolas, and continuing onwards to find Katrina.

"Legolas should manage," Eragon said quietly, not wanting to startle anything out there in the dark. The pair's whispers sounded twice as loud as they actually were. "Saphira is coming back; she will help him."

()()()

The elf closed his eyes. Fighting the ra'zac had been harder than he had thought. He leaned against the nearest wall to catch his breath. His wrist hurt. He glanced at the wound. He had nothing to heal or bind it with right now. It would have to wait until later – he would survive. He was lucky to get away with only that.

He was yet pondering the creature's words; he had to remembered them till later, and tell them to someone of this world; maybe they would understand. 'He' – that had to refer to the king Galbatorix. But 'the true name'? And what had the ra'zac meant by Galbatorix 'having more hearts' than Eragon or him? Such a thing surely is not physically possible, so it might be merely metaphorical; referring perhaps to some bond of loyalty between the dark King and his servants? Either way, it would have to way.

That moment, Saphira returned; wounded and battered but whole enough to breathe and fly. She had been victorious – the lethrblaka laid now with its belly towards the sky in the Lake of Leona; unfortunately their battle had been spotted by some fishermen, but that couldn't be helped now.

"Saphira," Legolas greeted her tiredly. "Your rider and his cousin are deeper inside the cave, searching for Katrina. Are you well?"

'Well enough.' She refused to admit her pain. 'What about the ra'zac?'

"I have killed one, but where the other one is, I do not know." He nodded over at the puddle of blood and flesh some bit away; he had taken his distance and wished not to look at it ever again.

'You are injured,' the dragon commented.

"It is only a scratch and will heal quickly," he assured her. "I will go into the cave and help Eragon and Roran. I am afraid you are too large to fit within them…"

'I'll stay here and be ready to leave as soon as possible,' Saphira said. 'Go. I have talked with Eragon, and I think they had discovered the second ra'zac just now.'

Chapter Text

Legolas half-ran through the tunnel, seeing very little; he relied on his other sharp senses to guide him right. To be enveloped in this complete black, the eerie stillness and the cold air made him shiver and panic to set into his chest. He had to admit he was afraid - afraid of this lonely darkness – afraid to lose himself and never find a way out – afraid to die in here.

He had never liked caves.

Up ahead he heard footsteps and then echoing cries of battle; his own sharp breaths were loud in his ears but his steps went unheard. He would catch the ra'zac battling Roran and Eragon by surprise.

After endless twist and turns in the corridor, he saw a red glow; it appeared to have no source, and where it reached it gave no shadows. Everything became strangely flat and it was harder to discern distances. Surrounded by the glow, Eragon and Roran were fighting the last ra'zac. Legolas hesitated. He was urged to help them, maybe shot an arrow now when he had sight; but this was the two cousins' revenge of Garrow's death, was it not? It felt wrong to intervene, but also wrong to just stand by and watch.

However, the battle was over quickly, and he managed not to partake. Roran rained blows over the fallen ra'zac and continued to cry: "This is for Carvahall! For my father! And for Katrina!"

The ra'zac was dead, and both men were covered in sweat. Without much pause Eragon located the right cell, pointed at it. They found no keys searching the dead ra'zac, so Roran began working on the lock with his hammer, furiously. Eragon and the elf let him do it alone; he needed to.

"Where's the other ra'zac?" the Dragonrider asked Legolas.

"Dead," the elf reported. "Saphira is in the main cave, guarding the entrance. She was seen by some fishermen and the Empire may soon be alerted of our presence."

Eragon already knew about the latter, but was relieved to hear it again. He also knew that she had not sustained any fatal injuries; he had time to wait before he healed her. However he saw now that the elf was bleeding and asked about it, offering to heal it. The elf shook his head. "It is a small wound; it will heal quickly, and I do not wish you to loose you energy. I will manage." His voice wasn't one Eragon wanted to protest with right now, so he let the elf have it his own way.

"I'll search through the other cells," Eragon said. "Will you help Roran?" His cousin had managed to open the lock now, and the loud hammering had ended.

Nodding his head, Legolas went to said man. Together he and Roran breached the door; the cell behind was dark, but then the red light filled it too. The walls and floors were made of cold naked stone, but in a corner, upon a wooden bunk, sat Katrina.

She was pale and fragile-looking; her hair was fiery in the current light. With wide, fearful eyes, she stared up at them. Then realization dawned on her and she recognized them. She reached out with trembling thin arms and Roran rushed forward and held her. She was like glass in his arms. "You came," she whispered. The weakest of smiles graced her lips, but it was genuine and warm and hopeful.

"I did," Roran replied with something between a sob and a laugh. Then he kissed her several times over.

When he pulled back Katrina looked surprised. "You've grown a beard!" she exclaimed – the words so unexpected that Roran laughed and Legolas smiled. It warmed his heart to see the pair united, and at the same time made him long terribly for Aragorn.

Katrina seemed to see him for the first time, and it took a while for her to recognize him. Perhaps she had began to think of the last months, as a prisoner and in Carvahall, as a dream; the attack, the elf, and his son. Then she asked; "…Legolas?"

"Yes. It is I," the elf said with a smile.

"Is there anyone more with you? How did you find us?"

"We will answer that later, but Eragon his here; and he's a Dragonrider now," Roran told her and her eyes widened. "We need to leave now, before the Empire finds us." Gently he helped her to stand, but her knees buckled, so he swept her into his arms. She weighted surprisingly little.

Eragon came back that moment and there was something in his eyes that hadn't been there before, like a burden. Katrina appeared shocked to see him; after all, he was totally changed, and looked like an elf.

"Wait!" Katrina cried when they began to leave. "My father – have you found him?"

The Dragonrider lowered his eyes, a shadow falling over his face. "I … I found him, in another cell. But I was too late."

She looked horrified and sad, shivered, and briefly closed her eyes, but no tears fell yet; her voice was just a whisper. "So be it."

()()()

Saphira was impatient to leave. Eragon had bound Katrina's eyes with a piece of fabric he had ripped off his shirt, because after many months in darkness and fear, she was unable to see in the sunlight. Roran helped her fiancée onto the dragon's back, after she'd been introduced, before he climbed up himself and was followed by Legolas. But Eragon stood on the ground and made no move to follow them. Saphira growled a little edgily.

'For god's sake, wait with that till we're out of danger,' she muttered in his mind, when the Rider began to search her fond wounds and heal the worst ones. 'We don't have time with that.'

Eragon ignored her and treated her until he felt slightly tired but satisfied.

"Now, let's go," Roran said.

"yes, it's time," Eragon agreed but stepped back. "I'm staying."

"Wha-" Roran began, shockedly, but could not manage more because Saphira growled and suddenly leapt forward, almost catching Eragon with her paw. However he had reacted too quickly and run into the cover of a cave tunnel, too small for Saphira to reach him.

"Listen!" Eragon cried. "Think about everything that can still be in Helgrind; about the information of the Empire that can be here, and maybe even eggs! I need to find them and destroy them before Galbatorix can claim them."

Legolas frowned slightly; not really believing him. There was a valid point missing here…the Dragonrider told only half the truth.

"How are you going to escape the Empire?" Roran wondered, and the elf heard he was worried for his cousin.

"I'll run. I am fast as an elf now, you know."

It will still take many days and nights, Legolas thought when he heard those words.

Beneath him, Saphira flickered her tail. She didn't want to leave Eragon ever behind – she felt worried, annoyed and betrayed. With heavy steps she moved forward, as if trying to force the cave wider and reach him; the ground trembled, like by an earthquake. In her anger there was hurt too, and understanding she didn't want to admit.

"Gánga!" Eragon cried, and no translation was needed for Legolas to understand; "I love you, Saphira, but you must leave. Gánga! And don't come back to get me or send anybody for me. I'll be fine!"

"Don't be stupid," Roran growled, also getting impatient and annoyed at Saphira's movement. He felt how Katrina began to grow afraid. "Come on now."

Eragon shook his head. "No."

At last Saphira calmed down, and she looked sad. Legolas felt the feelings radiate from her warm body and gently laid a hand on her back, as if trying to comfort her. To Eragon she said: 'Seven days. That's how long I will wait. Then I will come back to get you, little one, if so I must fight Thorn, Murtagh or even Galbatorix himself.'

()()()

Eragon may have lied to them, but not to Saphira; she knew his thoughts like the back of her paw, and keeping sercets from one another when they were so closely tied together was impossible. He had found the second prisoner, which mind he had felt before entering Helgrind: Sloan.

And the butcher was definitely alive, even though battered, thin and quite afraid. He was not cowering in a corner, but he was not standing tall and roaring in anger at him either. The ra'zac had torn away the man's eyes and conflicted him great pain, tortured him for weeks, slowly broken him.

Because of what he had done – betrayed Carvahall and murdered a villager – the villagers would have punished him with death by hanging, Eragon knew this. But he could not bring himself to kill the man, and he did not want to harden Katrina's pain by bringing him back to die. No, he was in a dilemma and had a strange, but appealing, plan in mind.

He did not want to control Sloan's life or death, make a judgment alone and punish him. He could not kill him; he was no executor. Nor could he let him free without a word. He couldn't let Sloan be here either, alone, to die a slow death by starvation and thirst. His only opinion was to set him free but let him be guarded.

At the moment the butcher was unconscious and slung over his shoulder, as the Dragonrider slowly but surely worked his way down from the top of Helgrind. He had to use a spell to fly – which was both frightening and thrilling – a short bit at the time, with resting in between. He leaned against the black stone behind him as he stood on a small cliff, catching his breath. Then he said "Audr!" and started to float; he commanded himself forward, out into the open air, and down… His stomach surged.

It took a long time until he reached the ground. Then he trembled, black spots danced before his eyes and he fell dead tired onto the ground. Sloan landed atop of him but he didn't really care; he was too exhausted. Flying had drained almost all of his energy.

His gaze felt heavy, blurry. With half-lidded eyes, he looked upwards as a bumblebee rushed past, humming; it seemed so alive…its colours so sharp. He realized that he wanted to live – in a world so wondrous, with beings like that bumblebee. Instinctively he grasped the nearest living plant, a bush, and began sucking its life-force from it and giving it to himself. The bush grew brown. Eragon reached for the next one, and the next; his mind cleared, and for each plant his strength recovered. It wasn't until he could stand up and he saw the trail of death behind him as he realized his stupid mistakes. He felt a bit ill.

That one could with magic gather the energy from living things, animals and plants, around, was a secret he had learned by the elves. The method should not be used so easily, and not shared with outsiders or shared at all. He disliked to use it; he didn't like to kill, and these plants were life, innocent, which he had so easily swept away. He felt regret. He also felt idiotic – he could have died which would have ended with calamity for the Varden.

He looked around. Besides the bushes he had sacrificed for his own strength, the area held life – grass, a few trees, dry bushes, and insects droned around him. Now when the ra'zac were dead and gone, he felt strangely refreshed and filled with new hope. Now he could be what he had become – a Dragonrider - and not what he had been. The world around him felt optimistic and new and beautiful; suddenly he laughed of pure relief. With odd ease he picked Sloan up and with confident, light steps, he ran across the plains; south-west, away from Helgrind, and he continued to laugh whether anyone heard him or not. The world felt so full of promises now when he was rid of the old burden of killing the ra'zac.

()()()

The dragon was quiet most of the journey. It took many hours for Legolas to contact Saphira's mind and speak, and he tried to console her in her pain. She knew why Eragon had stayed; but it also felt like she, too, was hiding something. Those possible eggs were not the only reason why Eragon had stayed behind…

After a while, when her temper had softened, Legolas mentioned the ra'zac's last words to him. 'You have traveled far and wide and know of this world, and I believed that you would understand what the ra'zac meant,' the wood-elf said.

Saphira was quiet for a moment. 'Everything has names. True names; names in the Ancient language. Fire for example brisingr means fire – but it's not just the word for fire, it is fire.'

'But is there an object no one had found the true name of yet?' Legolas wondered, and then he realized: 'The language itself, is it not?'

'Yes. It's a very powerful language. If Galbatorix really find the true name of the Ancient language he will be able to control it … and control magic itself in a way no person ever before have.'  She was reluctant to share more knowledge than that, but it gave Legolas the general idea. If he found the name, it would have disastrous results. The very way of the world may be altered.

'The more importance for us to defeat him before he really finds it,' the elf pondered. 'But something I do not understand is how Galbatorix could have "more hearts" than Eragon or any other person. I did not think it was possible for anyone to have more than one heart. It could have been figuratively speaking, though.'

The world soared them by; in the distance, night was approaching.

'I don't understand either,'  was the dragon's vague answer.

()()()

A small boy, who often ran errands and messages to and fro, rushed through the camp; he caught Aragorn's attention, for he was being followed by king Orrin and Jörmundur, the leader of the guard, who also seemed to be in great haste. In curiosity he followed them – Eldarion was asleep and not demanding his attention at the moment.

Just outside lady Nasuada's tent, which was guarded by two men, two dwarves and two urgals, he managed to catch king Orrin's attention. "My lord," he asked, "what is the matter?"

"Come and you shall see, lord Elessar," answered Orrin with a grim face. Whatever was going on inside that tent, he had a strong enough knowledge to dislike it.

The boy announced the two kings and Jörmundur as they entered the tent.

Inside stood lady Nasuada facing a tall, dark-skinned man, lord Fadawar, and his guards. He was the leader of the nomad tribes of her people; he was clad in rich robes and jewelry and far too many trinkets to Aragorn's taste. At the moment he gave his large crown to a servant. However that wasn't what caught Aragorn's attention; it was lady Nasuada's near-naked state - for she wore only a white petticoat and no dress – and it was the servant carrying two long pale knives. The blades glistened.

"My lady Nasuada, what is the meaning of this?" the King of Surda demanded.

"My lords," Nasuada said, her body rigid, "I have summoned you to witness the Test of the Long Knives between lord Fadawar and myself, to afterwards truthfully be able to retell this event to anyone who asks."

King Orrin looked pale. Jörmundur looked furious and was ready to draw sword at anyone who dared to look at the lady a moment too long. "M'lady, have you lost your mind?" Jörmundur said. He could scarcely believe this! He wanted to stop it; protect her. His fierce loyalty had always been one of his strongest traits. "This is madness; you cannot…"

"I can and will," she said sternly. "I note your worry but my decision is final. I forbid anyone to interrupt."

"This test, my lady," king Orrin asked. "It doesn't mean that you…"

Determination shone in her eyes as she answered; "That is right, Orrin."

Aragorn's eyes grew wide as he realized, and indeed, this was madness. Orrin appeared to agree. "To what use is this? If you lose, then…"

"If I lose, the Varden shall no longer follow me, but Fadawar."

The entire tent fell silent; the hot fury in Orrin's face turned into cold anger. "I don't like your choice to put our whole thing at risk." He turned to Fadawar; "Can you not be reasonable and free her from this decision? I would give you gold."

"I am already rich," said the dark-skinned man. "I do not need your gold; no, only the Test of the Long Knives will satisfy me."

Orrin was cold and silent as the knives were brought forth, gleaming evilly; Aragorn clenched his jaws. This would only bring pain. And if lady Nasuada lost… what then would happen? Would lord Fadawar, whom Aragorn never before had met, rule the Varden in a similar fashion to hers or would he use the rebellions in a totally other way? He might be only interested in gaining riches.

Lady Nasuada's arms were already bare, in her white petticoat, slim and unscarred. Lord Fadawar rolled up his left-arm sleeve to reveal dark skin with five long, pale scars running on his lower arm, over the wrists. Aragorn inhaled a sharp breath. If lady Nasuada won, she had to do more than that, and survive … He feared that she would suffer severe loss of blood and if that happened, she might not make it.

A pair of lord Fadawar's men sat on the floor with drums in their lap, and they began a quick beating rhythm that raised the heartbeat of the gathered. There was utter silence, no one spoke, held their breath, and the dark-skinned man began. The cut took just a few seconds and the knife was covered in blood.

The lady raised her own knife; didn't pause even if she wanted to. As the knife cut its path through her skin, she wanted to scream and throw the knife away – but she didn't, just smiled.

Another cut. Lord Fadawar returned her grin as he did his own damage on his body, but his body had begun to tense up.

She relaxed, because if she was tense it would only hurt more. One more cut. And then another. Oh god! It hurt! She wanted to cry. And another cut… she began to grow a bit dizzy. She heard only her own pounding heart, her blood, and deaf to the drums, and blind to the gathered worried gazes.

You can do this, she told herself; you must. You cannot let Fadawar rule the Varden…

The man raised his knife for the eight time, seeing red, with wounds burning like fire. He hesitated just a little, before he made a quick slash. His arm wept blood. His slight pause gave the lady more courage; she pushed away her fear, tried to block the pain out, held her breath and did her best not cutting too deeply.

She cut her arm twice in a row. "Beat that," she whispered.

Lord Fadawar licked his dry lips, trembling a little, as he raised the knife. Three times he did it but without making a cut; he couldn't do it. Having to make two cuts repeatedly seemed to lower his nerve; either he made those cuts, almost killing himself by it, or he gave up.

The audience was quiet and hoped for him to give up, hoped that lady Nasuada would win and survive; they sent silent prayers to every God up above. Only the drums continued their furious pace.

A sharp spasm shook his left arm, his fingers twisted and he dropped the knife. Slowly he bent down, teeth clenched; he grabbed the weapon and tried to wound himself again but didn't manage to. He made no sound of pain, but it was very visible in his eyes. "I give up," he said, pressing his wounded arm against his stomach and doubling over.

The drums fell silent. There was a moment of utter silence, and then they cheered and started talking without any comprehension. Lady Nasuada sank down heavily in the nearest chair; Aragorn was urged to go to her and help her, heal her wounds. They looked terrible, blood flowed and stained her clothing, and her eyes were glazed over. When lord Fadawar and his men had left the tent, he stepped forward. "My lady

"You are a king," she murmured.

"And a healer." Gently he lifted her arm and inspected it. The lady didn't protest, but gave him a weakly surprised look. At the moment he didn't look like a king at all. "This needs to be stitched," Aragorn murmured, and asked the servant for a needle, thread, warm water and bandages. At her lady's nod, she hurried to find what he requested.

Trianna, a sorceress, stepped forward too. "Let me take care of that."

Then the lady shook her head. "No," she said, shocking everyone into silence. "No," she repeated. "To win the Test one must endure the full pain of it and let the wounds heal naturally; no magic must be used."

Farica returned and Aragorn set to work, careless about the odd looks the men gathered gave him – they knew he was a king, so they must be shocked to find him doing a work like this.

"But why?" king Orrin demanded.

"Because," lady Nasuada said, "if I use magic I am a cheater, and lord Fadawar will be named the winner. And I cannot let that happen; I will never see him become the leader of the Varden."

Aragorn was too concentrated to really listen, but after a discussion between the lady and King Orrin, the latter muttered and stomped out of the tent, obviously offended by whatever she'd said. Lady Nasuada sighed. "I would advise you to rest the remaining of the day," Aragorn the healer said. To her servant, whom seemed loyal and obedient, he said: "Make sure that her wounds do not become infected, keep them clean and looked after. I would like to look at them tomorrow morn."

"I will, my lord," Farica mumbled and curtseyed. She'd never met a king like him before – though, King Orrin was truly the king kin she had ever seen before Aragorn – but he was surprisingly humble and silent, gentle in his air even if there was authority around him; briefly she reflected that he must be a wonderful king in his homeland.

"Now leave me, if you are so kind," lady Nasuada said tiredly to the men and woman in the tent. She had begun to see dark spots before her eyes. "I desire to rest. Farica, will you escort me back to my quarters?"

Chapter Text

When he passed by the many tents of the villagers, his face was grim. He had just washed his hands but remembered the blood that had been on them; such a brutal test, to prove who was worthy being a leader! In Gondor, such behavior would have been taboo. At that thought he couldn't help feeling a kind of irony – wasn't his and Legolas' relationship a taboo here? What is acceptable for us is unnatural for the other, he thought. Our worlds are so different and yet they are alike.

A voice suddenly called out in greeting when he walked past Horst's tent. "Hail, Aragorn. Why the gloomy face?" asked Baldor.

"I have just been at lady Nasuada's tent and treated her injuries," Aragorn reported, and hastily added at the other man's shocked face; "Do not fret, she will survive. Have you heard of the Test of the Long Knives?" Baldor shook his hear blankly. "It must be some custom of the south then…" He quickly explained what had happened. He was sure that the lady would not keep it a secret, as it was a sign of her loyalty to the Varden, her strength and authority. It might strengthen her position in Surda.

"My god," Baldor said with a shake of his head. "Lords and ladies are sometimes very, very irrational." Then he realized what he'd said and started to apologize - Aragorn was a lord after all – but the ex-ranger just grinned.

"So I have heard," he said, his tone kind. "Where are you going to?" he asked, nodding at the tools in the man's hands.

"My father has along with me and my brother been able to do our craft again…Obviously there is need of many smiths during war."

"I am glad to hear that you do not stand idle."

Baldor's lips quirked. "We've been fully employed for the last few days. Always there's a hinge to be repaired or a spear to be made. Even if I don't like war in general, I won't complain. We gain a few coins a day to help us survive and can do our job, helping the Varden at the same time." His smile turned into a small frown. "Do you know when they -Legolas, Roran and Eragon - will return?"

Aragorn shook his head. "They should be here any day," he said quietly; "but things might have happened during the road or their mission…" Momentarily he lowered his eyes. "I hope they will return quickly and unscathed."

The other man's eyes showed he sympathized with him. "If I've learned anything about Legolas since I met him, I know he's a stubborn survivor. They'll probably come back in no time." After a moment's hesitation he friendlily patted Aragorn's shoulder. Aragorn smiled a little.

"Oh, he is stubborn," he said. "I out of everyone ought to know."

"Ah yes, you're … married to him, right?" Baldor looked a bit uncertain. "That's rather uncommon. I mean…" He waved a little with his hand, trying to figure out a proper way to say it. He hadn't forgotten that Aragorn was a king too, and it was stupid to offend him; but Baldor had also found out that Aragorn disliked being spoken to ask if he were someone higher, more worthy.

"I know," the king said, his smile fading a bit. However, he had inkling that Baldor had no dislike against such relationships – he was only uncertain, and a bit curious. "Among Men, at least. Elves as usually more open in such matters; after all, elves mate only once in their lives, and then they must be free to choose whoever they want."

Baldor's eyes widened in surprise. "You mean that before you two married, he had never…?"

Aragorn had to laugh out loud at that. "You are right. It is rather unusual for elves to mate that late in life – do not let your eyes deceive you, Legolas may look young but he has seen many ages of men."

"Oh! I'd not expected that. I mean," Baldor added, his face going red, "I heard from Roran – and practically everyone knows now – that Legolas is immortal and well, I assumed, since he has lived for so long he must have taken … well, several lovers in his life."

The Middle-earthian shook his head but smiled a little, understanding. "It might have seemed more logical, what you say, but elves have their customs, some of which they follow very strictly. It is so that once an elf has fallen in love, they have trouble falling in love again, with anyone else; if their partner perishes, and they would likely perish as well, unable to live without the person they love."

The former inhabitant of Carvahall nodded in understanding, and felt some sympathy at the pain in the other man's eyes as he said this. Aragorn was a mortal and would die like all men; then, Legolas would die as well. That fact must pain Aragorn a great deal; Baldor knew that he would think sadly about it, if he had been the one to have an immortal lover whom he knew would in the end give up life for him.

()()()

"…Empty the field!" lady Nasuada commanded. All around her and her men and servants, many people had gathered to witness Saphira's return. "Now! Get everyone away before she lands."

"Also of King Orrin, Arya and Garzhvog?" Jörmundur, the captain of the guard, asked.

"Nay, they may stay, but no others. Fetch for lord Elessar; I care not what he might be occupied with. And hurry!"

Jörmundur scurried away to do her bidding.

Elva stood by the lady's feet. The girl who Eragon had blessed in Farthen Dûr had grown unnaturally quickly; her voice was of an adult cynical woman, her body that of a five year old; her eyes were hauntingly violet. Eragon had meant to bless her, when she was just a babe, but one grammatical mistake in his use of the Ancient language had turned it into a curse, a terrible one.

The girl could feel the pain of any Man, Dwarf or Elf for miles around and would on instinct try to fight against that agony, try protect others from harm. It had scarred her, but lady Nasuada was unsure whether to be frightened or relived by her presence. Since the girl had earlier stopped the lady from being murdered, she was like a personal guard, but Nasuada wasn't really comfortable with it. However, now she was glad about her presence. Elva had just warned her that Saphira was coming with Roran and some unknown woman – probably Katrina – and the elf Legolas, but the girl could not sense Eragon's anxiousness or pain.

Eragon had not returned.

The open place was quickly emptied of people. Jörmundur came hurrying back, with king Orrin, Arya the Elf, and the urgal leader Garzhvog in tow; they were quickly joined by Aragorn – whose eyes shone in hope and relief – and Angela, the mysterious but knowledgeable woman who had joined the Varden in Farthen Dûr months ago. She always appeared at the right moments, but without any clear explanations.

Saphira came steadily closer. When she landed, the lady could indeed see that Eragon was not with them. First the woman, Katrina, dismounted the great dragon. She was pale but stood straight, held gently by the arm by Roran, and long copper hair floated down her back. Even though she was battered, she was attractive; not one of the great beauties of the world, but someone the men looked at in wonder. Lady Nasuada was sure that all the males gathered – with the exception of Aragorn, perhaps, and Legolas – would share tales of her beauty with their comrades later that evening; that Roran had done so much, gone so far, and overcome so many dangers to find and save her only made Katrina more appealing for the men. She must be truly valuable. She was strong too, despite captivity, and didn't even flinch as Garzhvog approached.

The elf, Legolas, dismounted Saphria last. There were blood-stains on his tunic. Strangely enough, he had a bow and quiver slung over his back – elven and clearly not his, but Eragon's. The elf took them off and fastened them to Saphira's saddle, marking them to belong to her rider, and nodding his head; maybe in thanks.

Aragorn quickly rushed over to him, flooded with relief that he was alive, but then frowning when seeing his arm, where the elf's clothing was torn to reveal a healing wound. "Are you all right?" he asked softly, lightly grasping his hale arm and leading him away from Saphira.

"I am well," the elf said. Actually, his wound was almost fully healed now, only a thin line of skin mending itself. He pulled up his sleeve slightly to reveal the fading blemish to Aragorn, who held back a sigh but said nothing – Legolas didn't have to hear it to know that Aragorn was torn between holding him and laughing, and scolding him for being irresponsible.

Roran led Katrina over to lady Nasuada and bowed to her. "My lady. Your majesty," he added to king Orrin. "May I introduce Katrina, my fiancée?" Said young woman curtseyed to them both.

"Welcome to the Varden, Katrina," said the lady. "We have all heard of you, thanks to Roran's remarkable devotion. Songs of his love are spreading through the land already."

"You are very welcome," king Orrin added. "In truth, very much welcome."

A blush and a timid smile grew onto Katrina's face. "Thank you," she said. In her shyness there was also pride; that she was the one to hold Roran's love, of all women in Alagaësia; he was hers, she was his, and that was the only treasure she would ever demand.

Then lady Nasuada turned to Saphira and opened her mind enough to speak with her. Saphria lowered herself down, sniffed in the air, her breaths warm. 'I can smell blood,' she said.'Who has hurt you, Nasuada? Tell me their names and I'll rip them apart from the neck to the crotch and give you their heads as trophies.'

"There is no reason to rip anyone apart, for I was the one holding the knife. But we will discuss that later; now is not the time. What I want to know now is – where is Eragon?" He couldn't possibly be dead, for if that was the case, Saphira would be too. A dragon could not survive if its Rider was killed.

There was a slight, tense pause. 'Eragon,' Saphira broke the ice so that all the gathered – who had opened their minds - could hear it, 'decided to stay in the Empire.'

A shocked silence met her words. Roran's jaws clenched; he looked grim, and a bit angry.

"How…how could you let him stay?" lady Nasuada wondered.

It was as if the dragon sighed, huffing hot breaths out of her nostrils. 'Eragon made his own choice. I couldn't stop him. He's always stubbornly trying to do what he thinks is right, no matter the consequences… I would shake him like he were a newly hatched pup, but I'm proud of him. Do not worry! He can look after himself. This far he is all right. I would feel if he was injured.'

Arya spoke up: "For what reasons did he make this choice?"

'It'd be easier if I showed you. May I?'

They all nodded. A quick stream of images, memories, washed over them – Helgrind from above a cloud; Eragon, Roran and Legolas discussing how to attack; finding the ra'zac nest in the large black rock; the dragon's brutal fight with the two lethrblaka; and what she in turn had seen, heard and felt of the Men and elf's battle with the ra'zac. It ended with her confrontation with Eragon, and the recent parting still was fresh in her mind, and everyone could feel her pain.

When the dragon had retreated from their minds, king Orrin cursed. "Eragon could not have chosen a worse time to leave on his own. What does some possible eggs matter when Galbatorix' army are just a few miles from us? … We need to fetch him."

Angela laughed. This was the first time Aragorn saw her; it was a strange woman, her face was young but her eyes told of age and wisdom, a bit like an elf but she was clearly human. In her dress a handful of odd trinkets hung; at the moment she was knitting a pair of socks with five bone-needles. Legolas, by Aragorn's side, also looked at the woman in wonder. He had an urge to find her later, after this, and talk to her, find out who she was. There was a strange air almost like power about her…Maybe she was a sorceress?

"How?" Angela said. "He'll travel at day, and Saphira can't look for him in the daylight in case she gets discovered by someone who is loyal enough to warn Galbatorix."

To everyone's surprise, Arya bent down and began to unlace her shoes. "Saphira," Arya asked with one lacing between her teeth. "Exactly where was Eragon when you last touched his mind?"

'By the entrance of Helgrind,' the dragon replied.

"And do you have any idea which road he intended to follow?"

'He didn't know that himself.'

Legolas' eyes widened a little, realizing what Arya was up to. It was a far way to Helgrind, and as Eragon himself was as swift as Arya … they could be miles apart once she got there.

Arya, who had swiftly undone and then redone the lacings of her shoes, jumped to her feet. "Then I will have to look everywhere." And then she ran, like a deer, swift and light across the open place and pass the tents and then beyond, to the north. Her feet left no prints on the ground and no guard could hinder her.

"Arya, no!" cried lady Nasuada, but the elf was already gone.

The elf of Arda stepped forth, offering to follow her. At that Aragorn looked stern and his eyes was filled with disagreement – Legolas had just been apart from him, come back from a long tiresome journey and he was wounded! The man was very grateful when the lady shook her head. "No … no, stay here. Arya will have to take care of herself. I will pray that she find Eragon and keeps him out of danger, because without him, we are without doubt doomed to ruin."

()()()

It was the first time Legolas noticed the girl, standing beside lady Nasuada, and the woman on her other side. The pair looked strange … there was an air around them that told him that these two were no mere mortals. The woman looked neither young nor old; yet, her eyes were glinting with wisdom and riddles, alike the eyes of Mithrandir.

Then there was the girl. She was like a five year old. Yet… she felt younger, so much younger, and she suffered.

The elf sought her out when the group Men and the dragon went separate ways. He managed to convince Aragorn that he was all right, and that the man should go ahead to their tent – he didn't want Eldarion to be alone. Reluctantly the man did as bid, but not without a wondering look at him. "I will explain later," Legolas promised.

He called out for the girl, gently, and she looked up at him with a wry grin; he was totally shocked when he looked at her, for her eyes were deep and old and cynical, and violet, an unnatural color. On her forehead was a gleaming blue mark, an exact copy of that mark which was on Eragon's hand – the mark of a Dragonrider.

"I know who you are," she said, and her voice was that of an adult woman. Legolas was unsure whether to be disgusted or fascinated. Who was this girl? What had happened to her?

Her smile grew like reading his thoughts. "I am Elva," she said. "I am one year old."

Legolas couldn't help it; he blinked in surprise. "How…?" he managed to say. He knew he might sound offending and he knew he should formulate himself in a better way, but found he barely had a voice. There was something about this girl that unsettled, yes, even frightened him.

"Eragon put a spell on me." She started to sound bitter. "A curse. I feel everyone's pain and try to hinder it, if I can. It puts me through misery. Now, I act as Nasuada's lifeguard."

"Why would Eragon put a curse on you?" Legolas asked, bewildered. He kneeled to get into eye-level with the child.

She laughed and the sound sent shivers down his spine. "Not deliberately of course. Of course not! My stupid mother begged him to bless me when he hadn't the knowledge to and one little slip and now, I am who I am."

Suddenly he felt compassion for her and he wanted to ease her pain. If she felt everyone's suffering and was urged to stop it … It could, or would, drive her insane. "But…can he not break the curse, or reverse it?"

"If he could, he would have! No. No, as far as I know, he cannot break it."

A fleeting thought passed through his mind: this girl would be better off dead. It was cruelly put but it was true; death was better than a life in pain and misery. He realized that, since she was lady Nasuada's lifeguard, she was serving the Varden and so was a tool for them. It was a bargain, one that could possibly not gain her. Could it? He dared no ask yet, fearing the possible reactions.

Elva looked into his eyes and it felt uncanny. "I feel pain from you as well, elf," she said after a moment.

He knew that even if he felt guilt, it would not help. "I know."

"You hide it. Why?"

For a moment he grimaced. "I do not like to let Aragorn worry on my part."

"Any … no you don't. I understood that the moment I saw you." The grin, that had momentarily faded, grew into a smile; but something twisted and wicked, an expression that should not be on the face of a child. "Compassion is a weakness, you know. To hide it from him will only hurt him more than if you tell him at once that you are in pain. It's selfishness."

Legolas swallowed and didn't know what to say. Her words stung in his heard; and they were true. He was hurting Aragorn … Of course he was hurting him! With such worry, and anxiousness, all those 'I'm fine' when blood was clearly visible all-over him… He was hurting Aragorn… Momentarily he lowered his eyes.

Elva started to back away from him. Legolas looked up. "Do…do you feel fear as well? Emotional pain?" he asked slowly.

"Pain is pain no matter the form." She cursed. "Of course I suffer every time someone says goodbye to his lover, every time anyone burns herself on the kettle or gets injured by a sword! It is who I am. But don't trouble yourself with it." She felt his heart, his thoughts, his fear for her and possibly also his worry. "It would only make things worse."

()()()

The land was flat and seemed to go on forever. At times the road had been rocky, surrounded by hills and forests, however right now it was flat and with no living thing in sight.

Beregond wished he'd had a map.

"How much longer?" muttered a soldier in front of him.

The Captain answered, his voice like a venom, silkily but dangerous; "There are yet many miles left, so stop complaining. Save that energy you have for fighting, because we will meet resistance down there."

The gondorian stared at the Captain's back in loathing. He was at least glad that they'd not blindfolded him this time; he had free sight even if his arms were tied, and his feet secured to the stirrups of the saddle he sat upon. His horse was connected the saddle of a rider in front of him, some soldier next to the Captain. He had no spear, unlike the other men, just a sword, and his armour was a bit different from the others. Maybe he was some kind of general, or maybe even the Captain's personal guard. That Captain probably was more than that – a general, maybe even a governor or something. A lord...

Whatever he really was, he had power and Beregond noticed how people obeyed him out of fear and respect rather than admiration and respect – there was a vast difference.

Well, except for the soldier that had currently spoken. He was the youngest and most inexperienced one out of the thirty-two Men, and always spoke up when he should not.

"Do we know that the Varden's forces are waiting us down there?" he asked. "Do they know we're coming?"

"Of course they guard the boarders, Ythan," muttered another man. "They have heard your loud tongue from miles around."

"Do not call me stupid, Domenik," the young man said rather heatedly.

"I don't call you stupid, just bigmouthed. You put your foot in where it doesn't belong."

"Yes," agreed the Captain and the two speakers immediately tensed up. "If you do not know the value of silence, then I might have no use for you… We are to move unnoticed as far as possible. Really, I should not need to tell you this once more. The rebellions have their eyes open! They aren't as foolish as you might think; they watch and will raise a finger as soon as they notice something is different, especially their black lady who thinks herself so almighty because she leads some weak-minded, feeble farmers in a parody of warriors in battle against Our Great King's trained soldiers."

"Some!" Ythan exclaimed. "They're thousands! Hundreds of thousands! And might be even more… And if it's really true, that the elves have started-"

At once the company stopped short and Beregond, who had been listening intensely wanting to remember every word, was almost thrown off the saddle. The Captain had raised his knitted fist and when he turned around, his dangerous expression visible, Ythar went white. Not a loud word was exchanged but Beregond didn't doubt that the Captain was mentally lecturing the man, who just grew paler and paler and trembled like a leaf in the wind. Then he nodded his head frantically, his armour rustled.

The Captain sent warning looks all around him, and the men shrunk back. "No one of you," he said in a low tone, because no raised voice was needed for them to heed this warning; "no a single one of you will ever again utter, even think of, those vile twisted creatures in my presence, is that understood? One day we will break those scum and have them begging by out feet, know that, but I will not tolerate a word, one single thought – do you understand?"

He hides something, Beregond thought; he knows about something…I didn't know that elves existed here. Maybe they are like these rebellions, the Varden, against king Galbatorix. That could explain why… But what was it he was about to say? Oh, I wish I knew! The elves are …what? Are they going to attack?

There was utter silence.

"Do you understand?"

Ythar looked like a corpse and gasped for breath. "Yes…yes, captain," he wheezed. It was if an invincible hand had squeezed around his neck, and suddenly released its grip, because after those words the man could breathe freely and deeply. Whatever the Captain did to him, it was with magic, Beregond was sure of that. For every second that passed, Beregond understood more and more why the men feared the Captain, and he began to share that fear. A man with that power and authority, that could control magic, was supposed to be feared … and respected.

"Yes, Captain," chorused the rest of the men.

Said man mounted his horse again, and was given the reins from the man on his side, the one whose saddle Beregond's horse was tied to. Ythar still looked ashen and Beregond glanced between him and the Captain, a bit uncertain, and wishing he knew more, those words that the young man had tried to say.

"Hope that I shall not have to remind you again. Now move!"

Chapter Text

"How did you get this?" Aragorn murmured as he gently pressed the washcloth against the elf's skin.

Legolas rolled his eyes. "The ra'zac was a little faster than I for just a moment. Estel, there is no need for you to do that! I have almost healed already."

He and his husband sat on the edge of their bed in their tent, Eldarion in the elf's lap happily playing at his Adar's hair. Aragorn was stubbornly cleaning his injury with warm water, and his hand around the injured wrist was the only thing that kept Legolas from moving away.

"You had me so worried when I saw you," the man said in elvish; "All the blood on your tunic…"

"I am fine, my love, and I do not lie," Legolas said with a smile. "What needs done now is to cleanse and mend this." He tugged at his clothing. "Remember that this is my own elven garment and I have not much here in Alagaësia to replace it with."

Aragorn dropped the cloth back into the bucket of heated water, and kissed the thin red-fading-to-pink line on Legolas' arm. The elf sighed.

"All right," the man said. "I'm done."

The elf took off his tunic and laid it in a pile in the corner, where they had laid other things that needed to be washed. At once, Aragorn frowned and pulled him back to sit. "What's this? What happened?" he asked and poked his bruised side, which was fading into yellow. The elf hissed sharply; nothing was broken, and there were no bloodstains, but now when Aragorn so stubbornly had to remind him of that injury it hurt.

"Oh… I barely noticed that," Legolas said and he sounded genuinely surprised. "It must have come from when the lethrblaka – the large dragon-like animals which the ra'zac rode upon – well, punched me with its head."

"At least nothing is broken, no ribs are harmed," Aragorn noted, "and it is healing."

"Of course! I am an elf."

An eyebrow was raised, and the elf knew that his lover was teasing him again. "A foolish, reckless one at that," the kind said.

Legolas grinned and bent down to kiss him. "Lucky I am, to have found a husband with not too high expectations, then."

()()()

Roran was more than pleased with his shoulder and arm. Now when Eragon had magically healed it, it was strong and painless, and actually felt better than before. He was training with some other villagers, at the moment heaving a large stone over his shoulders; it put a strain on his muscles, but he felt no such burning pain and weakness that he'd felt after the ra'zac had wounded him.

He also felt victorious. The ra'zac was dead, and Katrina was back; she was safe now. She was yet mourning for her father, but otherwise she felt hopeful for the future. Right now she was in their tent with Elain, Horst's wife. The two were quite close; Elain somewhat like a second mother for her, and Katrina were assisting Elain now during the last weeks of her pregnancy. She had felt pains for days, and the villagers feared for her unborn child.

The Varden had offered the villagers from Carvahall to join them; they had accepted of course. Now they had their own provisional homes; some, like the carpenter and the smith, were able to do their work; and they had enough food to survive the day. Lady Nasuada was very kind, but in turn they had to offer what they could to the Varden – eventual services and their spears in battle. All who were ablebodied – and that wasn't just the men – were training how to use the sword and the spear properly. When the signal was given, everyone was expected to rush into battle.

Since his return from Helgrind, Roran was devoted to training. It was what he could do to help the Varden, protect the villagers and Katrina and in the end defeat the Empire and Galbatorix. He wasn't arrogantly thinking that victory depended on him, but he was sure of his abilities to form the world. He knew that his and the other villagers' aid would be to the advantage of the Varden. Though he needed to keep alive and hale and that was why he was training.

From a distance he saw two familiar beings cross the field. Legolas had Eldarion on his hip and the boy stared around in utter fascination, however his parent deliberately did not show him the swordfighters because that would draw blood, by accident, especially among those not used to it. Those who threw the spear were more harmless in his opinion, and the archers. Aragorn was by the elf's side. They appeared to talk, and then the man walked over to a group of resting swordfighters. They appeared to settle on a duel, because one man stood and drew his sword and Aragorn did the same.

Curiously Roran approached, because he had never been able to witness Aragorn fight – during the last battle he had been too occupied by his own enemies. When he was nearby Legolas, he called out. "Hail, Legolas!"

"Good day, Roran," the elf replied and Eldarion gurgled in greeting. "Are you here training also?"

"I've been here all morning," Roran said. He glanced at Aragorn and the man who had started their duel; circling each other, no one really attacking. They were judging each other's strengths and weaknesses. The elf grinned.

"I believe my former ranger desires to test himself yet again," he said. "It has been awhile since he last had a real swordfight."

The two men's blades glinted in the sunlight and clashed against each other. Both were strong and quite well matched, but it was clearly visible that Aragorn had an agility that the other didn't have. He was more flexible and quicker on his feet. "That comes from his elvish training," Legolas explained. He smiled down at his son, who for once was allowed to watch swordfighters. Eldarion's eyes were wide, totally caught in what was happening and not really understanding it all.

"Aa-daa," the boy said and tried to reach out for him.

"I'm glad you recognize him, little one."

Aragorn did the first sally, and the other man was just barely quick enough to block Andúril. The men that had gathered around the pair cheered them on, urging them to continue. Of course, some of them half-watched Legolas as well, since he was an elf, but Legolas paid them no mind.

"He's quick," Roran noticed.

"He has trained for many, many years," Legolas said. "He has always preferred the sword to the bow, as you can see."

Aragorn had heard him, flashed a grin and asked in elvish between two blows: "Are you implying something?" The men were curious about what he said but more focused on the fighting to ask what it meant.

"Ah, no, of course not, Estel," Legolas said but smirked. "You are an excellent archer when it comes to it."

"If you're referring to the event-" The ex-ranger met his opponent's blade with his own, sand and dust on the ground swirling around his feet; "-when the twins competed with me-"In a quick movement he managed to disarm the other man, who looked a bit shocked as his sword scrambled to the ground. "-and I almost hit Erestor; one, they distracted me, and two; I was eight years old."

Since the man had spoke the Common tongue saying that, Roran had heard every word and his eyebrows rose up to his hairline when Legolas muttered: "You did hit him. In his backside." The elf was smiling smugly.

"Oh right. Thank you, Your Highness, for reminding me." Then Aragorn turned to the other man which he had defeated, thanked him, and sheathed his sword.

Roran hadn't expected the couple to be so, well... teasing each other. They were royalty after all…yet they mixed dignity with friendship and the teasing of a couple. It truly surprised him. He had expected their relationship to a bit more...stiff. Beside him, Legolas saw his expression and laughed.

"That was an accident," Aragorn muttered as he walked up to his husband, sweating after the swordfight. "Must you mock me in front of everyone?" However, though he was blushing a bit beneath his short and newly trimmed beard, he wasn't angry.

"Blame it on your brothers," Legolas advised him. "You cannot help them being such a bad influence on you – and your manners."

"My manners?" the king spluttered, and his husband continued to smile, much to the amusement of Roran and the other men who were watching a bit from afar, surely curious about the pair's relationship and light bickering. Legolas coughed something strangely alike to 'Your highnesses'. Aragorn managed to regain his composure and look serious, like the king he was. He stared into his husband's eyes without blinking. "Surely, elfling, you cannot call me bad mannered," he said rather calmly.

"If I am an elfling," Legolas said just as calmly, "then you are a mere babe; you must be aware of that."

"I speak figuratively."

"By those measurements, I would assume lord Elrond to be just come of age and most Men newborns."

"That is not what I meant."

"That is what you said."

"Oh? I am sorry, I did not hear." Legolas rolled his eyes. "How many times have we had this discussion? Can you not leave that word behind? I am tired being called a child by both youand my father all the time."

Aragorn raised an eyebrow. "I was under the impression you was rather fond of that nickname."

"Nickname!" the elf exclaimed. "If I wanted such a nickname I'd go and ask Gimli."

"He would call you a pointy-eared tree-talker who spends too many hours singing to the stars."

"And he is a stunted, loud-mouthed, very bad-mannered dwarf!" the elf retorted with fire in his eyes, but Aragorn didn't even flinch.

Roran coughed a little. "I thought he was your friend?" he asked, recalling his and Legolas' talk many months ago in the Spine.

A smile graced the elf's lips, but his voice was heated, and Roran was stuck with the though how much like a Man he acted – he was not cold and distant like Arya, he was much morealive. "Oh, yes, he is. And he is a loud, rock-loving dwarf who clearly does not understand the love of nature or the stars in the sky, the life of the earth! He is both blind and deaf at times."

Aragorn shook his head with a sigh. "I ought to be glad that he is not here to argue with you," he said and added to a very bewildered Roran: "They act like children at the most inappropriate times."

"Do not!" Legolas cried in protest, although taking no ill, but the man only laughed.

()()()

During the time that Eragon and Arya were away from the Varden's camp it stayed a secret. Saphira stayed near her Rider's empty tent, giving people the illusion that he was yet present, and sometimes went out to hunt. Lady Nasuada was desperate to get people's attention elsewhere.

One of those things that occupied her was the elves of Du Weldenvarden's upcoming arrival. She knew that twelve elves handy in magic would come to her aid soon, sent by the queen.

Thanks to assistance from both Eragon and Du Vrangr Gata, she also knew that queen Islanzadí were planning to or maybe even right now attacking cities of Men. The elves were coming out from their hiding place to fight Galbatorix openly. There was of course much they kept secret, things that lady Nasuada didn't know about, and they would surely be cruel against also innocent people – she had gotten the impression from Arya that the elves just acted the way they thought the right thing in the long run. They did things that she would never do or things that she saw as strange or unnatural. The lady had soon realized that Arya and Legolas, from Middle Earth, were so different and yet so alike. Elves of Alagaësia differed strongly from those of Middle Earth. Firstly the latter could not use magic.

Right now she was preparing the twelve elves' imminent arrival. She had to inform them about their situation, about the clash of two worlds, of unwilling visitors from Middle Earth, among other things; but she also had to learn some basics of customs and greetings. However the main problem was that the elves had been sent to protect Eragon – who was not present. His act of recklessness had been beyond her control and she could only hope that the elves would not also do something reckless, to find him – like Arya had done, running after him. She could not loose twelve elves, Arya and Eragon into the lands of the Empire. No, she would need them here.

Lady Nasuada had seen little of elves. Her knowledge was limited to books, one or two wiser persons, and Arya – and Legolas then, but he had nothing to do with the elves of Alagaësia. She was curious and wondered if Arya was representative for her kind or if the twelve newcomers would be totally different from her. That they would be all beautiful, but in an exotic way, and know much about magic and be strong warriors that she did not doubt. However she wondered if all elves looked at other kinds and life in general, as Arya did and held opinions similar to hers.

She had noticed that one thing really separated the elves of Du Weldenvarden from the elves of Middle Earth – religion. The lady believed in higher powers; it was part of her upbringing, her life, and her kind. Legolas had during their first meeting spoken of gods and higher powers of his land and Arya had immediately objected to that; according to her, no Gods of any kind existed. Lady Nasuada had been intrigued and promised herself to speak with them, separately perhaps, about it later. It was alien to her – the thought of having no God, nothing above, with no seeing being who did in a way control all events, comings and goings… For her, like many others of her kind, it was too hard to grasp. Something must have created the world!

The lady sat in her tent with Farica, her servant, tending to her healing wounds, deep in thought. One moment she was urged to call for Legolas just to ask him a myriad of questions, and then she sat back in silence and realized she was letting her mind linger on things not important right now. Besides, Farica would complain and she was simply not in the mood for that.

"Well?" she asked.

"This seems to be healing nicely," Farica noted. She strongly disliked that her lady had harmed herself this way. "I have to say, lord Aragorn is a good healer."

"Hmm. Yes, yes," the lady said, only half-listening. She shook her head, trying to clear her mind. "…Farica, where is Elva?"

"Oh, she is with her caretaker Greta. Would you like me to summon her?"

She nodded. "Call her here and bring us something to eat. I'd like her nearby." Although the unique girl was frightening her somewhat she also felt safer with her around, because she was the most effective protector the lady had had this far. Already the girl had stopped two assaults.

Farica rebound the bandages and then left to find Elva. While she waited, lady Nasuada studied the maps on the table before her. Almost two days had passed since Arya had left – she was a swift runner but she couldn't have found Eragon yet; he was too far away and they didn't know where to he was headed. No, she'd have to wait. Nasuada hoped that the elf would contact her through scrying as soon as she was able.

Then Elva came into the red pavilion. The girl was clad in a blue and black dress that clarified the color of her terrible eyes. "You wanted me, Nasuada," she said.

"Please, come and sit," the lady invited her. "I simply wanted to share a meal with you."

As always, the girl's cynical voice mocked her. "And to protect you, of course," Elva said, but sat down.

Shortly, Farica returned with a large filled tray. The girl ate like a hungry dog. The servant withdrew in a corner, always ready if her mistress needed her, but yet not in the way. They ate in silence. Then Nasuada the table was cleared and she felt ready to face Roran. It had been decided that they would speak at this hour today, and it was important.

The man was quite punctual and arrived in time, clad simply but she saw that he had brushed his hair and his clothes were clean; he had paid heed to his appearance. Or perhaps, was a fleeting though in her mind, it had been Katrina who had paid heed to it. A hammer was placed in his belt, as always; it was the marking of Stronghammer.

Elva hid behind a fake wall of the tent. She needed to be present but be unseen, in case something happened.

"My lady, you wanted to speak with me," Roran said and bowed.

"Please stand." He did as bid. "My position," she continued, "rarely allows me the luxury to speak straightforward. However I have heard you are a man who appreciates candor and I know we have much to discuss in a short time."

"Thank you, milady. I have never been amused by riddles."

"Excellent. To put things shortly; you are giving me many kinds of hard troubles."

The man frowned a little. "What kinds of troubles?"

"One has to do with character, the other with politics. What you have done to flee Palancar valley with the villagers from Carvahall is near amazing, and it has been said to be that you have a parlous mind, and you are skilled in fighting, strategy and to make people follow your lead without question."

"They may have followed me," Roran gently amended; "but they never stopped to question me."

Briefly she smiled. "It may be so. However you managed to get them here did you not? You have valuable traits and skills, Roran, and the Varden may have use of you. I suppose you wish to avail?"

"Of course."

"As you have understood, Galbatorix is dividing his armies and sends troops south, west and north to support the cities Aroughs, Feinster and Belatona respectively. He hopes to create a slow, long war to tire us. Jörmundur and I cannot be at a dozen places at a time. We need captains we can trust, that can handle the many conflicts that will arise. In this you have been able to show your value. But…"

"But you don't know yet if you can trust me," Roran filled in.

"Exactly. To protect your family and friends strengthens you, but I wonder how you would do without them. Would you keep your wits? And also if you can lead, can you also obey? I do not denigrate you character, Roran, but the fate of Alagaësia is at stake, and I cannot risk let anyone incompetent take command of my men. In this war there is no room for such mistakes. Neither would it be fair for the men already having a position in the Varden that I would suddenly put you in command over them. With us, you have to deserve your responsibilities."

"I understand. What would you have me to do?"

"Oh, it is not that easy. You and Eragon are practically brothers, and that makes things more complicated than I would have appreciated. As you surely understand, Eragon is the foundations of our hopes. If I send you into battle and you die, the grief and anger it would cause him could without doubt drive him into insanity; I have seen it happen before. In addition I must very carefully choose whom you will serve with, because there are those who will try to affect you since you are related to Eragon. So now you are a decent hent of my troubles. What do you have to say about them?"

He thought for a moment. "If the land itself is at stake and that this war is as heatedly controversial as you say, then it'd be a waste not letting me do anything, but also letting me serve as a normal soldier. But I think you already know that. About the politics…" He shrugged. "I don't care at all who you place me with. No one is going to get near Eragon through me. The only thing I care about is to crush the Empire sp that my friends and I can return to our homes and live at peace."

"You are dedicated," lady Nasuada noted.

"Very," Roran agreed. "Couldn't you let me take command of the men of Carvahall? We're very close and work well together. Test me that way. The Varden wouldn't suffer if I failed."

She shook her head. "No. Maybe in the future, but not now. They need real education, and I cannot judge you if you are surrounded by men who are so loyal to you that they abandoned their homes and crossed Alagaësia."

Roran realized that she fared him and his power. "What then do you want of me, milady? Will you let me serve or not? And then how?"

"This is my offer: this morning we discovered a patrol of twenty-three of Galbatorix' soldiers riding directly east. I will send a force commanded by Martland Redbeard, the count of Thun, to kill them and reconnoiter the area. If it suits you, you will serve Martland. You will listen to him, obey and hopefully learn. He, in turn, will watch you and report to me whether or not he believes you appropriate to receive a promotion. Martland is highly experienced and I trust his opinion. Does this sound fair, Roran Stronghammer?"

"It does. But I wonder when I'll leave and for how long I'll be away?"

"You will leave today and come back within fourteen days."

"Then I have to ask if you could wait, and send me on an expedition in a few days? I'd like to be here when Eragon comes back."

Lady Nasuada hid a sigh, but she had expected something like this. "Your concern for your cousin is remarkable, but events unfold too quickly now and we cannot wait. As soon as I know about Eragon's welfare, I will let someone from DU Vrangr Gata contact and inform you, no matter if the news is good or bad."

The man in front of her fingered at his hammer, thinking. His concern for Eragon wasn't the first and only reason for him wanting to wait. He tried to think of a way to convince the lady without saying the truth, but could not manage finding a good excuse. "You're right. I am worried for him, but that's not the only reason I want him to come back before I leave."

"Yes?"

"Katrina and I want to marry, and we want Eragon to administer the ceremony."

At hearing this, lady Nasuada drummer her fingers against the arm of her chair. "If you think I will let you walk about workless when you can help the Varden, just so that you and Katrina may enjoy your wedding night earlier, you are wrong."

"It is rather urgent, my lady Nightstalker."

Her eyes narrowed. "How urgent?"

"The earlier we marry, the better for Katrina's honour," Roran admitted. "If you ever understand me you must know that I will never ask of any privileges of my own."

Ah… She nodded her head in understanding. It was understandable that, well, Roran and Katrina had taken liberties earlier despite being unmarried – they had for long lived in fear and uncertainty, without knowing if they would ever see each other again after they part. "I see… But why Eragon? Why not an eldest from your village, perhaps?"

"Because he is my cousin and a Rider. Katrina has lost almost everything because of me – her home, her father, her dowry – and I cannot give all that back to her. Without any gold or kettle I cannot pay for a great ceremony, but I want to give her a memorable wedding, and to me there cannot be anything grand than being married by a Dragonrider."

For a long while, the lady sat quiet, pondering his words. She knew how important this was for the couple, and the whole village, and also to strengthen Roran. However…of they had to wait for Eragon's return…

She sat so long in silence that Roran began to wonder if she was to answer at all. But then she spoke up; "It is truly an honour to be wed by a Dragonrider, but it would be a sad day if Katrina had to take your hand without any dowry. The dwarves gave me many gifts, in gold and jewels, while I was in Trondjheim. Some have I already sold to fund the Varden, but there is yet enough to dress a woman in satin and mink for many years ahead. It shall be Katrina's if you agree."

Surprised but pleased, Roran bowed again, and his eyes and face shone of pride, gratitude and happiness. "Thank you, my lady. I cannot tell how thankful I am, and I do not know how to properly thank you."

"Render me by fighting for the Varden like you fought for Carvahall."

"I will – I swear. Galbatorix will curse the day he sent the ra'zac after me."

Another wry grin tugged at Nasuada's lips. "He surely does already. Go now. You may stay in the camp until Eragon comes back, and can marry you and Katrina, but I expect you in the saddle the day after that."

Chapter Text

The surface of the mirror shimmered and then a familiar elven face appeared. Nasuada breathed a sigh of relief.

"Arya," she acknowledged, and silently thanked the Gods for the magic ability of scrying. She had waited hours for Arya to contact her, and grown more and more worried. Not that she doubted Arya or Eragon's strengths and skills, but there were many dangers out there, a Galbatorix' soldiers were practically everywhere.

"Greetings, lady Nasuada," the elf said. "Is all well?"

"All is well," she assured her.

"Good. I have found Eragon and we both are uninjured." The Dragonrider appeared by the elf's side and he bowed. "My lady."

"Eragon. Thank Gokukara you are all right; we have been very worried."

"I am sorry if I have upset you, but I had my reasons-"

"You will have to explain them once you come back."

Eragon seemed to have spotted her bandaged arms – she had taken the habit of wearing a short-sleeved dress, to prove the rumours in the camp that she had defeated Fadawar. Arya obviously hadn't informed Eragon about that, because the Rider looked rather surprised. "Has someone hurt you?" he asked. "Have you been attack? And why hasn't anyone in Du Vrangr Gata healed you yet?"

"I ordered them to leave me alone. And that I'll explain to you once you come here." To Arya she said: "I am impressed – you found him. I wasn't sure if you could."

"Fortune shone upon me."

"Mayhap, but I am sure your skill more than just luck was needed. How long will it take until you come back?"

"Two or three days," Arya informed her, "if not we encounter unexpected difficulties."

"Good. I will await you. From now on I want you contact me twice a day, once in the morning and once in the evening. If you do not, I will assume you have been captured and sent Saphira after you along with a rescue force."

"We might not always have the solitude that is necessary to use magic," the elf reminded her.

Lady Nasuada knew that, of course, but she needed to know of their welfare all the time. Without Eragon the Varden would have no foundations, no strength or hope to break Galbatorix. "Then you must find a way," she aid. "I need to know where you are and if you are out of danger."

"If I can I will do what you ask of me," Arya said after a moment of thought; "but not if it puts Eragon in danger."

"Agreed."

()()()

One or two hours, Aragorn and Legolas had spent on the training fields. They shifted between actually training and walking around with Eldarion, talking to a large variety of people. Legolas met many villagers he knew more or less, and Aragorn came into contact with a general or captain serving the Varden, who was there with his men. The man was signed to educate the villagers, who were experienced but untrained, in combat techniques and how to use a sword.

After that time, Eldarion grew too bored of the place – he wanted to play! Didn't his fathers realize that? So he pulled at Legolas' hair and started wriggling in his arms, and the elf got the hint. He went back to their tent, fed and changed him and let him play with that wooden horse again: it felt good to be alone with his son again, to do these everyday things that he had missed while he had been away to save Katrina.

Speaking of which, he would visit soon. He wanted to personally meet Roran's fiancé. He had never really spoken to her; not in Carvahall, and not on the way home from Helgrind, because then the two reunited betrothed only had attention for each other. The elf was curious about what kind of person she was.

"Ada," Eldarion said, suckling at his thumb. "Oodheeell."

"What? Hungry already?" Legolas chuckled, and was pulled from his musings. "No, little one, it is too early yet."

His son whined in displeasure when his parents didn't seem to understand his wish. "Ooodheell!" he repeated again. "Aaaadaa!"

Legolas laid on his stomach on the floor of the tent, face cupped in his palm, and the boy sat on his rump in front of him, suckling his thumb with wide eyes – with that 'I am so adorable' look on his face that he often had. The elf had an urge to pick him up and kiss him, just to show him how loved he was, but right now the boy started to seem annoyed.

"What is it, my dear?" he asked gently.

"O-dheell!" With a strong grip, the boy grasped the elves nearest fingers with his own, saliva-covered ones. Legolas had this faint feeling that Eldarion was trying to call him something dirty in baby-language. Did he want his Father? "He is not here right now," he tried to soothe child. "But he will be in a moment."

"Uuup!" the boy cried suddenly, and Legolas raised an eyebrow. His son always drew out the vowels for too long but he recognized that word clearly.

"Up now? I wonder what's on our mind, little one," he said with a smile but he crawled up to sit on his knees, and helped the boy to stand. Eldarion almost immediately fell but Legolas' arms caught him securely. "Finally trying to walk, are we?" he asked but the boy was too concentrated on crawling to his feet to even look at him. Wet hands fumbled against the elf's knees. Gently, Legolas helped him and once again the boy stood rather upright. "You just need some control on those legs, little one. Where is your left one? Your left foot, love. Put it in front of your right one."

The boy was totally fascinated when he managed to move one small, uncertain step forward (with some help) that he lost his balance yet again. However he was stubborn like his fathers; he pulled himself up to his feet and tried again. Both his muscles and his mind were not used to this yet – putting one foot in front of the other – but he wouldn't give up yet. When Legolas realized this, the elf smiled wide, with eyes shining of parental pride. "That's it, little one. One more step."

"What is it?" asked a warm voice being him.

"Look." Legolas slowly let go of his supportive grip beneath Eldarion's arms, and the boy made a few small steps forward. He was starting to get the hang of this.

The elf smiled up at his approaching husband and Aragorn's returned his grin like a fool. The man kneeled opposite to Legolas and Eldarion giggled at the sigh of him. "Come to papa," he cooed, holding out his arms. "Come, Eldarion."

"He is growing so quickly," Legolas murmured, and lightly nudged the boy forward.

"How I have been waiting for this," Aragon said happily. "Yes, come over here, son!"

Eldarion moved forward, inch by inch. When he was just a bit away from Aragorn, he stumbled, but the man caught him; and grimaced a little when Eldarion prodded at his face with wet fingers. "…What's he done?" he muttered.

"He has fallen in love with his thumb, well; his whole hand," Legolas said with a grin. "We ought to bathe him."

"Yes, but I want to watch him walk again. How does that sound, little one? Take one more step to papa?" the man asked Eldarion and put him down onto the floor. But the boy seemed to have tired of walking and promptly sat on his romp.

"Oh, now he has grown lazy! What is this kind of behaviour from a prince, hm?"

"Do not mock him," Legolas said rather warningly, but his eyes twinkled. "Or I would have to punish you, dearest. Would you like to be banned from our bed?"

Aragorn flushed. Quickly he stood and picked a whining, protesting Eldarion up who persistently continued to poke his cheek. "I think I better bathe this little piece of mischief now…" he said hurriedly before he grabbed a big bowl and exited the tent in search for water, leaving a sniggering elf on the floor.

()()()

Eldarion had just been bathed and was being dressed – he tried to wriggle away from the threatening clean, small shirt – when many excited voices rose outside the tent. Hurriedly Aragorn finished his task before him, with the boy on his hip, and Legolas exited their tent and followed the mass of people.

"The elves are here! The elves are here!"

Every person in camp wanted to witness this. The pair went to the north entrance of the camp. There, lady Nasuada and Elva already were, by the side of a large horse. The lady greeted them as they came to stand beside them.

"Over there," Elva said, pointing ahead.

By the horizon moved twelve thin shapes quickly this way. With his sharp eyes, Legolas could see them more clearly than that; they were tall, lean and graceful, without stirring up any dust as they ran. They looked much as he had expected them to – they were fair in skin and most were dark haired, except for two, whose hair was lighter than his own. From this distance he not tell whether they were male or female, but all were dressed the same way, in brown and green tunics, and had a bow slung over their back. They did not appear to be armoured by swords, so they were only archers. And they could conjure magic of course – he had heard that a company of elves with such knowledge would arrive to protect Eragon.

However, one elf caught his eye: he – the elf was bare-chested – was blue, like the colour of the sky just after sundown. Legolas' eyes widened. He appeared to be covered in fur from head to toe, and he even had a tail, like a cat. His hair was dark as night. All in all this was the must curious appearance Legolas had ever seen. How could an elf look like that?

Magic, he realized. But why someone would use magic to transform their outer self, he did not know. Perhaps it was an interpretation of beauty?

By his side, lady Nasuada had begun a quiet but hated discussion with Jörmundur; the guard was upset that she had ridden ahead without waiting for her guards. Legolas did not really listen, already quite sure that Nasuada would win the argument; instead he kept his eyes focused on the twelve nearing elves. Only just a mile or less seemed to separate them from the camp now.

Now, Legolas saw that there were six men and six women. The nearer they came he could also see the colour of their eyes, the details of their clothing; the leader covered with blue fur had clearly yellow eyes like a cat and he had a dark, dishevelled mane running down over his chest and belly. The fur on his face was so thin that only its colour betrayed its presence. He only wore a loincloth and nothing more. Legolas got the impression that this was something strong and wild, recently tamed.

He felt how the elves regarded him. They wondered who he was – what he was doing here. The leader's yellow eyes flickered and for a moment, Legolas had a feeling they wanted to attack him. What if they thought he was some spy that had infiltrated the Varden by pretending to be an elf?

When the elves stopped in front of lady Nasuada, the leader was the one to speak. The other copied his movements as he laid his right hand across his chest. "Greetings, Nasuada, daughter of Ajihad. Atra esterní ono thelduin." Then he turned to Legolas and Aragorn, doing the gesture over again. "Greetings, king Elessar and prince Legolas of Middle Earth."

Legolas heard that this elf otherwise rarely spoke the Common tongue, because there was a singing accent in every word. He bowed and greeted in kind, as did Aragorn, a bit surprised that the elves already knew about them. Perhaps their queen, Islanzadí, had been contacted magically by Arya or lady Nasuada earlier? He thought.

"Atra du evarínya ono varda," the lady said, as Arya had taught her. Legolas picked up the words to remember them; he knew so little about these elves and their culture, but greetings seemed to be very important, as it was too many folks.

The blue elf smiled, pleased at her answer, showing a row of sharp teeth. Aye, Legolas thought, almost amused; he is a cat!

"I am Blödhgarm, son of Ildrid the beautiful." One by one he introduced his companions, and then he continued to speak to lady Nasuada. It seemed he had set to ignore Legolas; or maybe he wanted to speak face to face later. In the meantime, Legolas curiously studied his movements, his ways to speak – he wondered what kind of position this elf had. Was he a military leader, a captain? Or was he highly-born? He spoke like coming from a wealthy family, but on the other hand, this was a formal meeting.

Blödhgarm continued: "We bring word from queen Islanzadí. Last night, our spellweavers broke the gates of Ceunon. This very moment our troops advance towards the tower were Tarrant, the city governor, has barricaded himself. Some do yet resist, but the city has fallen and we will soon have full control of Ceunon."

So they are warriors, these elves of Du Weldenvarden. They must have been training all these decades they have been hiding – training and planning strategies and gathering their strength, Legolas thought. He was sure that Ceunon was one of Galbatorix' cities but yet, he disliked the thought of elves fighting men. Many innocents must have been harmed and the image of elves would always be one of fear among Mankind - which their queen appeared to use to her advantage. Legolas wished he could have met these elves during more peaceful times, learned of them... But now was not the time of daydreaming.

The men cheered at the news. "These are in truth joyful words, and they please me greatly," lady Nasuada said. "When Ceunon has been taken, we are much closer to Urû'baen and to reach our goals." Then she added in a softer voice: "I presume that queen Islanzadí will be merciful to the people of Ceunon, to those who have no love to Galbatorix, but lack the possibility or courage to oppose the Empire."

"Queen Islanzadí is both kind and merciful to her subjects, even though unwilling ones; but if anyone dare counter us we will sweep them aside like dead leaves before an autumn storm."

That sounds rather ominous, Legolas mused.

"I could expect nothing else from such an ancient and powerful race as yours," the lady said. Finally all these greetings gallantries were put aside. She ordered the mass of people behind them – soldiers, men, women, servants, everyone – to be taken away. Left were only her guards, the King and Consort of Gondor, Jörmundur, Elva and Angela. Then she said: "Your task here is, as I have understood it, is to aid and protect Eragon and Saphira. Is that correct?"

"It is, Nasuada Svit-kona. And we are aware that Eragon yet is in the Empire but will soon return."

The lady nodded briefly. "Do you also know that Arya has left to search for him and that they now travel together?"

"We have been informed of that as well. It is unfortunate that they both are in danger, but hopeful they will return unscathed."

"Then what do you intend to do?" Nasuada asked. "Will you search for them, or do you assume that they can defend themselves against Galbatorix' servants?"

"We will stay as your guests, lady Nasuada, and daughter of Ajihad. Eragon and Arya are safe enough as long as they go undetected, and if we were to search for them, the more likely we are to be seen. In these times it is better to bide out time where we can benefit. If Galbatorix attacks, it would likely be here, against the Varden, and if he does then Thorn and Murtagh might appear again. Saphria will need our aid to hinder them."

That surprised Nasuada a little. "Eragon told me you were among the strongest sorcerers of your kind, that I do not doubt, but do you really have the possibilities to counter this damned pair? Like Galbatorix, they have more power than a usual Rider."

"With the help of Saphria, then yes, we think we can counter or defeat Thorn and Murtagh," said Blödhgarm. He sounded totally calm. "We know what the Forthsworn could do, and if Galbatorix with high probability made Thorn and Murtagh stronger than any member of the Forthsworn, he has definitely not made them his equal. At least in that regard, his fear of betrayal is to our gain. Not even three of the Forthsworn could defeat us twelve and one dragon. That is why we are sure we can resist anyone but Galbatorix himself."

Silently, Legolas studied Blödhgarm and the other elves as he said this. No one of them moved or made any indication of pride or haughtiness, even though they surely were superior in magical power than many others; probably only Eragon could be an equal force, and the King of Alagaësia. The knowledge calmed the wood-elf a little, made him feel securer. It had not been good if the elves sent had been arrogant. But, then again, it was doubtful that queen Islanzadí would send such persons to protect the Rider and aid the Varden.

Nasuada had to hide a sigh, a mix of relief and something akin to fear. If the elf's words were true – which they without doubt were – then Eragon would be truly protected once he came back to camp. "That is encouraging to hear," the lady said. "After Murtagh defeated Eragon, I have been considered drawing back and hide until Eragon's strength grows. However you have confirmed that we are not without hope. We may not have any idea yet how to kill Galbatorix, but until we break the gates into his citadel in Urû'baen, or until he chooses to ride out and meet us on Shruikan in battle, nothing shall stop it." She paused. "You have not given us any indication to distrust, Blödhgarm, but before you enter our camp I must ask you to let one of my men touch the mind of each one of you, to ensure that you truly are Elves, and not Galbatorix' Men sent here in disguise. It pains me to come with this request, but we have been haunted by traitors and spies, and we do not dare trust anyone's words. It is not my intention to offend, but war has taught us that such precautions are necessary. Surely you - who have surrounded Du Weldenvarden's lush bowers with protecting spells - can understand my reasons. So I ask, do you agree on this?"

Blödhgarm's eyes were animalistic and wild, his teeth sharp as knives, when he answered. "Most of the trees of Du Weldenvarden have needles, not leaves. Test us if you must, but I warn you; your inspector should be careful to not delve too deeply in our minds, because he may loose his sanity; it is dangerous for any Mortal to wander among our thoughts, and they may easily loose their way and be unable to return to their bodies. Our secrets are also not available for any common examination."

The lady understood, as did Legolas and the others assembled; the elves would crush anyone whom, accidentally or not, reached forbidden territory.

She stepped a bit aside. "Captain Garven."

Said man stepped forward with the expression of a man who walks towards his doom. With closed eyes he reached out with his mind towards Blödhgarm's. His brows knitted. Utter, tense silence fell like a sheet over the gathered company. While she watched, lady Nasuada bit her lip in worry.

"You should've let me deal with the elves. It'd been safer," Angela, the healing woman, murmured.

"Maybe," lady Nasuada said – but although Angela had helped the Varden and Eragon in many ways, she still didn't know her well enough to trust her in official matters like these.

Legolas studied captain Garven closely. Several minutes had passed. Slowly Garven's face paled, his cheeks sunk like he'd aged or grown extremely tired. However the elf, Blödhgarm, looked still, his breathing was regular, and a faint but amused smile played at his lips.

"Well?" the lady asked.

Finally Garven opened his eyes sharply; his pupils were dilated like it'd been night. Many heartbeats and rough breaths later he replied, almost like he'd not heard her. "There is no doubt, milady. Absolutely no doubt. Is he no Man.?"

Both pleased and concerned – because there was something strangely absent in the answer – she nodded. "Good; go on."

After Blödhgarm, Garven needed less and less time to prod the elves' minds. To the last one, a dark-haired male, he needed only a few seconds. Frantically and with sweat pouring down his forehead, his eyes wide and breath quick, he nodded his head, and confirmed that they were indeed elves of Du Weldenvarden and nothing else. The man looked like lost in a dream, like he had seen things no Man ever had before. Lady Nasuada decided to give the man some easier task until he recovered.

Because she was angry with herself, the elves, the War and Galbatorix, that made these sacrifices necessary, she had troubles continuing the conversation in a mild, polite tone. "When you spoke of dangers, Blödhgarm, it would have been better if you had mentioned that also those who return to their bodies will not do so unscathed."

"Milady, I'm fine," Garven said rather faintly, but it wasn't so very believable. Angela laid a hand on his arm and began to lead him away. Lady Nasuada kept her composure but her eyes were cold, as were Blödhgarm's though he was eerie still, without a single flinch, just like the rest of the elves, but his blue fur stiffened.

"If I failed to explain clear enough earlier, I apologize. However do not blame us for what happened. We cannot help our nature. And do not blame yourself, for we live in a suspicious age, and to let us pass without contradiction would be negligent of you. It is regrettable that this incident has marred this historical moment, but now at least you can be secure that we are nothing but Elves of Du Weldenvarden, as we ought to be."

For a while lady Nasuada stood silent. Legolas watched and wondered if there was something affecting her, perhaps the new elf's curious looks or his speech; she seemed different somehow. A little distracted she said: "I wish that Eragon or Arya had been here, for they would have had no fear of searching your minds and loose their wits."

However then Elva, the strange child with violet eyes, grabbed her sleeve and brought her down to ear-level, and whispered something in her ear.

When she stood, the lady spoke again. "My young companion wonders why you look so different from other elves, and I have to admit, I am slightly curious as well. Your appearance is not what we have come to expect from your kind."

The blue elf shrugged. "This form pleases me," he said. "Some write poetry or creates music of the sun and the moon, others plants flowers or build grand buildings. I do appreciate those arts, but I believe the true beauty is within the wolf's fangs, the wood-cat's fur, and the eye of the eagle. Perhaps, in a hundred years, I will lose interest of land-living creatures and instead find beauty in everything living in the Sea. Then I will cover myself with scales, transform my hands into fins and my feet into a tail, and disappear among the waves to never be seen again in Alagaësia."

It was impossible to determine if he was joking or not, for his eyes was calm and serious. If they are that strong, Legolas thought, that they can use magic to transform themselves – what then can they do more? And what can Galbatorix, who is stronger, truly do?

He was curious. Had he been able to, he would gladly follow these elves back to their homeland, to see whether the rest of their people also differed so from his own. Their magic was stronger than any magic that had ever been in Arda or its nearby realms - except for perhaps the Maia, and the Valar of course. Not even with the help of these elves' magic they could have had a chance defeating Sauron, for example, since the Ring's power had been much stronger…

Briefly Legolas wondered what disaster it would make if Galbatorix managed to find that kind of power and bind it, and part of his soul, in an object that could almost not be destroyed – that would make him immortal…

But he couldn't let his mind linger on such things now; questions would eventually be answered later; perhaps he could find a chance to speculate with the elves on the matter.

Lady Nasuada spoke again, commenting on Blödhgarm's words: "Truly interesting. I do hope that the desire to become a fish will not hit you in a near future, for we need you upon dry land. But of course, if Galbatorix happens to decide to power also the depths of the Seas, a sorcerer who can breathe under water could aid us."

Without warning the twelve elves laughed, and Legolas smiled, understanding their reaction. Almost everyone around them also smiled; Legolas had lately become aware that Mankind were quite affected by elven laughter, how they saw the world momentarily as a lighter place, and that reaction might be welcome in this world of war and uncertainty. If anything, the laugh proved that the elves had nothing – right now, at least – sinister in mind.

Then the elves stopped to laugh, the world fell back to normal. Blödhgarm smiled his face both beautiful and terrifying. "It shall be an honour to serve next a woman as intelligent, capable and clever as you, milady Nasuada. Some day, when your duties allow you, I would be glad to teach you our game of runes. I am sure you would become a worthy opponent."

Legolas knew that Gimli would have had a say about this changeable behaviour – about how much all those 'flighty elves' bothered him.

Flighty – Legolas had heard that description of himself and other elves in the past. However now the word seemed to gain a new meaning. The word meant elves as a danger – 'Watch out! You may never know what an elf can do'. The elves of Du Weldenvarden were an uncontrolled power, barely tamed; they were strong and dangerous with their magical abilities and secrets. Not even Legolas, an elf himself, could feel secure about them.

From the camp behind them, a large group of men and women of a mixed status and dress, led by King Orrin, approached. From west came Saphira floating down on the sky, wings outstretched. Everyone was coming to greet the elves. Lady Nasuada turned to said guests, as the sounds of the advancing group neared them: "It can yet take a few months until I have the change to accept your offer, Blödhgarm, however I do appreciate it. It would have been pleasant to be able to relax with a game after a long day's hard work. But for now, entertainment must be put ahead for the future. The heavy weight of human society is about to crash down on you. I suggest you to prepare for a river of questions, assumptions, names and titles. We, Mankind, are a curious kind and no one has seen so many elves before."

"We are ready for this, lady Nasuada."

()()()

Aragorn watched the elves in fascination, yet he saved his questions for later – it was enough for them to be bombarded by king Orrin and his people.

They were alike to the many different sorts of elves in Arda, yet, they were poles apart. The elf Blödhgarn was strange but then when he thought of it, Aragorn realized that the elf had simply embodied his nature. For some reason it seemed to affect lady Nasuada more than others – she took rather long pauses when she spoke, and once the girl by her side had had to bring her back to attention. Actually the elf seemed to affect all women nearby, like there was some air about him; perhaps it was because he looked so exotic – only Elva seemed less captivated.

He had met the girl a few days earlier. In truth, he had first not been able to believe his eyes. That voice and those terrible violet eyes should not belong to such a young girl. He'd been even more shocked to find out that she was a mere babe, much younger than the five years she looked.

However, back to the matter at hand. Now when the official meeting between lady Nasuada and the elves was over, the latter were surrounded by curios eyes, questions and voices. Many introduced themselves, although rather out of character. Only Orrin seemed able to contain his composure as king, but that was only to be expected.

In his arms, Eldarion stared at the elves and craned his neck, twisted in his grip, to have a better view. Aragorn hoisted him up. "Do you think they look as beautiful as your Ada?" the man murmured in elvish, amused.

The boy pointed at the elves. "Aaada."

"Not all of them, little one. Yes, they're elves, like your Ada." His son started to look confused now. He clarified: "Elves, little one. Elves."

"Oodhel!" Eldarion tried to form the word Edhel, but was trying his tongue over it. He had heard it quite a lot during the last few days when his parents had in elvish discussed the coming of the elves, and it had been etched into his memory. "Ooodhel!" he repeated, delighted at all the new things he was seeing today. He wanted to play with the blue elf's fur.

After all this chaos, the elves neared Legolas. They must be curious, or wary - possibly both - but Aragorn wasn't so sure. The elves' faces betrayed no feelings or thoughts.

Captain Garven still looked totally dazed. Angela, the healing woman, led him away.

"My lord, could I have a word with you?" asked suddenly a voice on his left and Aragorn turned to come face to face with Jörmundur, Captain of the Guard.

"Yes, of course, captain." He shifted his grip of Eldarion – the boy was quiet but wide-eyed, staring at the elves. Being so young, he could be captivated by enthralment for hours end.

"I mean no distrust or disrespect as I say this, but I realize we have never searched your or prince Legolas' minds since you arrived," Jörmundur said. "I am aware you have done much for Eragon's cousin and I do not doubt the truth of your words, but as a Captain, security is my priority. I wonder if you both would allow

"I cannot speak on Legolas' behalf, but you can search my mind, if that would soothe you," Aragorn said after a moment. "However you must know that since captain Garven's…reaction was as, well, as it was, I cannot guarantee that the same affect will not pass onto the one who eventually touches Legolas' mind. He is an elf too, after all."

"Mind-searching isn't common in your world, is it," Jörmundur mused; "after all, you do not use magic?"

The ex-ranger grinned wryly. "The only one who has lived in Arda and possessed mind-reading was lady Galadriel, an elven queen."

"Oh?" Jörmundur raised an eyebrow. "You speak of her in past tense… what happened to her?"

"She sailed." At the man's blank expression, he explained: "All elves sooner or later leave Middle Earth. They set sail with their gray ships and never return; they go to Valinor, the Blessed Realm, beyond any maps we have… Perhaps it is so that the land is ruled with magic in the form that exists in Alagaësia."

"Lies this land to the east, or south, or…?"

"To the West. To the East lies on the lands of Men." And Mordor, the land of Shadow – but he didn't mention that.

Jörmundur looked thoughtful. "I have heard the elves came to this land from the west. Maybe it is so that all elves come from the one and same place, and through magic has travelled to our different worlds." He quirked an eyebrow. "But I am only speculating here; of course, I carry no such real knowledge."

Aragorn had to agree that the man had a point here; it wasn't completely illogical either, if the Blessed Realm was another world altogether, a place of peace between all Immortals… where to they were transported by magic. It would not be impossible…

()()()

The elves did not immediately leave to their appointed tents where they could eat and rest as the guests of the Varden. After being bombarded by questions, assumptions, compliments and a hundred names by king Orrin and many others, they finally faced Legolas. The elf had waited patiently.

"Words have travelled to queen Islanzadí and to us," Blödhgarn said with a slight bow by his neck; "Prince Legolas-vodhr, it is an honour to meet you at last."

Ah – they know, but they are suspicious since they could not have any confirmation until now, Legolas thought. And I have come here in a peculiar way as well … I'm sure they want to question me but since I'm royalty, that hinders them.

He could vaguely remember the words Arya had greeted him with the first time they met, and Saphira's explanation that it was the correct greeting. It was better if he started on good terms with this powerful people, so he copied the gesture of putting a finger to his lips and said, with a noticeable outlandish accent;

"Atra esterní ono thelduin. It is a pleasure to meet you, Ildridion."

Too late he realized that he had without thinking added his own language into the sentence. He righted himself by saying; "Son of Ildrid, please, call me not by my title, for here I am scarcely a prince, with no homeland or great authority. I am but a warrior among many."

A smile played at the corners of the elf's lips as he replied: "Mor'ranr lífa unin hjarta onr." Legolas acknowledged the words with a nod, silently stowing them away for later use. What little he had learned about these elves, through lady Nasuada and Arya – they were rather strict and formal.

"I will not do the same mistake again, Legolas," Blödhgarn assured him. "I assume that King Elessar is your husband?" The blue-furred elf briefly looked over the field towards said man where he stood speaking to Jörmundur.

"Yes, that is correct."

Legolas was ready if they would ask a myriad of questions on the matter, but these elves were very quiet; even the leader did not ask more of it. Instead he was more curious of Middle Earth in general and of elves there. He tried to retell the history as shortly as possible, but yet all the names and ages created mountains of information that Blödhgarn and the others took in with wide eyes; Legolas hoped to be able to speak with them later, when they had eaten and rested. However despite time-limit he could give an account of his arrival and the general ways of his people, of Mankind in Middle Earth and living in Gondor. He saved the War of the Ring for later.

"I am curious, but does not any elf of your home at all know of magic?"

"Not in the sense that you know of it," Legolas explained. "We do not use spells or use magic to counter our enemies, for we do not know how to do so, but there have been some great ancient elves with much more knowledge than I have. So in a way, magic is present with our kind. Only the istari – wizards – could use magic like you, but they have all left Middle Earth now."

Blödhgarn slowly nodded his head. His tail flickered. "We must part now but I do hope we will meet later, Legolas son of Thranduil, and perhaps exchange some insight of our homelands."

"As do I, Blödhgarn Ildridion."

When they parted, the other elves silently trailing behind Blödhgarn, Legolas looked after them. They disappeared into a tent which had been prepared for them until Eragon's return.They are like I expected, he thought, and yet so much different. When they first saw me, it was not just suspicious in their eyes – it was also respect! Ai, I did not notice that til now. I am getting my judgment blinded by this war. And now I will have to handle the twelve of them bowing and curtseying at the sight of me! I must truly make sure they do not develop such a habit. They must think that it is only proper for my kind. Well, it is, but I am not fond of it.

"Legolas," Aragorn called for him, pulling him out of his thoughts.

The elf stepped over to his lover. "Yes?"

"Jörmundur desires to search our minds; not out of distrust or disregard, but one can never be too sure in these ill times and actually, we have never been searched."

"Not the villagers or Roran either," Legolas murmured with a sigh. "I suppose it is the wisest, but," he added to Jörmundur; "I will hide what I consider my own personal secrets, as you must understand."

"I do," the man nodded.

"Have you spoken with lady Nasuada of this?" Legolas asked.

"Yes. She shall be coming with us," Jörmundur informed him. The man was a bit nervous. What if he was affected the same way or worse by being inside Legolas' mind? An elf was an elf, after all, no matter where they came from.

"Shall we go to my tent for some seclusion?"

Chapter Text

They sat opposite to the man, Aragorn with Eldarion – who had fallen asleep – in his lap. Jörmundur looked a bit nervous. He had informed lady Nasuada of this and she had, after a moment of thought, approved. She stood in a corner watching them.

Jörmundur began with Aragorn. Legolas knew how to use his mind and protect certain things, but the man did not; the elf hoped that Aragorn would not reveal … well, certain personalmoments in his memories; especially not things like their wedding night or Eldarion's' birth.

The man's brows knitted, and his eyes were closed in concentration, much like Captain Garven had when facing the elves. Aragorn felt the intrusion and on instinct tried fight it off, but after a moment he realized it was the man who just inspected, and didn't prod more than necessary. Thoughts and emotions and memories flickered by and for a moment, Jörmundur saw the world in the other man's eyes. He saw unfamiliar lands, heard thoughts in a language he didn't understand, witnessed battles he had never played a part in – more emotionally strong memories stood out, like that flashing-by moment when Aragorn promised his heart to Legolas standing in a wide illuminated forest; or when facing giant armies of dark, twisted creatures, on the brink of destruction and death; when he was crowned King of the White City, of Gondor and Arnor...

Long silent moments passed until Jörmundur opened his eyes. "He's clear," he murmured and lady Nasuada sighed in relief.

Next was Legolas. The first thing that hit the man as he, hesitantly, entered his mind was how vast it was. There were layers of memories, of thoughts and consideration, wisdom that comes with age despite the elf's young flawless face. His mind was more complex than the man's.

So many creatures, languages, lands and battles flew by. The elf was more aware of his presence than the man, it seemed, and almost guided him to moments in his past. There were places in the elf's mind which he couldn't reach and he dared not nudge at them, knowing the elf might even kill him if he did. There were so many faces and emotions…so many years…

…He felt like he drowned.

His breath was sharp and short when he came back to his own body.

"Well?" the lady wanted to know.

"He… he's clear too."

"You should have let me do it," Angela said. She stood beside Nasuada, like always appearing when she maybe oughtn't to but where interesting things happened. Legolas blinked into awareness and laid his eyes on her, a bit in surprise, but did not speak.

"Maybe," Nasuada said, and stood straight. "but now what's done is done. Jörmundur, are you all right?" Gods forbid, he was acting like captain Garven. The elves are a strange folk, she thought; and dangerous. No matter where they come from.

"I am fine, my lady," he assured her. "I just feel in need of some fresh air."

"Then I bid you good day, I have other matters to attend to. Take some rest, captain."

She left and Angela did too shortly afterward. Jörmundur sat on his chair staring off at nothing. Carefully Legolas laid a hand on his shoulder and said gently; "I am sorry, captain, if that experience was shocking to you."

The man asked one of the questions that Legolas had least expected, but was probably one of the most usual questions for a man to ask an elf. "How…how old are you, my lord, if I can ask? Your mind is so strangely vast…I have never…never before…" His voice died. He knew that elves were immortal but had not known that it would make them so…unfamiliar even in the mind.

"Many times older than Galbatorix."

"Legolas," Aragorn asked, "do you remember which day you were born?"

The elf's brows knitted in though. "Aye. That was eight yeni ago."

"Which was almost half into the Third Age," the man pointed out, "and nearly millennia before I was born."

"My lord," Legolas said and began to steer his husband out of the tent, with the captain staring after them in bafflement because of this display; "you are clearly making me confused. Are you calling me an elfling but yet implying me as an old one? Are you feeling clear to the mind?"

"I just wanted to make it clear to captain Jörmundur that you were actually lying to him."

A slight smirk quirked at Legolas' lips as he righted: "Not directly lying, just concealing the actual truth - and I am far older than Galbatorix; that is no lie. As Ranger and wise King, you ought to know the difference."

()()()

The night seemed to drag on forever. The Captain grew even grumpier, and the men were quiet. The whole thing unsettled Beregond. They started avoiding several roads, they travelled at night, avoided the daylight – which was they were on the move now when the sun had fallen long ago. In the still, cold hours of darkness, each man's breath sounded loud, every slight sounded was heard and pierced his ears. When they climbed down a steep hill, their horses' hooves were like thunder. It didn't feel at like they were passing through the landscape undetected.

The young soldier Ythar hadn't spoken a word for days, like being under a spell or in terror.

"We'll rest here," murmured the Captain suddenly. He gestured at a tree, both it and his hand barely visible. They had only one torch as a flickering source of light. "Tie the prisoner there and give him some bread and water."

"Almost there now," whispered Domenik, one of the soldiers; "Soon you'll face your fate, Efridson." The last was added as a taunt, for both Domenik and all others knew that his real name wasn't 'Efridson' but Beregond son of Baranor – they knew that and much more. Too much than Beregond would have liked.

Beregond didn't bother to grunt a reply and let them lead him to the tree and secure his bonds. When given the food, he ate in silence, just like the other men. Some of the soldiers sat in the corners of the camp as guards; the others went to sleep after tending to their horses.

He planned to escape sooner or later. It was a good thing none of these soldiers had brought dogs with them – if he did manage to run, it would be rather hard for them to track him down. If luck smiled upon him, it would start raining and the Captain would be distracted or away.

The Captain – that man was his biggest troubles. His knowledge in magic, as it must be magic, and sinister voice and the baleful air around him … It all triggered warnings in Beregond's mind. If that man wanted to kill him he could do so with a word. He was like a twisted, unmerciful version of Mithrandir. When he escaped he either needed to run out of the Captain's reach, or kill him. Beregond thought that both he and many others would have preferred if he did the latter…

However, to escape he first needed to rest and regain some energy. After finishing his meal, he leaned back against the trunk. Through half-closed eyes, he saw the Captain seat opposite to him across the camp, and sharp eyes were watching him from beneath that hood. No words were spoken. All was quiet. They had lit no fire; slowly but surely the torch died and all lights went out, and when he no longer could see – but still feel – the Captain's watchful eyes on him, Beregond settled to sleep.

()()()

It was the middle of the afternoon when Eragon and Arya returned. Saphira leaped into the air and flew to meet them, full of relief and joy, but also ready to scold her Rider for his foolishness. Where he sat outside the tent, Legolas glanced up from his work when the twelve elves ran past him in full haste. Looking upwards he saw said dragon up there in the sky like a blue diamond, soaring by.

He was relieved that Eragon was back. It was good that he was alive and well; good for the Varden, for the War, and for Roran. The man and Katrina would marry shortly and Legolas had been delighted to hear that. At the moment he was trying to sew a piece of clothing for Eldarion to wear that special day.

Which wasn't so working so very well. Oh, he had known that there had been a reason he had never liked sewing!

"What are you doing?" asked a bemused voice.

"Albriech," greeted the elf with a smile. "Come, take a seat." He patted the log he sat upon, before resuming his work. "I am trying to make some clothing for my son, for the wedding of Roran and Katrina," he explained. "I am beginning to get the better of this now…"

Albriech, one of Elain's sons, laughed. "I bide you good luck, Legolas." It was a little bizarre to see the elf do such a work; he was a warrior and a prince after all. Albriech had expected all such work to be done by servants … was that not how it worked for royalty?

When he asked, Legolas grinned. "Of course, in Minas Tirith someone else would immediately rush out and try convincing me to let them to their work, if they saw me do this. However, this is not Minas Tirith but the Varden and I may be royalty, but I should manage a task as easy as this one. If I did not work at all, I would be a waste."

"True," Albriech agreed. "Well, I've to take my leave now to help my brother in the smithy, but I actually came here for a reason." The elf looked up at him. "There will be a feast tonight with some of the villagers, and we wondered if you and Aragorn could come? It's a surprise for Eragon."

Legolas grinned. "We will be glad to come." But when the man wished him a good day and began to leave, he raised a hand. "Wait. I wonder, how is it with Elain?"

A shadow passed over the man's face. "She is not so well… for the last few days she has had very nasty pains…we fear for the child. She should give birth soon."

The elf also looked rather grim. "I regret that I have not sought her out for a while. Could you tell her, next time you see her, that I will come and visit her shortly?"

"Of course. I think she'd be happy to see you."

Legolas had long been worried for Elain but so much had happened, he and been away to rescue Katrina, and met the twelve elves, that he had almost forgotten about her. Yes, he'd hurry to get this done and then without delay go to her. Or maybe even better, he ought to go now and sit by her side while working on this.

He gathered his things and stood, peeked inside the tent to tell his husband where he was going; Aragorn nodded in understanding. He was playing with Eldarion at the moment.

It was not hard to find Elain's tent. He called out to ask for permission to enter, and after a moment, Katrina replied that he could. On the bedding in the centre of the room laid Elain, and she looked distressed and a bit afraid, but she shone up at the sight of him. "It's all right, Katrina," she murmured. "Could you…leave us alone awhile?"

"Are you sure?" Katrina asked, sounding worried, a frown flickering over her face.

"Yes, just a few minutes, all right?" The girl nodded in response and quietly greeted the elf, before she left.

"Elain, I am so sorry I did not come to you earlier," Legolas said sincerely. "I could have, but other matters came in the way and then…For the last few days it is purely my own fault. I am terribly sorry. How are you feeling?"

Elain smiled a little. "It's all right, don't bother, please…you must've had much other things to think about. I'm fine. How's Eldarion?"

"He is very lively. He has begun learning how to walk."

"I wish I'd seen that," she murmured and briefly closed her eyes as another wave of pain hit her. Legolas pulled out a pallet to sit by the bedside, gently took her hand in his own. The needle and fabric he had carried with him here lay forgotten in his lap.

"Have you let a healer seen you?" he asked.

She nodded weakly. "Yes… a few days ago. But really, you oughtn't to bother."

"But I do care for you; you are a friend." He gave her a half-pained smile. He felt with her; he had felt terrible the last few days before giving birth to Eldarion.

After a moment the pain had passed, and Elain leaned back against the pillows. "I've heard all sorts of rumours and things," she said and suddenly looked both shy and fascinated at the same time, as she glanced at him and asked; "It is true that Eldarion is your and Aragorn's real son? Not adopted? That…that Aragorn is the father?"

Legolas' eyes shone of parental pride. "Yes."

"I'd never imagined. But, come think of it…the two look related," Elain murmured. "Does that make you his … mother?"

Seeing her apparent confusion as she tried to grasp that subject, Legolas smiled gently. "It does. Something like it hasn't happened for ages in Middle Earth… Aragorn and I were given a wonderful gift."

"What was it like?" she asked suddenly. "To carry your child… as a male I mean…" She blushed.

Warmth filled his body, pride mixed with a hundred other emotions, as he recalled every moment from the day he had found out he was pregnant, and to the day he gave birth. "It was… amazing. And terrifying. I almost cannot describe it. Can you imagine the shock the kingdom had, when they found that their king would have an heir with his husband?" Legolas shook his head a bit, and Elain nodded; aye, she could imagine that. Her mind was somewhat put at ease, and she found that right now she didn't think of her fear to loose her child or her own life. "Elves carry children for twelve months, and the first ones were filled with excitement and encouragements, so many congratulations and then there was the councillors of course who were yet trying to grasp the prospect… Ai, I have actually never had any more chaotic months before in my life."

"What about the birth?"

"Maybe the right way to describe it was that I loudly announced that I desired to castrate Aragorn. Valar, it made him red for a week."

For the first time in days, Elain laughed. "I remember having my first son," she mused. "I was so extremely happy. I wished it never would be over. But the first child is always the worst … I laboured for eight hours! I must have driven Horst mad."

Briefly she closer her eyes and her smile turned into a grimace. The elf stroked her hand.

"Does it feel near?" Legolas asked softly.

"Yes. Yes. Very." She looked up at him painfully. "Can you be here, please?" Her eyes held the trepidation she had felt for a long time now, and she squeezed the elf's hand. Legolas hated to see her in this distress, and silently prayed to the Valar to make this easier to her – and let both her and the child live.

"I will be here, I swear to you," he said and intended to keep that promise.

()()()

In the meantime Eragon had entered the camp and been greeted by many villagers, including Horst and Roran, and then he and Saphira and Arya had gone to be officially welcomed back by lady Nasuada and king Orrin. The Varden had believed him to have come back days ago, but that the lady had waited to welcome him, for some reason. They had kept it hidden that he had been away for longer than most would deem necessary. He had also met the elves, who were now his personal guard, and not really surprised when he saw Blödhgarn. He had seen many strange and similar things in Du Weldenvarden.

He had suffered meeting lord Fadawar and a line of other lords and ladies, been covered in mountains of presentations, names, titles and congratulations – his head had been spinning, but he had to remember everything, study and learn, and act his part as a Dragonrider even if he felt sick of frustration.

But Eragon also felt relieved. He had, by a mistake, found out Sloan's true name. After a long debate with himself and queen Islanzadí, whom he had contacted through scrying, he had woven the man in protecting spells and given him orders – that could not be disobeyed – to go north, and find the elven forest. Thanks to the elven queen, the man would find food and shelter there, and hopefully soon become a better man. If he managed to that, his true name would change – he would be free – and the elves would restore his stolen sight, since the ra'zac had ripped out his eyes and brutally made him blind. Now when he had woven all those spells around the man, he didn't need to let his mind linger on the matter anymore. The ra'zac were gone, Sloan safe.

After all the guests had gone, he retold his story to lady Nasuada and King Orrin. Surprisingly enough, they agreed he had done the right thing. When he asked why, the answer was: "If you had made yourself Sloan's executer, you would have taken the power that lady Nasuada and I have. The one who decides who will die and who will live, no longer serves the law but dictates the law."

Now Eragon felt refreshed and more than happy to be back with Saphira. After Arya and Orrin had left the tent, the lady asked of him a last request for today – to partake in a feast.

He knew his duties and suppressed a grimace, but agreed to come. The following few hours he needed to prepare himself to fend off verbal attacks from those who wanted to use him or was curious about Saphira and her Dragonrider.

()()()

"No, no, no, that's wrong. Turn it over." Elain sighed, and Legolas laughed mildly as he did as she said, turning over the piece of fabric. "Where have you learned so sew?" Or rather she meant 'who lets you do it when you obviously cannot?'

"I haven't learned it myself, but I have seen it is done. Honestly, it's not that hard. See, I have done this whole side already."

Elain's expression told him it was disaster and Legolas did not really blame her for thinking so. Yes, he was an elf and old but he had never been able to sew properly. Actually when he was a child, when his mother yet was alive, she had taught him some but he had forgotten much once he had taken up arms and become a warrior foremost.

"Oh, let me. Watch closely now." The elf gave her the piece and skilfully she removed the threat on the left side, flipped it over and started again. After a while in her presence he had remembered the piece of clothing he was making for Eldarion, a small robe, and began sewing on it again.

Elain hadn't thought that an elf, an immortal could have any flaws – or not many at least – but mayhap it was because he was male he had not this knowledge; because he was a warrior and a prince. But he didn't appear spoiled.

"Like this…now, the stitches are hidden, see. But why a robe?" she asked curiously, not looking up from her work.

Legolas smiled. "Roran and Katrina are to marry, and I need my whole family to be presentable."

"Oh! Yes, I heard about the marriage. It's wonderful to hear, a bit rushed but that's understandable, we're in a war after all. But a pity that Katrina's father isn't…" She sighed and tried not to think of it. Sloan hadn't been exactly loved by Carvahall, but he had been respected and was mourned by the villagers, especially his daughter – who now had no family except for Roran. Elain dearly hoped that he would take care of her and not leave her alone and hurt.

The elf's smile saddened. "It is," he murmured in agreement. He had never known Sloan well, but he could barely imagine how Katrina must feel – how he would have felt if his father had died and left him alone with Aragorn; he didn't want to imagine Thranduil dead…

"There." Elain's voice pulled him out of his thoughts, and she gave him the robe-in-progress. "Now you try."

()()()

A dark-haired head peered inside the tent. It was sundown now, the sky outside golden. They hadn't realized that it was so late.

"Legolas? Elain?" a familiar, warm voice asked.

"Estel," Legolas smiled. "How good to see you. What brings you here?"

"There is a feast with the villagers and we are invited. It is a surprise for Eragon, whom has not met his old friends in a long time," the man explained. "Will you come?"

"I'd be glad to, but I might be in need of assistance," said Elain a bit embarrassed; "and I'm a little tired, but I will manage."

"We can attend the feast for a short while, just greet them," the elf suggested.

Elain nodded, grateful that the elf so understood of her condition. Not all males were. But then again, Legolas had been in the same position once. "All right."

While she was aided onto her feet and given some more comfortable and formal clothing, going behind a curtain to dress, Aragorn picked up a piece of fabric that he recognised very well. However it seemed to have dramatically transformed. He raised an eyebrow, and a pair of smooth hands came to rest on his shoulders. "Yes, that's Eldarion's robe for the wedding. Elain helped me."

"It's wonderful." It was simply cut and not so very detailed, but its colour, a warm green,

gave it a soft glow. It was a fine material that they had managed to trade within the camp in return for some arrows Legolas had made, since they had no money to pay with – what little Legolas had carried with him when he arrived to alagaësia, he had spent them to feed the villagers during their escape from Carvahall – however, in a war, weapons were always needed and the man from whom they had gained the fabric had been very grateful. The elven arrows were finely made and would serve him well, not so easily stray from the target.

"A pity there is not enough to make us something new," the elf murmured a bit absently. He had never liked robes, but maybe he could have made a tunic or the like, matching Eldarion's. He and Aragorn only had clean, white shirts, and that didn't feel enough for this occasion. Or their status, for that matter.

"Is Eldarion asleep?"

The man chuckled. "Nay, actually not. He is with Baldor and Albriech, who already are at the feast. I trust them enough with out son for a few minutes, and he also seems to like them."

"Isn't he a bit young to be up this late?" Legolas said with a small frown.

"Do not worry, Legolas," Aragorn kissed him briefly. "He has not been able to be around many happy people for a time now, and he needs to be able to laugh as he wishes without having any passerby scowling. Besides, there are other children there, and to play with them will do him good."

Legolas sighed into the kiss. It felt such a long time ago since they had last touched each other, embraced, without caring of all the troublesome matters of the world… "Fine. This once."

()()()

The large tent was filled with light, laugher and a hundred aromas. Food stood upon the table. Twenty or so villagers, including Horst, Katrina and Roran, were present. "Hail, Aragorn," said the smith and raised a tankard. "Please, sit, sit." Beside him sat Baldor and Albriech, the latter with Eldarion in his lap.

Legolas helped Elain to sit next to her husband, before the elf took seat beside his own. The food was tempting – it felt as if he had not had a decent meal for days. However a happy squeal stole his attention.

"Ada!" Eldarion tried to reach out for him and was steadied by Albriech, who put a hand against his stomach; else he'd fall to the floor. The child patted the man's nose, making the nearby people laugh. "Bech!"

Albriech's face reddened. "Here," he mumbled and gave the child to Legolas. He still wasn't used to be around such small children, and it felt strange to hold them with his rough hands. Especially when the boy seemed to like him so much, and had no qualms about patting his face or trying to engage him in a play.

"I hope he has not been the cause of any trouble?" the elf wondered as he took seat and Eldarion made himself comfortable on his lap.

"No, no … he's quite calm. He tried to walk a little."

Legolas smiled, shining up with parental pride at hearing that. "Thank you for looking after him."

Eragon joined the feast alongside lady Nasuada not many minutes later. He seemed surprised but pleased to see so many old – and new – friendly faces, and not a heap of lords and ladies; both he and lady Nasuada opened up, talked more and laughed, and the villagers acted like Eragon was one of them and not a Rider. They dared to joke about him as if he was any youngster, a mischievous one at that.

Elva, the strange child, sat eating in a corner. The other children avoided her. They couldn't have much common; despite her body, her mind was like an adult's, and she did not spend her time playing or laughing. Though it was a feast she rarely did more than smile – which may have made her look sweet, if not for the terrible violet eyes.

The tent shook and then parted at one end, as Saphira poked inside her giant head. Her nostrils were widened and her large eyes surveyed the crowd. With much appetite she ate of the meat presented and drank from a large tankard of mead. At first the villagers were weary, but the children soon found her very amusing and dared to go up to her and touch her blue scales. Soon enough, a group of them were playing by her feet and clinging to her nose, making the assembled people laugh.

Everyone was open and carefree. Legolas felt happy and relieved about that, even though no one joked about him or Aragorn the way they'd joke about Eragon – they probably felt a little uncomfortable doing it since the were royalty. But when asked, he and Aragorn spoke of their home-world, of their own adventures and old legends and tales. Especially the tale of the Silmarils that Legolas knew by heart became a favourite that the villagers wanted to hear again and again – but they found the War of the Ring very fascinating. Oh, and the hobbits, naturally, since no such folk existed in Alagaësia. Luckily Aragorn knew so much of the periannath – not as much as Mithrandir had, but he could have been able to write a book on the matter.

"I'd be glad to meet Gandalf if I found the time and ability, someday – he sound like an interesting old man," Angela, the healing woman from Teirm, said with a chuckle. She sat seated opposite to Legolas, and the elf for once had the chance to speak to her. She seemed rather … peculiar. It was rather obvious she knew of magic; she was a healer but also a witch, and had a hundred secrets that the elf didn't dare ask about, in case she'd anger or turn him into something … unnatural.

The elf grinned. "I am afraid he would've opposed against being called an old man."

"Well, it's a matter of perspective, but being old is an honour. The older the wiser, isn't that true, hm?"

"But Angela," lady Nasuada who was nearby said; "you speak as if you were older than me, and that can't be right!"

"Eyes can be deceiving; do not always trust what they tell you," Angela replied, voice twinkling with merry. As usual, she spoke in riddles. Aye, very much like Mithrandir! Legolas mused. They would have gotten along quite well, had they ever met.

The feast continued. Food of all kinds was eaten and wine flowed. Eldarion sat to play with another youngster near his age in a corner, the two children immediately liked each other. The boy had never before been with someone as young as himself. In turn, the other child seemed very fascinated by the slight point of Eldarion's ears, a sign that he was half-elven.

Then a hand gently tugged at Legolas' sleeve and the elf looked up. It was Elain, and her face seemed troubled. "Elain, are you feeling well?" he asked worriedly.

"I'm a bit tired…I was going back to the tent and rest, just saying goodnight."

The elf stood with a hand on her arm. He was anxious about her and the child – had tonight been a too heavy strain? The birthing could be here in any moment. Maybe going here hadn't been such a good idea…

"Please, allow me to escort you."

"Don't you want to continue feasting?" Elain's eyes flickered over to the two youngsters on the floor.

"It's all right; Aragorn is here to watch over Eldarion," Legolas assured her with a smile. "I have seen many feasts enough in my lifetime; missing a few hours of this one will not hurt."

Chapter Text

It had been one and a half hour since Legolas assisted Elain to go from the feast, and he had no left the tent since. When the pregnant woman had slept, he helped Katrina – who also had come back – with various household things, and spoke to her, getting to know Roran's fiancé a bit better. Many would have considered it wrong for him, a male, to be alone with two females but Legolas had no such interests in mind – he was just helping a friend, supporting her. Actually at the moment he did not think much of the situation. This behaviour would be considered normal by his own kind; of course he would help those he held dear, no matter the situation or gender.

When Elain had awoken, Legolas sat by her side, talked, and encouraged her. She helped him with his sewing again; it was almost finished.

"Here, it's against the pain," Katrina murmured as she gave Elain a cup.

"Thank you," she said before she drank. It tasted bitter and she grimaced. The brew would not begin soothe her until several minutes, maybe even an hour. She shut her eyes tightly when a wave of throbbing pain hit her again. They were coming at shorter intervals, and she knew that they were not just mere warnings…but she was frightened, very frightened, about what about to happen and the fact that her child might not survive.

"Elain, are you feeling well?"

"Yes, yes, I'm fine," she said hurriedly as always and Legolas didn't quite believe her. When the cup was emptied he put it away on the table beside the bed, without once releasing her hand. The woman's grip was firm and told him that she was in great pain. This was unlike her other pains… He could feel it. Briefly he glanced at Katrina, who too looked worried. "Do you know where to find my tent?" the elf asked softly at which she shook her head. "Ask your way and find Aragorn. Tell him to hurry. And inform Roran and Horst if you can."

"Is she…?" Katrina asked with wide eyes.

The elf nodded shortly; Katrina swiftly left the tent to find anyone that could assist her. Murmuring nonsense elvish, Legolas stroke Elain's hair back from her forehead, urging her to release his hand. When she finally did, he quickly, without thinking about it, removed the clothes from Elain's lower body. They were bloodied. He grabbed a blanket and covered her knees with it, so that she would at least be partially shielded from view. Right now he had not time to think of how wrong this would be seen, how angry anyone of Mankind would've been if they found out he had undressed her. Although on the other hand, he had clear reasons to.

The child was late. It could increase the risks of it being born unhealthy.

"…I'm afraid," Elain whimpered and was in too much pain to feel embarrassed.

"Do not be mellon nîn. It will be all right. It will be fine."

"If I don't make it…will you tell Horst to take care of…of the baby?"

Sudden tears sprang to his eyes, glazed them over, but he refused to let them fall. It would not do to break down in worry right now – he needed to stay a calm, focused support. "I promise," he said. "You will make this, Elain! I will not allow anything else."

His mind screamed out: 'Estel! Drop whatever you are doing and come to me right now!'

Elain's face screwed up in pain as another contraction hit her. It wasn't far between them now. Every minute felt like hours. Where was Aragorn, for Valar's sake? Did the man not know of the word "hurry"?

()()()

It was on the way between two tents as Katrina ran straight into a very familiar person, and she would've wanted to embrace and kiss him. However right now was not the time. She needed to find lord Aragorn, and then a healer, and hasten back to Elain's tent… What if the child…?

Roran's face lit up at the sight of her. It was visible that he was tired though. "Katrina! Why the hurry?"

"It's Elain," she said urgently; "She's finally gone into labour. I need to find lord Aragorn, he's a healer, and Horst; Legolas is with her right now. There's a high risk she'll loose her child."

His eyes widened. "I'll fetch Aragorn and Horst," Roran said, because he remembered where the king's tent was. "Go back to Elain! I'll meet you there shortly."

()()()

Just below a wide hill, the landscape continued to be flat but there was an occasional group of trees and there, far away, a small city was silhouetted against the sky. The men steered their horses down an old road, now with shields raised and weapons ready in case of attacks. The Varden was nearby and their hidden forces could assault them at any moment, if they weren't watchful, if they went through the land too loud…

They had been travelling for many, long days and Beregond's body ached, but at least he had had ability to rest and heal from earlier injuries that the Captain and his men had brought upon him. He was though. If not for his magical abilities, the Captain would never have found out about Middle Earth, Elessar or lord Faramir.

"How long shall we stay in the city, Captain?" wondered one of the men.

"As long as necessary," the Captain said, vague as always when he spoke; "There is someone important I must meet."

Who?  Beregond wanted to know, but of course kept quiet. Important in what way? A governor or other, or a general, maybe even a spell weaver or a sorcerer like you?

()()()

"What took you so long?" Legolas hissed in elvish as Aragorn, who looked rather unkempt, entered the tent. He forced to sound calm, to steady Elain's confidence. However his annoyance shone in his eyes when he glared at the man.

"I am terribly sorry but I had just put Eldarion to sleep when Roran came to fetch me, and it woke Eldarion again, and I had to make him go back to sleep before I could leave him,"Aragorn explained quickly in the same tongue. "How is she?" He looked at the woman in the bed, fully as a healer, thinking practically. Katrina entered the tent a moment afterwards

Elain was covered in sweat. "She is in much pain," Legolas murmured, stroke back her hair and hummed soft elvish to her. "All will be fine," he quietly assured her.

"She's soon fully open. This was quick…I need some cloths," Aragorn instructed and Katrina helped him, searching through the packs lined against the wall. "And water," he added.

"I can't do this," Elain whimpered. "Where's Horst? Where is he?"

Briefly, Legolas flicked his eyes over to Aragorn. "Roran is fetching him; he will be here in any moment, do not worry," the man said assuringly. "You are doing good, Elain. Do not fear," the elf added.

She was practically squashing his hand but the elf allowed it; he kept encouraging her, mumbling to not give up hope. Everyone feared the baby would be lost and Legolas himself was anxious; today he did not want to bury an infant. No, he was convinced that he'd do everything he could to make Elain go through this, both she and her child alive. They had to live…

There was blood on the sheets and when Horst, Roran and Baldor peered inside, Aragorn ushered the latter two from the tent almost at once; he only allowed Horst to stay. "I am sorry, but too many people may cause too much stress," he tried to convince them.

"All right," Baldor said eventually. "But tell her we pray for her and the baby."

"I will."

Katrina stayed as well. Horst took seat on Elain's other side, since Legolas simply refused to go – and Elain didn't let go of his hand either. When seeing her husband and father of her child, she smiled weakly. "You came," she whispered.

"I'm here and I won't leave you," Horst promised. He sounded calm and happy, that his child was finally arriving, but Legolas could see the fear in his eyes.

"Legolas, keep her focused," said Aragorn in elvish; "focused on keeping certain parts of her body under control, and breathing. Breathe with her – let Horst breathe with her." Elain should feel the urge to push within minutes now. Everything was ready and Aragorn had taken a few deep breaths; he had to think methodically now, and push some emotions aside for later, in case the worst happened… He knew that Legolas was thinking in the same lines. Using the little knowledge he had in using his mind, he reached out to speak with Legolas in total privacy.

He felt that the elf was afraid, and it was strange to feel it this close by, this strong, where he was in Legolas' mind. 'She is weakening.'

'I will not let her die,' Aragorn swore him.

'What of the child? Can you save…?'

'I do not know…I do not know. My priority is to ease this for Elain and make her live. She has gone through many trials, much pain and stress, and it's taken their tool.'

Looking up at him, the elf's eyes met his own; Legolas briefly nodded. 'I know.'

Elain's screams filled the room, she held onto the hands of her husband and Legolas, tears shone in her eyes but she forced them back from falling. After a moment Legolas began to hum on an elven song; the lyrics were lost and meaningless but the melody soothed her, gave her hope and strength, and she leaned on his voice and Horst's arms.

It took a long time before she felt the urge to push – at least it felt like a long time, but they could not really determine how many minutes or hours that had passed.

()()()

Baldor paced anxiously back and forth. Albriech was there too with him, waiting outside the tent. People generally stayed away to give the birthing woman inside some privacy, but some villagers came and asked whether they could be of assistance. Aragorn forbade them to enter the tent – only Horst, himself, Legolas and Katrina were allowed, he said.

The smith's son couldn't help the feeling of dread. It was if as the king and healer knew that something was terribly wrong but refused to tell them yet.

"She will make it," Albriech murmured. "Mother will. She is strong."

Yes, but what about the baby? Baldor wanted to ask. He had been looking forward to having an addition to the family. It had been believed that the smith and his wife were not meant to have any more children after Albriech had been born, but now that had been proved wrong.

He sighed, and tried to stop pacing; he was only growing more worried by the action, and his racing pulse would not settle. "I don't like waiting…"

()()()

She didn't want to do this. In her heart she knew, she knew… and Aragorn knew as well, and Legolas, their faces were shadowed with worry – her child…

Something between a sob and a scream left her lips and then it was over, after hours of struggling.

Utter silence filled the tent; then, eyes shut, Elain bean to cry.

Legolas did not want to believe it; but it had been a risk…It had been what they had expected. But he did not want this to be true. He looked like a ghost, for the first time his face only having open shock and disbelief.

Gently, like cradling a screaming bundle full of life, Aragorn wrapped the tiny, silent body in white sheets. Elain was totally pale, and she cried, but there were no tears. She had fought so much for this moment, for her child, just to have it all ripped away from her. Nothing could soothe her, no kisses or gentle comforting words, Horst's voice near her own, no love or friendship in the world could give back what she had just lost.

There was panic, as her breath slowed within her pained sobs. Horst was desperate, his heart weeping on the inside but like a slab of stone on the outside, icy cold; he didn't want to grasp this but was forced to. He might have pleaded but not in any concrete words.

Legolas acted on instinct, still clenching Elain's hand and thinking: This cannot be happening.

Maybe Aragorn had read his mind or he just loved and knew him so much, to know exactly what was going on in his mind; but he didn't know what the elf was up to, he didn't understand more than that a great grief settled over his heart. A pair of strong, familiar hands grasped his shoulders, but Legolas was already far away from that reality, solely focusing on the fading life-force in front of him.

There was no resistance, no surprise or shock, nor was there an onslaught of thoughts or memories. Her mind was like a small boat, alone in the ocean, consciousness floating barely on the surface.

He reached out for her and told her to hold on, hold on, and like in a dream world, the ghost of her took his hand and Legolas, smiling, willingly gave her one little gift, if so be his last – he had sworn – he had sworn she would live... She would live. Hold on. He could not give her back her child – but he could do this – he could give her back life.

()()()

"What are you doing, Legolas? Legolas?" Aragorn whispered even if he wanted to shout, he shook the elf's shoulders. The elf had closed eyes; after a few moments his body grew limp and fell back into the man's arms; panic clenched painfully at Aragorn's heart.

The same moment as the elf closed his, Elain opened her eyes and inhaled sharply - coming back from the brink between life and death. Confused, wide eyes looked around the room, found Horst's and smiled; then her eyes landed upon Aragorn, face ashen, and the unconscious elf.

"What happened?" she whispered hoarsely. Then: "Where's my child?" She met the stricken look of her husband. "Horst? My love? Where is he?"

()()()

"How is-" began Baldor but silenced when Aragorn, grim faced and with a lifeless elf in his arms, stepped out into the fading sunlight.

"What happened?" Roran asked worriedly, eyes flickering confused from the tent opening and to Legolas.

"I can't explain now, but…I am afraid that that the child did not live. Elain is awake. Baldor, you should go to her…" Aragorn's voice was heavy and downcast, even if he looked them in the eye. The two men looked startled and then Baldor set his jaw and entered the tent; Roran didn't leave yet.

"But what about Legolas?" he asked. He could not come up with any idea why the elf would be unconscious. And he was worried too, for Legolas had become a friend to him.

There was a pause, and then the king said: "I don't know, I don't know…He will have to clarify what happened when he wakes up." 'If he wakes up' were the unspoken words. Aragorn forced himself to keep under control, calm, supportive, but inside he wept of worry for Legolas.

Roran also looked concerned. "I need to go to Katrina, but can you tell me when he wakes up?" He gestured at the elf.

"I will." Aragorn nodded shortly, before he left in-between the tents in search for his own; his mind wandered to Eldarion, and he wondered how ever he should soothe the child, because he knew that the boy would be very upset to find his elven parent unresponsive and cold.

()()()

"Where's my child?" Elain repeated again. She looked around, barely missing the presence of Aragorn but aware now that the elf was gone as well, and she wondered where he was. He had been here just a minute ago… "Horst?" she asked, begging him to explain.

The tent held utter silence. Then Baldor entered, his face shadowed and eyes filled with sorrow. He and Horst would have to spell out the truth for her, and that would only cause her grief and harm, but they could not lie either. "…Mother?"

()()()

The Captain raised an eyebrow. Either he was surprised or he was both that and irritated. "He hasn't arrived yet?"

The boy looked frail beneath the Captain's gaze. "N-no Captain. He's sent word; he'll arrive in a few days... maybe a week…"

"Is there a cause for this delay?"

"He said there were some … unpredictable troubles along the way." The boy visibly swallowed. "I don't know anything more, sir."

"Very well. I will wait for him then – one week and not more. If he's not here then I will turn elsewhere and our deal is broken..."

()()()

Devastated and afraid, Katrina rushed into her fiancé's arms and sobbed. She was frightened and to have witnessed this stressed her more than ever watching men fight and die – a child dying at birth was like a nightmare. It was common among every villager, and they knew not to have too high hopes at any pregnancy – yet, she couldn't help having them herself.

Because soon, she and Roran was going to marry, and one of the reasons they had to marry quickly was because she was going to be a mother. It was inappropriate, but they would rather hurry than wait, because she risked loose her honour - she had already lost everything else.

"Shhh," Roran murmured and stroke her hair. "It's all right…"

"But what if it happens to us?" she whispered, terrified. "What if it happens, Roran?"

"It won't," he murmured and kissed her, rubbed her shoulders. "I won't let it happen. I'll be there for you."

()()()

They were quiet as they entered the city. It had a small gate only, being surrounded by wooden palisades – there was no strong outer wall of stone, no grand buildings shining in the sunlight, and just a few guards. On the outside the city looked reduced and vulnerable. However, in there resided soldiers in numbers of hundreds, alongside the townsfolk – ordinary people, peasants, women and children.

A sheet of worry and fear was layered over the city. It had been claimed by the Empire already, rather easily subdued, but an attack from the Varden's forces was imminent. The rebellions would do anything to get Cithrí back; the city had a rather strategic position, on the edge between Surda and the Empire. Reclaiming it would lead them closer to Urû'baen.

But Beregond didn't know any of the latter, since his knowledge of this land was very limited despite – or maybe because of – his capture.

The riding soldiers gathered outside a larger building, where the former governor had resided. They were split up and just a handful or so remained with the Captain, others went to other parts of the city, which more and more looked like a military camp.

The Captain with his few selected soldiers and Beregond, yet tied to the saddle, in tow went through the town. People either avoided looking at them or bowed their heads in respect. The Captain's face betrayed no emotion.

The first thing Beregond saw when the group rounded the next corner drove him to shock.

Orcs.

There were a hundred or maybe even more; row after row of these dark hideous creatures, standing on a wide field, edged by a few tents and fires. All were armed and grunting and talking amongst themselves, but silence fell when they saw the Captain and his company.

With wide eyes, Beregond surveyed the orcs. They seemed at first to have no kind of leader, but then an orc with a large helmet and an axe in its belt stepped forward and greeted the Captain. It spoke the Common tongue, but its voice was raw and each word felt false on its lips. Its face was twisted; curiously enough it had only one eye, probably having lost the other in a battle.

Galbatorix' soldiers seemed to fear them, but the Men didn't move from their posts – they didn't dare to. Beregond quickly realized that these orcs were allied with the new king's soldiers, and the same alliance had cause the attack of Gondor. Clearly, Galbatorix was at war in this land too... It felt more logical that Galbatorix was the attacker, or had the advantage, after all, the soldiers had spoken of rebellions; it was likely those tried to break the king and take him away from his throne. Yes, he had the upper hand and once he had this whole land beneath him, he would fully turn to Gondor. The previous battle may have been only a taste …

"Captain, what news from the Lord?"

The Captain's face was unreadable. "We will advance shortly. A group of rebellions has been sensed from the east – two or three dozen of them. When they come…" He brought his hand across his neck, as if cutting it off.

The orc nodded its foul head. "Yes, Captain. We'll do what He commands." The way he spoke of 'him', Galbatorix, it sounded as if the word should be spelled with a capital H.

A battle! Beregond thought; he could use it to his advantage. It could give me cover to escape, if the soldiers' attention is brought elsewhere…The city will surely be at chaos. There's my chance.

"Good. The Lord shall be very pleased." The captain paused momentarily before he continued. "He has given me command of this area with its forces, thus, you and your troops will through me follow Our Great King's orders. Do I make myself clear?"

Plain as glass, Beregond reflected. Either you're the King's puppet but believe you have power; or you truly have power and authority to do things in Galbatorix' name. Considering you're a mind-reader, I would not be surprised if you had your own secret plans to usurp the throne…

But how did these orcs come here? The same way as I did? And why – why is Galbatorix trying to fight two wars at the same time? Is he sure that this land will fall and then…Gondor will be easy to subdue? Has he found out its King is lost? That's a weakness he will surely use when he finds out…

()()()

Hurriedly he left for their tent; thankfully Eldarion was still asleep, oblivious to yet another death and his parent's critical state. Gently he lowered the elf onto the bed. Legolas' breathing was weak but regular, his heartbeat steady but sounding far-away – he was slipping away, little by little. Aragorn wished he'd known what had happened, what the elf had done or…Anything that could help him to heal. How could Aragorn help him recover without knowing the cause? Of course he could, but in the process he would worry his heart out.

You would anyway, he reminded himself.

"Legolas," he whispered, voice hitching in his throat, taking the elf's hand. It was yet warm; a sign of life; but it was pale as snow. Aragorn managed no more words, but kept holding his hand … An idea formed in his mind; he recalled just recent events and talks – he had heard Legolas' call for air in his head, loud and clear though they were away from each other… Could he call for Legolas now? Awaken him?

He reached out with his mind, like using a thought like a spear, closed his eyes; he concentrated on trying to find Legolas' mind. A thousand presences surrounded him, each one a different individual among the Varden – some guarded their minds well, others, maybe the villagers, were rather unprotected and he heard snippets of thoughts and flickering images – a myriad of senses and emotions. He drank everything like a man in the desert. In the chaos he tried to find Legolas.

The elf's mind was vulnerable and open, now when he was unconscious; he felt the elf's thoughts surround him, there was so much and grief and pain. So much that shouldn't be there. He felt confusion; Legolas didn't understand why, why this cruelty had to happen, why Elain, his dear friend, had to suffer like this, why her child would have to die. Or rather he understood that – but didn't want to – he was confused about death, it was yet an alien concept to grasp.

Memories flickered by; of Middle Earth, of Legolas as a mere elfling crying 'Ada! Ada! Look what I found, the bird has injured its wing, and can I keep it?' - and Alagaësia and Carvahall, the first fight against the ra'zac – Legolas as an adult, his first meeting with Aragorn – all those 'I love you, I love you', each word true and sincere– the battle at the Gates of Mordor. Sensations were so sharp Aragorn wanted to scream, cry, laugh, roar in anger and embrace anyone in joy all at the same time.

Aragorn had to pull his mind back into his body again to get some foothold and concentration. Then like taking a deep breath, he plunged back again. He tried to find Legolas' flickering awareness.

'Legolas! Legolas! Tolo dan na ninsaes, saes…!'

He felt his own thought pass through him, but didn't hear them – he knew what he said, but didn't move any lips to create the words. It was hard to concentrate on thinking in clear words and searching for Legolas' fëa, which must be sparkling somewhere deep in his mind. 'Legolas,' he called out again; 'Meleth…'

There was no reply, no movement, and no stirrings. He had too high hopes…

Evening fell and nothing happened. He started to loose hope, energy and focus. He had to pull back his mind several times to regain some of the latter. Only when he glanced around and noticed the darkness, he realized how long time had passed.

When Eldarion awoke he had to give up on trying waking Legolas through his mind, and instead took care of his son. Eldarion saw the elf and felt his presence, and was upset when Legolas didn't react at all when the child reached out and cried for him; Aragorn had to carry him outside the tent to be able to distract him. Although the man sometimes smiled at the child and praised him, talked to him, his eyes were filled with worry and weight and Eldarion seemed to be affected, for he was less willing to play games and laugh.

When the boy needed to rest as well, and he wasn't pleased until his cradle was placed next to Legolas' still form on the bed, so that the child could see him.

While his son slept and lover yet threaded unconscious dreams, Aragorn watched over them.

Chapter Text

Flowers.

They surrounded him. Honeysuckle, orchids and lilies blended with a hundred colours and sweet individual aromas and a faint taste of honey on his tongue. His senses appeared sharpened; he saw each detail in the texture of the leaves. It might have been his imagination, or he heard the grass grow, he heard the slight creaking as the large beds of blossom bend to the soft breeze. Everything was at peace, and he wandered among the flowers beneath a blue sky for eternity.

The meadow was never-ending, but it did not bother him. He did not explore; he was calm and wandered everywhere, with eyes wide open, but he was not here to discover, though that might sound as an odd contradiction. Already he had seen, felt, heard and experienced so much and each detail in the meadow, down to the insects buzzing in the air and each living thing in the soil – he had seen them all before. Maybe a long, long time ago; but nothing was new.

Something felt so strangely wrong, but he could not determine what it was. He could not remember where he had come from or what his purpose was here; he didn't know where he was or if it mattered. Somewhere, deep down in his heart, it felt strangely empty. There was something he needed, or something that had to be done, something he missed…

Needs. Always he had to fulfil needs – his own, his family's, his friends', his allies'. He had never been one for politics, no matter what way he had been raised by his father; he'd been a warrior at heart, even though he disliked killing; he defended those who couldn't defend themselves.

Oh, his father…his Ada. He wondered where he was. Was he all right? He had not seen him for … A long time. A very long time.

He didn't really recall what time was. What it felt like.

Another gentle breeze passed by and far away there was a voice – and he was sure it was not his imagination. Worry grew in his heart, taking place beside that odd emptiness, and he realized the meadow was too quiet now – everything had stilled, faded away. No insects played in the grass, no crickets; no birds passed by the sky and sang. Nothing. The breeze played with the leaves and the grass without a sound.

Nothing but a few broken words that didn't quite reach him. Did they mean something?

'…beth nîn…'

Legolas sat crouched with blooms to his knees, tickling his skin. He started to feel strangely cold and vulnerable. There was no sun in the sky above him, no marking time, and no aging in the meadow; yet light shone upon him like a sheet. But it did no longer warm his naked body or bring his mind any comfort.

'…penneth…'

One thought reached him - "Ada?"

'Saes.'

What did those words mean? He knew he had heard them in the past; mayhap Ages and Ages ago, that soft language – he knew it by heart, but now, he found no translation, no sense, he didn't understand.

However he stood and followed that voice. It was stubbornly calling for him and he felt that it meant no harm. Yes. The owner of that voice: that was his goal. His heart sang when hearing it – he needed to hurry. His light pacing changed into a swift run and he ran for hours, without tiring, and that voice kept calling for him.

'Meleth.'

The word was so warm! He felt secure as he heard it; he wanted to reach out and touch it.

'Please.'

'Do not leave me.'

"I'm here," he said out loud; "Where are you? Who are you?" No response"I'm here!"

The landscape never seemed to change any matter that it flew by like he had been a deer and he left no sound or footprint. The wind begun to feel cold, and he realized that he did not belong here.

"Ada…?"

Then another truth hit him and longing, dread, and something deeper pierced him like a spear.

"Estel?"

'..Meleth...'

It was like trying to discern one star among a hundred, or a voice over a dark storm; he heard bits and pieces of endless calls for him but could not discern the whole, and it was unsettling. The peaceful colourful scenes around him felt like facades and he wanted to get rid of them; if they broke down and it begun to rain, he would not be surprised; but the sky didn't change and the flowers remained, a bittersweet taste - perhaps of afterlife, perhaps of something he could never have, for his love for Aragorn was far greater than his desire to sail.

His heart ached. It was like a pit someone else was digging, and he could not control it, could not stop it; his heart soared with yearning for freedom, and his hands grasped helplessy at air.

"Estel? Where are you? " he cried: "Where should I go?"

... Estel! ...

… Estel …

The meadow ended like a cliff edge and beyond it was a veil of uncertainty. Without any second of doubt, Legolas leapt over it, embalmed with light…

()()()

His eyes fluttered open. The world around him was pale and strangely empty, all sounds dimmed and pounding, like he was listening through water.

For a long while he just laid there and listened, as he slowly regained his senses, he smelled fire from far away, there were faint voices and shouts and there was giggling and a warm, rich murmur which was so familiar…

"Estel?"

His voice was bizarrely hoarse, his lips parched. Like an arrow shot from the bow, Aragorn was at his side, and Legolas blinked as also Eldarion's small face came into view. The child's mess fingers reached out for him – there was food around his mouth. The sight was so unexpected but so familiar that he wanted to weep of relief and laugh. But he was too frail to do so right now – his smile was weak.

"Legolas! Oh, thank the Valar you are awake. I have been so worried!"

"What happened? Where is Elain?" the elf asked. "How is she, is she all right? How long have I been asleep?"

"For one day and one night," Aragorn said and his face darkened. There were dark rings of fatigue beneath his eyes, and Legolas wanted to reach and kiss them; he wanted to grab Aragorn in a breath-taking embrace and never let him go. "Elain survived but the stress was so much that she experienced a temporary memory loss…Baldor and Horst had to explain that her child didn't…didn't make it." The man lowered his gaze. "There has been a burial, they decided they didn't want to wait … I'm sorry."

'Don't be,' he wanted to say, but found no voice: 'Don't beThere was nothing that you could've done…'

Legolas was quiet. Elain had survived. That had been his goal. He had neglected her for these last few weeks and then, suddenly, almost given up his own life for her – he felt guilty about it. If he had acted earlier, been there for her, easer her pain…

Briefly he closed his eyes and a worried hand lay on his shoulder. It was strong and warm and he wanted to hold it forever. But he didn't manage to move. It was too late now – and he ought not to have regrets, because there was nothing to be done about them anyway.

"Legolas?"

The worried voice sounded like from a dream. Slowly he opened his eyes again and met those of his husband. "…I am … fine. It was just much to take in. I'd hoped…hoped…" He closed his eyes briefly.

Aragorn looked pained. "I know."

He had found some more control of his limbs now and even if they felt heavy, he managed to sit and threw his arms around Aragorn's neck. The man was startled but then he smiled a sad smile into the elf's hair, and held him close. Legolas was trembling slightly – he did not fell any tears – he did not speak a single word. The elf planted kisses all-over the man's face and then onto Eldarion, not minding his messy hands; Legolas was like mesmerized, and saved this moment in his memory, never wanting to let go of the warm feeling of heart. The child giggled and held onto his hair – that old unbreakable habit – and maybe it was Legolas' imagination, but it looked as if Eldarion had grown. Aragorn gently settled the child in-between them, and the boy was occupied with a toy.

At last, Legolas spoke, not more than a whisper. "I was afraid."

"My love," the man murmured quietly, stroking his hair; "what happened?"

"I…I wanted to save her. She's dear to me and I couldn't let her…" He choked on the words. "I remembered…once Eragon told me about taking energy…and I thought, I'd do the same but reversed – give Elain energy…to survive…She's so dear to me, Estel. She is a friend and I love her – and I couldn't let her… I wish, I wish I could've saved her child." He wrapped his arms around his lover, tried to breathe deeply and calmly but tears wetted his eyes and he had trouble keeping his voice steady. "Oh Estel! If I'd been a little earlier…a little faster…I could have saved her child! Her child, Estel!"

Warm, stable hands stroke his back, tried to comfort him and give him support, and he leaned into the touch and finally let his tears fall, sobs working up his throat. "I was afraid – to lose both of them, to lose a friend, and then…then I were so afraid…when…" His voice died. Aragorn held him and listened, understood, even if he didn't speak. He was there which was what mattered the most. Legolas allowed his tears to fall freely and clung to his lover for comfort and support, anything to grasp and hold onto to ease his pain.

They should be used to death. It always came in the end to Mankind, no matter which form it took or when it arrived. It was fate, the Gift of Men. They should be used to death and perhaps they were, as warriors, who had lived for a long time and fought all since they were old enough to hold a sword. But they could not get used to it; death, that they couldn't stop. When their own died. When losses hit them close by. And such a young one, not even able to draw its first breath, did not deserve to die! The world felt such an unfair place.

"…Will she be all right? Elain, I mean," whispered the elf after a moment. "You said she lost her memory… And what about Roran and Katrina – will they yet marry…?"

"Her memory loss was just temporary, covering only a few hours; she cannot recall the birth. She is resting now, but should awake in a few hours," Aragorn promised him softly."The burial ceremony drained much of her powers. Her sons and husband are with her, so don't fret; she is not alone. As for Roran and Katrina…I believe they plan to wed shortly, despite the recent events. Roran must soon leave on a mission and they desire to marry before that."

Legolas nodded distractedly, not really wondering why the pair chose to go on, even if it was rather inappropriate on this short notice after a stillborn. Now, Eldarion had crawled into his lap, craving his attention, but Legolas only gave it to him half-heartedly. He drew comfort from his child's presence, but he still felt quite frail and emotional and didn't want to upset the boy.

"I see…when will they…?"

"The day after tomorrow."

"Oh." Tiredly the elf dropped his head to rest on the man's shoulder. Both his heart and body were weary. Sensing that he needed rest, Aragorn gently lowered him onto the mattress, picking up Eldarion who protested with a whine. "Are you hungry or thirsty?" he asked gently.

The elf shook his head. "No. No… Estel…" He grabbed the man's hand as he began to stand, pulling him back down to sit again. "Please, stay."

Aragorn smiled, kissed each of his knuckles and then placed the elf's hand over his chest. "I'm here."

I haven't even finished that robe for Eldarion… was Legolas' last half-complete thought before he fell asleep, crawling into the dreams of his people, eyes wide open.

()()()

The next morning was palely grey, the wind soft but chilly. Legolas felt slightly numb as he walked through it.

By the south end of camp was a hill, and below that, shielded by a thin line of trees, was a graveyard. It was a mass-grave of war, littered with small memorial messages, stones and laid out flowers. Grass grew at some places, but many graves were newly grave and the soil fresh and naked. Only a handful of tents, belonging to the Varden's soldiers, were within sight of the graveyard; it was a lonely, cold place. Legolas had decided to come here alone, without his husband or son; he needed to think, just be on his own and try to breathe calmly.

Sorrow ate at his heart. He had done a sacrifice to Elain that night, and she had survived; but he still regretted so much that he had not acted earlier, that he hadn't been able to save her child… That small innocent life hadn't even opened its eyes and taken its first breath…

The world is an unfair place.

The elf was aware of a dark silhouette on his right side; looking at it he realized who it was, and he gasped. Then slowly he began making his way over to the black-clad woman who was kneeling by a newly dug grave; he heard her quiet sobs. Kneeling beside her, he took Elain into his arms and let her cry.

She clung to him. Her voice was broken. "I've dealt…with death before," Elain whispered. "I've dealt with it…without crying…But I've never lost such a young one before…I considered myself so lucky. So lucky, that I'd never lost such a young one before in my life. My sons…my husband…" Her breath was shaky. "I was so lucky...so lucky…"

Legolas was at loss of words; he didn't know what to say or do, other than hold her in what felt a useless attempt to comfort. What words could suffice? She had just lost a child. No matter how common that was, it still hurt terribly. He had never experienced such a loss and just did not understand how she felt – and he never wished to go through such an experience ever again.

So he held her, rocked her slightly back and forth as if soothing a child.

"Thank you."

He was so shocked at hearing those words that he almost dropped her with a gasp. His eyes were wide. "I do not deserve a thank you," he murmured. "What for?"

"You were there, and you saved my life. I…I don't remember much but I remember a light, how it reached out a hand and I took it…and breathed again." Her voice was very, very soft. "It was you. I know it was."

The elf met her gaze. "You are my friend, Elain, and very dear to me. I'm sorry I could not save…" Momentarily he lowered his gaze to the ground, glancing at the grave beside them, upon which a few white flowers laid. Then with a deep breath he continued in earnest: "I could not save the child, but I could save you."

"Please don't apologize."

So he didn't, and kept quiet as Elain slowly released herself from the embrace. There were no longer tears in her eyes, but her face was lined as if she had aged, and her voice heavy. "I am glad," she said at last, "to have you as a friend. Thank you. I owe you my life."

"You owe me nothing."

She smiled a small, sad smile. "Part of this still feels like a dream, and I expect to wake up in Carvahall any moment, every nightmare gone. But there is so much happening that I know this cannot be a dream…but I wish it had been. That we had never been forced to leave Carvahall – which Galbatorix had never existed. Perhaps then…if…"

Then with a sigh she fell silent. Side by side the elf and woman sat on the ground, looking at the child's grave but eyes not really focused; their minds in their own seas of thoughts. Suddenly time didn't seem to matter so much and they though of the future ahead, more grief and pain to struggle through, more death to comprehend.

The rest of that day, Legolas' mind lingered upon the Gift of Men.

()()()

"Are you sure this is such a good idea?" Katrina asked worriedly. She was shaken, her skin a little pale; sorrow shone in her eyes. The loss of Elain's baby had hit her hard, both because Elain was such a dear friend and to lose a child always was hard, but also because it gave her fear. Fear that the same thing would happen to her.

Roran held her, gently rubbing her belly. "We have to marry now, before people notice…" It would be the best for Katrina's honour.

"I suppose you are right." She heaved a sigh. "I worry about Elain though, can she be there, and could she handle the ceremony? Last I saw her, she was so tired…"

The man kissed her on the cheek. The glow from the candles on the bedside made Katrina's hair glitter like copper.

"She has her family and friends beside her; she isn't alone," Roran murmured. "Sooner or later, everything will be all right."

"I hope so," Katrina sighed, resting her head against his shoulder and taking comfort from their embrace; it was the only thing in the world she knew she could hold onto without being afraid.

()()()

Later that day, Roran went to the Dragonrider's tent. There was a favour he wanted to ask of him; and he wanted to say thank you, again, for helping him to save Katrina. He had not seen his cousin for over a day – and not those twelve elves either, come think of it – not even Saphira. He wondered if they were so very affected by Elain's loss; Eragon had been quite close to several people in the village, including Horst and his family.

Mourning or not, there was a wedding soon to be held, and Roran was naturally nervous. He couldn't believe that finally he would marry the woman he loved. He had waited for what felt as ages.

There was no guard outside Eragon's tent, but Saphira laid in the sun on a large flat rock, nose buried in the carcass of a cow. She looked up from eating, large eyes surveying him without blinking. Hesitatingly Roran opened his mind, and said; 'Good morning, Saphira.'

'Good morning, Stronghammer.'

'Where is Eragon?'

'He's inside.' Then the dragon returned her attention to her food.

Gingerly Roran entered the tent. He was aware that he was being watched – several pair of eyes behind him. The elves now served as Eragon's personal bodyguards – they were always sneaking around like shadows, without speaking much, and it made Roran uneasy.

"Hello, Roran," Eragon greeted. He looked newly bathed, his hair still damp.

"Hello." He silenced for a moment and surveyed the room. His cousin's sword – not Zar'oc since Murtagh had stolen that weapon – laid on a nearby table, along with an armour. "How…No, forget that. I have a question, Eragon, and please answer it truthfully. What you said earlier about Helgrind, when we left and you stayed, was that true?"

Eragon looked at him solemnly. "If you trust me, Roran, do not ask me that question again. It's not something you want to know."

His cousin nodded slowly, not breaking the eye contact. Then he set his jaw, only a slight frown lingering. "I trust you. That's what family is for, right? Trust."

"That and to kill each other."

They laughed together and Roran's frown was erased. At once he felt a bit more at ease, it felt natural to be with Eragon; momentarily he forgot past grouches, sorrows and fears. "There's another thing I want to ask you …"

"Oh?" Eragon raised an eyebrow. Usually he was the curious one.

"Well, it's more of a request." He smiled a little. "I never thought I'd speak to you about this. You're younger than me, just have reached manhood, and also my cousin."

Now the Dragonrider began to look both amused and perplexed. "Speak of what? Stop to beat about the bush and tell me."

"Of marriage. Katrina and I are going to marry, and we want you to wed us." Roran's eyes smiled, filled with new hope for the future. "It'd make me so happy, and even though I have refrained from telling her of anything until I hear your answer, I know Katrina would be honoured and delighted if you'd unite us as husband and wife."

When Eragon stood quiet like in shock, Roran began to fear he'd turn it down. "Me?" his cousin said at last. Hastily he added; "I'd be happy to but … me? Is that really what you want? I'm sure lady Nasuada would be happy to … or king Orrin; a real king! He'd seize the chance to win my favour."

But Roran firmly shook his head, looking him in the eye. "No, I want you. You are my cousin, my only family in blood – Murtagh doesn't count. And Eragon, we cannot wait. We want the wedding to stand tomorrow." The man's shoulders tensed a little, and continued when Eragon frowned; "It's rather inappropriate, but if we wait other rumours than my impatience will spread around. Do you understand?"

A slow, wide smile spread across Eragon's face. Roran is going to be a father! 

"Yes, I think I understand. Tomorrow then."

His eyes twinkled merrily; he was happy for his cousin, and honoured to be the one to unite the couple for the rest of their lives. Thought he felt like he was missing something by being alone, having no lover himself, he felt no jealousy. It wouldn't do to be envious – there were so many more important things he had to do, not sit around and waste time thinking about possible loves. No, Eragon would be happy and celebrate. He patted Roran's shoulder. "Congratulations."

"I owe you. I'll give you the exact hour of the ceremony once I've talked with Katrina."

"Good."

There was a warm, rare light in Roran's eyes, like that of a child in wonder. He looked like wandering in a dream. "Eragon, I'm going to marry!" he said softly as if not even yet fully realizing it.

"Off you go," the Dragonrider said, a smile tugging at his lips. "She's waiting for you."

Yet, as Roran left the tent, Eragon couldn't help feeling strangely lonely.

Chapter Text

It had been days since he had arrived to this unknown city somewhere in the south; Beregond had lost track of the exact number, but it may have been ten as well as twenty. The soldiers kept transferring him from cell to cell, like they were nervous or had little to occupy themselves with. Either way it was straining on his nerves, and made it all the more difficult to try escaping.

This current cell wasn't really a cell but an enclosed room on the second floor of a large building in centre of town. It had one small window, from which he could see the sundown. As night began to approach, a plan formed in Beregond's mind.

It was almost too easy.

()()()

That evening, after dinner, Eldarion refused to go to sleep. He kept staying awake and crying, and Legolas began to feel very impatient. He had a headache and was on the verge of annoyed, but bit his lip to keep in check – just because he was tired in both body and soul, there was no reason for him to lash out at the boy. Or anyone else for that part.

Aragorn was doing the laundry for tomorrow, so they could wear clean linen at the wedding. Lady Nasuada had loaned them a pair of silver circlets fo