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Chains clamped tightly around his wrists, locked in a stone dungeon beneath the palace of Minas Tirith, Legolas thought sadly on how he had come to be Aragorn's prisoner. Estel - hope - the name of the one who had fought the good fight, defeated the shadow, and brought peace to a troubled, leaderless land. Through it all Legolas had fought by him, attended his wedding, helped to rebuild the lands of Ithilien, all for this man, this king.
But Legolas was without hope as he shifted from one bare foot to the other, standing on the hard, damp floor. He had been chained like this for nearly a week, since - Legolas bowed his head and groaned - since Aragorn had been visited by the mysterious man in black.
Legolas had come to the White City to make his annual report on the lands awarded him in gratitude for his part in the War of the Ring. The land continued to prosper and thrive under the stewardship of the former Mirkwood Elves and Legolas was always happy to report the progress to Aragorn and bring the fruits of their labors to trade with Gondor at the harvest festival each year.
This year had started no differently; Legolas' tenth pilgrimage had been as delightful as each previous one. He and his retinue were greeted warmly and their feasting had continued into the night. As midnight was sounded, Aragorn was called away and did not return. Legolas became suspicious and went looking for him but could not find him. Eventually he had turned in, only to be awakened a few hours later by Aragorn's guards kicking in his door. Reluctant to fight and injure his host's guards, he had allowed himself to be taken, confident that when Aragorn came to him he would be able to talk reason to him.
That had been a week ago, and though Aragorn had not come a guard had told him two days after his imprisonment that a tall man robed in black was Aragorn's only confidante now. Arwen was locked in one of the castle towers, members of the court were banished or imprisoned as he, awaiting execution, and most worrisome of all, the guard who had told him these things had never returned. Legolas had spent days wondering what it all meant and what would be his fate.
The door to his cell opened, and though the light outside was dim, only torchlight, he blinked at the harshness of it. Three men entered, dark skinned, dressed in robes of deep brown with red turbans on their heads. They carried swords and knives at their belts and one of them carried also a whip…
Legolas had only thought he knew pain before the men came to him: muscles cramped and stiff from his bonds, weak from hunger, burning with thirst, heartsick from the betrayal of a trusted friend, but afterward he knew the full measure of the word. Blood trickled slowly from many wounds and from his wrists where the iron had cut them in his struggles. His throat was raw from screaming and his breath hitched in irregular gasps from his gaping mouth.
Time then passed in an unbroken haze from which no particular length could be discerned. The blood became sticky, then tight, then flaky; his wounds burned, then throbbed, then ached. Finally, the door to his cell opened again and the three men entered.
Legolas cringed as they approached, afraid to lift his head and look upon them. One of them drew his knife and Legolas gave a cry as he felt the naked blade, cold upon his belly. His leggings were cut away roughly, and the part of him that could still feel shame burned at this latest indignity to his beleaguered body. The men dragged him from the cell and up the steps of the dungeon into the light of the palace. He squeezed his eyes shut, not wanting to know who might be watching, not wanting to see what the haven that was the king's palace had become.
The chill stone warmed against his bare feet and he opened his eyes to find he'd been brought to the king's bathing chamber. The scent of heated, perfumed water rose to his nostrils and he gasped in shock when the men dragging him tossed him into the sunken tub. He was instantly doused and came up sputtering, his hip already bruising from its abrupt contact with the unforgiving marble. Pushing his wet hair back, he looked up at the men who stood gazing at him dispassionately; their faces covered save for their dark eyes, their arms crossed over their chests, blocking the exit.
Legolas knew he could not fight against three in his weakened state. He doubted if he even had the strength to gain one of their weapons before they brought him down. His rebellious thoughts were cut short as two nude women came into the chamber, a guard at their backs. One had dark hair, the other blonde, and both had moon pale skin. Legolas felt anger rise like a beast inside him when he saw the two beauties were Arwen and Éowyn.
He leapt at the side of the tub with a cry of abhorrent rage but collapsed at its edge, unable to get out and take on the guards. The only battle he had strength for was the one keeping him from sliding under the water.
"I demand to see the king!" he growled, the words barely clearing his parched throat. "This evil must cease."
The men said nothing, but their eyes gleamed and Legolas knew their veiled lips held smiles of sadistic pleasure. Arwen and Éowyn lowered themselves into the tub and Arwen placed a staying, comforting hand upon his shoulder. He closed his eyes, unable to look at her. Her soft bosom brushed his back and he flinched, tension bunching in his shoulders.
"I am sorry, my lady," Legolas said, his voice strained. "I would spare you this if I could."
Neither woman spoke as they pulled him gently away from the edge of the tub, sat him on the ledge, and began to bathe him, washing away the blood and grime from his wounds and soaping his hair. He sat passively, shaking from weakness, fearing any movement on his part would add to the shame of the women and the amusement of the guards. He did not speak again, nor did they speak to him, and he wondered what threat they were under that rendered them silent. Through the smooth mildness of Arwen's touch he felt her fear and pleading as surely as if she were begging him for deliverance. He tried to communicate to her wordlessly that he would do what he could, though his heart was wrung by the knowledge that there was little he could do.
When the women's guard deemed their job finished, he clapped his hands and Arwen and Éowyn quickly exited to a fate Legolas feared to imagine. The leader of Legolas' three guards then clapped his hands and motioned the Elf to come to him. Legolas glared at him challengingly and the man clapped his hands again, his eyes growing hard. Gauging whether the minor resistance was worth his effort, and deciding to save his strength for what might yet come, Legolas rose shakily and moved to the edge of the tub. The guards reached for him and dragged him out. He was given no towel or clothing and the guards bound his hands behind him and hobbled his legs with a length of rope before taking him away.
They walked him down the hall to the king's bedchamber and one of the guards knocked on the door.
Aragorn's voice! Legolas' heart thumped rapidly as he was taken inside.
Aragorn sat in a chair by the fireplace, dressed in black. He wore a silver pendant Legolas did not recognize that contained a glowing green stone. Nothing about him bespoke any change in his demeanor and he held a goblet of wine in his hand, sipping it as casually as though Legolas was visiting him on some errand. He watched as Legolas was escorted in, a welcoming smile on his face. The guards forced Legolas to his knees and stepped back a few paces as Aragorn rose.
"How good of you to come," he said. "I'm sure you've noticed a few changes in the festivities from last year." Aragorn laughed, and the normalcy of it, the affable familiarity, hit Legolas like a blow to the gut.
Legolas tried to keep his voice equally casual, "I have been hoping to talk to you, Aragorn. What has befallen you that you would treat your Queen and your Steward's lady thus? Where are your guards and who are these men, obviously in your employ, that have the look of Haradrim?"
"You ask what has befallen me? Only reason and clarity come at last to eyes long blinded to the betrayal of those I most trusted. Harad and Gondor have a long history; there is no reason for enmity between our lands. But Elves on the other hand have always used Mortals for their own agendas. I was groomed by your kind into thinking victory over Sauron would ensure the rule of men at last, but I was a fool to believe this, as was brought to my attention recently. The root of the conspiracy to use my power in the furtherance of Elven and Númenórean politics has been discovered and neutralized. You and Faramir, along with my queen and Éowyn, have plotted against me; have seduced members of my court into swearing loyalty to you. Unfortunately, your schemes have come to naught and you shall all be dealt with in the way you sought to deal with me… ruthlessly and without mercy."
As Aragorn spoke, the green gem at his throat became brighter and began to pulse softly.
"Where did you get that jewel?" Legolas asked.
"Would you thieve my treasures as well as my kingdom?" Aragorn said angrily, pounding his goblet on the table with a thump. "Indeed, I believe you would. All the more reason to send you to Mandos."
"If that is your intention, why have you not done so already?"
"I had other more pressing concerns this past week, winnowing the chaff from the grain if you will. Now, however, certain measures have been taken and I can turn my attention to you, my chief betrayer. I have devised a unique execution for you, one that will bring me as much pleasure as it brings you pain."
Aragorn stood in front of Legolas, forcing the Elf to look up at him, and his hand fell to caress the damp golden locks that framed Legolas' face. "Tell me, is it not true that an Elf taken against its will fades from the assault to its soul's purity?"
The light in Legolas' eyes dimmed and he swallowed hard, becoming aware of his vulnerable state and the guards looking on. "I have not personally known an instance where it has been put to the test, but it is said to be true," he admitted.
Aragorn squatted down to look in his eyes, toying with the strand of hair, tucking it back behind Legolas' ear and then tracing the pointed tip with disturbing gentleness. Legolas held his gaze for a moment, managing to make the ripple of unwelcome pleasure that coursed through him seem a tremor of fear. He lowered his head, frightened and ashamed, and Aragorn trailed his fingers down to his chin, tilting his head up, forcing Legolas to meet his eyes again.
"The only question is, shall I do the deed myself or turn you over to the guards for sport?" Aragorn mused, his eyes taking on a cruel gleam at the anguish that bloomed in the Elf's gaze.
"Aragorn," Legolas whispered urgently, "the man who came to see you during the feast, who was he? Did he give you the jewel you wear?"
The man struck so swiftly, Legolas was caught off guard. His head snapped to the left as the backhand slap caught his cheek, the ring on Aragorn's hand cutting him.
"Who told you this? Which of your spies has escaped my net?"
"None have escaped," Legolas gasped, giving Aragorn a look of tormented pity. "This information came to me many days ago, before your obsession with enemies that do not exist drove you to this heedless malice. I do not know what has been done to you, what madness has taken you, but I suspect the jewel you wear is cursed."
A cloud passed through Aragorn's grey eyes like a summer storm upon a plain, leaving only lightning in its wake. "Yes, you would say that. You would say anything to turn me back into that which I was, to save your miserable life. If you speak such again I will have your tongue ripped from your head."
"Listen to me, Aragorn," Legolas tried desperately. "You yet wear the Ring of Barahir, the symbol of the alliance of our peoples. I know you are still there, beneath this façade of evil. The friendship we shared was not a lie, nor a corruption of the bond between Elves and Edain. On some level, you still know this, I'm sure of it. Search your heart for that knowledge and see if you cannot find the strength to fight the spell that has taken you."
In reply, Aragorn tore the ring from his finger and shoved it in the Elf's mouth. He motioned for the guards to assist him and they held Legolas while Aragorn forced the ring into his throat. Legolas gagged as the ring was forced farther and farther back until he had no choice but swallow. He struggled to regain his breath, coughing until his face was red and he was in danger of giving Aragorn his ring back in a most unpleasant manner. Aragorn rose and took up the wine goblet, forcing Legolas to drink and then throwing the remainder in his face, setting fire to the laceration on his cheek.
"That is what the alliance means to me, faithless viper!" he snarled. "The man you knew was not the true king. I have been under Elf spell all my life and only now am I free. I will make war on every Elven realm until all have died or sailed. Starting with you, I will have my revenge for the Elves' perversion of my birthright."
"The alliance is in your blood," Legolas gasped. "You can deny it, but you cannot escape it, even if you send every Elf in Middle Earth to Mandos."
With a cry of rage, Aragorn seized Legolas by the hair and pulled him to his feet. "Get him on the bed," he ordered the guards. They followed Aragorn's commands and bound Legolas on his back, pulling his legs upward until his knees rested beside his ears. As Aragorn looked on, the guards pulled the ropes tight so that they dug into Legolas' chafed wrists and ankles. Aragorn ordered the guards into the hall and then sat on the edge of the bed, his hand on Legolas' throat.
"Do you have any last words before I carry out your sentence? Think carefully before you speak."
Legolas shook his head stiffly. What was there to say? All his thoughts during his imprisonment had been bent on seeing Aragorn, speaking reason to him, with the hope he could reach that place within where the Aragorn he knew still lived. He had failed.
"Very well, then there is one more thing before we begin." Aragorn rose and took off his belt. He looped it twice around Legolas head, forcing the leather between his teeth like a bit, gagging him.
"Enough to silence you but not enough to stifle your cries of pain," Aragorn explained with wicked delight.
Legolas trembled in fear as Aragorn ran a hand along his inner thigh with frightening gentleness. If Aragorn was considering making this a tender act, he would truly be lost. He did not want any benevolence from this travesty of his friend, for that would be his undoing.
But then Aragorn stood and stripped off his black robes, the jewel at his throat glowing ever brighter. Legolas' eyes never left that green jewel until Aragorn climbed between his legs. He felt the heat of the man's body, the quickening pulse of Aragorn's heart against his own cramped and heaving ribs, but where the jewel touched his skin, it burned with a bitter, unnatural cold that seemed to reach into his chest and freeze his trembling heart.
Legolas bit at the leather filling his mouth, struggling helplessly against his bonds as his mind whirled with images of blood and death. He saw a dungeon; dark with despair, foul with the smell of blood, and his heart felt like laughing for his lord was pleased. The Black Speech rang in his ears, the crack of metal upon stone resounded through the forge as the crystal of the mountain was formed into a jewel. Shaped by tools of metal and sorcery, it was imbued with the envy of - the lust for - power long denied until it glowed with a sickly greenish light. The jewel was placed around his neck by the Dark Lord himself and his mind seized, then cleared to a purpose so single-minded and fanatical that his own name was forgotten in his need to command and to serve. Legolas saw through the eyes of this "other" as he faced Aragorn, Gandalf, and himself at the Black Gate, the look on their faces when they heard the news of Frodo's torment in Sauron's dungeons bringing a grim satisfaction to his ravaged mind.
Then Barad-dûr crumbled like an anthill trodden by a Ranger's boot and he heard the shouts of men running, the screams of men dying, crushed under mountains of stone, their lungs filling with dust and ash. He ran through a dark hallway, his black cloak flying like a banner behind him, diving for cover as chunks of stone rained around him. He rose, choking, and ran through a maze of passages until he reached a stone door that opened at his spoken command. Dashing through the opening into a tunnel, he ran on until he came to a steep stair that led up into the cataclysm Mordor had become…
Legolas cried out, the assault on his mind merging torturously with the physical agony of his taking. He fought his bonds until he bled, screaming past the leather in his mouth as he was swept into a maelstrom of pain and wrath and despair, his mind rent asunder by visions and sensations too powerful to halt. But Legolas resisted, fighting to hold onto his reason beyond the onslaught to his spirit. Calling on a reserve deep within, one forged by battle and tempered through devotion, he pushed back against the darkness that sought to consume him. It took an effort of immense fortitude to repel the worst of the images that streamed like a river of filth through his fea, but Legolas managed to drive the shadow back, if only a little.
He blinked eyes hot with tears of sorrow and pity for the victims of the evil he had witnessed and focused on Aragorn's sweaty face riding above him, contorted in a rictus of inhuman pleasure. With his waning will, he forced himself to see past this image also, to remember the man behind this unnatural mask.
Aragorn finally grunted and stilled, panting heavily. He bit Legolas' nipple hard and, laughing, pulled out of him and padded to his closet, slipping into a black woolen robe. He sat in his chair, poured himself another goblet of wine, and sighed contentedly.
"All the years you've lived and I'm the first to have you," Aragorn chuckled, "and the last. If you linger long enough, I might sport with you again." He got up and came to the bed, looking down on his conquered prize.
Legolas, his every store exhausted, lay staring at the ceiling, his breathing shallow and rapid. His jaw was aching from the leather that worked it cruelly, his back burned and throbbed from the torment of the whip, and the ring of Barahir lay in his starved stomach like an ingot of iron. It took an event of harrowing magnitude to make an Elf fade from grief, but Legolas was on the cusp of just such hopelessness. The only thing that kept him holding on was the knowledge of what would happen to Aragorn, and his beloved Greenwood, if the man attempted to carry out his plan to march against the Elven realms.
"But perhaps you will not last long enough," Aragorn said, shaking his head with mock sadness.
He reached down and loosened the belt, sliding it down around Legolas' neck and pulling it suddenly tight, cutting off his air. Legolas writhed weakly, the face above him graying out as he hovered at the edge of consciousness. Aragorn grasped Legolas' jaw roughly and worked it back and forth, sending pain lancing through the Elf's skull. He released the belt and Legolas' jaw, and stood for a moment enjoying the view as Legolas labored to draw breath.
"It's the Mouth of Sauron," Legolas moaned. "The jewel you wear carries the dark sorcery he learned from his master. His reward, fed by his hatred and cruelty, kept its power even after his master was destroyed."
Aragorn's eyes widened. "A clever Sinda; how unusual. Your people are not considered particularly wise as Elves go, but you are a prince so I suppose I shouldn't be too surprised."
Now it was Legolas who was astonished. "You know this?"
"How could I not? I know what you have seen for I have seen it as well, and other things meant for me alone. You seem to think me a pawn, but it is I who control the jewel now. As long as I wear it, no Elf or Númenórean will taint my Edain blood."
"I would have forgiven you, Aragorn. With my last breath I would have forgiven you, knowing you were not yourself. But this I cannot forgive. From the Halls of Mandos shall I curse you for your weakness to this petty, malevolent vengeance."
"Then to the Halls of Mandos, go!" Aragorn said, livid. "I care not for your forgiveness. I want nothing from you except your slow and most horrible death!"
"You have murdered me, Aragorn,' Legolas said desolately. "I do not think my death will be as slow as you would like, but I have no will or desire to fight and my heart is filled with grief. Have the guards take me back to the dungeon, for I do not wish to die in the place of my defilement."
"Foolish Elf! Do you think your defilement is ended? I shall give you to my guards as a boon and hang your lifeless body from my battlements for the carrion birds. I should like to be there when you take your last breath, but whether I am or no, I promise you your last thoughts shall be of me."
Legolas lay motionless as Aragorn called the guards and they entered to take him away. One moved to untie him as the others waited by the door, thinking him too broken in body and spirit to fight. Legolas would have agreed, for he felt himself greatly diminished by his ordeal. Yet when his arms were freed he knew he would never have a better chance. The part of himself he had protected from the jewel flared within him like the flames of Orodruin and he seized the knife at the guard's belt and slit the man's throat. He rolled away almost too late to keep the lifeless weight of the guard from bearing him down to the bed as the other two guards rushed him.
'Too slow,' he chided himself, dodging the swing from one guard and letting the man's momentum carry him forward as he gutted the second man. He seized the dead man's sword and spun to face the last guard. The man had recovered and was already coming at him when Legolas turned the sword upon him. The man ran headlong into the blade as Legolas thrust it forward, his weight doing what Legolas' injured wrist could not, burying it to the hilt in his midsection. Legolas again managed to avoid the falling man, but then Aragorn's belt, still looped around his neck, was pulled tight, choking him.
Aragorn had seized the belt from behind, nearly pulling Legolas from his feet as he sought to throttle him. With one final, frantic attempt, Legolas ducked and twisted, wringing the jewel from Aragorn's neck as he spun to face him. Aragorn let go of the belt to grab for the jewel, but Legolas flung it against the fireplace and it shattered to pieces against the marble, releasing a burst of energy that knocked them both senseless.
Legolas lay unconscious atop Aragorn who, no longer under the spell of the jewel, shifted and came around as though waking from a dream. But the sight of his friend's wounded body, his arms spread wide in an attempt to shield him from the blast, told Aragorn the last week had been no dream. What had he done?
He touched Legolas' head tenderly, assessing the damage he had wrought. The Elf's back was scored with bloody lashes, his wrists and ankles were torn from the ropes, his cheek was slashed from the ring… Aragorn began to weep softly. The repulsive things he had said, the depraved things he had done, all rushed upon him like a wind from Mordor's plain. Legolas said he would curse his name from the halls of Mandos. Had he sent him there?
But no, the heartbeat was strong, the breath shallow but unlabored, Legolas was alive. As gently as he could manage, Aragorn eased out from under him. With characteristic pragmatism, Aragorn realized he could not simply carry Legolas to the house of healing, nor could he summon guards to help him. He had used his personal guard to imprison his court and then had the Haradrim guards imprison his guard. At least two of the citadel guard, maybe more, had been killed in the struggle and Aragorn grieved for them and for all who had succumbed to his rampage.
At the moment, however, saving Legolas was his top priority. That and finding out what had happened to Arwen. He remembered ordering her locked in a tower and planning her execution. If the Haradrim mercenaries had harmed her in any way, there would be a bloodletting the likes of which had not been seen since the war.
Legolas moaned and his hand drifted to his head as he began to come around. Aragorn ripped a swatch of cloth from one of the guard's clothing and dipped it in the wine spilled on the floor, daubing at Legolas' temples as his eyes fluttered and opened.
"Aragorn?" he said fearfully, grabbing his wrist, not allowing himself to trust the man's attentions.
"Do not be afraid, Legolas, it is I. And you have saved me my friend, as so many times before."
Legolas looked into Aragorn's tear-filled eyes and his grip loosened. "This was an evil you could not have seen coming, Aragorn," he said. "The Mouth of Sauron escaped the destruction of Barad-dûr. He has spent years plotting his revenge against you. We all just got caught in the crossfire."
Aragorn's voice cracked as he recounted what had happened the night of the feast. "He looked into my eyes and presented me the jewel and I felt a longing for it stronger than the pull of the One Ring. I had to put it on, and when I did I saw him and what he had lived. The part of me where the frailties of all men reside was awakened and magnified a hundredfold. The worst of it is that every horror I visited on those I love was as sweet to me as the love of my dear lady. I took pleasure in what I was doing." He stopped and averted his eyes, remembering what had just transpired with Legolas. "Oh, Námo take me for what I have done to you!" he cried. "I deserve neither your understanding nor your friendship."
"Yet you have both," Legolas averred softly. "When you said you were the one controlling the jewel, I broke. I despaired. In spite of that, when the opportunity came to fight, and perhaps kill my tormentors, I took it. I did it for you, but for my people as well. There has been enough bloodshed in Sauron's name over the centuries and even though the Dark Lord is gone, his black sorcery yet threatens Gondor's safety. His lieutenant must be destroyed as his jewel has been. If he has mounted an army in Harad, an attack may come at any time."
"How then shall I get near him? The jewel is destroyed and he will know. I cannot ask you to forgive me, but do you have the strength to help me set things right? I ask not for myself, but for the innocents I have harmed and to keep war from destroying all we have built."
"Elves heal quickly, my friend, but it will take a little time. How long do you think before he realizes the jewel is gone?"
"He knows it already for a part of him was tied to the jewel, just as the ring was bound with Sauron's will."
"Then we must act quickly for he either attacks or flees at this knowledge," Legolas said. "How many Haradrim are in the palace right now?"
"Too many for us to take on alone, I fear," Aragorn said.
"We shall see," Legolas said, and for the first time in their long acquaintance Aragorn was alarmed by the look in the Elf's eyes.
Aragorn gave Legolas some of his clothes to wear. He then pulled some bread and wine from his cabinet and Legolas took sustenance to strengthen him and help his body heal. He donned one of Aragorn's black cloaks and put one of the Haradrim's sword and knife in his belt and Aragorn also took up the weapons of the other fallen guard. Shouts came from the hall and Aragorn opened a secret passage behind his wardrobe and he and Legolas slipped through. They moved quickly through the passage, coming out in a little used antechamber. Aragorn turned a hidden lever and the sound of stone grinding stone filled the room.
"He knows every secret passage in the castle, for the jewel works both ways. Just as I could know his heart completely, so he could know mine. He apparently saw many of my hidden feelings as a weakness to be exploited. Perhaps he was right," Aragorn said grimly.
"Do you think he shared his knowledge with the Haradrim?" Legolas asked.
"I doubt it, but this way if they pursue us, they will find themselves at a dead end."
Aragorn and Legolas ran into the hall, the sounds of shouting men hailing from the direction of Aragorn's bedchamber.
He and Legolas ran the opposite direction, swords at the ready. As they approached a vestibule where two hallways intersected, Legolas signaled Aragorn to slow. The scuff of leather on marble had alerted the Elf to the danger of an ambush. They cut through a series of rooms, coming out in a parallel hallway. But as they ran down this hall, a group of guards appeared from around the corner up ahead, running toward them with swords drawn. They turned to double back, only to see more guards coming up behind them.
Standing back to back they fought their way through the mass of Haradrim, felling them until the survivors retreated. Aragorn took a wound to his left arm, but it was only superficial. Legolas took no wound but was pale and panting by the time they put the Haradrim to rout. Aragorn offered to help him, but Legolas waved him off and they continued down another side passage, then another and another, until they reached the dungeon stair. They descended like fury, taking out the few guards who were stationed to handle the prisoners, threw open the cells, freeing the citadel guard and members of the court. One cell held Faramir, starved and bruised but otherwise none the worse for wear.
When he saw Aragorn and Legolas in their black clothing he shrank back in fear, but was soon reassured that the spell had been broken and all was well. The citadel guards who were able to fight headed for the armory and took up weapons locked away when they were imprisoned. With cries of anger, they joined Aragorn and Legolas, the company sweeping through the palace and driving the Haradrim before them. The horn of Gondor sounded and from all over the White City the militia heeded the call and joined their fellows, blocking the gates until every Haradrim mercenary had been felled or captured.
Aragorn led the charge within the palace, securing each section before moving on to the next as he and Legolas sought out the Black Númenórean. When they came to the tower where Arwen and Éowyn were being held they rushed inside, fearful of what they might find, only to discover that the women had managed to kill the guards who had come in to finish them when the fighting had started. Éowyn's eyes flashed and Aragorn found himself at the point of her sword before Legolas stepped between them.
"Do not fear, my lady. Aragorn is free of the spell. No more harm will come to you."
A long, tense moment passed before she lowered her weapon, her eyes never leaving Aragorn. Then Faramir entered and she ran to him and flung her arms around him, weeping on his shoulder as he stroked her hair and murmured words of comfort. Arwen took Aragorn's hand and clasped it to her bosom, tears welling in her eyes as she gazed on him with love and relief. Aragorn pulled her into his arms, hugging her tightly and, over his shoulder, she gave Legolas a look of deepest gratitude that he acknowledged with a serene nod.
Though the men searched the entire palace from spire to dungeon, they found no sign of the Black Númenórean who had been Sauron's lieutenant. Word was sent to the borders, and check points were set up, but the one who had caused Aragorn more grief than even his Maia master had been able to accomplish was never caught. Some speculated that he had been destroyed when the jewel shattered; others thought that, with his power extinguished, he had gone into hiding and worked thereafter behind the scenes to stir up dissent among the peoples of Gondor and Arnor against the king.
Whatever his fate, Gondor was never again troubled by him and no attack from Harad was ever mounted. Aragorn and Legolas concluded, from what the jewel had shown them, that Aragorn was the target of his rage and that his plan was simply, with what remained of the jewel's power, to force Aragorn to begin a war that would end in his death, the death of many Elves, and the division of Aragorn's kingdom.
It was with great relief that Aragorn discovered that most of his guard and all of his court had escaped execution. None of those imprisoned had sustained serious injury and Arwen and Éowyn had been locked in the tower the entire week. They had left it only the one time with the threat of what would happen to Legolas should they fail to carry out their guards' orders.
Legolas, on the other hand, had suffered the utmost at Aragorn's hands. He was taken to the House of Healing and Aragorn tended him personally, bathing and binding his wounds and watching over him for hours at a time. Yet Legolas' spirit could not heal in a city of stone, and so he was taken on a litter back to his people in Ithilien.
Aragorn tried to return to his routine. His court was sympathetic, yet he could find no rest or solace and his humor was sorely dimmed. He could not forgive himself for the things he had said and done to the blameless Elf nor did he know how to make things right between them. Arwen counseled him ceaselessly to travel to Ithilien and speak to Legolas, but Aragorn feared his presence might slow his friend's recovery.
Then the day came that a message arrived from the Elven healers that Legolas was asking for Aragorn. They said that Legolas' healing could not be completed without seeing the king, but that he was too weak to travel. Aragorn feared his friend was fading and he went to Arwen and fell on his knees before her, weeping as he told her the one thing he had not been able to bring himself to say, that he had raped Legolas while under the jewel's spell.
Arwen had known instinctively that something of the basest evil had passed between them, but she was still unprepared for the shock of the revelation. With the grace of her kind, she counseled Aragorn long into the night, outlining what was now required of him and blessing him with a kiss.
Aragorn made love to her that night, for the first time since their ordeal. The healing of Legolas' soul had haunted Aragorn but he had not realized until this night how desperately he and Arwen needed to heal, to reaffirm their bond. Her touch was warm and tender, her body soft and responsive. Afterward they fell asleep entwined in each others arms, Aragorn's absolution and Arwen's reassurance complete.
When the morning came Aragorn left for Ithilien with a small retinue, including Faramir and Éowyn who were themselves returning home. Aragorn dined with them and then he and his party continued on until they came to the Elven colony Legolas had founded. They were greeted cordially, if a bit coolly, by Legolas' guard and taken to their rooms. Aragorn went immediately to Legolas' chambers and knocked on the door.
The customary warmth of Legolas' lilting voice was absent and Aragorn felt a pang of guilt as he entered the Elf's rooms. Legolas sat in a chair next to the window, looking out at the trees that surrounded his palace. Instead of the joy and reverence the sight of his beloved trees usually brought him, Legolas' face was wan, his eyes far away and clouded in thought. As Aragorn stepped inside and closed the door, Legolas turned his eyes to him and a gentle gleam broke through the fog within.
"Aragorn, how good of you to come."
He started to rise, but Aragorn waved him down. "Rest yourself, Legolas, please. I would have come sooner but I did not know if I would find welcome within your halls, considering the circumstances."
"As long as I remain on these shores I will always welcome you, Aragorn. I know your torment is great, but I wished to see you and I am glad you have come. I would have made the journey to your halls if I could. Alas, I have not the strength. My spirit is yet veiled in shadow."
"A shadow created by my weakness," Aragorn said sadly.
"Nay, the flaw lies within me, Aragorn. I will heal eventually, but it will take much time."
Aragorn moved closer and touched Legolas gently on the shoulder, not surprised to feel the Elf tremble.
"I am ashamed to admit this to you, but I hesitated to come, and not for the reason that you might think."
"Indeed?" Legolas said. Aragorn could have sworn the Elf turned a bit paler.
"Yes. As badly as I feel for what I put you through, I was still afraid to face you. I told Arwen what happened when I was under the jewel's influence."
Now spots of bright color rose to Legolas' cheeks. He stared at Aragorn, unable to speak.
"Not that I am not willing," Aragorn hastened to assure him. "It was that I was uncertain if you…" he trialed off, his eyes at once hopeful and anxious.
"You would do this for me? Arwen would allow this sacrifice?"
"She has blessed it." Aragorn paused and shifted uneasily, "And it is not a sacrifice."
"I am honored that you would even consider this," Legolas said, "yet I am haunted also. When you had me at your mercy there was a part of me… I feared you would be tender in your attentions and I knew I could not protect myself from that." The look of naked pain on his face tore at Aragorn's heart. "I fear it still."
Aragorn went down on one knee and looked up into his friend's troubled eyes. "I did not come to press you. I offer only what you wish to take. If it is everything or nothing, it is for you to decide."
Legolas reached out with tentative fingers to stroke Aragorn's hair. "If you could but give me some time…"
"You have all the time you need," Aragorn said. "I will stay as long as you wish."
"Thank you, Aragorn. I shall consider your offer."
Aragorn then rose to leave but Legolas stayed him.
"Before you go, I have something to return to you," Legolas said. He held out his hand and Aragorn's heart clenched to see the ring of Barahir resting on his palm.
Aragorn took the ring with shaking fingers and slipped it on, gazing at it thoughtfully. "I have been blessed as a mortal man to have had contact with Elves all my life. I have been saved by them, taught by them, counseled by them, even reprimanded by them when I needed it. To have been made to think that Elves were my enemies was the cruelest deception of Sauron's minion. It uncovered darkness in my soul that I had thought was long defeated."
Legolas smiled sympathetically. "The heart of a man is no less fickle than that of an Elf. The malicious power of the curse was that it had the illusion of veracity when all it revealed was lies. I was with you in your hours of greatest darkness, hardship, and despair and I know you to be a man of honor and wisdom."
"I do not think I ever fully appreciated what this ring symbolizes until now," Aragorn said.
"A symbol can be a powerful thing," Legolas mused, "but it is nothing more than an abstract unless what it stands for is true. This ring symbolizes the alliance of our peoples and the alliance lives within us. It is a true thing."
"So it does, and so it shall until I draw my last breath," Aragorn asserted. He bowed and exited, leaving the Elf with his thoughts.
For three days, Aragorn and Legolas talked and dined and reminisced, just as they would have done at the harvest festival had things not gone so horribly awry. Legolas' merriment grew and his pallor disappeared. Aragorn's heart lightened and the Elven healers were pleased with their lord's progress.
After supper on the third eve, Aragorn was sitting in Legolas' room, sipping wine and making small talk. There was a pause in the conversation and they looked at each other, their natural camaraderie and affection instantly becoming something deeper, more reverent. Without words, Aragorn knew that Legolas' decision had been made and they rose, almost with one accord. They embraced and their first kiss was as a sacrament, sweet and full of long unexpressed yearning.
The kiss deepened and they clung to each other, their tongues communicating their desire far more eloquently than words ever could. Legolas pulled back a bit and looked into Aragorn's eyes, seeking permission. Aragorn nodded and Legolas began to undress him, pulling off his tunic and planting whisper soft kisses upon his chest. He felt Aragorn's breath, tremulous upon his neck, his hands light upon his arms, as he nibbled his way down the valley of the man's hairy chest, caressing his nipples into hard points with roving fingers. He tugged loose the laces of Aragorn's pants and pushed them down his hips; Aragorn kicked off his boots and stepped out of them as Legolas' lips sought his once more.
They moved to the bed and Legolas laid Aragorn down, his eyes riveted on the man as he began to undress. Legolas revealed his body slowly, watching in fascination at the flush that crept up Aragorn's chest, the arousal that lengthened under his gaze, at the soft moans that sighed from his lips. Any doubts he'd had that Aragorn was doing this only as penance left him in that moment. Legolas' wounded spirit mended as their bodies came together in the union of two true and noble hearts. With the warm generousness of spirit that had always defined the Elf in Aragorn's eyes, Legolas made love to him, easing him into a state of bliss so pure that tears of veneration filled Aragorn's eyes.
Afterward they lay together, hearts beating a steady, primal rhythm. Aragorn looked at Legolas' hand where it rested on his chest, a pang of guilt striking him at the fading scars he saw upon the Elf's wrist. He tensed, and Legolas noticed and raised his head to look at him.
"What is wrong, Aragorn?"
"Only this," Aragorn said softly, tracing the pale line, "another reminder of how I hurt you."
Legolas looked at his wrist and Aragorn was surprised to hear him chuckle. "Already the scars fade. Next time we meet you will not see them at all."
"But I will know they were there, and that it was I who caused them to be there," Aragorn said.
"Do not think more on it. You have removed the scars from my fea, and that is where it counts the most."
"I do not deserve a friend so loyal and understanding," Aragorn said.
"Your life has been a testament to the power we all have within us to cleave to what is right and just, despite our hardships. Your example strengthens me, Aragorn. This is why I hold to you. I bear you no ill will. Many more shadows may darken our path in the years to come and we must put this behind us so we may face them together."
"You are wise, my friend, and I shall heed your counsel," Aragorn said, kissing Legolas' palm.
Eventually they drifted off to sleep, wrapped in the refuge of each other's arms, and for the first time since the night of the harvest festival, their dreams of each other were sweet and undisturbed.