I Can by StarLight|
Disclaimer: I donít own anything, except maybe the bandits, but I donít really want them, so you are welcome to have them :)
Summary: Young Strider wants to prove his skills. His plan involves keeping a secret from Elrond and the rangers. Bad idea.
He gasped as the bandit kicked him in the ribs again. "You will tell me everything you know about us!" the man was shouting. He managed to lift his head just to see two sad eyes, clouded with tears and guilt. His friend was talking to him in a shaking voice, apologizing for some great mistake. His consciousness was tormented with pain, and he could hear only cut-off phrases. I got you into this ... my fault ... it was ... just my silly pride ... shouldn't have kept it a secret. He tried to answer. I don't blame you. This was important for you, he wanted to say, but stopped to swallow a cry of pain as the bandit's fist met his side. Suddenly a noise came from the door and they watched as it opened.
Two sets of eyes widened with horror as they recognized the hooded man from the inn.
Halbarad stood up to greet the elf who was dismounting his horse. "It's a long time since you've visited the rangers, Legolas," he smiled at the prince.
"That's true. And I'm really glad to see you," Legolas looked around, but didn't seem to find what he was searching for. "Where is Strider?"
"He went to take a look at the bandits' tracks again." Halbarad's face darkened as he remembered the bandits. "We've had quite a lot of problems with them recently. They've been attacking people from nearby towns and villages. No one has been killed yet, but a lot of people were injured and their valuable possessions stolen. We haven't been able to track them and find where they are hiding." The ranger sighed. "Strider is leaving for Rivendell tonight," he added after a short pause.
"I know," Legolas answered. "That's why I am here. I am on my way to Rivendell, and I thought we could travel together."
Halbarad's grim expression was quickly replaced by a wide smile. It grew even wider as he observed the prince's perplexed face. "It's just that," the ranger tried to explain "do you realize that if the two of you travel together, the chances that you get into trouble increase dramatically."
The elf just glared at him. "If you mean the incident with the orcs from last month, it was just bad luck."
Halbarad tried to suppress his laughter. "Yes, I do mean the orcs. And I also mean the trolls, the river where the two of you almost drowned, the cave-in, the villagers who wanted to hang you, the cliff, the wargs..."
"That's enough!" Legolas interrupted. "We are *not* getting into *any* trouble this time. Do you understand?"
"As you wish," Halbarad stated indifferently, but his smile didn't disappear.
Legolas gave up and walked into the forest to look for his young friend. He easily climbed on a tree to have a better look around. Finally, he spotted the ranger not too far away. He smiled, planning to surprise his friend, and gracefully jumped from tree to tree until he reached him. He glanced down at the young man, almost a boy, in his early twenties, or maybe even late teens. He was kneeling on the ground, examining some tracks, long dark locks spread around his face. Aragorn had joined the rangers recently and was still quite inexperienced, but in spite of that he was showing exceptional talent.
The elf smiled, as he decided to surprise the young man. He jumped from the branch and landed lightly right in front of the ranger. To his surprise, he didn't even blink.
"I knew you were here," Aragorn stated simply.
"You knew I was here! How?" the elf's shock was complete.
"I heard you."
"You heard me? I wasn't making *any* noise." Legolas was quite surprised. Men didn't often hear him when he didn't mean them to hear. In fact, men *never* heard him.
"Don't forget that I'm a ranger now. I have learned some things since the last time we met." Aragorn smiled but there was a hint of sadness in his voice that was not lost on the elf.
"Halbarad told me about the bandits." Legolas said. "He told me that you don't know where they are, and you don't know where to look for them."
"*He* doesn't know where to look for them." Strider corrected and his face was suddenly lit by a bright smile. "I do."
"What do you mean?" the elf was confused.
"I must tell you something," the young ranger whispered and looked around to make sure nobody was nearby. "But you must promise me something, mellon-nin. You must promise me that you won't tell Halbarad." he paused. "And that you won't tell Father."
"Why do you need to keep something secret from Halbarad and Lord Elrond?" Legolas was starting to get worried.
"Because I know how to find the bandits, but I must do it alone."
"Oh, I see," the elf remarked. "So this is again one of your insane ideas that had almost gotten both of us killed about a hundred times."
"Not this time. You must understand, mellon-nin. It means a lot to me."
"Alright then, I am listening." Legolas sat on a stone, indicating that he was willing to spend some time here. "You certainly got my attention."
Aragorn sighed with relief and started telling the story. "A few days ago I was spying on a couple of bandits, hoping to be able to track them and find their hiding place. But then they attacked a family that was traveling to visit some relatives in the other town. I had to show myself and fight them to help the people. The bandits ran away, they want helpless victims and easily give up when they sense the slightest trouble. But I couldn't follow them immediately. Despite my help, a boy was wounded and I had to stay and see to his injury. It was raining and the tracks were completely destroyed."
Legolas nodded, "But you still discovered something?"
"Yes. While I was following the bandits before the attack, I listened to their conversation. They were discussing that they plan to stay for some time in the 'Prancing Pony'."
"The inn in Bree?"
The ranger nodded. "They are getting there tomorrow. I will go there to spy on them. And when they leave, I will finally track them to their hiding place."
"And you haven't told Halbarad?"
Aragorn shook his head. "I haven't told anyone. You are the first."
"But... I still don't understand why."
"Don't you?" for a second anger flashed in the proud gray eyes. "Don't you see that if I tell them, they'll send someone else to Bree? They will send someone more experienced, someone more skilled, someone who can do the task."
"Well, it makes sense," Legolas pointed out.
"Don't you see that *I* can do it!" the young ranger's voice was shaken with emotion. "They don't thrust me. None of them. Elladan and Elrohir always treated me like a child. As if they needed to protect me all the time. I thought it was just because they were centuries old. I thought that it would be different when I join the rangers. But here I am the youngest and the most inexperienced. But I have learned a lot. I can do it!"
"I still don't think it is a good idea to keep it a secret. You were right about one thing - you are no longer a child, Estel. And this is not a game. The bandits are a serious problem, and it is not just about you. This is about all people who live in this area and hope that they could get out of their homes without being afraid."
"Don't you think I know that? Don't you think I would never do it if I wasn't sure I was able to. I can do this, Legolas. I know it."
"But still Halbarad is more experienced. Let him know about this. And Lord Elrond could give a good advice. They could still send you, Estel. They know what you are capable of. Give them a chance."
Aragorn sighed. "It is not just that. They all want to protect me. Because I am The Hope of Mankind." his voice was filled with sadness and sarcasm.
Legolas saw what the real problem was. Estel had learned recently about his heritage, and had not accepted it well. Of course, the responsibility, the knowledge that the fate of Middle-earth depends on you, the awareness that you are supposed to follow a certain path and are given no choice, all this was overwhelming by itself. But it was not only that. This new knowledge had raised some questions in the young man's mind. Why had Lord Elrond adopted him? Had he and his brothers ever cared about him, or were they just helping him fulfill his future? "Lord Elrond and your brothers want to protect you, Estel, because they love you and not because of who you are," the prince stated. "But you are right. You are able to act on your own now. But I ask you one last time, don't do it secretly. Tell them. Give them the chance to show you that they trust you."
"There is nothing to show." Aragorn's voice was bitter. "They don't trust me." he paused and looked at the elf. "Do *you* trust me, Legolas?"
Gray eyes locked with the blue, begging for a truthful answer.
"Of course I trust you, Estel."
He sighed with relief. "Thank you. This was what I needed to hear."
"Is this why you told me your secret?" Legolas asked. "Because you needed my approval?" Aragorn suddenly looked down, as if unwilling to answer. A smile crept to Legolas' lips as he understood the real reason for this conversation. "You told me because you hoped that I would come with you."
"You know me so well, mellon-nin," Strider smiled.
"You also seem to know me well. Of course I'll come with you. Since I can't make you see that this is *again* one of your insane ideas, and it will *again* almost get you killed, than the least I could do is to get almost killed together with you."
The young ranger laughed helplessly, "Oh, mellon-nin, I thought you were used to getting almost killed. I can't believe you are still complaining. But I must tell you something. Halbarad might have agreed to let me go alone, but he would have certainly never agreed to let me go with you. He doesn't think I'm safe around you."
"Yes, I noticed that. But we must prove him wrong. We must get out of this as alive as possible."
"We will, my friend," Estel smiled again. "We will."
Dinner at Rivendell was more cheerful than usual since the two guests had arrived.
"I'm glad you are going to stay with us for a while, Estel." Lord Elrond looked at his human son. "Everyone here missed you."
"Me too. But I won't stay in Rivendell all the time," Aragorn replied. "Tomorrow I am going to the hunting trip with Elladan and Elrohir."
For a second Elladan glared at his human brother from the other end of the table, but quickly concealed the anger in his eyes. "Yes, father. Estel is coming with us."
Elrond seemed not to notice his son's reaction. "Very well. I knew the ranger in you was too strong, my son. You just can't stay at one place."
After dinner Aragorn and Legolas took a walk in the gardens. "I missed this place," the ranger commented. "This was my first time with the rangers. I don't think I'll ever get used to being far away from here." He suddenly stopped as someone grabbed the back of his tunic and pulled him violently. The young man turned around quickly, prepared to defend himself, only to see two almost identical angry faces.
"What do you think you are doing?" Elladan shouted. "You not only have your craziest idea since you were born, and this says a lot, but you also managed to get me and Elrohir involved in this! What if something happens to you -"
"And something will surely happen," Elrohir commented grimly.
"Exactly." Elladan continued. "What do you think Father would do to us then?"
"What would Father do to you... I don't know. What do you think, Legolas?"
"Nothing too bad, I'm sure," the blond elf smiled. "Maybe he'll just slit their throats or something like that."
"Oh, no. Father would never do that," Aragorn appeared shocked by the suggestion. "It's too simple and too fast. I'm sure he'll torture them first, and then lock them in the basement. He'll keep them with no food and water for days. And finally, when they are just about to die of dehydration, he is going to give them some of his special tea that puts you to sleep and helps you heal. So they'll have the choice to drink it and save themselves or to die."
"I would choose death, no doubt about that," Legolas grinned. He had tried the special tea once and he was sure he would rather face an army of trolls, than repeat the experience. "But I'm sure Lord Elrond would come up with something good. He is creative."
"Stop it!" Elrohir interrupted. "This is not funny at all. The bandits are a serious problem and considering your tendency to get into trouble..."
"That's totally unfair." Legolas protested. "Our tendency? My life was quite peaceful before I met that human."
"Elrohir is right," Elladan commented. "The bandits won't be that easy to outwit. I think this is a very bad idea. Estel, once again, I think you should tell Father."
"I can do it, don't worry about me," Aragorn smiled at his brothers and headed back to the house to prepare his supplies.
Elladan tried to say something, but Legolas stopped him. "There is no use, Elladan. I already tried to put some reason into that thick human head of his ... nothing gets in. But don't worry, I'll make sure he is safe."
"Yes, as if he has ever been safe with you," Elrohir couldn't help saying.
Elladan gazed straight into the blue eyes watching him. "Legolas, if something happens to our little brother, and Father kills us, I promise you that our spirits will come back and haunt your dreams every night."
Legolas laughed. "That sounds scary. I'll be double careful now." Then his voice suddenly sobered. "Elladan, you know very well that I would die before I let anything happen to Estel."
"I know it," Elladan nodded. "And I am most grateful. But..." he paused. "He is just a child."
"Not by human standards," Legolas reminded.
"You are right. But it's so hard to get used to it." Elladan sighed. "Go and may the Valar protect you."
"Are you sure this is necessary?" Legolas asked, touching uncomfortably the cloth wrapped around his head.
"I told you that elves are not a common sight in that inn. We don't want to attract attention. And your ears certainly do, my friend."
"You know what, Estel, I suspect that I am not going to attract any attention, and you just make me wear this to make fun of me."
"That is always a possibility." Aragorn smiled. The young man was quite exited, that was the first time he was in charge of a mission. They entered the inn and seated on a table. Strider touched lightly the elf's elbow to get his attention. "These are the men I was following." He pointed with his head towards a table with three men. One of the bandits turned towards their table, but didn't seem to recognize the young ranger and turned away. Aragorn pulled the hood over his face even more.
"We must hear what they are talking about," the ranger whispered. "This is when your ears come into use."
"Do you think I could hear *anything* with this thing wrapped around my head!"
"Your hearing is still better than mine, mellon-nin. Please try to listen to their conversation."
The elf sighed, "So that's why you brought me here. To listen to entertaining bandit's talk." He paused. "They are not saying anything useful. One of them is bragging about deceiving the rangers again by leaving some false tracks. The other two tell about an incident when they attacked a group of people, who seemed to be carrying some valuables, but a stupid young ranger had ruined everything. They are quite mad at that silly boy and can't believe the rangers are taking children at their ranks."
"I'm sorry, mellon-nin, I'm just repeating what they said."
Aragorn shoved him aside, "Right. You are making this up."
"Wait! They are saying something useful."
"Maybe they are. And you are trying to avoid answering."
"Shh," Legolas raised his hand to make his friend quiet. "Their leader is expected to arrive in the inn some time today or tomorrow."
Strider's face brightened, "That *is* useful."
The door opened and a man with a dark cloak entered. His face was completely covered by a hood. There was something about him that seemed out of place.
"That man is hiding something," Aragorn said softly. The mysterious man sat at a nearby table by himself. The ranger couldn't get rid of the feeling that he was looking at them.
Maybe he was just looking in their direction. Maybe it was just a coincidence. And yet ... maybe not. He had to check that. "Stay here," he whispered to Legolas and walked towards the door, pretending to be going towards the stables to see the horses.
And then he knew. Quick as a lightning, maybe shorter than a second, but it was there. The man's gaze diverted from its original point and followed him. Yes, this man *was* looking at them. The question was why.
Could he be the leader Legolas had heard about? But he hadn't joined the bandits. It made no sense. Who else could be interested in them?
Aragorn had learned what he wanted, but he walked out anyway. It would be suspicious just to go back.
He stood out and gazed into the forest, thinking about the possibilities. Suddenly a blow in his back knocked him down. A hand grabbed his hair and jerked his head backwards.
"You thought I won't remember you, little ranger?" He leaned to take a closer look of his captive's face. "A boy? And you think you are smarter than us?"
Two sets of hands pulled his arms behind his back. The third bandit took hold of his throat. Suddenly, the ranger pulled back and rolled over, giving two of his captors a kick at the same time. But the third one was still holding his throat and the grip tightened. Bright spots danced in front of his eyes.
One of the bandits recovered from Aragorn's kick and slowly rose. He took a huge stone lying on the ground and hit the ranger's temple. The young man went limp in the other bandit's arms.
"What do you think you are doing?" the other man shouted. "Are you trying to kill him? We must find out what the rangers know about us. They have sent him here. Obviously they know something." He kicked the limp body. "Get him on the horse. And fast! We need to take care of the other one."
"The other one" was getting quite worried when his friend didn't come back. What made him even more nervous was the fact that the three bandits left shortly after the ranger. He decided that it would be better to go outside and take a look.
The hooded man's gaze followed him.
Legolas froze as a blade was placed against his throat. He cursed the cloth hiding his ears, it really obstructed his hearing.
"What do we have here?" A bandit approached. "Another boy? I can't believe these children think they have any chance against us."
Legolas would have smiled if the situation wasn't so grave. It was a common mistake humans made. They were unable to see the hundreds of years hidden beneath his ageless features. But the man's word worried him. *Another* boy. Where was the first one?
"What have you done to my friend?" Anger shone in the blue eyes.
"If you want to see him, you better not create any troubles." The answer didn't really comfort him. He left the bandits lead him to the horses. There wasn't anything he could do. If he escaped, he risked Strider's life. Legolas couldn't help smiling despite the worry tearing his heart apart. So they had gotten into trouble again...
They rode about four hours in the rain before they reached the bandits' hiding place. Legolas tried to concentrate on remembering the way and not looking constantly at his friend's body, prostrated on one of the horses. The fact that the young man had not woken up yet troubled him. Another thing that worried him was that the bandits made no effort to blindfold him or prevent him from seeing their secret place in any other way. Obviously, they had no intention of letting them get out of this alive. But that was alright, Legolas thought. They would find a way to escape. They always did.
They were locked in a small room. To Legolas' great relief the young ranger moved at last. Aragorn slowly opened his eyes, realizing with surprise that his hands and feet were bound and they were in an unfamiliar house. "What happened?" he asked confused "Where are we?"
"Don't you remember?" the elf asked worriedly. "Estel, look at me." Aragorn suddenly realized what had happened and looked down. "Estel, I said look at me! You may have a concussion." The ranger reluctantly raised his head.
The prince carefully examined the gray eyes fixed on him. They were clouded with regret, but were more or less focused. He sighed with relief. "I am not an expert healer, but I think you'll be alright."
"Alright!" the man was incredulous. "They are going to kill us." He paused and his gaze drifted somewhere in the distance. "Father was right not to thrust me. I couldn't do it. And, what is worse, they captured you as well. Only because I overestimated my abilities."
"You didn't. We haven't failed yet," Legolas tried to reassure him. It pained him that his friend might lose all of his self-esteem because of this unfortunate event. He mustn't allow that. "I can't believe you are giving up, mellon-nin. Think about this as a part of the plan. I remembered how to get here. We know their hiding place. So we just need to get free and the mission is completed."
"Just need to get free..." Aragorn looked around the room. There was nothing notable except for an empty fireplace and a window high above the floor. There was no way they could get to this window bound as they were. And there were no sharp objects to cut their bonds with. "What a great idea, my friend. I wonder how I didn't think about this."
Legolas laughed, "Oh, Estel, you surely remember that we have been in much worse situations. What troubles you? That we don't have resources to escape? You still have your brain, mellon-nin, and this is one of the greatest resources I've ever known. I still believe in you."
Aragorn smiled at last. Legolas was right. They had been in *much* worse situation. "Hannon le, mellon-nin." he whispered.
The door opened and a young dark-haired bandit entered. He carried a small bottle.
"I was ordered to bring you some water," he said and kneeled in front of Legolas.
Two sad blue eyes fixed on his. "Please give water to my friend first. He is not well."
The bandit looked at the young ranger and his face paled. The captive was shaking violently as if having a strong fever. He was muttering softly phrases that made no sense, "get away ... it's so cold ... don't touch me ... get away ... ". The bandit tried to touch his forehead to check if his prisoner had fever, but Aragorn pulled away quickly. "Leave me alone, filthy troll!" he screamed, his eyes wide with horror.
The bandit stepped back surprised. "Leave him. He has hallucinations." Legolas sighed. "He has been like that for some time. I'm afraid he won't survive the night in this cold."
The bandit shuddered involuntarily. It was cold indeed. "Is there something I could do?" he asked softly.
"He needs to be warm," the elf answered. "If you build a fire, maybe he could survive."
The bandit hesitated. He had received no such orders. Legolas sensed his uncertainty. "Your leaders want to question us," he reminded. "Do you think they will be happy if tomorrow they find that the prisoners have frozen to death?"
The man finally nodded. After all, setting a fire would do no harm. He went out of the room and returned in a few minutes, bringing some pieces of wood. He arranged them in the fireplace and quickly built a fire. "Is this better?" He turned to the blond prisoner.
"Yes. Thank you." Legolas nodded. The man left the room, locking the door behind him.
As the door closed, Aragorn rose and the two friends grinned at each other.
"You are so good at this, mellon-nin," Legolas said with sincere admiration.
"As a ranger you must learn to play a lot of roles. It is often useful. I am not that good," Strider stated modestly. "You should see Halbarad. But you were also pretty good," he winked at his friend. "I think that with a little practice you could become a decent ranger."
Legolas laughed, "Oh, I'm so flattered. I have always dreamed to be a ranger." His laughter stopped. "Let's get it done." He said. This was the unpleasant part of the plan and he was not looking forward to it, but the sooner it was finished, the better. His bonds were limiting his movements, but he still managed to crawl slowly towards the fireplace.
"Wait!" Aragorn stopped him. "I will do it."
Legolas stopped surprised. "I'm doing it, Estel. My skin will heal much faster."
"No. You are not getting hurt because of me anymore. It is my fault we are here and I am going to get us out."
The elf sighed. He was reluctant to let his friend do this, but although it would harm his body, Legolas knew that it would help him deal with his sense of guilt. And emotional wounds were always more painful than physical. "Alright, Estel. But be careful. Don't do yourself more damage than is necessary."
Aragorn nodded and crawled towards the fireplace. When he reached it, he placed his bounded wrists into the fire. He had to resist the urge to pull them out immediately. He looked at his bonds. The rope was giving in. Too slowly.
Legolas observed how his friend's face turned white, and droplets of cold sweat appeared on his forehead. "That's enough! I'm doing it. Get your hands out of the fire." He started toward the fireplace.
Aragorn just shook his head and didn't move. As the elf reached him, he finally took out his hands triumphantly. The bond was broken. He immediately started untying Legolas' hands, and his feet. When they were completely free, the elf took Striderís wrists in his hands and looked at the nasty burns. "Oh, stubborn human..." he whispered. The man just grinned, the pain in his gray eyes mixed with victory.
Legolas looked at the window. "I think I could jump to it," he said and started towards the other end of the room. He ran a few steps and jumped. He grabbed the window sill and lightly pulled himself up. When he looked through the window, however, his face paled. "It's a long way down, he whispered. We are on the last floor."
"Just help me to get there and we'll see what we can do." Aragorn jumped as high as he could and the elf grabbed him and pulled him up. He heard the man gasp and almost dropped him when he realized that he had grabbed his burnt wrists.
"Considering your superior elven abilities, you could have found a better way to catch me," Aragorn hissed as the elf pulled him up.
"I'm sorry, mellon-nin. I didn't think about that," he looked down. "This doesn't look good."
Strider gazed down. They were not only quite high above the ground, but they were standing just above some rocks, wet and slippery from the rain.
"I think I can do it," Legolas said softly. "It would be painful, but not impossible. Then I could catch you as you jump."
"I don't think I would survive any more catching by you," Aragorn glanced at his wrists. "No, mellon-nin, you are not jumping on *this*. We decided to get out of this as alive as possible. We can find a better way." The ranger climbed swiftly on the roof.
Legolas stared up in disbelief, "Yes, surely the 'better way' is to get as high as possible. Human psychology will always remain a mystery to me." He jumped gracefully on the roof. "What are you doing?"
"Finding a better place to jump," Estel replied, walking around the roof and staring at the ground. "Look here!" He pointed enthusiastically at the ground below the eastern wall of the house. The rains had formed a deep pond of mud. "This is much softer than those rocks."
Legolas looked at his friend as if he was mad. "I am *not* jumping into *this*! If you want, go ahead and jump here, I'll go back and jump on the rocks. We meet down."
"Oh, Legolas, it is just some mud. So you prefer to break your neck but keep your dignity? Elves never grow up," he chuckled. "And my brothers dare call *me* a child."
"Just some mud? You might feel at home there filthy human, but I donít. Estel, do you realize that if I jump there, I am going to smell like you?"
"What! That's not true!" The man protested, but apparently Legolas found his joke really funny. He doubled over by laughter, almost falling off the roof. He just needed a little push to fall. It looked so tempting... A mischievous grin appeared on Aragorn's face.
The ranger pushed his friend off the roof, jumping immediately after him.
"You...will...pay...for...this...human!" Legolas emphasized every word, as he raised his head from the pond.
Aragorn burst into laughter seeing his friend's usually perfect face covered with mud. His mirth died soon, however, as he felt the tip of a sword at his back.
"So you really thought you could escape?" the bandit's voice was cold as ice. The two friends looked around. They were surrounded.
Suddenly, the bandit stared at Legolas, and his jaw dropped. Many of the others followed his gaze and the same shocked expression soon appeared on all faces. Aragorn glanced at his friend and realized what had caused the men's confusion. The piece of cloth wrapped around the elf's head had shifted from the fall in the mud, revealing a graceful pointed ear.
"An Elf." The first bandit muttered. "So the rangers can't fight us by themselves and have called the Elves to help."
Another bandit stirred. "I suggest that we cut their heads off and send them to the rangers. That would teach them a good lesson."
A wave of approval passed through the men. "We will do this." The first bandit nodded. He seemed to be the leader. "But first I want to question them. There are some things I want to know."
Everyone chuckled at that. The two friends exchanged a worried glance. They were beginning to suspect the bandits' definition of 'questioning'.
And their guess was right.
This time the bandits tied them to two chairs, so that they couldn't move at all. The leader looked at his men. "You don't all need to be here. Go back to Bree. And find out where the rangers are camping tonight. We need to send them a present." He grinned and grabbed Legolas' hair. The elf pulled back. The man's gaze shifted to a tall and bulky man with black dirty hair and brown small eyes. "Mockar, you stay here. I will need you."
All other bandits looked disappointed as they left the room. Obviously they had hoped to watch the questioning. Only Mockar was grinning.
The bandit leader knelt in front of Legolas. "I've never seen an Elf assist the rangers before. Why are you here?"
Legolas didn't even bother looking at the man. The bandit nodded at Mockar, who gave the elf a strong kick in the chest. The prince coughed and gasped as the air was so violently forced out of his lungs. "Will you talk now?" the man asked again. "How did the rangers know that my men were in Bree? Why did they send you? What do they want? What else do they know about us? Speak!"
The elf refused to speak. After a signal from his master, Mockar demonstrated the power of his iron fist which left Legolas semi-conscious.
"Leave him alone!" Aragorn shouted desperately at the bandit leader. "He can't tell you anything. The rangers didn't send us, they don't even know we are here. We came on our own."
The bandit's face was fierce. He pushed the chair to which Aragorn was tied, so that it laid on the floor. Then he stepped on the prisoner's neck and hissed, "Did I say you could speak, little ranger?" He pressed his foot even harder. "And did I say you could lie to me? The rangers didn't know you were here? You were acting on your own? Do you think I am that na?ve, boy? Why would you come here without telling the rangers? You cannot be that stupid. Even a ranger is not *that* stupid."
Obviously I am, Aragorn would have said if the banditís boot was not blocking his air passage almost completely. Now his idea seemed to him really stupid and stubborn, maybe even childish. He remembered how Legolas and his brothers tried to make him see that he was wrong. He refused to listen to them. He thought he knew better. He, the twenty-year-old, thought that he knew better than these beings, who had seen wisdom and folly, who had made mistakes and learned from them centuries before he was born.
"He is telling the truth. Leave him," Legolas spoke. "And coming here on our own was not stupidity," he added as if he had read his friend's thoughts. "It's hard to say what it really is. I used to call it human stubbornness, or even madness, but I think now I would call it spirit. If you knew Strider better, you would not be surprised. He had done crazier things, believe me." he smiled reassuringly at his friend.
Aragorn didn't return the smile. Why did Legolas continue to defend him? He did not deserve it. He was guilty. The bandit was right - this was stupid.
The bandit released Aragorn's throat much to the man's relief. "Quiet!" he glared at Legolas. "Do you really think I would believe that? Mockar, teach him some respect!"
"Wait!" Aragorn was desperate to stop Mockar from following this order. "Do you really want to know the truth? Are you sure you can bear it?" The ranger forced himself to smile confidently. "The rangers know your hiding place. Yes, they know very well how to get here. I was with them when we discovered it. We were supposed to have returned by now. When we don't come back, they are going to come here to look for us. Considering the number of rangers and the fact that all of your men except the two of you left for Bree, I think I would call this trouble."
"You are bluffing," the bandit stated calmly. However, these words worried him more than he wanted to admit.
"I don't think so," Aragorn's smile grew even wider. "But you could take the risk. Or you could send your pet to bring the others back and hope the rangers won't arrive before they have returned. Or you could both leave and save yourselves."
Mockar didn't seem particularly offended that he was called a 'pet'. Maybe he didn't even realize that the ranger was referring to him.
"Maybe you are right," the bandit leader whispered and his tone was lethal. "Maybe we should leave. And then the rangers will arrive and find an empty place ... with two cut-off heads waiting for them in front of the door. But ... I don't really believe you. Mockar, I don't think our guests know how much I value the truth. And I don't think they know how they are supposed to talk to me. Teach them some communication skills," he grinned and left the room.
He came back after several hours to see if Mockar had finished his 'teaching'. He glanced at the prisoners. "I see you had done your job well. I think they will be more cooperating now." He knelt in front of Legolas again. "Is there something you would like to tell me?" he asked.
"I don't think so. I wouldn't talk to you about anything. I don't really enjoy your company, you know." The elf answered boldly.
The bandit lost his patience. "I see you haven't learned anything!" he shouted. "But if Mockar can't teach you, I can!" He started hitting and kicking fiercely the already beaten elf. "You will tell me everything you know about us!"
Aragorn was fighting with his bonds, shouting at the bandit to stop. It was his fault, his fault... "I am so sorry, mellon-nin." he spoke, but his voice was shaking. "We are here because of me. I got you into this. It was only my fault. It was so stupid of me. I just followed my silly pride. I should have listened to you. You were right. I shouldn't have kept it a secret."
He saw his friend lift his head and try to speak, but the bandit hit him at his side and quieted him. Then a noise came from the door. The ranger turned his head, and to his greatest dismay he saw the mysterious hooded man who was looking at him at the inn.
To his surprise, the bandits looked even more shocked.
Without revealing his face, the man took out a long sword. The banditsí leader raised his sword, prepared for a fight. But this didn't help. With a single graceful move the man's sword swung and sent the bandit's weapon at the far end of the room. The long sword swung again and stopped just in front of the bandit's throat. The man's skill with the sword was amazing.
"Don't move," he spoke in a cold voice, that sent shivers down the bandit's spine. "You too," he turned briefly to Mockar, who was completely stunned. "Drink this," he tossed a small vial to the tall bandit. "Drink it or your leader will die." The voice was soft but lethal.
"What is it?" Mockar dared ask.
"It is no poison," the man replied. "I could kill you easily if I wanted to. I don't want any trouble. It will just put you to sleep. Drink it!"
There was something in the man's voice that made Mockar obey. He started drinking, but suddenly stopped, making a face of complete shock, anguish, and disgust. "It's terrible," he commented.
"Don't complain," the man countered him. "It is actually good for you."
Legolas suddenly started laughing. He had just realized what Mockar had drunk. This bandit had caused him a lot of pain, but now he felt completely revenged. For no drink in Middle-earth had a worse taste.
Aragorn stared at the elf. He had not yet realized what was going on and wondered if his friend had lost his mind.
Both bandits were forced to drink and were soon asleep. The man bounded them tightly, and released the two captives. Then he knelt in front of Aragorn and let his hood fall down. The young man stared at the two piercing eyes, ancient as time, and young as the new day.
"Did you think you could keep a secret from me, Estel?" Elrond asked.
The ranger's shock was complete. Elrond was the last person he expected to see here. He had never seen his foster father outside Rivendell. Yes, he had heard stories of what the Elven Lord had done, but he had never seen him in action. Aragorn had to admit that he didn't even expect his father could fight.
"Did Elladan and Elrohir tell you?" he asked finally.
"They did not need to. I know you too well, my son."
"But how did you find us? How did you know we were going to Bree?"
"I followed you." Elrond smiled.
"You followed us? And I didn't hear you?" Aragorn couldn't believe this. After his ranger training he was able to hear even Legolas. Besides, the prince had also been unable to hear Elrond, and that meant a lot. Obviously there was a lot about his father he didn't know.
"Why did you lie to me?" The Elven Lord asked.
Aragorn looked down, unwilling to meet Elrond's gaze. "I made a mistake. I am sorry. I knew you wouldn't trust me, and I though I could do it. I was wrong."
"You thought I wouldnít trust you. This is your real mistake, my son." Aragorn's head rose abruptly and his eyes met the elf's. "I trust you, Estel. If you had told me about this I would have appointed you to do the task. It was you who discovered that the bandits were meeting at Bree. You had the right to finish what you had started."
Aragorn couldn't believe his ears. "You would have wanted *me* to do this?"
"Yes. Of course I would have made you take several more rangers with you. This was a task that required more people. Besides," Elrond paused and smiled. "I would have recommended not taking Legolas with you. He tends to bring you bad luck," he jested.
"That's not true!" Legolas protested immediately. "It is *Estel* who brings *me* bad luck!"
"Well, I think I trust you so much, my son, that I would have even let you go with *that* elf," Elrond laughed cheerfully. "Although I try to do everything possible to keep you away from his bad influence." The ranger smiled at last and the Elven Lord continued seriously. "You are very skilled, Estel. You are exceptionally talented, and during your time with the rangers you learned a lot. But you seem to have failed to learn the most important lesson." Elrond paused, making sure his words would have the desired effect. "I am on your side, my son. You don't need to keep secrets from me."
This was too much for the young man. He moved closer to the Elven Lord and buried his head in Elrondís chest. "I should have known this, Ada." he said softly.
After about a minute, he slowly raised his head. "You didn't need to come to rescue us. We would have eventually found a way to escape."
Elrond smiled. "I know this, my son. I know that you have been in much worse situations. You and that prince who claims that he doesn't bring you bad luck." He raised his hand to cut off Legolas' protests. "But it would have taken time. And I didn't want to wait. I'm in a hurry to go back to Rivendell. I have some important tasks to take care of."
"Like what?" Estel asked.
"Like figuring out a way to punish Elladan and Elrohir for helping you hide your secret," Elrond answered and winked his human son.
"Oh, so this is the important task," a mischievous grin appeared on Aragorn's face. "Don't worry about this, I can help you! I already have a few suggestions. And I think your special tea might come into use." He glanced at the sleeping bandits.
"Is it that bad?" Elrond asked innocently.
"Have you never tried it?" Legolas asked.
"I did ... once. It was millennia ago. I've been trying to forget the experience ever since." All of them laughed. "But we need to go back to Rivendell now." Elrond rose and helped the injured elf and ranger to their feet. "I'll send the rangers to take care of the bandits. And we will take care of your brothers, Estel."
"It must be noted," Legolas spoke, "that we got out of this almost unharmed."
"Almost unharmed?" Elrond raised an eyebrow and inspected the blond elf carefully. He had sustained a lot of injuries, but none of them were serious. The Elven Lord had to admit that Legolas had never been in a better condition after an adventure with Estel. Elrond was actually not used to seeing him in one piece. But he couldn't overlook the fact that Legolas was still all over covered with mud. "But, my dear prince, you smell like a human."
The two elves laughed cheerfully, ignoring the ranger's protests that the comparison was totally inappropriate. But after a while he joined their laughter. He had learned a lot on that day. But the most important lesson was that he could trust his father and his brothers because all of them trusted him. He didn't need to prove that he is able, he *was* able and all of them knew it. And, most of all, the real strength was not demonstrated by acting alone, but by letting the ones who love you help you. Therefore, there was no use in keeping a secret from his friends and family. Secrets were for the enemy, and he already had a lot to hide. There was no need to find even more to hide from the ones who were on his side.
The young man thought again about everything he had learned on that day and realized that he had finally grown up.