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The Blood of a Brother: The Valar´s Gift by Alinah


One Title: Your Story

Rating: K

Summary: Some gifts are hard to bear. Some burdens become too great to carry. Yet the blood of a brother might still lead to salvation.





“Unfair.

  That´s what it is and always has been.

 Betrayed we were, all of us, for the Valar played a joke on us so cruel that not even the worst horde of orcs could have thought of a more evil torture for their prey.

 I am wrong, you tell me?

 I am a brute, incapable of tender feelings and forgiveness?

 You do not know my tale, nor my plight, or your judgement would not be so harsh.

 For all I have done there is a reason.

 I was the one who was betrayed. We were.

 We were laughed at by the Valar – by fate itself, for fate favours one and abandons the other

 and continues to be one thing only.

 Unfair.”

 

* * * * * * * * * * *

 

One red droplet glistened upon the grey stone. It shone in the early morning light as if the sun itself had been caught within its confines and was now seeking freedom. Seeking attention. And attention it found when it was spotted by a lone wanderer who wearily sought his path along the rocks.

 

The man crouched down and dipped one dirty finger into the fluid, bringing it to his lips and carefully tasting it. A frown appeared on the worry-worn forehead, and sharp blue eyes snapped up, seeking more traces upon the rocky cliff he was kneeling by. The sun rose higher with the progress of dawn, and as it did, it caught upon another fiery droplet. And then a third. And a fourth.

 

A trail was laid out to watchful eyes, and a confused expression ghosted across the gaunt features. “Could it be that my cries did not fade into the heavens unheard?” The raspy voice was devoid of feeling, almost dreamy and lacking any need for an answer. Too long had there been nothing but silence.

 

The man straightened and looked around himself. Uncertainty claiming him, he glanced over his shoulder to the small house that lay nestled between the rocks a good way below him. The man stared at the shaky wooden structure as if he hoped that his gaze could penetrate the walls and grant him a glimpse at the one who lay waiting within.

 

“Only a little while longer”, he breathed, and this time there was feeling in his voice – pain. Horrible pain as one could only endure for a mere heartbeat, or go utterly insane. “I swear, my sweet, I will be back soon. I will not abandon you as they did.” His blue eyes glared at the heavens accusingly, but then looked back at the trail of blood that marked the cliff.

 

“Only a little longer”, he vowed, “for I will stop at nothing to bring you aid. Nothing.”

 

His decision seemed to grant sudden strength to the man, and he walked along the rocky wall with determination. He could see now that there were further droplets high up upon the stones as well as bloody handprints, and a pool seeping from beneath a few crumbled bushes that must have broken the fall of whoever had tumbled down the cliff.

 

The man had seen this happen before, as the path that snaked along atop the stony ravine was treacherous. Yet this was different. There was no shattered body lying at his feet, no broken eyes reflecting the new-born sun. Instead, there as a red trail, leading the man along the rocks. No human could have survived this brutal stroke of fate. None of those cursed with mortal weakness could have. Only a favoured one might have escaped the claws of death.

 

When his eyes finally found what they had been looking for, they widened in disbelief and subdued hope. Only a few feet away he could see a still frame curled against a rock. A curtain of long hair hid the creature´s face, but the slender hand that rested beside its head twitched ever so slightly, showing that there was life left in it.

 

Very slowly, the man kneeled. With one hand he carefully lifted the dark hair over a bloodied shoulder, revealing a still elven face. The eyes were closed, and an expression of pain marred the elegant features. Blood flowed from a deep gash that ran across the fair being´s forehead.

 

The man´s hand trembled when he touched the red liquid, allowing it to cover his palm. He dreamily rubbed it between his fingers. It felt warm and soft as silk. So precious. A thin smile began to form upon the human´s lips. It did so slowly, as if the corners of his mouth were unused to rising in such a fashion.

 

“Is this your answer?” His gaze went upwards as if seeking those whom he had cried to in vain all night long. High upon the rocks he had pleaded for a sign, for an act of mercy that would set him free and restore his ragged soul. He had torn away from her bedside only to move closer to the Valar and throw himself at their feet.

 

And now they had finally smiled upon him. They had taken their favour from one of the Firstborn and had granted it to him. To her.

 

“Is this your gift?”

 

There was no answer but the soft sigh of the wind that brushed past the rocks. Yet to the man´s ears, his prayers had finally been answered, and he would not waste the chance he had been given. The desperate measures he had prepared might not need use after all.

 

* * * * * * * * *

 

Aragorn got up slowly and stretched his long legs with a subdued groan. The night had been fresh, and the sun had only just begun to touch the horizon with its glowing fingers. Yet there was no time to be wasted. Certain wagers could only be won with persistence, and catching his younger brother in a playful hunt was certainly one of them.

 

The ranger carefully rolled up his blanket and gathered his belongings with all the stealth he could muster. His eyes kept straying to the still elf that rested at the other side of the dying fire. A glint of mischief lit his eyes when the immortal did not stir. It had been long since he had managed to best one of his elven brothers. He was preciously close gaining a small victory over Elladan and considered the fact a good sign that he would finally win over Elrohir also.

 

His side of the camp cleared, the young man silently opened his water skin and held his breath as he crept closer to the dark-haired elf. The immortal´s open eyes would have made any other human hesitate, but Aragorn was well-used to detecting the slight glaze that marked elven sleep, and he was secure in the knowledge that he had not been found out yet. It seemed to him that his elven brother was tense, as if his sleeping mind was occupied with a riddle from the past. Whatever was so interesting, it would soon vanish in a shower of fresh water.

 

Ever so subtly, Aragorn sneaked closer and lifted the water skin, ready to empty it over the elf´s head. Yet before he could carry out his plan, a sudden shock went through Elladan´s body. The haze of sleep was ripped from his eyes with a flash and to be replaced by a look of utter shock that sent Aragorn reeling backwards in surprise.

 

The human landed on his back with a dull thud, the water he had meant to wake the elf with splashing over his chest. But Aragorn hardly realized this and flung the water skin aside carelessly before struggling back to his feet and to the elf´s side.

 

Elladan stared into the distance and his whole body had gone rigid as if in fright. He did not seem to recognize his human brother when Aragorn kneeled beside him, urgently calling his name over and over again. Despite his desperate wish to touch the elf and thus lead him back to the waking world, the ranger restrained himself. He might well do more damage than good by any rash actions.

 

Instead, he forced his own fear out of his voice and began to speak softly, reassuringly. “Sidh, gwanur-nin.“ //Peace my brother.// “Aphado pith-nin a tirado Anor.” //Follow my words and see the sun.//

 

Elladan turned his head slightly to the side. Even though he faced east, the sun´s early rays drawn into the green irises of his eyes to make them glow, shivers wrecked his body. One hand slowly reached up and wandered across his forehead as if seeking contact with someone who had touched him there, but as soon as his fingers brushed his skin he winced as if in pain.

 

“Uial tortho men.” //Twilight rules us.// Words like wisps of fog, gone barely after they had been spoken. “Dúath anglenno.” //Darkness approaches.//

 

The despair that drenched the older twin´s voice crumbled Aragorn´s resolve and he pulled the elf into his arms, gently yet without further hesitation. “There is no darkness where I am.” The ranger subconsciously tightened his grip, and surprisingly the elf did nothing to fight him. “Come to where I am and see the light. I beg you.”

 

No response was forthcoming, but Aragorn could feel the tension slowly leaving his brother´s body. His breathing suddenly quickened as if he was only just waking from a deep sleep, and then a slender hand wrapped itself around the ranger´s arm where it lay across his chest.

 

“Estel? Are you well?”

 

The question almost made Aragorn laugh, with relief as much as irony. “Aye”, he replied, “but not for long if you insist on scaring me like this again. What did you…”

 

He had no chance to finish his sentence when Elladan suddenly jerked from his loosened grasp and stood to his feet. The ranger was taken aback, even more so when the elf gasped and lost his balance, his right leg giving way. Aragorn had only just begun to rise as his brother faltered, and it took all of his considerable swiftness to catch Elladan and pull him upright again.

 

“By the Valar, brother, what ails you!” All playfulness had gone from the human´s voice, and true anger was kindled when he was pushed back roughly. He reached for the elf´s arm to halt him, but Elladan had already turned to him. He had gone deathly pale, but there also was a firm set to his jaw that betrayed his resolve.

 

“Elrohir.” All that needed to be said was contained in that single word.

 

Dreadful understanding washed over Aragorn with a gust of cold. He saw the pledge in the older twin´s eyes and replied to it with all that was needed. He bowed his head in acceptance and answered.

 

“Elrohir.”

 

* * * * * * * * * * *

 

Elrohir.

 

So sweet a sound, even in its despair. A voice that was light and yet an anchor in his sea of pain.

 

Elrohir.

 

Promises shone through the word, and with them a ray of hope. The warm voice was a gift, delivered to him with no expectations and no demands. It was a gift of love that soothed his soul.

 

The familiar tone created a glimmer of light in the red haze of pain that scorched him. Pain that shot though his head with all the force of a dwarf´s axe, agony that burned within his right leg and leaked upwards from there to engulf his entire body. A sea of hurt that bathed his back as if his skin had been scraped from it, leaving bare flesh to touch the rough surface he was lying upon.

 

Pushing away the soft darkness that beckoned to him, the elf forced his eyes open. He groaned when he was greeted with shapes that shimmered and wavered, turning his stomach and thus adding new misery to his already tortured body.

 

He swiftly squeezed his eyes shut again, breathing heavily to control the bile that rose in his throat. If his body tried to lose his stomach´s contents now, the pain in his head might well rob him of consciousness and leave him to choke to death. He was enough of a healer´s son to know this, even though this rational thought had been banished to a small corner of his mind where it could do little more but watch.

 

Slowly, very slowly, the nausea faded, lingering close by but allowing his thoughts to wander once more without any immediate danger. Elrohir sighed softly, not wanting to upset any of his pains. He was at a loss as to what had happened to him, but his short glimpse at his surroundings had revealed a small, windowless room to him. Elusive as the image had been, he had been able to detect little else. The corners seemed to have been littered with small objects – the leg of a broken chair, a cup, old sheets.

 

Yet the air smelled of damp ground and, strangely, of oil. His searching fingers found nothing but packed earth.

 

Underground.

 

He had to be underground.

 

The fresh bout of fear woke the slumbering beast of nausea once more, and all rational thought fled as Elrohir fought once more for control over his body.

 

So subdued were his senses that he did not detect the man who was slowly approaching him, and his closed eyes were blind to the dagger that gleamed within the mortal´s tight fist.

 

* * *

 

“Here!” Elladan crouched beside a bush, slender fingers diligently bending aside young branches to reveal the shadow of an imprint. “He walked past here not long ago”, Aragorn commented from where he stood behind the elf. “Shortly before sunrise.” The older twin rose and glanced into the direction his brother had taken.

 

“He can be so reckless when he gets involved in a dare”, Elladan sighed, his sharp eyes seeking any trace that would betray Elrohir´s fate, “this area is treacherous. There is a path along a cliff not far from here, and the ground there is covered with debris and small stones.”

 

“A prefect route to lose a tail.” Despite the situation there was admiration in Aragorn´s voice. “He would have gained even more time on us while we would have been hard-pressed to keep on his track. He might have even rounded on us and then moved home behind our backs.”

 

“A plan perfect but for its failing.” Elladan was on the move again already, and Aragorn followed without any further comment. As he watched the elf before him, he noticed the subtle changes that had turned his foster brother from the light-hearted companion of yesterday into nothing less but a beast of prey. The slight limp that still stained his movements did nothing to veil his determination.

 

If anything, it underlined the dangerous power that emanated from the lithe form.

 

The brothers were swift to reach the cliff Elladan had spoken of, and as they did their heads turned as if moved by invisible hands. Both had seen the faint glint of light on metal, and when they approached they could see the slender dagger that had been wedged between the rocks. Beside it, bloody fingers had left streaks of red upon the grey surface.

 

A lump forming in his throat, Aragorn hastily fell to his knees and glared down the steep walls, fearful of what he might find.

 

“Not there.” Elladan´s voice was low. “He is below.”

 

“Below what?” The ranger turned and questioningly gazed at his brother, but the elf did not seem to hear him. He had never even bothered to follow the man´s example and seek his twin where all trails seemed to lead. Instead, he had drawn his fingertips through the bloody traces with an almost loving gesture.

 

“He almost made it up again.” Sadness filled his tone. “He was hurt but he almost made it up again. And now he is below where no light can reach him.”

 

Confused by the elf´s words, Aragorn decided to rely on his skills to tell him what had befallen Elrohir. Taking a deep breath, he steeled himself and looked down the cliff once more. Now that his eyes were not glued to the ground far below where he had feared to take sight of a broken body, he found clear signs of the younger twin´s struggles.

 

A good way beneath him, the walls formed a slim platform. Blood was splattered across it in a wild pattern, but the drops were smeared. It was obvious that Elrohir had somehow managed to grab the stone that had broken his fall. His body had left red stains upon the walls, and Aragorn could mark the places were the elf had wedged in his daggers to pull himself up.

 

The young ranger winced in sympathy when he imagined the strain the climb must have caused to the injuries, and his eyes filled with tears when he saw the second weapon still logged in the wall a few feet below the other. Red hand-prints indicated that Elrohir had tried to retrieve the second dagger, no doubt in an attempt to aid him to pull himself over the edge, but it had remained in place.

 

“His blood made the handle slippery.” Elladan had still not moved, and neither was he looking at Aragorn. His eyes were closed, a single tear slipping across his cheek. “His strength was waning.”

 

“But ours is not!” The human had risen again. He could see now where his younger brother had fallen, the crumbled, bloodied bushes clearly visible from above. “A little ahead it seems to be possible to climb down.”

 

“He walked too close to the edge.” The older twin had not changed his posture. “He thought we would not seek his track so far out.”

 

“We need to find him to scold him for his folly”, Aragorn cut in forcefully, desperate to reach his oldest brother. “Come now, or does your hurting leg prevent you from seeking Elrohir?”

 

Green eyes shot open and the strength in them was almost physical, threatening to drive the ranger backwards.

 

“Nothing will prevent me”, the elf whispered, “not even the Valar themselves.”

 

He stood with a move so sudden Aragorn almost failed to see it and finally turned his gaze downwards. His eyes narrowed to slits and he hissed angrily. “I can see it now”, he breathed, “a trail of blood. The wooden hut of a human. That is where he was taken. That is where we must go.”

 

* * *

 

The man moved closer to the elf, using no stealth at all. He was grimly satisfied to hear the panicked breaths, so see the shivers that wrecked the slender body. The elf was a mirror, he realized, a mere reflection of his daughter´s pains.

 

“What does it feel like”, the man hissed, “What does it taste like? How does the gift of mortality suit you, master elf?”

 

The pale creature turned towards the sound of his voice but then groaned and shied away when the light of the man´s lantern brushed his closed eyelids.

 

“Does it pain you? The light that your people hold so dear?” The man stared at the glow that spilled from the tiny flame and watched in fascination when the shadow of the elf that writhed on the wall showed more life than its owner on the cold floor.

 

“Do not be afraid.” His voice softened as he trailed a gnarled hand over the bloodied forehead, mimicking a soothing gesture he had bestowed upon his child in so many restless nights. “You suffering is not in vain. Your immortality might leave you soon, but you still are a chosen one. Chosen by the Valar as their amend to me.”

 

The elf´s features creased in confusion that quickly melted into another tortured moan, but the soft sound then transformed into a single word. “Why…?”

 

“I do not know why you were selected.” The man continued to stroke the elf´s face, but his gaze was no longer watching his captive. Instead it was glued to the red substance that once more covered his hand with a soft gleam. The hilt of his dagger suddenly weighted heavily in his hand, making its presence known. He had intended it as protection against the immortal, but he now knew that none was necessary. This elf could be repelled by a single ray of light.

 

“Maybe you failed the Valar”, the human mused, “or you are simply dispensable. Maybe your family has been blessed with enough children to last them through eternity and you will soon be nothing more than a memory that fades with every winter´s cold.” He brought his hand to his lips and dreamily tasted the coppery tang of the immortal blood. “Fade”, he repeated, “like happiness once death takes hold and sweeps away all that you held dear.”

 

The taste of blood on his lips woke the man´s senses. A rush went through him, and the walls of his cellar seemed to jump at him. He could make out every speck of sand on the wall. He could smell the sharp odour of lamp oil that he had poured over his home´s wooden floors and walls when desperation had swallowed him the night before.

 

And he could hear her voice. His daughter´s faint, painful whimpers beckoning him to return and finally bring the salvation he had promised her so many times. He bowed his head, heeding her call. Medicine was what she needed. Eternity was what he would give her.

 

With swift movements, the man retrieved a small cup that rested in the corner of the cellar along with so many other remnants of a life that had once been his. So long ago when this house had still been in proper care despite its smallness. Once, when laughter had filled his home and his heart. So long ago.

 

No use now, he decided, to call awake the ghosts of old. Here before him lay the Valar´s gift and with it his chance of making things right again.

 

The man took the elf´s arm, ignoring the gasp of pain the action provoked. His watched the pale face carefully, for he did not want to miss the moment when immortality left this battered body to be bestowed upon its new rightful owner.

 

The knife bit deeply into the white skin and the elf jerked, almost succeeding in pulling free his arm, but the man tightened his hold. His gaze was torn from the elf´s face to his blood that now welled freely, filling the cup the man held carefully. This was where the power had to lie, the strength to evade death. No drop should be wasted.

 

The elf´s breaths were becoming ragged, and sweat began to gleam on his forehead. The man could feel the pulse race in the hand he clutched tightly, and sudden fear filled him. Maybe he had misread the Valar´s wishes. Maybe he was not to give his child too much of the juice of life, for her body was weakened and unused to any sort of nourishment. What if she could not hold on to the blood long enough for it to work its miracle? What if she needed several helpings of it, as would be the case with any medicine?

 

The man felt his own heart begin to pick up its pace. He carefully set down the now filled cup and let go of the elf, looking around for something he could tie the wound with. While he grabbed some old sheets and struggled to rip them apart, the immortal´s blood kept on flowing. His arm lay on the earth floor like a carelessly discarded rag, the red puddle beneath it growing silently but with speed.

 

Fearfully watching the red substance that seemed to creep up on him across the ground, the man began to wring his hands in despair. “I did not mean to waste any”, he whined, stumbling to his captive and kneeling down within the blood. “I am not used to such gifts. Please, do not let my daughter pay for my clumsiness!”

 

Fearfully, the man pressed a soiled cloth down on the deep gash. The fabric soaked through quickly, making the human wonder whether he had put it on already wet, but he grabbed the next strip and repeated the action. After what seemed an eternity, the blood-flow finally slowed.

 

Then it stopped.

 

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

 

The descent had been easy so far, and Aragorn thanked the Valar for this small favour. They were but two men´s heights from the ground now, and the cliff was less steep here than farther up. Beside him, Elladan climbed in silence. He had kept by the human´s side even though his abilities should have enabled him to gain an easy lead.

 

The ranger sneaked a glance at his foster brother. He wondered whether the elf´s aching leg had hindered him. He knew that Elladan had suffered no physical injury, understanding that he was sharing his twin´s pain. Even so, he feared that the elf might falter after all, and he tried to stay close in case he was needed.

 

“Stop doing that”, the older twin suddenly growled, his intense green eyes turning towards the human, “for your stare pulls at me like a stone around my neck. I am not Legolas, I do not need your motheri…”

 

His words were cut short by a surprised gasp. To Aragorn´s horror, Elladan suddenly let go with his right hand to clasp his left arm. On his face fear mingled with anger, as if two images overlapped, showing the same face in two moods. The older twin instinctively leaned closer to the wall, his feet digging into the cracks in the rocks to keep his body from slipping.

 

Seeing that he was of no use here, Aragorn quickly found his way to safe grounds and turned, calling out to his brother. “Move your left foot farther down, the right a bit to the left.” Watching nervously, he saw how the elf tried to follow his instructions. The immortal had forced his right hand back onto the wall, but his left arm hang uselessly as if he had injured it. Even while he shouted new encouragement to his brother, a tiny fragment of Aragorn´s mind wondered how Elrohir had acquired a fresh injury after taking a fall that must have left him near unable to move.

 

An uneasy thought began to form in his mind, but he pushed it aside when he saw Elladan slip and fall backwards. Having been prepared, the ranger made a swift step forward and managed to catch the elf before he could harm himself. For a few breathless moments they simply stood, hearts racing.

 

“What ails you?” Aragorn asked quietly. There was no need to explain what he meant.

 

“I feel faint”, Elladan answered slowly, “as if the world itself was withdrawing from me. Uial tortho men.” //Twilight rules us.//

 

The human shivered when he recognized the phrase his older brother had uttered upon waking. He searched for soothing words, yet none were forthcoming.

 

To his surprise, Elladan suddenly straightened, seeming to have regained some control. When he turned to Aragorn his features were drawn but shone with determination. “He is close.” Searching eyes swiftly scanned their surroundings to find the trail he had already spotted from above. “Let us hasten.”

 

Aragorn did not object. They followed the tracks easily, for they were so broad even a half-blind orc would have found them. No means had been taken to disguise them. Nor had the one who had walked here cared to veil his careless violence.

 

Even though hardened by many a battle, the ranger could not prevent a gasp to escape his lips when he understood what had transpired here. “By the Valar, he dragged him.” The image of his wounded brother being pulled across the stony ground like a slain beast turned his stomach.

 

“Aye”, Elladan agreed grimly, “yet what his captor did not reckon with was that he was leaving a trail that burns more brightly than the sun itself.” The elf´s beautiful features darkened in rage. “I could have followed my own brother´s blood blind and deaf. Nothing will save this careless brute once I have laid my hands on him.”

 

Aragorn shivered but refrained from comments. Who was he to judge his brother´s wrath when his own burned with almost the same intensity? Even so, he sensed that his own heart still held a fraction of doubt, a willingness to hear the reasons for Elrohir´s plight. Yet he might never have the chance to ask for them.

 

The emotions of an elf were of a purer nature than those of a human. His love would never waver, his loyalty not falter through torture and pain. But his hatred, once unleashed, was just as frightfully bright, and reason would do nothing to quench it.

 

Once they had neared the small house, however, a sudden thought caused Aragorn to catch his brother´s sleeve and halt his movements. “Why would a man treat an elf so brutally”, he reasoned, “if not for hate of his race? Brother, your presence may well serve us ill should my guess be true.”

 

“I care not.” Elladan shrugged off the ranger´s grasp. “He may curse my whole family as I slay him, but it will not hinder me, for his soul has forfeit all rights to be heard by the Valar.”

 

“Do not be so selfish.” Aragorn´s forceful words caused the elf to flinch as if hurt, and he turned towards in his human brother in a mixture of confusion and anger. Both emotions quickly melted away though to reveal the sadness that lay beneath. “Selfish? Aye, you might call it that, for Elrohir is as much a part of me as I am a part of him. So what I do for him I do for myself also.”

 

The man softened his voice as he continued. “Then listen to me, for both of your sakes. We do not know where Elrohir is kept, but we do know that he is gravely wounded. Should the man react to your arrival with hatred or panic, he might well murder our brother before even your swift reflexes can save him.” He paused and breathed a sigh of relief when he saw reluctant agreement in Elladan´s eyes.

 

“Very well then”, the elf nodded, “I will wait for you to go first. But know that I will not wait for long. I can feel dusk approach upon our souls. Elrohir will not last long, and neither will my patience.”

 

With a swift nod Aragorn sealed their pact, and he approached the hut with measured steps while Elladan melted into the shadows behind the rackety structure.

 

A sense of desperation lingered over the forlorn place, and it was not its isolation that caused this feeling. Aragorn could tell that once this had been a well-kept dwelling. Old paint that now pealed off the dusty walls spoke of better times, and dead roots that reached up from the grey grounds told the story of plants once lovingly kept.

 

Now, nothing was left but neglect.

 

When the ranger came to a halt in front of the door, he could hear a male voice within. What words it spoke he was unable to understand, but there was no mistaking the loving coaxing that lay behind the sounds. Hope flared up in the young human that he had been mistaken, that he had misread the tracks and that he would find his elven brother in friendly care despite the circumstances.

 

He drew a breath and knocked. No response was detectable.

 

Aragorn knocked once more, forcefully this time. He sensed Elladan growing restless in the shadows, and with his waning patience the man´s hope for a peaceful encounter melted away.

 

The voice within began to rise, but instead of addressing the stranger who had demanded entry it called out: “Drink now, drink! I have done for you all that lies within my power, but you need to drink!”

 

Aragorn froze. He had heard that tone of voice before many times. He had heard it in battle cries or in the pained mourning for a dead beloved. It was the sound of a mind overcome by what it had to endure.

 

No longer hesitating, the young man opened the door and entered the hut. Immediately, his eyes sought out the red marks that indicated a body had been dragged across the floor. A wooden trap door lay at the end of the red trail. The heavy scent of lamp oil clung to the air, mingling with the salty odour of blood.

 

His breath catching in his throat, the ranger made a few hastened steps towards the darkness that beckoned from below, when suddenly the voice he had heard before called out again. This time it was addressing him.

 

“You! You have come to steal my hope from me!”

 

It took every fibre of strength in Aragorn´s soul to turn towards the man who was leaning in the door that lead towards another room. Wild eyes stared out beneath bushy brows and in one hand he clutched a cup. A cup that was splattered with red drops, smeared with bloody fingerprints. The other hand held a lamp.

 

“No.” Aragorn raised his hands in a gesture of peace. “I have come to aid you, my friend. I am a healer. I will aid you…”

 

“No! The Valar have granted me this gift! Why will she not take it? Why will you rob it from me? Why have they forsaken me again?”

 

Pale eyes turned heavenwards, only to be cast back to the floor quickly in a gesture of submission. The man´s wiry body bowed, his lips quivering. “Yes, yes, I know.” He was sobbing now. “I spilt some, but it was not my intent. Please…”

 

He stopped himself, and when he raised his head again pure hatred shone from him like a halo of darkness. “Silence!” he roared. “You are silent again! Curse the Valar, and curse their gift!”

 

Aragorn stepped forward, arms outstretched. “No, do not…”

 

But he was too late. Many years, many heartaches, many missed chances too late. The lamp went flying when the man threw it, and it shattered upon the ground with a sickening shriek. Flames jumped to life immediately as the oil was ignited.

 

From the corner of his eye Aragorn saw the man stumble back into the adjoining room but he no longer paid him any heed. There was little that mattered now but Elrohir.

 

He never knew how he reached the trapdoor, how he jumped into the damp room below, how he found his elven brother. But he would always remember the image that greeted him.

 

The younger twin lay silent, his eyes closed. Beneath him, a pool of drying blood reflected the flickering light that rapidly grew form above. There did not seem to be life felt in him, but Aragorn swallowed his panic and swiftly gathered his brother into his arms. A pained moan seemed to brush his ears, but it was hard to tell any sounds apart in the growing roar of the fire. The man felt bare flesh beneath his hands and cringed at the damage the merciless dragging had done to the elf´s back.

 

Hands reached down through the opening of the trap door just as the ranger came to a halt beneath it, and Elrohir was taken from his grasp with swift gentleness.

 

Choking on the gathering smoke, Aragorn pulled himself from the cellar. He could see the retreating figure of Elladan who carried his brother to safety, yet he hesitated to follow.

 

Around him, the flames were greedily consuming what little possessions had graced the hut. The walls were bathed in wavering yellow and red, angry hisses emanating from the swirling heat.

 

Covering his mouth and nose with one hand, the ranger stumbled towards the room the man had disappeared to. His mind reeled against this stupidity, but it also burned for the answers he would never get if he allowed the fire to simply have its course.

 

Blinking against the biting tears that began to flow down his cheeks, he could make out the man, silently sitting upon a bed. The flames had not reached him yet, and he sat quietly, cradling the form of a young girl against him.

 

Aragorn stifled a gasp. Even from the distance it was clear that the poor daughter was dead and had been for a while. A few days at the least. The greying skin of her mouth and chin were bathed in red, as if she had spilled a cup of berry juice she had been drinking too quickly. Only it was no juice.

 

Before the young man had any chance to recover from his shock, he felt strong hands grasping him and he was pulled backwards. In front of his dimming eyes, the father and his dead child disappeared in a wall of smoke, and then he was outside again, coughing and choking on the fresh air.

 

“Estel!” Strong hands shook him roughly. “Estel, look at me!”

 

The ranger did, finding himself face to face with Elladan. Passionate anger still raged in the elf´s green eyes, but there was another emotion there. Relief.

 

“Estel, Elrohir lives. Will you take care of him? Can you take care of him?”

 

Aragorn looked down to find the wounded elf lying next to him on the rocky ground, moaning weakly. The human’s healer´s instinct flared up and he nodded. He wanted to call out to Elladan not to kill the man. He wanted to tell him that their brother´s captor had been driven into a void by one loss too many. But his voice failed him, and all he could do was watch the older twin rush back into the burning house, his lithe frame quickly swallowed by flame and smoke.

 

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

 

Lost. He was lost. She was lost. Hope was lost.

 

The voices of the Valar had fallen silent again, as if his earlier guidance by them had been caused by nothing but the swift, accidental shifting of the veil between their worlds.

 

The man sat upon his daughter´s bed, her soft body cradled against his chest. Around him, red and yellow demons flickered and laughed at him, but he cared not. It did not matter. Nothing did. He felt sweat gather on his brow and dreamily wondered when warmth had returned to his home. He also wondered why it would not reach his heart.

 

The flames seemed to sing to him as they ate away, and he watched in fascination. Shadows sprang from the fire, racing across the ceiling and lunging for the bed, yet none ever devoured it. Another shadow gathered where the door had once been. As the man looked on, a shimmering form emerged, slowly gliding closer.

 

The fire seemed to shy away from the tall creature, yet its light illuminated the pale face and caused sharp green eyes to glow fiercely. Green eyes that he had only glimpsed at before, eyes that had shunned the light. And now they were bathed in it and did not flinch.

 

Horror gathered within the man´s stomach as he gazed upon the immortal whose blood he had been offered and then wasted. All injuries were gone, and the elf tilted his head to gaze upon him through the wavering air. His black hair danced about him in the gusts produced by the intense heat, but they did not catch fire.

 

The Valar had returned their favour to him, holding him safe. He was blessed once more and for the desperate father nothing was left but pain and death. And his child.

 

Fearful that this last straw of hope would be taken from him, the man curled protectively around the girl´s body. He buried his head in her golden hair and dreaded the hands that would come to snatch him away.

 

When they did, he screamed.

 

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

 

“Unfair.

That is what life seems to you now. You can see nothing but darkness around you. Yet you long for immortality. You long for oblivion that will never come.

Do not deny the true gifts the Valar have bestowed upon your people. Cherish love in life and eternal peace in death.

Do not envy those whose torments are different from yours. For our losses will never be eased by the gentle darkness that is granted to mortal souls.

Our losses are felt into eternity, and be assured that not all who suffer from this plight see it as a gift. Some consider it one thing only.

Unfair.”

 

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

 

Elrond, Lord of Rivendell, brother to a mortal who had chosen the path of death and husband to an elf whom had almost succumbed to her losses, passed a weary hand across his brow. The night air was soothing as it travelled gently through the still room, yet he could not shake the memory of the conversation he had led with Mrachnah. With the man who had almost killed his sons.

 

Was it true, he wondered? Was the gift of immortality truly burdened with just the same amount of suffering as the short life of a mortal?

 

Sighing deeply, the elven lord rose and silently stepped closer to the bed where Elrohir lay sleeping. The younger twin´s eyes were closed, but his breaths were even and when Elrond tenderly brushed a hand along his cheek he did not shy away as he had done before.

 

The wounds would heal, and the soul would carry the new load it had been marred with. The young elf´s spirit still shone strong beneath the pain that had covered it. A spirit that was greatly enhanced by those who slept peacefully close to the recovering elf.

 

Elrond could not help but smile at the sight of Elladan curled up on the bed beside his twin. His burns were healing nicely, and despite his own hurts he emanated a fierce protectiveness for his brother. Due to Elrohir´s injuries, almost any touch meant pain for him at the moment. Mindful of that fact, even in sleep, the older twin had simply laid his cheek against the back of the younger one´s head. The contact was light and yet too strong for even death to break.

 

Elrond was sure of this. His sons would never be separated like he and Elros had been, whatever fate awaited them. They would face it together.

 

Next to the bed, Aragorn slept in one of the wide, soft chairs he favoured on such occasions. Despite his relatively frail nature, the human had actually been hurt least, suffering from nothing worse but the lingering effects of the smoke he had inhaled. A warm wave of pride washed over the elven lord as he watched his chosen son.

 

He knew beyond a doubt that without Estel´s influence on Elladan, the older twin would have never stopped to watch his brother´s captor. He would have allowed the human to burn to death without realizing that the pain of loss had eaten away the father´s soul. A pain not unlike that of a son losing his mother.

 

Elrond was grateful that the man had been retrieved. He was not sure whether the mortal would survive his terrible burns, but at least he would experience some comfort and aid. And he would be able to talk to Aragorn, talk even to Elrohir, if his soul allowed.

 

Gently sitting down on the bed beside Elrohir, Elrond stroked his son´s dark hair. His thoughts once more strayed to the question he had so often wrestled with. Was mortality the true gift of the Valar? Or was it eternal life, as Mrachnah still seemed to believe?

 

Elrohir sighed in his sleep and Elladan reached for his twin´s hand, never waking as he did.

 

A slow smile spread over Elrond´s face at the wisdom his sons displayed in their sleep, when awake they would sometimes seem mere elflings to him.

 

“Aye” he agreed softly, “it is love. The true gift of the Valar, bestowed upon mortals and immortals alike.”

 

It was a gift to be cherished.

 

The end

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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