CHAPTER 5

King Elessar was sitting in the only substantially made piece of furniture in the queen's solar reading through the latest dispatches concerning Gondor's efforts to eliminate the last vestiges of Sauron's army. There were problems early on with bands of orcs and human bandits attacking travelers, but it was now under control and the roads were for the most part made safe. He wasn't devoting all that much attention to them, truth be told. It was a pleasant day and the late afternoon sun streaming through the windows was beckoning him to go riding.

Just as Aragorn was about to invite Arwen, who was busily working upon the royal finances across the room, to ride with him, Legolas appeared in the open archway which served as the room's entrance. "A message just arrived for you. It seems important. The messenger was very concerned," Legolas said bringing a letter to Aragorn.

The king opened the letter and swiftly scanned the contents, his expression becoming increasingly displeased. "Ill tidings?" the elf asked.

"Korvan and Tirmen are on the brink of war," Aragorn answered.

"But, I thought them the best of friends?" Legolas said.

"They were. They arranged a marriage between Korvan's daughter and Tirmen's son, but the girl apparently didn't agree with her father's choice and decided to elope with Tirmen's nephew. Now Korvan is blaming the nephew and demanding the dowry back and Tirmen's blaming the daughter and refusing to return it," Aragorn explained.

"Do these men tire so fast of our new found peace that they must go looking for a reason to fight?" Legolas exclaimed, in agreement with the king's frustration. "Spilling the blood of a man you called friend all for the love of money is madness."

"The fact that this has its root in an attempt to force love where it would not go makes it doubly so," Arwen added.

"I doubt it will come to bloodshed," Aragorn said. "I will see to that. If I leave early tomorrow with a swift horse, I should reach their lands by evening."

"Will your guard be ready to leave by then?" Legolas asked.

"I'm not taking them. I would not want to inflame an already tense situation by leading in a troop of armed guards. Tirmen and Korvan are foolish and hotheaded, but they are loyal men of Gondor. Also they were close friends of long standing before this upset and with some persuading shall probably be so again. I'll go alone to settle this matter before it results in violence."

"But what of the threat upon your life?" Arwen said with some concern. "Traveling alone would leave you vulnerable to attack."

"There has not been so much as a hint of danger to my life in the past six months. In failing the first attempt it looks as if the culprit has gone to ground and given up the project. I can not live the rest of my life in fear of what might happen," Aragorn said.

"You can't know that he has given up. Perhaps the assassin is simply waiting for the proper moment, looking for a time when you might be vulnerable," Arwen argued looking to Legolas for support.

"Although I had begun to think the danger past, and my errand this afternoon was to take my leave of you and finally return to Ithilien, I see much merit in Lady Arwen's point. After all, the first attempt was hastily planned and opportunistic, the villain taking advantage of a sudden break in your routine to arrange an apparent accident. It could be that there has been no second attempt because you are too well guarded, always surrounded by a flock of court functionaries. Traveling alone to settle this mess would provide an excellent opportunity to one who means you ill."

Aragorn could see the sense in what his friends had to say, but still he was reluctant to bring a large escort. "I'm still hesitant of the possible consequences of bringing an armed escort and will not chance them to defend against something which remains only a slim possibility. Even if some attack were planned, remember I am well able to defend myself. For many years I walked alone fighting against those who would see me dead. I am not defenseless."

"I know you are capable of protecting yourself, but I worry none the less. A large guard might worsen the situation, but what harm could there be in a few of your friends accompanying you on your errand? Surely Lords Tirmen and Korvan won't be threatened by a mere handful of men," Arwen persisted.

"Very well, to set your mind at ease, I'll invite a few friends along for the ride. Legolas, would you care to accompany me on my errand?" Aragorn asked.

"I'd be happy to. Gimli will likely wish to come as well," Legolas answered.

"Should I ask Adam, in the interest of symmetry?" Aragorn said not overly concerned about tomorrow's journey. The weather was pleasant. The destination wasn't far and although the reason for the trip was an irritation, Aragorn was confident he could easily sort it out.

"I don't see why not," the elf replied dryly. "I heard he did quite well on the practice field several days ago."

Aragorn sent messages to Gimli and Adam asking for their company the next day and got positive replies. The company was to assemble in the forecourt just after dawn the next day.

Legolas and Gimli were the first to arrive in the forecourt that morning. "Tell me again why exactly Adam is coming with us?" Gimli asked.

"Symmetry, Aragorn said," Legolas answered.

"Symmetry?" Gimli said with some skepticism.

"Whimsy then. Aragorn doubts the necessity of taking companions on this trip, but if he's wrong Adam should be a good man to have around."

"Yet another of his hidden talents coming to light. Who is he truly? He has been here a year and is still a mystery. He claims to be a scholar and spends enough time with old records to prove his claim true, but then he's also a brewer, a carpenter, and most lately a great warrior. The pieces don't fit together," Gimli complained.

"Yes, he is something of a mystery, but whatever his secrets are they are his to tell as he chooses. He has been a friend to us this past year, and I believe him to be trustworthy. Whatever it is he keeps hidden shall likely be revealed in time," Legolas defended Adam.

"I didn't mean he was untrustworthy only that there is more to him than he would have us believe. Just what he is hiding is what I would like to know," Gimli said.

"As would I," Legolas agreed, closing the conversation, since he heard the topic of their conversation approaching.

"Morning," Adam said with a yawn. "Looks like we have a nice day for it," he observed looking up at the sky.

"Good morning," Legolas returned the greeting.

"Where's Aragorn?" Adam asked.

"He went to get the horses," Gimli said.

"Odd job for a king." Adam observed.

"So many years as a Ranger has ingrained the habit of seeing to his own travel arrangements," Legolas explained.

Just then, Aragorn arrived leading three horses. The four quickly mounted their steeds and they set off.

Methos, Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli rode out of Minas Tirith at a leisurely pace. Aragorn wanted to settle the matter that day, but even at a sedate amble they would reach their destination before sunset. Gimli, riding behind the elf, was no horseman and would rather not gallop if he could avoid it. Methos was rather glad of the slow start himself. He was an experienced rider, but was also a city dweller who hadn't had much occasion to ride in the past century. 'Thank the gods for small favors,' Methos thought, 'if it weren't for Immortal healing I'd be hobbling this evening. There's much to be said for the comforts of modern travel.'

The four rode in silence at first, appreciating the beauties of nature and not wanting to disturb the hushed quality of early morning when the leaves are still coated in dew. After a while, when the world became well awake, they exchanged idle banter to pass the miles.

"How are your studies progressing?" Legolas politely inquired of Methos.

"Actually, I've finished the translation of the fragment I had," Methos answered.

"And it didn't contain the answers you wanted," Legolas assumed since Methos was still there.

"No it didn't, that would be too easy," Methos replied. "There were some clues. It said passage was from 'gate to gate' which leads me to believe there is another gate where you found me. When we return from our errand I'll see what I can find at the site."

"I didn't see any stones like you described in the clearing," Gimli said.

"The gate on my side was none too imposing as a structure which could easily have been covered over. Perhaps the gate here is simply buried. Or then again it could be in some other form altogether. Either way it's my only lead and it can't hurt to look," Methos said, not overly concerned. After all, he had all the time in the world to solve the puzzle.

"That could be," Gimli said, "I'll help you look. If there's something buried, I'll find it."

Aragorn, silent through the conversation, suddenly stopped his horse, dismounted and pretended to adjust the saddle. He motioned for quiet. "I believe someone is watching us from those trees," he said softly, looking at a clump of trees to the left of the road up ahead.

Legolas looked to the spot indicated by Aragorn and nodded his agreement after noticing the gleam of sun on metal where there should be no metal. "A man in armor."

"It seems your fear for my safety is not without foundation. I very much doubt that man and whatever friends he has with him are here to toast the king's health," Aragorn observed dryly.

"It's starting to look like this won't be a wasted trip after all," Gimli said, fondling his ax.

"What's the terrain like just ahead?" Methos asked thinking of the possible fight coming.

"The road dips and curves around a small patch of trees. Good place for an ambush," Aragorn said.

"Ah, I see. Then perhaps we should be going back to the city now, for reinforcements," Methos suggested.

"No, I don't think that will be necessary. Now that we know they're waiting for us we should be able to take care of this without help," Aragorn said confidently.

"But, there are only four of us and we don't know how many of them," the Immortal protested, not liking fights with uncertain outcomes.

"The cover along the road is dense but small. There couldn't be more than twenty men hiding there and probably less than that," Aragorn said.

"Only twenty, let's get to it then," Gimli said impatient with all the discussion. "If Adam is afraid to fight, the rest of us should be up to the task without him."

"If you're sure you want to do this, I'm in," Methos said with resignation. "Better safe than dead I always say, but you're the natives. You know best how to proceed." 'Or at least I hope they know best,' Methos mentally added, 'I have a bad feeling about this, but anything potentially dangerous to my life and limb usually gives me a bad feeling.'

"If we're going to attack, we should do it now, before they realize we're coming," Legolas said.

Aragorn remounted and they headed toward the hiding men at a run. Just around the bend in the road they found their supposed ambushers, eighteen men in all. They were standing at alert but not truly prepared for battle. The group's sudden burst of speed had caught their lookout off guard and the ambush never received a signal.

Aragorn was the first to reach the men. He cut down one and managed to slice another one's arm from horseback, but he was not experienced in fighting mounted and fought better on foot so he quickly dismounted when the enemy was pushed back enough to give him room. He was quickly surrounded by six of the remaining men.

Legolas and Gimli pulled up short and dismounted before engaging in the fight. The dwarf was uniquely unsuited to mounted warfare and the elf could do very little with a passenger. Even so they were wading in to assist Aragorn, Legolas with his knives and Gimli with his ax, soon after the fight began. Gimli and Legolas swiftly dispatched two men apiece and started working to distract some of Aragorn's opponents

Methos was the last to join the fight, but was the most effective of the four. He was well versed in the ways to make use of a horse's strengths in a fight. He trampled one man and beheaded a couple others making good use of the horse's momentum. Then he dismounted as well, not wanting to be thrown by a horse that wasn't battle trained.

Legolas, Gimli, and Methos were having no trouble at all holding their own with only two opponents apiece, but Aragorn was hard pressed with the other four concentrating on killing him. Aragorn managed to eliminate the injured man, but the remaining three were still giving him trouble. Thankfully, the men were not the best trained of warriors, because even the unskilled are dangerous with the right numbers and if they were any better the king would be dead. The best swordsmen can still only concentrate on so much at one time. His only hope was to hold on till one of his friends was free to assist.

After what seemed an eternity to Aragorn but was mere moments, Legolas had finally defeated both of his opponents and was rushing across the road to help his friend, when out of the corner of his eye Methos, still busy with his last man, noticed a man about to swing at Aragorn's unprotected back. Knowing the elf would never reach Aragorn in time, he did the only thing he could do, he threw his own sword at Aragorn's attacker.

The hilt of the Ivanhoe hit the man in the shoulder throwing his attack off to one side of Aragorn. Aragorn used the man's imbalance as an opening to slice the man open. Legolas, who'd silently reached the fight, stabbed another man in the neck. Aragorn swiftly dispatched the last man then Legolas and Aragorn surveyed the rest of the fight.

Gimli, having killed the two men attacking him, was just taking care of the last remaining man by hitting him in the face with his ax. Methos without a sword didn't do so well. He was sitting at the side of the road propped against a tree. He was painfully dragging out the blade currently lodged in his entrails, knowing the revival process would be much more unpleasant if he didn't get it out.

Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli gathered around the fallen immortal, stricken by his apparently fatal injury. "My friend, I should have listened to you. This shouldn't have happened," Aragorn said, his voice laden with guilt.

Methos finally managed to pull the long blade from his body with a wince of pain then said, "No, it shouldn't have but... I haven't enough time to explain right now, but the guilt really isn't necessary."

"I don't understand," said Aragorn.

"There are things you don't know about me-" Methos broke off with a gasp of pain. "Just wait ten minutes before donning your hair shirt. You'll see." Then he murmured, "Damn, I truly hate this part," and died.

"What was he trying to tell us?" Aragorn asked. "Wait ten minutes for what?"

"I don't know," Legolas answered, equally mystified by Adam's strange behavior. "Perhaps it is some sort of custom in his land, to honor the dead."

"And what was that about a hair shirt? Could that be what they wear for funerals?" Gimli added.

"He was a brave man who died for my sake. I shall follow his wishes, no matter how strange. It is the least I can do," Aragorn said still feeling truly guilty.

The three stood mute, contemplating Methos's body when a strange thing happened. What looked like small bolts of lightning danced across the gaping wound repairing damaged flesh as it went. "What magic is this?" Gimli asked.

"I've never seen anything like it," Legolas replied.

Just then Methos, making an abrupt return to the living, gasped and sat up. Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas were struck speechless in shock. None of them had ever seen or heard of anything like this. "How is this possible? You were dead," Legolas said the first to regain his bearings and ask the question that was on all their minds.

'I hope I'm right about being the only Immortal in this world.' Methos thought to himself. 'There's no way I'll be able to fob them off with some half truth or evasion. Without any headhunters liable to come looking for me I feel a lot better about revealing myself.' Methos braced himself for the unpleasant task of explaining himself and said, "I'm an Immortal and I can not die." Then looking down at his bloody shirt he added, "at least not permanently."

Meanwhile, back on earth, a certain Highlander was placing a phone call...

"Joe's," a female voice answered the phone.

"Is Joe there?" Duncan asked.

"Who may I ask is calling?" she said.

"Duncan MacLeod"

"Hold on just a sec, Mr. MacLeod. I'll get Joe," the woman said, recognizing the name.

"Hey, Mac. How's Paris? Should I start packing my bags?" Joe answered the phone.

"No need to make the trip unless you really want to. It's been pretty quiet of late. I'll probably be heading back to the States in another couple weeks anyway. Actually, I was wondering if you've heard from Methos lately. He was suppose to meet me here, but he hasn't turned up..." Duncan explained, sounding a little concerned for his missing friend.

"Last I saw him, was about four months ago; he was off to Switzerland for some research. He must have found something pretty interesting and lost track of time," Joe said, not too concerned.

"That's what I thought at first, but he's two months late and not answering his email. And, before he left he mentioned an Immortal after his head. I'm getting worried."

"I see what you mean. Disappearing for a few months isn't out of character, but he usually lets us know he's dropping out of sight beforehand," Joe said starting to worry. "Another Immortal... I suppose it's possible, but if Methos was killed I can't imagine the watchers not knowing about it. A quickening of that magnitude from a supposedly young and unimportant immortal would cause a sensation," he continued for his own benefit as well as Duncan's.

"There is that," Duncan said slightly relieved. "If he's not dead, where is he?"

"I don't know," Joe said. "I'll do a little poking around. Maybe that Immortal hunting him's watcher knows something about his whereabouts. Did he say who it was?"

"He didn't name any names or go into detail. Young and incompetent is all I know."

"Well, that doesn't narrow it down very much," Joe said with a sigh. "Maybe I'll get lucky though."

"Thanks, Joe. I really appreciate this."

"No problem. He's my friend too, you know. I'll call you back in a couple days to let you know what I've found," Joe said.

"Right, well I'll let you get on with it then." Duncan said, somewhat reassured about his friend's continued existence, but still worried.

"Bye, Mac. Take care." Joe said good naturedly, tolerant of the Highlander's overprotective tendencies.

"You too." Duncan said.

Back in Middle-earth another Immortal had some explaining to do...

"How is this possible? Men are not allowed immortality. Only the darkest of magics are able to grant even the semblance of immortality to men," Legolas said with some confusion and a touch of suspicion.

"I really don't know how it works. No one does. In my world Immortals just are. We're born with the potential to live forever and become immortal after our first death. If there's dark magic involved, I don't know about it," Methos answered the elf's suspicions.

"Explain this 'becoming immortal' and 'first death.'" Aragorn commanded remembering the effects of the ring and sharing the elf's concerns about dark magic.

"We grow up as perfectly normal humans. We get sick, injured, and we age normally. As a matter of fact, rarely does an Immortal know he's anything other than normal before dying the first time. Immortals can identify those who're going to be immortal, but it's considered bad form to tell them about it beforehand.

"If a pre-Immortal is lucky enough to survive to old age and die naturally, he stays dead. But, if he dies before his time the immortality kicks in. That's the first death. Afterwards we stop aging and can heal just about anything, even mortal wounds," Methos explained with some reluctance.

"You think those that get to die are the lucky ones? How very strange," Legolas observed thinking about the fall of Numenor and Iluvatar giving men the 'gift'of death which they didn't want to accept.

"There are definite draw backs to being an Immortal. We still live with mortals. Watching all your friends and loved ones grow old and die isn't a lot of fun," Methos answered with just the slightest touch of bitterness creeping through.

"I see." Legolas nodded in sympathy, thinking of what his own reaction was likely to be upon Gimli and Aragorn's deaths.

"If you came by this immortality so innocently, why did you keep it a secret?" Gimli asked.

"It's one of the first rules you learn. Never let anyone know you're immortal. We have to live with mortals. The fear and jealousy can lead to some pretty ugly things. Burning at the stake wouldn't kill me, but I can't speak for my sanity afterwards. Thus far we've blended in well enough that very few mortals even know we exist and I for one would like to keep it that way," Methos said.

"If your kind is so adept at hiding, could there be more of you, native to this world?" Aragorn wondered aloud.

"It's possible," Methos answered, "but not likely. Considering the size of Minas Tirith and what I've been told about the numbers of people in Middle-earth, I should have run into one by now. Uhmm... Perhaps we can continue this later? This isn't the ideal time and place for it," he suggested looking around at the armor clad corpses in the clearing.

"Good point. First things first. We will continue this later," Aragorn agreed with a look which clearly said Methos wasn't going to weasel out of answering questions about what he was.

'Damn, he's going to be like a dog with a bone, not letting me be until he knows every little detail. I doubt he'll know the right questions to ask to get to the worst of it, but even without bringing up the Horsemen this is going to be really unpleasant. I truly hate explaining myself when I'm not sure of the reaction I'm going to get. And to make things worse, they'll be extra suspicious of me because of their history with men and immortality. I don't think I'll be able to slip any convenient fabrications past them,' Methos squirmed mentally.

"Are all of these dead?" Aragorn asked gesturing at the bodies.

"I'm afraid so." Legolas answered.

"There wasn't time or opportunity to save one for questioning. We were too hard pressed just defending ourselves to spare a moment to take a captive," Gimli said a bit defensively.

"A situation which was entirely my fault, if I had taken a few more men..." Aragorn broke off still feeling a little guilty for not taking the situation seriously but feeling considerably better than he did when he thought 'Adam' dead.

"If you'd taken a few more men, there probably wouldn't have been an attack," Methos pointed out. "As is, at least we can learn what we can from their remains."

"Learn what? They're common bandits. We need to know the name of their employer and I doubt they carry his name in their belt pouches scribbled on a bit of parchment," Gimli asked still somewhat disgruntled by the near death of the king and his failure to keep someone alive for questioning.

"His name on a bit of parchment would be nice, but even without it there's still something to be learned. These men aren't common bandits. They're too clean and their armor and weapons are a little too well kept for them to be bandits," Aragorn observed bending down to inspect the body closest to him.

"Now that you mention it, they were better fighters than bandits tend to be," Methos agreed.

"Soldiers then. Mercenaries or men loyal to your enemy?" Legolas speculated.

Aragorn pulled off one of their helmets, revealing features which marked the man as an easterner. "Eastern mercenary most likely. There could be some enemy to the east I'm unaware of, but the armor is in the style of Gondor. An eastern noble would have no reason to provision his men with western goods."

"There's something about that stitching I should remember," Gimli muttered to himself staring at the neck of a tunic visible above the leather armor.

Methos came over to look at it as well. "It does look familiar." He pondered a minute and said, "Lady Dia."

"That's right. She made a real nuisance of herself complaining about her seamstress being from Gorimet and hemming her favorite dress with that stitch," Gimli said.

"So Aragorn, who has repeatedly thwarted the schemes of Lords Korvan, Tirmen, and Barklin, sets out to stop a fight between former close friends Korvan and Tirmen. On the way, he is attacked by eastern mercenaries which Barklin could have hired through his eastern trade contacts who are clothed in tunics which were made in Tirmen's lands," Legolas summed up.

"Korvan has a lot of influence in Gondor's armory guild," Gimli added.

"It all fits together," Aragorn said grimly, clearly not wanting to believe the three friends were behind the scheme.

"Fits together a little too well if you ask me," Methos said. "Unless it's a double bluff."

"What is a 'double bluff'?" Legolas asked.

"It's when a criminal intentionally makes himself look guilty so that he can say, 'If I did it, would I be stupid enough to let myself look guilty?'" Methos explained.

"I take your point," Aragorn said. "Although, those three may be behind the plot, I'm still far from convinced. We'll just have to proceed to Korvan's keep as originally planned. If this was all an elaborate scheme to murder me, the proof we need will be there and if there truly is unrest I can't afford to let it go unchecked."

"If Korvan is trying to kill you, going to his keep will put your life at further risk." Legolas argued.

"No, the 'accident' and this anonymous attack leads me to believe secrecy is very important to the assassin. If it is Korvan, killing me in his own keep would be too obvious," Aragorn replied.

"And if you're wrong?" Gimli asked.

"Let us hope that I'm not. I have to chance the visit in any case," Aragorn said, his mind made up.

'Perfect, how do I manage to get myself into these things? All I've ever wanted was a nice peaceful, safe, life. Instead, I'm riding off into a possible nest of vipers in order to avert a war accompanied people who know I'm immortal when I wished they didn't. It's all MacLeod's fault. If it weren't for him my conscience would still be resting peacefully. I could have played dead and headed off in the opposite direction when they weren't looking. But, no, letting Aragorn feel guilty for my not actually dying would be wrong,' Methos thought as they climbed back on their horses and continued their journey. "Bloody Highlander." he muttered under his breath.

"Did you say something?" Legolas asked.

"No, it's nothing." Methos replied.

CHAPTER 6

The four proceeded to Tirmen's keep which was located on the eastern bank of the River Erui. Korvan's home was located just across the river, within sight of Tirmen's. Fortunately for Gondor, there was only one good ford in the river near their lands slowing the progress of the hostilities. If the river hadn't been there, separating the two, violence would have already occurred.

They reached Tirmen's keep late in the afternoon, less than an hour before sunset. It was an ugly building low to the ground and made of heavy gray stone, designed more for defense than pleasure. There was no attempt at elegance made in the construction. The windows were small and placed high up so as not to allow enemy arrows inside and there was very little in the way of adornment, a few unfurled banners was all, no sculpture or elaborate molding.

"Depressing sort of place," Adam observed.

"I could not live with so little light and air," Legolas agreed.

Lord Tirmen, a tall, thin man with rabbity feature and a receding hair line, came out the front gate to meet them. "Your Majesty," he said bowing, "I wasn't aware you were coming this way. I'm afraid we're not prepared to entertain you properly, but we shall make do. Anything in my power... you need only ask," Tirmen said a bit pretentiously as he lead them inside and they handed their horses to a servant.

"I ask you to end this foolish argument you have with Korvan and maintain the peace," Aragorn stated, well aware that wasn't what Tirmen had in mind when he made the offer.

"Ah.. yes.. well.. I would be happy to cease hostilities with Korvan. There's nothing I'd like better, but..." Tirmen stuttered out, nonplused by the king's straightforwardness.

"But?" Aragorn asked, arching an eyebrow challengingly.

"Yes.. well.. you see... I'm willing to be reasonable about the matter and would dearly love to avoid bloodshed, but Korvan, Korvan's being unreasonable. He's the one pursuing this injustice. I'm simply defending my interests," Tirmen said, trying to redirect the king's irritation.

"I see," Aragorn said dryly. "Then I must speak with Korvan." At this remark Tirmen's expression brightened a bit, but quickly turned worried again when the king continued. "Send a messenger across the river. Korvan shall meet us on this side of the ford in two hours time. There we shall end this matter once and for all." Glancing over at his companions who were starting to look a little worn-Gimli and Adam anyway, elves don't look worn-he added, "Tirmen, bring supper. Arguments are more easily resolved over a meal."

"It shall be as you command, Your Majesty," Tirmen assented with another bow. "If you'd care to wash away some of the road dust while I make the appropriate preparations, my man will show you to the guest rooms," he added waving a liveried servant forward.

"An excellent suggestion," Aragorn agreed glancing at Adam's torn and bloody tunic. The damage wasn't too noticeable in the late afternoon light because of the dark color of the fabric, but washing away some of the dried blood was still a good idea.

Tirmen set off in one direction and they followed the servant in another. When left alone in a spacious but poorly lit room with basins of clean water, Adam took off his shirt and did what he could about the blood stains.

"There's not so much as a scratch on you," Legolas said in amazement, looking at the place where the sword had exited Adam's back.

"One of the perks of Immortality," Adam said nonchalantly.

"None of the immortal creatures I'm familiar with are blessed with that particular `perk.' Elves heal faster than mortals, but never that completely," Legolas said.

"Different worlds, different immortals, different rules," Adam replied with a shrug, still working on his tunic. "Didn't we agree to postpone this conversation till later?"

"This is later," Gimli answered, sharing his best friend's curiosity about Adam's nature.

"It is later," Aragorn agreed, "but is it late enough? There are other, more pressing concerns, at the moment. Such as, Tirmen's reaction to our arrival."

"He seemed authentically surprised to see you here," said Legolas.

"But was his surprise because he expected you to be dead, or because he just didn't know you were coming?" Adam added, squeezing the water from his newly laundered tunic.

"How could he not know we were coming?" Gimli asked. "With the kind of trouble he's stirring up here, he had to know you'd come."

"Not necessarily," Aragorn said after a little thought. "Denethor wouldn't have come in person, there were too many other things needing his attention. He would have sent one of his sons or some government official, if his sons were busy."

"So we aren't any closer to proving his guilt or innocence," Adam said, grimacing as he pulled on his damp tunic. "I hate wearing damp clothes, but dried blood is worse. At least water doesn't itch."

"The weather's warm. You'll soon dry," Legolas said taking some amusement in Adam's seemingly contradictory behavior. `He dies and returns without comment, but complains about damp clothing,' the elf observed to himself.

Two hours later, Aragorn, Legolas, Gimli, Adam, Tirmen, and a platoon of servers with all the fixings for a feast were assembled along the eastern bank of the river waiting for Korvan and his entourage to arrive. A small boat carrying Korvan, a short stocky man who was starting to run to fat in his middle years but still had a full head of light brown hair just starting to gray, and a couple retainers rowed into view. As the boat reached the shore, a group of soldiers marched into view on Korvan's side of the river.

"What is the meaning of this?" Tirmen demanded of Korvan as the man came ashore. "I specifically stated that this was to be a peaceful meeting. Why are your men assembled over there?" he said gesturing at the western bank.

"That is why they're assembled over there. They'll stay over there as long as this meeting is kept peaceful," Korvan answered somewhat belligerently.

"Are you saying you doubted my word?" Tirmen hissed back, eyes narrowed in anger.

"Of course I doubt your word. How can I trust the word of a man who would steal my daughter's dowry leaving her to suffer on the pittance you give that wastrel nephew of yours," Korvan answered with a sneer.

"Steal her dowry?!" Tirmen exclaimed, highly offended. "That dowry belongs to my estate by right. I shall no doubt have to pay that amount many times over to save my nephew from your harridan of a daughter's excesses. I won't claim any reparations on my son's behalf, although he would have a right to them, because the luck of avoiding a lifetime with that woman more than makes up for the humiliation of being left at the altar."

Korvan had been growing increasingly red in the face during Tirmen's speech and was slowly approaching the man with murder in his eyes, when Aragorn interrupted. "So you are both laying claim to the dowry out of concern for the welfare of your relations?" he said.

Tirmen and Korvan were both pulled up short by this interjection. They had both forgotten their surroundings in the heat of the moment; this reminder of the king's presence put a damper on their ire.

"Yes, of course that is the reason. My nephew's future is of great importance to me," Tirmen said, hesitant at first but with growing confidence.

"A father has to look out for his daughter's future," Korvan agreed.

"Then the solution to this problem is quite simple," Aragorn said.

Korvan and Tirmen exchanged a confused glance then Korvan said, "It is?"

"Yes, if you're both so concerned about the financial support of the young couple then the dowry should be given directly to them. I had some concerns about what to do for your son, Tirmen, but since you relinquish any claim to reparations on his behalf this situation can be resolved tonight."

"But, you can't..." Tirmen started to say then trailed off seeing the kings disapproving look.

"But, they wouldn't know what to do with it," Korvan said, trying a different tack. "Give those two the dowry and they'll run through it within the year. They need someone older and more experienced managing it for them."

Tirmen, appreciating Korvan's approach, quickly agreed. "Let us manage it for them. I'm sure we can work something out."

"No, giving over control to the couple directly is the only way. They may mishandle it, but that is a risk we must take. I refuse to leave open another opportunity for two such close friends to come to blows," Aragorn dismissed their objections.

"As you wish, Your Majesty," Tirmen said with some reluctance.

"Your Majesty knows best," Korvan said clearly unhappy with the decision.

"Now that this unpleasant business is taken care of, will the two of you not clasp hands in friendship and sit down to the evening meal as friends?" the king suggested.

Tirmen and Korvan clasped hands and exchanged some private words. As they turned toward the tables and the waiting feast they swiftly engaged in conversation and appeared once again as two the friends often seen together in Minas Tirith.

"That was very smoothly done," Adam observed.

"The fastest way to repair a friendship is to give the former friends a common enemy to hate," Aragorn said.

"Are you sure this is the best time to be making enemies?" Legolas asked.

"It isn't much of a risk. If they're innocent of the attempts on my life, I doubt this will drive them to murder," Aragorn replied.

"And if they're already trying to kill you, this doesn't change anything," Gimli added. "I'd watch what I ate though, if I were you. This little irritation might push them into taking a chance."

"I'll have Adam taste everything for me." Aragorn said with a slightly wicked grin.

Methos gave him a dirty look and they all went to dinner.

Aragorn, Gimli, Legolas, and Methos spent a single night in Tirmen's Keep then rode for Minas Tirith early the next morning. The questioning of Methos began as soon as they cleared the gates.

"You said that your kind are kept ignorant of your nature until you die the first time. To what purpose?" Legolas asked.

"To have a taste of mortal life. Knowing from the start that you might live forever leads to poor character development, for humans at least. And, there's always the possibility they'll die of old age before becoming Immortal," Methos explained.

"And that would be why you said 'might'?" Gimli said.

"Might?" Methos asked.

"You said 'might live forever'?" Gimli clarified.

"Dying naturally would be an impediment to immortality, but I was thinking more of the game."

"The game?" Aragorn asked.

Methos sighed and said, "The game is where we Immortals go about chopping each other's heads off, which is the only way we can be made permanently dead. 'In the end there can be only one.' The last one standing gets a prize."

"What prize?" Legolas asked, clearly appalled at the concept. "What could be so valuable that an entire race would hunt itself to extinction in order to obtain it?"

"No one knows. Knowledge, power, something big, that is assuming there really is a prize and this isn't all some elaborate hoax." Methos said.

"You kill others of your own kind for an unknown prize which might not even exist?" Aragorn said, shocked at such seemingly mad behavior.

"I don't, but others do. I try to avoid fighting when I can. I only take heads to stop them from taking mine," Methos said defensively.

"I must be glad of your success, thus far, in saving your own head. If you weren't here, I'd be dead," Aragorn offered, half in apology for his hasty assumption, thinking of what might have happened the day before if Methos weren't there.

"That would explain how a scholar got to be so good with a sword," Gimli said, changing the subject slightly. "I suppose you've had a lot of practice."

"You could say that," Methos agreed.

"How much practice? That is to say, how old are you?" Legolas asked, wondering how this immortality compared to that of elves. "If you don't mind my asking..." he belatedly added, remembering his manners.

"I don't know exactly. I lost track somewhere along the way," Methos paused for a second considering how much to say. 'I don't suppose it will make any difference to them. They're not Immortals and there aren't any Immortals for them to tell.' he thought. "I think five thousand years, give or take."

"How can you not know how old you are?" Gimli asked.

"It is the sort of thing one remembers," Aragorn added.

"Well, I don't. I can clearly remember my first quickening." Noticing their blank looks at the unfamiliar expression, he explained, "Quickening, that's what it's called when you kill another Immortal. Anyway, I remember my first win, but before that it's all pretty hazy. I'm not even sure what my true name was, originally."

"Adam isn't your name?" Legolas asked.

"Well it is now. I change it periodically, most Immortals do. An archaic name doesn't help when you're trying to blend in. Actually, just before I came here, I was considering another change. Too many people know who 'Adam Pierson' really is or was," Methos explained.

"And, who would that be? What is it you wish others didn't know about you?" Aragorn said.

Methos paused for a second thinking, 'what would be the best way to word this? I need to sound forthcoming about things I don't normally talk about without touching too much on things I'd rather not touch on.' Choosing his words carefully, he said, "The one name I've carried longer than any of the others is Methos. It's from the Greek word for myth, and I have the majority of Immortals convinced that is exactly what he, or rather, I am-a myth. You see, I'm the oldest which makes me prime real estate. If the truth ever got out, headhunters would be coming out of the woodwork. And, the younger ones would flock 'round looking for wisdom which may in fact be the worse of the two evils. Why people always assume great wisdom always comes with great age is something I'll never know."

"It doesn't?" Legolas asked one eyebrow arched.

"No, it doesn't. I've known more than one vintage Immortal and none could claim any greater share of wisdom than that of mortals. In fact, there are quite a few who are worse than animals. I can say with some certainty, that elven wisdom isn't due to immortality. It's because you're elves." 'If anything,' Methos silently added, not wanting to give offense by openly challenging the assumption that elves are wise. 'They may in fact be as wise as everyone says, but I haven't met enough of them to judge,' he thought.

The conversation continued in the same vein throughout the ride back to Minas Tirith. By the time they reached the citadel that evening, they'd covered all the important points of Immortal existence and even discussed the Watchers. What Methos avoided discussing, were the precise details of his past life. He made sure to keep his time as Death, one of the Four Horsemen, a closely guarded secret, positive his new friends wouldn't understand.

The next morning, after breakfast, Methos went to find Legolas or Gimli. Gimli was nowhere to be found. Legolas was sitting under a big oak tree in the Queen's Garden, fletching arrows.

"Morning," Methos greeted the elf. "Do you have a minute? I think there are things we should discuss."

"There are things we did not discuss yesterday?" Legolas said, thinking of their long analysis of Methos's immortality.

"The attempt on the king's life," Methos reminded. "It did get kind of lost in the shuffle," he said sitting on a bench near the tree.

"What else is there to discuss?" Legolas asked, ignoring Methos's odd figure of speech, as always. "We found out what we could just after it happened. What more is there to say?"

"I've been thinking about those tunics. They were all the same, so were probably bought from the same person, if not all at the same time. They were also not brand new. The men must have been wearing them for a month or two, at least, considering the amount of wear and tear. Then you factor in the stitching, a stitch confined to a limited area and number of tailors. I think we might be able to trace them back to their purchaser."

"I see what you mean," Legolas said. "There couldn't be too many tailors who use Gorimet embroidery and sold eighteen or more identical tunics a couple months ago. And, if we find the tailor, he might lead us to the assassin. To another lackey at the very least. A tailor of Gondor would be reluctant to work for eastern mercenaries."

"And?" Methos asked, knowing Legolas could figure the rest out himself, once he thought about it.

"And, the mercenaries themselves had to have been here a couple months ago to get the tunics. Someone must have noticed them," Legolas continued.

"Precisely. What I wonder though, is if they were working for their regular employer at the time or if it was someone else. I seriously doubt the assassin brought those men to Gondor and kept them here for a month or two on the off chance that Aragorn would give them an opportunity. They had to have come here on some other business," Methos said.

"They were probably working as caravan guards. Since the war ended, there has been so much trouble with bandits that even eastern mercenaries can find work. Although, that is changing now that Aragorn has the time to deal with the matter," Legolas said. "I feel like a fool, not realizing any of this until now."

"Don't be so hard on yourself," Methos said. "You're a prince. Looking for clues and solving crimes isn't exactly in your line of work."

"But, it is in yours?" the elf said skeptically, still finding fault with himself.

"Actually, in a way, it is. To a scholar, the answers are never clearly spelled out, in black and white, or in the records. A scholar has to sift through information looking for clues and following leads," Methos explained. "Speaking of leads, how should we go about following up on the ones we have?"

"If by 'following up on leads' you mean continuing our search for the assassin, I believe we should consult with Aragorn and Gimli before making a plan of action. If luck is with us, those mercenaries may have made an appearance in one of the dispatches. I know an eye is kept on even the supposedly law abiding mercenaries, seeing as they often turn to banditry when employment is scarce."

"Well, let's hope we get lucky."

Legolas finished fletching his last arrow and put it in his quiver. Then the two of them went to see the king.

CHAPTER 7

The four divided up their 'leads.' Aragorn and Methos would concentrate on finding reports of the mercenaries. They would read through the dispatches with Methos doing most of the reading, Aragorn being busy with other duties. Aragorn would also have his agents ask around. Legolas and Gimli would try to track down the tailor. They got results almost immediately, or at least Gimli did.

"Where did you put that tunic you saved for evidence?" Gimli asked Methos as they left Aragorn's study.

"It's in my quarters. I'll go fetch it. You'll be... in the garden?" Methos ventured, noting Legolas's presence and knowing that the elf liked to be outside.

Gimli nodded in agreement. "I'll just be a minute then," Methos said before turning down a side corridor.

"Is there something else special about the tunic, besides the stitching?" Legolas asked his friend, wanting to know why Gimli wanted to see it again.

"Not special, exactly. But, every craftsman's work is slightly different. I don't know enough about sewing to tell the difference, but an experienced tailor or seamstress should be able to identify the work of those they know personally," Gimli explained as the two continued toward the gardens.

"I see," Legolas said. "But who do we ask? How do we know the person we ask isn't the one who made the tunic? He, or she, would likely be reluctant to admit the truth. The attempts on the king's life are not common knowledge, but the king's friends asking after the maker of a bloody tunic would make most commoners nervous."

"I hadn't thought of that," Gimli said with some consternation. "Figuring out whom to ask could be a problem." Then after a pause for thought, "What about Dia's maid? She should know several who use Gorimet stitches."

"How do we know she didn't make this herself?" Legolas said.

"We don't, but I doubt it was her. Who would contract a lady's maid to outfit a mercenary troop?" Gimli answered.

"That is a point," Legolas agreed. "We'll question Lady Dia's maid as soon as Adam brings us the tunic."

Adam brought them the tunic; Legolas and Gimli went to find the maid. Her name was Amalia and they found her in the laundry, patching garments. The laundry was one long room with large vats of boiling water at one end and long tables, at which women mended and sorted clothing, at the other. Lines of hanging laundry acted as a curtain between the two halves. Gimli and Legolas entered through the door at the sorting end. Startled by the appearance of two lords below stairs, a hush fell among the women.

"Which one is she?" Gimli asked.

"Short with red hair they said," Legolas said, referring to the various servants they'd asked about Amalia. "The one on the end, that must be her."

The two walked across the room to where Amalia was sitting, as a low buzz began among the women who were exchanging speculative whispers regarding Legolas and Gimli's purpose in the laundry room.

"Amalia?" Legolas asked the wide-eyed girl who was clearly shocked to find two such significant personages talking to her.

"Y-yes, my lord," she answered, rising from her seat and awkwardly executing a curtsy.

Legolas gave her a smile which was meant to be encouraging, but only served to make her more nervous. Then, handing her the tunic, he said, "We have this tunic with Gorimet stitching and were wondering if you could tell us who made it?"

"Of course my lord. I-I mean I can try," she answered examining the stitches. "Grenel made this," she said confidently.

"You're absolutely sure?" Gimli said.

"Yes, my lord. Every fourth stitch is placed low. He's done that since he lost a finger to frostbite one winter," Amalia confirmed.

"Where might we find this Grenel?" Legolas asked.

"He lives in Gorimet, my lord. Ask anyone for the tailor and they'll point you to his house," Amalia answered.

"Thank you for your assistance," Legolas said, taking back the tunic. "You have performed a great service for Gondor."

"You're welcome, my lord," Amalia said, blushing and giving another curtsey.

Gimli and Legolas left the laundry room, Gimli saying to Legolas, "It looks like we have another trip ahead of us."

After discussing their plans with Aragorn and Methos, Gimli and Legolas set out for Gorimet the following day. They made the trip at a leisurely pace, allowing for Gimli's discomfort on horseback, and arrived at their destination late the next day.

"I don't suppose there'll be an inn," Gimli grumbled, taking in the small cluster of buildings. "I'd be surprised if there's even a tavern. There couldn't be more than four or five families living there."

"Actually, there is an inn. It caters to merchants who come once a year to buy pelts," Legolas replied.

"How did you come to know that?" Gimli asked slightly surprised.

"I asked," the elf replied dryly. "I thought it would be wise to find out what I could about Gorimet before we left."

"And what else did you learn, oh wise one?" Gimli said.

"Gorimet consists of half a dozen families, descended for the most part from those who resided in Gondor before the Dunedain came. They make a living by hunting the animals who live in the nearby mountains and selling the skins. The Gorimet stitchery, which we find ourselves so interested in, is related to their main profession. It is derived from a method for sewing leather, and even at present Gorimet's residents tend to wear more leather than cloth," Legolas replied in a mock pretentious tone.

"Did you find out anything of use?" Gimli asked.

"No, nothing particularly useful came to light, other than the fact of the inn's existence," Legolas said, going back to a more normal tone of voice. "There it is," he said, motioning toward a two story wooden building painted blue with red trim.

"It looks vacant," Gimli said taking in the darkened windows in the evening gloom.

"There's a light at the back, where the kitchen must be. It isn't fur season, but someone is there."

They rode over to the front of the building, dismounted, and tied the horse to one of the porch railings. Entering through the front door, they discovered an empty common room with sheet-draped furniture. Legolas and Gimli exchanged a glance, then Gimli called, in a loud voice, "Hello, is anyone here?" Then, banging on a table with his ax handle, he called again, "Hello? You've got customers."

A short, roly-poly, man scurried into the room through a door behind the bar. He was of middle years and had thinning sandy brown hair. This was undoubtedly the innkeeper, he had the harried but good natured expression common to innkeepers the world over. "Welcome to the Wandering Sailor, that was the owner before me, went to sea in his youth and the name stuck. So sorry there was no one to greet you, but I didn't know anyone was coming. Usually, there's no one this time of year. As a matter of fact I can't remember ever having guests in August. Not that I wouldn't like guests in August. I'm always happiest when there are a few guests underfoot, not that you'd be underfoot..." the man babbled on, trailing off when the odd appearance of his guests finally registered. Guests in August were strange enough, but an elf and a dwarf in Gorimet, traveling together of all things, was unheard of. "What can I do for you my lords? You must be weary from your journey. How does a pint of ale, a hearty supper, and a soft bed sound?" he asked, finally getting to the point.

"That sounds about right," said Gimli.

"Right this way then, gentlemen." the innkeeper said rounding the bar and turning down the hall, which opened to one side of it. "There's a private parlor back here which should be a bit more cheerful than this great empty room. Should be more comfortable too. At the height of the season the latecomers end up bedded down in there so I made sure the chairs were something a man could sleep in without doing himself permanent injury," He stopped at a door and motioned Gimli and Legolas in.

The room was richly over furnished. There was a patterned carpet and a tapestry on each wall, none of which matched. Despite the garish appearance, it looked comfortable enough. There were a couple of thickly padded wing backed chairs conveniently placed around a small table. Such an arrangement would undoubtedly be more comfortable than the wooden benches found in most common rooms and was also more convenient than eating off a tray in one's room.

"This will do nicely," Legolas said, grateful for such comfortable and well kept accomodations.

"Make yourselves comfortable and I'll be back in a thrice with the refreshments. For supper there's venison, just roasted today. I don't have a full larder for entertaining, but I suppose I could manage something else, if..." the innkeeper said somewhat doubtfully.

"Venison sounds good," Gimli interrupted.

"It will be up in just a moment," the innkeeper said, relieved, departing for the kitchens.

Legolas and Gimli enjoyed a pleasant meal and retired for the night to comfortable beds in clean rooms. The elf might have been just as happy sleeping under the stars, but Gimli greatly appreciated the unexpected convenience of a well run inn.

The next morning, Legolas and Gimli went to speak with Grenel, the tailor.

"Which house did the innkeeper say was his?" Legolas asked Gimli.

"He said it was the green one," Gimli answered.

There was a green house directly across from the inn. It consisted of one long central building and several sprawling additions, added to house a growing family. The two went over to the house and knocked on the front door. A young woman carrying a baby with a toddler clinging to her skirts answered the door. "What d'you want?" she said irritably.

"We're looking for Master Grenel," Legolas answered politely.

"Oh," she said turning back inside the house. Then she shouted "Uncle, you've got visitors," startling the visitors. "Come in, if you're coming," she said to Gimli and Legolas in a more normal tone of voice. "Uncle Grenel's coming," she added before leaving the room.

They ducked into the house through the low doorway, or at least the elf ducked. The main part of the house was one large hall with a hearth at the opposite end from where they were standing. It was furnished with heavy wood and leather couches and chairs which were crudely made but durable. The interior would have had a rather stark appearance but for the wooden toys strewn across the floor and the wet clothes hung to dry in front of the hearth.

An old man leaning heavily upon a cane hobbled in. "You gen'lemen wanted to see me?"

"You're Master Grenel?" Gimli asked.

"Aye, I'm Grenel. I 'spose my niece should have introduced me all proper like, but the childer gettin' ill and their father not taken'em out o' her hair has made her right tetchy," the old man said. "What can I be doing for ya?" he continued as he hobbled over to the nearest chair and took a seat.

Legolas pulled the tunic out of a pouch he'd been carrying, slung across his back next to his quiver and said, "We were told this was your handy work?" looking for confirmation.

Grenel took the tunic from the elf and after a glance at the seams said, "Aye, this is one o'mine. Why d'ya ask?"

Legolas and Gimli exchanged a look and decided to trust the old man, to an extent. "Men wearing tunics like this one were killed in an attempt on a very important person's life. We're trying to find the one who bought the tunics," explained Legolas.

"There was more'n one you said?" Grenel asked.

"Yes, there were more than a dozen," Gimli replied, not wanting to give away too many details.

"It must have been that merchant fella' then. That's the only order that big I ever made,"

"Merchant fellow?" Legolas said, asking for more details.

"Real oily sort. A right weasel. Came here for the fur trading and asked for twenty-three of them tunics. Almost didn't do it for him. I was glad of the custom but only so long as I was sure the payment was comin', if you see what I mean. Wouldn't have except he agreed to pay me up front."

"But, what was his name?" Gimli pressed.

"What was it? Setin, Sorin, Selin..." the old man muttered to himself. "I'm afraid I can't rightly remember. He did brag on the warehouses he had in Dunton."

"Dunton?" Gimli asked.

"Little spot over in Lebennin on the Celos. That's where they load the ships goin' down to the Great River," Grenel explained.

"Is there anything else you can remember? Anything at all?" Legolas asked.

"No, that'd be about it," Grenel said regretfully.

"Thank you, for what you did tell us. It should be enough to find him, even without the name," Gimli said graciously.

"I wish you luck in findin' 'im. I knew he was up to no good, just from lookin' at 'im," said Grenel.

"One other thing, before we take our leave, how is it that a place as small as Gorimet comes to have a tailor?" Legolas asked curiously.

"Gorimet don't have a tailor, not truly. I was a hunter for more'n thirty years, 'fore I busted my leg. The tailorin' is just somethin' folks give me to do to keep me feelin' useful," Grenel said with a self deprecating smile, clearly taking his forced change of career in stride.

"I see," said Legolas. "Thank you once again for your assistance, and we must be going. It appears we have another journey ahead of us."

They said their farewells, stopped by the inn to collect their things and re-provision, and set off for Dunton.

Gimli and Legolas arrived in Dunton late one morning, several days later. Dunton wasn't very far from Gorimet, but there was more than one river that had to be crossed first. Riding up and down rivers looking for bridges or fords added time to the journey.

Questioning a few passersby quickly yielded the information they were looking for. The only man who fit all the criteria, merchant, warehouse owner, name beginning with an 's' and shifty in appearance, was Trader Sekin. Sekin was quite well off, owning several of the most centrally located warehouses. Sekin's great wealth and prominent position in the local economy was the only reason his presence was tolerated in Dunton. Not only did he have a disagreeable personality, he also possessed a reputation for dealing in the dark arts. When asked about Sekin, most of the townspeople assumed the inquiry was pursuant to a witch trial and were more than happy to explain Sekin's misdeeds, or supposed misdeeds, in detail.

As the friends approached Sekin's place of residence, a garishly decorated mansion on the outskirts of town, they discussed this new piece of information. "Do you think what those people said is true? Is he really a witch? Or is that just the imaginings of superstitious people upset by Sekin's shady business practices?" Gimli asked Legolas.

"It wouldn't be the first time accusations of witchcraft sprung from some motive other than truth, but it does fit together. He's connected to the assassination attempts through the tunics and there was witchcraft involved with the first attempt. Unless he has a partner in this, he would have to be a witch."

"That is what I was afraid you'd say," Gimli said with some consternation. "Asking a weasel of a merchant a few pointed questions is one thing. Cornering a witch is something else. Dark magic makes me a bit nervous, when there's not some one, like Gandalf, well versed in such matter to help out."

"I share your concerns. Dark magic is not for the unwary to trifle with, but I doubt this Sekin will be too great a danger for us to take in hand. If he had truly great powers, he wouldn't still be a mere merchant. The lesser magics take time to prepare. We won't give him time enough to complete a ritual or a say a chant," Legolas reassured.

"Right. If he looks to be starting some magic we'll brain him. He won't be calling on the forces of darkness while he's unconscious."

The two reached the house, entered through the gate, walked up the front garden path, and knocked on the front door. A man, who could only be Sekin himself, answered the door. He was small, squinty eyed, and looked like a weasel. His overly rich clothing, silks, satins and velvets in an array of colors, confirmed his status as master of the house. When first answering the door, his expression was a mean and irritated one. After taking in the appearance of his callers, he tried to look more pleasant. "How may I serve you my lords?" he said obsequiously, bowing low. "Please come in, out of this dreadful weather." he continued, stepping back out of the doorway and opening the door a little wider.

"I would prefer it if you joined us out here. It is such a pleasant day," Legolas said looking as if he'd smelled something foul.

"Of course, whatever you'd prefer," Sekin agreed. "What business brings you to my doorstep? Buying or selling?"

"Neither," Gimli answered in a grim tone.

"Neither?" Sekin asked beginning to sense something wrong.

"We came to ask you what you know about this tunic," Legolas said taking the blood stained tunic out of his bag.

Sekin glanced at the tunic nervously, starting to sweat profusely. "I've never seen it before in my life. Common goods it looks. I only deal in valuable luxury items," he said quickly.

"Don't bother lying. We talked to the tailor. We know you're the one that bought it," Gimli contradicted.

"Yes, now that you mention it, maybe I did buy it. I bought some tunics to outfit my caravan guards. What of it? That's no crime." Sekin said nervously.

"And?" Legolas asked.

"And what?" Sekin replied.

"And what exactly did you hire those guards to do roughly two weeks ago?" Legolas pressed.

"Nothing. I-I haven't seen them in months, when my last shipment came in," Sekin stuttered out.

"He's lying," Legolas said to Gimli.

"Want me to hit him with my ax a few times? That might bring out the truth," Gimli answered conversationally.

"It might at that," Legolas replied in the same tone. "Try it, but be careful not to kill him. He needs to be able to talk."

Sekin looked from Legolas to Gimli and back again, assessing the seriousness of the threat; then he bolted. Sekin ran around the corner of the house with Legolas and Gimli at his heels. On that side of the house, there was a maze. Apparently, Sekin hoped to escape the elf and the dwarf by losing them in the shrubbery.

Sekin entered the maze ahead of Legolas and Gimli. When the two got inside, Sekin had already turned down one of the leafy corridors. "Which way?" Gimli asked.

Legolas held up a hand for silence, then said, "That way," pointing towards the right most path. They raced down the path Sekin had taken and caught sight of him within moments. Sekin, believing he had lost his pursuers had stopped to draw symbols on the ground with a stick.

"Quickly, he's doing a spell!" Gimli shouted.

Sekin, noticing their arrival, stepped inside the design on the ground and started to chant. Before Sekin was even halfway through the first line the elf tackled him to the ground and knocked him unconscious.

"I never thought I'd see an elf execute that particular maneuver," Gimli observed as he approached the unconscious witch.

"I thought it wise to stop his ritual as soon as possible. I could feel the dark power rising," Legolas explained, dusting himself off.

"So he's definitely the witch then?"

"Yes, he reeks of dark magic. I knew him for what he was the minute I laid eyes upon him."

"What are we to do with him now? Take him back to Minas Tirith for questioning?"

"I suppose we should. Aragorn would be vexed with us if he didn't get to do the questioning himself," Legolas said rummaging in his bag.

"What are you looking for?" Gimli asked.

"Rope."

"That was good thinking, knowing to bring a bit of rope along. Wouldn't happen to have anything we could use for a gag or a blindfold?" Gimli said hopefully.

Legolas handed Gimli the rope, saying, "You tie him up. I don't want to touch him, if I can help it."

Gimli took the rope and started to tie Sekin up. "What about the gag and blindfold?" he asked the elf who was still cataloguing the items in his sack.

"I'm afraid we'll have to rip pieces from the tunic. Samwise Gangee only waxed eloquent on the myriad of uses for rope. He didn't mention spare bits of cloth. I didn't bring anything."

"Aragorn and Adam aren't going to like us ripping up pieces of evidence, but they'd like burying our spell blasted corpses less," Gimli assented to the suggestion. "Hand me the tunic."

After the dwarf had secured Sekin to his satisfaction, Legolas asked, "Can you manage him on your own or should I fetch the horse?"

"You're truly serious about not touching him?" Gimli said.

Legolas nodded in reply. "Touching those who have turned to darkness is tainting."

"But, it's acceptable for me to be tainted?" Gimli asked pointedly, but not with the antagonism which would have been present before their friendship developed. Gimli knew his friend wouldn't let him come to harm, but he was curious.

"Dwarves have a strong resistance to the powers of darkness. It would take considerably more than your carrying him about for his evilness to have any effect upon you," Legolas explained.

"Thought it might be something like that." Gimli said with some pride. He picked up Sekin and tossed him over his shoulder, none too gently. "He's light enough, but an awkward shape for carrying. You'd better fetch the horse."

Legolas went back around the house and returned a moment later, leading the horse. Gimli tossed the still unconscious Sekin on the horse and the they started walking back to town. "Hauling him across country with you not touching him isn't going to be easy," Gimli observed.

"I was just thinking that myself. Perhaps we should sail to Minas Tirith?" Legolas suggested.

"That will certainly be faster," Gimli agreed, knowing of his friend's new found love of boats. They'd spend this trip sailing upon rivers rather than going out to sea, but anytime spent upon water was agreeable to Legolas.

"When we get back to town, we'll hire a ship," Legolas said with a happy grin.

CHAPTER 8

Meanwhile, back on earth, a phone was ringing...

"Hello?" Duncan answered distractedly as he finished folding a shirt.

"Hey, Mac. What's up?" Joe asked. "I thought you were flying back to Seacouver last week."

"I was, but there was some bad weather and a lot of flights were canceled. I should be on a plane tomorrow morning. I'm packing as we speak," the Highlander answered, feeling slightly harassed. He didn't mind Joe keeping tabs on him, but every minute didn't need to be accounted for.

"Good, I was worried you'd gotten into some trouble. You know how trouble likes to follow you around," Joe said in his own defense. "But, that's not the reason I called. I finally got some info on Adam."

"What'd you find out?" MacLeod asked, putting down the sweater he was folding, suddenly more interested in the conversation.

"It's strange. I tracked down the Watcher of the Immortal hunting Adam. Her assignment was Nathan Grey a 97 year old Immortal who made a habit of hunting the young and helpless. He wasn't known for being very good with a sword. My best guess is he went after Adam thinking he was a newbie and bit off more than he could chew," Joe explained.

"So Methos definitely won the challenge, what's strange about it and where is he now?"

"I'm getting to that part. Grey's Watcher followed Grey to Switzerland where he challenged an Immortal unknown to the Watcher. Grey challenges this Immortal out in the hills somewhere. So far so good. Then, after the fight begins, the Watcher goes off into the trees to get a safe distance from the quickening. She sees the light show and waits for the winner to come down, but no one comes down the hill. After an hour or two she went back up to investigate. There she finds Grey's corpse and the other Immortal's backpack, but there's no sign of the other Immortal."

"That is strange," MacLeod replied. "Methos could have left without the Watcher noticing, but why would he leave behind his bag? Leaving evidence isn't like him."

"That's what I thought. So I did a little more checking. I called the local inn. They hadn't had an Adam Pierson, but there was a Mike Adams fitting his description staying there about five months ago. The clerk remembered him in particular because halfway through his scheduled visit, on the same day as that challenge, he suddenly disappeared, leaving all his stuff in his room. Then the police got involved. They found his rental car abandoned on the side of the road, near where that fight took place."

"I thought he was going to stop using Adam names for awhile. Are you positive Mike Adams is Methos?" Duncan asked.

"As certain as I can be without seeing him in person. The clerk described him down to the aristocratic nose and wrinkled clothes. He even mentioned the tendency to wax poetic about beer. Mike Adams is probably one of his half dozen back up IDs and he couldn't resist using it at least once before discarding it."

"That does sound like him. Why can't he travel under his own name, like any normal person?"

"Hasn't he said something about not wanting to stay in any place Adam Pierson could afford?"

"Numerous times, usually while he's inviting himself to my couch. What do you think happened to him? It had to be something pretty big, or he would have packed his things," Duncan said, worried for his annoying friend's welfare.

"I don't know. Kidnapping? An old enemy chasing him? There could be any number of reasons."

"Kidnapping? A lot of people think 'Adam Pierson' was my student. It could be another Immortal trying to get to me," MacLeod said with guilt. He had too much experience with enemies striking at him through his friends.

"This happened nearly five months ago. If it had anything to do with you, you'd have heard about it by now. Adam can make enemies all by himself," Joe admonished the Highlander.

"I suppose that's true," Duncan answered a little sheepishly, realizing that yet again he was taking on responsibility for things beyond his control. That particular habit was one his friends were valiantly trying to break him of, but with little success. "Whatever happened, the only clues left behind are sure to be in Switzerland. I think I should cancel my flight and go to Switzerland instead."

"I'll meet you there in a few days."

"You don't have to come. I thought you were having staff problems at the bar."

"All sorted out. Even if they weren't, I could hardly let you investigate a mysterious disappearance without me. What if you suddenly disappeared too? Watcher Headquarters would never forgive me. Besides, two heads are better than one."

"Right, see you there then," Duncan said, grateful to have some help getting to the bottom of things. He'd run into a few mysteries in need of solving over the course of four centuries, but expert detective he wasn't.

"See you in a few days."

Back in Middle-earth...

A couple days after capturing Sekin, Legolas and Gimli arrived in Minas Tirith with the morning tide, bringing with them their securely tied and gagged cargo. Sekin was confined to a special cell which was warded against magic. It was located in the little used dungeon underneath the citadel. After safely depositing their prisoner, Gimli and Legolas went to see the king in his private study.

"You're certain this Sekin was the one who arranged the attempts on my life?" Aragorn asked.

"Positive. He admitted using witchcraft on the concrete supports and to hiring those men," Legolas said.

"I'm surprised he was so forthcoming," Aragorn replied. "Did he also explain why he did it?"

"That he wouldn't budge on. Couldn't get a peep out of him on that score," Gimli said with some chagrin. "After he knew there was no wiggling out of the charges, he volunteered all the details of how he arranged it all, but wouldn't say a word about his motives."

"Why wouldn't he say?" the king mused aloud. "Could he be protecting someone?"

"That is a possibility," Legolas said skeptically, "but it would be very... unusual. Normally, practitioners of death magic are only loyal to themselves. I can't imagine Sekin, a man who has delved far into the darkness in search of power, not trying to bargain for his life by turning on his associates."

"If he isn't protecting someone, why not explain, have his sentence changed from hanging to beheading?" Aragorn asked.

"Perhaps, he's protecting himself from one of his associates," suggested a voice from the other side of the room. "He knows you're going to kill him, but no more than that. Perhaps if he says the wrong thing, someone else will do something a lot worse to him," Methos explained himself as he approached the three friends.

"That explanation does seem the most likely one," Legolas agreed. "There are things worse than death and I'm sure a witch would be familiar with more than one of them."

"He did flinch a little when the subject of why he did what he did came up," Gimli added.

"So he's more afraid of whomever he's protecting than he is of us," Aragorn summed up the situation. "I assume this person is the one actually behind the attacks. Now the question is: How do we persuade this Sekin to tell us what he knows?"

"That's easy. We just have to make him more afraid of us than he is of the other guy," Methos said flippantly.

"Easier said than done. He knows he will be hung for treason and is unafraid," Aragorn said.

"Torture?" Gimli asked with some distaste. Dwarves usually avoided such dishonorable tactics, but their innate pragmatism didn't allow them to completely dismiss the possibility.

"No," Aragorn said with conviction. "I will not sink to taking up evil practices in the name of good and expediency."

"Of that I am glad," Legolas supported Aragorn's decision. "If you were a man of lesser principles, I could not call you friend."

"I don't relish the thought of torture myself," Gimli said a bit defensively.

Methos was quiet during this particular interchange, but his superior, patronizing-the-naive-children expression spoke volumes.

Taking in Methos's expression, Aragorn said pointedly, "Methos, do you have a suggestion to make?" Aragorn put stress upon the 'Methos,' emphasizing by his choice of name Methos's millennia of experience.

"Yes, actually I do," Methos replied conversationally. Then in his best teacher-with-dense-students voice he explained, "The reason Sekin isn't afraid of us is because he knows we're the good guys and therefore probably aren't going to torture him. All we have to do is convince him otherwise."

"But we aren't going to torture him," Gimli interrupted.

"Please, save all questions and comments till the end. I'm getting to that part," Methos continued. "The part of torture which makes it truly effective isn't the pain. It's the fear. That means we don't have to actually do anything to him, we only have to make him think we will."

"And how do we do that?" Legolas inquired.

"Well, we don't. He'd never believe an elf would stoop so low. Thinking that King Elessar, poster boy for honor and nobility, would countenance such a thing is equally ridiculous," said Methos.

"Poster boy?" Aragorn said in a slightly warning tone, implying that Methos had perhaps overstepped his bounds just a little.

"It's a compliment. It means you're the archetype, the role model, the person mothers hold up as an example to their sons," Methos answered smoothly.

"I see." Aragorn answered dryly, not buying Methos's explanation and suspecting he was being made into a figure of fun.

"If we can return to the matter at hand..." Gimli interjected. "If Legolas and Aragorn aren't going to scare Sekin, who is?"

"I am and perhaps you as well," Methos said brightly. "He won't believe Aragorn'd torture him, but he might believe that the king's more pragmatic friends would take it upon themselves to do it for him."

"He must know I would put a stop to any such action," Aragorn pointed out.

"But, you can't stop what you don't know about," Methos argued.

"Are you certain you can maintain such a deception?" Legolas asked.

"Positive," Methos confirmed.

"I suppose there is nothing to lose. Try your bluff," Aragorn ordered.

"Gimli, are you in?" Methos asked the dwarf.

Gimli paused, considering, "It sounds like fun, but I'm unused to deception. I will leave it to the master," Gimli said with a nod, getting in a minor dig at 'Adam' for keeping his immortality a secret. Gimli knew how to hold a grudge, even a minor one.

"When will you begin?" Aragorn asked.

"No time like the present," Methos said, rubbing his hands together in anticipation. "I'll need a few supplies though."

"Supplies?" Legolas asked.

"An actor needs props," Methos said with a wicked grin.

"The scene should play out like this," Methos said to Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas as they went down to the dungeons. "First, the four of us pay Sekin a visit. You three bluster, threaten unconvincingly, that sort of thing. Tell him you're going to hang him. Then, after he refuses to talk, I suggest we give him some time alone to think about it. A few minutes later, or whenever those guards get here with my props, I come back alone saying that what the king doesn't know won't hurt me and start preparations for torture."

"And you think that will be enough to make him talk?" Legolas asked.

"Trust me. I know what I'm doing. If he's half as spineless as your description makes him out to be, we'll know everything before lunch time," Methos reassured.

"Let us get on with it then. The sooner this is over, the better I'll feel," Aragorn said, impatient to finally end the matter.

Methos unlocked the cell door, using the key provided by the guard, swung it open and motioned the others inside, "After you gentlemen."

Sekin looked a pitiful figure, his elaborate robes soiled and torn from his captivity. He was also looking the picture of despair, his head cradled in his hands and chains dangling down from the shackles on his wrists.

"I assume you've had a chance to discover the properties of this cell. I've been told that having a spell blocked can be a rather painful experience," said Aragorn.

"You were told right Your Majesty," Sekin said bitterly, looking up from his chains to reveal a heavily lined face.

Legolas gasped in surprise and said accusingly, "You were using magic to stay young." He then turned to his friends and explained, "That is one of the worst of the forbidden magics. Trying to undo the will of Illuvatar is the first and greatest evil."

"Why should men care about Illuvatar? He only cared for the elves. They get to stay young and beautiful forever. And what do we get? We get disease, and old age, and death. I was only looking out for myself, taking what I deserved," Sekin vehemently proclaimed.

"The penalty for seeking immortality is death," Aragorn said darkly. "The mistakes which lead to the destruction of Numenor are not to be repeated."

Sekin cackled at this piece of information. "Kill me twice then. Once for treason and again for seeking immortality. But, then again, if you kill me, you'll never know why I tried to kill you or if I'm leaving someone who'll complete the task behind," he said mockingly.

"I wouldn't be so sure of my safety if I were you," Legolas threatened hand on the hilt of his knife. Pushed too far by Sekin's perversity, Legolas took a step toward the prisoner, murder in his eyes.

"Wait!" Gimli said, laying a restraining hand upon his friend's arm. "He's only trying to provoke us and cheat the hangman."

Methos, feeling he'd better step in before the situation got too out of control, said in a reasonable tone of voice, "Your Majesty, perhaps we should leave the prisoner alone for awhile to contemplate his situation. He should be ready to talk once the reality of it starts to set in."

"But..." the elf protested, still too offended by the latest revelation of Sekin's wrong doings to want to stick to the plan.

Methos shot Gimli a pleading look and the dwarf decided on the best tactic for getting the elf out of the room. "A truly just punishment it is, letting him rot down here," said Gimli.

"What?" Legolas asked, startled out of his fixation.

"He tried to stop aging and now he sits chained to that wall, unable to do anything while his spells crumble and he gets very old, very swiftly. It seems just," Gimli explained.

"Yes, it is very appropriate," Legolas agreed.

"Let us follow Adam's suggestion then, and leave our guest alone to ponder his old age," Aragorn said.

Then the four exited the cell and locked the door behind them.

"As soon as Torin and Boric arrive we'll get started with phase two of the plan," Methos said with some anticipation. "The first part got a little off track, but played beautifully." Just then two burly guards rounded the corner carrying a large wooden table. "Here they are now," Methos said to no one in particular.

The guards approached and set the table down in front of Methos. "I hope this table'll do sir, it's the closest we could find to what you asked for," the slightly older of the two guards said.

Methos inspected the table closely. "This will work perfectly. An oval table will do just as well as a rectangular one. We're just going to strap the prisoner to it. How did you do with the rest of the props?"

"I went down to the healers and borrowed a set of the restraints they use for amputations," said the man as he pulled a tangle of leather straps from the front of his tunic and handed them to Methos.

"These are perfect," Methos said after examining the restraints.

"Torin got a set of carving knives from a carpenter. Show'em Torin," the older man continued. Torin pulled out a roll of cloth he had stuffed in his belt and flung it open. Inside was an array of knives and other tools which appeared to be likely torture implements.

"Those should do nicely," Methos said. "But what about the brazier?"

"We left that right around the corner. We couldn't carry it and the table at the same time and I thought the fewer who knew about this the better so couldn't ask a servant to help," Boric explained.

"Good thinking. I'm sure it is just what I asked for," Methos said generously, pleased with Boric and Torin's handy work thus far.

Aragorn seeing all this and starting to feel slightly uneasy asked, "Could you be a little more specific about what 'this' is? You did promise to stop short of actually torturing Sekin."

"Not to worry. Sekin will tell us all he know without me putting a scratch on him. But, I can't bluff with just a speech. He'll be expecting that. I have to set the stage a bit, get all the proper equipment together including my menacing henchmen," Methos explained, motioning at Torin and Boric.

"These are menacing henchmen?" Gimli asked incredulously, taking in the guards' open, honest faces and friendly, helpful demeanors, .

"Don't underestimate Boric and Torin, sons of master thespian Koric. They've been acting since they were in diapers and have been kind enough to assist with our little charade," Methos explained.

Gimli, Legolas, and Aragorn still looked a little skeptical. "Perhaps a demonstration, my lords," Boric suggested.

"Excellent idea," Methos said. "You two need to be in character soon anyway."

"Right then," Boric said in agreement. Then he closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and before their very eyes transformed into another man. Without saying a word, the competent, yet unassuming man disappeared to be replaced by someone slightly shifty and more than a little dangerous.

"Remarkable," Legolas said. "I don't think I would have recognized Master Boric as the same person if I had not seen the transformation myself."

"I'm beginning to think this might actually work," Aragorn added. "There are spy holes along the other side of the cell. We'll watch the show from there and let you get on with your work."

Legolas, Gimli, and Aragorn turned down an adjacent hall and out of sight. As the three walked away, Methos could be heard saying to his assistants, "Let's go over this one more time before we begin..."