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The Chase

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Strider gritted his teeth, flexing the soles of his feet, trying for more purchase, more push as he followed his quarry deeper into the woods. Over the smell of damp leaves and crushed needles was the pungent scent of sweat and fear, stronger and easier to track than even the racket the boy made as he thundered ahead.

A crash to his right alerted Strider to a panicked change of direction; it was nothing to adjust his course, still moving soundlessly over the forest carpet, darting between trees.

It had been folly to leave the young man without a guard, even for a moment. The servants of Sauron were cunning and deceptive, and for all he appeared harmless, he was as dangerous and unpredictable as a young snake.

Strider swore as he leaped over a rotting log, the toe of his boot catching briefly in flaking bark, holding, dragging, upsetting his gait enough to have him coming down sideways on an ankle, a sharp pain shooting up through his leg.

He'd make the boy pay for that.

How he was managing to keep up such a furious pace Strider did not know. He had been stripped of weaponry, cloaking, tunic and boots as soon as he had been captured, exposing golden skin and curving muscles, a torso nearly unmarred by the ravages of war. Strider had leaned in, then, close enough for their captive to feel the gust of his breath, close enough to make him twitch as Strider examined the tracery of an old scar at his hip, the tiny scattering of puckered but healing wounds to the left of his heart. They'd bound him, hand and foot, with strips of weathered leather, had covered his eyes with strips of cloth, and had marched him through a circuitous route to the caves that only a Ranger would, should be able to recall.

And yet here they were now, a smattering of men spread out and tracking a youth through their very own woods, slowly closing in, cutting off all exits. The youth had little or no pathfinding skills, of that Strider was certain, as his route through the trees was almost as obvious as an oliphaunt. Dirt and stones, kicked up and disturbed, pointed the way forward. Blades of grass bent, not broken, betrayed where he had paused. Trees sporting gouges in moss and bark spoke of sudden turns redolent of a slingshot let loose. If Strider licked his lips, he could almost taste the young man on the air, the heady mixture of dread and inexperience making his mouth water.

Strider slowed his pace, belatedly realizing the forest had grown silent. The boy must be close, swapping flight for concealment, hoping to be passed over instead of driven out. Quiet descended alongside the deepening gloom, even the birds silent as daylight slipped away. Strider took his time, straining his ears, sniffing the air, feeling his way by touch as much as by sight. There was a glade ahead, he knew, a sudden burst of space just past a thorny copse; the perfect place to hide if only the hunter does not know of its existence.

Unfortunately for the youth, he was in Ranger territory now.

Strider came to a stop one side of the copse, closing his eyes to sharpen his ears. For one long moment the world hung in the balance, nothing but a breeze tugging at Strider's hair, a light whistle of wind in the curve of his ear.

And then, just as he was ready to give up, he heard it: the soft, too-quick patter of breath, air caught and squeezed out of lungs burning from exertion. It was muffled, but not so far away that Strider could not silently circle behind, catching sight of the golden back, the mussed hair, the torn breeches. As he drew nearer, he fancied he could hear the young man's heart thundering in his chest.

Closer and closer he came, close enough that he could lean forward and nuzzle the boy's nape should the whimsy take him. He licked his lips, watching the youth shudder, gooseflesh marring cooling skin, pricking tiny hairs. He waited, willing the escapee to realize he had been run to ground, but after a long space in which only the young man's breath disturbed the quiet, Strider lost patience, reached forward, and shoved him through the bramble and into the glade.

The youth stumbled forward, shouting in fright, barely managing to catch himself, turning towards his attacker. His eyes were wide and glassy, reddening even in spite of his unshed tears. As he stepped backward, his heel caught on a stone, and down he went, tumbling onto his backside, legs sprawling, still-bound hands rising up and over his head, leaving him open and vulnerable as he landed on the grass.

Stepping neatly through the same tangle of thorns, Strider heard the wind go out of the young man. The boy lay insensible for a long moment, and Strider took that as opportunity to look him over. The bramble had scratched new, fresh lines in his skin, many of which were welling up with red. His feet were dark with mud and dirt, but they too showed a cut here and a nick there, long lines of red mixed in with the brown and black. The bruises he had earned through the day and night bloomed bright against his pale skin, now streaked with dust and sweat that trickled in little rivulets down his chest.

For someone so young -- he must be no more than twenty-two -- his face and body was an enigma of conflicting signals. The obvious fear overlayed all, but the scars signalled an underbelly of world-weariness far advanced for his years; yet the glint in his eye, now dimmed in the face of interrogation and captivity, had spoken of the arrogance of a child. The Shadow, it seemed, had grown more cunning even as it spread to infect more of the lands to the South. The threat no longer came boldly forth in twisted, recognizable form, but now put on the guise of beauty and youth, temptation rather than assailment, the kind of attack that cut you down by your own sword as surely as being cut down on the battlefield.

Strider felt the swell in his breeches, a sure sign that if he did not deal with Sauron's young minion quickly, he would be in danger of losing sense to salacity. He crouched, straddling the youth, knees on either side of his hips, leaning forward to grip the boy's hair. He could not stop the small smile that flickered across his lips as the youth's attention snapped back to the matter at hand, the tiny gasp as Strider's hardness pressed insistently into his thigh.

He wet his lips, shifting ever so slightly, allowing himself the indulgence of a long, slow grind against the youth even as he withdrew his knife from its sheath, the blade glittering dully in the day's last light. If only he had not escaped. If only he had not run. There was so much they still could have learned from him; a shame that he had pretended to know nothing for so very long.

But there was nothing for it. Strider gripped the young man's hair tighter, yanking his head backward, exposing his throat. The knife rose. "You have failed, child. You have failed to serve your master just as you and yours failed to serve the Free Peoples when you turned your back on us. But your poison will not spread. I will cut out the infection here. You have failed in every way, from frontal attack to honeyed temptation." He thrust lightly against the youth, savouring this last contact as his smile grew. "And in that, you will not use my body against me, Boromir of Gondor."