Chapter 1: Part One
A man walked slowly to a small tent erected in the middle of the camp. The fires had long ago died and the soldiers who occupied their bedrolls were sound asleep. The battlefields were silent, at rest for the moment.
The warrior’s steps dragged slightly with fatigue, weariness from the long days of battle. A soft sigh escaped his lips as he dropped onto the stump that had been drug in front of the tent opening – an impromptu chair.
With thoughtless familiarity he drew his sword and began to run a rough wet stone along the blade, sharpening the razor edge and smoothing out the notches and scratches it had acquired during the long day of battle.
The stars twinkled quietly in the dark velvet of night, catching his attention and he turned his eyes towards them, seeking the ever-familiar star that shone so brightly in the northern quadrant of the sky. His movements slowed and stilled until he was simply sitting gazing at the heavens. The slight breezes moved the wayward strands of hair gently away from a battle-scarred face. A cut ran from his upper lip to just under his right nostril, a wound he had sustained in a skirmish last week. It was healing well, but it would leave a scar on his face, one that was mirrored in other similar wounds he carried on his body and on his heart.
The cool winds felt good as they combed through sweat-soaked hair. The grime of war never quite left the soul even when the body had been washed clean and he closed his eyes against the memories of the day. The southerners were fierce warriors; it took all the cunning and strength of his troops to keep them at bay. They were insidious, difficult to track and blood thirsty; nothing like the peaceful Far Harad tribes that had adopted the ranger years ago when he temporarily lost his memory. No, the men they fought now sought victory at any cost, throwing away even their own lives at will if it meant the death or injury of their Gondorian enemies. Where the fire of their hatred had come from Aragorn would never understand.
The world of men had grown tiresome.
As he watched the distant star a word slipped unbidden from his lips and he remembered a more peaceful time, a more peaceful people - the ones he called family.
“Eärendil.” The elvish word caused him to smile. “Milyon dortho a adar a terein nìn. Ingon ha lù na peltakse aen. I long for my home and my brothers and father. Perhaps it is time to return.” The sound of what he considered his native language, one he had rarely spoken in over fifteen years, rolled easily off his tongue. He whispered the words quietly to himself, nodding in agreement. Absently his fingers touched the brooch at his neck; the one his father, Lord Elrond had named him for among men.
Aragorn, known to the men of Gondor he was now Commander over as Thorongil, gazed across the quiet camp. The sentries on the edges of the encampment paced relentlessly back and forth, their gaze every once in a while flickering over to rest on their leader. Thorongil held their trust and had won their hearts as a good leader and a decent, caring man. The passage of years and the stench of war had not changed that, although it had worn the sharp, youthful edges off of the human... taking a certain measure of his innocence with it.
Slowly the ranger turned captain unfastened his bucklers, laying them aside. The battle today had been fierce and bloody; his gear would need some cleaning. Was it not bad enough that they must guard against the dark shadow of Mordor and fight the ravages of raiding orc parties that were never fully sated? Must the human world be intent on slaughtering their own as well?
Men fighting men. Fighting, killing... for what?
Aragorn shook his head sadly; almost ready to condemn his own race, but the soft, wise voice of an elf cut through his dark thoughts. His father had told him of the ancient times, of the struggles of the elves, when immortal fought immortal brother and many were slain.
“Often my son, freedom and wisdom are found through pain and war. And as much as it is detested it is at times unavoidable. You may chose not to have conflict with a people, but they have the free will to choose to have conflict with you. Never rush into battle in anger, let fighting be your last resort...”
Aragorn smiled at the memory. Such a long time ago. He recalled that certain lesson, how his father had caught him scuffling with one of the town children that often found it fun to taunt and torment the young orphan. When Elrond had broken up the scuffle the child had run home to Strayton but not until after Aragorn had taken it upon himself to make sure he learned just how well the elvish-raised youth could fight. Well-aimed punches had broken the child’s nose and Aragorn had been highly angered that his father had not allowed him to continue teaching the other boy a lesson. It was at that time that Elrond had sat him down and begun instructing the young man about war, fighting, battle and the nature of the beast – anger.
“I would wish for you that you may never experience war, but I fear that I would wish in vain. However, I foresee that that is not in your future for some time my son.” He had pulled Aragorn in a tight embrace and gently kissed the boy’s head before looking him over for injuries.
Aragorn smiled softly as he remembered the way Elrond had touched his cheek, the elderly elf’s eyes so sad at the thought of his son’s future... and he had been right. Aragorn fought back the memories of the men slain earlier that day, the southerners who had lost their lives so needlessly and his own men who would not return home to families and loved ones. How would he ever tell them? Some of them had been his friends.
What road had he traveled that had brought him here? His thoughts filtered through his time with the Rohirrim, the free spirited proud people of the horse lords who roamed and protected the Riddermark. That was long before he had come to Gondor. He followed his memories down through to his recent past, lighting on that fateful day when Éomund, no longer such a youth as he had been, had introduced him to the Steward of Gondor, Ecthelion II.
The tired warrior dropped his gaze to his hands; hands that held his sword, now cleaned from the blood that had stained it earlier. The elvish writing interwoven on the ornate handle, perceptible only to one who knew how to identify it, caught his attention. Waves of memories washed over him once more and he fled into their sweet release, letting the faces of friends that he had lost be replaced by dear ones from his younger years.
He thought of Legolas, perhaps the best friend he had ever had or ever would have and wondered how the elf was fairing. Last news from the north he had received was months and months out of date, but it seemed that all was mostly peaceful and he was glad that none of his dear ones in the north were facing anything like he was down here. He wondered if they ever thought of him as they went about their lives. He knew his father did, for every now and again he would still receive letters from the elf lord. He treasured those touches of home, but he wondered if Legolas or his other friends remembered him still.
It was so easy in the day-to-day stress of battle to forget. The sheer overwhelming necessity to stay alive replaced all thoughts of family and friends with its obsessive drive to return home that night, to save the man next to you, to simply make it through the day. Aragorn realized with a touch of sorrow that he hadn’t even thought of Legolas or his brothers or his father in a few days.
“I miss you mellon-nín.” He whispered again to the dark of night, “But I am glad you are far from this place. Perhaps I will come to you soon. To all of you.”
Yes, the world of men was wearing on him. If they could secure Gondor’s borders and stop the push of the Haradrim through the southern road by summer’s end, then perhaps that would be enough and he could leave in good conscience. The thought struck him that this was what his heart had been planning all along.
Aragorn glanced quickly up again as the winds stirred around him; something was coming. Nothing had changed, the night was still peaceful, the men still slept, yet everything was different and nothing was the same as it had been only a few moments ago. Whether it was his foresight or just intuition he was not certain, but one thing was as clear as the bright night sky - his future lay with men only a short while longer. It was time to go home.
He missed the smell of Rivendell in the mornings when the dew was still on the ground. He had forgotten how it felt in the valley when the wind would chill slightly before the snows fell. And most of all he missed the ring of his brother’s laughter and the warmth of his father’s hearth. The ranger’s heart lay in the woods, in the hills... his spirit ached for the elves, for home. A smile touched his lips as his desires hardened into resolution.
Soft footsteps alerted him to the presence of another. Tarcil, his second-in-command, approached him softly. The Gondorian warrior was worried over his Captain, it seemed that Thorongil slept rarely of late and his heart seemed weighed down. The Commander walked quietly up to his superior’s tent.
Aragorn turned at the soft question. A small smile that did not reach his eyes greeted the soldier.
“Yes, Tarcil what it is? Shouldn’t you be sleeping with the others? What keeps you awake?” He glanced up at the man who stopped in front of him. The Gondorian bowed his head slightly out of respect.
“Lord Denethor requests your presence. He wants to discuss the casualties and our plan of attack for tomorrow. But if you like...” The man faltered, unsure if his opinion should be voiced aloud. He had learned that in times like these it was not always wise to speak openly what was on ones mind.
Aragorn raised an eyebrow, tilting his head to the side and encouraging the warrior to proceed, “What it is Tarcil? It is all right, you may speak freely, we are alone.”
With a small nod the warrior continued, “It’s just that, if you like I will tell Lord Denethor that you are sleeping. You need not recount the day with him now. Surely it is more important that you get some rest, you seem... well my lord you seem overly tired of late. A good night’s sleep would do you well, he cannot deny you that. And...” Tarcil shifted slightly. “Well, beg pardon sir, but sometimes he seems to forget that you are the same rank as he and aren’t bound to report to him. I mean no disrespect, he just seems to request a lot of you, that is all.”
The man’s worry over his commander touched Aragorn’s heart and he stood slowly to his feet. Re-sheathing his sword and dropping the sharpening stone down on the wood stump, he clasped the soldier’s shoulder affectionately and turned the warrior toward his own bed. Aragorn set the man at ease, “Worry not Tarcil. Denethor is simply concerned about the outcome of the war. He wishes to give his father a good report of this day. I will see to it that he can and then I will retire immediately.”
When the Gondorian turned back on his leader with a questioning look, Aragorn laughed softly, “I promise, now off with you. I can't have a sleepy second-in-command tomorrow, we have that valley pass to take back before this over.” He gave the man a gentle shove and watched as the soldier nodded, pleased with his commander’s answer and walked off to find his own bed.
For the first time in months Aragorn realized his heart was light, thrilled with the decision to head for home at the end of this warring season. He walked off to find the other Captain and give him the report he sought.
Legolas Greenleaf turned his face towards the sun, enjoying the blissful caress of its warmth and the gentle brush of the breeze through his long golden hair. He loved the trees of his home, but sometimes it was good to leave the shadow of the wood and walk in the green meadows where the shadow that had fallen over his home did not extend.
He had not left Mirkwood for the better part of ten years. Not a long time for an elf, but just long enough for the prince to enjoy the prospect of a change. Considering the fact that for the first two thousand years of his life he had hardly left the forests of his home at all, it was ironic that he could consider a mere decade of any significance at all. But, the prince supposed, his close associations with the human world these past few decades must have rubbed off on him a little.
The rolling countryside of Gondor rose up to meet the elf and his light steps moved swiftly across the green grass as he breathed the sweet spring time air. It wasn’t just the change of scenery that was inspiring him and he knew that; it was the prospect of being reunited with a very dear friend whom he had not seen in some time.
The passing seasons had fled away so quickly... it did not seem like fifteen years since he and Aragorn had parted last on the green fields of Rohan. Again the strange paradox of an elvish - human friendship was apparent, because to an elf, those fifteen years seemed of small consequence. Legolas was unchanged, the passing years mattered little to those of the immortal race. And yet... Legolas knew that for Aragorn those years were probably long ones. That was the way with the human world. Everything happened so quickly and so much changed almost overnight. It was almost frightening sometimes.
Legolas had once heard Lord Elrond refer to the human race as a bright flame, and the analogy fit well. For while they came and went so quickly as it seemed, their passion for life burned hot and bright, warming those near... at least that was certainly true for his and Aragorn’s relationship, the prince knew.
That was indeed the reason that Legolas had undertaken this journey in the first place. He knew not how the human wheel of time would spin things, but he wished to see his old friend again before many more seasons passed. A part of his heart was almost fearful... he really did not know how it was with humans... would the years have changed Aragorn very much? Would the young man he had come to know and love as such a dear friend still remember him in the same way, or did time change things like that in the world of men?
Still, on a beautiful day like this one Legolas couldn’t let his heart rest on those faint, nagging doubts. It was going to be good to see his friend again and borrowing trouble from a possible future did no one any good.
Mirkwood and Rivendell kept in much better contact than they had in former years and thus Legolas had remained updated on Aragorn’s whereabouts, for Elrond had his ways of knowing what was going on in the world and often his thoughts strayed to his youngest son, now so many years absent. So it was that Legolas knew he would find Aragorn in Gondor, in Osgiliath to be precise, or so the last word he had on the subject had said. Although exactly what nature of business the human had there or other such particulars the elf prince knew not.
Save for one venture into these lands some years past on his way to Harad, Legolas knew nothing of this area of the world, so he simply followed the Great River, remembering from his previous trip that Osgiliath lay near the Anduin.
Upon crossing a hill and rounding the steep bend at its base, Legolas saw in the not so very far away distance a small troop of men laboring along the southward road. They had many wagons and pack animals with them, but by their armor and the devices on their shields, they were soldiers of Gondor, not traders.
Legolas had known there were others in the general area for some time now, but the presence had not felt evil or threatening, so he made no effort to alter his path.
Almost just as he came into view of it, he saw disaster strike the little caravan.
One of the wagons, heavy laden with bulky items swathed in protective burlap, jolted in a deep rut, upsetting its load. The heavy contents shifted sharply to one side, placing a great deal of stress on the rear axle of the wheel that was still in the rut. The strained joint snapped suddenly, causing the cart to topple sideways, directly onto the two soldiers walking beside it.
Reacting quickly, Legolas sprinted towards the site of the accident, reaching it almost before the other soldiers in the party did. Caught on the good wheel that had skidded sideways and driven deeply into the earth, the heavy wagon teetered precariously over the heads of the two men trapped beneath its weight, threatening to crush them completely at a moments notice.
Only one other soldier was already present. The others, having been strung out over a greater distance, were still arriving on the scene. The soldier was valiantly leaning his shoulder into the slipping cart, trying to save his friends, but the wagon just dipped further downward.
Bracing his back against the center of the tipping wagon and planting his feet firmly, Legolas pushed back against the crushing weight. The groaning load creaked to a halt. The man who had been pushing started at the fair being’s sudden appearance and just stood for a moment, staring in surprise as the elf supported the weight of the heavy load alone.
“Push!” Legolas told the man somewhat shortly. Now was *not* the time for wonder. Whatever was in the cart was truly heavy and Legolas could feel the strain against his taught muscles. He was at least as strong as any two men, but he could not support the wagon indefinitely by himself. The soldier quickly pulled himself together and threw his weight next to Legolas’.
Fortunately the few minutes Legolas had bought them were enough, for the other soldiers arrived on the scene very quickly and through their combined efforts the cart was righted, freeing a pair of severely bruised, but unbroken soldiers.
Legolas stepped back, pulling out of the way and straightening his tunic as the two men were retrieved and the broken cart stabilized.
Presently a tall man with dark hair turned his attention towards the newcomer. The white plume on the soldier’s crested helmet set him apart as the ranking officer of the group.
“Most welcome is the help that comes unlooked for,” the young man managed to find gracious words and not stare at the elf as was his first inclination, which was more than could be said for some of the others who were gawking with unrestrained curiosity.
The lieutenant shot his men a withering glare and everyone quickly went back to their business, hurriedly unloading the now useless wagon and distributing the extra load onto their other carts. “For your timely aide we are sincerely grateful. Forgive my men, but we do not often see any of the firstborn in these parts anymore, although I hear that that was different once. Might I know who we are indebted to and to what errand we owe this happy chance?”
The man was courteous, but, Legolas could tell, cautious. He wanted to know who this stranger was and what he was doing here, but without seeming so rude as to ask outright. The elf smiled slightly.
“I am Legolas son of Thranduil of the woodland realm, I journey south towards Osgiliath seeking a friend I have not seen in some time. I am glad that I could be of assistance, although I think you had better secure the weapons you are transporting more tightly before you continue if you wish to keep such from happening again,” the prince offered helpfully. He knew they would not know his or his father’s name, but introduced himself properly anyway since he had nothing to hide.
“We also follow the road to Osgiliath,” a hint of suspicion crept into the man’s voice as he eyed the elf. “You know your way around here well then?”
“Not well,” Legolas shook his head, his tone cooling as he understood that the human did not trust him. “I have been here only once before and I did not stay long for my errand at that time called me down into Harad.”
“Harad?” The Officer’s ears perked up at the name and his body posture stiffened slightly; that was disquieting news given their current political state. “Tell me, Legolas, how do you know what we carry?” It was supposed to be more or less of a secret. “And why do you travel thus from the far lands alone? Our scouts have given no report of you, although you must have been near us for some time now. What brings you to seek an elf in the lands of men?”
“I do not require a body guard nor a companion to slow me down,” Legolas said somewhat briskly. Caution was one thing, suspicious prodding was another. He had done nothing to earn this man’s distrust, nothing except being different, and the prince was tired of his race always placing him in a suspicious light when he walked among humans. “And I am not following you if that’s what you are asking. If your scouts did not observe me I cannot account for their lapse. As for the person I seek, I do not count only elves among my friends, but men as well else I would not trouble you with my presence.” He would say no more of Aragorn to these or any men because he knew that his friend’s very existence was often a carefully guarded secret and his affairs really were no business of theirs anyway. “As for your cargo, if you wish to hide what it is do not wrap it so tightly that one can see the shapes of breast plates and swords through the burlap. Now, if everything is under control I will be on my way and bother you no more.”
“Wait,” the soldier shook his head. “Your pardon Legolas, I did not mean to seem rude or ungrateful, nor was it my wish to offend, as it seems I have done. My name is Alcarin, lieutenant commander of the Ramanna division. It is my job to be wary, but I believe you mean us no harm. You are welcome to travel with us for a time if you will, since our roads lie together and perhaps give me a chance to make amends for my initial greeting. Much of Gondor’s history lies with the elves or so they tell me, but I have never had the chance to know any of your kindred for myself. The times we find ourselves in now have given us reason to be cautious and wary of anyone not known to us.”
Legolas smiled somewhat dryly. “Do you make such an offer out of sincere desire for my companionship or to keep me near so you can maintain a watch on me until you decide if I truly am who I say?”
The lieutenant met Legolas’ smile without embarrassment at being guessed out. “Perhaps a little of both. You are free to do as you will of course, but the offer stands if you care to take it.”
Legolas chuckled softly. Humans. So suspicious. “I fear that I much prefer to travel alone,” the prince admitted. “But if you wish it, and to prove that I have no ill intent in your lands, I will go with you as far as the Dalthad.” Legolas knew the humans would only slow him down, but he also knew that despite the lieutenant’s gracious words the soldiers could detain him if they truly thought he was a threat to their mission.
The prince was quickly realizing that he had stumbled upon no ordinary column of troops conveying supplies. This party was guarding a rather large arsenal of newly crafted weapons and armor. Legolas hazarded a guess that they were dwarf-work that the Gondorians had contracted for, which would make them even more valuable. That understanding made Alcarin’s skittishness about strangers who appeared out of nowhere and were going the same direction as they were even more understandable.
Legolas did not know that Gondor was currently at war with the Haradrim forces in Near Harad, but if he had he would have understood even better how unsettling his earlier introduction had seemed. Besides, he knew that the burden of proving his good intentions lay on him since he was the stranger in these lands. It would be no different should a human have entered his father’s lands.
“Good, then we may travel as friends,” Alcarin smiled, obviously relieved.
Legolas took the extended hand and nodded.
Chapter 2: Part Two
“Have you ever seen it, Aragorn? The White Tower of Ecthelion, glimmering like a spike of pearl and silver, it's banners caught high in the morning breeze... Have you ever been called home by the clear ringing of silver trumpets?”
“I have seen the White City . Long ago.”
--Boromir and Aragorn, FoTR
The air was crisp and cool as the war-weary battalion crossed the long plain of the Pelennor. They were some of the last to return and these units had suffered some of the greatest losses. Yet the moment they sighted Minas Tirith in the distance, rising from the earth like a glittering white gem, every heart seemed to lift a little more and weary steps became swifter.
The Haradrim had finally been beaten back, but the cost had been high. A traitor in their ranks had very nearly caused the loss of three entire companies when they were ambushed in the little wooded valley of Ravenbrook. Fortunately for them, Thorongil had judged something amiss when he came upon the enemy’s trail and rode swiftly to the aide of the beleaguered troops.
Mounting a daring and nearly suicidal rear-assault on the carefully airtight attack of the Haradrim, Aragorn and the small company with him had driven a hole in the enemy’s defenses, allowing the trapped legionnaires to break free. The ambushers became the ambushed and the tide was turned. It ended up being a rather spectacular victory for Gondor and a deciding moment in the war. Very soon after the Haradrim began to retreat and press their attack no further.
With the situation at last firmly in control, the weary troops were slowly being called home as border outposts were refreshed and re-outfitted with new battalions. Even with the war over, Gondor could never afford to lax on the security of its borders.
Denethor and Thorongil’s main hosts had been some of the last to be recalled, staying until they knew that all was truly peaceful and under control once more. Wounds had been tended and rest taken in the weeks they had waited to be called home, so it was a proud, freshly scrubbed host of men who marched towards Gondor and a victor’s welcome. The nearer they got, the more you could see the anticipation on their war-weary faces.
Aragorn, riding at the head of his column, saw the White Tower of Ecthelion gleaming in the early morning sun like a beacon to lead them home. From their high vantage point the tower guard had already seen the returning soldiers and the moist air carried the sound of trumpets ringing already within the city to herald their safe return.
Aragorn glanced at Denethor, riding at the head of his men some distance away. The future steward smiled slightly when the sounding of the trumpets reached his ears. Many of the soldiers did. The horns called to them, welcoming them home, filling them with pride for themselves and their city, despite all the horrors and death they had seen.
Aragorn could not deny that he felt that pull in his own heart as well. Yet as he entered the massive gates he could not help thinking how very far removed the city seemed from the events happening outside its protective circles of walls.
Here life went on, babies were born, chores were completed, children played in the streets, running out to see the returning soldiers, smiling and waving and cheering. And that was as it should be. It was, after all, what they fought for; to keep these lands safe for children to be children and for the general populace to continue its normal existence unhindered.
Aragorn let his eyes drift back to the white tower ahead of them as they passed slowly through the different layers of gates that crossed the main road leading towards the palace. As much as he wanted to go back to the lands of his youth, he knew he could not leave until the threat that was promising to devour these people was gone. And despite what everyone seemed to think, he knew this was far from over. Aragorn had that responsibility to them... to his people. No one else may ever know it, but he knew, and he would see them protected from the threat that was even yet waiting to fall upon them.
Many people gathered by the sound of the trumpets, turned out to cheer the returning troops home and the faces of the men, taught and drawn from long months of fighting eased and smiles began to appear.
The word “Ravenbrook” was on a number of tongues and it seemed that news of that particular venture had already reached the general public. Thorongil looked up, surprised to realize that many of the well-wishers were chanting his name amid their cheers.
He was complimented, obviously, but in a way he wished they wouldn’t. He wasn’t the one to be praised; it was the men under his command and their courage that had won the day. Yes he had led the way, but they had followed him into that death trap without a moment’s hesitation.
Aragorn stole a sideways glance at Denethor, now riding abreast with him and withheld a silent sigh. The future Steward’s dark hair fell in clipped waves about his face, pulled back from his forehead by the thin circlet resting on his brow. In all honesty he looked a little older than Aragorn, although in reality he was a year his junior.
At the moment Denethor’s face betrayed little, but a distinct rigidness in the corners of his mouth told that he was not pleased to ride in the shadow of the people’s admiration for another. Aragorn knew that this conflict, and especially the treachery surrounding the attack at Ravenbrook had taken a strong toll on the other Captain and he warranted that Denethor was not looking forward to having to make the report that they both knew lay ahead of them.
The crowd’s adulation was doing nothing to ease the growing tension between the two Captains, although there was unfortunately little that Aragorn could do about that. He had tried his best to be a friend to the other man, but Denethor would have none of it.
When they reached the innermost set of gates, horses were left behind as was the law, and the soldiers were lined up and then dismissed. Denethor and Aragorn alone entered the last sets of doors and made their way into the great hall where the Steward of Gondor was waiting for them.
The two Captains strode up the length of the long hall together, their plumed helmets tucked neatly under one arm. With their armor cleaned of battle stains and their uniforms fresh, they did not look as ones who had been fighting a long and wearying set of campaigns, save for the grim lines of their faces. They stopped before the Steward’s seat.
Both of them bowed respectfully, saluting in the manner of the city, and then stood at attention.
Ecthelion II was no longer a young man, although his stature was undiminished and he held his snowy-white head with the dignity and bearing of his long and powerful bloodline. The Steward rose to greet his returning captains. His eyes lit up and he smiled. He went first to Denethor, resting his hand on the young man’s shoulder and giving him a gentle squeeze. “Welcome home my son, it is good to see that you are well.”
The Steward then crossed to Aragorn and touched his shoulder. “And you as well Thorongil, stories of your actions proceed you. That was a brave thing you did.”
Thorongil nodded respectfully. “Thank you sire, but I did only what was necessary, the men are the true heroes, especially those who did not return.”
Ecthelion smiled, Thorongil’s selfless answer only raising his opinion of the younger man. That however, was hardly necessary, for he already openly favored the Captain as something close to a second son.
Denethor’s hand tightened on the helmet clasped under his arm but he said nothing.
Aragorn glanced furtively towards the younger man. He wanted no strife between them. “We were fortunate that Lord Denethor had fortified the northern hills so well already, if the enemy had been able to come down on us from that side as well many more lives would have been lost.”
Ecthelion nodded, looking back towards Denethor. “Then my son at least did not totally disgrace himself. However I would hear how he allowed the men to be taken in such a trap in the first place before I judge that.”
Aragorn flinched inwardly for Denethor’s sake. Denethor had not been present at the battle of Ravenbrook, but it was he that had ordered the men to go thither. Aragorn knew that question was the one that the other Captain had been dreading.
Denethor’s gaze did not waver but his knuckles whitened slightly. “We were betrayed. My senior officer, Mardil, broke trust with us and gave away our position to the Haradrim.”
“Mardil...” Ecthelion shook his head. That was grave news, but unfortunately not entirely unexpected. “Did I not tell you that he had changed Denethor?” the Steward’s voice was sharp. “He was with you on this mission against my better judgment.”
“I know that father and I... I am sorry,” Denethor ducked his head quickly before bringing it up again. “Mardil has paid for his crimes. I will not make such a mistake again.” Denethor and Mardil had been friends as children; the shock of the betrayal was still an open wound inside him although he let no one close enough to see it.
Ecthelion touched the side of his son’s face gently, directing the younger man’s eyes towards him. “Denethor your people are counting on you, I expect more from you than this.”
The younger man nodded once, his features taught.
Ecthelion sighed slightly and turned away. “Now then, the borders are secure once more for the time being. What say you both? Do you think the Haradrim have taken significant losses to make them think twice before trying such tactics against us again?”
“Yes sir,” Denethor nodded quickly. “All together their casualties number in the thousands. Their warlords are power hungry, but they are not united and internal fighting continues to keep them much occupied. We should not have to worry about them for a long time.”
Aragorn’s face became troubled. He feared that he could not concur with his fellow officer’s assessment.
“You don’t agree Thorongil?” Ecthelion turned his keen gaze upon the other captain, sensing the man’s hesitancy.
“Respectfully, I’m afraid I do not,” Aragorn shook his head slowly. “My Lord, if the Haradrim warlords were all that were behind these attacks, I would most certainly concur with Lord Denethor’s conclusions. However I believe that the battles we have fought thus far have been tests only. Distractions to measure our strengths and weaknesses, to see our tactics in action.”
“I see,” Ecthelion nodded thoughtfully, pacing slightly in front of his great seat as he considered the other man’s words. “But if the Haradrim have some overriding goal as you say, it shows a level of unity that we have yet to see from any of them.”
Aragorn shook his head once more. “Lord Ecthelion, I do not purpose that the Haradrim *are* behind these attacks at all. It is my belief that they are being used. Either directly, with their paid consent, or indirectly as unwitting decoys. The real enemy we have to fear is the ones who have stirred them up for this purpose. Sire, the Corsairs of Umbar have been our enemies time out of mind. I see their fingerprints in the doings on the borders. Weapons forged in Umbar have been found on many of the Haradrim dead and I believe that the Corsairs stirred up the old blood feuds between Gondor and Harad for their own purposes. Umbar has always maintained that Gondor should be theirs and I believe that they are massing their power to strike, and strike hard.”
It was too much for Denethor, who shook his head in disbelief. “You *believe*? They hate us, yes, it has always been thus, but do you honestly think they would be so foolish? They are nothing but pirates! Rabble! You overestimate them I think Captain Thorongil.”
“Do I? I think not,” Aragorn refuted quietly. “For twelve years now they have been building their massive fleet to new proportions, stockpiling weapons as a farmer stockpiles wheat against a long winter. These attacks we have weathered are only the first wave. If we allow them to continue with their plans and strike first, the losses will be high.”
“And if we start a needless war with Umbar, the losses will be higher!” Denethor’s tone rose slightly. “We have just returned from a war Thorongil! The people are weary of strife; it is draining our resources and our country. And you would have us now assail a power of that level and start another bloody conflict, and for what?”
Ecthelion was still deep in thought, his brow creasing, but he raised his hand to halt the debate between the captains. “*If* the Corsairs *were* prepared to strike as you say Thorongil, what would your council be?”
“Strike first,” Aragorn answered calmly. “It does not have to be long or bloody. They are not yet ready. All their arms are designed for attack, not for defense. A swift blow now would cripple them. Catch their ships in the harbor where they are useless and cannot maneuver, do not wait until they have sailed down the Anduin and are pummeling our cities with death! Already their ships have been sighted on the Anduin as far down as Lithiant, what could they be doing there other than gathering recognizance?”
“What proof have you of all this?” Denethor questioned. “What proof that we would truly be avoiding a conflict and not merely be starting one? You speak of ships and sightings, but have you seen them? You speak of weapons, where are they? We have seen naught but the swords of the Haradrim and the reports of a few soldiers and some peasants who may or may *not* have known what they saw. This country needs peace, not more war.”
Inside, Denethor’s heart seethed. He fancied that he could see through to Thorongil’s true motives in this matter. Surely, the other captain would like nothing better than another chance to further his name on the battlefield. To march into Umbar unannounced and unprovoked to ‘subdue’ the supposedly hostile area and become a hero as the savior of Gondor, no matter how many needless lives were cost in the process.
“Yes, they need peace, but sometimes peace comes at a cost, and cannot be obtained by waiting until it is too late,” Aragorn replied quietly, but with conviction. He was as weary of war as the others were, perhaps even more so. He wanted nothing more than to go back north and see his family again. But he could not leave knowing what he knew. Ecthelion had to be made to see the threat hanging over them all or the cost would be very high indeed. “And there is an even graver reason. The shadow on our eastern borders rests not. If the Corsairs attack and our defense seems at all uncertain, rest assured that Mordor will not squander an opportunity to empty its wrath on us and unloose total obliteration on our heads. We live in an uncertain world my Lord, surrounded by enemies, we cannot take that chance.”
“And what if by inviting war with Umbar we bring down that very shadow that you claim to fear Thorongil?” Denethor questioned tersely. “I say again, that I do not see the need for this.”
Ecthelion looked between the two captains. He could tell that they both held stoutly opposing views on this subject and he sighed slightly. “Your words fill me with unease Thorongil, for the Corsairs have been heavily on my mind of late... and yet Denethor is right. We have no solid proof, and I would not walk into a war that could be avoided.”
“But your highness...” Aragorn started to protest, Ecthelion however raised his hand for silence.
“Hear me out. I would not start a needless war, but neither would I discount your concerns, for your council has always been wise in these matters. Therefore, it is my decision that we need to look into this matter further before any decision is reached.”
Denethor did not look pleased.
“Captain Denethor, you and Captain Thorongil will lead a force of men to Lithiant *together* to check on the rumors of activity coming from there. Report to me what you find and we will discuss this more at that time.” He hoped that working together more closely would resolve whatever conflict was slowly growing between the two men. As the heads of the Gondorian army, the two captains had conducted campaigns together, but they had never shared command of a single force. “I expect you to aide one another in order to get to the bottom of this. Captain Denethor will be in charge, but Denethor I want you to listen to Thorongil, because he has wisdom in many matters that it would do you well to learn.”
Aragorn cringed inwardly. That remark was *not* going to help his and Denethor’s relationship at all, although the Steward did not realize it.
Denethor bristled slightly, but only bowed his head. “As you command my lord.”
Ecthelion nodded somewhat wearily. He was tiring more and more easily of late. “Then you are dismissed my son, I will see you later, I wish to speak to Captain Thorongil now.”
Denethor nodded stiffly and bowed once before turning on his heel and exiting the room darkly.
Aragorn sighed as he watched him go. This was not going to be an easy task.
“You do not think I handled that well?” Ecthelion surprised Aragorn with the question.
The younger man shook his head quickly. “It is not my place to judge your actions M’Lord. If I gave such an impression it was not my intent, I would never offer you such disrespect.”
Ecthelion smiled. “And yet you do not approve, why? I expect you to speak the truth to me Thorongil; you always have in the past and that is something I count on. I know you must understand that I cannot rush heedlessly into conflict with the Corsairs on your word alone, however trusted it may be. And on top of that my son does not support your cause. If we are to war, it must be with common purpose, Gondor is too weak to support disunity. Is it that you do not like being under my son’s authority?” the older man chuckled. “If I thought I could reverse the positions I would, but I would not wish on you the problems that would cause Thorongil.”
“No sire, I have no reservations about serving under Captain Denethor and I understand your reasons in all these matters. I hope that our trip to Lithiant may uncover something useful. If you sense hesitancy in me my lord...” he paused. “Permission to speak to you freely sir?”
“You know you always have it,” Ecthelion nodded.
“I... I fear that your son thinks your opinion of him is ill,” Aragorn admitted. “Mardil’s betrayal hurt him deeply. When the treachery was discovered, Denethor was forced to take Mardil’s life with his own hand,” the Captain spoke softly. “He feels shamed.”
“As he should for not listening to my council in the matter,” Ecthelion looked saddened despite his words. “Or yours. We both warned him. His folly almost lost us the war.”
“He wants only to prove himself in your eyes my lord,” Aragorn said quietly.
“And you think I treat him too harshly,” the Steward nodded, understanding now.
“That is not my place to presume,” Aragorn shook his head. “I speak only what I see.”
“Know then Thorongil that that is more than my son would do for you. He would like only too much for you to fall out of my favor, don’t think I haven’t seen that,” Ecthelion shook his head. “Denethor is a good man, but he is proud and too often lets his emotions lead him, as this Mardil case is an example. He will be a fine Steward of our people... but understand this Thorongil,” Ecthelion paused, his gaze suddenly very serious. “I do not have much longer to live, I can feel my years failing me. If I seem to push Denethor, it is because I know that his time is coming all too soon and I would have him ready for it.”
Aragorn nodded. “I understand sire, but... I wish you would tell *him* that.”
Ecthelion let his breath out slowly, wearily. “My son and I... we have almost become strangers Thorongil. I cannot talk to him like I talk to you... I wish he were more like you.”
Aragorn looked away.
“There is something else weighing on your mind Thorongil, I can feel it.”
“Yes,” Aragorn looked back. “When... when this task is completed and whatever end can be reached is reached... I would humbly request your permission to leave your service.”
Ecthelion nodded slowly and held the other man’s eyes. “I would not keep you unwilling Thorongil, but I would grieve to lose you. Tell me one thing, and I will be content with what you decide should that time come. Is it because you do not wish to serve my son when he replaces me?”
Aragorn shook his head. “If I thought he would accept my service he would have it, but it is not that my lord... my heart yearns for the lands of my youth and I feel that my time here is drawing to a close.”
Ecthelion released the younger man’s gaze. “Then you have my blessing Thorongil. You will be sorely missed when that day comes.”
“Thank you sir,” Aragorn nodded and bowed. “One request if I may?”
The Steward nodded.
“Say nothing of this to anyone if it please you. I would not have the men think that I sought to abandon them at the same time that I wish to lead them into war, for that is in no way my intention.” Aragorn knew that Ecthelion himself would hold no such notions, but he did not wish for others to become confused.
“I will do as you wish on that matter Thorongil. May your mission be successful in leading us to a course of action, whatever that course may be.”
Aragorn bowed once more and then left. Walking back out into the sunlight he turned his face towards the warm rays as the brilliant light glinted off the silver and blue of his uniform. He had a feeling that this mission was going to prove very... problematic.
The lights of the soldier’s fires danced cheerily in the dark night. At first Legolas had sat apart from the Gondorian troops, but the week’s travel had worn the edges off their unfamiliarity and he now regularly joined Alcarin and his men around the fire circles at night.
“If the spiders are that big, I would hate to see the flies!” Elan, a young man of perhaps seventeen shook his head in wonder at the information Legolas had shared about his home. The young soldier had a pretty obvious case of admiration for the elf after having been treated, at request, to a sample of the prince’s marksmanship and other abilities. Legolas found the young one’s attention both endearing and humorous.
“You need more than a flyswatter to handle them I’d guess!” another soldier laughed heartily.
Legolas smiled at their mirth. He knew they had finally begun to trust him because there was no longer a guard posted carefully out of sight of his sleeping area. They thought he didn’t know, but of course he had known all along. He did not grudge them their wariness, a stranger in his father’s realm in such a situation would have been treated just as carefully until their intent was known. As a prince, Legolas could appreciate their position, but he could also appreciate that they were at last beginning to trust him.
The men liked hearing stories about elves and the lands to the north where they had never been, and for the most part the prince had been warmly welcomed into their little group. There were a few, like Castamir, Alcarin’s second-in-command, who still kept his distance from the stranger and preferred to have little to do with him, but it was the exception rather than the rule and Legolas was pleasantly surprised by how easily these men had accepted him. In Gondor at least, the elven race was not feared, even if the common folk still knew little enough about them.
Dalthad was only a day or two’s march distant now, and Legolas fully intended to part ways with them there. The slow pace of their travel, further hampered by over-burdened wagons, had begun to chafe at him. Still, his time with the troops had been a good experience.
Little did he realize as he lay down to rest that night just how quickly everything would change.
Chapter 3: Part Three
Legolas didn’t know what it was that woke him but his senses were instantly on the alert and he automatically reached for his weapons as he sat up. The rest of the camp was still sleeping and his quiet movements did not wake them. Trying to figure out what had alerted him, Legolas slipped his quiver over one shoulder and picked up his bow, sliding quietly to the edge of the camp and peering into the darkness beyond.
Nothing stirred, nothing seemed amiss, and yet...
The elf moved quietly towards the woods on the far-left flank of the camp, sliding away from the others and passing over the starlit grass without so much as a whisper to give away his passage.
He paused. The sense of danger pressing near made the hairs on the back of his neck prickle warningly and he fitted an arrow to the string of his bow, looking around, straining to see any movement in the dark, moonless night that would give away the nature of the threat that was screaming in his mind.
Nothing. Silence. The wind in the tree branches. What had drawn him over here?
Was he the only one that sensed something wrong? Had the sentries heard and seen anything he wondered? Turning back towards the camp, now some ways distant, he scanned for any sign that the two men standing guard on the perimeter were on alert... that’s when the elf realized that there was no sign of the sentries. But there *were* a number of dark shapes moving silently around the wagons on the opposite side of camp.
Legolas shouted a warning, but was now too far away to rouse anyone. Suddenly a volley of arrows from the shadow of the trees behind him hissed silently by his head and grazed his side in the dark. Feeling the sharp, passing bite of the arrow, the prince threw himself to the ground and rolled out of the path of the second volley.
One of the mules nickered and brayed in irritation as it was quickly hitched back to the wagon it had only recently been freed of.
Startled from his sleep by the sound, Castamir rolled up on his elbow and saw the moving forms. Then his gaze fell on the empty sleeping place across the fire from him; Legolas was gone. Swearing loudly the soldier jumped to his feet and raised the alarm.
A cry of warning went up as the sleepy troopers jumped to their feet, looking around and trying to see what had happened, but the alarm had been sounded too late, their position was already surrounded. Absolute chaos erupted as the unknown attackers clashed with the awakening troops, attempting to overwhelm them and press their surprise advantage. Cold steel crashed and slashed under the stars and in the darkness it was difficult to tell who was a friend and who was an enemy among the mass of churning bodies.
Rolling swiftly once more, Legolas came up on one knee, stringing an arrow faster than sight and letting it fly into the darkened woods. He had nothing to aim at other than the direction that the projectiles were coming from but he whipped off a few in that vicinity anyway. No more arrows came from that direction but a swift rustling of the trees on his immediate right made the elven archer spin and swiftly dart off another two rounds. There was a muffled cry and a crash which told Legolas that this time he had definitely hit something.
Turning towards the camp once more, the prince saw that most of the wagons had successfully been pulled away by the attackers, who now had the soldiers completely encircled. Running back to help, Legolas put an arrow on the string... but in the darkness and with everyone moving so quickly it was hard to tell the soldiers from their attackers and he could not shoot. Relinquishing his bow for his knives, the elf jumped into the fray.
However the attackers did not seem interested in obliterating the soldiers, only keeping them detained long enough so that the wagon loads of armor and weaponry could be safely gotten away.
Less than a half-hour later nearly all the attackers had either run off after their fellows or were dead.
Breathing heavily, Legolas sheathed his knives as he watched the last two attackers fall at the hands of the men across the camp. Suddenly a strong set of arms grabbed him from behind and threw him forward to the earth. The elf squirmed around quickly, ready to deal with the new threat, but when he found himself staring up into Castamir’s angry face he stopped, thinking the Gondorian had mistaken him for an enemy in the dark.
Instead of releasing him however, as Legolas expected, Castamir pressed his bloody blade against the elf’s throat. “Oh no, you’re not getting away too. Don’t move a muscle if you know what’s good for you.”
Legolas’ eyes registered shock and then anger. “What do you think you are doing?”
“That’s what you have to answer elf,” Castamir ground out through his teeth, keeping Legolas pinned firmly on the ground.
Torches were quickly being kindled and soon the ruined camp was illuminated by the twisting, dancing glow of firelight casting skipping shadows across the forms of the dead and dying.
Alcarin kicked over the body of one of their fallen enemies. The apparent feelings of disgust and anger were ones that were shared by all the soldiers present. The armor and weapons they had been transporting were gone; stolen right out from under them, and on top of that a number of their own were now dead. They dare not follow the numerically superior force that had attacked them while it was still dark and by morning they would be miles away. This was a catastrophe.
The lieutenant’s eyes caught on Castamir and Legolas, finally taking in the situation. Several other soldiers had also seen and gathered round.
“What?” Alcarin’s voice was short and clipped, his eyes demanding an answer from SOMEONE about what was going on.
“Ask *him* that,” Castamir gave the elf under him a small shove. “I woke up and raised the first alarm, guess who *wasn’t* in their bed.” Several of the other men nodded hesitant concurrence. It was true; they had seen the same when they were rudely awakened.
With a jolt Legolas realized what the man was accusing him of. “Something woke me, there was movement in the woods and I went to look,” he protested quickly and not without a hint of indignity. “By the time I saw the danger to the camp it was too late. There were attackers in the woods and we traded arrows. I returned here to help with the fight. Let me up.”
“Convenient,” Castamir growled. “You thought there was something out there and you didn’t bother to wake any one else? You’re either a liar or an idiot.”
“I did not realize the danger was so near at hand. I shouted a warning but was too far away to be heard.” Legolas leveled the soldier holding him down with an even glare. “It may have been an error on my part but it does not make me a traitor or whatever else you are thinking right now.”
“Let him up,” Alcarin jerked his head at Castamir, silencing his under officer with a motion when the other man started to protest. “He says there were arrows fired by the woods. It’s easy enough to check. Some of you men go and look around there for what may have happened. Bring torches and be wary in case there is anyone still out there. Roel, Hurgil, see if you can figure out what happened to the sentries. I want to know why we had no warning of this! Tegan, Mannon, make sure the area is secure and there is no one else about. The rest of you... care for the dead,” the lieutenant issued a rapid string of orders to his men before his eyes fell back on Castamir who still had his sword at Legolas’ neck, kneeling over him.
“It is not in our law to assume people guilty on circumstance alone Castamir. I said let him up,” the young man repeated somewhat tersely. “Watch him, but let’s not jump to conclusions, do you understand me?”
Castamir nodded grudgingly as he slowly backed off and allowed Legolas to sit up.
“Your pardon Legolas, but understand that I don’t know what to think right now. So I’m going to ask you to stay right here and not attempt to do anything until we have a little more information to work with,” Alcarin requested, catching the elf’s eyes for a moment.
“Of course,” Legolas nodded. He was innocent and had no intention of trying anything that would make him look otherwise.
Castamir eyed the elf in an unfriendly manner but did as his commanding officer bid him.
More torches were kindled and soon the entire area was as bright as daylight. Fifteen or twenty long minutes passed with soldiers going back and forth and carrying out their tasks, removing the dead, salvaging their goods and other errands that did not hold the prince’s attention.
Despite how much he would have liked to help, Legolas stayed kneeling on the grass because Castamir glared at him every time he moved and seemed to consider even the thought of the act of standing as a breech of the orders Alcarin had given.
He looked up when the small group of men that Alcarin had sent to check the woods returned. They were carrying two bodies with them and Legolas supposed they were some of the attackers he must have shot.
The looks on the men’s faces were grim as they greeted Alcarin and without knowing why, Legolas’ heart gave a funny skip as a small feeling of dread crept back into his stomach.
“We found no arrows on the ground anywhere near the woods or any signs of a fight. What we did find... was what happened to the sentries,” the soldiers reported with a dark tone as they laid their burdens down.
Two dead men... but no. Not just dead men. Dead soldiers. Young Elan and his friend Krit. As the soldiers laid them down they were forced to let the bodies roll on their faces, because a single long arrow protruded from the back of each of the slain sentries.
Legolas eyes widened with a flash of horror he could not suppress because he knew whose arrows those were. They were his.
“We found them just on the edges of the woods. They could have been dragged there and left but we found no marks to indicate such, so it is more likely they fell where they were killed,” the soldiers continued, their looks bitter. It was hard to lose the young ones like this.
Alcarin squared his jaw as he knelt to examine the bodies, pulling the arrow from Elan’s back. “Bring me his quiver,” he gestured towards where Castamir had deposited Legolas’ weapons after removing them from him before.
“There’s no need,” Legolas said quietly. “You are right in your guess. Those arrows are mine.” It would have done no good to deny it; elves used a unique spiral-bound fletching technique to make their arrows fly straighter, one that men had never picked up. Legolas’ arrows might as well of had his name written on them, which as a matter of fact some of them did.
An outraged murmur rippled through the camp and Castamir’s gaze turned deadly.
Legolas wanted to say it wasn’t what they thought, that it wasn’t his hand that loosed those arrows. But... could he be sure? If their attackers had killed the sentries and disposed of them, they never could have used his arrows to do it. He *had* fired into the woods... someone had been hit. If no other bodies had been found... that thought hurt, a lot.
“Why?” Alcarin was shaking his head slowly, his gaze locking on Legolas. “Why?! Elan followed you around like a puppy dog. How could you do this?”
Legolas shook his head, still reeling in shock from this whole turn of events. “I didn’t! Or... at least not what you’re thinking!” he protested with a hint of anguish in his voice.
“I told you, I fired into the woods. First at where the arrows were coming from, but then there was movement from another direction and I shot again. I hit someone. It was dark, I could not see into the trees to know.” Legolas still didn’t think he could have hit *both* the soldiers, and perfectly in the back no less, but right now he couldn’t figure out what to think and his heart was hurting that he might have been able to make such a horrible mistake. He swallowed hard around the lump in his throat. He knew he wasn’t a traitor, but if he were even accidentally responsible for the death of these young ones he wasn’t sure he could ever forgive himself. “There was no reason to believe any of your men would be out there, the sentries had no business in the woods. I-I cannot tell you truly if I did or did not deliver the fatal shots, but I swear to you by everything true that if I did it was purely by accident and never, *never* intentional.”
“So you say,” Castamir ground out bitterly. “But what *would* they have been doing in the woods? Unless someone they trusted had brought them there, perhaps saying there was danger? Is that how it happened? Look at them!” he gestured angrily at the corpses. “These arrows were obviously fired at close range. You lured them away from camp by faking having heard something in the woods. Elan would have done anything you told him to. So you brought them out there where we couldn’t hear and shot them both in the back, isn’t that what happened?!”
“No!” Legolas shook his head desperately. “No! I would never have hurt them wittingly! I have no reason to!”
“Oh I’d say a small fortune in armor and weapons is a pretty compelling reason,” one of the other soldiers shook his head. “With them gone there was no one to alert us to the danger until it was too late.”
“Who?” Alcarin’s voice cut in again, quiet and stony. “Who were you working with Legolas. Why?”
“No one! I didn’t do this!” Legolas continued to defend his innocence, but his sinking heart told him that no one was going to believe him. The evidence against him was overwhelming and he could not explain it away even to himself. He didn’t understand what had happened or how. “I didn’t,” his voice fell to a whisper.
“The facts say otherwise Legolas,” Alcarin shook his head. “You say you were shot at, yet there are no arrows but yours out there. Elan and Krit would never have let a stranger near enough to shoot them like this and if they were killed at their posts, someone would have heard something. This is my fault,” his eyes hardened. “I should never have trusted you.”
“I don’t know how to explain it either, but I swear to you I did not do this!” Legolas shook his head again, still in shock from this sudden turn of events.
“I wish I could believe you,” the lieutenant said quietly. “But that is not mine to decide even if I would. Legolas son of Thranduil you are under arrest for high treason against the people of Gondor.”
Legolas blinked numbly as Castamir pulled his hands behind his back, securing the elf’s wrists firmly with tight cords. He couldn’t believe this was happening. “What are you going to do with me?” he asked softly.
“By our law cases of treason can only be tried by the Steward himself. You will be taken to Minas Tirith to await the judgment of Lord Ecthelion,” Alcarin informed. “Only he can decide your fate.”
Legolas dropped his gaze as he was prodded to his feet. His head was spinning. Everything seemed to have happened so fast it was unreal. An icy bite of familiar fear was working its way through his insides. Part of his mind was screaming for him to run, to not let this happen, but the other part knew that even if he got away that would only confirm his guilt in everyone’s mind and leave on him the shameful mark of a murderer and a traitor. Besides, there was no way to run without having to hurt or possibly kill more of the soldiers. And that Legolas would not do.
The elf steeled his jaw and lifted his head. So, he would plead his case to the Steward then. If he was a killer, it was only an accidental one, and no real connection could be proved between he and whoever attacked them... or so he hoped. After tonight he wasn’t sure of anything anymore. But still, this was Gondor, not some backwater town full of superstitious ignorants who would just as soon hang an elf as look at one, so that was some comfort at least.
Legolas had no choice but to put his trust in the hope that justice still worked in Gondor... and pray to the Valar that that was true.
Legolas sat quietly with his back against the tree he was bound to. Darkness covered the small camp and only the sentries stirred on the fringes of the dying firelight. The elf however was not resting, nor was he likely to find any this night. It was not because his position was that uncomfortable, although it was far from pleasant. No, it was his own troubled state of mind and the heaviness in his heart that did not allow the prince the sleep his weary body was asking for.
The soldiers had followed the trail of their mysterious attackers but it did not go very far before it led down to the river’s edge. The wagons were left empty and abandoned on the sandy bank and it was obvious that the thieves had loaded their pilfered cargo and the cart animals onto a ship that had been waiting to meet them.
The whole venture had obviously been far too well planned to be the work of mere highwaymen, or a crime of opportunity. It had been pulled off with a great deal of forethought and cunning; they had obviously walked right into that trap. More disturbing than even this however, was the fact that without a doubt, the soldiers knew who had made off with their armor and weapons.
The Corsairs of Umbar.
It could only be they. No one else would have a ship capable of carrying such a heavy load and yet also navigating the oft-treacherous river shoals. Besides, no one else had a motive; the Haradrim had already been totally beaten back and in any case, the Haradrim were definitely not water-men. Such a bold move on the part of the Corsairs was highly unsettling. Alcarin had questioned Legolas very thoroughly after that, but of course the elf was able to tell them nothing. He knew less of their enemies than they did. To him the Corsairs of Umbar were just a name, a far away people with an ill reputation. He had only ever had experience with one of their kind before and that had been millennia ago and nowhere near here.
Many of the other soldiers had obviously wished to use more stringent methods of questioning than just words and threats. Fortunately for Legolas however, they abided by their laws regarding the treatment of prisoners who had not yet received fair trial or judgment and the worst that the prince got for the moment was dirty looks and rough handling.
Still, it was hard. So hard how quickly and how much things had changed.
Legolas tilted his head back against the tree trunk behind him, half looking up at the stars above. With idle grimness he wondered how long their restraint would last. The prince had never been the pessimistic sort, but no matter what he tried to hope, some foreboding corner of his heart and mind whispered that he knew where this was going to lead and it was nowhere that was good for him. He had been in similar situations too often in the past to have much faith in hope for the present; it was only a matter of time.
Legolas sighed. Too many bad experiences with men as a race would not allow him to dispel those nagging apprehensions. However, even those dark thoughts were not what was keeping the elf awake.
The prince pressed his eyes closed, obscuring the stars, feeling somehow that he did not deserve to see their beauty. The deaths of Elan and Krit were weighing heavily on his heart and spirit. He could still see their lifeless bodies in his minds eye. At first, in his shock, he had been half-way sure that he could not have been the one who loosed the fatal arrows, but the more he ran the whole situation through his mind the more convinced he became that it could only have been he... although there were still a few things that didn’t make sense. Chief among them being what the two sentries had been doing in the woods in the first place and what happened to the arrows that had been shot at him.
The only answers the elf’s weary mind could find was that perhaps Krit and Elan had been taken by surprise and captured silently. Then their attackers must have dragged them into the woods while their compatriots went to work and it must have been that sense of danger that woke Legolas and drew him towards the woods. Then... then the Corsairs must have fired at him and in the scuffle perhaps Elan and Krit tried to run...
Legolas clenched his jaw and banged his head back against the tree in angry frustration at himself, hitting hard enough to make bright flashes of unreal light shower across the inside of his closed eyelids.
He must have shot the two boys by mistake as they tried to run. He had been in sheer response mode. He had fired without thinking and he knew it. That burned his heart. Burned badly.
The Corsairs must have retrieved their spent arrows after he left and gone back to join their fellows in the fight that had broken out, leaving the bodies of their dead captives.
That must be the way it happened, no other explanation made sense. Yet there was still the question of exactly who *had* tipped the Corsairs off about the soldiers’ cargo and whereabouts... but the possibilities were too numerous to count. The way things stood it could have been anything from a real traitor hidden in the Gondorian’s ranks, to an outside informant or spy whom none of them had probably ever even seen.
Yet none of that changed the fact that anyway he thought it over, Legolas still found himself to be the prime suspect in the deaths of Elan and Krit. There was simply no way that anyone else could have gotten hold of his arrows. He always kept them all accounted for and he knew he had not been missing any when he woke up and headed out to the woods.
Children. Even by human standards those boys had been mere children yet. Legolas swallowed raggedly. Elan had reminded him so much of his friend Aragorn when Legolas had first met him, even though Elan was younger. He remembered how the teenage soldier had been awed by the elf’s bowmanship. Elan, Krit and Tyrion, another young soldier, had begged and begged until Legolas agreed to show them more of what he could do. Even the older soldiers had joined in to watch the show.
Legolas bit his lip. Those had been good times. Which made them all the more painful to remember now. With a soft, sad smile the prince recalled the way that Elan and Tyrion had argued fiercely over who got the honor of retrieving Legolas’ arrows from the targets until Alcarin had stepped in and settled the dispute by doing it himself with much good-natured disapproval. Elendur, a veteran fighter of many wars, had teased the young boys about their youthful energy... now Elendur was dead, killed in the battle with the Corsairs. And Elan and Krit were dead. Killed by.... Legolas let his head slump forward. Human’s died so easily... it always saddened and even somewhat frightened the elf; sometimes they seemed so fragile... and he had possibly shortened already short lives. This was not going to be an easy guilt to live with.
The elf prince was still awake when rosy dawn began to creep across the fields and forests of Gondor and he greeted the dawn with weary eyes. Presently the camp began to stir and the soldiers wakened to start their day.
Breakfast was placed on the ground next to Legolas while the soldiers took their own food and prepared for the day’s march. They obviously had no intention of untying the prisoner so he could use his hands to eat and Legolas equally had no intention of bending down to eat off the ground like a dog.
Presently Castamir and Tyrion came over. Tyrion loosed the elf from the tree, although his hands remained bound behind him. Castamir tugged Legolas to his feet, giving the prisoner a cold look.
“Not hungry?” the soldier nodded at the untouched food. “What’s the matter? I wouldn’t have thought anything could turn the stomach of a cold blooded murderer.”
Legolas fixed Castamir with a silent glare. He wouldn’t waste words on the man; it would serve no purpose.
Legolas’ lack of response irritated Castamir and he gave the prince a shake by the shoulder he was still holding, putting his face close to the elf’s and speaking softly. “Doesn’t it bother you at all, what you have done? How can there be people like you on this earth?” the man’s voice choked slightly. “Did you know that Krit was my sister’s boy? Well he was. Do you know that I’m going to have to be the one to tell her why he isn’t coming home? But you don’t care about that, do you?”
Castamir’s breath smelled of alcohol and considering that it was yet early in the morning that was not a settling thought. Most of the other soldiers had moved away to the ridge, readying for departure, leaving only Castamir and Tyrion to get the prisoner moving.
“Do you?!” Castamir repeated harshly and Legolas pulled roughly away from his painfully tight grip.
“If there is a traitor here, it is not I,” Legolas said icily, staring straight into Castamir’s eyes. “And perhaps you know that just as well as I do.”
The soldier’s eyes flashed and he slapped Legolas, hard. “You little son of Sauron! How dare you?!” Castamir grabbed one of Legolas’ bound arms and with his other hand he struck the elf across the face again.
Legolas started and began to pull away, but Castamir jerked the bound elf sideways, making Legolas stumble and holding him at a disadvantage as he struck the elf again and again, the open-handed blows falling in rapid succession until the prince’s mouth and nose were bleeding.
Half dropping, half shoving Legolas, Castamir let him fall to the ground, kicking the elf in the ribs and planting his booted foot on the elf’s back, directly between Legolas’ shoulder-blades, pressing down sharply and grinding the prince painfully against the earth.
Tyrion watched with huge eyes, looking as if maybe he should do something, but unwilling to cross his superior officer. Besides... it had been his two best friends that were killed.
“What is the meaning of this?” a hard, questioning voice made Castamir jerk. He spun around to find Alcarin approaching with a dark frown on his face. “Castamir? I asked you a question,” Alcarin repeated when he stopped next to them.
Castamir was lost for words only for a moment before he quickly re-gathered himself. “The prisoner was attempting to escape sir. We had to bring him down.”
If Legolas’ face hadn’t been pressed against the ground his jaw would have dropped. “I did n-”
Castamir’s weight dropped heavily on the boot between the elf’s shoulders, pressing all the air from Legolas’ lungs and cutting off his protest as the prisoner was forced to gasp for air.
“We had to bring him down,” Castamir repeated calmly. “Isn’t that right Tyrion?”
Tyrion looked fit to choke on the unexpected question and pressure being placed on him when Castamir’s burning gaze bored into him. “I - Yes.” The young man steeled his jaw. “Yes it is.”
“With all due respect sir, I told you we had to be more careful with him,” Castamir put in, giving another good dig with his boot to keep Legolas from being able to draw enough breath to protest this blatant lie. It wouldn’t have mattered if he had though. It was two to one and as a suspected traitor Legolas knew his word carried no weight anyway.
Alcarin glanced skeptically between them. “I see. As I’m sure you both already know, the usual punishment for prisoners attempting to escape is twenty-five lashes.”
Legolas, who had been trying to lift his head, dropped it back to the earth, resisting the urge to moan. This was not fair! He had done nothing. Nothing! But that didn’t matter. It never mattered. He balled his bound fists tightly.
“I suppose you would be more than glad to carry that sentence out, wouldn’t you Castamir?” Alcarin’s tone was unmistakably dry. He had never been on the best of terms with his second-in-command.
In truth, nothing would have pleased him more, but Castamir did not miss the slightly acidic tone in his commander’s voice and was wary about his answer. All he did was nod. “If such were my duty sir.”
“I thought as much. However, since this escape attempt seems to have consisted of all of perhaps three steps from where the prisoner was being kept, and since it looks as if you have already carried out your duties quite zealously,” Alcarin glanced at the elf’s bleeding face. “I think we can forgo formal punishment at this time. If you have trouble handling him, you may use a restraint halter, but I expect to never have to come across another situation like this, no matter whose fault it is, do you understand?” Alcarin’s gaze was leveled at Castamir and it was obvious that the warning was for him.
Castamir saluted, hiding the dark look on his face so that it only showed behind his eyes. “Yes sir, of course.”
“Very well then, we depart in a quarter-hour. Everyone back to their duties.” The lieutenant addressed the last part to some of the other soldiers who had stopped to gawk. Turning away, Alcarin followed his own advice and went back to work.
With one last sharp dig of his boot, Castamir released Legolas. Twining his hand in the elf’s hair he used it as a handle to drag the prince up onto his knees.
Legolas coughed and wiped his bleeding mouth against his shoulder since his hands were held useless behind him.
Castamir had retrieved a long piece of rope and was busy tying some funny looking knots into it as Legolas caught his breath. Kneeling down he threaded the knotted rope under Legolas’ armpits and around his chest, passing the other end to Tyrion when it got out of his reach.
The elf did not attempt to resist. It would have been futile anyway. But he fixed his gaze on the two humans working around him. “You lied. I did not try to run,” he said quietly now that he had enough breath to do so, his voice a trifle hoarse.
Tyrion looked away, refusing to meet the prisoner’s eyes, hiding the shame he felt within as he passed the knotted rope back around to Castamir.
“Go ahead and tell them that if you think it will do any good,” Castamir looped the rope around Legolas’ upper right arm before bringing it back around the front of his chest and doing the same on the left side. “If you think the word of a murderous traitor is going to mean anything to anyone.”
Legolas sighed silently and looked away. No, he didn’t imagine it would. However if this was the kind of justice he could expect when they arrived in Minas Tirith... the prince was greatly beginning to fear his future.
Castamir brought the ends of the rope around Legolas’ back one last time and tied them off. Legolas didn’t really understand what all this was about or why it was being done until Castamir took hold of the two lengths of rope that lay across his back and pulled upward, using them to drag the elf to his feet.
The knots in the rope dug sharply into the elf’s chest, back and arms when it was tugged on, making any thought of resistance an extremely painful idea.
Castamir gave the ropes a quick, vicious twist; pulling Legolas back towards him slightly and making the prince wince and grit his teeth in pain. Holding the ropes still twisted tight, Castamir leaned forward and whispered into Legolas’ ear.
“Look, I know what you are elf. Your injured innocence act doesn’t fool me. Alcarin and the others may hide their own timidity behind talk of laws and regulations, but those laws were never meant to protect the likes of you. Give me any reason at all, and I will give you the hell you deserve. Do you understand me?”
Another sharp twist of the twin ropes elicited a sharp moan from between the elf’s grit teeth. It was amazing how painful those simple, knotted cords could be when they were wrapped and twisted right. Legolas felt as if they were trying to break through his skin, tunic and all, they were digging in so hard.
“I’ll take that as a yes,” Castamir growled quietly, releasing the ropes and giving the elf a small shove away from him.
Legolas stumbled slightly but quickly regained his balance and pulled himself up straight and proud, fixing a cold glare at his tormentors. They had no idea how many times, or how fast he could have gotten away from them if he had so desired.
“I submitted myself to be judged by your laws. I have no intention of dishonoring that,” the prince said simply. “If you do not trouble me, I will not trouble you.”
Castamir shot the elf a dark glance. “It’s a little late for you to try to get me thinking you’ve got a noble bone in anywhere in your whole body, isn’t it? Now come on, we’re getting ready to move out.”
Legolas submitted to being led away. Silently resigning himself to the fact that Castamir would probably always hate him and that doubtless, that hatred was going to create more than a little trouble for him before this trip was over.
Chapter 4: Part Four
Water swirled darkly before them; not the placid waters of a pond nor even the rushing stream of the great Anduin, these were dangerous, debris-littered floodwaters, seasonally swollen by rain upriver overflowing the banks of what was normally a small tributary. Alcarin and Castamir regarded the water with looks nearly as dark and perilous as the swirling current. The grey, swollen sky above reflected dully on the surface of the water as the sun sunk towards the western horizon.
Legolas, near the rear of the party, did not like the look of the water, but he was not entirely surprised by it. It had been raining incessantly for nearly a week now, such rain as was never seen in northern Gondor. The daily deluge slowed the soldiers and shortened everyone’s tempers. The elf had learned that silence was the best policy for his health since the soggy troops, improperly provisioned for their extended trek, were running out of everything, including patience.
“Another delay... I do not like this,” Alcarin shook his head. A chance encounter with a group of bandits who were preying on a local caravan some days ago had already slowed them up more than they liked. The bandits were easily dealt with, but the farmers who had been returning from a trip to market had needed much assistance to get their now limping little party home safely. That had taken the soldiers, who had nearly reached Minas Tirith, far out of their way and across the Anduin below Osgiliath. Rather than back-tracking when they were done, they had thought to proceed on the eastern bank of the river until the more favorable crossings further south presented themselves since Minas Tirith was still a few days travel in that direction anyway. What they had not counted on was the increasingly wild and swollen state of the river. The crossings that were usually safe had been far too wide and dangerous to attempt, forcing them further south until they were now actually quite some distance south of their intended goal, wandering into the currently sodden land of South Ithilien. The other thing they had not counted on, was running into this massive floodplain just below Graveshead.
“It’s not very deep, we could probably ford it all right if it gets no worse,” Castamir apprised thoughtfully.
Alcarin looked uncertain. “Perhaps... I don’t wish to endanger the men needlessly, floods can be dangerous. It’s a pity we have no one familiar with this region’s weather patterns to advise us,” the last part was a sigh.
“Well then we’ll have to turn back and take the crossing north of Emyn Arnen and Hegdegon, there’s no other way across the Anduin between here and there,” Castamir suggested their only alternative without enthusiasm. None of them wanted to do that. It would mean a backtrack of at least 30 or 40 miles that would land them just as far off course as they were now. If the weather did not improve, that would be a very dismal journey. Several of the men groaned audibly.
Alcarin shook his head. He did not want to do that unless it truly was their last option. “The light is fading; we can go no further today. We’ll camp here tonight and see what the morning brings. Perhaps the waters will have receded.”
It was a dangerous decision, although none of them knew it.
Shortly after camp was set it began to rain again. The troops swore as the already muddy grass under their feet turned to puddles. The rain had ruined much of their supplies and they weren’t even able to light fires. The water seeped under tent edges and nothing was left dry.
Legolas knelt impassively in three inches of muddy water. It would have been impossible for him to become any more uncomfortable by this time, so there was no point in being annoyed. Usually he was bound to a tree or staked down for the night, but since no pegs would hold in the soggy earth and there were no trees readily available, his guard was doubled.
Somewhere in the hills away to the left of camp, his elven ears caught a disturbing, distant rumble. He lifted his bowed head and cocked it to the side, listening. Now he could feel the ground beginning to tremble ever so slightly beneath him. A wave of alarm swept through the elf.
“Something is wrong,” Legolas spoke up for the first time in days. “Danger approaches.” He did not know what or how, but he felt sure that something was gravely amiss.
The two grumpy soldiers on either side of the elf gave him irritated glances at first, but a moment later they too began to feel the trembling of the earth beneath them.
Suddenly, loud shouting outside split the dark, soggy air and made them all jerk. It was hard to hear above the pelting rain, but it sounded as if a voice was shouting: “Get out! Get out!”
Exchanging worried glances, the two soldiers quickly rose to their feet, prodding Legolas with them. The elf needed no encouragement as the three of them tumbled swiftly out of the small tent into the sleeting rain outside.
The camp seemed to be in chaos, although it was difficult at first to understand why. The full moon, thickly shrouded in clouds, lent a faint, diffused shine to the entire nighttime sky, however, grey rain and the darkness of night obscured almost everything. A loud, rushing roar filled their ears, seeming to come from everywhere at once.
Something made Legolas turn around, towards the darkened shapes of the hills on their left. What he saw next was not an image the prince would easily forget.
A dark outline blotted out the pale light of the cloudy sky, but it was not the normal shape of the hills, it was much too close and moving much to fast. A searing flash of lightening revealed an eight to ten foot wall of water rushing down towards them.
By the time it could be seen, it was too late to react. The flash flood tore through the valley, sweeping everything in it into the rushing roar of the floodplain.
Legolas felt the water hit him and instantly he was weightless. It was as if a strong hand had ripped the air from his lungs; picking him up and throwing him, not once, but repeatedly. Water washed over his head, filling his eyes, ears, nose and mouth. Caught in the current he could not tell which way was up as the darkened world spun around him.
Breaking surface, he gulped down several rapid breaths of air before being sucked under once more. The elf thrashed in the water, kicking hard towards what he hoped was the surface. He was a fair swimmer, but with his arms securely bound behind him it was almost impossible to fight the raging current.
Legolas could hear nothing, see nothing, feel nothing but the rough swell he was caught in. Hard objects swirled around him, they could have been tree-branches, debris, or even other people, there was no way to know. Something heavy caught him in the low back, forcing him down under the surface. The elf kicked upward with all his strength, but he ran into what felt like a sea of tossing branches, probably from some downed tree uprooted by the sudden flood. The rough fingers caught and held Legolas underwater, scratching and pummeling him as the fluxing current slammed and bumped them along.
A strange, unearthly calm came over the panicking elf as he ran out of air. All thoughts seemed to leave his mind. It was not so much that he was giving up, as that he could not remember why he was struggling. But as the dark, murky water reached up its swirling claws to claim him Legolas felt himself run into something soft. The soft thing flailed slightly in the water, reacting to hitting him. Then strong hands grabbed his tunic and hair, pulling him towards the tossing surface.
When his head came up Legolas coughed and gasped for breath; his lungs and throat aching fiercely. He could not see who his rescuer was, but the hands propelled him forward, pushing him up onto the broken trunk of the tree that had nearly killed him. Legolas was unable to grab the tree trunk because his hands were still bound behind him and so he kept sliding back into the water.
The man beside him swore. “Grab on!”
Legolas realized with a jolt who his unlikely rescuer was, but now was not the time to question a helping hand.
“I cannot!” he shouted back above the roar of the water around them.
The man’s hands caught against the knotted halter around the elf’s chest and he swore again, this time in surprise.
“You?!” Castamir spluttered slightly, trying to keep his own head above water as he clung to the log and supported Legolas’ weight. “Why did it have to be you?!” He almost let the elf go, almost let the water have him, but at the last moment he grabbed the wet ropes of the halter and hauled the prisoner up onto the log instead.
Legolas winced as the knotted ropes dug into his chest and arms, but felt better at having something solid under him, keeping him afloat. He was honestly surprised. He had more than expected Castamir to leave him to the mercy of the current.
Hooking the back of the halter over the broken stub of a tree branch Castamir kept the elf from sliding back down into the water again as the tree swept and jostled its way downstream.
Legolas resisted the urge to cry out as his full weight fell against the painful restraint of the halter. The water jerked and caught at him, banging him against the tree that was keeping him afloat and slamming him repeatedly against the punishing ropes that were both saving his life and creating flashes of constant, stunning pain that almost made him dizzy.
Legolas’ weight on one side and Castamir’s on the other kept the log from spinning as it cut its way through the churning darkness. Just how long that dreadful journey lasted was difficult to tell. After what seemed like hours, but could have actually been much less then that, the flood began to even out and lose some of its original ferocity. Exhausted from their long battle with the elements, the man and the elf slumped against their make-shift raft in cautious relief as the current rushing them along, settled down to a more reasonable pace. In the near pitch-dark there was no way to see if or where any dry land might be; for the present they could do nothing but hold on and wait this nightmare ride out.
When grey dawn finally began to seep up the edges of the sky Legolas was beyond weary. He supposed Castamir must be as well, although the human had not said a word to him since their first exchange and he could not see the soldier from where he was.
The rain had stopped a few hours ago and the rising sun revealed that they were no longer on the plains of Graveshead but in the middle of a broad, flowing river. The flood must have emptied into the Anduin at some point during the long night and now they were floating downstream. It seemed that many of the other soldiers had faired the same because as the sun climbed higher and the steep gorge they were in narrowed out into flat plains on either side of the river they began to be hailed by comrades already on the sloping banks.
The eddy they were now caught in led them eventually to shore with a little help and paddling. Tyrion and an older soldier named Ostoher waded out and helped pull the log in.
Castamir stumbled up onto the sodden riverbank and sat down, rubbing feeling back into his cold, stiff limbs while Ostoher waded back out and unhooked Legolas. The elf’s legs felt a bit shaky, but once he was released from his anchor to the tree he waded to shore under his own power. Ostoher eyed him a little warily, but he need not have worried. Legolas was too worn-out to attempt anything even had he wanted to do so.
The elf sank to his knees, letting his head and shoulders sag forward as he drew in deep breaths, filling his lungs in a way which the constant pressure of the halter had not allowed him last night. The bruised flesh under the knotted ropes was throbbing painfully and it took him a few moments to regain his composure.
“Where are the others, do we know how many made it?” Castamir was quizzing Tyrion. The young man shook his head, obviously still a little shocked. He had never seen anything in nature with as much fury as a flash flood before. None of them had.
“I don’t know sir. Ostoher and I were washed ashore upstream sometime early last night. We’ve been walking downstream since it was light enough to see, looking for others. There’s some over there,” he nodded his head somewhat shakily across the river. “On the opposite bank. And you two of course.” The young man looked back at the river as if it were a dragon, calm now, but seething underneath. “I’ve never seen anything like that,” he whispered.
“That makes two of us,” Castamir muttered, contemplating rising but opting for resting a moment longer. “We’ll have to keep going downstream to find the others. If you haven’t found anyone else yet then chances are they are further ahead still, if they are to be found at all.” The last part was spoken half under the soldier’s breath. The uncertainty of what they would or wouldn’t find weighed heavily on all of them.
“Right then,” Ostoher said at length. “Hadn’t we better get started sir?” Since Castamir was the only ranking officer present at the moment the other man turned to him for orders.
Castamir nodded, rising slowly and stiffly to his feet. “Spread out so we don’t miss anyone further inland. Tyrion you take left point, Ostoher you take right point, but everyone stay within view. We don’t want to get separated.”
Ostoher and Tyrion quickly moved to obey. Ostoher glanced back at Legolas. The elf was still kneeling on the riverbank. “What about him?”
“Leave him to me,” Castamir said with a hint of darkness creeping back into his tone. Walking behind Legolas the soldier grabbed the back of the elf’s halter and roughly pulled him upright. “On your feet.”
The Gondorian twisted the ropes in his hand, making the knotted cord constrict. “You’re not going to give me any trouble, are you?”
Legolas gasped softly in pain, unable to stifle the sound as the hard knots ground deeply into his already injured flesh. Castamir took that as a no. “Good. Then I won’t have to hurt you.” He pulled the elf back against him and leaned close for a moment so that only Legolas could hear his words.
“Don’t think that just because I saved your life means I’ll hesitate to take it if you so much as look at me wrong, understand?” The soldier’s hand remained firmly twisted in the halter, holding Legolas against him and making the elf work hard not to squirm under the painful pressure around his bruised chest and shoulders.
“I asked if you understood,” Castamir growled slightly, twisting the ropes tighter. He obviously wanted a real answer this time.
Legolas nodded once. Yes, he understood. He understood that if he was long left under Castamir’s care alone he would probably never make it back to Minas Tirith alive. Why the soldier had even bothered to keep him alive this long was a mystery to him.
Castamir released the halter, shoving Legolas a few steps ahead and the elf let his breath out in relief at the reprieve. “All right then, move out.”
The sun had traversed the sky and daylight was fading to evening when the little quartet met up with five or six more of their scattered platoon. One of whom, to Legolas’ relief, was Alcarin. The young Lieutenant looked haggard and upset.
“Castamir, you made it,” he greeted the newcomers. “Have you seen anyone else?”
The second-in-command shook his head. “Just three, across the river. They looked as if they were also heading downstream.”
Alcarin nodded. “They passed us not long ago, they are going to try to swim across a little ways down where the water is calmer.” He ran his hand over his face. “I should never have camped us there.”
“You had no way of knowing sir, none of us expected that,” Castamir sighed. He and Alcarin did not always see eye to eye, but the soldiers were trained to pull together in times of crisis, and this definitely qualified as such.
Alcarin nodded slowly. “Well, at least we are across the river,” he commented dryly. “Although heaven only knows how far downstream we are now. We have salvaged what we can as far as supplies go, but they won’t get us very far,” Alcarin filled his second-in-command in swiftly. “I sent several of the men ahead as scouts earlier, they just reported back. There is no sign of any town for many leagues. However, there is apparently a somewhat sizable contingent of troops about a day and a half’s march south from here. They were on the move, further south, but should not gain more than another half a day or so on us by tomorrow. The scouts who saw them from a high hill say that the troop movements seemed stealthy. It was difficult to tell from a distance, but the scouts are almost certain that they are ours, although their errand is unknown. I think our best hope is to try to join up with them. They will have supplies and they will know where we are. But we must be cautious, if they are attempting to hide their movements we do not want give them away to whatever they are trying to avoid.”
Castamir inclined his head in agreement. It was the only thing to do. Besides, if they failed to catch up with the other soldiers, there was at least a higher probability that if they headed south they would run into Lithiant or some of its border towns that must still be ahead of them somewhere. True, it took them well away from their previous course for Minas Tirith, but being unsure of just how far south they had already been carried by the river, it was a safer bet than wandering aimlessly north which, if they *were* anywhere near the area of Lithiant, would mean miles and miles of unpopulated wilderness between themselves and the South Road or the more populous areas surrounding Lossarnach. Let alone Minas Tirith.
Legolas cared little what the soldiers decided. His body ached fiercely and he felt worn out by the sleepless night and long day’s travel in a way that he knew he should not be. He was beginning to question his presence here. Yes, he wished to prove his innocence and remove the taint from his name, but at this rate he wondered when they would even *get* to Minas Tirith. It was as if an ill fate conspired against them.
Fires were being started against the growing evening chill, although since almost everything in the area was wet it was no easy task. At least it had not picked up raining again. That was one small comfort. It was nearly dusk by the time the fires were going properly and the soldiers gathered around. The light drew in a few more lost stragglers, and the soldiers were somewhat heartened to find that they had not lost as many of their number as they had originally feared. In the end only two men were missing, although most of their gear, tents and supplies had been washed away.
Legolas was placed with his back against a tree on the dark edges of the fire-ring and the soldiers prepared to bind him there. Alcarin stopped them.
“Put him against the tree closer to the fire. He’s just as cold and wet as we are.”
Actually that was only half true, since Legolas did not actually suffer from cold as the humans did, but he was wet and aching and the warm fire felt good upon his stiff, bruised body.
Save for the ones standing watch, the humans slowly dropped off to sleep one by one. The elf however, remained awake. Weary as he was, he could not sleep. He almost never slept anymore. It was disturbing, but he simply could not. Elves, they say, could wander in waking dreams of their own choosing, but all Legolas could find now were nightmares. His helpless, vulnerable state kept him on edge and denied his body the full relaxation needed for rest.
The elf watched the fire slowly burn down into glowing embers with weary eyes and wondered what the next day would bring. More soldiers, new men, new captors... would the change be a curse, or a blessing? He had no way of knowing. Only the gnawing uncertainty that had become part of his daily existence.
Thorongil exited his tent, throwing the flap back and glancing around the small encampment. He and Denethor had brought a comparatively small contingent with them, considering the size that they were accustomed to commanding in the wars against the Haradrim. This however, was a reconnaissance mission and nothing more. They were not to engage the enemy or start anything with the Corsairs if they found them. They were not even to be discovered as they traveled into southern Gondor approaching Lithiant by way of stealth using the woodland paths that bracketed the Anduin. They were a half a days march from the port where, if the fishermen from Lithiant were telling the truth, the majority of the Corsair ships were rumored to be docked, awaiting only supplies and troops before they made their way deep into Gondor. *If* those reports had been accurate.
Aragorn knew that Denethor not only hoped, but firmly expected to find nothing. Although he knew the other captain would never believe it, Aragorn hoped the same thing, even though his common sense and the warning of his heart told him otherwise. He would like nothing better than to be wrong in this instance, for the threat to not be as real as it seemed... but he doubted that was the case.
The small company of soldiers had pressed back into a thickly wooded area to hide their encampment and cooking fires now sparked merrily in the small glen that Thorongil had found for them.
Sentries constantly scouted the borders, checking in regularly. A grouping of three soldiers had just checked in for the evening and their replacements left the fire ring as Denethor reseated himself.
Thorongil watched the other captain. The Steward’s son sighed and ran his fingers through his hair; the long days of travel were wearing on him. He was more weary than he would admit. He tired of war, he tired of his father’s seeming displeasure of him and he longed for peace, fearing it would never come in his lifetime.
“Thorongil.” The softly spoken words stopped Aragorn mid-stride. He had meant to go and sit near Denethor and try to speak to his Captain. He was determined to continue trying to reach the man, believing that there could be a friendship there between them. He wasn’t ready to give up just yet.
Turning at the sound of the voice, he was met by Tarcil. The dark haired Gondorian soldier stood a good head above his captain.
“How are the borders Tarcil?” Thorongil smiled up at the man he had come to trust not only as a good under-officer and troop commander, but also as a friend.
“They are safe, my captain. I doubt that we will have troubles tonight. Not even the Haradrim would venture into the woods this deeply. You have found us a safe place to rest.” He continued his report as they walked slowly across the field. They were camped a good league to the north of Lithiant and where the rumors placed the Corsair’s newly built harbor.
“Lithiant is quiet tonight,” Tarcil continued. “No one threatens her borders and the Corsairs are not near it, but if the reports we have been hearing from the Lithiants are true, then their encampment is not far south of the town, they say you can see the lights they keep on through the night from the highest lookout.”
Noting the direction they were walking the soldier’s gaze flitted quickly over to where Denethor sat staring dejectedly into the fire. “You were going to go accompany the Commander?” The question held the slightest tinge of wariness. Tarcil was not overly found of Captain Denethor. He had seen the jealousy in the man and was not pleased with the other’s treatment of his friend.
“Yes, I was. Care to join us?” Aragorn’s smile spread wider as the soldier glared at him, questioning his sanity. “Oh come on, what can it hurt?”
“It is no use my lord. I have seen you try time and again to win Captain Denethor over. The man is intent on being quarrelsome and strong headed. He will never change.”
“Every man can change Tarcil. He is not as you assume him to be. The burden he carries is great and he fears to share it with any others. Everyone deserves a second chance.” Thorongil clapped the man on the back and steered them both towards the fire. “Come on.”
“And a third and a fourth?” Tarcil muttered darkly.
“If need be, yes.” The young captain laughed at the soldier’s reluctance, knowing deep in his hear the man was right. He had given Denethor many chances to get to know him and had tried on many occasions to smooth the rift that grew ever wider between them. All to no avail.
“Denethor?” Thorongil rounded a log that had been placed near the fire and sat down a few feet away from the steward’s son. “How are you faring? You seem tired my lord.”
Dark, distrustful eyes shifted wearily to gaze at the two men that had joined him. It was a few minutes before Denethor spoke and Aragorn feared he may have overstepped himself again. The silence had nearly become unbearable and Tarcil shifted uneasily next to Thorongil. Then Denethor quietly spoke up.
“I pray that we find you wrong Thorongil.” The words were soft and held a tone of slight disdain.
“My lord?” Aragorn turned towards the Commander, his full attention on the man. Tarcil sighed quietly next to him but the ranger shushed his second-in-command with a slight touch to the man’s thigh.
“I realize now that you truly believe the Corsairs are massing for an attack and I hope more than anything I have ever hoped for that you are incorrect. I want nothing more than to walk back into my father’s chambers and tell him you were wrong.” Denethor cast his gaze back to the fire, his face losing some of the anger that marked it. When Thorongil started to speak the young man cut him off with a wave of his hand, shaking his head at the unspoken words, “You don’t understand. It is not because of you that I wish it. I do not believe Gondor can withstand another war. I am not sure that I wish to either.”
“Denethor, you are not being honest with yourself,” Aragorn spoke softly. “Both you and Gondor are stronger than you deem. Whatever we find, you must have faith that it can be overcome, or everything is already lost.”
Denethor sighed deeply and dropped his gaze to the dirt beneath his feet, scuffing his boots into the forest debris. “You want honesty? Then try this, my father would take your word over mine no matter what I say. It is a wonder he has not put you in charge of Gondor over me long ago,” there was a clipped bitterness in the future Steward’s voice as he met the other’s eyes. “I would that he saw me as he sees you. I grow weary of hearing your name and being compared to you. My father loves you, the people love you, you have no idea what it is like to be second in the eyes of all that you hold dear. Was that honest enough for you?”
Thorongil turned to Tarcil and quietly dismissed the man. The soldier was only too glad to leave, his captain had been right, underneath it all Denethor was simply weighed down by a burden too heavy for him to carry. Why he tried to carry it alone rather than letting others close enough to help him, the younger man may never be able to understand.
When Tarcil had left, Thorongil answered the Denethor. “You are wrong.” The northerner threw a small branch into the fire, watching the flames devour the dried greenery that clung to it.
A snort of derision caused him to glance sharply up. Denethor was shaking his head a small smirk on his face, “That would not be a first,” he answered darkly.
“I mean that you are wrong about your father and the people and the fact that I do not understand what it is like to come in second to others.” Aragorn smiled softly as Denethor glanced at him. The young steward’s eyes were wary and still not entirely trusting.
“I have two older brothers.” Thorongil’s smile widened and he laughed quietly as memory caught him up, “Two brothers who can do everything perfectly. They have always been faster, better marksmen, better horsemen and by far better with weaponry than I. From the time I was old enough to understand our difference, I could never out-climb them, out-run them or out-smart them. It was not until just before I left to join Éomund and the Rohirrim that I even began to excel in tracking and hunting, but it has been years in the coming. And often I believed that my father loved them best.” Shaking his head and laughing lightly again Thorongil continued, “They are twins you see and they are the apple of his eye, well other than... than my sister, but she was rarely around.” He stopped speaking as thoughts of his family momentarily took him away from the world of men and his heart ached once more to return. He never felt right referring to Arwen as his sister, not with the way he felt about her, but there was no time or need to go into that confusing tangle of emotions with Denethor. There were some things that Aragorn kept very private.
Denethor was watching the young captain intently, a frown creasing his brow. He had never heard Thorongil speak of his family. Indeed he had never thought to ask the northerner about them at all.
“But my point is, my father never loved them more. He loved us all the same but he was often...” Aragorn searched for the right word, “...often more stern with me, if that is the right way to explain it, than with my brothers for he could foresee the path of my life and knew I would need it.” Thorongil’s silver eyes glanced up and locked onto the green ones that gazed at him so openly, “And so it is with your father. Denethor, your father loves you. You think he disapproves of you but he knows you will be the one to take his place and he has only so much time to help train you to that position. You will make good Steward someday and he sees this.”
“He has told you that?” Denethor looked quickly down to his hands fiddling nervously with a twig that he had found near him.
“Not in so many words, but yes.”
“Then why does he not tell me?” The commander looked accusingly at Thorongil, the pain obvious in his voice although he tried to disguise it through the accusation, “Why would he tell you? You are not even his blood.”
Aragorn shrugged slightly, answers were so difficult to come by. “You both need to talk to each other. Denethor, you are his son, I am not and I will not remain in Gondor forever. While I am here let us not find ourselves on opposites sides of every argument, can we not agree? I do not wish for your place and I do not seek it. I only want Gondor to see peace, and peace in your lifetime if possible.”
Denethor stood swiftly, he gaze hard on the man that sat next to him. “If you truly want peace for Gondor then stop trying to find war under every threat you *think* is at our borders. Let me do my job.” Turning, he stalked away from the fire ring.
Aragorn sighed deeply and rested his head in his hands.
Just outside the circle of light from the fire Denethor stopped and stood where he was. He knew that deep in his heart he was truly only jealous of Thorongil and longed to be the one whose name was on the lips and hearts of the people. The young captain was a good man and had never done anything to deserve his hatred, it was simply hard to see through the hurt. He turned back and glanced over his shoulder noting the slumped position of the captain.
Aragorn jumped slightly and glanced up at Denethor, his gaze questioning the steward.
“Thank you.” The commander whispered softly before walking back to his tent.
Turning towards the fire once more Aragorn threw a log on the dying embers and stretched his legs out towards the flames, warming his booted feet. He smiled softly to himself and shook his head. People were so complicated sometimes he wasn’t sure he would ever understand them. Glancing skyward he sought out Eärendil and tracked the star’s slow progress across the night sky.
Tomorrow would tell if he was correct. For Denethor’s sake he hoped he wasn’t but deep inside of him, he knew that peace for the men in this land would not come so easily.
It was a new moon and the shades of nightfall were on their side as Thorongil and Denethor crept through the darkened streets of the small town that bracketed the makeshift harbor the Corsairs had quickly set up some leagues downstream from Lithiant. The soldiers spread out behind the two captains, silently making their way to the docks. It had taken the small troop nearly all day to reach here from their previous encampment near Lithiant, but they had brought only a few soldiers with them. Their hope right now was in stealth and keeping their presence a secret.
This was supposed to be a trading outpost, a harmless little stopping point for the river trade routes... except that Gondor did almost no business with the Corsairs and the size of the make-shift settlement they were beginning to see was totally unjustified for its supposed purpose.
Wordlessly pointing to his right, Thorongil put up two fingers before his eyes silently indicating that he intended to head in that direction and look. The unspoken communication he had developed with Legolas, his elven friend, had developed during the wartime he found himself in and had been put to good use with the other soldiers.
The shipwright’s house was just beyond the darkened shop they knelt behind. As soon as they cleared the building they would be able to see the harbor without obstruction.
Thorongil eased around the corner of the store and crept quietly forward. Years of time spent hunting in the darkened woods with Legolas and his brothers had given him an advantage over his fellow soldiers and he easily sidestepped a hole in the dirt street, grabbing Denethor’s elbow and steering him clear of it.
The light from midnight torches lit the alley in front of them and Aragorn pressed himself against the wooden wall behind him, flattening out in the deep shadows as a group of laughing men exited a bar up the street and staggered past their position.
The docks were bathed in torchlight as scores of men worked round the clock on the ships that sat docked in the harbor. And they were most certainly *not* merchant ships. Nor were they only docked here, it appeared that many had actually been built here. From his vantage point Aragorn counted no less than fifteen of the large warships, each outfitted with enough weaponry to destroy an entire village. Gangplanks connected the low, slooped decks to the shore as more provisions, supplies and caches of weapons were loaded into the cargo holds. The buzz of nighttime activity indicated that whatever time-table the Corsairs were running on must be winding to some kind of apex, and soon.
The touch of a hand on his back alerted Thorongil to Denethor’s presence as the man crept up next to the captain. Aragorn watched the man’s face as he took in the sight of the Corsairs bustling about the armada, readying it for war.
Deep green eyes locked onto the silver ones that watched him closely.
“I’m sorry.” Aragorn mouthed silently. He truly wished he had been wrong.
With a soft sigh Denethor nodded and dropped his gaze, signaling the men to withdraw; they had seen enough. It would do them no good to get caught here.
Aragorn’s keen eyesight caught motion to his left and he spied Tarcil in the shadows near the shipwright’s house. With a small motion the captain warned his second-in-command and the men pulled back, fleeing into the safety of the shadows and heading for the rendezvous point some distance back up the Anduin, outside Lithiant. There was nothing more that could be done here tonight.
“Halt, who goes there?” the Gondorian sentry questioned warily as a small party of men approached camp from the north. They were not Denethor, Thorongil and their party who had departed this morning, although as they came closer the guard could see that they were wearing the blue and silver uniforms of Gondor.
“Alcarin, lieutenant commander of what is left of the Ramanna division, we are friends.” Alcarin introduced them, keeping his hands up a little since the sentry still had his weapon pointed at them.
“Ramanna division?” the guard questioned in surprise, putting up his sword. “What are you doing this far south? Your place is in the north.”
“That is a very long story which we would be glad to tell,” Alcarin informed wearily. “But not just yet I pray. My men have been marching for days without rest or supplies in order to get here. And we have wounded comrades who need tending, and a prisoner.”
The sentry quickly called up several other officers and the small, disheveled group was ushered without further ado into the center of camp, explaining the details of how they had gotten to this sorry state as they went.
“It is our first stroke of luck in days that we met up with your company,” Alcarin told the young soldier who brought him a warm mug of mead. “You’ll forgive me if I note that your trail was rather difficult to follow.”
“It was supposed to be,” the youth said with a touch of pride as more blankets were distributed. “I’m surprised you found us at all, we’ve been very careful. There are reports of Corsair activity somewhere near here. The Captains have gone to investigate.”
Castamir and the other soldiers of the Ramanna division were settling gratefully around the fire nearby. Legolas had been taken off their hands by several of the camp sentries and escorted to the guard tent for safe keeping.
“Captains? Who’s in charge here?” Castamir inquired, looking up from his place by the fire.
“Captain Denethor and Captain Thorongil sir, but Captain Denethor is in charge of the mission,” the young man informed.
Castamir whistled softly. “Then this mission must be important if it requires the attention of *both* Captains of Gondor.”
The younger soldier shrugged somewhat uncomfortably, not wishing to make too free with men he did not know. “I don’t know sir, I suppose we will find out when they return.”
Alcarin looked around. “Where is Legolas? Excuse me, the prisoner?” he inquired of their host.
“They took him to the guard tent, you needn’t worry, our men will watch him. If you’ll pardon my saying so sir, you and your men look beat. I suggest rest for all of you.”
The Lieutenant nodded. “That sounds unreasonably good. Wake me if the Captains return before morning, I must speak with them about our prisoner. It may have some bearing on your mission here, or it may not. But it is best they know as soon as possible.”
“Yes sir,” the soldier agreed to Alcarin’s request. “If there’s anything else I can do for any of you, just ask.”
It was barely morning by the time Thorongil and the reconnaissance party met up with the men they had left behind below Lithiant. It had been the perfect place to set up their encampment. The Gondorians in the small town were glad for the presence of the soldiers, the rumors of the Corsairs so close near their border had unnerved the citizens and some whispered that it was only a matter of time before the southerners raided their storehouses and stole their families as was their want to do.
Having the soldiers camped so near had given the leery townspeople some of the first days of security they had felt in a long time.
As the men walked back into camp the first touches of light were coloring the sky. Gariss, a young soldier barely out of his teens, ran out to meet the captains. He did not even ask the outcome of what they had found but breathlessly informed them that a supply contingent that was coming up from Dalthad had met up with them and that they had been ambushed and lost the weapons to a group of Corsairs who took them by surprise. They had further suffered in a flash flood somewhere upstream were the rainfall was heavy and sought permission to join Denethor and Thorongil’s contingent.
“They say they caught the traitor who set them up for the enemy. They’ve brought him with them sirs.” Gariss walked briskly beside Denethor and Thorongil as he filled them on all that had happened.
“There was another traitor amongst our people?” Denethor could hardly believe his ears. It was not enough that the Corsairs were massing so close to their borders but now there were more traitors in their midst, he could feel his heart growing cold in response to all the bad news.
“Where is this one?” Thorongil questioned further.
“He is being brought even now, but captains; he is not one of ours.” Gariss turned towards the camp and noted the small knot of soldiers that approached them. The sentries had heard the commotion stirred up by the return of their leaders and had roused Alcarin and his men as requested. The refreshed Ramanna soldiers dragged the traitor out of the tent he had been kept in and brought him out to meet the two returning captains.
Alcarin stepped to the front of his men, temporarily blocking the captains’ view of the person they had brought out with them. The young Lieutenant looked tired and worn as if he had not slept well, or even at all, but he did not let his weariness interfere.
“My lords, forgive me for the news I must bring and for failing you. Captain Denethor, Captain Thorongil, not only have we lost some of our men, but we have lost the shipment of weapons and armory bound for Osgiliath.” The soldier’s eyes fell to the forest floor beneath his feet.
“It is a loss that we could have done without Alcarin, but tell us, how many of your men were lost?” Thorongil gently touched the man’s arm, bidding him look at them once more. They all knew of the large and costly weapons and armory consignment that was supposed to have been delivered to the weakened border fortress of Osgiliath. Having it fall into the wrong hands was serious, but it looked as if these men had already been through quite a bit and castigating them for their loss would help no one.
“We lost six sir.” Alcarin swallowed hard as he reported the dead. “Four when the Corsairs attacked us, and two a few days ago in the sudden flood that brought us to you.”
“You caught the traitor?” Denethor’s cut through the small talk; he wanted the one responsible for this.
Alcarin sighed deeply, “*Perhaps* my lords but we are not sure. He says he is innocent. The evidence is strong against him, but it is somewhat circumstantial in nature. We were taking him to your father in Minas Tirith for trial when we met up with one misfortune after another... and well, here we are.”
“Where is he?” Denethor glanced around the soldier as Alcarin stepped out of the way.
Castamir and Ostoher stepped forward, manhandling their prisoner to the front and sweeping his legs out beneath him so the being fell onto his knees with a small groan. A cruel rope halter encircled the traitor’s chest and his hands were tied behind him. Long blonde hair spilled down over slender shoulders, hiding his features. He knelt on the forest floor, breathing heavily and unwilling to meet the eyes of his newest set of captors.
Thorongil caught his breath and started forward, stepping in front of Denethor and surprising the captain by his sudden movement.
It couldn’t be. It had been so long since he had last seen him... yet...
Aragorn’s thoughts whirled wildly out of control as he bent and slid his hand gently under the proud chin, tipping the prisoner’s head up. But the being before Aragorn jerked away from his light touch. The motion caused his captors to twist the bonds that held the prisoner, making the hard knots of the halter dig harshly into the deep bruises hidden by the accused traitor’s clothing and causing him to cry out softly under the cruel treatment.
“Stop at once!” Thorongil glared at the soldier who had administered the punishment.
At the sound of the human’s voice the prisoner looked up, his surprised blue eyes meeting the silver ones that stared down at him and when Thorongil touched him again the elf at his feet did not move away.
“Legolas?” Aragorn whispered; he could barely believe his eyes and his world tipped out of control. “Legolas?”
Chapter 5: Part Five
The elf’s silver-blue eyes met the ranger’s with equal surprise. He had come to Gondor looking for Aragorn, but this was not the way he had intended, or wished to find him. The fact that Aragorn was one of the two Captains he was being brought before both stunned and relieved him a little. However, if Aragorn had not shown that he recognized the elf first, Legolas would not have let on that he knew the human at all. Not until he knew whether knowing him would endanger his friend’s position or not.
“Mae govannen, old friend,” Legolas’ elvish greeting was soft. He did not call the ranger by name since he could not be sure what name his friend was currently using; Aragorn had so many, and it had been a long time since they were last together.
“Thorongil, you know this elf?” Denethor looked questioningly at the other captain. It was a development none of them had expected.
Thorongil. Legolas stored that piece of information. A small smile nearly touched his lips despite everything. So, Aragorn was still using the name that Lord Elrond had given him many years ago in Rohan.
“Yes, I do,” Aragorn nodded. “We have known one another a long time. I am certain there has been some kind of mistake.”
“Because those we know never betray us?” Denethor’s look had a touch of frost in it. He was obviously thinking of Mardil again.
Aragorn gathered his patience. “No, because Legolas has no reason *to* betray us. He is prince of the wood-elves of Mirkwood in the north, he has no ties to Gondor, nothing to gain from our losses.”
“And yet it seems that some of our men are dead by what can only be his hand,” Denethor’s set manner did not change.
Aragorn realized he was going to have to switch tactics on this. Denethor was closing his mind to the possibility of Legolas’ innocence simply because Thorongil supported it. Butting heads with Denethor on the matter would get him nowhere, so instead Aragorn turned back to the captive elf.
“Legolas, you have heard the charges against you,” Aragorn went down on one knee so he was not standing over the elf. “Tell us your side of the story.”
Legolas nodded slowly, his eyes remaining fixed on his friend. He had told this story so many times; it was exhausting to go through it again for ears that would not believe him. However, Aragorn at least, he knew would believe him. So he would tell his story once more for the ranger and ignore the other men present.
Denethor interrupted when they reached the part concerning the deaths of Elan and Krit. “So even you don’t deny that you killed them,” he remarked.
Legolas’ face tightened slightly and a glimmer of pain flickered in his eyes. “I do not deny or confirm what I cannot be sure of. The truth is I do not know.”
“You don’t know? That means you can think of some other plausible explanation for why your arrows were found to be the sole cause of their death,” Denethor kept his questioning from sounding too accusatory, but the undertone was clear. He doubted the elf’s story, and not just because he was a friend of Thorongil’s. Mardil’s unexpected betrayal had made the Captain very wary.
“No, I cannot,” Legolas answered truthfully. “But if I am responsible for their deaths I swear to you by all the Valar that it was an accident.”
“So now you probably *did* kill them, but it was an accident. I don’t like the way your story keeps changing Legolas.” Denethor shook his head.
Legolas set his jaw. The captain was twisting his words, whether deliberately or out of an over-active sense of suspicion hardly mattered. “I am not changing what I said, I am simply saying that I am unsure myself.”
“Just as you are unsure that you gave away their position to the Corsairs?” Denethor raised an eyebrow.
Aragorn rose to his feet, ready to protest. Legolas however, spoke first.
“Of that I am very sure. I tell you the truth, I am no traitor. I have no reason to give you away to your enemies. Someone did, whether an outside informant or someone inside I do not know, but it was not I.” Legolas did not know how to say it any more clearly.
“Denethor, he is right. He has no motive,” Aragorn pulled the other captain aside a little ways and spoke softly so that the conversation could remain between he and Denethor. “Surely you must see that.”
“I see that you can be just as blinded by old friendships as I was Thorongil. How long has it been since you knew him? Five years? Ten? Longer? How do you know what he has done and who he has met in that time? People change. Friends change. You aren’t always right about everything.” Denethor said quietly.
Aragorn took a deep breath and forced himself to stay calm and rational. “Is that it then? Is this about Legolas, or the Corsair threat? Because I was right about them I have to be wrong about him, is that it? Denethor... I would stake my life on his honor. Don’t take out on him your dislike of me.”
“How dare you?” Denethor’s eyes flashed in disgust, but he continued to keep the conversation from the ears of the troops. “How dare you accuse me of letting my personal feelings interfere with the running of my father’s kingdom! I suppose you think you could do a better job, and there seem to be many even in my own house who agree, but I have something to tell you: I am capable of doing things myself. I don’t *need* you to tell me what to do. I am sure you would like to be in charge of this, I am sure *you* would like to be in charge of everything. Well you are not. As head of this mission the elf is my prisoner and I will deal with him in my way.” Denethor’s stress levels were running unusually high after discovering his worst fears true last night and that made him even more quarrelsome and stubborn than usual.
Aragorn squelched his mounting frustration with some effort. The very last thing he wanted was for Legolas to become embroiled in his personal problems with the future steward. “That’s not what I’m saying and not what I want. I know you are perfectly capable of handling this yourself, I am just trying to give you more information to work with. Denethor, Legolas is a prince. Think carefully how you deal with him lest you garner the disfavor of the elves and the wrath of his father. Gondor does not need any more enemies.”
“Being royalty does not put one above the law. How can we know where the loyalties of Mirkwood lie anyway? The enemy whose shadow grows ever on our eastern border was there ere he came back to trouble us. ‘Tis a dark place they say,” Denethor murmured.
“Yes, it is. But *not* because of the elves,” Aragorn refuted.
“And I do not say it is so. Elves have ever been our allies, I do not forget that.” Denethor did not really suspect the elves to have turned against them, but they weren’t talking about elves in general, they were talking about just one. “Nor do I insist that this one is guilty, however, there is evidence here that cannot be easily ignored and put aside at his word, or your word, alone. Despite what you think, my diplomacy is not so feeble as may be supposed. Besides, such talk is fruitless. His innocence or guilt is not for us to determine, but my father... unless you would like to place yourself above him too.”
With that Denethor turned away from Aragorn, walking back to the soldiers who had been patiently waiting for their Captains to conclude their private conference. Only Legolas’ elven ears had heard what passed between them, and he understood clearly that there was no love-loss between Denethor and Aragorn.
“The evidence against the accused traitor is noted, as well as his plea of innocence. By our laws all such matters must receive a fair and impartial trial before the Steward of the City. We will shortly be returning to Minas Tirith to bring Lord Ecthelion news of the impending Corsair invasion, the prisoner can be brought before my father at that time. Until then he is to be kept safely and without harm under our laws respecting prisoners of war. Treat him well but keep him bound, I do not want to risk any unexpected trouble. You are all dismissed.” Denethor made his announcement and left, seeking his own tent.
He had not slept since before they left to find the Corsair harbor yesterday morning and the events of the past 24 hours had been draining. He did not want to go back to his father with the news of what the Corsairs were up to, much less that they had stolen the Osgiliath weapons shipment with comparative ease. If he had someone to present at that time as a possible guilty party then at least he had done something of use. Whether the elf was found innocent or guilty after that was up to his father, and the younger man trusted that his father would make the right decision. That was more than he could say for himself lately, since all he seemed able to do was make or nearly make mistakes that cost people their lives.
Aragorn followed him. “Prisoner of war?” he questioned quietly, making sure to keep any hint of disapproval out of his voice since the other man was obviously already very on edge. In truth however he did not like Legolas being kept prisoner under those terms. They were far more vague, with less protection and more grey areas than the laws concerning other types of prisoners.
“Yes, Thorongil. His case is connected with the Corsairs, and by making that harbor on our lands they have opened hostilities. You got your war. I hope you’re happy.” Denethor shoved aside his tent flap and went inside, letting the flap fall down behind him in a gesture that said the other Captain was definitely not invited inside.
Aragorn sighed, considering the closed tent flap before him for a moment before turning away. He needed to speak with Tarcil and some of his other men about last nights events and order the changing of the camp guard and the rotation and placements of the border sentries since Denethor had retired, obviously leaving all such duties to him. First however, he caught up with the soldiers who were taking Legolas back to the guard tent.
The elf did not look good and it both worried and grieved the ranger. He knew how hard this must be for the prince.
The guards stopped out of respect for the captain when Aragorn reached out and touched Legolas’ arm.
Legolas looked up; his eyes weary and full of questions about his fate and his future.
Aragorn knew the elf had probably heard everything he and Denethor said earlier. He wished he could set his friend free now, but he knew that in one thing at least, Denethor was right. Unless some other exculpatory evidence showed itself, Legolas would have to stand trial before Ecthelion, it was the law and he was bound to uphold it. However, although the evidence against Legolas was compelling, it was not so airtight that no holes could be found. Ecthelion would be much more reasonable than Denethor in this matter, especially knowing he held an elven prince. If Aragorn could just keep Legolas safe between here and Minas Tirith, he hoped that all would be well. However, from the prince’s drawn and somewhat battered countenance, he doubted the elf had had an easy time of it so far.
“You do believe me Thorongil, don’t you?” The questioning gaze in Legolas’ eyes was honest as he quietly asked what he most feared. Aragorn had changed and he could see that. He looked older, his face had grown graver and his manner of speaking and interacting with these men was different. The elf had never really seen the effect that a mere fifteen years could have on a mortal before, having never taken an interest in any until his friendship with Aragorn. It had actually taken him a moment to recognize his old friend and his aching, weary heart desperately hoped that the closeness that had been between them once had not faded with time. He knew it had not on his side, but for Aragorn... he did not know.
“Of course I do,” the absolutely surprised look on Aragorn’s quickly put the elf’s fears to rest. Obviously there had never been a doubt in the ranger’s mind.
Looking into his eyes, Legolas could now see the same man he had always seen there. His friend’s heart had not changed. The elf let his breath out in a small, relieved sigh.
“It will be all right Legolas, I promise you,” Aragorn assured quietly. “Lord Ecthelion is a good and a just man, you will receive a fair hearing and I will speak on your behalf. We will get this sorted out...” a small smile touched his lips. “As you did for me when I was in your home many years ago, yes?”
Legolas smiled slightly at the memory. If Aragorn said it would be all right, then he would trust his friend. “But without the spiders part, all right?”
Aragorn laughed. “Yes Legolas, *without* the spiders.”
The soldiers were totally lost, but did not comment. Their captain’s business was none of their affair.
“Captain Thorongil? Captain Thorongil?” a voice called from across camp and Aragorn grimaced slightly, he knew he had duties to attend to, although he hated to leave Legolas. It had been so long. He had missed his friend so much. The ranger gave his friend’s arm one last squeeze.
“I have to go, I have things I have to take care of... Legolas... I won’t let anyone harm you. It will be all right.” He could tell the elf was still uncomfortable and apprehensive of his situation.
Legolas nodded. “If you tell me it will be mellon-nín, then I trust you.”
Aragorn nodded back seriously, knowing the elf was placing his life in his hands. He was determined not to fail his friend.
Legolas was seated in the center of the guard tent with his back against the tent’s main support pole. His hands, still firmly bound behind him, had also been tied to a stake which was driven securely into the ground, making sure that he could not move more than three feet in any given direction.
The elf was used to this arrangement by now and did not struggle with his bonds. He leaned his head back against the pole behind him; his gaze half-lidded and weary. The long journey and recent events had taken their toll on him, but finding Aragorn here had at least been a welcome development. He felt a bit better about his prospects of getting a fair trial at any rate, since Aragorn said that Ecthelion was a just man and now he also had a captain of Gondor on his side.
Time moved by slowly, but he didn’t mark it much. Still, it was well after noon when the midday meal was brought and left next to Legolas as it usually was. The elf barely even looked at it. They could do many things to him, but they couldn’t make him an animal to eat out of their hands or off of the ground like their pet dog.
A headache was slowly wrapping itself around the prince’s forehead from behind and he sighed softly. He wondered if Aragorn would come to see him when he was done with his duties or if that would be politically dangerous for the ranger. Friendliness was not one of the things that he had seen in Captain Denethor’s eyes when he looked at the one he knew as Thorongil and from the conversation he had overheard, it sounded like there was trouble in the ranks.
A few moments later, as if in answer to his thoughts, the tent flap was pulled back and Aragorn entered, along with the sentry who had been standing guard outside, but now entered as well as he admitted the senior officer.
“Everything has been taken care of sir,” the guard saluted Aragorn. “The prisoner has been secured and fed.”
Aragorn took in the scene before turning a cold glare on the sentry. “I can see that he’s been secured, but as for fed... you expect him to eat like that?”
“He can reach the food sir, if he wants it,” the soldier replied respectfully, obviously not having given the matter much thought at all.
Aragorn’s face darkened a shade. Yes, he supposed that was true, *if* the proud elf consented to eat like an animal and he knew Legolas well enough to know that the prince would quite readily starve first. “He is a living being, not a beast to keep chained up Gariss.”
The young man shifted uncomfortably under his superior’s obvious disapproval. “I’m just following Captain Denethor’s orders sir. Sir, he’s an elf sir, untie him and he’s as good as gone. It’s my head if a prisoner I’m guarding escapes, sir.” Gariss’ nervousness was apparent in his slightly repetitive speech. “The ones who brought him in said it was what they have done thus far sir,” he offered up as if to try to prove that no harm was being done.
That information however, only raised Aragorn’s blood pressure a few notches higher. “I see,” he said quietly and there was no mistaking the ice in his eyes. Stooping down on one knee the captain pulled the dagger from his belt and deliberately cut the knotted, twisted ropes that bound the elf’s wrists and held Legolas’ arms to the stake behind him.
“I take full responsibility for him,” the look on Aragorn’s face dared the younger officer to say anything as he quickly cut and removed the distasteful, knotted halter from around his friend’s shoulders, sliding the remaining loops off over the elf’s head. “If Captain Denethor is so worried, then I will personally guard him while he eats.” The sentry looked about to protest but Aragorn cut him off. “Is there a problem with that?”
“N-no sir!” Gariss quickly shook his head, not about to question the fiery look in his superior officer’s eyes.
“Good,” the Captain’s tone lost some of its harsh edge. “Then you may go back to your post.”
“Yes sir,” the younger man nodded, appearing to be only too glad to quickly duck back out of the tent and take up his place outside the entry once more.
Legolas rubbed his sore wrists and flexed his stiff, aching fingers. He felt as if he had almost forgotten how to use them. Still favoring his throbbing digits, the elf brushed the loose hair out of his face and treated Aragorn to a somewhat wry smile. “You frightened him,” he nodded at the entry to the tent where the guard had recently exited.
Aragorn snorted softly as he seated himself on the ground next to Legolas. “Thoughtlessness is not becoming of anyone. These are good men but some of them have a lot to learn.” The ranger took one of the elf’s hands in his, gently massaging feeling back into fingers that were obviously still stiff and hurting.
Legolas drew his breath in slightly, but gave no other sign of discomfort as he let the human rub his hands. Still, Aragorn frowned because the elf’s slender fingers felt swollen and the pale skin was beginning to flush hotly as blood rushed back to areas where it had long been restricted.
“Legolas, how long have they kept you tied up this tight?” he glanced disdainfully at the pile of cut ropes he had shoved into the corner.
The elf shrugged with attempted indifference. “Since my arrest, a little more than a month ago.” His hands were burning and tingling but it was good to be free again.
Aragorn’s eyes flashed with concern and anger and his hands actually stopped their automatic rubbing for a moment. “A *month* ago?” he echoed in disbelief.
“The treachery I am accused of occurred near Dalthad, and our course was changed in order to head to Minas Tirith. Bandits near Hegdegon and a flood below Graveshead slowed our progress and changed our course considerably,” Legolas pulled his hands away quietly from Aragorn’s unintentionally tightening grip.
Yes, a month was definitely a slow journey time between Dalthad and Lithaint, especially for soldiers on the march, but that wasn’t what had frozen Aragorn’s thinking processes. With a gentle touch the ranger traced the dark red impressions that the tight ropes had left upon the soft flesh around Legolas’ wrists. The elf had been bound and carted around in this manner for over a month? It made the human’s ire rise hotly.
“And they treated you thus? As you have been treated here, the whole time? Did they never release you?” Aragorn’s voice was soft, and yet a little dangerous.
Legolas met his friend’s gaze with eyes tinged in shades of weary sadness. He gave a short, tired nod to the affirmative. “They are afraid of me Estel,” he whispered quietly before catching his mistake. “I’m sorry, Thorongil,” he amended quickly, resting his face in one hand and pressing against his temples in an attempt to clear the headache that was droning in the back of his skull. He usually didn’t slip with Aragorn’s names like that and he hoped the guard hadn’t heard. Not that it really would have made a difference, but still... Everything was suddenly so hard to concentrate on, his weariness overtook him as his vision blurred nauseatingly.
The ranger was watching the elf closely when suddenly Legolas simply fell forward and Aragorn was compelled to catch his friend to keep the prince from slumping over face-first onto the ground.
“Legolas? Legolas!” Aragorn shook the elf’s shoulders gently as he pulled his friend upright again, letting Legolas’ weight rest against his body for the moment. There was surprisingly little weight to worry about, even for an elf, and Aragorn noticed perhaps for the first time how much thinner Legolas was from the last time he had seen him. The prince had always been slender but at the moment he seemed to be bordering on anorexia.
Legolas blinked slowly, his eyes gradually coming back into focus. He looked up at Aragorn’s concerned face in confusion. He flinched slightly at the strong grip on his bruised shoulders. “W-what just happened?”
Aragorn’s smile was colored with concern as he released Legolas and let the elf sit back up on his own. “You fainted my friend.”
“Fainted?” Legolas protested mildly, shaking his head with a grin. “I think not! I was just...” he seemed unable to come up with an adequate explanation that his dignity could live with, so Aragorn filled the gap for him with a wry glint.
“Resting your eyes for a moment perhaps? Trying to get better acquainted with the ground? All right you passed out then if you prefer it said that way, but the fact of it remains. And I want to know why...” the human pressed the back of his hand to Legolas’ forehead, but of course the prince had no temperature, elves didn’t get sick. “Has it happened to you before?”
“Maybe occasionally,” Legolas glared darkly at the human and pushed his hand away. “Just this week.”
Instead of being put off Aragorn caught the elf’s hand and held it. The prince’s fingers were trembling, if only very lightly. New concern flashed through the ranger’s eyes. Legolas was far weaker than he would like to admit.
“Legolas when was the last time you ate?”
“I don’t know,” the elf shrugged the question off as easily as he had the others. “I think since before I was arrested.” To Legolas’ great dismay and consternation he found that he was not strong enough to pull his arm free of Aragorn’s grip until the human eased up and allowed him to do so.
Aragorn swore silently to himself, understanding what had happened. Of course the soldiers would not have intentionally starved their prisoner, but they had made the near fatal mistake of believing that if Legolas truly got hungry enough, then he would eat what was given him in whatever manner was necessary. What they had not counted on was elven pride and a body nearly strong enough to match. Nearly, but not quite.
“Slept?” the ranger continued quietly, noting his friend’s weary appearance.
Legolas’ carelessness was uneasy. He was obviously trying to not worry or anger his friend, but it was not working. “I sleep... sometimes,” he hedged, looking away before giving up with a sigh. It took too much energy to lie when Aragorn could see right through him. “But not well, lately. I am tired, but sleep does not come to me. I... I do not rest well in bonds,” the last part was whispered so soft Aragorn almost couldn’t hear it.
“Legolas, you aren’t eating or sleeping, and you wonder why you’re fainting? Excuse me, passing out?” Aragorn shook his head; unable to help smiling at the glare his friend momentarily fixed on him. “I fear your pride may be the death of you yet,” he murmured with painful fondness. He couldn’t blame the elf for his sense of dignity, but when it endangered his health like this Aragorn wished his friend was not quite so stubborn.
The ranger was trying hard not to be angry at the people who had done this to Legolas, he was trying to convince himself that they had thought they were doing the right thing... it wasn’t working. Not at all.
Pushing the food that had been left a little earlier closer to where Legolas was sitting, Aragorn nudged it towards him. “I’m sorry I’ve kept you talking, I told the guard I was going to be with you while you ate.”
Legolas looked at the food but surprisingly seemed to have little interest. “Thorongil I... I’m not hungry really... looking at it makes me ill now.” He turned his head away. He didn’t understand. For a while his hunger had been extreme, but now the thought of food made him almost nauseous.
Aragorn fixed Legolas with a steady, commanding gaze. “Legolas, you need to eat. You are far too thin, your body is burning itself up with nothing else to run on. It has gone too far, that’s why you don’t think you’re hungry anymore, but you need to eat, trust me my friend, all right?”
Legolas nodded. He knew that. It just seemed to take so much energy to get himself to do what he knew he needed to right now. It was easier with Aragorn’s encouragement. He really did think he was going to become ill, but he made himself start picking at the food anyway.
While Legolas ate, Aragorn filled him in about the details of his life and all that had happened since they last parted company in Rohan so many years before. And somewhere between relating humorous misadventures in his service first to Thengel and then to Ecthelion, and reliving favorite memories from their past together, the spark of light and happiness began to creep back into Legolas’ weary eyes and his appetite returned. There was real color in his face by the time he was done eating; most of it brought on by laughing at Aragorn’s engaging story-telling skills.
Legolas still felt a little weak, but the headache and lightheadedness that had been a constant companion for a long time now was finally starting to ease and his smile was becoming more relaxed. A small corner of his mind was relieved to find that it was almost as if no time had passed at all between he and Aragorn.
“You know, this wasn’t exactly the circumstances I had in mind when I set out to visit you, but still...” Legolas shrugged with a half-grin. “Dinner, stories, talking with a dear friend... perhaps I shan’t judge the hospitality of these people of yours so poorly *just* yet.”
Aragorn laughed, but silently reflected to himself that in truth, Legolas was handling their treatment of him thus far easier than Aragorn was handling finding out about it. That was something of a switch for them.
“Well don’t get too comfortable, when you’re done eating I fully intend to see why you flinch when I touch your shoulders and I will not accept any arguments to the contrary.”
Legolas rolled his eyes as he finished the last of the food and washed it down with water from the drinking horn Aragorn passed him.
“And now I feel as if I am back in Rivendell listening to one of Lord Elrond’s lectures.” He grinned wryly but acquiesced without a fight, undoing the ties down the front of his tunic and letting the garment slide off his shoulders. In truth it felt good to get the shirt off for a little after having been bound up in it for so long. Some of the seams and creases were still wet. “Well, since I could never prevail with him *or* you, I won’t wear myself out trying.”
“Smart,” Aragorn treated the elf to an amused smile. His face quickly sobered however when he took in the dark black and blue bruises that circled the elf’s upper arms and wrapped around both his chest and back. Bruises layered on top of bruises, some old, yellowed and fading and some painfully fresh, marred the prince’s otherwise flawless skin. It was obvious that they had come from the chest-halter Aragorn had only recently freed Legolas from.
Aragorn ran his fingers lightly over the bruises, trying to push back the heated flame rising near the surface of his emotions again.
“There isn’t anything you can do for them Thorongil,” Legolas said quietly, slipping his tunic back over his shoulders once more now that he knew his friend’s concerned curiosity had been appeased. “They just need time.”
Aragorn nodded slowly, trying to find his voice. Legolas’ matter-of-fact attitude was almost hard for him to deal with. He was angry and he didn’t understand why Legolas didn’t seem to be.
“I’ll bring some liniment later, that may help a little,” he said at last, before catching the prince’s gaze as Legolas carefully re-fastened his tunic.
“Legolas... you know you don’t ever have to hide what you’re feeling from me, don’t you?” he asked quietly. The prince had been taken captive by humans and ill treated; Aragorn knew that had to have been hard for his friend and hoped that Legolas did not think he had to hide his heart from him because he somehow considered these to be Aragorn’s people.
Legolas observed his friend’s latest bout of silent anger quietly and saw the pain behind the ranger’s eyes, but it wasn’t what Aragorn thought. As strange as it seemed he did not hate the Gondorians for the way they had treated him, not even Castamir... well... maybe *almost* him.
“I feel... weary,” Legolas dropped his eyes to his hands. “I’m not angry or hiding anything from you, honestly I’m not Strider. I’m just... drained.” He could tell his friend did not understand so he tried another tact. “Thorongil, tell me truly, did you hate my father when he exiled us? When he could not refuse Sarcayul’s request of blood rights on you because of lack of evidence?”
“I never hated your father Legolas, you know that,” Aragorn shook his head. He had not thought about those years in a long, long time. “I may have... strongly disagreed with him,” he smiled. “But I never hated him.”
“And I do not hate these men for thinking I am guilty when even I would think so if I did not know better,” the elf said quietly. “And they are not wholly wrong... I am no traitor Thorongil,” he turned his eyes on Aragorn, sad eyes full of guilt and pain. “But a killer... I know not.”
Understanding hit Aragorn hard. “Legolas, you don’t *know* you killed those men, and if you did it was an accident, you said so yourself.”
The elf’s eyes were layered with aching guilt, his voice was vehement. “Does that excuse it? They were *children* Aragorn! They must have been dragged into the woods as captives, but it was I who ended their lives, I can see no other way around it! I am considered one of the finest archers of my people, how could I make a mistake like that? Accident though it be, it is inexcusable.” The prince looked down, absently rubbing his chaffed wrists. “I would not be punished for a treachery I did not commit, but I do not protest paying for my error or my carelessness,” Legolas whispered softly before meeting his friend’s eyes again with an anguished gaze.
Aragorn’s heart twisted as he realized what his friend was telling him. “I don’t care what you think Legolas, you didn’t deserve this,” he shook his head, understanding at last that Legolas accepted what had happened as the price he paid for the accidental deaths of the two young soldiers in the woods. Some part of the prince thought he deserved it.
Legolas smiled wearily, resting his hand on Aragorn’s forearm. “You’re a good friend Thorongil. It eases my care to know that you are here.”
Aragorn clasped Legolas’ arm back and squeezed reassuringly. “You once helped me when everyone else thought I was guilty, I swear I will be as true to you as you were to me. We’ll see this mess through together Legolas, I promise I will help you and the truth will come out. Everything will be all right, I promise.”
Legolas’ smile brightened a few shades as he held his friend’s eyes. “You’ve never broken a promise to me yet Thorongil, I know you won’t now. Thank you my friend.”
“Captain Thorongil?” Gariss hesitantly poked his head back into the tent. “Pardon me for interrupting sir, but the scouts are returning; you wanted to be notified.”
Aragorn nodded, giving Legolas a last squeeze and rising to his feet. “I’m sorry, I have to go, but I’ll look in again before bed-down tonight.”
Legolas nodded. He knew that Aragorn had many responsibilities as a commander of these men.
Gariss looked visibly distressed as Aragorn started towards the exit. “S-sir... the prisoner...”
“What?” Aragorn paused, his gaze not entirely friendly.
The younger man swallowed hard. “I-I have my orders sir, he has to stay bound.”
Aragorn turned sharply on his heel so he was facing the guard. “Well I am giving you new orders, you have his word and mine that he’s not going to try anything. Leave him be.”
Gariss looked as if he wished the earth would swallow him whole. “I can’t do that. M-my orders come from Lord Denethor, unless he says otherwise I am bound to obey. Please sir... he’ll have me flogged if I start ignoring his directions.”
Aragorn clenched and unclenched his fists. He was going to have to talk to Denethor about this, but as much as he hated it he knew Gariss was right, they were both of them bound to obey the future Steward’s commands, no matter how much the ranger hated it.
Kneeling back by Legolas’ side, Aragorn’s eyes begged for forgiveness. “I’m sorry Legolas, he’s right. I will speak to Denethor about this first thing, but for right now...”
Legolas nodded slowly, understanding his friend’s predicament. “Do what you have to do Thorongil, it’s all right.”
Aragorn sighed heavily as the elf calmly extended his arms in front of him. The ranger hated this. He would have given anything not to have to do this.
Ripping a long strip of cloth out of his under tunic, Aragorn first wrapped Legolas’ chaffed wrists gently with the soft rag before lightly coiling a short length of rope around his friend’s hands, over the protective cloth. The knot he tied was barely tight enough to hold anyone, let alone an elf if they really wanted to escape, but it satisfied the security requirement for the present.
“Forgive me Legolas,” he whispered softly. “I *will* get this restriction changed as soon as I can.”
Legolas shook his head; he could see the pain in his friend’s eyes. “Thorongil, you haven’t hurt me. All soldiers must do their duty, I understand that better than you may ever know. Go now, you have work to do. I will be all right.”
Aragorn inclined his head, grateful and still ashamed all at the same time. “I’ll be back as soon as I can. Try to get some sleep while I'm gone.”
Legolas just nodded.
“The prisoner is secured,” Aragorn said somewhat tartly to Gariss as he exited the tent.
The younger man looked miserable. “It’s not my doing sir...” he whispered softly.
Aragorn was silent for a moment before his voice softened slightly. “I know Gariss,” he touched the younger man’s shoulder lightly to show that he was not truly angry with the guard. “I know.”
The Captain’s attention was suddenly distracted as a lone figure stumbled into camp, calling for help from the soldiers.
“Gariss, make sure Legolas is not bothered. He needs to rest.” Aragorn ordered quickly as he ran towards the center of the disturbance. The man was a civilian and from the looks of his clothing he must have traveled from Lithiant. He held his left arm with his right hand, blood seeped through his fingers and the broken haft of an arrow protruded from the wound he was holding. As the soldiers gained his side he fell to his knees, breathing heavily.
The man was frightened and speaking rapidly as Aragorn knelt next to him and calmly spoke to him, quieting his fears. “Speak slowly, tell me again. What happened?”
The townsman grabbed the front of Thorongil’s tunic pulling the commander closer to him, as he repeated himself. Aragorn gently wrapped his own hand about the one that held onto him so tightly. The man was shaking, he was going into shock but his words quieted under the touch of the Gondorian commander.
“They came back...” he gasped. “Corsairs!”
Chapter 6: Part Six
“What do you mean?” Aragorn eased the man down onto the grass as the medics reached his side. He kneeled over the prone messenger. “What has happened? Where?”
“In Lithiant.” The man continued, “The Corsairs came back. Small groups have passed by before, but they never stopped... until now. They are taking the townsfolk for slaves. They came from out of nowhere. We weren’t prepared. My Addie, they took her...”
“Shh...we’ll get them back. You rest, these men will care for you.” Aragorn glanced quickly at the soldiers who cared for the wounded, their curt nods answering his unspoken request.
Grabbing two of the men gathered around them Aragorn shoved them back towards the interior of the camp, “Rouse the men, gather all who can join us, we leave for Lithiant. You!” He pointed to another, “Go get Captain Denethor; Lithiant is under attack, hurry!”
Turning back towards the guard tent Aragorn noted Alcarin talking with Gariss and called to the soldier.
“Alcarin, round up your division, we leave for Lithiant, she is under attack!” The young commander shouted. They needed all the soldiers they had, this small force had, after all, not been intended to see battle.
Alcarin nodded and raced back towards where he and his men had been quartered.
In seconds the camp was mobilized. Men were running in all directions, obeying the shouted orders being quickly barked out. In a matter of moments Aragorn was on the move, his soldiers on his heels; they had no time to spare, the Corsairs were ruthless and the ranger had no intentions of allowing those people to be taken.
By the time they crested the small hills to the north of Lithiant, the town was in chaos. Corsair soldiers and brigands were running through the buildings and setting the structures on fire. They behaved more like ravening pirates than soldiers, but although the scene was chaotic, the raid had evidently been very well planned ahead of time to take the city down as quickly as it had.
With a loud war cry the Gondorian army beset the invaders, routing them by the surprise of their attack into the southern reaches of the sprawling farm village.
Aragorn led half the contingent in one direction as Denethor swerved in the other, followed by his foot-soldiers as they swept in on the right flank of the Corsair raiders.
Alcarin had split from the flanking force and joined Thorongil as they drove straight through the center of town, dividing the invading forces in half and trying to cut off their route of escape. Castamir charged into the frey next to his commanding officer.
In moments the fighting was so heavy that the Gondorian soldiers were easily separated from one another, fighting pockets of resistance in the middle of the burning town. The buildings were falling around them as their structures became unstable sending showers of flaming shards into the air. Smoke choked the alleyways and muddied streets and still the Corsairs ran through the village, setting fire to what few homes had thus far escaped their destruction. Horses and livestock that had not been secured by the raiding armies ran through the streets, adding to the chaos.
Aragorn leapt out of the way as a plow horse dashed between him and the Corsair he was fighting. The animal, panicked by the fires, careened into the midst of another group of soldiers, breaking up the conflict. The momentary distraction benefited the ranger as he quickly stepped back in towards his opponent and drove his sword into the man’s midsection.
A shout to his right drew Aragorn’s attention and in the momentary lull of fighting around him, he spotted Alcarin, one street over from his position, in the midst of a group of Corsairs, battling wildly to stay on top of the skirmish, but the odds were overwhelming.
“Alcarin!” The Gondorian commander ran towards the soldier, intending to aid him in his fight.
Smoke swirled up from a barn that had been set ablaze, obscuring Aragorn’s view and he faltered, choking on the thick air. Bits of flaming straw blew into his face, scalding his cheeks and forcing him back. The structure swayed uneasily in the slight breezes and as the wind brushed the haze out of his eyes Aragorn watched in horror as the Corsairs beat Alcarin to the ground. One of them raised his sword high and drove the killing blow into the Gondorian officer. He heard Alcarin’s scream followed by the shout of anguish from another.
A young soldier pelted up behind Aragorn his sword drawn, his face pinched in horror as he fled towards his downed leader. A rending shriek diverted Aragorn and he glanced back to see the barn lean to the right and topple into the street, cutting them off from the group of soldiers around their fallen comrade, showering the area in an explosion of flaming debris.
The ranger turned at the last moment, tearing his gaze from the burning hulk of wood and catching the young soldier that was intent on reaching Alcarin. He grabbed the youth around the waist and pulled him back, out of harm’s way as the wind caught the flames and pressed them towards the Gondorians.
“It’s too late.” Aragorn consoled the soldier as he turned them both away, shielding the younger man with his body and pushing them back up the hill.
“No!” The other fought the restrictions, “He’s my commanding officer. I can’t leave him.”
“You can’t save him. He’s gone.” Aragorn pressed the boy back, glancing quickly around them. Denethor was trying to get his attention, pointing with his sword and shouting over the tumult of war. A small group of soldiers stood round him.
“What’s your name?” Aragorn asked the soldier next to him. The youth kept glancing over his shoulder, tears welling in his eyes. The captain had seen this before: battle shock. It was hard on the young ones sometimes when they had their first taste of bloodshed. Nothing could quite prepare you for its ruthlessness. Getting stuck in his shock however, was only going to get this young man killed before his time.
Aragorn shook the boy and dragged him along until they were both running. “Your name soldier!”
“Sir, y...yes sir.” The boy fixed him with a steady gaze, sprinting next to him to keep up as they headed towards Denethor’s position, “My name is Tyrion, Lt. Alcarin was the captain of our guard.”
Nodding in understanding Aragorn laid his hand on the boy’s shoulder, “He was a good man, his sacrifice will not be forgotten I promise you tha...” Thorongil’s words died off as he made out Denethor’s frantic shouts.
“Wait.” He shushed the man next to him and concentrated watching the commander’s mouth as he spoke. The wind that had picked up tore every other word away but understanding dawned on him quickly as he read the man’s lips.
“The Corsairs are retreating and taking the prisoners with them! Take your division and try to cut them off I will send the others round through the gap and try to box them in!” Denethor cupped his hands to his mouth and shouted.
When Thorongil nodded, grabbing the youth next to him and tearing off after the retreating army, Denethor turned to the captain standing beside him. “Rally what is left of the men who aren’t following Thorongil and stop those blasted Corsairs no matter what it takes. Assist the commander in anyway you can.”
“Aye, and you Commander?”
“I’m returning to camp with these soldiers.” Denethor’s gaze darkened as he watched his men running through the valley pursuing the captured townsfolk and overtaking the stray groups of enemy fighters. An inordinate number of Gondor soldiers had already fallen, both to the enemy and to the flaming town itself. Someone of them had to stay to be sure that there were not more Corsairs hiding out there, waiting to ambush those left behind with the camp and the wounded. They had seen such tactics all too often in the war with the Haradrim and could not afford to fall prey to any unpleasant surprises.
“We need to set up places for the wounded,” Denethor looked around, sizing the situation up quickly, the storm clouds shrouding his face darkening a shade.
“...and I have some business to attend to. This attack was planned. The Corsairs obviously knew exactly when we would arrive and where, they already had the people moved out, they were waiting here just for us. That means they knew not only that we were here, but also where we were camped. The town was bait to draw us in and we fell right for it. Many good men have died today and countless innocent people have been taken...” his voice was bitter. This was turning into a disastrous mission, and the he felt blame for it crashing down upon his own shoulders with crushing weight. He was in charge, which meant he was responsible even for the things he could not control.
“I will not let it happen again if it is within my power.” Denethor turned and stalked back down the small hill heading back to camp, his muttered words lost on the winds, “And I think that it is within my power to do so.”
Turning back to the soldier on the hill he glowered at the man, “Tell Thorongil I have gone back to prepare the camp. Don’t just stand there! Move! Do not leave him unprotected!”
The soldier’s feet, suddenly freed by the direct command, raced down the opposite side of the hill, rallying the men in the outlying fields as they chased the Corsairs back towards the south and the harbors where their main contingents where stationed.
Denethor returned to camp nearly an hour later in the company of the dead and they dying. His men carried and supported those who could no longer walk as those who had been left in camp raced out to lend aide and set up a swift triage to treat the casualties.
In his arms Denethor carried the broken body of a three-year-old boy who had died only a few minutes before they reached camp. Tenderly he took the small body to the grassy knoll where the dead were being laid out and set it next to that of a deceased woman who could have been the child’s mother. The future Steward’s eyes clouded as he looked over the growing lines of dead and realized how many of them were children.
“Cold blooded murderers...” he murmured to himself, shaking his head. “They have no feelings!”
A voice beside him unexpectedly concurred with his thoughts. “Vipers the lot of them! The Corsairs have no use for the very young; they do not make good slaves, so they are viewed as liabilities and therefore, disposable.”
Denethor looked up to see Castamir standing beside him, looking down at the bodies with saddened disgust.
The future Steward’s face hardened. Disposable. Liability. That could be his little son lying there, or his wife! What kind of animals did this? And more importantly, how could they be stopped? He drew in a deep breath. That last question at least he knew an answer to.
“Castamir, come with me.” Denethor turned on his heel, beckoning the other to follow. “We have some questions that need answering.”
I hear a voice saying “don’t be so blind”,
Telling me all the things that you would probably hide...
Legolas knew something was wrong the moment Denethor entered the tent, soldiers in tow. The fact that Castamir was one of those soldiers did not make matters any better. Everything that had happened recently had taken its toll on the elf, and despite the small reprieve he had been given here, he was still run down from his rough journey with Alcarin’s division. However, it did not take much strength or clarity to read the look on Denethor’s face and Legolas knew it boded ill even before the guards pulled him to his feet and prodded him to the center of the tent.
“You and I need to have a little talk Legolas,” Denethor fixed him with a piercing glare. “I don’t pretend to know how you got involved in all this, but I cannot now afford to wait for an official inquiry in Minas Tirith, too much has changed too quickly. It’s time you started giving us some answers.”
“Where is Thorongil?” Legolas asked apprehensively, trying not to show the fear that was building inside him as Castamir and the other soldier holding him roughly removed his tunic. Aragorn had promised him that everything would be all right, but the elf was not sure that Aragorn had as much control of this situation as he thought he did. The elf was weary and felt horribly as if he knew where this was going to go; where it had been destined to go from the very start.
“You can hide behind Captain Thorongil no longer,” Denethor said seriously as the two soldiers pressured Legolas onto his knees, binding his hands around the center support pole of the tent and pulling the ropes tight. “I am in charge of this mission, not he. It’s my head these lives that have been lost today are on for not taking action sooner. I was blind. I did not see the danger because I did not wish to see. I did *nothing* to stop this.” The human’s eyes were dark with his own guilt. “But I will change all that right now.”
“By beating me?” Legolas asked quietly. He wasn’t stupid, he knew what the position he was being placed in meant, he had been there too often to not know. He held no illusions about what kind of ‘questioning’ this was going to be. His heart drummed loudly, sinking under the weight of a heavy prick of dread that was quickly pulling it down.
“If I have to, but I’d rather not,” Denethor paced back and forth, his hands clasped behind him. He was disturbed, he was troubled and he was going about this the only way he knew how, even though some small part of him warned him it was wrong. Silencing his conscience he continued. “That’s up to you really. You can’t have been working alone. I begin to see now that there are more traitors in our ranks, and out of them, than we could ever have known. All I want is for you to tell me who they are and how it is that the Corsairs knew we were here? How do they seem to know our every move before we make it? What they are planning and what they want!”
“Oh, I see, that’s *all*,” Legolas’ tone held a bitter edge. He already knew how this would end. “I’d say it is obvious what the Corsairs want. They *want* Gondor and they mean to take it by war if they can. And think you that if I knew who it was that is betraying you to them, I would not have already told you? If for no other reason than to prove it was not myself?”
Denethor caught Legolas’ chin in his hand and tipped the elf’s head up. “A barbed tongue will not serve you here master elf. I want answers and I want them now, *before* any more of my men are slaughtered or any more innocents carried off! Do you have any idea of the lives that have been lost today? The men, women, children?! I will *not* see it happen again, I will not!”
“I cannot tell you things which I do not know,” Legolas pulled his head away. Why did men never believe what he told them? Perhaps the better question was why he continued to expect them to believe him when they never did. “And the things I do know you will not heed, so of what then shall we speak?”
Denethor caught the eyes of the man behind Legolas and gave his head a small, downward jerk. Castamir nodded.
The prince tensed and pressed his lips into a tight line as the fiery, familiar bite of a single-tongued lash drew a red, painful stripe diagonally across his back from his right shoulder down to his waist.
“Don’t bandy words with me,” Denethor’s face was steely. “You are alone in this elf; you had better look to your own concerns. Your Corsair friends do not care what happens to you and you have burned your bridges with any friends you had here. My patience with you has run out and you have only the choice to answer me or accept the alternative. Not even Thorongil will stand up for you now, so think carefully before you reject your chance to take the easy path.”
Another blow. Slow and deliberately painful, meant to aid his decision-making. Castamir was enjoying his work far too much, although he knew better than to let the captain see that. However he’d felt the traitor had this coming for a long time and was glad someone was finally taking the initiative.
“Do not speak to me of Thorongil as if you knew his mind. One falsehood makes all your words sound false,” Legolas’ voice was curt; he was rewarded with another blow, this one quicker and meant to punish.
“I am not the one who speaks falsely. If Captain Thorongil did not think this was what you deserved would he not be here?” Denethor swept his arms around them to prove his point. True, he knew that Thorongil was not in the camp, but in his own mind he really didn’t think that the other captain could with any conscience continue to stick up for the elf after what they had seen today, so he did not consider himself to be speaking untruths. “No one can stomach what we have seen and not know you for what you are.”
“You lie,” Legolas’ gaze was hard. Denethor’s words were unnervingly lacking in deceit, but the prince would not believe that of his friend, he could not. It may have been many years now since he and Aragorn had been together for any length of time, but Legolas refused to believe that his friend could have changed that much. That was *not* the Aragorn he had talked to only earlier today.
Denethor clenched his fists, but did not strike the elf as he would have liked to. He had a job to do here, nothing more, and petty thoughts of personal vengeance had no place. He’d done enough things wrong lately, he’d ignored a threat that was now proving to be very deadly indeed, and he wasn’t going to make the same mistakes again.
Another steady, deliberate stroke made Legolas close his eyes and inhale deeply.
Denethor was silent now for a time, but he watched the elf intently as Castamir metered out the beating with careful deliberation. Let the pain loosen the elf’s stubborn resolve a little, then he would try again. He wanted to look away, but forced himself to be still and watch. Denethor did not like having to witness the way that the fair being flinched each time he was struck. Torture was not a first, or a preferred resort in Gondor, and Denethor had only witnessed such a small handful of times in his life. But he had never been the one in charge before. The notion that he was responsible for the pain of another did not sit particularly well with the Captain, but when he remembered the twisted, heart-breaking bodies of the children who had been forever silenced his resolve deepened and he swore to himself that he would not be too weak to see this through.
Legolas leaned forward, letting his head hang down and allowing his tousled, unbraided hair to slide forward off his shoulders and hang beside his face, half-obscuring his tense features. He didn’t want to show them the hurt they were inflicting, but that was becoming impossible. At least they would not get to see it on his face. His loose hair shielded him from their sight and he hid behind that protection as the pain drew more and more of a reaction out of him.
Jaw tight, the prince braced his bound wrists against the support pole that his arms were tied around, letting his forehead fall forward to rest against the smooth wood as the whip drew another thin line of fire across his back, rocking him forward from the force of the blow and eliciting a soft grimace from the silent elf.
Legolas was one of the firstborn, his body always healed without scarring, but just because his smooth skin hid the true tale of how many times before he had felt the bite of a lash, or been beaten senseless at the hands of another, that didn’t mean he did not remember. Although he was young yet for an elf, sometimes the prince felt incredibly old. Felt as if he had already seen too much in his life; especially too much pain. Whether from humans or his own kind... it barely seemed to matter at this point. All his weary, hurting body knew was that it was happening again and he wanted it to stop.
An exhausted, slightly jaded sense of despair pulled at the prince. Denethor’s lie about Aragorn’s lack of objection to these proceedings and the conviction with which it had been said was also eating away at the elf, although he refused to really believe it. Still... Aragorn had also promised him he was safe here.
Another blow cut deep, making the elf hold his breath and tense before slowly letting it out and pulling in another. Then they halted for a moment and Legolas tensed again. They weren’t done with him. This hadn’t been nearly bad enough for them to be done yet if past experience was any guide. Being helpless to face the unknown was almost as bad as the pain itself, but Legolas couldn’t even dredge up enough energy to hate his situation. It was as if he was emotionally empty; the past month having drained him of even his ability to feel angry over the injustice of the situation. He was worn; badly worn. He just wanted this over.
Denethor’s gloved hand pushed the elf’s hair back from his face, tucking the golden locks behind the prince’s ear and turning Legolas’ flushed face towards him with the side of his hand. The man dropped down into a crouch to place himself at eye-level with his captive.
“Don’t make it have to be this way,” the future Steward’s voice was soft, but laced with a quixotically hard edge. The entreaty however was earnest. “I’m not a monster Legolas, I take no pleasure in your pain, but if it will prevent another atrocity like what happened in Lithiant today, if it will keep any more of my men from being slain or having to watch helpless while scores of innocent women and children are put to the sword and carried off into bondage... then I swear I will not hesitate to press you until your blood runs freely and you beg for either mercy or death.”
The elf prince was unmoved by the threat. He had heard the likes of it before and he had suffered through the dreadful fulfillment of such promises more than once. There was very little Denethor could do to him that would be new. Of course that didn’t mean that the elf did not feel the familiar, hard knot of fear forming in his insides, but he would never let them see that.
Denethor saw the jaded ice in the elf’s eyes and switched tactics. Fear and intimidation weren’t going to get him far unless he either was very brutal or unless he found a weak spot in the elf’s daunting emotional armor. Since brutality was not his first choice in any case, he decided to try appealing to the elf’s conscience instead. “You were friends with Thorongil once Legolas, which means you must have been a decent person at one time, for although there are many things I would call him, traitor is not one of them. Doesn’t that past mean anything to you? Do you know what he told me Legolas? He said he was willing to pin his life on your honor... don’t make a mockery of that trust. Don’t let this go on. Doesn’t the thought of innocent children being slaughtered because they aren’t *useful* slaves move you at all?”
Denethor’s eyes burned intensely as he held the elf’s gaze. The young Captain was desperate to get those missing people back, to keep this from ever happening again, they all were.
Legolas’ gaze was tired and edged with pain. Surprisingly enough he honestly believed that Denethor really didn’t want to hurt him, but he knew the Captain would hurt him, perhaps badly. Denethor would never take the elf’s word that he had nothing to do with the Corsairs and no information that would reveal who the traitor was that was still giving them away. Denethor needed someone to blame, needed to believe he could find an answer to this unraveling disaster. Legolas was not going to try to explain the truth again. They had all heard it before; it wouldn’t make a difference now. They would believe what they wanted to believe. The truth mattered little.
“You presume much to speak of a friendship you cannot begin to fathom,” the elf’s voice was too worn to be sharp and in too much pain to be defiant. His tone was steady, but held out little hope for himself or for this situation. “And you, Lord Denethor, will never understand what I feel about all that has happened, nor do you wish to unless it fits with the picture you have already fixed in your mind. If you would learn the truth about anything, you must first let go what you think to be reality, in order to find what truth really is.”
Denethor dropped his hand away from the prince and rose back to his feet. “They say elves speak in riddles. But I do not have time for games Legolas. Answer me plainly or take the consequences on your own head.” He had already seen what came of being too lenient, too trusting. People had died because of it. Because of him. He would not fail them that way again.
Legolas just turned away and let his head fall forward to rest against the tent post again. It didn’t matter. They wouldn’t listen. He had known it was coming to this; he had known it since he was arrested. He had known it since he found himself caught in Denethor’s one-sided power-struggle against Aragorn... but that didn’t make it any easier to take now that it was here.
Denethor’s gaze hardened. “Very well then! Then perhaps pain will loosen your tongue if there is no shred of conscience or remorse left in your heart over what you and whomever you’re working with have done here!”
Legolas bit his lip as the lash cut across his back again, curling around his ribs and catching for a moment before being ripped away and brought back for another stroke.
“Edan...” it was the Elven word for human. “You will punish me because I am the stranger, when it is one of your own who is guilty. Because I am of another race that you do not fully trust and such is the folly of men that they paint with a broad brush that which they know nothing about.” Legolas hissed between his teeth in Elvish, balling his fists and pressing his eyes closed against the pain washing over him.
“Edhel,” Denethor responded quietly in understandable, if not perfectly fluent elvish. “Elf, you are not treated thus because of your race but because of your crimes. The men of Gondor do not mistrust the elves as some of the ignorant races of men do, but neither do we fear them as above the law.”
Legolas started slightly and looked up when the captain spoke to him in his native tongue. He had not expected Denethor or anyone else here to understand him. Yet although Denethor was human, the blood of Númenor was in his veins as surely as it was in Aragorn’s, if not quite as pure and unmingled. The high arts and languages were still taught to the upper and ruling class of Gondor.
The next stroke caught the elf while he was still looking up and for a moment Denethor was treated to the full look of pain that tensed the prince’s fair features and glazed his eyes as the elf gasped slightly and grimaced, having been caught unprepared. The unexpected pain ripped Legolas’ guard down momentarily. For an instant the human and the elf’s eyes locked and Denethor saw past the calm, closed exterior the prince presented to the world. The future Steward found himself faced with a gaze that appeared unimaginably old and galvanized by much mistreatment at the hands of men, and at the same time also seemed young, frightened and full of pain. His own gift of perceptive insight allowed him the privileged look that few men could ever, or would ever see; the elf prince as he truly was, his bared soul.
Denethor’s eyes narrowed. This elf might have been more than a dozen times his age, but he was not nearly so stoic or jaded as he let on. This elf was afraid. This elf had been hurt before. If Denethor had been paying better attention he would have seen the honesty behind Legolas’ defense of himself but the Captain’s own past and pain clouded his perceptions and he used what he had seen to his advantage.
Legolas dropped his head again quickly, horrified at having let this man see so deeply into his vulnerable emotions. No one got to see that deeply into him, no one. The prince closed his eyes tightly, once more letting his hair fall forward to cover his flushed features and the humiliating signs of pain that he could not hide as the lash continued to slowly draw bleeding lines across the bleeding lines already layering his back.
Denethor knelt on one knee next to Legolas. Part of him was haunted by the look in the elf’s eyes a moment ago, and part of him was afraid that he was going to let sentiment get the better of him. It was said that he was a man of keen sight who could see into others hearts. Well he had just had a straight look into this one’s soul, but as Legolas had said; his own perceived reality tainted those perceptions.
The human pushed Legolas’ hair behind his ear again, not allowing the elf to hide in that manner anymore. He laid one hand on the elf’s bare shoulder and turned the prince’s head towards him with the other. Another stroke from the whip made Legolas tense under Denethor’s hand.
Legolas closed his eyes, refusing to let the human see into his pain and his fear again. But Denethor didn’t have to look into his eyes, he could see it in the tense lines of the prince’s face, in the in the way elf’s chin trembled when he pulled it roughly away from the human’s hand.
“You’re afraid of me,” Denethor said quietly.
“I’m *not* afraid of you,” Legolas bit back vehemently. “I have met beings worth fearing and you do not rank with them; do not flatter yourself, Captain of Gondor.” He was so tired of this. So tired. And he *was* afraid, which irritated the prince to no end. You would think after all his experience... but there are some things to which one simply becomes accustomed.
“You’re afraid of men then,” Denethor’s voice was searching, appraising and he noticed that although Legolas flinched in time to the next whip stroke, he did not answer this time.
“But not all men...” the young human’s eyes narrowed as he tried to read the puzzle before him. Thus far he was doing a distressingly accurate job. “Only ones who have power over you. What did they do to you, I wonder, to garner your fear and your hate? Someone did though, didn’t they? Humans hurt you. Hurt you deeply. And you hate us for that.”
“I don’t hate you,” Legolas’ voice was quiet. “And I learned a long time ago that to despise a whole race for the sins of a few was as foolish as it was futile.” Indeed, Legolas’ kind had treated him little better at times and his own uncle had hurt him worse than many.
The elf hissed softly in pain as the lash found a place on his back that was already bleeding. He wished that Denethor would remove his hands from him. Legolas could stand the pain, but he did not like being touched while he was being hurt. He would never like being touched in a situation like this. It made him feel vulnerable... or rather, it simply brought home how truly vulnerable he already was.
“But you do fear us,” Denethor could tell this line of talk was unsettling the elf. If he had been looking for a weak spot he seemed to have found one.
“No,” the answer was not as firm as Legolas might have wished.
“Then why will you not even look at me?” Denethor had pulled his gloves off and he lightly touched the elf’s eyes, which were still pressed closed.
Legolas jerked and his eyes fluttered quickly open; his gaze hard and flinty. But Denethor did not miss the fact that the elf had moved away, putting himself farther from the human.
“More than once...” Denethor murmured. “I’d wager my life that men have hurt you more than once in your life. That’s reason enough for the calluses behind those deceptively young eyes of yours, reason enough for fear. Isn’t it true Legolas, you do fear us? And despite what you say one always eventually hates that which they fear. That’s it isn’t it? That’s why you killed those sentries on the road to Dalthad, that’s why you sold us out.” Denethor pressed him hard, his hand tightening on the elf’s shoulder. “Because you’re afraid of us, because you hate us and you want revenge!”
“No!” Legolas gasped slightly. The lashing was beginning to hurt incredibly. “That is not true! And even if it was, why would I sell one group of men out to another? What kind of vengeance would that be?”
“You tell me,” Denethor’s eyes were dark. “Is it just us in Gondor that you hate? Is that it?”
“No,” the elf shook his head again. “You know nothing of what you speak...” his words cut off when he had to clench his jaw against crying out when the whip bit deep into an already well worked laceration. Legolas dropped his head, breathing rapidly in pain. Too much. It was hurting too severely for him to keep this level of control much longer.
Denethor pulled Legolas’ head back up, cupping the side of the prince’s face and refusing to let him look away.
“Don’t touch me,” the elf’s voice was quiet and lethal. His tired eyes blazed.
Denethor did not comply. “You can’t deny it, it’s true. You did this to punish us, our race, so that we too would suffer as we at some point made you suffer. Isn’t that so? Isn’t it?” his voice rose tensely.
“NO!” Legolas shook his head, his chest rising and falling swiftly and his breathing starting to hitch with the pain he could not longer suppress. He had had that choice to seek vengeance long ago; it was not one he had taken.
The future Steward did not relent. “What did the Corsairs promise you? What did you consider to be worth the lives of mothers and babies?”
“Nothing!” Legolas spat, trying to pull his head away, his ire rising with the pressure and the false accusations being placed on him.
Denethor’s hand tightened painfully on the side of the elf prince’s face, twining in his hair and jerking Legolas’ head back up roughly as another excruciating blow made the elf cry out softly in pain.
“Who else have they bought? Legolas, I need to know! Who else have they bought?! How are they anticipating us? How do they know?!” Denethor demand, his eyes intense and his will an almost physical force.
Legolas’ body was jerking, spasming because the elf would not allow himself to sob in front of these men. “If I knew, I would tell you!” the prince’s voice trembled. “Ú-iston, ú-iston...” Legolas slipped into elvish, his voice hopeless.
Denethor knew enough to understand that the elf was saying he did not know. But that was not possible, it could not be. “You have to know, do not lie to me! Tell me the truth!”
“Thenin... Truth... What is truth?” Legolas whispered in despair as the lash continued to fall, reverting back to his native tongue since he didn’t care who could or couldn’t understand him. “Should it not protect the innocent? Ah Elbereth... man agornin? What have I done? What have I done that I should be here?” The prince could not keep his shoulders from shaking and he closed his eyes again, turning away as much as Denethor allowed, but he could not hide the few, painful, shame-filled, silver tears that escaped his clenched lashes and slid down to wet the future Steward’s fingers where they lay against the prisoner’s cheek.
Denethor withdrew his hand as if the elf’s tears burned him, which, emotionally speaking, they very nearly did. Legolas’ tears stained one of his hands, and the prince’s blood stained the other. The human took several deep breaths. Damn! He was very nearly trembling himself. What power was it that this being seemed to hold over him? Maybe elves were magical as tales told, maybe this one was only playing tricks on him, but something in Denethor could not take the sight of the elf’s tears, could not bear to attempt to totally break the will behind those beautiful, pain-filled eyes.
“Enough,” Denethor rose swiftly, signaling his soldiers to stop the beating. “Enough. We... we will question him again later,” the Captain quickly banished whatever he was feeling from his voice. It would never do for his men to see any doubt in him.
Legolas’ body sagged forward, allowing the pole he was tied around to take his full weight and hiding his face against his arms. He was humiliated and ashamed. Denethor had gotten much farther under his skin than anyone had ever done and if the human had continued to press him, he very well may have broken the elf eventually, for all the good it would have done him. Dully, Legolas wondered why Denethor had stopped when he was so close to what he seemed to want, but the elf didn’t really care, just so long as it was over, at least for now.
“Care for his hurts,” Denethor instructed Castamir, gesturing for the other two soldiers to follow him as he turned to leave. “Stay, make sure he is not disturbed tonight, we will speak again in the morning.”
The Captain was aware of the dark looks that many of the men had been giving the traitor and with current tensions what they were he wanted to avoid any problems. Turning away he pushed open the tent flap, the other soldiers following.
Legolas closed his eyes. Leaving Castamir to protect him was like leaving a wolf to guard the flock, although he doubted Denethor realized that.
Aragorn rubbed his eyes wearily with battle-stained fingers. Frustration and failure rippled through his entire being as he led his company back into camp. Seeing Alcarin slain before his eyes had bothered the commander deeply. He had come to respect the soldier and his passing had been brutal, in the fashion the Corsairs were known for. He had seen too much death and the fact that he had not been able to reach the man in time troubled him. Much about this war sat uneasily on his conscience. The sun had set over an hour ago and the area was lighted by torches, but they did little to lift the gloom, either of the night or that hung over the soldiers’ hearts.
They had been unable to catch up with the main host who had taken the villagers away. They had had too much of a head start and a huge rear-guard of their enemy had blocked their passage and held them up for hours. Although that battle was eventually won, they had lost all hope of re-taking the captives.
The ranger pushed his hair back out of his face, ignoring the sting of a deep cut that ran across his cheekbone. He had been fighting for untold hours straight and was almost too weary to feel pain. His body ached and his eyes wanted to close by themselves, but he first made sure that his men were seen to, and their needs met before he slowly made his way across camp in search of Denethor. They needed to reconnoiter and try to pull together the pieces of what had gone wrong here.
The Steward’s son was not in his tent and Aragorn stopped one of his aides. “Where is Captain Denethor?”
“He’s in the guard tent sir,” the soldier reported after quickly saluting his superior.
Aragorn’s brow creased and he tried to rub some of the tired fog from his head. “Why?”
“I believe he is questioning the prisoner in connection with today’s events, sir,” the young soldier had barely gotten the words out of his mouth before Aragorn had spun on his heel and was striding quickly in the direction of the guard tent, his weariness completely forgotten.
Chapter 7: Part Seven
I see the blood all over your hands
Does it make you feel more like a man?
Was this all just a part of your plan...?
Torches were burning inside the guard tent, lighting it from within. But although Aragorn could see moving shadows, he could not tell what was going on in there. The ranger’s steps quickened to a run, apprehension gripping at his heart.
Just as he reached it, the tent flap was thrown open and he nearly ran into Denethor, on his way out.
“Thorongil,” Denethor pulled back a little to avoid colliding with the other. “The captives, did you...”
Aragorn shook his head, his gaze dropping for a moment. Their mission had not been a success. “They were ready for us, kept us bottled up in the south pass until it was too late.”
Denethor let his breath out sadly. He had feared as much. This whole thing had been far too well planned and executed. “It’s not your fault. Somehow they seem to know our mind better than we do,” the other human’s voice was bitter.
That reminded Aragorn why he was here and he cast his gaze around the tent, trying to see around the other captain’s form, which was blocking the doorway. “Denethor, what did you do with-” he stopped, his searching gaze passing over the future Steward’s shoulder and turning hard; fixing upon the hunched over, bleeding form of his friend. The elf’s shoulders were rising and falling raggedly and a multitude of bloody lines crisscrossed his smooth back.
The ferocity in Aragorn’s glare when it turned back on Denethor surprised the other. He had always found Thorongil to be a quiet, unassuming man who rarely ever lost his temper, but there was no doubt about the violent anger in the ranger’s snapping eyes. “What have you done?!” Aragorn demanded, his voice low and threatening.
“What I had to do,” Denethor tried to shoulder past the other captain. “And what I will do again if he does not see reason. You had better examine your priorities Thorongil, unless you want to be counted with traitors.”
Aragorn caught the future Steward’s wrist and held it tightly, refusing to let Denethor walk away from him. “Don’t be a fool! You are making a mistake! You have no idea what damage you have done!” Aragorn hissed at him, shaking the other slightly. He couldn’t believe this. He couldn’t believe he had let this happen to Legolas, after promising to keep him from harm!
“I’m not the one making the mistake here,” Denethor tried to yank free, and was more than a little surprised when he could not.
Aragorn was not letting go. “I know what you think of me,” he said softly, trying to keep their words from the others present. It did no good to spread dissention among the men. “Do NOT take it out on him! I would have thought you more honorable than that. Do not punish him to hurt me!”
“This is not about you!” Denethor spit back, his anger rising to meet that of the other man.
The soldiers were staring at their captains. Despite both men’s efforts, the quiet row was attracting attention.
Denethor grabbed Aragorn’s shoulder and pulled him close. “Not *here*, not in front of the men. Come,” he gestured his head towards his own tent across the green. “We have to talk. In private.”
Aragorn understood the wisdom of that, but he hated to leave Legolas... he glanced back at the elf. One of the soldiers was kneeling behind the prince, washing his lacerated back. Legolas’ fists were balled and he did not look up, even though he had to know that Aragorn was in the doorway. No amount of whispering could hide their conversation from elf ears. The ranger’s heart was torn, but Legolas was being cared for at the moment and he would come back and see to him himself later. Right now he and Denethor had to have some words if he hoped to keep this from happening again.
Ripping his gaze away, Aragorn followed Denethor to his tent, slapping the fabric door aside with unconcealed anger as they went inside, leaving the soldiers outside. The Gondorian troops looked at one another before drifting back to their duties. All of them would have given a month’s pay to know what would go on inside the future Steward’s tent.
Legolas remained still and silent as Castamir washed his wounds. He heard Aragorn’s voice outside the tent, speaking with Denethor. His friend was angry, he could hear it in the tone. So Aragorn hadn’t known. A small part of the elf’s heart relaxed a little. He knew it could not be true.
The elf’s own humiliation was too keen and he did not look up, even when he felt his friend’s eyes on him. He couldn’t face anyone right now, not even Estel.
Castamir’s motions across the elf’s back were neither light, nor gentle. The cloth in his hand bit sharply into the bleeding wounds, making the elf tense and hold his breath. The cleaning hurt nearly as bad as the whipping had. And of course, that was the way the soldier wanted it. He did not understand why Denethor had stopped short when the elf’s resistance was obviously on the path to crumbling. He was not pleased.
Motion at the tent flap caused Castamir to stop and turn on his boot heels in his crouched position. Legolas did not bother to glance at the new arrival, he felt as though he could suffer no more shame in his lifetime and would not given another Gondorian the satisfaction of seeing his soul bared or the pain and humiliation they had caused him. However, the newcomer had not come to see the elf, but his guard.
Tyrion pushed the tent flap open and stood just inside the doorway, staring at Castamir. Tears rolled down the young soldier’s face. He was dirty from the long fight and bloodied from a wound to his shoulder. His hair was tousled and unkempt, making him looking younger than his years.
Rising to his feet Castamir walked over to youth and gently touched the boy’s shoulder, his heart going out the soldier. Tyrion, Krit and Elan had always been close. Because of Krit he had known all three lads since childhood. “What is it Tyrion?” He asked gently.
The young man shook his head, his breath coming in irregular gasps as he tried to catch his breath and fight the emotions that spilled down his cheeks. Turning, he led the older soldier outside the tent and away from the prisoner.
Lowering his voice so that Legolas could not hear his conversation, Tyrion’s words tumbled fast and breathlessly.
“They killed him Castamir. They killed him.” Tyrion swiped his dirty tunic sleeve across his face, smearing the dirt over his cheek.
“Who? Who is it you are speaking of?” Castamir frowned trying to follow and listen closely enough to catch all the whispered words. “Slow down boy, take your time.”
“Lieutenant Alcarin. He’s dead.” Tyrion bit his lips and jerked in a shallow breath, casting his gaze out across the meadow of men that were returning, “I was with Thorongil. The Corsairs took him down and we couldn’t reach him. The city was on fire... we got separated.” Huge brown eyes stared back up at the older soldier, “He called out to us, but we were too late and now he’s gone. His body burned in the town...” The boy’s words choked off and grew even more soft, “The soldiers who brought the dead back tell me they don’t even know which body is his ‘cause so many are so badly charred... I saw them all laying there.” the young man’s voice cracked. “And in the pass... we fought for hours... so many dead... I don’t even know yet if any of our company has survived beside us. It was awful.”
Castamir sighed and closed his eyes against the news, biting back his own feelings. He and his commanding officer had had their difference of opinions, but he had respected Alcarin. He didn’t deserve to die like that. However, Castamir’s pride kept him from allowing the grief any access to his heart. Gently he placed his arm around the slender shoulders of the youth and turned him back towards the center of camp. “Don’t you worry Tyrion. Alcarin was a good man, so was every soldier in our troop. They’re in a better place now. We’ll see them again. Alcarin wouldn’t want you worrying about him now; you have to concentrate on the living. You go see to that wound of yours ‘fore it gets infected.” Giving the boy a gentle push Castamir nodded his head and tried to smile as Tyrion glanced over his shoulders at the man. “Go on with you now. The Captain may not have the stomach for it, but I’ll get to the bottom of who it is that’s giving us up to the enemy. I know just who to ask and how.”
With a small nod the young soldier stumbled wearily towards where the wounded were being cared for. Castamir was right, Alcarin was better off now then they all were.
The large guard watched Tyrion until another soldier took charge of the injured youth. The boy had never seen real war before; never seen death on this scale. Castamir had by now seen too much of it, but he still remembered the first time, so many years ago... it was after that battle he had taken his first drink and there had been many since then. Alcohol helped him forget... but tonight even that solace brought him no peace, although he had tried. No, only answers were going to bring him peace now, answers and vengeance. His gaze darkened and he turned resolutely back towards the prisoner’s tent. Oh yes, he knew just who to ask and he knew how. He absently brushed his arm against a bulge in his tunic pocket as he clenched his fists. Stopping he pulled a small sack from the interior compartment in his shirt. A grim smile tugged at the edges of his lips as he remembered what it was he was carrying. Yes, he would see that the traitor talked, in the end he would be more than willing to talk. Stuffing the bag back into his over-tunic Castamir threw the tent flap back and walked up behind his charge.
“The Captains are too gentle with you elf,” Castamir said with a quiet sneer, the hatred in his heart blinding him further after the news he had received. Picking up the cloth he had thrown aside he purposefully dug into the deep laceration below the prince’s shoulder blade, swiping at the blood. “Just like Alcarin was.” His voice was choked by the emotions running through him after speaking with Tyrion; what he couldn’t express in sorrow in front of the younger soldier found its vent in the anger held towards the elf.
Legolas jerked and stifled a hiss of pain. Castamir had come back from his short interlude with a new dose of renewed contempt and in his current state the last thing Legolas needed was to have to endure more of Castamir’s burning hatred. The elf’s keen nose told him that the soldier had been drinking pretty heavily at some point earlier in the evening. Mixing Castamir with too much alcohol was never a good thing; Legolas had learned that much on the long journey here.
“Wounds like this... they heal so fast and the pain is soon over with. Now if I were them, I’d give you something to really think about... something that would make you talk. In fact I think we need to have a little talk just between us.” Castamir reached inside his tunic and once more drew out the small, heavy pouch.
“You know what this is? I think it will help make everything a little clearer.” He hissed in the prince’s ear, tipping the elf’s head back and to the side. Legolas could just barely see the man in his periphery vision. He couldn’t begin to guess what the soldier held nor did he think he wanted to. It couldn’t be good.
The elf jerked his head away. “Your captain gave you orders, do not get yourself into trouble you could avoid.” He hoped that Castamir was simply taunting, trying to frighten him. Unfortunately past experience warned Legolas that Castamir’s threats were usually not idle. The elf resisted the urge to shudder. He couldn’t take any more pain right now, not when he had thought it was over...
Castamir just laughed. “He said to tend you and that is exactly what I’ll do... with a little of this.” The soldier poured a small handful of the powder inside the pouch into the palm of his hand. “You don’t know what it is, do you? Well you won’t forget it after tonight, I promise you.” The human was enjoying himself far too much.
“Looks pretty innocent...” Castamir continued tauntingly. “Doesn’t even have a proper name. We put it on horse’s hooves when they get thrush and it helps them just fine. But on a man, or an elf... that’s a different matter.” As if to illustrate what he meant, Castamir let the handful of powder sprinkle down onto Legolas’ bleeding back.
Legolas started at the sudden stinging burn that spread like molten fire across his injuries. The sheer shock of the pain was staggering.
Castamir’s eyes glinted with alcohol-induced amusement and bitter vengeance as he dished another palm-full out of the bag and rubbed it slowly and deliberately into a welt that ran along the back of Legolas’ left shoulder.
“Stings, doesn’t it? And it only gets worse, trust me. You see, the remarkable thing about this stuff is that it doesn’t wear off or go away. It stays. And stays. And stays. Tomorrow morning it’ll still be hurting, just as bad... maybe even worse. And do you know what traitor? It’s nothing more than you deserve! Killing Krit and the others, selling us out to the Corsairs, that wasn’t enough for you, was it?! Well let me tell you something, those soldiers that lost their lives today, they were my brothers, maybe not by blood but by a bond just as strong. But you wouldn’t understand that, I begin to think your kind knows nothing of loyalty. Have you any idea of the pain and suffering those innocent townspeople will go through at the hands of your Corsair companions? I do. I’ve seen what they do to their slaves. Captain Denethor may not think you can be broken but he doesn’t know you like I do, I know that you can be and I intend to do it. I don’t care to be thought a hero, but at least they’ll know you for what you are, traitor. By the time I’m through with you, you’ll tell me everything I want to know and more.”
Legolas squirmed and tried to pull away, but tied to the pole as he was he had no place to go. The agony of whatever Castamir was treating him with was taking his breath away. The elf had felt a lot of pain before in his life, so it was saying quite a bit to admit that he had never felt anything that hurt quite this badly.
Castamir held the elf’s shoulder tightly, pushing the prince forward over his knees and against the post he was bound to so that the elf could not escape from him no matter how much he struggled. Cruelly, deliberately the human worked the burning powder into every welt and cut. “Maybe tonight this will help you think about what you’ve done... oh go ahead and cry, if you don’t now you will later, trust me,” the soldier mocked slightly when Legolas’ shoulders began to tremble under his cruel ministrations.
Legolas’ eyes burned and blurred but he hated to let his pain show. It was what Castamir wanted and for that very reason he hated it. Yet the agony in his back was building quickly and making him want to scream.
“Alcarin told you repeatedly to leave me alone, do you think Captain Denethor will take any kinder to your actions?” the elf bit out, his voice shaking more than he would have liked. In all honesty though, Legolas wasn’t so sure the other Gondorians would really care.
“Alcarin is dead!” Castamir spat at the elf his tone turning angry. “And do you think Captain Denethor is going to believe anything you say now? You get me in trouble again elf and you won’t live to regret it. Besides... I’m just doing my job. After all, the bleeding’s stopping isn’t it?”
Castamir grinned wickedly, dragging the elf’s head up again so that he could see the pain on the prisoner’s face. Trapping Legolas’ neck in his hand, he continued to work Legolas’ back with the other. “Scream for me...” he whispered. “Cry and beg me to stop and maybe I won’t make you suffer through this pain all night... maybe. If you tell me what I want.”
Legolas glared harshly and spit directly in the human’s face. He would die first.
Castamir grimaced harshly and backhanded the elf sharply a few times until Legolas’ mouth bled before he trapped his throat again. Squeezing tightly, Castamir restricted the elf’s airway, allowing him only a portion of what his body needed.
Legolas thrashed against the choking restriction, pulling at his bound wrists and twisting as he tried to escape, but Castamir had him in too firm a hold and soon his body didn’t have enough air to fight.
The elf’s head spun dizzily as Castamir continued to work the dry, hellish fire into his back. Painful, weakened sobs that Legolas could not help shook his frame much to Castamir’s amusement and the prince’s shame.
“I told you you’d cry,” Castamir hissed mockingly.
“Do NOT question me in front of the men Thorongil, you should know better than that!” Denethor rounded angrily on Aragorn once they were safely inside the tent and away from the prying eyes and ears of the camp. “Father put *me* in charge of this mission and you had better remember that.”
“Do not use people as pawns and I will not question you!” Aragorn shot back. “I tell you Legolas is innocent! He has *not* been tried yet and until he is brought before your father you have no right to take his punishment or his questioning into your own hands!”
“We are in a state of war here in case you hadn’t noticed,” Denethor shook his head, his jaw tight. “He is a prisoner of war. I am in charge and I will take whatever measures I must to protect those entrusted to my care. Have you forgotten what we saw today already?! That elf and whoever he’s working with caused that!”
“No he did not!” Aragorn shook his head. “I don’t care what anyone says I will never believe that!”
“I know he was your friend once, but people change Thorongil, I think you have to face that just as I did.” Denethor’s voice softened slightly as he remembered Mardil. He understood the pain of betrayal and would not wish it on anyone. “Don’t look at me like I am a monster for doing my job! Often times kindness is repaid with death, isn’t that what we’ve seen here? Sacrifices have to be made...”
Aragorn caught Denethor’s wrist again, holding it up so the blood on his fingers was visible. “Sacrifices? What kind of sacrifices? Legolas is *not* Mardil, Denethor! Stop trying to make them the same.” Aragorn held up his own hand, stained with the blood and dirt of battle. “I see a difference between the blood of enemies spilt in battle and the blood of a prisoner wrung by torture! Do you enjoy that? Does it make you feel powerful somehow to know that you can inflict pain? If so then I fear for this kingdom when your father dies!” The ranger was furious.
Denethor’s glare turned lethal. “And you think you would make a better ruler, is that it? Don’t think I haven’t seen how you curry favor with my father and the people! Always you are first in his heart and you are not even of his blood! Well I will show him and everyone that I am not weak and I am no man’s pawn! And if that elf’s life is the price I have to pay to get to the bottom of this I will do it and you will not stand in my way!”
“You have no idea of what I do and do not want, or what I could do or be if I so chose!” Aragorn’s voice was hard and tense. “But I am no thief and would never take that which is not mine, nor take it by force or trickery. You are the jewel of your father’s heart Denethor; prove his trust and his love right by being the just man that you have the power to be!”
With that Aragorn turned and left the tent without another word.
“Thorongil, where are you going?” Denethor followed him out, not sure what the look he had seen in the other man’s eyes meant. “We are not finished!”
“To see to my friend,” Aragorn said darkly as he walked back towards the guard tent, not bothering to turn around. “And we are finished as far as I am concerned, your highness.” His words held more meaning than Denethor realized.
“You are pushing your luck on this Thorongil! If you insist on associating with him you may begin to change my mind on the likeliness of *your* being the second traitor we’re looking for,” the future steward threatened, walking quickly to try to catch up with the ranger’s long strides.
Aragorn turned to say something to Denethor, but a soft, muffled sound of utter distress from the guard tent next to them caught his sharp hearing and made him forget whatever it was he had been going to say.
Chapter 8: Part Eight
Legolas struggled as violently as his oxygen-starved body would let him, thrashing against his bonds and the human who had him pinned, but he could not escape either. Castamir was merciless, working handful after handful of devilish agony into the elf’s already flaming welts and lacerations.
The prince was sobbing in earnest now in Castamir’s grip, but the hold on his neck didn’t even give him enough air to scream. Hazy yellow spots danced and exploded before his eyes and his mind was sluggish from lack of air. Castamir’s presence was suffocatingly close, which did not help the blind panic engulfing the elf’s hurting body.
Legolas couldn’t breathe and every fiber in his being seemed to be on fire. Shame crushed him at his own weakness, but he couldn’t take it anymore, he couldn’t...
“Stop! Please stop...” he half-choked, half-rasped around the vicious hand on his throat. “Stop...” his shaking plea was desperate.
Castamir ginned wickedly. “Begging already? That was quicker than I thought... what was it you said? I couldn’t hear you...”
Legolas closed his eyes, the world spinning around him. “Please...” tears of pain and utter shame slid down the elf’s cheeks, adding to the growing list of things he could hate himself for.
Suddenly the tent flap was thrown back. Aragorn’s dark, shocked, angry eyes took in the situation in barely half an instant and rage hotter than dragon fire flared in his heart; the words that he had just heard Castamir speak and the ones wrenched from Legolas seared deeply into the smoldering flame of his wrath.
Before Castamir even had the chance to understand that he had been discovered in his game he was flat on his back on the floor. His alcohol and rage laden mind reacting irrationally to the realization that he was in trouble, Castamir swung out in panic and tried to get away. It was a stupid move.
Aragorn easily dodged and took the soldier down again, slamming Castamir’s head back against the ground repeatedly until the man was too dizzy to respond.
Denethor, still standing in the doorway, was completely shocked by what he and Aragorn had just found. Castamir was supposed to see to the elf’s injuries, not torture him further. He did not interfere when Aragorn took the soldier down, but after a few moments he moved into the tent and lightly touched the back of Aragorn’s shoulder, quietly bidding him stop.
The ranger was almost angry enough to kill Castamir with his bare hands for the pain he had been causing Legolas, but Aragorn had more restraint than that, so he simply gave the man one more good slam against the ground before dragging Castamir to his feet and handing him off to the other soldiers who had come hurrying at Denethor’s bidding.
Denethor turned a dark glare upon Castamir, but Aragorn was giving him no more thought; his attention had turned to Legolas and he dropped down next to the elf.
Legolas was trembling hard and he turned away from his friend, hanging his head and pressing his face against his bound arms. Raggedly he gulped for air as the haze in his mind and body began to dissipate and clarity returned... however with it came the realization of how badly Castamir had broken him and the fact that Aragorn, Denethor and possibly others had witnessed his humiliation. He had never broken like that before. He had never given in to what a tormentor wanted from him... his weakness was unforgivable.
Soft sobs that made the prince burn with shame, and yet could not be helped, shook his shoulders. His back was still burning almost as badly as it had been when Castamir was tormenting him and the pain was overwhelming. That on top of his immense sense of disgrace was so great that he could not bring himself to meet even Aragorn’s kind, concerned eyes.
Aragorn thought his heart would break. He wanted to hold Legolas close and comfort him, but he was half afraid to touch the elf, afraid of causing more pain and fear, so instead he just knelt near, his fingers hovering lightly on the prince’s trembling arm. “Legolas?”
The elf would not look at him.
“You betrayed my trust, engaged in the unlawful torture of a prisoner under your care, struck out at a senior officer and disobeyed a direct order.” Denethor was giving Castamir a cold dressing-down. His voice was quiet, but his displeasure obvious. He did not take kindly to being disobeyed, or having people work behind his back. Besides, something about seeing Legolas they way they had found them made him feel strangely ill. Denethor’s heart was not made of stone, even if it was confused and stubborn. “What do you have to say for yourself?”
“He’s a cold blooded murderer and a spy, he hasn’t got any feelings,” Castamir glared in the elf’s direction and Legolas’ head sunk a little lower as if trying to block out the man’s voice. “Isn’t that what you said Captain? Begging your pardon sir, but if you really want answers out of him I can get them. Don’t you see sir? He was ready to beg, he’s ready to talk...”
Aragorn bristled fiercely, his face turning deadly as he let his hand rest more firmly on his friend’s arm. He was almost about to rise when Denethor shook his head firmly, raising his hand to cut off the soldier’s attempt to save himself.
“NOT like this!” the future Steward ground out, irritated at having his words flung back at him in a way he felt was out of context. “That elf is under the protection of our laws regarding prisoners of war,” Denethor’s voice was firm and hard. “We are a civilized people. There are limits and rules and you honor those. Besides, none of that changes the fact that you Castamir, disobeyed a direct command. He was put in your care to be treated, not questioned. Your blatant disregard for command makes *you* a traitor to your people and the laws you swore to uphold when you entered this army. In so doing you have forfeited your honor and perhaps even your life. I will not tolerate such a breach of trust, not at a time like this. Take him away until I decide what to do with him,” he motioned to the soldiers holding Castamir, who complied swiftly, dragging the struggling, swearing man out with them.
“So only *you* are impervious to our laws, is that it *lord* Denethor? What have I done that you have not? If I am a traitor for my actions, what are you?” Castamir’s angry, muffled voice drifted back to them only faintly as he was pulled outside. Of course it was stupid to be so insubordinate, but Castamir was still under the influence of a touch too much alcohol to be rational.
Denethor just stood motionless for several moments glaring after them, his hands clenching and unclenching quietly.
“Legolas?” Aragorn was still trying to reach his friend, but every time he got close the elf would turn his head away, seeming to pull further into himself and refusing to answer. Horror squeezed the ranger’s hear tightly. He had promised the elf he would be safe here, and that had not proved to be the case. “Legolas... please...”
The imploring voice drew Denethor’s eyes to them. The elf was still shaking with soft, uncontrollable anguish and the look of pain on Aragorn’s face was hard to witness, even if Denethor did almost hate the other captain.
“No one will take those kind of liberties again while you are under my protection,” the future Steward said quietly to Legolas. Why his heart should go out to a prisoner he did not know, but it did.
“Your *protection*?” the elf’s voice was muffled and hoarse, but tinged with bitter irony. Denethor might as well have said that he wouldn’t let anyone *other than himself* harm Legolas, but the elf was in too much pain to point that out.
Denethor did not respond to that, but turned his gaze towards Aragorn. He had half a mind to summon the other captain to come with him, they had much to plan and tomorrow would come too swiftly... but when he saw the look in Aragorn’s eyes he knew the man would never leave the elf alone right now, even if he had to disobey direct orders.
Aragorn’s eyes were filled with sorrow and fixed on Denethor with a hint of accusation. Castamir may have been more brutal and acted without leave... but exactly where was the difference between his actions and Denethor’s? Motive perhaps, and methodology, but in the end... they had both hurt Legolas.
Denethor chose to ignore his second-in-command’s look. In his mind there was a distinct difference and he didn’t have the time right now to try to look any deeper, despite what the quiet little voices in the back of his mind had to say on the subject.
“When you’re done here, meet me in the staging area. We have much to discuss,” Denethor told Aragorn quietly. “Have several of the guards stand watch outside the tent when you leave, but forbid them to enter on pain of death. I will not have a repeat of this situation.” With that, Denethor turned and walked out. Pausing in the doorway he looked back and for a brief moment he caught Aragorn’s eyes. The ranger wasn’t sure what exactly he read there... but a moment later Denethor was gone.
Aragorn turned back to his friend. “Legolas? Legolas look at me, please...” he begged softly, but the elf did not move or speak. He was too wrapped up in his own pain and shame.
With utmost gentleness the human cut the ugly ropes binding the elf to the pole. Legolas’ wrists were bloody from having struggled so hard. The prince hissed softly when Aragorn touched his raw wrists and feeling rushed back into his fingers. The elf remained still except for the soft trembling of his hurting body, making no motion to move away from where he knelt, or support the weight of his own arms. Pain was swallowing his world and if he moved, if he spoke, he felt sure that he would break again.
Aragorn gently set Legolas’ hands in the prince’s lap. The elf’s lack of response was beginning to gravely worry him. He knew that Castamir had been hurting the prince, but he wasn’t sure exactly how and the possibilities frightened him.
“Legolas, what did he do to you?”
The elf didn’t answer, but pressed his eyes closed and clenched his fists. His back was still burning and he rocked back and forth, trying not to let it make him start crying again.
Legolas knew his friend wanted answers, but didn’t know what to say. His own condemning thoughts ran wild through his head. //“Made me cry like a child and beg like a whipped cur to be released, that’s what he did...”// his mind taunted bitterly, but he could not bring himself to speak his humiliation to Aragorn. Besides there was no need, the ranger had seen it for himself.
With gentle care Aragorn began looking over his friend’s injuries since Legolas would tell him nothing. The prince allowed his friend to clean the blood from his wrists but his eyes remained nailed to the floor and his body was tense as a bowstring under the human’s hands.
Aragorn’s brows furrowed. “Legolas you are in pain...” he knew that was a stupid thing to say considering how ill used the prince had been, but that wasn’t what he meant. Legolas’ body was still trembling and the prince had resumed rocking back and forth. “Please my friend, what did he do?” the ranger was beginning to fear the answer.
“It... hurts...” Legolas ground out through his teeth, keeping his gaze riveted on the earth as he clenched his hands around one another, trying to deal with the pain. However, that, on top of his already emotionally drained state, was proving too much.
Aragorn understood that the elf meant his back. Obviously, it was only natural that it would hurt considering the state it was in, but when Aragorn looked closer he saw that the bleeding had stopped and a fine, light-colored powder dusted the entire length of the elf’s slender, graceful back.
The ranger sucked his breath in sharply, beginning to realize just how cruel Castamir had been. Aragorn knew exactly what this stuff was and what it did. If he had not known his friend’s stoic constitution so well it would have been a wonder to him that Legolas was not screaming at the agony he knew the elf must be in. The medicinal horse powder was never meant to be used on humans or elves. It took unimaginable hatred to do this to someone.
“By the Valar... Legolas I’m sorry!” Aragorn was swiftly in motion, grabbing the water pail from the corner of the tent and retrieving the cloth that Castamir had been using before he turned to more sadistic pursuits.
Dipping the rag into the water and moving behind his friend, Aragorn hesitated. This was perhaps the cruelest part of what Castamir had done, because now to help Legolas, Aragorn would have to be the one to cause his friend more pain.
“Legolas...” he whispered softly. “I’m going to wash it off,” there was no need to specify what ‘it’ was. “Otherwise you will simply continue to hurt. But...” his heart twisted. “But understand that this powder is activated by water. That’s how they use it for the horses, it’s put into the affected hoof and water is added. I can’t just wipe it off, it has to be dissolved. There’s no other way to get rid of it, but... Legolas what I’m trying to say is that this is going to hurt.”
Legolas nodded once. He couldn’t imagine hurting worse than he already was... but if Aragorn said it had to be done then it had to be done and he wanted to get it over with. He felt that the pain was undoing him.
Aragorn winced in anticipation before quickly wringing the rag over Legolas’ hunched shoulders, letting the cleansing water run down his back.
Legolas stifled a scream. His friend had not been exaggerating about the effect that water had on the substance that Castamir had so heavily treated him with. Legolas jerked away from Aragorn, falling forward to rest on his hands, his body simply trying to escape the pain.
Aragorn bit his lip against the anguish in his heart and patiently followed the elf, dousing the wounds again and quickly running the cloth along the torn and inflamed flesh. “I’m sorry, Legolas, I’m sorry...”
Legolas reacted badly, pulling away sharply and retreating, soft, painful sobbing taking over him again. “I-I can’t... Estel please don’t...”
Aragorn stopped and knelt very still, his hands shaking slightly from the tension in his own body and the distress he was causing in the elf. Tears stung his eyes as his heart broke painfully within him.
“Legolas, please, I’m sorry. I don’t want to hurt you, I know you’re already in enough pain... but it will only continue to burn you until we get it off... if there was another way you know I would take it. Please mellon-nín, I’m sorry...” Aragorn felt worse than horrible. He didn’t even have anything he could give the elf to help him with the incessant fiery burning that was consuming the prince, almost all the medicines that he or the army had had been used up or lost by now.
Legolas forced himself to be still, hunching painfully over his knees. “Do it then,” he whispered shakily, bowing his head down until it rested on his clenched fists against the ground.
Aragorn was as quick and as gentle as he could be, but he knew that it hurt Legolas terribly anyway. The elf cried in pain that he could not hold back, but did not struggle again. There was no other being on middle earth, either elven or human that Legolas would have trusted at this moment so much that he would let them do this. Possibly not even Lord Elrond or his own father. But there was a deep down, inexplicable faith between he and Aragorn that had come over the years they had spent together. So he bid his body to fight the natural reaction of wishing to strangle the person who was at the moment seeming to cause him even more pain.
It was well that Legolas could find that level of restraint, because Aragorn would never have had the heart to hold the elf still, even to help him. He knew that to forcibly restrain the prince at this point would frighten and hurt Legolas far too much both mentally and emotionally after he had already been put through so much pain by others.
Finally Legolas’ body stopped shaking so much as the pain slowly began to ease and lose its bite. The natural hurt of the injuries seemed almost nothing to the elf now as the unnatural pain of the powder was finally washed away and his body relaxed a little in blessed relief as Aragorn finished washing and dressing the irritated welts.
Aragorn gently wrapped the last bandage and sat back on his heels. Wiping his grimy cheeks with the backs of his hands he pressed his knuckles into his eyelids, trying to check the tears that were burning his weary, bloodshot eyes. Emotionally drained beyond all reason after the day’s events he had nothing left to deal with the anguish of having to dress Legolas’ wounds while the prince cried under his touch.
The ranger felt someone’s gaze on him and opened his eyes. Legolas was sitting up again and the elf was watching him. As soon as the ranger caught him however, the prince looked away.
“Legolas, I am so sorry. Sorry that this happened and you have once again been hurt. Sorry that you trusted me and I broke my promise. I-I did not keep you safe. I failed you Legolas and all I can do... isn’t enough. And then... Please believe me that the last thing I wanted to do was cause you more pain...” Aragorn’s heart was breaking. Everything today had gone horribly wrong. He reached out and touched Legolas’ shoulder lightly.
The elf involuntarily flinched and pulled back, not because of Aragorn’s touch, but because his body was still on edge from all he had suffered.
Aragorn withdrew quickly. Legolas had not recoiled from his touch like that in years. Had the trust between them been that severely ruptured? He could still remember what it was like in the early days of their friendship, when the prince got edgy if Aragorn got too close, retreated from casual contact, and kept his heart closed. Aragorn didn’t want to go all the way back there, didn’t want to lose what had grown between them. He thought he would be ill.
Legolas’ eyes flashed with pain when he realized what his friend thought. “I know. I know mellon-nín. This isn’t your fault Aragorn,” he whispered hoarsely. “I do not blame you for Denethor or Castamir’s actions, nor what you had to do to undo them. It was the only way and it... it is better now... you have nothing to apologize for. If I were not such a weak and pathetic excuse for an elf you would not have had as much trouble...” the prince pressed his lips together, treacherous tears forming again in his weary eyes. He seemed to have no control over his emotions at all anymore and that irritated Legolas beyond belief.
Aragorn blinked in surprise and gently drew his friend close to him so that the elf’s head was resting lightly against his shoulder. “Legolas, you are anything but weak!”
The prince laughed mirthlessly against Aragorn’s tunic. He did not resist Aragorn’s attempts at consolation because even if it only proved his weakness further, his reeling body and mind took comfort from his friend. “Yes, and I look it right now don’t I?”
“Yes,” Aragorn affirmed decidedly. “Legolas, no one should have been put through the kind of pain you have been. But the fact that you were hurt is no shame to you.”
Legolas let his body relax and rest heavily against Aragorn’s, closing his eyes slightly. “I think if anyone else tried to touch me right now they would be dead,” he murmured wearily, but with a hint of humor. It was true; but his trust of his long friendship with Aragorn was deeper than his hurt or his fear and he allowed the human to sooth him without objection.
“Well then I’m glad I’m not anyone else!” Aragorn chuckled slightly. “I rather fancy remaining alive.”
Presently Legolas pulled back slightly and Aragorn immediately released him, but kept a hold of his hand. He was gratified to see that normal color was returning to Legolas’ face and the painful desperation had left the prince’s eyes.
Legolas sighed softly, his composure gradually returning as the pain and fear of his situation drained slowly away, not disappearing completely, but lessening to bearable proportions.
“I rather fancy it too,” he said quietly, with a small hint of a smile. “You know... I believe that you are the only man who has ever repeatedly seen me in moments when I am all that I despise being. When I am weak, when I am so helpless and vulnerable that I would rather die than suffer anyone to see the shame of it... and yet somehow... I do not resent you that knowledge.” Legolas meant that he felt safe with the Dúnadan, as strange as that seemed, but he didn’t know how to say it.
Aragorn nodded slowly. That’s what friends were for. “And you my friend, you have seen me through the same. I seem to remember someone who held me in the snow and listened to me cry and did not think me a weakling for my hurts or insecurities... but you have never seemed anything other strong and resilient to me Legolas. I see no weakness when I look in your eyes, no hurts or trials even after all the many difficult and terrible things we have faced together that have ever gone beyond body to touch your spirit.”
Legolas chuckled softly. “You know... your father told me something very similar once, a long time ago.” Aragorn knew Legolas was talking of Elrond, for the prince had never known his birth father. “You are very like him Estel.”
“I take that as a very high compliment,” Aragorn said softly, moving the elf around so he could clean the cuts on his cheek, harsh reminders of where Castamir’s fingernails had cut him.
Legolas smiled somewhat wearily. “Except that you never seem to wash your hands,” he jibed softly, glancing at the human’s hand which were still stained, despite being clean from having washed his friend’s wounds. “Or your face...” the elf’s lips quirked in a grin that at least shadowed a glimpse of his normal self. “And I’ll bet no one has seen to *your* wounds yet and I can tell you have them,” Legolas added, his eyes fixing meaningfully on the crusted, scabbed cut on the side of Aragorn’s face which he had only just now truly noticed.
Aragorn started to respond, but Legolas just shook his head. “I know, I know, you’re fine.”
Aragorn smiled softly, but then his eyes flashed pain, which quickly shifted to determination. “No, I’m not,” he shook his head, rising slowly to his feet and helping Legolas up with him. “I’m not fine.” Sliding off his cloak he wrapped it around the elf’s shoulders, pulling it up over the fair being’s head.
Legolas winced at the touch of cloth against the fresh bandages on his hurting back and looked at Aragorn questioningly. The ranger just put his finger to his lips for silence, taking the elf’s hand and leading him quietly out of the guard tent.
There was no one outside because they all knew that Captain Thorongil was in there and would summon guards when they were needed. Aragorn paused to get something out of another nearby tent and then Legolas followed his friend swiftly and silently to the edges of the camp before he realized what Aragorn was up to.
In the safety of the darkness outside the army camp, Aragorn slid out of the supply pack that was still slung across his back, forgotten during the day’s many long events, and passed it to his friend, handing over also the elf’s weapons which he had retrieved on the way out. Squeezing the prince’s hand Aragorn nodded out towards the welcoming shadows beyond. “Go Legolas, I’ll see that you are not missed until at least tomorrow, longer if I can.”
Legolas was shaking his head, trying to give Aragorn his pack back. “Strider I can’t do that... they will know it is you who let me go. You will be a traitor in their eyes, your life will be forfeit!”
“Go Legolas!” Aragorn’s voice took on an emphatic tone. “Don’t you understand? Denethor still thinks you a spy! He may keep the likes of Castamir away from you, but... Legolas, if he thinks you know something he *will* question you again. I do not have the authority to stop him. I cannot protect you here, I cannot keep any of this from happening again and I would not see you hurt this badly again *ever*.”
“The cost is too high!” the prince shook his head.
“No higher than that which you gave up to save my life in Mirkwood when I was young. You went into exile for me; consider this my opportunity to finally repay you for that if you will.”
“You wouldn’t run then Aragorn, do you think I hold my honor any less dear? I will not leave,” Legolas dropped the pack. “Not unless you come with me.”
“I can’t do that Legolas,” Aragorn’s voice was soft and his eyes pleaded with his friend to just go.
“And neither can I,” the elf whispered back, drawing the human’s head closer until their foreheads touched. “Do you think I could live knowing that you traded your life for mine? Could you if our places were reversed?”
Aragorn dropped his head in defeat. No, of course he couldn’t. “Legolas...”
A sudden clamor interrupted them and Aragorn half-spun towards the direction from which it came. The clash of sabers, shouts of alarm and the rattle of mail spoke clearly of heavy fighting being joined quite close at hand.
Chapter 9: Part Nine
In another moment the battle came into sight as a rolling, dark wave of Corsairs swept up the hill, pushing the thin ring of Gondorian sentries back before them.
Aragorn swore loudly and his sword was in his hand in an instant. He was almost positive that all the enemies they had faced earlier had either left with the captives or been scattered enough to be of no threat. Apparently the Corsairs had a few tricks up their sleeves. He had no idea where this new wave of enemy had come from, however it was probable that they had not even taken part in the first attack, but were waiting in hiding until they could catch their weakened adversaries off-guard. Although prepared against such tactics earlier, the weakened Gondorians had not expected the attack to come so long after the previous battle and the guard had relaxed. It was a fatal mistake and a deadly surprise.
Legolas winced hard as he swung his quiver over one shoulder and it came to rest against his hurting back, but it felt good to get a weapon into his hand again.
The camp was thrown immediately into chaos as the off-duty soldiers, already plunged in the midst of the broiling fray whether they knew it or not, woke and rushed to the aid of their companions.
Aragorn spun out of the way only just in time to avoid the swinging plunge of a sword blade. Whipping around, he caught the attacker’s sword with his own, quickly deflecting the second sweep.
Another man came up from behind and attempted to cut the ranger’s legs out from under him, but a long, slender arrow directly between his shoulder blades stopped him.
Legolas grimaced and dropped his arm quickly to his side, shouldering his bow in favor of his knives as one of the Corsairs rushed him. Drawing a bowstring was too painful in his current condition and the press of the enemy warranted hand-to-hand combat at this point.
Aragorn tossed a glance over his shoulder to throw his friend a grateful smile in the same moment that he dipped around to counter a new enemy.
Legolas, locked in his own combat, acknowledged with a small nod. Right now all motion was extremely difficult for him and he had to keep his attention focused. In one way fortune was with him at least, the Corsairs seemed initially less interested in him than in the more obviously Gondorian soldiers.
Aragorn tried to keep an eye on Legolas and stay close, knowing the prince was in seriously weakened condition, but a few moments later the area was swarming with enemy soldiers and it was all the weary captain could do to keep up.
Wave after wave of the enemy swept them apart. Fire pits were trampled and tents overturned, creating a smoldering, smoky atmosphere that only added to the confusion.
Aragorn called to his men, rallying those who were starting to panic. Across the camp, which had now become a burning battle ground, he could see Denethor mustering the scattered forces nearest to him and Aragorn began angling his line of defense so that they could spearhead across the middle and meet up with the divided contingent.
Legolas lost sight of Aragorn in the dark tangle of swinging swords and whizzing arrows. Gondorian soldiers and Corsair raiders were battling all around him. The prince was not one to walk away from a fight, but he was slowly trying to push himself to the fringes of this one. He knew his own strength and he knew that he could not long survive in the thick of the fray right now.
The Corsairs however, seemed to be everywhere. Soon Legolas found himself fighting almost alone, surrounded by the enemy and cut off from retreat as well as the other soldiers.
Separate and surround were the tactics that the Corsairs seemed to favor for this battle. They appeared to know the Gondorian soldiers’ strategies fairly well and thusly had devised the best way to splinter them.
The elf prince’s head was beginning to spin. He was too weak for this. He had not recovered his strength yet from his long privation and the wounds he had only just sustained screamed every time he moved.
Legolas heard a familiar voice and his hopes rose that help was coming until the words reach his ears. Quickly thrusting his knife into the belly of the Corsair in front of him, he turned towards the sound of the men who approach from behind him.
“Well what have we here? You look a little worse for the wear Legolas. I was searching for others, I didn’t expect to find you.”
Legolas stared, stunned at the man who led a small Corsair contingent towards him. “You,” he breathed in shock. “But, how... I thought you-”
“Take him. He knows too much.” Dark eyes stared dispassionately at the elf, ignoring and cutting off the stunned question. “I’m sorry you didn’t just leave Legolas. It would have been better for you. Now I can’t let you go, knowing what you know.”
“*You* are the traitor?!” Disbelief paralyzed Legolas for a fraction of a second. He found the truth hard to believe, but it stood before him, not denying the accusations. Suddenly it all made sense and the pieces clicked into place... too late.
The Corsairs surged forward, surrounding the prince and spurring him to action. Legolas struggled against the soldiers, unwilling to go without a fight. The momentary distraction of finally knowing the identity of the real traitor threw him off just enough that he was unprepared for the Corsair’s rush. He was able to take three of them down before he was overwhelmed, but in the end he was sorely outnumbered. His arms quickly pinned and bound to his sides, Legolas was roughly forced to kneel on the ground before the man he had once considered an ally.
“What do we do with him?” A Corsair guard asked.
The traitor stood now with his back to the small contingent, watching the main battle, feigning disinterest. His dark eyes scanned the fighting for the true objects of his mission.
“What do I care? I have bigger concerns to tend to. Sell him to the slavers with the other lot...” Slowly the man turned back towards the captive, his dead gaze momentarily lighting on the elf before fixing the guards with a steady stare, “No, give him to them. I am sure they know how to lose one of his kind in a land this large.” His gaze flickered back to Legolas for a moment. A part of him almost did regret this. The elf had been a pawn, but an innocent one. A casualty of war. “You proved useful elf, and for that I’ll not kill you, but I don’t know whether you should thank me or not.” With that he walked away and Legolas was left to watch him disappear. A deep sense of betrayal burned in the elvish heart and it only added to his confusion.
“Wait...” But the elf was silenced as one of the guards smashed the pommel of his sword against the back of the prince’s skull and he fell unconscious to the ground.
The retreating figure paused momentarily on the grassy slope. He really hadn’t meant for the elf to become involved in any of this, Legolas had simply been in the wrong place at the wrong time... or actually the right place at the right time, he supposed, depending on whose point of view you were looking from. Somewhere beneath the layers of deceit and treachery that had hardened his heart the man almost regretted the elf’s fate. The men of Gondor he would see completely destroyed, but he had borne Legolas no malice. He had simply been a tool... however, like all tools, there came a time when their usefulness was at an end.
“Things aren’t always as they seem,” he whispered quietly, finally answering Legolas’ question before melting into the early morning fog. He had a mission to accomplish. The sounds of warfare rang more loudly in his ears as he approached the main battlefield. There were others he needed to dispose of and time was running short, he had no room for regret, his heart had long ago lost all feeling. That had died with his parents a long, long time ago.
Aragorn and Denethor managed to rally their forces and form a loosely defensive ring of opposition on the eastern flank of camp, near the canyon wall. Since the enemy’s purpose was to divide them, staying together as much as possible was essential and seemed to actually throw their attackers off as it was an unexpected shift on the Gondorian’s part.
The two captains found themselves fighting nearly side by side as the latest enemy rush tried to drive a wedge down the middle of their defenses.
Aragorn felt as if his sword had become fused to his hand, an extension of his aching arms. He didn’t think he had ever been so weary; he had only just returned from one long and strenuous battle not even two hours past and had not slept in longer than he could remember. Adrenaline and willpower alone kept him going now, along with his burning resolve to let no more of their men be slaughtered if he could help it.
Denethor was nearly as weary and just as determined. Together the two captains held the field... but their exhausted minds did not notice that the Corsairs were slowly forcing their supporting troops back while keeping the officers neatly pinned where they were.
A grating rumble above made Aragorn look up sharply. He dodged only just in time to avoid a large boulder that was hurled down from the darkness of the cliff that loomed over them. Some of the Corsair soldiers had gained the top of the steep rise and were dislodging stones down upon them.
The boulders were not very precise weapons and as Aragorn side-stepped another it took out the Corsair soldier he was fighting. An instant later however, another careening missile grazed Aragorn’s shoulder, making his arm tingle and knocking him sideways. He pulled himself up again only just in time to see one of the large stones strike Denethor from behind, knocking the captain’s legs out from under him and throwing him to the ground.
“Denethor!” Aragorn called in alarm as several of the Corsairs moved in to finish the downed man off. Fighting his way through them, Aragorn reached the other captain’s side. The future steward was conscious and trying to get up, but his left leg seemed to be giving him great pain and he could not manage it.
The small avalanche that had been started was still going on under its own impetus and the Corsairs were forced to pull back their attack a little. This gave Aragorn time to drag Denethor behind one of the larger boulders that had already settled, hopefully securing a little protection for the injured man.
“I’m all right,” Denethor warded off his counterpart’s worriedly probing hands. “It’s just my blasted leg,” he grit out between clenched teeth. The cold sweat gathering on his brow told Aragorn that it was a lot worse than the other captain wanted to admit.
“It’s broken,” Aragorn confirmed after a quick examination of the future Steward’s damaged lower leg.
Denethor swore. He knew what the life expectancy was for a soldier with a useless leg in the middle of a battle. Minimal to none.
A sword chopped the air where Aragorn’s head had been, except the ranger moved too fast for the assailant. Jumping to his feet he sprung over the boulder to face the new attack, bidding Denethor stay down.
With the cliff to his back and an injured man to protect, Aragorn realized grimly that his moments were numbered as the Corsairs pressed him harder. His breathing came short and fast and his weary muscles burned. Perspiration ran down his face and into his eyes making them sting and blur.
One of the Corsairs got past him and used the moment to drive his sword down blindly behind the rock. Denethor gave a pained cry, but even from his compromised position he managed to behead the villain before he got any further.
Just when Aragorn was beginning to think the end was near, a new figure jumped into the skirmish, followed by others. Tarcil had fought his way through to his commanders and brought a small group of men with him. With the odds beginning to even out, Aragorn was able to catch his breath a little. Hurrying back to Denethor, the ranger found, much to his dismay, that the other captain had taken a nasty gash to his broken leg and it was bleeding profusely.
Denethor bit back a cry as Aragorn ripped off his own sleeve and quickly pressed the wadded fabric over the wound.
“I couldn’t get it out of the way in time,” he muttered, angry with himself.
Aragorn just squeezed his arm and clapped the future Steward’s hand over the make-shift bandage. “Hold this tightly, your life depends on it.”
Denethor fumbled slightly, his bruised fingers numb and shaky. Aragorn bit his lower lip. This was no good, without firm pressure the man would die.
“Tarcil!” Aragorn poked his head up, looking for help. His second-in-command was too far away to hear, but another soldier was near and came at his call. “Quickly, I need help with Captain Denethor’s wounds...” Aragorn stopped when he looked up, disturbed to find that the soldier who had come was none other than Castamir.
Denethor’s eyes narrowed. “How did you-”
“I got free when the fighting started,” was the pre-emptive reply. The soldier must have seen the look of distrust in both his superior’s eyes because he quickly leveled the men with a serious glare. “I don’t care what you think of me because I don’t like either of you very much either,” the fact that they were probably all about to die gave the soldier total candor. “But I’ll rot in Mordor before I let these sons of Sauron win. If you’re going to execute me for disobeying orders again and escaping, do it. Otherwise hand me that damn bandage.”
Aragorn grabbed Castamir’s hands somewhat roughly and placed them on the wound, showing him where to press. “Keep the pressure constant and don’t let go, no matter what,” he instructed in clipped tones. “If you so much as move to rub your eyes he’ll die. And if that happens, I’ll kill you myself.” He could not forget what this man had done to his friend, but now was not the time for personal feelings. He had to get back into the battle. The army could not afford to have both of its commanding officers out of action.
Tarcil lead the bulk of the attack away from the two Captains, allowing he and his men to be pushed back in order to take the Corsairs’ attacking with them. Through the press Tarcil vaguely saw another group of Gondorian soldiers heading for his commander’s position so he allowed himself to be the decoy to draw the main host away.
Out of the corner of his eye Aragorn also saw the arriving troops approaching as he crossed weapons with the two swarthy Corsairs fighting him. One of the Gondorian soldiers moved in to help him... or so he thought. However an instant later he was flat on his face, half sprawled across the boulder behind him, his head and shoulders buzzing from where he had been viciously clubbed. The cool, rough surface of the rock scraped his skin and dug into his ribs as a second blow forced the air from his lungs and knocked him to the ground near Denethor and Castamir.
Castamir started and half began to rise, but the warm, sticky flow of blood, which gushed up around his fingers when he let up even a little pressure, made him stop and re-think his actions, as did the ring of enemy soldiers outfitted in Gondorian armor who now had them completely encircled.
Dizzily Aragorn rolled onto his back to find himself staring up into the face he had least expected to see.
Chapter 10: Part Ten
Dark eyes regarded the fallen Captain with something akin to amusement, although there was nothing pleasant about the look in them at all.
“Alcarin?” Aragorn blinked in shock. Next to him Denethor and Castamir were also staring in surprise.
“Quite un-dead I assure you,” the traitor in the Gondorian uniform gave a mock-bow.
Denethor’s face was pale from pain and blood loss but his jaw quivered in rage. “It was you. It was you all along, wasn’t it?”
“Guilty as charged,” Alcarin smiled. His whole manner had changed; he no longer seemed the soft-spoken officer they had known. It was as if a mask had been discarded and they could see with true vision now. He leveled the point of the sword in his hand with Aragorn’s throat. “And now I have you all exactly where I want you. Where I have always wanted you and all of your kind.”
The Corsairs, including the ones dressed in the uniforms of Gondor, which Alcarin had led over, converged around Denethor and Castamir, making any thought of movement impossible. Roughly they relieved Castamir of his weapon. The soldier scowled darkly but did not move away from the life-saving tourniquet he was applying. There was nothing they could do against such numbers.
“Why?” Aragorn sat up slowly, wary of the blade hovering near his neck. Shaking his head he rubbed his aching ribs. Trying anything sudden right now would only result in all their deaths so he acted with caution. Alcarin had the air of someone who wanted to gloat about his victory, obviously, or else they would all be dead already. Hopefully if Aragorn could nurse that desire along a little, it would give him time to come up with a better plan. “What could they pay you to sell out your own countrymen?”
“My own countrymen?” Alcarin spit in derision. “THESE are *my* countrymen, *my* people.” He snorted, motioning with his free hand to the men standing behind him. The traitor pressed down a little on his blade, pushing Aragorn further back onto his elbows to avoid being skewered.
“Or at least as close as I can get to having a people. I’m a half-breed as you people so carelessly like to call us, but I’m sure you never knew that did you? No, the high and mighty army of Gondor would never have accepted someone whose father was a Corsair.” He drove the blade down a little further. “All your high and mighty prattle about laws and justice. My family never received any!”
Aragorn, now nearly flat on his back, winced and reflexively pulled back a little more. Out of the corner of his eye he saw the fallen hilt of his sword just out of reach of his out-flung right hand, hidden from their attacker’s sight by the boulder beside them. If only he could scoot a little to the right without Alcarin noticing...
“Oh but the best joke of all was that my father was far more loyal to you than I have ever been.” Alcarin was still talking, a lot of planning and pain had led to this moment and if he had the time, which he felt he did, then these men would know how they had done this to themselves before they died. “He was a mercenary soldier and he fought and died in your blasted wars for you, but my mother and I had to live in shame and ridicule as if we were traitors. We were never accepted. The grief eventually killed my mother, but I made my way to Umbar and found where I belonged. Your people called my father a traitor, but he was loyal, and me...” he grinned. “Ironic, isn’t it?” He drew back his arm a little, an almost imperceptible motion, but clearly signaling to Aragorn that he was preparing to end this talk. “The Corsairs didn’t buy me, don’t you understand? They didn’t have to, I volunteered. I was planted! Long ago. Years and years I have tolerated you people and now it’s over. Now you pay. Now you all die.”
“Yes, just like Elan and Krit died, you killed them, didn’t you?” Aragorn was desperately trying to stall as he inched a little back from the blade hovering above his neck and slowly stretched his hand out towards the concealed weapon. People like Alcarin could almost always be coerced into talking about themselves and their cleverness a little longer, even in the middle of a battle and especially when they felt so sure of their victory. “Did you always mean to blame it on Legolas or was that just an accident?”
Alcarin laughed, but his face sobered a little. “Your elf friend was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. He’s the only part of this I almost regret, but it was too good to pass up. He almost made it too simple for me. You all jumped on him just like I knew you would. Just as was done to my father. It is so easy to distrust that which is different from you, isn’t it?” he leveled his cold glare on Castamir.
The other soldier’s eyes burned with rage, but he still didn’t really understand how all this could be yet. It didn’t make sense!
“But Castamir was right in his guess of what happened, he simply had the wrong killer, isn’t that true?” Aragorn pressed, stretching his fingers as all the pieces of the mystery came together at last. “It was *you* who lured those boys out into the woods and somehow shot them with Legolas’ arrows.”
“Which he never even knew were missing since I played the part of retriever in his little targeting exposition for the men. He thought I broke them by accident when pulling them free,” Alcarin put in, obviously very pleased with his own cleverness.
That was a fundamental weakness of a brilliant plan, Aragorn reflected, there was no enjoyment in it unless you had someone to tell it to after the fact. His fingers brushed the hilt of his sword.
Denethor saw the movement and tensed slightly, but made it a point to not look at the other Captain so as to not draw any attention thither. He began to see what Aragorn was doing and chimed in. “You dragged the bodies into the woods where your Corsair friends were waiting, they were the ones who fired on the elf and then retrieved the arrows after he left, casting all the suspicion on him. Then what? You stymied them and dragged them down here so you could carry on your treacherous ways?”
Alcarin’s grin turned condescending. “I had no control over bandits and sudden floods, those were accidents. But when I heard that a Gondorian troop was heading south, stealthily as if not wishing to be seen... well. I knew I had to join them. And when I found out you knew, or were about to know, far too much about our doings downstream... let’s just say I didn’t get much rest when everyone thought we were sleeping before you returned. I had people to warn.”
“So you wipe us out before we can take word back to Lord Ecthelion and thus leave Gondor unprepared for your little invasion, is that it?” Denethor’s voice was hard. “You faked your own death to gain the element of surprise and now your mission is to kill the two of us. Without Captains the whole army would be temporarily crippled. That’s been your goal all along, hasn’t it, to cripple the army in any way you could?” It struck the captain hard to realize that Legolas had been telling the truth all along, but he did not have time for the luxury of remorse right now.
Alcarin nodded approvingly. “You’re not as stupid as you look. But I hope that gives you no comfort on your way to the Halls of Mandos. There are only two pieces of knowledge I want you to take there,” his look darkened. “That you have all brought this on yourselves, and that your land will fall and your people will serve us in chains!”
He thrust forward sharply, meaning to kill Aragorn and at the same time giving the signal for his men to finish the other two.
Aragorn’s hand closed tightly around the hilt of his sword and he brought it up quickly, rolling to the right and knocking Alcarin’s blade aside. The traitor’s sword cut a deep groove across his collarbones as he pulled away.
Denethor, already prepared to act, grabbed the bandage on his leg as tightly as he could, freeing Castamir’s hands. No order was necessary to spur the soldier to action. Grabbing up Denethor’s sword, which had been hidden at his side by Castamir’s body and therefore not confiscated with the others, the soldier jumped to the defensive.
Alcarin swung at Aragorn, making the ranger roll away once more as the blade crashed into the ground where he had been, tossing up sparks. Gaining his feet Aragorn crossed sabers with him again.
“You can dress it up in a lot of words Alcarin, but you’re still just a traitor! You murdered men who trusted you with their lives and let the innocent take the blame!”
Seeing another Corsair about to go after Denethor Aragorn kicked Alcarin hard, his boot connecting with the man’s chest as he broke away from the fight, jumping over the rock to give assistance. Alcarin quickly regained his balance and attempted to follow the ranger, but his forward motion was suddenly checked when Castamir leaped on him.
“You sold us out! You lied to us! You killed my nephew and made me believe an innocent was guilty!” the soldier raged as he threw Alcarin backwards with the force of his rush.
Alcarin recovered quickly. “No Castamir, you did that perfectly well on your own.” Spinning around he stepped inside the other soldier’s guard and got a clean swing at Castamir’s head. But the stroke never fell and instead Alcarin’s eyes went wide. He stumbled forwards a step, his mouth opening silently before he fell to his knees, the knife from Aragorn’s boot imbedded firmly in his heart from behind.
Unfortunately there was no rest for the weary because the enemy just kept coming. Aragorn and Castamir found themselves being slowly hedged in once more as they stood on either side of Denethor’s prone form.
Holding the bandage on his leg with one hand, Denethor struggled and tugged at his tangled gear with the other. With some difficulty he managed to extract the large horn which hung strapped across his chest. Lifting it to his lips he blew several quick, clear notes; an obvious distress call.
For a few minutes no one seem to have heard, but presently a wave of Gondorian soldiers pressed the position from the rear, driving through the enemy as they rushed to answer the Horn of Gondor; all there knew that it was only blown at direst need.
Given a lull in fighting, Aragorn dropped down beside the future Steward, but Denethor was unconscious, his blood flowing much too freely. Clamping the bandage down once more, Aragorn and Castamir lifted the fallen Captain and carried him off the battle field as their fellow soldiers cut a clear path through the enemy, pressing the Corsairs back away from their leaders and slowly turning the tide.
Some hours later the fighting finally died down. The last of the Corsairs were either dead or fled and the small, rag-tag remnant of Gondorian soldiers were left the victors, if victors they could be called at this point. At the moment it seemed their only victory had been survival, but that was enough.
Aragorn was weary beyond measure, but he would not rest until he had seen to all the wounded. Most of the medics had been killed, leaving precious few to who knew more than just rudimentary care. As much as he wanted to sleep and never wake up, Aragorn knew that he was the only real healer present and the only one who could save some of the more seriously injured. Tarcil and Castamir stayed with him the whole time, helping as best they could. Tarcil, he had been instructing in the healing arts, and so between the three of them and their handful of helpers, they somehow managed.
Dawn had already risen and the sun was high in the sky before Aragorn tied the last suture and placed the last bandage. He stood up to stretch his back. When he ended up on his knees again he didn’t know quite what had happened or how he had gotten there, except he didn’t want to rise.
Tarcil saw the Captain’s knees buckle and hurried over. They were all dead tired, but Thorongil had extended himself beyond his reach these past few hours, pouring all he could into the injured he sought to save. Lord Denethor alone had required hours of attention and much work to sustain since he had lost so much blood.
Taking Thorongil’s arm, Tarcil gently pulled him to his feet and guided him towards the sleeping area. Aragorn shook his head, trying to protest. “Have to... have to check on Denethor once more...” his words were starting to slur.
“I’ll check on him, he was doing fine the last time. You rest now or you’ll kill yourself,” Tarcil let the man down easy and laid his cloak over him since there were no blankets left to be had.
Aragorn didn’t have the strength to protest, but his mind would not rest. He had not yet found Legolas, either among the living or the wounded... or the dead. That bothered him greatly. “Legolas...” he murmured. “Must find him...”
“We will,” Tarcil assured. Grabbing Castamir by the arm as he passed by he pointed at Aragorn. “Make sure the Captain stays put. Sit on him if you have to. I’m going to check on Lord Denethor.”
Aragorn couldn’t have risen if he wanted to, so Castamir just sat down and stared at him for a moment. Now that the danger was past the soldier wasn’t sure what his position was. He could have run any number of times but for some reason he had stayed. It was hard, Alcarin’s betrayal had confused him greatly and feelings of shame and horror over the way he had behaved towards someone who was truly innocent were beginning to gnaw at his conscience.
“Legolas...” Aragorn murmured again and Castamir flinched, looking down at his hands. What had they all done? He knew he could be horrible when he’d been drinking, but that was no excuse. He had never liked the elf and he still didn’t, but he would never have treated him the way he had if he hadn’t truly thought him a heartless murderer and traitor.
“Captain Thorongil?” he said quietly.
“Hmm?” the tone suggested that the Captain was not really awake.
“I’m sorry,” it was barely murmured and stiffly said, as one not used to making apologies. “I-I didn’t know... I was wrong.”
Aragorn was too weary to hold the man any hatred and too exhausted to think much. Instead he just nodded slowly as he drifted off to rest. “Hate destroys us all and always hurts the innocent,” he murmured and was asleep almost before he’d finished.
Castamir buried his head in his hands, shaking slightly from the adrenaline run-off and emotional shock of recent events.
That it did. That it certainly did.
In the end, hate had hurt them all.
The wind was strong today and it caught the flags and banners flying from the ramparts of the white tower, making them stand stiffly at attention over the heads of the mustered forces waiting outside the city gates for their commander.
Inside the city, Aragorn stood in the great hall before the Lord Ecthelion. With the report they brought back there was no longer any doubt that action was needed and Aragorn had easily obtained the Steward’s permission and blessing to take a force up to Umbar or at least as far was necessary.
Ecthelion squeezed the Captain’s shoulder one last time in parting. He had come to care for the younger man like another son, but something in his heart told him this was the last time they would see one another in this lifetime. “Go with blessings Thorongil, may your mission be successful.”
Aragorn nodded and bowed. There were no words of final parting spoken, but it seemed somehow an unsaid understanding between them as Aragorn turned and exited the hall.
Leaving the great hall behind, he made his way towards the gate, but slowed and stopped when he saw Denethor sitting in the courtyard, watching him. The other Captain’s broken leg was splinted and he was seated on a litter on which some of the servants would carry him about until he could make use of the limb once more.
The injury made it impossible for him to go with the army, so it was only natural that Thorongil should lead this venture, even if you didn’t take into account that he had been its main advocate in the first place. All the same, Aragorn wondered if Denethor resented him this mission. The future Steward had said very little to him since regaining consciousness on the journey back to Minas Tirith, almost as if he were half-avoiding the other Captain.
For a moment the two men said nothing. Before the impasse could become uncomfortable however, a small voice broke the silence.
“Daddy!” the tiny child to whom the voice belonged catapulted unsteadily through the archway behind Denethor. The little boy couldn’t have been quite two years old yet but his bright eyes danced as he ran to Denethor’s chair.
“Boromir, what are you doing out here?” Denethor questioned in surprise. His tone attempted to be stern, but his true feelings showed through as he dropped his hand down to run through the boy’s short, wavy hair. “Did you leave TaTa behind again?”
“Boromir! Boromir!” the child’s nurse called in reprimand as she hurried through the archway after him. But the little boy had not been allowed to see his father since Denethor’s return and was not about to be put off any longer. The tall chair was too high for the child to scramble onto, but he was trying.
Aragorn stooped and lifted the small boy up, placing him gently on his father’s lap, careful of Denethor’s bandages and splint. Denethor smiled in spite of himself as his son burrowed happily back into the crook of his arm.
His nurse came over to take the child away, apologizing for the interruption, but Boromir was ignoring her attempt to get him to come to her.
“Missed you Daddy. Take me with you next time. I can fight too!” the boy said seriously in his infant voice.
“Not just yet little one,” Denethor shook his head softly, letting the child play with his fingers. “When you’re older. It’s all right Tatiana,” he waved the nurse off. “Let’s go find your mother Boromir,” he said, much to the child’s delight.
The servants standing silent and ready lifted his chair at the indirect command.
Aragorn watched father and son with a small smile. Interacting with Boromir was the only time he had ever seen a gentle side to Denethor and he hoped for the sake of the child and any who followed after that the future Steward would not drive them with the same relentlessness with which he drove himself. He feared the result would only be heartache.
Denethor hesitated a moment, his gaze going back to Aragorn. “May the campaign be successful and Gondor prevail,” he said at last in way of parting before motioning the litter bearers to take him away.
Aragorn nodded and watched them leave. He sighed slightly as he passed out of the gates and made his way swiftly through the city to where the troops were awaiting him. He did not understand Denethor at all sometimes. He knew that the Captain felt badly about how he had treated Legolas but the fact that he had been wrong and Aragorn right had not furthered their relationship.
Denethor was a good man. If only he could understand that he didn’t always have to be right in order to not be a failure. That sometimes it was all right to admit when you were wrong, not just ignore it... the ranger shook his head. Relations between he and the future Steward would never be what he would wish he supposed, but he also understood that it was becoming too late to change that now, for his time here was drawing to a close. He considered this to be his last mission for Gondor. Once he could report that the Corsair threat had been eliminated and the people were safe again then his job here was over. Just as well he supposed, since if Ecthelion was right and his time was failing, Denethor would most likely not continue to welcome or tolerate his presence once the Stewardship passed to him.
A small, dry grin touched Aragorn’s lips. At least he and Denethor had not parted enemies. That was something he supposed.
As Captain Thorongil passed out of the city and moved to take his place at the head of the assembled troops he put all other thoughts aside. He had a job to do. He had to ensure the safety of the people of Gondor and then...
Then he was free.
Many thoughts and concerns about the coming campaign crowded his mind, but even so, one concern remained ever near the surface.
He had not seen the elf since the last battle with the Corsairs. The day after the fight he had searched for hours, he had re-examined all the wounded, checked every body before it was buried, scoured the surrounding area. Not a trace of the elf, not even his weapons or a piece of his gear left among the ruins. Legolas was gone without leaving a single clue.
Aragorn’s first thought, and his lingering hope, was that the elf had taken advantage of the chaos as an opportunity to do what the ranger had been urging him to do and run, since once the attack began there was no longer any way that anyone could definitively blame Aragorn for his escape. But the human couldn’t be sure, and then again even if that was the case he still wanted to find Legolas, to let him know that he was freed from the false accusations, and that he hadn’t killed anyone, by accident or otherwise.
For that purpose Aragorn had left Tarcil and a small company of men behind. Partly to keep the area secure, but mostly to look for the missing elf. Tarcil was the only man Aragorn trusted with that charge and the commander understood the weighty trust his captain had placed upon him. Aragorn hoped that his second-in-command would have good news for him when he returned with the rest of the troops. If not... if not then finding out exactly where Legolas had gotten to and tracking him down, all the way back to Mirkwood if necessary, was on the top of his to-do list as soon as his current obligation was fulfilled.
Legolas moaned softly. All he could see was darkness. He could feel nothing, sense nothing. The world was a dim, unreal blur.
“Hey, Goldie-locks is coming around again.” Rough, disembodied voices spoke from somewhere far away.
“Well put him back out for crimminy’s sake!” a second voice snapped. “You want him trying to get loose again? I can’t afford to lose anymore men.”
Legolas felt what could have been a damp cloth pressed against his face, over his nose and mouth. He tossed his head and struggled weakly, but in vain, as leaden unconsciousness crept back over his body, plunging him once more into the darkness.
Chapter 11: Part Eleven
The night was dark and quiet. Tarcil stirred the embers of the fire in the pit that he and a few of the others sat around. Captain Thorongil had returned with the rest of the army some days ago. The harbor from which Umbar was massing its attack was still busy as a beehive. The brazenness of the Corsairs was almost startling. Their earlier victories against the unprepared troops of Gondor must have affirmed their beliefs that the Gondorians were not prepared, nor equipped to deal with their impending invasion.
They were about to find out how wrong they were.
Tarcil laid aside the stick he had stirred the embers with. Thorongil had sent fifteen of them on ahead to spy out the lay of the harbor and to see if they could discover what, if any, weaknesses the Corsairs had overlooked in the small makeshift town and harbor they had thrown together on the edge of the Anduin.
The men around him shifted quietly, unwilling to settle down for the evening. They all knew that the safety of Gondor lay with them. The wars with Harad had left their army weak. If they could not stop the Corsairs, then it would be up to the remainder of the contingent they had left behind on the fields of Pelargir.
And if they should fail...
It was best not to think such thoughts. The Gondorian soldier glanced up into the darkened sky, noting the small pinpoints of light in the black canopy. Even the stars held their breath.
Thorongil had thought it wise to split up the large contingent that Lord Ecthelion had sent with the captain. He felt that stealth would more easily overcome their enemy instead of sheer mass. The harbor’s defenses were broad and wide-flung to prevent against any mass attacks. It was Thorongil’s opinion that the Corsairs would never expect a small group of soldiers from Gondor to infiltrate the harbor and so the element of surprise would be on their side. The men around the Gondorian soldier were merely the forerunners in the attack that Thorongil had planned.
Sighing heavily, Tarcil shook his head. He just hoped it was enough. He hoped they would be more successful in this than they had been in finding the Captain’s elf friend. Tarcil had done his best and searched for leagues in each direction, but there had never been even the slightest trace of Legolas. The elf had vanished as if he had never been. Telling Thorongil that hadn’t been easy, but as always, the Captain was a just and a kind man. He did not fault Tarcil for being unable to find what was not there. But the soldier could still tell that the news had disturbed his commander deeply. Tarcil sighed again. Now was not the time for such thoughts, they could afford no distractions.
The main body of soldiers would join them when Thorongil brought them up. They expected their commander to arrive any time now. A few of the company would remain behind, near Pelargir, setting up camp and readying for the return of the taken population of Lithiant. The Corsairs, it was well known, sold most of their wartime prisoners into slavery and they did not expect the people to return unharmed.
Pelargir was many miles to the north of the destroyed city of Lithiant. From there, the people would be taken home to Gondor’s capitol and then they would be relocated, or if Lord Ecthelion saw fit, he would send them back with help to rebuild their ruined city; depending on how safe the surrounding area was.
The men across the fire from the Commander jumped, reaching for their weapons and quietly gasping in shock as the form of a man stepped into the ring of light the fire shed in the small corner of the woods they had encamped in for the night.
Tarcil stood and turned quickly towards the disturbance, letting his breath out in a loud sigh as Thorongil raised his empty hands slightly, a huge smile spreading across his face.
“I didn’t scare you did I?” The northerner chuckled softly before grasping Tarcil’s arm in greeting and motioning the man back down to the seat he had left only moments before. “Please, be at ease.”
Thorongil seated himself on a log that had been pulled up next to the fire, the space recently and quickly vacated for him by the men.
“How is it you do that?” Tarcil leveled his commander with a stern glare.
“Do what?” Aragorn laughed lightly knowing full well he had scared the men out of their wits by approaching them so silently. Secretly he had enjoyed himself and even more so he was glad he was still able to walk with such stealth, although men were easily distracted and not as keen as elves, it was nonetheless no simple feat among these skilled warriors.
“You know exactly of what I speak.” Tarcil smiled in return, shaking his head, “That...” He raised his hand and gestured towards Thorongil, “That sneaking up on us like you do.”
“You should constantly be aware of your surroundings Tarcil.” Thorongil admonished lightly.
“Aware?! How can one be aware of what one cannot hear? Even the woods did not silence for your approach.” Tarcil’s eyes narrowed as he taunted his superior, “Makes me wonder if there isn’t elvish in that blood of yours.”
Aragorn laughed aloud, his mirth contagious in the men around him. He had never spoken of his past or his upbringing and it pleased him that Tarcil had made the connection on his own. Yes, this one would make a good leader. He made up his mind to appoint his second-in-command over his men when he left, the Gondorian soldier was respected and well liked, it would be an easy transition.
Ignoring Tarcil’s comments, Thorongil quickly changed the subject as he accepted a warm mug of mead from the soldier on his left. Taking a small drink he swallowed the heated liquid, feeling its warmth down into his stomach.
With a nod of thanks he turned back to Tarcil, “What of the Corsairs? How is their encampment laid out, can we approach the ships undetected? How many have they moved to the harbor? Is there no weakness, no lax that we can exploit?” The questions tumbled out as his war-honed mind, sharpened on the impending conflict and he easily switched into his role as commander.
The change was not lost on his friend who couldn’t help smiling at the deft switch. Answering quickly, Tarcil began to fill his Captain in on the lay of the land around the harbor and the exact times when the guards were changed. It seemed that the main contingent of the Corsair forces slept in barracks they had crudely fashioned near the wharf. The officers and shipwrights could often be found in the evenings enjoying the bounty brought in by their latest raid and strategizing on the forward-most vessel. The other ships were occupied only with the crewmembers and the craft’s builders. The time was nearly upon them when the ships would be completed and readied. According to Tarcil they had already been loaded with a complete armory, they only awaited the command to set off and begin their invasion.
Thorongil’s second-in-command continued describing what they would find down to the smallest detail, he had been thorough. The ranger found his description of the harbor master intriguing. The fellow sounded imposing and he hoped they would be able to take him out first. If not, he could prove a serious problem. Tarcil was sure he would be in the forward boat as well, as he often occupied himself with the mead that was fully stocked aboard the officers’ ship.
Aragorn stiffened visibly as the soldier continued to fill him in on what they had discovered in the days they had been down here on their own, and a plan began to form in his mind.
“Thorongil,” Tarcil glanced worriedly around the small group of men. He leaned forward, his voice falling quietly, “The slaves have all been loaded onto one of the ships. We saw them just last night. They were in chains and were herded below deck. Men, women and children; they do not care - they took them all. Not just those from Lithiant either, but many others. The Corsairs have been busy since our last battle and the countryside around has felt the ravaging touch of their raids. Some of the slaves are not Gondorian, but I would wish the Corsairs on no one, they are without mercy. The ship is readying to leave at a moment’s notice. Why they have tarried I know not, but they will not remain much longer. If we wish to rescue our people we must move quickly.”
The tension rose in the small glade as Aragorn took in the new information. Hot anger burned in his heart and he had not dropped his gaze from that of Tarcil’s as he worked through this news. He hated slavery and those who enslaved others held no special place in his heart. His own slavery, years ago, had been cruel and degrading enough to put a life-long disdain of it inside him. His thoughts fell back to another time when he had endured chains and the shame of being sold as nothing more than a possession, easily tossed aside.
Rising swiftly from his seat, he crossed the camp and picked up his pack from where he had dropped it on the edges of the ring of light the fire spread.
When Thorongil’s gaze rested on his second-in-command the man knew without a word that they were leaving at once. Ordering the men up and the camp stricken, Tarcil set his full attention on his commander.
“You said there were still vats of pitch near the ships?” Aragorn focused once more on the Gondorian soldier he trusted so much.
“Yes.” Tarcil’s eyes narrowed, trying to follow where his commander was going with the information he had been given. The pitch was used for sealing the great ships. Once they were made seaworthy it was sometimes necessary to patch here and there so the large vats had been moved onto the platform that created the harbors edge, off of the main walkway but within easy reach of the ship builders.
Pulling several burning limbs from the fire before it was put out; Thorongil passed the flaming torches among the men.
“I’m going back to retrieve the main contingent. I left them stationed not a mile from here. You and the men go ahead of us. Find the vats and soak your arrow tips in them. As soon as you see us, light them on fire and shoot them at the ships. We will burn them down where they rest. While you are about that, the others will secure the Corsair soldiers. Do nothing but focus on those ships; we must not allow them to leave. I will take care of the rest.” He grabbed Tracil’s arm as he stepped past the man heading back to the encampment where he had left the main body of warriors. “Do not let that slave ship depart under any circumstances. Do you understand?”
“Yes my lord, I understand.”
“Good.” Aragorn nodded curtly, smiling gently when he noted the tenseness in the other, “It will go well for us Tarcil, you will see. We will not let them take our brothers with them.” He tightened his grip on the man’s forearm quickly before running back into the woods the way he had come.
It was time.
Tarcil turned and stared at the men waiting on his command. He sighed deeply and nodded at the soldiers, in moments the small contingent of warriors was moving stealthily through the darkened woods towards the harbor.
The moon was a mere sliver in the dark sky that overshadowed the Anduin. The large Corsair ships sat in the harbor, gently swaying with the river’s eddies. The sails were set on two of the great boats near the northern part of the docks. A stillness lay over the land as a warm, gentle breeze caught and rippled the white canvas squares. Lights burned brightly through the portals set horizontally, high in the ships bellies, attesting to the fact that there were some who were not yet asleep. The false sense of peace had lulled the enemy warriors into a lax state, feeling overly confident in the power they had amassed. Their plans were fool-proof, they felt, and their recent victories against the Gondorian Army near Lithiant only served to bolster that confidence.
Aragorn crouched in the shadows near the edge of the shantytown, his sharp eyes scanning the dock-ways. Here and there a scattering of men walked or stood around small fires haphazardly built on the wooden planking. One man leaned drunken-like against a huge vat of pitch; near his feet the ranger could just make out the shape of a quiver laying against his legs – it was Tarcil. The men were in position, they were just waiting. Now that he had found one of them, Aragorn easily spotted the rest of his disguised soldiers, standing in darkened corners, milling near the pitch vats, their makeshift torches set into tall metal shafts that were used as crude sconces.
A small sigh of relief escaped the captain’s lips and the soldier next to him glanced warily at the man in charge.
“They are ready.” Thorongil whispered. “Follow me, the barracks are this way.” He backed slowly away from his vantage point and motioned to the men hiding in the woods behind him heading for the area Tarcil had described to him. In seconds the harbor town was seething with a black carpet of Gondorian soldiers as they swept towards the unsuspecting Corsairs.
Quietly rounding the corner of the barracks, Aragorn eased up behind the nearest man on patrol. Moving too quickly for the guard to report any trouble, the ranger grabbed the soldier from behind and disposed of him. Handing the lifelessly body back to his men they raced forward, taking out the Corsairs who were on duty that night.
The Gondorians poured into the barracks as Aragorn stepped aside. Although the element of surprise was on their side the ranger heard the alarm being raised.
Corsairs spilled out of the windows and fought their way out the front door, struggling against the overwhelming odds of the Gondorian soldiers, taking the fight into the muddy streets. Those who weren’t killed outright were taken as prisoners of war; those who resisted joined the dead.
Fighting his way from the front of the melee, away from his men, Aragorn exited the chaos and turned his attention to the harbor. He watched as Tarcil lit another arrow and released the flaming projectile against the bulk of the nearest ship.
The fleet of the Corsairs was in flames and his advance team was moving rapidly down the harbor, making sure that there were no survivors.
Grabbing one of his men who stumbled closely towards him, Thorongil righted the soldier and yelled instructions at him, “Find me one of them alive and bring him out here. I want to know what the compliment of each ship is. We can ill afford any surprises.”
Raised voices calling his name caught the commander’s attention and he glanced sharply to his left in the direction his men were pointing. A group of three shipmates sprinted from a far building heading towards the first of the great boats. The ships hull was on fire but their intent was clear, they were trying to get the attention of the men inside.
They were calling for help.
Aragorn raced towards their position, flanked by two of his own soldiers. As they gained on the fleeing Corsairs, he recognized one man as the Harbor Master. Tarcil had described him correctly. They had watched the man for some time learning his ways and patterns. Tarcil said he was called Raldush by those around him, and he stood out strikingly among the Corsairs. A tall muscular man, he was patterned on his face and arms in the tribal ways of some of the fighting Haradrim. His dark hair was tied back from his face in a long braid and a scar ran the length of his face, marring the tattoos that decorated him forehead to chin.
Arrows split the air on either side of Aragorn as he chased up the gangplank nearly catching Raldush. The weapons found their marks in the backs of the ship crew that ran next to the harbor master. One crewmember fell from the top of the gangway, his body carried off by the river, the other slipped back onto the plank, tripping up Aragorn. Clumsily he threw the dead man’s body out of the way and leapt onto the ship’s deck, frantically seeking which direction the Harbor master had fled. If he got away and rallied his men, it could be disastrous.
Raldush stood near the anchor winch, winding the thick, wet rope on a huge wheel as he shouted in his native language to the men below.
In moments the deck would be full of Corsairs and Aragorn stood alone mid-ship, staring at the hatch, his mind working furiously. The ranger glanced up at the huge sails over his head, the soft snapping of the wind against them attracting his attention. Ignoring Raldush for the moment, he ran to the edge of the railing and shouted down at Tarcil. His second-in-command was interrogating a prisoner and quickly searched about him for the source of the sound of his name.
“Tarcil, here, up here!” Aragorn motioned with his hands, “Light an arrow and put in the ships main mast!” The northerner didn’t wait to see his commands carried out but raced back to the large vertical shaft. Unsheathing his elven blade he began to cut through the thick cords that held the sails furled.
The mainsail fell first, the white canvas falling in on itself and folding down to the deck covering the ship with its heavy fabric. Seeing Thorongil’s intent Tarcil shouted to the men around him to target the ropes and bring the sails and spars down upon the deck. Aragorn was hoping their weight would be enough to pin the hatch closed beneath them.
Seeing his men trapped below and his exit from the ship cut off as fire raced towards the prow, Raldush gave up on the anchor and stalked back to the Gondorian commander with death in his eyes.
The fire was racing out of control. Aragorn had to leap aside to avoid a flaming sheet of canvas as it fell to the deck with a crash, sending up a biting shower of sparks and heat. Before he could react or even fully register the threat, Raldush was on him.
The swiftness and surprise of the Harbor master’s attack left Aragorn reeling. He found himself driven to the deck as Raldush slammed his fists down between the ranger’s shoulder blades. Pain lanced across Aragorn’s back and he gasped raggedly for air as his lungs attempted to recover from the shock of the blow.
Tarcil saw Raldush’s intentions but his attempts to stop the Corsair failed. He watched in helpless horror from the dock as the harbor master drove Thorongil to the deck of the ship, out of their line of sight, his voice drown out by the chaos around them.
Before Aragorn could recover, Raldush grabbed the Gondorian commander, hauling him to his feet by his hair. His large, thick hands wrapped around Aragorn’s neck and pinned him to the main mast, choking him. Flames leapt high behind the fighting silhouettes, sending sparks flying far up into the backdrop of the star-flecked sky.
The ranger twisted in the vice-like grip, trying to pry the man’s fingers from his neck. He lashed out at the Corsair who neatly moved out of reach of the short elven blade, slapping the weapon out of the captain’s hand.
Behind the fighting men, the foresails fell to the deck, their main boom crashing down upon the top of the hatch and sealing it shut even as the men below pressed their combined strength against the weight of the collapsed mainsail’s rigging. There was no escape for them now. The white fabric fluttered to the deck of the ship as the aft sail’s halyards snapped, cut clean through by the hail of arrows that Tarcil’s men fired repeatedly at them.
Maintaining his grip on the Gondorian Commander, Raldush punched the soldier brutally in the stomach, forcing all the air from Aragorn’s lungs. The ranger’s eyes widened at the new punishment and he felt panic begin to flood through his being when he couldn’t get his diaphragm to cooperate.
The sound of an arrow cut close by his face, causing him to move as much as he could to the left as one of the projectiles impacted the mast to the right of him, splattering burning pitch against the wood and dripping the thick substance down onto the sail beneath their feet. Aragorn flinched as a splatter of pitch streaked across his cheek, burning the soft skin.
Quickly grabbing the weapon, Aragorn awkwardly jerked it out of the wood piling and shoved the flaming arrowhead into his opponent’s abdomen.
Raldush fell back, releasing his grip on the ranger. A second flaming arrow sent him stumbling forward as it embedded itself into his back, rupturing his heart. His gaze locked onto Aragorn’s as he fell forward and the young commander pushed him into the midst of the pile of white fabric that lay in mounds on the decking. Already the sails were on fire and the flames raced up the halyards that had caught in the rigging, hanging up on the disjointed spars and booms that had fallen with the sails.
Aragorn stumbled backward towards the aft of the ship. He could hear the crewmembers and soldiers trapped below but he found that he had no pity for them as he moved away from the spreading flames. These men built their lives on the broken backs of cruelly subjected slaves; they massacred women and children and mutilated the dead. Fire had engulfed much of the ship by this time; there was nothing he could have done for them now even had he wanted to.
Quickly recovering his breath, Aragorn raced to the edge of the ship. Most of the railing and the whole side of the great boat was aflame. Looking over to his men below he heard them shouting, but the roar of the fire and the wind that whipped up from the flames cut off the exact words. Following their frantic pointing he saw a large ship edging slowly past the boat he stood upon.
This ship was smaller than the one he was on and carried no compliment of soldiers. Its hull was black and its markings were foreign. With a start Aragorn realized it was the slave ship and it was making a run for it. Using the burning hulks of the Corsairs warships like shields, the slavers were attempting to escape.
Glancing down the line of ruined vessels, Aragorn noted that there was no way his men could stop the ship. He couldn’t let them get away. The deck behind him was partly on fire, the flames edging closer to where the ranger stood. A tattered rope hung just above the back of the aft deck. It had caught on the main mast high above the ground and swung freely.
The slave ship had nearly passed; it was picking up speed as its sails caught the strengthening winds. Shaking his head as he thought through his options and finding his only idea to seem completely foolhardy, Aragorn raced up the short stairway to the aft of the ship, grasping the trailing rope and pulling himself onto the edge of the rail. Taking a deep breath he kicked off of the railing and swung in a large arc towards the passing ship, releasing the edge of the rope as he was thrown across the deck.
Landing on his shoulders and rolling up onto his feet, Aragorn pulled a small knife from the back of his belt. The thin, tapered blade screamed through the air, embedding itself in the neck of the captain who was steering the vessel down the wide, deep channel. The man fell forward onto the large wheel, inadvertently causing the ship to steer to the right. The hull of the slaver craft scraped against the burning hulk of one of the warships that listed on its side in the river, pressing the dead ship out of its way as it churned towards the shore.
The rending sound of wood on wood drew the Gondorian soldiers’ attention and those who were not guarding prisoners or chasing down stragglers ran to the edge of the harbor where the ship slammed forcefully into the harbor deck, breaking the planks easily and grounding its hull on the rocks beneath. Lacing their hands together the soldiers lifted their own up to the top of the railing and the warriors swarmed the deck, quickly subduing the slave master’s crew. The shipmates gave up without a fight, seeing their boss and captain killed so skillfully by the irate commander and noting the swift destruction of the warships all around them.
Aragorn raced to the hatch and beat the lock off of the wooden door with the handle of his sword, flinging it open. Kneeling on the deck he called for a torch and leaned down into the large pit of the hold. He could hear the people below, their soft cries of fear and distress mingled with the distinct rattle of chains.
Tarcil knelt next to his commander, his eyes quickly assessing the man and passing him a torch. Thorongil had been known to continue on even when seriously wounded and it had fallen many times to his second-in-command to know when to the pull the higher ranking officer out of the fray. The northerner’s neck was red and bruises and welts from the near choking he had taken were beginning to appear. There was a nasty burn on his cheek that would need to be seen to and he had sustained several cuts and bruises. Nothing life threatening, Tarcil sighed softly in relief before returning his attention to the hold.
“Shh... be at peace.” Thorongil spoke loudly enough for all to hear but his voice carried a tenderness and gentleness that had a calming effect on the people below, “We are here to free you. Be still, we’ll be right down.”
Turning back to his men he ordered the keys to the chains be found and in short order a small man was pushed to the front of the press of soldiers. He was obviously a member of the slavers. Hesitantly he held the keys out to the Gondorian commander.
The contempt in Aragorn’s eyes caused the slight man to flinch visibly. “Throw him down there and make him unlock them himself. When he is through, bind him in his own chains and bring him out. I want all the slavers locked in their own iron collars so they can see first hand how it feels.” Thorongil growled as he pushed the man towards one of the soldiers, instructing a few standing around to climb below as well and help release the prisoners.
The ship listed heavily onto its right side, its hull having been compromised when it grounded itself. The boards in the bottom gave way and water began to seep into the compartment that held the slaves. The situation had changed immediately and Thorongil was pulled away from the hatch as soldiers quickly shimmied down the ropes, handing freed slaves out through the small portal as fast as they could.
Tarcil led his commander off the ship and out of the way of the stream of people that was exiting the sinking vessel. Pity rose in Aragorn’s heart as he watched the men, women and children being led safely away from their captivity. Some were injured, some were carrying others but most wore lost looks of fear and shock was written on every dirty, tear-stained face.
“We need to get them away from here Tarcil. They need food and blankets, look at them.” He motioned toward a small child that clung to his mother’s leg. The woman’s left hand touched the matted hair of the youngster and she fearfully followed the soldiers to join the others.
Aragorn moved from where he stood and scooped the small boy into his arms, quieting his mother’s fears as she turned towards the soldier with a small cry. He led the group of refugees away from the ships to the edge of the woods were his men were caring for the wounded among them. The former slavers, now prisoners, had been shackled and contained in their own chains and were being led back to the main camp ahead of those they had claimed as slaves. There was no need to torment the freed people with the sight of their captors any longer. Few were the Corsairs that had survived the raid and when Aragorn inquired about how his men had faired he was pleased to learn that they had only lost a small handful of men, although they had quite a number more who were wounded. He would see to them all later and make sure they were well taken care of.
A shouted warning drew his attention and he glanced up quickly from helping an elderly man down onto the grassy knoll. The slaver ship, having taken on too much water, listed dangerously on its side. The last of his men and the freed refugees jumped from the side of the ship as it rolled completely over in the riverbed, it main mast sinking into the soft mud of the waterway and holding fast. With an inhuman groan the ship broke apart and dipped beneath the top of the water, submerging in the deep swirls of the river.
“What do we do with the harbor sir?” Aragorn recognized the man as one of the commanders under him.
“Torch it.” He answered quietly, “Burn it all, burn it to the ground. Take a small contingent and destroy it utterly, I want them to know they have been completely defeated. Return to the rendezvous when you are through.” He smiled tightly as the man nodded and ran off to obey, taking a group of ten soldiers with him to accomplish Thorongil’s commands.
Aragorn started to walk to the front of the column of people that was beginning to assemble as the soldiers started the refugees heading back towards camp. He wanted to make it there by morning; these people wouldn’t be able to travel much farther.
A small commotion to the rear of the company caught his attention and he stopped, wondering what the shouting was all about.
“Adrar! Adrar!” a voice was calling.
Whipping quickly around, Aragorn made his way to the back of the column of newly freed slaves. A young, dark skinned man was being restrained by Tarcil and another soldier.
“Adrar!” The youth’s frantic cries increased when he saw that he had garnered the commanding officer’s attention.
Frowning slightly, Aragorn stopped in front of the young man and ordered his men to release him. Few were the people who knew him by that name and none of those who did should have been in this place. The dark skinned youth, nearing the end of his teenage years, smiled widely, his eyes glittering with excitement. The face was strangely familiar but... the name escaped Aragorn. He tipped his head slightly to the right as he looked the young man up and down.
“You don’t remember me?” The boy’s accent was thick, although his common was easy to understand, “You promised you would never forget me.”
“Kidrin?!” Aragorn whispered the name in disbelief. The small child he remembered in his mind’s eye had grown and changed much. “Is that you?”
Chapter 12: Part Twelve
With a shout of joy the young man threw himself at the northerner, wrapping his strong arms around the man and hugging him tightly. Tarcil stopped his men who started forward, taken off guard by the youth’s exuberance. He watched as Thorongil returned the hug, laughing and speaking to the foreigner in a strange tongue.
“Kidrin, did the Corsairs take you as well?” Aragorn pressed the boy back and looked him over carefully, much to the young man’s embarrassment. “Are you all right?”
“I am fine Adrar. The slavers caught me when I came north looking for feed and produce to purchase. We have not had enough rain to get us through the season this year and father sent me into upper Harad to search for supplies. I was taken by surprise and my money was stolen. It has been weeks since they took me, by now father must think I am dead. I need to return to him as soon as possible.”
“Did they treat you poorly?” Aragorn was instantly incensed and worried. His surrogate family was in trouble and one of his adopted brothers had been ill treated by the men of the south, it did not sit well with him.
“No worse than Rhuddryn used to.” Kidrin laughed. “But freedom has made us unaccustomed to the ways of slavery I fear.”
“How is the family? Sircyn? Syna? Are they well? How do mother and father fare?” Aragorn asked, falling easily back into the Haradrim language and the familiarity with the people he had lived with many years ago.
“They are well, but it has been long since you have visited. Mother misses you and Syna, well she has a husband and children of her own now.” Kidrin smiled widely at the surprised look that crossed Aragorn’s face; “She named her oldest two for you and your elf friend. They all know the tales of the first Adrar and how he helped to free us from slavery.” The youth laughed and looked about them, “And here you are doing it again.”
Tarcil watched, amazed, as Thorongil ruffled the short bristly hair of the young Haradrim. Tarcil had never known one of the far southern people as a friend and his men had not been inclined to treat this newly freed slave any different than the Haradrim warriors they had encountered as enemies earlier in the year. And yet here was his commander freely associating with one, and in an intimate, familiar way. He listened to the strange language and the fluency with which Thorongil spoke it and realized for the first time that although he counted the captain his friend there was very little he knew of the man’s past. He smiled questioningly when Thorongil reached towards him and motioned him over.
“Tarcil, this is my brother Kidrin.” Thorongil introduced him with a fond smile, forgetting for a moment what kind of a reaction such an announcement would garner him from his current friends.
“Your brother?” The Gondorian reiterated quietly.
“Yes.” Aragorn did not explain further but simply continued, “And Kidrin, this is my friend and confidant Tarcil. I couldn’t have asked for a better second-in-command.”
The youth touched his fingers to his forehead and bowed in respect after the fashion of his people. “It is good to meet you. Any friend of Adrar is a friend of mine and my family.”
“Adrar?” Tarcil whispered as he nodded in greeting to Kidrin.
“I’ll tell you later.” Aragorn clapped the man on the back. The last of the train of people was finally leaving the glen and he knew they had precious little time left. “Tarcil fetch one of the Corsair’s wagons and find an animal to pull it. From the spoils fill the cart with enough food and grain to last the summer. Kidrin was taken by the slavers and his family is in the midst of a famine, they will not last with out our help and he needs to return to them.”
“Of course Thorongil.” Tarcil moved off, calling orders to the soldiers who were bringing up the rear of the column. Pulling a wagon out of line and unpacking it quickly they loaded it with grain and medicines and food while Aragorn caught up on what had been happening back on the Simbani family estate.
“Adrar,” Kidrin touched Aragorn’s arm lightly, a thoughtful look crossing his features. “You are not the first face from the past I have seen recently. Have you seen Tyndel?”
“Tyndel?” Aragorn repeated, not understanding for a moment, nor remembering to whom that moniker had belonged. “Kidrin I don’t...” suddenly his words trailed off as recollection of who Kidrin had known by that name rushed back to him.
Tarcil was ordering the last of the swift preparations in the packing of the wagon when the tone of Thorongil’s voice caused him to look back over his shoulder and the distress on his commander’s face immediately worried the man. He moved quickly to Thorongil’s side.
“My lord what is it?” He asked softly interrupting.
Kidrin immediately switched to speaking common. “I told Adrar that I have seen Tyndel.”
Tarcil glanced in confusion from the man to the youth. The name meant nothing to him.
Shaking his head as he explained, Aragorn’s frown deepened. “Tyndel is Legolas. Kidrin says he saw Legolas loaded onto another slave ship. Tarcil, Legolas is alive and definitely not free. He must have been and taken in the battle or betrayed by Alcarin. That is why we found no trace of him. Think, please, is it possible that there were two slave ships here yesterday?”
The soldier glanced about them, suddenly at a loss. If Legolas had been here and by their own ignorance they had lost him...looking at the wrecked and burning hulks of the ships behind them and trying vainly to remember if there had been another small sized ship docked when last they were here Tarcil shook his head at the absence of the memory. “It...it is possible Thorongil. I don’t remember clearly. All the warships are accounted for.”
“Are you sure it was him you saw Kidrin?” The fear that had welled up in the pit of Aragorn’s stomach hardened into a knot as he turned back the young Haradrim. If the ship were not here then it had a head start on him and finding Legolas would be more difficult. At least he knew his friend was alive, but a slave? It couldn’t be; Legolas couldn’t be put through that again.
“Yes I am sure, it was him. The slavers travel in two’s for protection. They left yesterday, early evening. We were to leave in the morning.” Kidrin tugged on Aragorn’s sleeve redirecting his attention from Tarcil, “He did not look good Adrar. He was unconscious and in heavy chains. That ship was headed for the Poros.”
“The Poros?!” Tarcil questioned quietly.
“What is it Tarcil?” Aragorn caught the note of concern in the under-officer’s voice.
“The only ships that forge the Poros are headed for Mordor, there is no other river in or out of that forsaken land and it is its only destination.”
“It is true.” Kidrin conceded softly, “They go to the slave farms that serve the dark lord of Mordor’s needs. It is where we were headed as well. The guards liked to taunt us with that knowledge. They say to be a slave in Mordor is worse than death.” He shivered silently, thinking of what he had been saved from and dreading what he feared Tyndel was going into.
Relief warred with fear inside Aragorn’s heart and urgency caught inside of him, threatening to choke his thoughts from concentrating. Legolas was a captive, and headed for Mordor in chains. The northerner shuddered involuntarily and his revulsion solidified into resolve. Mordor could not have that fair being as long as Aragorn lived and breathed. His time for being with the Gondorians had come to an end sooner than even he expected. He needed to get the people back to Pelargir and transfer leadership to Tarcil. He intended to be on the road by this evening. He glanced quickly at the rising sun, trying to judge how long it would take him to backtrack.
“Do you wish us to send men after the ship?” Tarcil questioned softly.
Looking up the river Aragorn seriously considered the offer. Then his gaze fell back to the path the refugees had taken. He couldn’t risk their lives, he needed all the soldiers to accompany them back and see them safely home. Besides... if the trail led into Mordor, then taking a contingent of Gondorian soldiers with him would be cause enough to open hostilities between the two lands and Gondor did not need any more war, especially not with their dark, ruthless eastern neighbors. No, this was something he would have to do by himself, although he was grateful to Tarcil for asking.
“No.” His answer was strained and quiet. He hated the feelings of helplessness that his position constrained him with. “The refugees are our immediate concern.”
“Adrar?” Kidrin gently touched his arm, redirecting his attention.
With a small smile he pulled the boy against him and held him tightly, whispering in his ear in Haradrim. “You need to return home, and quickly. It will be well. Tell Cabed and Mambre I send my greetings and I miss them all very much. Hug Sircyn and Syna for me, and all my little nephews and nieces I haven’t seen yet. If the seasons permit it, I will return again for a visit, but I must follow Tyndel and free him. I won’t let them take him, don’t worry.” He felt the youth nod against his shoulder in understanding.
“Yes, he is your brother as well. I am sorry that I did not have better news.” Kidrin returned the hug, answering just as quietly, his words for the northerner’s ears only, “I pray that you find him in time.” Pulling back, the Haradrim smiled widely, “It has been good to see you again Adrar. Do not let so much time pass again till we see you once more.” He grasped Aragorn’s arm at the elbow in a formal farewell before stepping back and taking the reins of the large bull that pulled the heavily laden wagon. “The family thanks you for the supplies and the animal. May your journeys be safe ones.”
“And yours as well. It was good to see you again. You need to go, your journey is long.” Aragorn handed the young man a set of official looking papers, pulled from an interior pocket of his short overcoat. They were creased and wrinkled from being carried around a long time but the seal of the king was stamped onto the front. Stepping aside he allowed Kidrin to lead the animal south heading back for home. “Those papers will see you safely through southern Gondor.” He explained quickly. The last thing he wanted was for Kidrin to be waylaid by well-meaning Gondorians, still edgy from the recent wars with the Haradrim. “I’ll send word as soon as I can!”
“You do that! You keep your word brother!” Kidrin called back, laughing at the inside joke.
When Aragorn turned back to Tarcil his second-in-command was staring at him strangely.
“Adrar? Tyndel?” Tarcil raised and eyebrow in question, “You speak fluent Haradrim? Is there anything else I should know about you that I don’t?”
Aragorn shrugged and smiled.
“Your brother?” The Gondorian pressed.
“It’s a long story Tarcil.”
“Well we have quite a walk ahead of us I suggest you start explaining.” He laughed as Thorongil laid an arm around his shoulders and steered them after the retreating line of refugees that was no longer in sight. The last of the men that had stayed behind trailed after them, their job of destroying the thrown-together city accomplished. As they left the remainder of the buildings and boats were engulfed in flames, the ruins leaving their traces on the sky as the smoke drifted heavenward in thick banks – a marker for the Corsairs, Gondor was off limits.
“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.” Aragorn laughed, dusting himself off. The dread in his heart had not left but he would speak of his intentions later, privately with his friend, not out in the open where the men would hear. It would do their morale no good after such a great victory and he had no wish to dampen the celebrating that would most certainly take place after they had rested.
“Try me.” Tarcil muttered good-naturedly, his intrigue stirred.
Aragorn tied the last of the laces off on his leather boots and stood watching as the soldiers helped bed down the newly freed slaves for the night, striking campfires in the midst of the huddled groups of Gondorians. Their thankful faces watched the soldiers carefully, unwilling to lose contact with one another even though the threat of their captors was now but a distant thought.
The Corsairs had been dealt a serious blow; they would have to think long and hard before attempting any such invasion again. Gondor would be safe from their encroaching warmongering for some time now.
The young captain breathed a heavy sigh; his job was done here. These were his people no longer, at least, not for now... possibly not for a long time, if ever. Gently Aragorn set his ornate helmet on the rock that braced his own fire pit and ran his fingers through his sweat drenched hair, the cool night air felt good on his face.
His heart lay elsewhere; his duty to Gondor was complete. His friend was in need and he could remain in the company of men no longer.
Tarcil was watching his leader closely as the Captain slowly undid his bracers; Thorongil’s dark, fiery gaze was fixed out toward the south beyond the fields of Pelargir to the far side of the Anduin. Tarcil tried to see what his commander was watching but it escaped him. He walked quietly to the man’s side.
Aragorn started slightly at the soft sound of his name. He smiled slightly, that was something else he was giving up as of this night. He was no longer Thorongil, he was simply Aragorn... no, he had had enough of men for quite some time; he was Estel and it was time for him to go. The halls of Imladris called to his heart, it was time to find Legolas and return home.
“Tarcil,” Aragorn gripped his second-in-command’s forearm tightly in greeting. But when the soldier pulled away Thorongil did not release him. Instead the Captain of Gondor’s army gently strapped his bracers to the soldier’s arm, tightening the straps, the ornate gold finished designs flashing dully in the fading light.
“Captain?” This sudden turn of events startled the soldier.
“They’ll need a good Captain to see them all home.” Aragorn’s voice was soft and his gaze darted quickly out to the fields before fastening on Tarcil’s. There was no one underneath him that he trusted more. “It’s a long road back. But no one will oppose you this time. The Corsair’s have been beaten back and will trouble Gondor’s borders no more for a time. The land will have peace now. For a while at least.”
“I don’t understand.” The soldier did not resist as Aragorn fastened the second vambrace to his other arm and stepped back, smiling.
“I am leaving. It is time for me to go.” Aragorn moved away from the soldier and grabbed a small knapsack that sat in the shadow of the rock next to him, slinging it over his shoulder before picking up his old ranger’s coat from where it lay draped over the boulder near the fire. He had had little use for it in the past few years, but had kept it handy nevertheless. He reached into an interior pocket in the leather overcoat and withdrew a silver ring, slipping it quickly onto his finger.
Tarcil frowned, trying to glimpse the piece of jewelry. Save for the star-shaped brooch that his captain continually wore, he had never noticed a ring on the man’s fingers. Aragorn picked up his coat, obscuring Tarcil’s view.
“Where are you going my lord?”
“I have to find Legolas. He cannot be left to enslavement in Mordor, he is my friend.” Aragorn kicked the small fire out and turned back to the Gondorian. “I owe him more than my life.”
“I thought as much. I will get a contingent together and we will...” He stopped talking as Thorongil gently shook his head no. “You will go alone then, but after that...?” Tarcil was eyeing him worriedly; he feared what the captain would say next. “After that you will return, will you not?”
“No.” Silver eyes met and held the brown ones that stared questioningly at him. Tarcil’s fingers absently traced the intricate patterns on the bucklers.
Aragorn retrieved his helmet and passed it to the soldier. “No. After that I will return home, to my home in the north. The war is over; there is no need for me to remain.”
“But what will I tell Lord Ecthelion, or Captain Denethor?!” Tarcil was beginning to panic. He had not thought that he would lose the friendship they had developed over the past ten years working with each other. He did not want to let go of it now.
“Tell them the truth.” Aragorn shrugged into the worn and ragged ranger’s coat, fastening the star brooch to his shirt beneath it before smiling warmly at his friend, “Tell them I went after Legolas. They will believe you. And I doubt that Denethor will spend much time in regret.”
A frown crossed his second-in-command’s face and Aragorn couldn’t help laughing at the scowl, “Tarcil,” His tone reprimanded slightly, “Denethor will be a good Steward someday, you’ll see. He just has a lot to learn and...”
“A lot is an understatement.” The Gondorian warrior interrupted.
“Yes, a lot, but with good men like you at his side he will learn quickly and easier. Help him Tarcil, he will find in you a most worthy captain indeed, and, if he allows himself, no truer friend.”
Aragorn stepped forward and quickly pulled the confused soldier into a warm embrace before stepping back once more and turning to leave.
Tarcil grabbed the ranger’s elbow, stopping him, “But my lord how will I tell Lord Ecthelion, surely...” He desperately wanted to stop this farewell and played his last card. “It will break his heart. Do not force me to be the one to tell him such ill tidings, return with us yourself and let him know your intentions. I have been your messenger on many occasions Thorongil and have never minded before, but please do not make me carry this one out.”
Knowing what his friend was thinking Aragorn smiled softly, unclasping the new Captain’s hand with his own, “He already knows Tarcil.” The ranger stared into the brown eyes, begging him silently to accept what had to be. “I spoke with Lord Ecthelion before we ever left and he granted me his permission, he knows I have intended to leave for some time. And with Legolas taken I cannot spare the weeks it would take to return and inform him in person that that time has come. I must go now. Simply tell him that other tasks now call me and much time and many perils must pass, ere I come again to Gondor, if that be my fate. Trust me Tarcil, he will understand. Tell the men in the morning that I have left to follow Legolas and rescue him. I will do my best to free whatever slaves I find in that ship that has spirited them away and with any luck they will all return to you unharmed.” He pulled gently away and stepped back.
“You have been a good friend to me Tarcil and I will not forget you. I promise that if ever you, or Gondor needs me, I will come back. I will miss our nights around the campfires and your sorry excuses for jokes. Tell your brothers you need new ones.” He laughed softly, his smile widening as the man before him smiled in spite of the heaviness weighing on his heart.
“And if you ever pass back through Gondor you know where my hearth is and you are more than welcome there at it my lord.” Tarcil saluted him in the high Gondor fashion, his smile broadening when Aragorn returned the farewell greeting.
Quickly, before the man could see the tears forming in his eyes, Aragorn turned and walked out onto the grassy plains, the Anduin rolling ever on towards the sea flanked his left. Night had just fallen and the mists were even now beginning to gather on the flat meadows, their soft, grey insubstantial tendrils wrapping around his leather boots.
Tarcil watched him go. He knew it was right but the suddenness of the moment still felt wrong. Aragorn seemed to become a part of the night around him, blending in slowly with his surroundings.
“May the Valar keep you Thorongil, until we meet again.”
The whispered blessing floated across the glen picked up by the sharp hearing of the ranger and he smiled, his step faltering slightly as he resisted the urge to turn one last time and look on his men. It was hard enough to make friends in this world, it was harder to leave them behind and move on, but his time here in Gondor was at an end and he knew his destiny lay elsewhere for the present. Thoughts of Legolas’ safety tugged at his heart and his pace quickened.
“Where is Captain Thorongil going?” The voice at Tarcil’s elbow startled him and he turned to find Castamir wiping his hands on the apron that the cook had given him to wear earlier. He was still working off the punishment that Aragorn, as the remaining active captain of Gondor’s army, had given him, but he had taken to the hard labor easily and readily. He counted himself lucky to be alive; he didn’t think Captain Denethor would have been so lenient.
Tarcil smiled slightly as he eyed the soldier. “Thorongil goes to find Legolas.” He stated simply with a deep sigh.
Castamir nodded, watching as the man he had come to consider his Captain faded into the deepening night his face turned towards Mordor. “I truly hope he finds him.” His voice was quiet.
Tarcil glanced back at the soldier next to him, surprised by the genuineness he could hear in the warrior’s tone. Thorongil was right, all men needed help growing up even the worst of them, Castamir and Lord Denethor included.
“Have you finished digging the holes for the camp waste?”
“No sir.” Castamir rolled his eyes.
“Then what are you waiting for?” Tarcil glanced at the soldier, a slight frown marring his face.
“Just you to ask me why I was waiting?”
“Castamir.” The new captain cautioned his man.
“I’m going. I guess I was just too late.” The soldier turned as Tarcil laid his arm around the man’s shoulder and headed him back to camp.
“Too late for what?”
Aragorn stopped walking, listening to the conversation that ghosted to him on the slight night breezes.
“Too late to thank Captain Thorongil for giving me a second chance when I didn’t deserve it. Not many men would.” Castamir answered.
“I think he knows...”
The rest of the conversation was lost as the men moved out of the ranger’s hearing. He smiled to himself; yes he knew. He breathed the air in deeply, it felt good to be walking once again in Middle Earth as nothing more than a mere ranger, a human raised by elves, no responsibilities, no power to wield, and no one to quarrel with about the affections of a Kingdom he did not even wish to call his own.
“I’m coming Legolas. Hold on mellon-nín, I swear to you, you will not be Mordor’s slave.” The elvish words frosted on the cool night air and he quickened his pace. Kidrin had said that the ship which had taken Legolas was called the Merry Goblin and had been headed to the Poros, making for Mordor with her cache of slaves. That then, was where Aragorn’s path would lie also. He hoped to make the tributary before the ship unloaded her goods. Breaking into a run, the ranger tracked the river’s edge through the night, fueled by his promise to rescue his friend, no matter what the cost.