...One Week Later...
The cruel laughter of the man before him brought Aragorn back to the
present, breaking through his thoughts of past events, dragging him
back to the pain and anguish of this moment and of his breaking heart.
And again he heard the question.
...He couldn’t choose. He couldn’t. Had anyone ever been forced to make
a crueler decision...?
The memory came back to Aragorn in a rush, a day he had not thought of
in many, many years. Oh father, I
understand so much better now...
Their captor waved his bow impatiently. "Choose!"
How had they gotten here? What twisted trail had led to this point
where Aragorn would be asked to cut some part of his own heart out to
save another, all for the satisfaction of this sadistically vengeful
The years washed away like the pouring rain, like Legolas’ blood,
flowing over his hands, carried away by the streaming water and hurried
along by its rush... washed away to a time when Aragorn was not a king,
not a father, but only a young ranger spending the winter with his
friend, Prince Legolas, under Mirkwood’s shadowy eaves...
...Roughly 80 years in the past...
"You’ll never catch me!" Legolas called out, gaily taunting his human
"Want to bet?" Aragorn, still some distance behind, shot back.
Legolas urged his horses faster. "Why? You don’t have anything left to
Almost a month had passed since Legolas’ traitorous, usurping uncle,
Doriflen, had been ousted and life had returned to normal in
as normal as it ever was, that is, when the prince and the young
Dùnadan spent any appreciable amount of time together.
Winter was full upon them now and the air was bitingly cold, for this
winter was proving to be much fiercer than was usual. However, the two
friends barely noticed the frost in the air, because their heated race
kept them both quite warm.
It had started out as fairly normal sport between Aragorn, Legolas and
the prince’s two friends, Raniean and Trelan. They had made a scouting
foray to the forest eaves to check on rumors of roving warg packs,
driven down from the mountains by the extremely cold and violent
weather and had ended up tracking the elusive threat out into the
plains beyond until they were now in the shadow of the Misty Mountains.
In truth the foursome was merely glad for some diversion from the long,
heavy winter days with little to do. The wargs they were hunting seemed
to have entirely disappeared, however and, at any rate, they were now
far away from Mirkwood that it was no longer a concern. The fresh
snowfall today had been too tempting to resist, soon inciting an
all-out snow battle between the four friends. Aragorn and Legolas could
never agree later about who had started it, but everyone ended up
When that had become too cold to continue, they had turned around and
begun the long ride back to Mirkwood, but some choicely taunting
comments from the elves about their higher endurance for cold and how
they did not need saddles and reins as Aragorn did to ride had
eventually escalated into a challenge of horsemanship. And it hadn’t
So now Aragorn and Legolas were darting in and out between the trees
and across the open plain, riding two horses each, standing crouched
low with one foot on each horses’ back and trying to see who would fall
Raniean and Trelan watched from the ground, since their horses were
being used for the sport and it was not something they would have
chosen to try at any rate.
Trelan cheered them on and Raniean told them to get off before they
broke their necks, but Legolas and Aragorn paid very little attention
to either of them.
Legolas rode with no reins as he was accustomed to, even for this, and
his elven balance was an asset, but Aragorn was a comparable rider and
was holding his own against the prince as they sped out across the open
field, lagging only slightly behind the elf.
"You want me to rub your face in the snow again?" Aragorn replied to
Legolas’ earlier taunt. He stayed low, handling the reins with the
delicate precision needed to keep the two horses under him running in
tandem like this. It had taken some doing to fashion a second bridle
for him to use, since they had only the one on his horse, but in the
end it had been accomplished. The ranger was slowly gaining on his
friend, but not quickly enough if he wanted to win the race.
"I’d like to see you try!" Legolas easily maneuvered his galloping
horses through a sharp turn, avoiding a fallen log in their path, and
rising up slightly so that he was standing straighter on their backs,
enjoying the thrill and novelty of the game and the feel of the brisk
wind whipping by him. He was, in fact, having a grand time simply
forgetting that he was a prince, and ignoring the thought of what
exactly his father would say if news of this got back to him. Being
around Aragorn had that effect on him, as if the young ranger’s youth
and impulsiveness were contagious.
For a moment it seemed as if Aragorn were not going to make the turn,
then, suddenly, he urged both horses straight on into a leaping jump over the log in his path.
Remarkably, he actually managed to stay on their backs when they
although his balance was badly shaken. Not detouring had given him the
lead and he crossed the agreed-upon ‘finish line’ moments before
Legolas with a loud, exhilarated whoop.
A few paces later his balance finally failed and he tumbled off,
hitting the ground on his shoulder and rolling over several times in
the snow before he came to a stop.
Legolas jumped down quickly as Raniean and Trelan ran over, yet, when
Aragorn came up, he was covered in snow but laughing hard. "I won! Now
what do you say, Legolas? Hm?"
"That you are insane, Strider," Legolas cuffed his friend lightly on
shoulder. "Jumping them? What
were you thinking?!"
Aragorn just grinned. One of his irritating grins. "I won didn’t I? It
Legolas rolled his eyes. "Is that your answer for everything, no matter
how foolhardy? You’re lucky to be alive."
"You’re BOTH lucky to be
alive!" Raniean interrupted them before they
could get into any more trouble. "If you want to kill yourselves, go
ahead but, Legolas, please, do it sometime when Trelan and I will not
have to be the ones to tell your father."
All four of them laughed.
Trelan stepped forward, intending to help Aragorn up from the thick
snowdrift he had fallen into. When he stood, the white powder buried
halfway up his legs while his elven companions walked easily atop the
soft carpet of snow.
As the elf leaned down, offering his hand to the human, an arrow cut
the space between the two of them, catching Trelan in the left shoulder
and throwing him backwards into the drift behind him. Aragorn lunged
for the smaller elf, surprise marking his features as Trelan attempted
to stand only to fall unconscious into the snow, his eyes rolling back
into his head.
"Trelan!" The human surged forward as Raniean crouched next to his
fallen friend, barely ducking a second arrow intended for him.
Everything happened so fast that Aragorn never even saw the horseman
that burst from the foliage behind him. The man rode down on Legolas
who turned at the last possible moment, responding to Raniean’s
horrified warning. As soon as the first arrow flew, the prince
immediately headed back to where they left their weapons when they had
begun the race; he had nearly reached their small cache of bows and
arrows, but not in time.
Raniean’s voice rang clear in the small dell and the prince turned as
the man who had entered the glen came even with the elf, riding
straight for him. Quickly slipping his foot from the stirrup the hunter
brought the metal bar down, catching Legolas behind his jaw,
unintentionally striking the elf’s pressure point. Adding to the
injury, the man kicked his foot out, catching the falling prince across
the cheek. The impact spun Legolas around and dropped him unconscious
into the snow. The prince did not rise.
Aragorn turned at Raniean’s shout and ran towards the spot where his
friend had fallen and lay sprawled in the snow, senseless and unmoving.
The ranger watched as the intruder whipped his horse around in a tight
turn and headed straight for the two of them that remained standing.
Trying to dodge the horse and its rider, Aragorn threw himself out of
the stallion’s path, the snow making his efforts to reach Legolas
clumsy and slow.
They could see nothing of their mysterious attacker save that he was
clothed all in brown fur and leather, but at the moment that was hardly
The unknown rider strung another arrow and sighted in on Raniean. The
tall elf warrior stopped and crouched into a defensive position, his
eyes riveted on the man that bore down upon him. Faster than the hunter
could register, the elf flicked a blade from a hidden sheath inside his
boot and deftly threw it at the approaching human. Sheer luck aided the
horseman as he veered accidentally out of the projectile’s path, the
blade of the knife barely slicing through the left sleeve of his heavy
"Ran!! Stay down!" Aragorn had reached their cache of weapons and was
checking Legolas’ pulse. Content that the elf was only unconscious and
not dead, he strung an arrow and sighted in on the man that had
The hunter however had had enough of the small skirmish he had entered.
It had taken him months of tracking and waiting just to find an
opportunity to get these ones alone with no guards and no witnesses. He
would have preferred taking his prey out one on one so that no one was
left to oppose him, but that had proved impossible. Winter was deep
upon them and he had already wasted too much time. It was act now or
wait until spring and he had taken long enough to complete this
contract already. His employer was getting impatient; if he did not
collect soon he might lose his chance to do so altogether. Stringing an
arrow on his bow, its tip dripping with a black sticky substance, he
aimed for the ranger that stood from the fallen prince’s side. Before
Aragorn could release his weapon, the hunter had targeted him.
The impact of the bolt into his shoulder threw Aragorn into the snow
next to Legolas. He could hear Raniean yelling his name as he struggled
to his feet. His head spun and the wound from the arrow felt as if it
were on fire. Sound seemed to warp in his ears and fade altogether as
locked eyes with Raniean. The elf was running towards him shouting, but
it was as if he were far away down a black tunnel that was getting
longer with every heartbeat. His heart...he fumbled, touching the shaft
that protruded from his shoulder, the beat of his heart was fast and
loud in his ears. A black shape burst on his narrowing vision and
someone grabbed him, jerking him up hard just as he fell into the
Raniean ran swiftly across the top of the snow. He watched as Aragorn
rose shakily to his feet, the shaft of an arrow protruding from his
shoulder. The human started to collapse, his eyes rolling back into his
head, much like Trelan’s had, as the unknown hunter reached the
ranger’s side. Grabbing the ranger’s overcoat, he pulled the young man
up onto his horse, laying Aragorn across the saddle in front of him.
The hunter rounded his mount on the remaining elf. With one hand he
held Aragorn in place, with his other he drew a long wicked blade and
pointed it at the elf.
"Don’t make me hurt this one," the hunter growled, sliding his knife
under Aragorn’s chin. "And don’t force me to take you down like your
friends. You have two here that need your help. I don’t want none of
you, I have no quarrel with your kind. Look to your wounded. Don’t make
it harder and don’t follow me. You won't like what happens to you or
your friend here if you do." Kicking the underbelly of his mount he
backed his horse slowly to the edge of the meadow before turning and
galloping off into the forest.
Raniean stood rooted in place for a heartbeat. He couldn’t just let the
man take off with Aragorn as his prisoner, but Trelan had not recovered
and he could hear the prince moaning softly as consciousness returned.
The ranger was his friend, but the prince was his charge and his liege.
His duty was to the royalty first and all else secondly. With a sick,
desperate feeling gnawing in the pit of his stomach, he tore his gaze
from the place where the hunter had left with his friend and ran to the
"Legolas?" Kneeling in the snow next to the prince, Raniean helped the
elf ease into a sitting position, gently turning Legolas’ head so he
could see the welting bruise that covered the side of his face. "Are
you all right?" He stood to his feet and drew the prince up with him,
"You took a nasty hit, easy now." Raniean steadied Legolas as the
prince shook off the last effects from being stunned.
With a frown Legolas leaned against his friend, looking around them in
Raniean sighed deeply, unwilling to meet the prince’s gaze. His
hesitancy spiked fear through Legolas, its iron grip on his heart
bringing him fully alert, "Raniean. Where is Strider?"
Shaking his head slowly, the elf’s answer was quiet. "I lost him. Those
arrows used against us must have been tainted to evoke the reaction
they did. The intruder shot Strider with the same poison that he
drugged Trelan with. I could not reach him fast enough and he took
Strider away with him." Raniean glanced behind them and pointed towards
the tracks that led off into the wooded area that surrounded the open
glade, "They left through there, heading for the mountains. I am sorry,
Legolas gripped the soldier’s shoulder tightly and gently shook him,
redirecting Raniean’s gaze, "It’s not your fault. It happened so
fast... none of us were prepared. Did he say why? What he wanted or
who he was?" He rubbed his jaw absently, his gaze falling to Trelan who
still lay in the snow. The slight rise and fall of the elf’s chest was
all that gave away that he lived.
"No, my lord," Raniean shook his head. "He only said that he had no
quarrel with us, but that he would kill Strider or injure me or the two
of you if I attempted to stop him." Legolas nodded, turning Raniean
back towards their friend as the warrior explained how the strange
attacker had taken Aragorn.
Gently the two elves knelt in the snow next to their fallen friend.
Legolas checked the small elf’s vitals while Raniean ripped the hem off
his under-tunic and wrapped it around the base of the arrow, stanching
the light bleeding. They would need more time and a safer location to
remove the arrow, but for now this would have to do.
Together, they carefully lifted Trelan to his feet, holding him between
The horses had scattered in fright when all the commotion erupted, but
they were slowly making their way warily back. Avornwen, Legolas’
horse, nudged her elf in the back with her soft, velvety muzzle;
nickering softly in concern and anxiety, as if asking him what had
happened. "Shh, lasto beth nîn
Avornwen, dartho, dartho..."
Legolas soothed the agitated mare and bade her be still.
"Raniean, take Trelan back to Lasgalen, to my father’s halls, he needs
attention, and swiftly. We know not what manner of poison he has been
given," Legolas said with deep concern as he helped Raniean mount their
injured friend on the back of the prince’s steed. Trelan was still
unconscious and slumped forward limply against the dapple grey’s neck,
but the elvish horse adjusted gently for his weight, not about to let a
rider fall. "Take Avornwen, she’s faster than your horse. The other
horses will follow you." Legolas patted his mare’s neck, stepping back
to allow Raniean to mount up behind Trelan.
Raniean hesitated however. "Wait," he caught the prince’s sleeve,
seeking his eyes. "What are you going to do?" He had a sneaking feeling
he knew the answer.
"I’m going after Strider," was Legolas’ predictable reply. Raniean was
already shaking his head.
"Legolas, you can’t go after them alone. Besides, they’re heading for
the mountains. Wherever it is he’s headed, you don’t have the gear to
make a trip like they’re making, we weren’t prepared for this. Come
back with me, and I swear as soon as we have delivered Trelan into safe
hands I will come with you."
"No, Ran, I have to go now," Legolas caught and held his friend’s eyes,
willing the other elf to understand. "Do you smell that. Do you feel
it?" the prince gestured at the air around them. "A storm is coming. It
will take us at least four or five days to get back to Lasgalen if we
ride hard. And then just as many to get back here. By that time any
tracks this mysterious rider has left will be impossible to follow and
we will have no idea where Strider has been taken or why. If I do not
act now, we will lose him." Legolas’ eyes were intense and decided,
clearly stating that he did not intend allowing that to come to pass.
Raniean understood, but he did not like it one bit. "Legolas... I’m
worried about losing you." He
gently touched the bleeding cut across
Legolas’ cheekbone where the mysterious rider had kicked the elf prince
in the face. "You will do Strider no good if you’re dead. We have not
seen a winter this bitter since the Fell Winter long ago; it is folly
to go out into it improperly provisioned and alone. It would freeze
even an elf up in the mountains now!"
"Which is why I do not take a horse," Legolas said calmly. "They will
not survive the cold of the mountain heights for any long duration of
time if my chase should take me that far."
Raniean’s grip on his friend’s arm tightened in frustration. He saw the
prince’s point, but at the same time he knew that his friend often had
a very low regard for his own safety. "Legolas..."
"Raniean, I will be all right, I promise. With any luck I will catch
them before they ever reach the mountains and be back with Aragorn
almost before you know I’m gone. But I have to leave now. Take care of
Trelan. He needs you; that wound is bad. Tell my father what has
happened. Tell him..." Legolas let his breath out slowly. His father of
course would take this news no better than Raniean. "Tell him not to
Raniean rolled his eyes slightly. "As if that will help. Why am I
always the one who has to tell your father? I swear one day he’s going
to kill the messenger, Legolas," the other elf shook his head, smiling
around his worry, but his eyes were still serious.
"He will understand, Ran, he’ll have to." Legolas squeezed his friend’s
shoulder, willing the other elf to understand as well.
Raniean clasped Legolas’ shoulder tightly in return. "May the Valar
protect you then, my friend."
Legolas nodded. "Thank you."
Raniean pulled himself quickly up on Avornwen’s back, wrapping his arm
around Trelan’s waist and pulling the smaller elf’s head back against
his shoulder as he turned the horse towards the forest and rode off. As
Legolas had said, the other horses followed Avornwen’s lead and
galloped after the two elves.
Legolas watched them go for a moment before turning towards the plains
once more and starting off at a run up the trail of the horse and rider
who had taken his friend away. A lot of precious time had already been
wasted and he did not know how far ahead of him the ones he sought had
The rider in brown kept his horse moving quickly all that day, glancing
over his shoulder. Night was falling but he didn’t want to stop yet. He
didn’t know whether any of the ranger’s companions would try to come
after them or not, but he never took chances. Dyryn, son of Inamarth,
had not made his living as a bounty hunter for the past ten years by
being careless. He knew that the snow made his an easy trail to follow
and he intended to get up into the rocky country ahead before he felt
safe enough to stop.
Stocky and not overly tall, the bounty hunter’s build spoke of his
mixed human and dwarf ancestry. He was actually not more than a score
of years older than his captive, but Dyryn had already earned himself a
reputation for being utterly ruthless and effectively brutal.
He rested one hand on the back of the young man who lay draped
face-down across his saddle in front of him while the other held his
horse’s reigns. The drug on the arrows he had been using was called
belithral, and Dyryn knew that
the ranger was going to be out of it for
some time now. Eventually he was going to have to get the arrow out of
his captive’s shoulder, but it could wait. First he wanted to put some
distance behind them.
The moon was full that night, reflecting off the white snow and giving
enough light to keep traveling by for some time. Dyryn did not stop
until he had made the beginning of the craggy mountain foothills. Here
the snow was less even and patchy as rocks twisted and overhung one
Leading his horse through a series of twists and turns until he was
satisfied that anyone trying to trail them would be hopelessly lost,
the bounty hunter finally decided to make camp and allow his weary
horse to rest. Pulling Aragorn off the animal’s back and letting the
young man fall to the ground, Dyryn tied the ranger’s hands tightly
behind him, just to be cautious. Then he set about making camp and
starting a small fire.
Aragorn felt cold. That’s all he was really aware of. Slowly he was
coming back to himself... but when he opened his eyes it was more like
a dream than waking. He couldn’t move. It wasn’t that he was bound,
although he was, but he simply couldn’t move a muscle. Anywhere. He was
still breathing, but other than that, the only motion he seemed to be
able to control was the opening and closing of his eyes, and that only
barely. His shoulder hurt. Hurt badly. For a few minutes he couldn’t
figure out why. Then he remembered what had happened... the man on the
horse, being shot... his mind jerked to awareness even if his body
Where was he? Light snow was falling, landing on his face before
it melted as he looked up into the frosty night sky. The stars seemed
to be dancing... now they weren’t stars at all but dragons, chasing one
another around and devouring each other up. The odd hallucinations
danced before his eyes, and Aragorn blinked several times, trying to
separate reality from delusion.
After everything else was taken care of, Dyryn knelt by Aragorn’s side,
a hunting knife in his hand. He started slightly when he saw Aragorn’s
open eyes fix on him. The young man should have been out cold for a lot
longer than this. The ranger was a strong one to be progressing this
fast, he was going to have to keep that in mind and he was going to
have to watch him carefully.
"Well then..." the bounty hunter muttered, half to himself, half to his
prisoner. "Awake already are we? But not moving yet? No, no I didn’t
think so. That won’t come back for a while yet, neither will speech,
which is just as well because I’ve got to get his arrow out of you and
I don’t fancy any struggling or screaming."
Laying aside his knife for the moment, Dyryn gripped the arrow shaft
protruding from Aragorn’s shoulder. "Too bad it doesn’t dull your
senses any," he remarked before jerking upward on the arrow, attempting
to wrench it out of the wound.
If Aragorn could have cried out, he would have. Agonizing pain shot
through his injured shoulder as his captor tried to work the arrow
backwards out of his flesh. Unfortunately the shaft of the arrow
Dyryn threw the broken end aside with disgust. "’Fraid that would
happen," he muttered, picking up his knife once more. "Now I’ll have to
do it the hard way. After all, can’t have you dying on me too soon."
Aragorn closed his eyes, his breath coming in ragged gasps. There was
nothing else he could do. He felt the knife cut into him, working down
to get the arrowhead out, felt the white-hot pain slicing through his
awareness, but he couldn’t react, he couldn’t even tense. The utter
helplessness somehow made it hurt even worse.
When Dyryn had finally retrieved the arrowhead and bound up the wound,
he was surprised to find that Aragorn was still conscious, although the
human desperately wished he wasn’t. Dyryn eyed the captive as he
cleaned the young ranger’s blood from his knife.
"Well you’re a hard case if I ever saw one. Next thing I know you’ll be
trying to get up on me. Can’t have that..." Dyryn shook his head.
"Maybe we’ll just have to have another little dose of belithral before
bed," he chuckled darkly, knowing well the disturbing hallucinogenic
properties of the drug. "To give you... sweet dreams."