Morning light was just beginning to streak the sky as the slaves made
their out of their tents for morning round up. Aragorn was silent as he
followed Cabed out of the tent. Talking to the other slaves last night
had not gone well. It was as Sircyn had said, they were afraid. Some of
them had never been free and although all of them wanted it, it seemed
to them a dream either too dangerous, or too impossible to achieve.
To Aragorn’s distress, even Cabed had been hesitant. Not that he didn’t
want to do whatever he could to help Aragorn, but he had his family and
his people to think about. If something went wrong... there would be
bloodshed and many, many of the slaves would pay with their lives. Not
everyone was sure it was worth the risk.
The guards worked their way up the line of slaves, barking orders.
Talft and Lur usually gave no more than a cursory glance to see that
everyone was there before letting them go about their work, but this
morning when they reached the Simbani huts they looked around in
"Where’s the other one?" Talft demanded.
"Sircyn was injured yesterday sir, he’ll be able to work again by
tomorrow, I’ll pull his load ‘til then," Cabed explained quietly. This
sort of thing was not usually a problem, for Rhuddryn wanted his slaves
kept in good health and good condition. Cabed and his people were hard
workers and did not shirk their jobs, so most times when they said
someone was too ill to work, they were taken at their word. Technically
Sircyn should probably have rested even longer than they said, but his
family knew to take it one day at a time and see how he was in the
Lur shook his head impatiently. "I know that!" he snapped. "I don’t
mean him, I mean the other northerner."
"He’s not well enough yet," Aragorn spoke up, but tried to keep his
voice and his eyes down. "He’s still very weak, Master said..."
"The Master is tired of playing nursemaid to worthless slaves."
Bypassing Aragorn, Cabed and Mambre, Lur entered the tent behind them,
even as Talft spoke.
"He says no more rest for this one, either he pulls his weight or we
let the taergs have ‘em," Lur did not give the elf a chance to comply
willingly, but half dragged, half jerked Legolas out of the tent by his
arm and threw him forward, sending the prince sprawling on the ground
near Talft’s feet.
Legolas sucked his breath in sharply as his injured back hit the ground
and curled protectively around his broken ribs. He was better, but he
could tell his body was far from fully healed of the very vicious abuse
that the two guards had inflicted upon him at Rhuddryn’s bidding not so
"On your feet, lazy scum," Talft kicked Legolas none-too-gently in the
stomach and the elf gasped softly as the pain exploded across his
Aragorn tensed, his hand curling into fists at his side and he started
to move forward, but Cabed’s warning hand shot out to hold him back.
"Adrar!" he whispered firmly when Aragorn almost attempted to push past
him. Aragorn getting into trouble would not help Legolas.
Silently Cabed willed the guards to hurt the elf no further, both for
Legolas’ sake and Aragorn’s, because he knew that the young man they
called Adrar would not long stand by and see this happen. Aragorn had
been visibly changing since his memory returned. He was bolder, no
longer so afraid and no longer content to play the part of the
subservient slave. While Cabed was glad for Adrar’s healed mind, he was
gravely worried it was going to get the young northerner into serious
Legolas pulled himself quickly, if unsteadily, to his feet and for the
moment at least the guards left him alone, yelling at the slaves to
stop gawking and get on with their jobs.
Aragorn quickly made his way to Legolas’ side, steadying his friend and
offering the elf his shoulder to lean on if he needed it. Legolas
gripped the young ranger’s arm tightly for a moment as he gathered his
strength, but then eased up and let go, trying to show Aragorn that he
was all right and could walk on his own.
"I’ll be all right," Legolas still had one arm pressed tightly against
his throbbing ribs, but smiled at his friend. "But you’ll have to show
me what to do."
Aragorn nodded, not entirely convinced, but allowing the elf do as he
wished. The ranger tried to keep close to Legolas as they went out to
the fields, but had to run ahead when one of the fidgety, wild
oliphaunts that had been brought into the tame herd a few days ago
nearly broke free of its fencing again, narrowly missing goring Cabed
as it had Sircyn the day before.
Aragorn quickly helped the older slave calm the huge creature and shore
up the fence. That done he looked around for Legolas, who should have
caught up with them by now, even moving as slow as he was.
However, when his searching gaze finally found his friend, a violent
red haze obscured the ranger’s vision.
"Adrar! No!" Cabed called after him, but the young northerner was
already running for the edge of the clearing and the elder Haradrim
could not stop him this time.
When Aragorn ran on ahead to help with the oliphaunt, Legolas had
increased his speed to catch up, but something shoved between his feet
from behind nearly tripped him. Even weakened, his elven reflexes kept
him from falling, but he stumbled and wobbled somewhat unsteadily. He
heard the guards behind him laugh.
"What’s the matter Tyndel?" Talft mocked. "Not so quick on your feet
anymore? I wonder why..." the disagreeable man smirked because he knew
exactly why and all that had been done to the elf.
"Not used to being on this side of things, are you? Not so tough now
that you can’t boss us around like we’re beneath you, huh? I’ll bet one
of the oliphaunts steps on him right away," Lur chuckled unpleasantly.
Legolas ignored them, straightening his shoulders and continuing on.
"Hey!" Lur grabbed the elf’s arm from behind and spun him around
roughly. "Don’t you walk away when we’re talking to you *slave*! You’re
as bad at listening as the half-wit! Do none of you northerners have
any sense under those bleached hides of yours?"
Legolas tensed, anger and fear chasing themselves around inside him.
His memories of the feel of these men’s hands on his arms the last
time, as they held him on his knees and beat him unconscious, not once,
not even just twice... filled his senses and a queasy shiver of dread
ran up his spine. Fear was a feeling that Legolas hated, but one he
could not deny.
"You know, he hasn’t been properly initiated yet Lur. Why, he doesn’t
have any understanding of what it means to be a slave yet, do you?"
Talft taunted as Lur twisted the elf’s arm behind his back and dragged
him into the shadows of the trees edging the field.
Legolas remembered what Aragorn had said, about how the guards would
only abuse the slaves out of sight, where they couldn’t be caught at
their sport, and started to struggle; but a swift, cruel blow to his
already hurting ribs quickly put an end to that.
"No?" Lur smiled evilly. "Well, mister better-than-everyone-else,
here’s your first lesson, fast and hard." He cuffed the elf upside the
head hard and pressed him face-first against the bole of the huge tree,
rubbing Legolas’ twisted arm roughly into the still healing welts
between the prince’s bare shoulders.
Legolas gasped and squirmed in pain, his injured body protesting
loudly. A swift blow dropped him to his knees. Strong hands held him
there. The elf’s body panicked and he thrashed against his captors no
matter how useless it was. Not again. Not again. He couldn’t do this
again. He couldn’t... fear chased all reason from his mind.
"No!" Aragorn, surprising the guards by his sudden appearance, dropped
to his knees protectively behind Legolas, putting himself between his
friend and the guards. Aragorn felt the prince’s back tremble against
his chest, but the elf shook his head. "N-no, Arag-Adrar, go back to
work, please." Legolas’ voice was ragged and unsteady and Aragorn could
hear the raw fear hiding behind the brave words. It made his heart
burn. He may not have been able to do anything about what these people
had done to Legolas before, but he’d be damned if he was going to let
them hurt him again!
Talft jerked Aragorn away from Legolas, growling angrily. "You get in
our way ever again and you’re food for the taergs, no matter what the
boss says, got it Adrar?"
Aragorn could not hide the defiant glimmer in his glance and the
guard’s eyes narrowed. "I don’t know what’s gotten into you, but maybe
if you have to watch what we do to this one, you’ll remember your place
a little better!"
Lur shook out his whip, standing behind Legolas to illustrate his
partner’s words. "You heal quick," he observed the closing cuts and
welts they had given the elf last time. "Maybe you need to be freshened
up a little."
Legolas tensed and pressed his forehead against the smooth bark of the
tree, his hands trembling no matter how hard he tried to be calm.
Running was useless, in the shape he was in he would never make it far
anyway, but his heart was in his throat and his body was screaming at
him that it could not take another beating like this, not again, not so
Aragorn saw the way Legolas was shaking and visibly drawing in on
himself and something inside the ranger snapped. His friend hadn’t
reacted this badly to men since Taradin had mistaken the elf for
Hebrilith and he couldn’t stand seeing the prince in such fear and
pain. Lashing out with unexpected violence for one they considered too
dim-witted to put up any planned resistance, Aragorn wrenched free of
Talft and yanked the whip out of Lur’s hand. The startled guard tried
to grab the young ranger, and Aragorn dodged, swinging out
automatically and punching Lur in the jaw.
The man stumbled and fell backward, unconscious.
Talft’s eyes were huge and quickly filled with rage as they bored into
Aragorn stood very still for a moment, looking down at Lur and
realizing what he had done. He had committed the worst transgression
any slave could ever commit, he had struck an overseer. The part of him
that had been trained to think like a slave felt a hot slick of panic
pass through his insides, but the other half of him felt stubbornly
glad, no matter what was going to happen to him because of this.
Legolas rose unsteadily, touching Aragorn’s shoulder lightly as he too
looked down at Lur’s unconscious form.
For all his bluster, Talft truly was a coward underneath and did not
want to have to stand up to the two slaves by himself. Backing up, he
glared at them, most of his ire directed at Aragorn. "You’re in *so*
much trouble boy, you have no idea! I’ll be back, and you had better be
here or I’ll let Cabed or Sircyn take whatever you’ve got coming!"
Turning, he ran off to get some of the other overseers.
Aragorn let his breath out slowly, his knees suddenly feeling like they
didn’t want to hold him anymore as the initial adrenaline drained out
of his body. He eased down onto the grass and knelt with his hands
leaning on his thighs. He had really done it this time. It was barely
morning and he had already gotten himself into trouble so deep he
wasn’t sure where it was going to leave him. He knew how Seobryn had
dealt with it when he’d struck out at someone over him... but if Talft
were just going to beat him, he would have done that already.
Legolas knelt by his friend’s side. He wanted to tell the young human
that he should not have done it, but he knew he would have done no
different if their positions had been reversed. "I’m sorry," his blue
eyes sought the grey ones next to him. "I’m so sorry." He felt this was
all his fault.
"It’s not your fault Legolas, and I don’t regret it, you hear? I
*don’t*!" the ranger’s soft voice was fierce as he squeezed his
friend’s hand where it rested against his shoulder.
Cabed and Mambre, with Kidrin tagging close behind as always, reached
the spot a few moments later, taking in the scene, and the still
unconscious Lur, understanding what must have happened. Cabed’s eyes
searched between Legolas and Aragorn. It was Aragorn who sighed and
"Oh Adrar..." Mambre murmured, pain filling her deep, dark eyes. Cabed
knelt opposite Legolas on the other side of the young man that he had
taken into his home as part of his family.
"You do this Adrar?" he nodded dispassionately towards Lur.
Aragorn nodded. "They were beating Legolas again, they wanted to make
me watch... I’m sorry Cabed. I just couldn’t do it. Talft told me to
wait here," he said softly. Aragorn knew that if he did not obey,
either his little family, or some other hapless slave would pay for
this, and he wouldn’t see that happen.
Mambre and Cabed exchanged anguished looks. Neither of them knew
exactly what would be done, because nothing like this had ever happened
to them before, but they knew it would not be good, or easy.
"What? What’s going on? Is he dead? I hope he’s dead. I don’t like him.
He’s mean. Is something bad gonna happen to Adrar?" Kidrin’s eyes were
large as he poked at Lur’s still body and tried to understand his
"Shh, hush child. He’s not dead, unfortunately," Mambre muttered the
last part under her breath. "Go on back, help your sister now, all
right? There’s a good boy." She sent the child away, turning back to
Aragorn once the little boy had reluctantly taken his leave.
She checked Lur, and found that he was indeed fine, although he would
doubtless have a killer headache, which she hoped he would feel for a
very long time.
Cabed was talking quietly to Aragorn.
Loud, angry voices reached them and they looked up to see Talft and
several of the other guards approaching quickly.
Aragorn rose to his feet. Cabed and Mambre both gave him an encouraging
hug. "Be brave Adrar," Mambre whispered, not wanting to release him.
The two Haradrim backed off a little, but Legolas did not move, staying
by Aragorn’s side, his hand resting on the young human’s shoulder.
"Him," Talft nodded his head towards Aragorn and several of the other
guards quickly took the young slave by the arms. At his side, Legolas
tensed. "See, there he is, poor Lur! I told you boss, that half-wit
Rhuddryn himself was there and frowned deeply. The master rarely came
out to the fields in person, so this was obviously a serious occasion.
"I doubt very much that his actions were completely unprovoked,"
Rhuddryn’s voice was dry as he leveled his underling with an even
stare. "HOWEVER, there is nothing that justifies striking one of your
betters, even you should understand that Adrar," the slave owner turned
his gaze on Aragorn, and the young man dropped his eyes, knowing he
could not let Rhuddryn see the change that had been working in him.
Rhuddryn turned his gaze on the elf next to Adrar, his eyes narrowed.
"You, I think are going to be more trouble than you’re worth. I blame
you for this Tyndel, the boy’s not all there upstairs and you’re the
one that got him into trouble. Not that that excuses him, but it
implicates you. So you can both share the penalty. Talft," he turned
back to the guard. "You and some of the others take these two out to
the salt flats. Give them no water and make sure they put in a full
day’s work. Understood? All right then-"
Cabed and Mambre had both stiffened. "If it please you sir," Cabed
spoke up quietly, something he would never have dreamed of doing if he
weren’t so distressed. "Adrar’s never been conditioned to working out
there... he could die. I’ve done it before. Let me go in his place."
Mambre gripped his arm tightly, but Cabed let his offer stand. The salt
flats were a harsh, unforgiving desert. Temperatures there routinely
soared far above what the human body could safely handle and slaves had
to be gradually exposed and worked up to it to be able to work in those
conditions. Throwing two people in there cold, with no conditioning at
all, was a nearly certain death sentence.
Rhuddryn glared at the slave. "If they die then they are an even better
example for the rest of you. Don’t you start giving me trouble too
Cabed. I am in no mood to be trifled with any further." The master’s
eyes were dangerous. "What is everyone standing around for? Back to
work unless you all want to be mining salt today! Talft, get those two
troublemakers moving, *now*!"
Everyone obeyed and Aragorn and Legolas were tied up, hands strung in
front of them on lead-lines, and moved out. Mambre buried her face on
her husband’s shoulder and Cabed wrapped his arm around her as they
moved numbly back to work. Whatever would they tell Sircyn?
In their hearts they feared that they had learned to love only to lose
again. Adrar was strong... but could he and his friend possibly survive
the harsh and deadly heat of the flats? They didn’t know. All they
could do was hope.
Aragorn and Legolas were hitched up behind a flatbed wagon which Talft
and another guard drove. A snap of the reins started the mule team
moving and so began the first leg of their arduous journey and they had
a feeling things were only going to get worse.
Aragorn looked across at Legolas and sighed. "Well, this is just like
old times, isn’t it?"
Legolas almost smiled. "At least you have old times to remember again,"
he said quietly, talking too soft for the guards in the front of the
wagon to hear him.
The young human nodded, twisting his wrists slightly in their bonds in
an effort to ease the tension a little. "Yes, I do... and do you want
to tell me why it is that most of them I have with you in them involve
situations like this?"
Despite everything, Legolas was glad to see that old familiar glint in
Aragorn’s eyes once more. He had missed his friend’s spark and odd
sense of humor more than he could say.
"That, Strider, may remain a mystery forever," he smiled gently. "Let’s
just try to survive this one, all right?"
The trip out to the salt flats was not a short one and it was already
mid-morning by the time they reached them. Dry, cracked earth, a
blindingly shimmering white, stretched out for miles in each direction.
There were no trees here, no cover whatsoever, just acre upon acre of
flat, salt-crusted earth. Once upon a time there must have been a large
body of water here, but it had long ago dried up, leaving behind only
its sediments and a dry, scorching desert.
The signs of previous mining were evident in the lines, furrows and
ridges carved into the flat earth here and there, however there were no
other slaves out here right now. Salt mining was usually done in the
early morning or late evenings, or during the cooler months of the
year. Only as punishment were slaves ever forced to work in midday heat.
Heat rose in shimmering waves off of the baked earth; the bleached,
white salt flats intensifying the sun’s rays as it reflected them, so
that the extreme warmth was not only coming from above, but below as
well. The bright glare hurt their eyes and both Aragorn and Legolas had
to squint, and put their hands in front of their faces before they
could become adjusted to it.
Talft and Nalb, the other overseer, cut the slaves’ hands free and
prodded them further out into the flats. Flat-ended hoes and shovels
were given them, along with a wheeled barrow and they were instructed
to remove the top layer of earth and salt crystals into the barrow,
which was then emptied into many large wooden crates that formed a line
some distance away. Later the crates would be carted off and the salty
earth processed and distilled by some means that Legolas and Aragorn
were unfamiliar with as their captors had not seen fit to speak to them
unless absolutely necessary. Some of the finished product was used in
the feed given the Oliphaunts, Aragorn knew, having mixed the stuff
often enough. It was also essential for the livelihood of cattle, and
although Rhuddryn raised none himself, he sold his excess salt product
to those who did.
After delivering their instructions in a short and terse manner, the
two overseers retreated to the shade of a small sheltered canopy,
erected for just such a purpose, on the far northern edge of the field.
The two Haradrim could not take the heat of the flats and had no
intention of frying with the slaves they guarded. From the shade under
the canopy, they could watch the slaves well enough, and see that they
did not attempt to escape; although such a notion would have been sheer
foolishness, for making a break out here would only mean certain death
in the desert.
Left with the strict warning that slacking on the job would result in
harsh punishment, Legolas and Aragorn had nothing to do but take the
tools given them and go to work.
The sun crawled slowly and torturously across the sky. By the time it
was near the waning hours of the most intense midday heat the two
slaves’ situation had become unbearable.
Aragorn felt as if the heat were an actual, physical enemy that was
trying to overcome him. Unfortunately, it was winning. The hot air and
scorching sun made them perspire heavily, and with no water to replace
what was lost, both friends were feeling the effects of the dehydration.
As an elf, the extreme heat in and of itself did not affect Legolas as
severely as Aragorn, but the prince’s still healing injuries made him
weaker than usual, and on top of that, his fair, un-weathered skin did
not take well to the harsh glare. Over the past several months
Aragorn’s skin had bronzed and built up a protection to the sun, but
Legolas’ had not had that opportunity, and his exposed face, arms,
chest and back began to let him know it. It took him far longer to burn
than it would have for a human, but by this point in the day his
healing back had begun to throb mercilessly once again, and his own
perspiration stung his arms and chest.
Legolas watched Aragorn with concern. The young human’s face was
flushed and he had become increasingly sluggish in his movements and
disoriented in his actions. Covering his dark hair with his hands for a
moment, Aragorn tried to ease the intensity of the sun for a brief
respite. His head was swimming and he felt ill.
"Aragorn!" Legolas said his name in alarm when the ranger fell suddenly
to his knees.
Becoming ill in a reaction to the intolerable conditions, Aragorn’s
insides heaved and his stomach emptied without his consent.
Legolas stood behind his friend, letting his shadow fall across the
human and holding Aragorn’s shoulders gently as the young man retched
miserably. Legolas knew his friend couldn’t help his body’s actions,
but he was alarmed, because he knew that the Dùnadan could ill
afford to lose anymore moisture.
Aragorn leaned weakly back against Legolas’ legs. "I don’t feel so
good," he murmured. It was a massive understatement.
"I know," Legolas held Aragorn lightly against him, his shadow
providing the only shade there was as he attempted to shield his friend
from the sun’s merciless rays. He wished there was something more he
could do. "I know you don’t."
"I wish I was an elf..." the ranger whispered somewhat hoarsely. He
tried to smile, but his parched lips did not fully cooperate with him.
"This is always happening to me... sun, snow, burning, freezing... and
you’re always stuck trying to deal with my weaknesses... I’m sorry
Legolas, I’m always such a burden to you, I wish..." he wasn’t making a
lot of sense, even to himself, but Legolas squeezed his shoulders
"I wouldn’t have you be anything other than what you are my friend.
Your strengths and your weaknesses alike are dear to me Aragorn, by now
you must know that. You have never been a burden to me and you never
will be, anymore than you consider me to have been to you. We’ll make
it through this like we have everything else. Evening will come, this
can’t last forever Aragorn, it will be all right," the elf soothed
Aragorn nodded with difficulty, but his body was telling him otherwise.
"I-I can’t breathe Legolas... the air is so thick..." he held his
chest, leaning forward. Suddenly Legolas felt his friend’s body go
slack against him and caught the young man before he toppled limply