Aragorn peered through the canopy of green leaves in front of his face
without moving. Crouched on the low limb of a large oak tree and hidden
by its foliage he held perfectly still. It was a trick Legolas had
taught him and it worked well. People rarely looked up to see if they were being
followed or watched.
Somewhere in the underbrush off to the far right, Laener was equally
The small group of men that the two rangers were observing was totally
unaware of their silent presence; had been for weeks. By now Aragorn
and Laener knew the name and appearance of every man in the troop, and
the traders did not even know they were there.
Aragorn and Laener had made good time on their journey down to West
Emnet, but had nearly missed the people they sought all together
anyway. It was only Aragorn’s keen observation skills that matched up
the odd sealing ring on the hand of this band’s lead man to the
impression on the broken seal on the letter they had intercepted when
they crossed paths with these traders in the small town of Ihel, now
many leagues behind them. From a distance of course, the young ranger
hadn’t been able to be entirely sure. He’d needed a closer look.
If he had not been intent on being completely still and silent, Aragorn
would have rubbed his jaw ruefully.
He had pretended to be drunk in order to get a closer look at the ring
without seeming suspicious. He got a closer look all right, as well as
a complimentary sample of the other man’s knuckles when the one who
they now knew was Seobryn, punched the supposed ‘drunk’ in the face.
The incident had also earned Aragorn a night’s stay in the town’s
lock-up for being drunk and disorderly. Laener thought he was crazy,
but the young ranger considered it all worthwhile, because they could
now be certain that they had found the men they sought. Even Laener had
to agree with him there.
All that was a long way behind them now. Seobryn and his men had passed
from the grasslands of Rohan into Anórien, following the old
trade routes along the base of the White Mountains. All the while
Aragorn and Laener followed the group, silent and undetected. The
rangers had concluded with some frustration that they had come upon
these men too late to discover who they had been meeting with, since
the course they were taking suggested that the group was on the return
leg of its journey, if they were in fact from somewhere in Harad as the
letter they had found seemed to indicate.
The sun was setting and a couple of biting insects buzzed around
Aragorn’s exposed neck and face, but he didn’t dare swat them, he was
too close to their quarry to risk detection. The air was hot and
perspiration made the young ranger’s hair cling to the sides of his
face. It was the heat of summer down here in the southlands and already
much warmer than the balmy northlands ever got. It was in fact so warm
that Aragorn had been forced to stop wearing his leather-overcoat. Most
of their gear the rangers carried with them, even when spying, but for
tonight’s watch Aragorn had left his coat behind at his and Laener’s
campsite, because the tree-scaling involved made any unnecessary
baggage a liability. He would retrieve it before they moved out again.
Four days ago, they had circumvented Minas Tirith and crossed the Great
River to link up with the caravan route known as the Harad Road. There
was now no doubt that Seobryn and his party were heading to Harad. This
was both a good and a bad thing for the rangers who followed them. It
was good because it meant that Aragorn and Laener had a chance of
following them to wherever they were going and hopefully finding out
what was going on, but it was bad because the further and further south
they got, the harder it would be to send back word of what they found.
So it was that the rangers had decided that they needed to risk getting
a little closer to their quarry. Thus far they had mainly followed at a
distance, so as to keep out of sight more easily. But tonight they
stationed themselves dangerously close to the traders’ camp, hoping to
overhear some of their talk. If they could find something out now,
before they were too deep into the south, then one of them could bring
word back to the other rangers while the second continued to follow. It
was a risky gambit, but the two rangers felt they had little choice.
Aragorn had volunteered to take the most dangerous position, almost
directly over the traders’ heads, leaving Laener to watch the flank.
From where he perched, hidden in the trees, Aragorn could hear most of
what was being said in the camp below. So far none of it had been
particularly useful. Just when he was beginning to think this was all
in vain, he heard Seobryn talking to a man named Chadoc, who appeared
to be something of a second-in-command.
"I will just be glad when this whole thing is over," Chadoc was saying.
He was a gloomy man who was fond of pointing out the downside of
things, often times to his employer’s great irritation.
"You weren’t complaining the last time you spent your pay," Seobryn
shook his head. "And the big payoff doesn’t come until we finish this
"If we can finish it off.
Seobryn, you know that things
aren’t going as well as you made them out to be back north. There will
be trouble if this falls through. Big trouble."
"You worry too much, Chadoc! You’re supposed to leave that to me," the
head trader scowled. "Think of what we’re creating. Think of the
possibilities. After all, once we have success, we don’t have to sell
all to one place, no matter who commissioned them. Have you any idea
how many buyers there would be for a creature that could survive either
north or south, that combines the silent ferociousness of the taergs
coupled with the cunning and controllability of the wargs? With
creatures like that at their command anybody could be a king, right?
Once we’ve bred our new species, the money won’t stop rolling in!"
"You’re talking double-dealing," Chadoc raised one eyebrow. "You know
the boss wants them all for himself. He’s got plans."
Seobryn snorted. "What do I care for his plans? I’ve talked to
Rhuddryn, he’s in on it if we are and this far south, who can touch us
anyway? Besides, what he doesn’t know won’t hurt him."
Chadoc nodded slowly. He had to admit he liked the idea of crossing the
white wizard if he had the chance to do so safely.
Aragorn listened with keen interest. Some of what they spoke was a
mystery to him. He did not know what taergs were, but if they were
mentioned in the same sentence with wargs, then they had to be deadly.
Was this it then? Was that the secret these men carried, the new army
they were creating? Some kind of horrible new breed of warg, ferocious
enough to suppress and oppress entire regions? It was a frightening
thought, and a terrible danger if they succeeded.
The young ranger tensed, anxious now to be able to get out of here and
share what he had heard with Laener. However, he knew that he could not
relinquish his position until everyone was asleep and whoever was on
watch that night moved away to the perimeter of the camp. He was too
close to dare risk moving until then.
Time crept on, and Aragorn stoically ignored how badly his legs were
cramping or how uncomfortable his position was. Night had fallen and
the murmur of the camp below was dying down. Chadoc was standing the
first watch and he knelt to light a long-burning torch from the dying
embers of the fire before moving off to his post. Soon Aragorn would be
An ear-splitting, heart-stopping howl rent the quiet curtain of the
night and Aragorn could not help jerking, his eyes quickly scanning the
darkness outside the camp, seeking what had made such a sound.
Everyone below him did the same thing as men bolted upright in their
bedrolls and stumbled to their feet, looking to Chadoc who was already
making his way off to the right, towards the source of the sound, torch
in hand and sword drawn. A second man with a bow strung and ready was
not far behind. Whatever that was had been much too close for comfort.
The howl came again, only it was more of a growl this time, like the
cry of a pouncing animal. The snarl turned inexplicably into a yelp of
pain before it fell silent.
"Chadoc! What is it, what do you see?" Seobryn was on his feet now,
lighting a torch of his own.
Chadoc cursed in surprise. "A wolf, but its dead, someone... hey!
Someone’s out here! There! He’s running!"
Seobryn looked truly alarmed. "WHAT? What do you mean someone’s out
there? Get him!"
Chaos erupted. Somewhere out in the dark the hiss of arrows being
released whistled sharply on the night air, but it did not sound as if
they had struck anything. Chadoc’s bobbing torch got rapidly farther
Aragorn closed his eyes and swore silently. Laener. The wolf must have
gone after Laener and in having to defend himself the ranger was forced
to give away his presence. This was not good and Aragorn tensed,
wondering what he should do now. A moment later that decision was made
At the mention of wolves and intruders everyone in the camp started
lighting torches. Huge bats, which had come to rest quietly in the
overhanging branches of the trees around the camp as darkness fell,
fluttered free of their perches in large groups as the sudden flare of
torchlight illuminated their gathering spot, angering and driving them
away by its brilliance.
Several flew into Aragorn in their blind haste, their large, heavy
bodies and the surprise of their impact nearly knocking him off
balance. The young ranger grabbed the branch next to him to keep from
slipping and falling as the bats picked themselves up and flew off with
The men in the camp ducked and called out in surprise as the large,
black, leathery-bodied creatures swept screaming over their heads and
into the night. Unfortunately, this caused the men to look up into the
Seobryn’s eyes locked onto Aragorn. The young ranger had not yet had
time to pull back into the deeper cover of the branches after his close
Aragorn knew his cover was blown the instant he saw the trader’s gaze
fall on him, even before Seobryn had a chance to open his mouth.
Jumping down from the tree quicker than most would have thought
possible, Aragorn landed on top of Seobryn, knocking the air out of
him, before dashing quickly by the startled, confused men who could not
figure out where in the world he had come from.
Seobryn struggled to his knees, roughly gasping to get his breath back.
"DON’T JUST STAND THERE!! Get them or I’ll have your hides!! NOW!" he
shouted angrily at his men, who were already rushing to obey.
Aragorn fled towards the cover of darkness outside camp, moving as fast
as his legs would carry him. Bursting out of the trees almost before he
realized he had reached their end, he found himself in the large, empty
plain beyond. Dry, knee-high, withered grass whipped at his boots as he
ran. An arrow whistled by his head, stirring his hair, another hissed
past his hand and he started zigzagging as he ran, making himself a
harder target for the men who were close on his heels.
One of the pursuers tripped on a hidden hillock and fell, his torch
rolling from his hand and instantly setting the dry grass aflame. The
predominately westerly wind fanned the flames, spreading them quickly
in the direction that the men had been running.
Getting the same idea at the once, several of the other men fanned,
out, using their torches to light the grass, turning night into near
Ahead in the distance, Chadoc and the men, chasing Laener saw the glow
and realized what was happening. Quickly, they circled around to the
flank, setting the grasslands ablaze behind them, creating a second
sweeping curtain of flame to trap their quarry like hunters lying a
Aragorn choked on the billowing smoke that stung his eyes and burned
his lungs. The flames raced after him faster than was possible for his
human pursuers, who followed the burned-out path that the blaze left
behind. Although the grass burned hot, it burned fast, leaving only
dead char in its wake.
The young ranger could feel the heat growing nearer behind him, and up
ahead, saw a second curtain of flame rising up to obscure the stars.
The flames drove him further and further to his right, just as his
pursuers knew it would. The light of the fire was making him an easy
target and the arrows that sought him kept coming closer and closer.
Reaching a section of overgrowth covering the top of a steep ravine
Aragorn ducked under the foliage and scrambled down the incline. He
hoped to get to lower ground, where the sinking haze of smoke from the
wildfire, drawn down to the earth by the oppressively thick air, would
mask his presence at least a little. The scramble ended up becoming
more of a tumble and at the bottom he nearly ran into someone. The
young ranger scrambled back, going for his weapon, but a moment later
his stinging, watering eyes made out who it was.
"Strider, this way, we’ve got to get upwind," Laener grabbed the
younger man’s arm as the two of them scrambled through the little
brush-choked ravine. The flames had followed them down and were now
lapping along the walls of the shallow indent.
Aragorn coughed hard, pressing his nose and mouth against his sleeve as
he stumbled along, trying to breathe around the smoke. "Laener, I heard
them, I know what’s going on," he choked out around his own inability
to breathe properly. In case only one of them made it out of this, it
was important that both of them knew. "They’re cross-breeding wargs
with some other creature, trying to create some kind of super-monster
army. We have to tell the others!"
Laener nodded, his own shirt pulled up to cover his nose and mouth.
"Listen to me Strider, I don’t know if we’ll both get out of this, but
one of us has to, all right? If one of us has the chance, we have to go
for it, no matter what; this news is too big to risk losing."
Aragorn nodded his agreement; he had already been thinking the same
thing. Word of this had to get out. The alternative was too horrible to
The wind pushed the fire through the ravine quicker than anyone would
have guessed, overtaking the two men. The brush had caught fire as well
as the grass and dead vines and small branches fell flaming from above
the rangers as they battled their way through the overpowering curtain
Aragorn yanked Laener out of the way as a large heap of burning brush
toppled down from the ravine wall, scattering fire and sparks
everywhere. The air was too thick with smoke to breathe now, and the
two rangers had to stay low, nearly crawling in order to not suffocate
on the fumes. The end was in sight as the billowing inferno around them
opened out into the deceitfully tranquil beauty of the star-clad night
ahead. But the mouth of the gully was overhung by thick, interlacing
vines that the fire had already reached. The blazing stalks groaned and
creaked, ready to come crashing down, fatally trapping the two rangers.
Rising to their feet and rushing forward at the last possible moment,
Aragorn and Laener burst out of the gully just as the curtain of fire
fell behind them with a crackling rush and roar.
The small ravine emptied out into another flat plain which dropped down
towards a swiftly flowing river, but Aragorn only had a moment to take
in the lay of the land before Laener was pushing him to the ground
urgently. For a moment the younger man didn’t understand, then he felt
the hot pain against his back and shoulder.
Part of Aragorn’s tunic had caught fire in that last narrow brush and
the elder ranger quickly helped smother the flames with his hands as
Aragorn rolled to put them out. As soon as that was taken care of, the
two men were on their feet again. They had totally lost track of where
their pursuers were, but they could not be far away, and perhaps just
as deadly, the fire had rapidly spread out of the small rift and was
right on the rangers’ heels again as they made swiftly for the river.
If they could get across, then hopefully both the fire and their
pursers would be behind them.
The river was swift, but not deep. The cool water was welcomingly
refreshing as they plunged into the current, quickly struggling to the
Laener was the stronger swimmer, and made it first. Aragorn got caught
in a small jetty that carried him a little further downstream before he
was able to finally make shore. When he pulled himself up onto the bank
on his hands and knees he looked around for his companion... and found
instead the pointed head of an arrow staring him in the face.
Before he could even blink, strong hands closed around his arms as his
hands were jerked behind his back.
Looking up, he saw Chadoc and the other men who had been chasing them
standing all around, weapons drawn. Laener they held between them, his
hands bound behind him and a gag in his mouth. Their torches had been
put out; giving their quarry no warning of their presence until it was
Trapped with the enemy in front of them and both the river and the fire
still blazing on the opposite shore, behind them, the two rangers had
no way out.
Aragorn let his breath out slowly as his hands were tightly bound
behind his back and the realization of what had happened sunk in,
forming like a ball of heavy ice in his stomach.
Laener’s gag was removed and he was shoved to his knees on the
riverbank beside Aragorn as they were both searched for hidden weapons.
Chadoc eyed the two dripping prisoners. He smiled, obviously very
pleased with himself. "First rule of a prize-hunter, if there’s fire,
your quarry will flee to the nearest water. Now, do you two want to
tell me who you are and what you were doing snooping around our camp?"
Predictably, there was no answer.
"Look at this," one of the men who had just confiscated their weapons
pointed to the elvish lettering on the blade of Aragorn’s dagger.
"Elvish weapons and a nose for trouble... sounds like rangers too me."
Chadoc was squinting hard at Aragorn. "Aren’t you the one who caused
all the trouble back in Ihel?" Aragorn didn’t answer, but he didn’t
have to. "You are, aren’t you?" the man straightened up again with an
emotionless chuckle. "I don’t know what you two are up to, but you’d
better reconsider this silent attitude of yours before we get back to
camp, it won’t serve you at all, I promise you that," he said with a
wicked gleam in his eye.
Aragorn steeled his jaw as they were dragged back to their feet once
more. They had failed. And now who knew what price they, and the rest
of the world was going to pay?
Elrond heard the great wooden doors of the house open and close. He
knew by the sound of the careful closure that the ones who had just
entered were trying to keep their presence quiet, but the whispered
conversation and the light footfalls told him what he needed to know.
Standing from his desk, he laid down his pen and quietly walked into
the main hall.
Elladan and Elrohir were softly conversing with one another.
"And if he asks?" Elrohir whispered, his face mere inches from his twin.
"Then you’ll let me do the talking." Elladan glanced furtively about
them, hoping they were alone.
"Oh right," Elrohir argued back quietly, "the last time that
"The last time that happened you had taken your brother out for target
practice, and he was the target you were practicing with. Just what are
you two talking about?" Elrond’s deep voice cut through the whispered
conversation. He barely repressed his smile as he took in the guilty
looks that quickly passed across his son’s faces before being replaced
by innocent stares.
Neither of the twins spoke, their conspiracy having been interrupted
before they could agree. Elrond shook his head and motioned them in.
"Elladan, did you meet up with the Beornings?" When the eldest twin
nodded slightly he continued playing out his hand, "And how are they
faring? Did they send any word back?"
His tongue loosened by what he perceived to be a reprieve in his
father’s original line of questioning, Elladan relaxed and answered,
"Yes we did meet with them and they are doing well. They send their
regards and a request for more of the lathril herb. It seems they have
had an outbreak of the stomach sickness again and have found that the
lathril helps to ease it."
"They also sent a fairly large supply of their honey-cakes back for
Celboril." Elrohir smiled widely at the announcement.
The Beornings were famous for their honey-cakes and Elrond knew how
much the twins enjoyed them. He could not contain his smile at the
pleasure that was easily read on their faces. "Then we will send
lathril to them immediately."
"We can go back with it father, if you like." Elladan volunteered.
"No my son, I’ll send Moranuen. My heart would have here you for a
bit." His smile turned sad and he quickly changed the subject. "And did
you experience trouble along the way?" He asked, resuming his previous
line of questioning; he had yet to find an answer to his query.
"No father." Elladan replied innocently, for it was the truth. Their
travel had been easy and swift.
"And did you stay on with Beaoma?" Elrond knew that his sons frequented
the master baker’s home often when with the Beornings. They enjoyed the
cantankerous older man and he in turn took pleasure in their
lightheartedness feeding them all the honey-cakes they could eat when
under his roof.
"No, we just dropped off what they asked for." Elrohir replied, his
face blank of all expression.
Elrond smiled wickedly as Elladan winced and looked down to the floor,
he knew his twin had just given them away.
The two young elves shifted nervously under the piercing stare of their
father. With a snort of disgust Elladan cuffed Elrohir upside the head,
"I told you to let me do the talking."
"I blew it didn’t I?" The youngest twin looked petulantly between his
brother and father.
"Yes, nice going." Elladan growled.
"No, you did not." Elrond quietly corrected his son, "I already knew."
"HOW?" The twins were shocked by their father’s admission. They had
thought they had they had covered all their excuses and their journey
had taken less than a month which was unusual for the long trip over
the mountains that separated them from Mirkwood.
"Your length of travel for one thing, albeit it swift, it was no turn
around from the Beornings. Barahir is missing for another." Elrond laid
out all the reasons behind his assumption, "Your acts of innocence,
which were pathetic attempts to hide your guilt. And..." He stopped,
his gaze softening as he glanced between his sons, "And I know the both
of you very well. Your love for Estel and the fact that you both assume
the role of the older brother would not allow you to leave him to
himself for any moment of time under the given circumstances. He
forbade you to follow him, you have never been successful at tracking
him since he turned sixteen when he does not want you to, and I also
told you to let him go. However, Legolas was not forbidden and he among
all of us can track that young human no matter how Estel does not wish
to be found as he has proved before. I knew the night you left, that
you were going to his estate."
Elladan dropped his gaze, knowing he could not lie to the older elf,
"I’m sorry father. It’s just that I couldn’t..."
Elrond held up his hand, forestalling any arguments or apologies. "Do
not apologize. I had secretly hoped you would do just as you have.
Although Estel is now an adult." The elf lord laughed as the twins
began to protest, quieting them with his voice as he continued, "Yes,
he is my sons and he must be treated as such. In human years he is very
much an adult. However the way he left breaks my heart and I wish for
his return every night. What happened between us, as a family, is not
irreparable. Merely a misunderstanding, and yet Estel’s heart is broken
as well I fear."
With a soft sigh Elrond stopped speaking and walked towards the large
picture window that comprised nearly half the far wall, hands clasped
behind back. When he spoke again his voice was soft, "Who can blame
him? Among our peoples your sister is the most beautiful of them all.
It just never crossed my mind that he would fall in love with her.
Perhaps if they had grown up together like the three of you..."
A small laugh, escaped Elrohir’s lips, "Nay father, I think not even
that would have prevented this. For it is not all Estel’s fault."
Elrond whirled on the twins. "She talked to you?"
"No." Elladan answered him, "She did not have to."
"You can see it in her eyes, in the way she looked at him..." Elrohir
finished his brother’s thought, and in turn was interrupted by his twin
who completed the sentence.
"...when she left." Elladan nodded, "It was obvious."
"Yes" Elrohir agreed, glancing between his brother and father.
"I thought as much." Elrond mused quietly, turning back to gaze out
into the night with a deep heavy sigh. Still... Arwen was young.
Sometimes these things were passing fancies. She might well forget all
about it eventually. However he doubted that Estel would, and that was
the painful part.
"Father, don’t worry. Legolas left ahead of us. He said he would speak
with him... He will find Estel and they will both be home before you
"I hope that it is as you speak." Elrond’s gaze and thoughts were far
away, focused on a boy who would be a man and the predicament that fate
had laid in their laps, "but I fear it may not be that easy."
Celboril had quietly entered the main room and stood off to the side,
waiting for a chance to speak. He had almost decided to leave the small
family to itself and come back for them later when the lull in
conversation and the awkwardness of the moment lent him the opportunity
he needed. "My lord?" he spoke softly, gaining the elves attention,
"Your pardon my lord, but dinner is ready if you are." He left the
"I am not hungry." Elrond stated simply, turned back to the window.
"We’ll be right there." Elladan smiled at the housekeeper and nodded,
releasing the elf from the room.
Elrohir walked up behind the older elf and gently touched the Elrond’s
A simple nod answered the unspoken request. "You will both be staying
on for a while will you not?"
The twins look at each other in surprise. Thoughts of leaving hadn’t
actually crossed their minds and they wondered at the odd request.
"Yes of course." Elladan replied somewhat hesitantly.
"Good." Elrond glanced at each a small smile tugging at his lips. "Let
us go see what Celboril has prepared then shall we?"
Elladan watched as his brother and father left the hall before him.
Glancing back out the darkened window he whispered. "Find him Legolas,
and be swift." Turning on his heels he quietly followed the others out
to dinning hall.
Chadoc led the men back to camp. They had had to wait until the
wildfire they had kindled had burned itself out, but that hadn’t taken
long. The grassfire was quick and hot, but had not spread to the trees
and burned itself out fully in less than an hour. A little ways
upstream, the riverbed was shallow enough to allow chest-high wading
and the small group made its way back across the recently scorched
Only two or three men had remained behind with the traders’ gear, but
upwind and far back in the trees as the location was, there had been no
danger of the fire posing any threat to the campsite.
Seobryn stood from their own small fire where he was crouched stoking
the flames as if half the meadow had not just been blazed away hardly
less than an hour before. He glared at the two rangers bound in the
midst of his men, his eyes mere slits as he appraised the intruders.
"Were there only two?" He glanced slowly at Chadoc. The hunter nodded
quietly, eyeing the silent rangers.
"They aren’t talking." Chadoc cast his gaze back to the two prisoners.
"But I know they overheard us. They were sure in a big hurry to get out
Seobryn nodded pushing one of the men guarding Aragorn away from the
ranger. "What did you hear?"
The young dark haired man before him remained silent, casting his gaze
out across the ravine. Inside Aragorn was trembling, working hard to
control his breathing and steel his face from the apprehension that
gripped his heart. It would do no good for these men to think they had
the upper hand, he would never tell them what he knew, he couldn’t. One
of them had to make it out of this alive and tell the others.
"If you talk now it will go easier on you later." Seobryn’s rough voice
grated in his ears.
Beside him Laener stiffened. The older ranger stared straight at the
warg breeder, his eyes matching the coldness of the other.
"I suppose you know nothing either?" Seobryn growled glancing up at the
tall man. "Of course not." Shaking his head in disgust the trader
turned and walked away talking as he paced back through the camp. "Well
that’s all right because there are ways to make you talk." He stopped
and glanced over his shoulder, "Shall I show you them?"
Snapping his fingers Seobryn motioned to the tree he stopped in front
of, "Bring me the tall one."
Chadoc grabbed Laener, shoving the ranger forward towards where his
boss stood waiting.
Fear spiked through Aragorn. He couldn’t watch while they tormented
Laener for information, he knew the ranger would never give up what he
had overheard. He had to do something and do it now. The guards near
him were lax watching what was taking place across the campfire.
The camp was in disarray, a small table stood near his left, it was
covered in an odd assortment of objects including a burlap pouch and a
small wood saw, propped blade up. Seeing his opportunity to escape and
knowing that they had precious little time, Aragorn slammed his
shoulder into the guard on his left pushing the man off balance and
driving him to the ground. Gaining the makeshift tableside he raked his
bound hands across the serrated blade and broke the ropes from around
Balancing against the tabletop Aragorn kicked out at the guard, rushing
him from behind. He caught the man in the chest, knocking the wind out
of him and pressing him back. Rounding quickly on the surprised guard
he smashed his fist into the side of the man’s head, driving him to the
forest floor. Kicking the man over on his back he swiftly drew the
hunter’s sword and turned to face the rush of Seobryn’s men.
They had left Laener at their employer’s demand and raced to contain
the loosened prisoner.
"Get him now!" Seobryn shouted over the chaos.
"Laener go!" Aragorn caught the blade of one of the trader’s on the
edge of his sword, twisting inward towards the man and punching him
with his free hand before the hunter could respond.
Laener threw his arms up over his head and jerked his hands hard,
breaking free the barely formed knots that held him bound. He ran for
the line of picketed horses, intending to lose his pursuers. He hated
to leave the younger ranger behind, but one of them had to make it out
alive, the information they possessed was too vital and he was not
about to waste the opportunity that Aragorn had presented them with.
"Damn it!" Seobryn turned swiftly on his heels seeing the other ranger
run off towards their horses. "Stop him!"
One of the hunters heading towards Aragorn paused mid-step. Unslinging
his bow he notched an arrow and sighted in on the retreating form.
Before Seobryn could stop him the projectile was flying through the
air. It slammed into Laener’s back shoving him forward and off balance.
The picketed horses balked as the ranger stumbled towards them, shying
away from the quick fumbling movements of the wounded man. Overcome by
the pain and dizzy from being unable to draw breath Laener tumbled to
his knees close to the embankment they were camped on.
As if in slow motion Aragorn saw the ranger fall over the side of the
short cliff, the sounds of his own voice screaming Laener’s name fell
oddly in his ears as he tried to press forward to help his friend.
Chadoc reached the fighting ranger’s side, realizing he had no weapons
he grabbed the first thing his fist closed about: a rough cloth bag
that Seobryn had brought with them from their last stop and was now
sitting on the corner of the makeshift table. He hefted the weighted
sack and threw it into the distracted man’s face in an attempt to stop
Aragorn was aware of the fact that Seobryn was yelling at his own men
but his vision was suddenly clouded and a choking dust filled his
nostrils as the burlap bag smacked him squarely in the face, its
contents exploding out of it upon impact and sending him reeling. The
images before him distorted as though rippled on the very air that was
burning in his throat and lungs.
Taking advantage of the ranger’s confused state Chadoc grabbed a thick
limb from the woodpile near the fire and smashed the timber against the
side of Aragorn’s head. The wood impacted the ranger’s head with an odd
sickening crack and Aragorn crumpled to the ground, blood welling from
a deep gash that cut across his left temple. He lay on his side, his
eyes half opened and his pupils swiftly dilating; his vision fixed
across the camp to the far side where Laener had been.
"What were you thinking?!" Seobryn yelled at Chadoc shaking the now
empty burlap sack in front of the man’s eyes. He waved his hand before
his face in irritation, brushing specks of the dust that had exploded
from the small bag out of the air in front of him. "Do you have any
idea what this was?"
Chadoc opened his mouth but was quickly silenced as Seobryn stepped
dangerously closer to him, "Now we’ll never know will we? This was for
Rhuddryn from that sorcerer. Have you any idea how hard this will be to
explain?" He threw the burlap against the chest of the other hunter and
turned back to glare down at the ranger on the ground. Aiming a hard
kick at Aragorn’s midsection he stormed across the camp yelling
instructions to his men.
"Go get that other one and bring him back up here if he’s still alive,
this one is no use to us now." He cursed quietly to himself as he threw
the flap to his tent back, wondering darkly if the day could get any
Pain exploded inside Aragorn’s head, images swam in front of his eyes
and he drifted in and out of consciousness. A sharp constant ringing in
his ears pounded in rhythm to the deep throbbing ache in his temple. He
did not know what it was he had ingested but it was wreaking havoc with
his mind. His breathing came in ragged gasps as he tried to still his
convulsing diaphragm, trying to deal with the blow Seobryn had dealt
him. He thought his mind deceived him and he blinked wondering why
Laener was back in camp once more.
Consciousness taunted him as he fought with himself to remain awake and
to try to escape, he needed to help Laener and make Seobryn stop, but
his body had long ago failed to respond to him and he lay trapped
within himself, his own blood clouding his vision and coloring the
scenes before him as his wounded mind tried to deal with what he
perceived. And what he perceived was a nightmare.
Sound came and went and he was never sure if it was him who was moaning
or someone else. Seobryn’s voice echoed in his ears sharp and angry and
he allowed it to be blocked out by the incessant roaring that fired
through his awareness.
The last thing he was aware of consciously was seeing Seobryn’s men
lift Laener’s lifeless body and throw it back over the embankment that
he had fallen from earlier. Tears tracked unnoticed down Aragorn’s
bruised face. It is over then, the thoughts whispered to him...it is
over. His will to fight failed him at last and his mind withdrew from
all the pain and all the hurt and all the ache and sorrow, finding
refuge in the darkness in the nothingness that waited to enfold him.
...it was over...