"Legolas, please be so kind as to tell me once again why we decided to take this little trip," Aragorn whispered as he stared down from the cover of dense foliage at the group of orcs noisily plundering their campsite. Quietly he shifted his hand on the branch he was clinging to, twisting slightly to get a better glimpse of the creatures through the darkness of the still autumn night while the elf crouching next to him grinned, his breath frosting in the chilly air. The moonlight glinted on Legolas’ golden hair as he intently watched the invaders tear open their packs and toss the contents about.
The two friends were cradled in the embrace of a great oak tree that they had swarmed up only minutes before, having been startled out of a sound sleep by the approach of tramping feet in surroundings that had previously been peaceful. So peaceful that they had not bothered to set a watch or keep their weapons close at hand.
Legolas turned amused, shining eyes on his companion. "You wanted to explore the lands north of the Grey Mountains, my friend." His musical voice was deliberately muted, but accompanied by a soft laugh. "You wanted to see new places, meet new people…"
"Tonight we meet orcs, as usual," the ranger grumbled. "I thought they were not so plentiful here these days."
"There are not so many, but they do yet remain. We have traveled these lands for four months, Aragorn, and this is our first encounter with them here. That is better than we usually fare when it comes to orcs." The elf stiffened suddenly, his eyes narrowing as he regarded the scene unfolding below him, and he quietly released a long exasperated breath. "Ah, there they go, playing with my longbow. And upending my quiver. I do wish I had kept them closer. As it is, I do not care to sit up here until they spot us and decide to send my arrows in our direction."
"Have you your knives?" Aragorn whispered.
"Aye, they were all I had time to get hold of. What do you propose?"
"They will break up eventually to search for us. Then we must take our chance."
The elf nodded, leaning his back against the trunk of the tree and inclining his head slightly as he stared down at the milling figures below them. "There are ten. That is a number we can attempt to handle, though it may be difficult."
* * * *
Until this point, their journey had been uneventful. As the snows had begun to slowly retreat before the first warming of early spring, Aragorn’s usual restlessness had propelled him toward Northern Mirkwood in search of the young elf prince. Never before had the ranger ventured beyond the forbidding Grey Mountains that rose in a jagged chain along the northern borders of Legolas’ homeland, and he had invited the archer to join him in a trip to explore the area. The idea had not been worth considering before, as the mountain range guarding the northlands had long been home to a great population of orcs and various fell creatures. Danger had lurked there, but its threat had diminished since the Battle of Five Armies fought south of the mountains years earlier, and Aragorn thought the time as good as any to explore the unknown lands beyond those cold peaks.
Of them, and of its people, he had heard but little. Few traveled beyond the mountains in either direction, but the odd report or story filtered down from the occasional adventurer who had made the trek. The northern lands were said to be beautiful, sparsely populated, and its people fiercely independent. There were no great cities save one or two of modest size, the land being predominantly populated by folk living in scattered villages and hamlets. There was no king, but the larger populations were ruled by their respective noblemen, who were said to not always agree in matters of territory and diplomacy.
Legolas had eagerly accepted the ranger’s invitation. "No elves from Mirkwood have ever journeyed over the northern mountains before," he said. "But my father has long wondered what lies beyond them. He will be pleased to have a report. And I will be pleased to have an occupation that will permit me to escape from this place for a time." The elf paused in the packing of his belongings, turning troubled blue eyes on Aragorn. "I have chafed within the walls of my father’s house this past winter. Our relationship remains strained." He gestured, his hand sweeping out to indicate his ornately decorated bedroom, filled with fine furniture carved by the best craftsmen, and hung with rich tapestries. "All this luxury, all these fine things he loves so dearly press on me like the bars of a cage. I will be glad to break free. Though I will return, of course, with the information he desires." Sighing, he turned away again, shoving a change of clothing into his pack. "I ever try to please him," he added softly.
Aragorn, seated on the edge of the quilted bed, shifted uncomfortably. Long acquainted with the difficult relationship between the stern elven-king and his third son, he found himself at a loss for words. The reasons for the rift were not entirely understood by the prince’s friend. He knew the king to be intelligent, somewhat vain, and less than fond of the other races in Middle-earth, whom he considered inferior to the First Born, but he was a fair monarch who commanded both respect and love from his subjects. At times he was a remote and disapproving father to his youngest child, who could not have been less like King Thranduil in temperament, having come into the world considerably later than his brothers with a sunny, trusting disposition and a natural curiosity about the people around him. Legolas possessed the typical elven pride, but without the arrogance, and although he was generally perceived as quiet, he was never lacking in confidence. Because he saw all people as equals, including those of other races, he had formed a number of friendships in young adulthood that had displeased his father. His relationship with Aragorn had exacerbated the problem. The king had no great love for the race of men, and reacted with disapproval when Legolas grew increasingly interested in life beyond the borders of the Elven kingdom and began to involve himself in the affairs of beings outside the realm of Mirkwood.
Things had worsened between father and son after the death of the young elf’s mother several years ago. Orcs had attacked her party when she had left the caves of the palace for a short hunting expedition, and the entire group had been brutally slain. King and prince had both retreated, each silently dealing with his grief alone, and they found it difficult to reach out to one another. Legolas had loved his mother deeply, and the loss had hurt him in ways the ranger was still only beginning to understand. The archer said little about her, but Aragorn knew that their relationship had been close, and shortly after her death Legolas began to leave Mirkwood with increasing frequency to travel and explore Middle-earth with the ranger. But always he had returned, quietly resuming his responsibilities and working, Aragorn knew, to build a bridge between himself and his family because she would have wanted it.
"You are a good son to the king, Legolas," Aragorn finally said, distressed by the sadness on his friend’s ageless face as he continued to gather his gear for their trip. "A far better son to him than he has been father to you," he snapped with some heat as his anger rose. "You have done much to ensure friendly relations with the folk of Lake-town. He should appreciate your efforts on behalf of his kingdom."
"He does, Aragorn. He does, and things are gradually improving between us. He has acknowledged my contributions, and has asked for my assistance in certain matters that press him. I am pleased to be of some use at long last." Legolas grinned at his friend. "He disapproves of my relationships with outsiders, and yet is increasingly relying on my understanding of them to aid him in the ruling of his kingdom. He begins to see the value in what I am doing, and to begrudgingly approve of my efforts. And yet he is too set in his ways now to truly have a change of heart. He is old and has grown weary, as many of the elders do. I see it. It is almost as if he has become blind, and he cannot or will not see why I travel and form the friendships that I do. He will go to Valinor before too many more years pass, and my eldest brother will assume the throne. My family continues to regard the other races with suspicion, and are preoccupied with wealth and power, without ever seeing how such things fade. Ah, they can be so stubborn!"
The straps were buckled, and the archer set his pack beside his longbow and quiver before seating himself beside the ranger. "The elves diminish, Aragorn," he murmured in a quiet voice, gazing down at the folded hands in his lap. "But before I leave these shores I will see this world, and experience all of it. I will live in it long after many of the other elves have gone, and I must be prepared. I feel in my heart that great changes are coming. The Shadow in the East grows." The elf’s blue eyes suddenly shifted, locking onto the man’s grey ones. "It is something we begin to sense. Things will happen that may forever alter the balance of power here, and I will not turn my back on Middle-earth and my friends. I will not turn my back on you, Aragorn."
The ranger looked into the bright, honest orbs of the elf, and a sudden surge of gratitude for the young prince’s unwavering friendship brought a lump to his throat. "Your words mean more to me that I can say, Legolas. Time begins to press on me. I have spoken often with Gandalf of late, and he feels it as well. You are correct when you say changes are coming. Not yet, but I fear it will not be too much longer. A small handful of years, no more than that, and then it will be upon us. But if you stay with me, you will be directly in the thick of it, my friend. In the midst of a violent storm."
"I know. But there is nowhere else I would rather be. We are friends… nay, we are brothers, Aragorn, and I will face what you will face. We will not be parted." The elf’s voice grew softer. "My father and brothers do not understand my desire to remain here. But I wish to leave something behind that means more than gold or jewels. I want the opportunity to make a difference before I must depart Middle-earth, and help you come into your kingship. You are the future of Middle-earth, Aragorn, and when the elves depart, we will leave this world in your hands. I will strive in any way that I can to bring you safely to what is destined for you. I cannot do it within the confines of Mirkwood."
"But first a holiday, Legolas," Aragorn said as he smiled at the elf. "Another trip together ere the gathering clouds grow dark."
The elf laughed and lifted his gaze, his eyes slowly wandering around the room. "I will enjoy it," he said. "I look forward to seeing new faces. Which is not to say I do not have friends here," he added quickly. "And in Rivendell, of course. Lord Elrond and his children have always been more than welcoming when I visit."
"True kinship has little to do with blood-ties," Aragorn told him. "There are many who love you, Legolas."
The archer nodded, lowering his head slightly. His golden hair fell over the side of his face, hiding it from the ranger’s searching gaze. "In our travels together, I have made many friends in Middle-earth. They are the treasures I hold dear." He raised his head then, flashing a sudden grin at the man. "Who knows? Perhaps one day I will even form a close friendship with a dwarf."
Aragorn laughed, shaking his head. "Really, Legolas. You go too far. Imagine how absurd that would be!"
* * * *
It had taken the better part of two weeks of hiking to emerge from the mountains into the northern lands. The going had been slow and more than a little difficult, as no real trails had been established and the altitude had affected them both during the times they had been obliged to climb higher than was comfortable. Even Legolas had appeared fatigued, his pale skin grown even whiter, and Aragorn had spent a miserable day or two with a hammering heart and pounding headache as he scrambled and struggled over the rough, snowy terrain. The descent was easier, and most welcome. The crisp scent of the pines was bracing, and lower down the pale green foliage greeted them with the promise of a fine spring, the leaves of the aspens waving in welcome as the breeze sent them dancing on their flattened stems. From there the two explorers had roamed the countryside. Even in May, winter had clung to both the mountain passes and the low valleys, but each day had brought warmer air, and the increasing calls of the birds echoed in the skies and woodlands. The land appeared rich and fertile. Many independent farms and cottages dotted the hilly slopes, as did the fleecy white sheep grazing among the clover and bluebells.
The two friends had approached several of the villages, usually to be met at the perimeter by a stout group of defenders who regarded Aragorn with suspicion and Legolas with frank astonishment, and sometimes fear, but once introductions had been made and explanations given, the travelers were usually admitted and lodged comfortably. Usually, but more than once they had been told in no uncertain terms to clear off, narrowed eyes and unfriendly faces turned toward the elf, who would shrug, smiling good-naturedly and bowing with respect before following an irritated Aragorn back into the wild.
"Superstitious, uneducated folk," the ranger had fumed after one such incident. He looked at his companion’s calm face. "You feel no anger? Then I shall feel it for you."
Legolas raised a placating hand. "Peace, Aragorn. It is not such an odd thing that they fear the unfamiliar. It frustrates me, yes, but I shall continue to show them only friendliness and good manners. If I am to be the only elf they ever meet, I want to be remembered thus."
"They probably fear their women will run off with you," Aragorn commented with a grin.
The archer tilted his head, glancing at his companion with a perplexed expression before breaking into a shout of laughter. The elf had, as always, desired not to draw attention, but as usual his wish to go unnoticed had proved impossible. Legolas’ physical beauty was startling. He stood out even among other elves, and his attraction, combined with a friendly personality and his exceptional skill with a longbow, had ensured that he could never hope to travel anywhere unremarked. But he was as unconcerned with his striking looks as the handsome but decidedly travel-worn ranger was about his own. Neither gave his appearance any thought until he was reminded of it by the reactions of others.
And so for the most part Aragorn and Legolas had remained on their own, camping together in the great stretches of forest, and in September they had turned south again and begun the trek home, intending to pass over the mountains before the snows returned. They had traveled through a good portion of the northern lands and their curiosity had been satisfied. Despite his cheerful disposition, the elf had eventually tired of the stares and whispers whenever they had encountered people, and he had happily accepted Aragorn’s invitation to spend the winter in Rivendell.
Now it appeared their return journey would be somewhat delayed, if only by an hour or so, on account of the invaders ransacking their campsite. Aragorn watched as Legolas’ beloved longbow was roughly examined and tossed from hand to hand, and he grinned at the expression of dismay on his friend’s face. The elf suffered few to touch his weapons, and the thought of the filthy paws of the orcs gripping the beautifully crafted elven bow must have been vexing indeed for the archer. Eventually some of the creatures began to disperse, nosing around in the deeper shadows of the trees, and Aragorn nodded to Legolas.
Together they jumped, landing directly behind two orcs who had remained standing under their oak tree. The ranger took little time in wrestling the blade away from one of them and he immediately put it to use, shoving the weapon into the beast’s abdomen. With a shout he thrust the lifeless body aside and raced forward, swinging the blade in a sweeping arc to cut down another creature spinning to engage him.
Turning his head quickly to check on his companion, he saw that the elf had already dispatched two of his enemies and was spinning to face several more, his white-handled knives held lightly in his hands as his bright eyes glittered in the moonlight, trading glares with the demons advancing on him. Legolas held his ground, and as the remaining orcs rushed at him with a clamor of yells and threats, the two travelers were hard pressed for a few moments.
The ranger leaped forward, the sword a flashing blur around his head as his swift blows felled another enemy, and then he started toward a creature that had retreated behind a large tree. It appeared to be watching the fight between the elf and his comrades intently, and Aragorn pursued it, hearing as he ran forward the clash of Legolas’ knives against the weapons of his remaining attackers.
The orc in the trees dodged as Aragorn advanced. The creature made a slight movement, bringing his hand to his mouth briefly, and then he turned and charged at the man, who met his attack with a feint that threw the orc off his intended move. The beast checked uncertainly for a moment only, but it was enough for the ranger, who saw his opportunity to drive his blade into his foe’s unprotected side.
Things had fallen silent on the other side of the camp and Aragorn spun quickly, searching out his friend in the darkness. Legolas stood still, gazing into the forest, his tall form appearing almost otherworldly as the soft luster of the moonlight blended with the natural glow of his body. "The others have run off," the elf said quietly, pivoting on his heel to look at his companion. He tilted his head and moved then, kneeling beside his quiver and beginning to fill it with the scattered arrows, but after a moment he stopped, lifting his hand and touching the back of his neck. A look of confusion came over his face and he glanced up suddenly, fixing wide eyes on Aragorn.
"Legolas?" Apprehension clutched at the ranger as he started toward his friend. Crossing the distance in two strides, he crouched beside the elf. "Are you injured?"
"Is there something in my neck?" The archer’s slender hands moved to sweep his long hair aside, and he sat cross-legged, turning to offer the site in question to the moonlight.
Aragorn looked, and his answer came with a gasp. "There is. Hold on, let me get a better look at it." He gently probed an area just to the right of the vertebrae, and the prince tensed. The man hissed as his fingers brushed against a thin piece of wood, whittled to the size of a writing quill. The sight of it deeply embedded in the elf’s neck made Aragorn’s skin crawl, and a cold shiver raced up his spine. "It is a dart, Legolas. We must remove it quickly."
Sharp was the sound of the elf’s exhalation, and fear rode on the wave of his breath. He dropped his hands to his knees and gripped tightly, lowering his head. His eyes closed. "Do it."
Fighting to control his suddenly trembling hands, Aragorn fastened his fingers around the thin protrusion. Blood slowly welled around the sliver of wood, trickling down the archer’s neck, seeping and widening into a bright crimson stain on his shirt collar. The dart had penetrated deeply, and little remained for Aragorn to latch on to. The warm wetness of the blood added to the difficulty, and his fingers slipped as he started to pull, snapping shut on empty air.
Legolas gasped and the man swore. Aragorn clenched his teeth and reached again. Firmly closing his strong fingers around the dart he maintained his grip this time, but winced in sympathy for the elf as he was forced to twist it as he struggled.
Finally it came free, and as Legolas turned quickly to stare at the wicked projectile, his shoulders trembling, Aragorn carefully looked it over. Carved of black wood, sharp at the tip, it was crudely worked, as if made by the hands of a child. But it was no child’s game the orc had been playing when his breath had sent it flying toward the embattled and distracted elf. The ranger brought the red-stained point to his nose and inhaled. Under the odor of blood was another. Something vaguely sweet, something Aragorn did not recognize, but his heart convulsed and his pulse began thundering in his ears. His grey eyes snapped up to meet the bright orbs of the elf, wide and anxious in the fading moonlight.
"I feel it, Aragorn," Legolas whispered. "It burns."
Scrambling to his strewn belongings, Aragorn hastily tore through them. Fortunately the orcs had not scattered his things to any great extent and he quickly found his packet of healing herbs. Grabbing an overturned drinking cup, he poured a small amount of water into it from his leather flask and added a mixture of crumbled dried leaves. Among the ingredients of this mix was the healing plant athelas, which had a powerful ability to lessen the strength of many poisons. Stirring quickly with a forefinger, he worked the concoction into a thick paste and pressed it into the now freely bleeding wound.
Legolas sat quietly as the man wrapped a thin strip of cloth around his neck to hold the poultice in place. He still trembled, and Aragorn could discern a soft sheen of perspiration on the elf’s forehead and temples. The archer’s hands shook as he buckled his quiver to his back. "Tell me how it feels," the ranger commanded.
Legolas drew a breath as if to answer, but suddenly his head came up sharply. "They return!" he cried. "More of them . . . many more!"
"Run, Legolas!" Leaping to his feet, Aragorn hauled the elf up with him. With no time to grab their belongings, they plunged into the forest, Legolas’ hands shooting out to snatch up his bow as he raced after the ranger. The man led the way as they rushed into the deeper shadows of the trees.
They ran and ran, dodging trees and leaping over low shrubs and knots of vines, the howls and shouts of their pursuers ringing in their ears. Legolas turned several times in mid-flight, firing rapid arrows at the menacing black shadows converging behind them. Aragorn’s own bow had been left behind when they were forced to flee, and he was unwilling to meet the orcs in hand to hand combat again, outnumbered as they were now, and with Legolas injured. But both of them were strong runners, and flight seemed the best option this time as he led the elf down a steep slope at breakneck speed, his momentum plunging him directly into a tangle of shrubs.
The net of dead vines sought to ensnare him, and sharp thorns tore at his clothing and skin as he broke through. He glanced to his right as Legolas fought his way clear of the same obstacle and drew alongside. The archer ran as swiftly as ever, but the ranger, looking at his companion with the trained eyes of a healer, could easily see his discomfort. The elf’s breathing was labored, his face pale and strained. It was glaringly apparent that he was in difficulty and losing strength.
Aragorn’s keen eyes frantically scanned the terrain before them. They had pulled ahead of the slower moving orcs, and his sight lit on a likely spot for concealment. He grabbed his friend’s arm and veered right, plunging into the dense underbrush strewn with great boulders and fallen trees that littered the ground at the bottom of the incline. The ranger dove headlong over a huge trunk lying across his path, rolling up and pushing his back against it. Legolas landed with a gasp beside him.
As the orcs crested the hill and began rushing down the slope, the archer spun to face them, crouching low so as to remain hidden. Tilting his weapon, he nocked and let fly one more shaft from his great bow.
For what must have been the first time since his childhood, the Prince of Mirkwood’s arrow went wide. Aragorn turned in shock to the elf, watching in horror as Legolas’ face crumbled in dismay. He knew. He knew, and the powerful hands dropped weakly to his sides. The bow clattered to the ground.
"My vision is blurred, Aragorn," the stunned archer whispered. "I am sorry." He reached for his knives then, readying himself for the impending attack.
Aragorn wrenched his eyes away from the elf’s stricken face and peered out, his gaze sweeping the land before him. With a shock of surprise, he saw that the orcs had abandoned the attack and had begun to make their way back up the hill. "They have turned away, Legolas. Your arrows have convinced them to seek amusement elsewhere." Far in the distance he could hear the harsh voices of the creatures calling for retreat, echoing among the trees, and he let out a shaky breath filled with relief as he listened to the sound of their heavy footsteps fading into the dense forest.
Squinting slightly, Legolas rose to his feet, staring into the trees. "Nay, the sun rises. It has driven them back to the darkness of their caves."
The prince, whose legs had not faltered during their long flight, took a single step backward and sank slowly to his knees. Alarmed, Aragorn crouched beside him, resting a hand on his friend’s shoulder, but Legolas flinched at the contact, drawing away with a gasp. A look of regret came over the elf’s features then, and he looked up at the ranger, trying to smile an apology. "Forgive me. I did not mean to recoil." The smile vanished, replaced by an expression of bewilderment. He swallowed uncomfortably. "Your touch hurts, Aragorn. It is working fast." Legolas turned his face away, but not before the man saw the mounting terror in the sapphire eyes. The elf’s right hand moved again to his neck, covering the bandaged wound and pressing hard. Silently he bent double, the other hand rising to massage his temples.
Looking anxiously at his friend’s hunched posture and obvious distress, Aragorn remembered with sinking heart that their belongings, including the healing herbs, had been left behind as they had fled their camp. He had no doubt the orcs had made off with the lot by now, and he did not dare try to retrieve them. What evil poison was working its way into the elf’s strong body he did not know, and fear sank sharp claws into him as he witnessed the rapidity with which the toxin had begun to do its work. Legolas was shuddering now, his brow furrowed with pain, and the wide, bright eyes moved back again to lock onto his own.
"Come, Legolas," the ranger said firmly, striving to instill confidence in his ailing friend with the strength of his voice, and bolster his own as well. His mouth had gone dry, a dark knife of dread piercing his normally calm exterior. He was deeply frightened. What poison can take down an elf this quickly? It is potent indeed to make him so terribly ill in such a short time. And how do I treat him, with no medicines and no shelter? Angrily he shoved the fear back. There was no time for it.
"Where will we go?" the elf gasped, clutching his friend’s hand and striving to pull himself up.
"We shall follow the stream. It takes us away from the orcs, and if I am not mistaken, the city of Carbryddin lies some distance in this direction. Someone will live along the water, and there we will find aid."
Aragorn wrapped his arms around the prince and helped him to stand, shifting to encircle his waist. He draped the archer’s left arm across his shoulder, grasping his wrist and bracing as his companion staggered against him. He paused for a brief moment, looking around uncertainly as the forest lightened and the first twitters of awakening birds came to his ears. The early morning sun was feeble, enfolded in grey clouds.
Which way to go? He knew not. He only knew, with grim surety, that if he did not find help Legolas would die. Aragorn stood, feeling the terrifying press of shadows, fighting to control his jumbled thoughts and bring them to cold reason. He started forward then, his grip tightening as the elf stumbled beside him.
"Come, mellon nin."
The forest closed behind them.Next