Aragorn stood beside the covered window to the right of the door, his back pressed against the wall and the orc blade clutched in his tense fist. Head turned, he held his eye against the drape, his gaze fixed on the spot where the start of the trail was barely visible beyond the soft flow of the stream, enfolded and half-hidden by the trees. The mare had also noticed the approach of the riders, and Aragorn grimaced as she whinnied shrilly. She moved to the far end of her enclosure and waited, ears pricked forward in anticipation.
The ranger gritted his teeth. Hiding behind closed doors did not suit him. He was not one to willingly seek danger, but when it came he preferred to meet it head on. But he was also a prudent man, and not given to rash action. Legolas' ability to fight was severely compromised, and if the two friends could avoid a physical confrontation, they would. His first concern was the safety of the elf, and so they remained in the house, silent and still, hoping that the riders would pass them by. Perhaps they were not coming to the cottage at all, but were merely on their way to another area. Unlikely, the man knew, but he prayed that it was so as he turned his eyes to look upon his companion.
Legolas was crouched on the other side of the window, head tilted and eyes closed. He was listening. His long fingers were curled around the ornamented handle of one of his knives, and his grip was firm and steady, his features composed and unreadable. Should the approaching riders be a danger he would fight them, but Aragorn easily detected the churning waves of tension flowing from the elf's coiled form. Legolas was not afraid, but it would be foolishness for him to feel absolute confidence in his abilities. He would do his best, but they both knew his best was not what it once had been.
"The first one comes now," the elf whispered, lowering his head slightly and pressing himself fully under the window, and his fingers whitened around the handle of his weapon. Aragorn stiffened and drew back as a sudden commotion pulled his eyes again to the trail nestled in the forest. A glimmer of red, flashing in the sun, caught his attention first, and a piercing whistle ripped the air. An instant later a large chestnut horse, its coat glistening and flecked with foam, burst from the trees and splashed across the water at a full gallop, its harness jingling in the afternoon air.
The horse snorted as the rider spurred it across the turf, and in less than two beats of the ranger's hammering heart they had raced directly to the cottage. The horseman hauled on the reins and threw himself from the saddle even before the plunging animal had come to a full stop. Legolas silently rose to his feet and turned to face the door.
"Hold a moment," Aragorn hissed, his hand coming down on the elf's shoulder. He stared in disbelief through the slit between the drape and the windowsill as the intruder regarded the door expectantly.
"Gildwas? Are you there? Did you not hear my signal?" a breathless, and distinctly youthful, voice called.
Legolas released an explosive breath and turned with a stunned expression to Aragorn. "A child?" he gasped.
"Aye," Aragorn murmured. "A child." He pressed his eye to the curtain once more.
A boy of about eleven years of age stood before the house. He was well-dressed, his red cloak of a rich fabric trimmed in black, and under it a tunic of silver caught the sun and shimmered in the light. A shock of unruly sandy-colored hair blew around his face, and he was quite liberally spattered with mud from his headlong rush into the clearing.
"I'll just put Firestar in with your horse then," the boy called. "They should get along fine." He turned and began leading the chestnut toward the mare's enclosure. He continued talking as he made his way to the fence and opened the gate, raising his voice to be heard by the one he obviously thought was inside the house. "I'm sorry to have been away for so long, Gildwas. We meant to come here long since, but that rotten sorcerer has got me yet another new tutor, and escaping him is nearly impossible! But I managed to give him the slip this afternoon. By the gods, how I hate him. The tutor, I mean. You already know how I feel about Malcovan. His beard stinks."
A sharp clicking sound, and the gate was closed. The boy strode back to the house. "But we thought we would see you in the city," he continued, addressing the closed door once again. "Why have you not come down? You even missed my birthday. I would have made father let you in." The child stirred impatiently. "Are you in there? Alun is coming up… he has some things for you. Wine, cheese, and even some eggs! I just managed to pull ahead of him on the trail. You know how I like to ride." The boy flashed a grin, but then he sobered and narrowed his eyes at the silent portal.
"Apple orchard then," Aragorn heard him mutter, and the child turned away and began walking rapidly toward the rear of the house where the trail began.
"What now?" Legolas hissed.
What indeed? Aragorn felt at a complete loss. The last thing he expected was to have a child materialize on the doorstep, let alone one who had obviously been a friend to the old man. With a sigh he set his blade against the wall. "I will talk with him," he said resolutely, though he rather vehemently wished he could avoid it.
"But the other one comes."
"I know. I will talk with him, too. Legolas, please stay inside until we know which way this wind will blow."
"What else can we do? They will enter this place if we remain here in silence. And they were his friends. They may not be a danger to us."
"And they may be," the elf said sharply as his emotions warred across his face. Finally he nodded, though he was obviously unhappy with the ranger's decision. "Watch yourself out there. Let me know if you need help."
Aragorn took a deep breath and, opening the door, he stepped onto the porch. Jumping lightly to the ground, he respectfully called to the retreating figure. "Young sir, will you pause and speak with me?"
The boy spun instantly at the sound of the unfamiliar voice, his mouth dropping open in surprise. For a moment he stood rooted to the earth, staring at the ranger with wide, surprised eyes, then he began inching toward the horses. "Who are you? Where is Gildwas?"
"I wish to speak with you about your friend," Aragorn said quietly. He took one step toward the boy, but the child reached for his boot then and produced a dagger, yanking it out with the speed of a snake and pointing it at him. Aragorn retreated and spread his hands apart, palms up. "I am unarmed. I will not harm you."
The boy, eyes narrowed, advanced several paces. The small blade never wavered as it hovered between them. Aragorn knew the child would be easy to subdue should he attack, but it was obvious from his stance and grip that he knew how to handle his knife. And if he decided to throw it…
"Peace, young sir. Shall we wait for your companion?" Slowly, with hands still raised, the ranger sank to the grass and sat cross-legged. "I will not move."
For some seconds they were still, eyeing each other warily. In these moments, Aragorn appraised the young person standing before him. Despite the mud and disheveled appearance of the child, he appeared of noble bearing. The richness of his apparel and the fine horse, not to mention his ability to handle such a steed, indicated that he was of a wealthy family. The son of a nobleman, perhaps. And he had obviously been trained in the use of arms. He stood before Aragorn, blade in hand, unshrinking, and though he could not entirely disguise his fear, he masked it surprisingly well for one of so few years.
The boy slid forward another step, his brown eyes fixed on Aragorn's. "Where is Gildwas?" he repeated.
At that moment Aragorn heard a shout from the direction of the river, and the second rider came at a fast canter into the clearing. The ringing of a sword being withdrawn from its sheath came to his ears, and he raised his hands higher as a fighting man in his prime, brown-haired and bearded, leaped from the saddle and strode toward him.
Aragorn darted a glance toward the door of the cottage and saw it open fractionally. "Legolas, stay back. All is well," he called softly. "I hope all is well," he muttered to himself as the second of the day's visitors hastened to the side of the boy.
"Tarnan? Are you well?" the man gasped, his gaze sweeping rapidly over his young charge before settling on Aragorn. He leveled his blade at the ranger's heart. "Who the devil are you?" he demanded.
"My name is Aragorn. The boy is unharmed. He held me effectively enough until your arrival."
At his words, something kindled in the eyes of the child. Pride. The boy drew himself up even taller as he turned to his guardian. "There is someone else inside, Alun. I heard him call to him."
"Tell him to come out," the man said.
"I would rather he…"
"He comes out now, or I cut you down where you sit." Alun raised his voice. "Out of the house, now!"
Aragorn turned his head as the door swung open once again. "Come, Legolas. Leave your blade."
As the elf emerged into the sunlight, Aragorn watched the eyes of the newcomers widen in surprise. The man's fingers tightened around the hilt of his sword as Legolas descended the step and moved toward them. "Sit with me," Aragorn said quietly, and his friend found him, following his voice and dropping to his knees beside him. The elf's features were tense, and he kept his head lowered, averting his face from the strangers to shield his blindness.
"Is this an elf?" Alun whispered. He was staring at Legolas with an expression mingled with awe and distrust. The boy stood open-mouthed beside him, and he had unconsciously allowed the tip of his dagger to droop and point uselessly toward the ground.
"My friend, Legolas," Aragorn stated. "Yes, he is an elf."
"Keep your hands where I can see them, Legolas," Alun warned. "Where is the old man, and why are you in his house?"
Aragorn hesitated, his eyes flickering to the child. He furrowed his brow and looked silently at the man standing over him, and a look of understanding lit in Alun's angry gaze. After staring at Aragorn for a moment, he turned to the boy. "Tarnan, I left my horse standing. Will you catch him and put him in with the others? And it would not hurt Firestar to have a bit of a rubdown after the way you drove him up the hill. I'll keep an eye on these two."
The boy hesitated, looking up at the man. "Are you sure? They look dangerous…"
"I'll handle them all right, lad. See to the horses."
Alun waited until the child had reached the paddock, darting a quick glance over his shoulder to ensure that he was out of earshot. The man had not lowered his weapon, and now he twitched it slightly at Aragorn. "Speak," he commanded.
"The old man is dead."
"And did you kill him?"
Alun shook his head, scowling. "You expect me to believe that? You have taken his home. You are strangers in this land. Why are you here?"
Aragorn shifted slightly, and looked frankly at the man standing over him. "We are travelers from over the mountains. It was our intention to have returned home by now, but circumstances forced us to remain in your lands longer than we had wished. When we came upon the house, it was deserted. We needed shelter, and so we stayed."
"You said the old man is dead. How do you know this?"
"We came upon his body in the apple orchard some two weeks back. We buried him there."
Aragorn watched the man's featured tighten. "You killed him."
The ranger shook his head. "Indeed, we did not. Though proving our innocence may be difficult."
"Next to impossible, if it were not for…" the soldier broke off with a grimace. He glanced at Legolas. "Does your friend not have a voice?"
Legolas raised his head. "I have a voice," he responded quietly.
"Your kind is not spoken well of in the city. What is your purpose here, so close to the city of Carbryddin?"
"It is as Aragorn told you. We have been unable to leave, and now it is too late to pass over the mountains before the snows come."
"Or did you come with the intention to spy?"
"I would make a poor spy," the elf said with a small smile, and he turned away again.
Aragorn was irritated. "Why would the goings-on of your city interest us? We are travelers, nothing more."
"Why stay here then, where there is nothing?" Alun demanded. "If you are travelers, why not travel to the city?"
Aragorn glanced at the elf. He knew Legolas did not want his blindness revealed, but he saw no harm in giving their interrogator something that might satisfy his curiosity. "In September we were headed toward the mountains, toward home, when we were attacked by orcs in the night. Legolas was seriously injured, struck by a poisoned dart. We tried to reach the city, but he could go no further, and then we came upon the cottage. He needed shelter, and this place stood empty. He needed medicines, and I took what I found here. I sought only to save the life of my friend. Can you fault me for using what came to my hands?"
"Why did you not go to the city once he had recovered?"
Legolas' voice came coldly. "As you said, my kind is not well-regarded there. And we were warned of the same by those who live nearby."
The man's eyebrows shot up. "What? Who gave you this warning?"
"We do not know," Aragorn said. "Folk have been leaving occasional gifts of food for us on the doorstep. They do so secretly, and so we have never met them. But they left a message warning us to avoid the city. We chose to heed their advice."
Alun was silent, gazing thoughtfully at the two companions. His expression softened somewhat. "Odd… the folk round here see much. I have no doubt they have been watching you since the day you first arrived. You seem to have met with their approval." He gestured with his sword. "Stand, both of you. Take me to his grave."
The man moved cautiously behind Legolas as the elf rose, taking hold of his upper arm and pressing the tip of his sword against his back. "You lead," Alun said, his eyes meeting Aragorn's. "And the elf will feel my blade if you make a move out of line."
Aragorn caught Legolas' quick frown. Restraint of any kind angered the wood-elf, and the ranger knew that his friend could spin and knock the man's weapon away in less time than it took to blink. But he wanted to prove his sincerity to Alun, if it could be done, and he did not want an unpleasant situation to arise in front of the boy. "Release him. We willingly take you, but he will walk freely. And we go slowly. He still recovers."
"I'm surprised he's not dead. The poison of the orcs is potent," Alun muttered, glancing sharply at Legolas, measuring him, and then he nodded and removed his hand from the elf's arm. As Aragorn stepped past him Alun turned and called to the boy, who had been doing a rather sketchy job of rubbing his horse down while staring over the fence at his guardian and the strangers. "Tarnan, these two must show me something. Wait for me here. I will be back directly."
The child nodded, watching with wide eyes as the strange procession moved past him. Alun kept his sword-point leveled at Legolas' back as they made their way to the trail and began the trek to the orchard. Aragorn kept the pace steady for the elf's sake, and Legolas silently followed him just as he had before, listening to his footfalls and placing his own feet in the same spots. The ranger turned several times, glancing over his shoulder to reassure himself that his friend was well. It must have been more than a little frightening for Legolas to be forced to march ahead of someone holding a blade at his back, but the elf's face was calm as he walked steadily behind Aragorn, his hands held slightly away from his sides so that Alun could see them. It seemed Legolas was able to sense, as Aragorn had, that the armed man possessed a good heart. The three did not speak, but walked in silence across the meadow and over the hill until the apple trees lay before them.
Aragorn turned to Alun. "There," he said quietly, gesturing to the mound of raised earth under the gnarled branches. The soldier regarded the grave for some moments in silence, his face still and saddened. He lowered his weapon, turning it away from Legolas, but he did not yet sheath it.
"What happened to him?" he asked.
As Aragorn explained the circumstances of the old man's death, Alun listened with a growing expression of anger on his broad face. "He was a good man… a good man," he murmured, shaking his head sorrowfully after Aragorn had finished. "In these times, an honest man seems to gain enemies more readily than a deceitful one."
"He had indicated in his notes that he felt he was disliked in the city," Aragorn said.
"Aye, he was, by those who hold power in their hands. And if this is their work, they are cowards indeed." Alun fastened his gaze on the resting place of the old man. "I have been away too long, old friend," he whispered. "Forgive me."
The soldier looked at Aragorn and Legolas quietly for a moment, and Aragorn met his eyes directly. "We did not do this thing, Alun. I swear it to you."
Alun nodded. "I believe you. There is no deceit in your eyes. Nor in his…" The man's gaze lingered thoughtfully on Legolas, and he then turned away abruptly and rammed his weapon into its sheath. "I should have looked after him better. And by the Valar, how do I tell the boy of this? They were the dearest of friends."
"Alun, is the child your son?" asked Aragorn as he gently tapped Legolas' arm, turning him, and they began the return trek to the house.
"No," the man responded with a smile. "But I often feel as if he is my own. I am merely a city guard, and the one appointed to chase after him and keep him from harm."
Aragorn laughed. "If the way he rode up to the house is any indication, I think your task is not an easy one."
Alun shot a grin at the ranger. "He is a fine boy. He is the son of our lord, Cadean of Carbryddin, and will be ruler of our city when he comes to manhood."
"Is he?" Aragorn raised his eyebrows, and he nodded in understanding. "That explains much about the child's obvious poise and education. I am certain he would have taken me on had I tried to challenge or escape him," he commented with a chuckle.
"Doubt it not. And you would have found him a worthy foe."
Aragorn was full of questions, but the cottage was coming into view, and he saw the small form of the boy sitting on the step before the door, waiting for them. The cat was in his arms, but he stood quickly and set her aside when he caught sight of them. Alun checked briefly, a grimace of pain crossing his features. He turned to the ranger. "He will have seen that you have lived in the house for some time. I will take him now and explain all as we ride home, without the details, of course. I will not have him know this was a murder."
"Alun, do you know who set the trap for the old man?" Legolas asked in a low voice.
"I have my suspicions," the man answered darkly. "I will speak with the others who are with me, and find out what I can."
"The others who are with you?" Aragorn questioned with a frown. "What do you mean?"
Alun sighed. "We have no time to speak of it now. And my advice to you is to not ask. You do not want to get involved in the affairs of our city. It would be best if the leaders do not learn that you dwell here. In particular, they should not hear of him." He gestured to Legolas. "They talk of elves, and their words are hostile. Tarnan and I will say nothing of you, but you must remain hidden. Legolas should stay within the house, and you should not stray far from it. I have heard nothing of you in idle talk about the city, so I think they do not yet know of you. It would be wise to keep it that way."
"We pose no threat," Aragorn said with a confused shake of his head. "I do not understand why the presence of two harmless people four miles up into the hills would matter to those in the city."
"They see everyone as a threat. When greed and lust for power are what drives a man, rational thinking is nowhere to be found. Who can look into the hearts of such men and make sense of what is found there?"
They had come to the house now, and the boy ran to meet Alun, his face filled with tension. "I looked in the house, Alun. They live there. Two beds are within, and there are things I have never seen. Where is Gildwas?"
The man rested his hands on the boy's shoulders and looked at him sadly. "Tarnan, we must speak. I will tell you what you need to know as we ride home."
Tarnan shook his head, backing up a pace, and tears started in his eyes. "Is he dead?" he whispered.
Alun sighed and nodded slowly. "Yes, child."
"Oh," the boy gasped. "Oh…" He spun, darting watery eyes at Aragorn and Legolas. "Did they do it?"
"No, Tarnan. They found his body after and buried him. That is all."
"But they are from over the mountains, where people say the evil ones live. They come. The elf is a spy…"
Alun glanced quickly at Legolas' startled face before turning to the boy. "Nonsense. Remember who says these things, lad. They try to sway you with their lies. This elf is no spy." And Alun silently raised his hand and passed it slowly before Legolas' eyes. The elf did not react, and Alun looked silently then at Aragorn. The ranger, understanding what the man had realized, nodded quietly to him.
The child's face was contorted, his mouth working soundlessly as he fought with his grief. He had not noticed the communication that had transpired between the soldier and the ranger, for he had cast his stricken gaze to the ground in his anguish. He clenched his fists as his small form trembled. As Alun stepped forward to embrace him he jerked his face up, staring up with wild eyes at his guardian. "Malcovan did it," Tarnan hissed. Aragorn, surprised, looked sharply at the boy, amazed at the anger in his young voice. "That filthy sorcerer, and his followers. They did it."
"Child, you do not know that, either," Alun said quietly.
"Yes I do. I do know it. And you know it, too." The boy broke away from the soldier's arms and stumbled toward the horses, his sobs audible as he fumbled awkwardly with the gate's latch. Aragorn watched as the man went to the boy and aided him in readying their mounts. Legolas, standing silently beside him with his arms crossed over his chest, sighed softly and lowered his head as the sound of weeping filled their ears.
"I think you could make use of these," Alun said to Aragorn as he drew his horse alongside and pulled several packs off the animal's back and handed them to the ranger. "I will see what I can do to help you with supplies. Winter comes soon, and I would not see two men starve or freeze to death out here."
"Do not worry about us, Alun," Aragorn told him. "Legolas and I are resourceful and strong. It seems your life is complicated enough without taking us on as well."
"I failed to protect the old healer. I'll not have any other people on my conscience," the man said firmly. "If I can protect you from what lies ahead, I will."
As Aragorn frowned, wondering at his words, the man spun his horse and set off after the boy, and in a moment the two riders were gone. The ranger and the elf stood alone and bewildered as the soft echoes of hoof-beats faded into the lonely whispers of the wind in the trees.First > Previous > Next