Aragorn leaned back in his chair and stretched to ease his sore back. The meal had been eaten quickly and quietly, for Alun appeared reluctant to disclose just why he had returned to the cabin. He still seemed to regard Legolas with some unease, and stole quick glances out of the corner of his eye at the elf seated beside him. Aragorn regarded his discomfiture with amusement. Perhaps he was told elves do not eat food, but feast only on the air.
Alun, looking toward Aragorn, saw the ranger watching him. With a slightly embarrassed smile he set his fork down and pushed his plate aside. "My thanks to you both. It was a fine meal."
"Made better by the wine you provided," Aragorn told him. He reached across the table and refilled the soldier's cup. "Have some more. Perhaps it will help to loosen your tongue, and you can finally tell us why you have come to see us."
Alun nodded. "I came to tell you of the arrangements I have made to help you through the winter. It is not much, but it will help. I have spoken with some of my companions—" he broke off at the look of alarm that raced across Aragorn's features. "Fear not. These are men who will keep their silence. They pose no threat to you. They are with me in the fight against the takers of our city."
"But the more who know of us, the greater the chances of someone betraying us, even unintentionally," Aragorn said uneasily. "If it is so vital that our presence here remain a secret…"
"There are but two whom I have spoken with about you, and you were already known to one of them."
Legolas nodded in understanding. "He who left the gifts," he said.
"Yes. I have met with him, though it took a bit of seeking to find him. Arath and his band move about frequently, so as to avoid detection by our enemies. As I suspected, they had seen you. They watched you, and are indeed the ones who left you the food, once they had determined that you were not to be feared. They saw that you were in need."
"Who are these men?" Aragorn asked.
"They are the hill-dwellers. They have never lived in the city, as they prefer a different sort of life. They have been in these parts years uncounted, as were their fathers before them. But their relations with the city were friendly until the changes came. Now they hide, moving from cave to cave, hill to hill, trying to avoid capture."
"But why do those in the city seek them?"
"All men are to be pressed into service, to fill the ranks of the army. And, as I said before, those in power trust no one, not even a small band of impoverished men who scratch out a living in these hills. Any who strive against them are to be hunted down." The soldier barked out a short laugh. "They are not entirely wrong to feel such concern, though. The hill people work with us, and we will one day reclaim our city and drive the enemy out. That is our sworn oath. But our struggles are not your concern," Alun added quickly. "Let us talk of the practicalities of seeing the two of you through the winter. Arath and his folk have promised to look in on you when they are nearby, but their aid cannot be counted upon, as they move about frequently. You may not ever meet them at all. They are reluctant to mingle with others, and they have little to spare. What food they were able to leave you was given because they noticed your situation. They saw that you cared for an injured companion. They also realized in observing the two of you that Legolas has lost his sight." Alun's sharp eyes moved again to settle on the elf, and one brow quirked up. "And that, even so, he often sleeps in a large tree just beyond the clearing. And that he sometimes does not sleep at all, but sings all night with his face turned up toward the stars."
Aragorn regarded Legolas, expecting to see unhappiness at the news that others beside Alun had noticed his blindness, but instead his friend seemed to relax, and even laughed softly. "It took no small amount of work to learn my way around after I had recovered from the poison," the elf said. "I have little doubt your friends have seen all manner of interesting events and behavior."
Alun smiled, settling more comfortably into his chair. "They have found watching both of you an amusing diversion. But in doing so they have also become convinced that you are not leagued with those in the city. Arath saw you bury Gildwas. He had come upon the body earlier, but was alone at the time and had not the means to tend to him properly. But he did verify that you had buried him as you said."
Legolas frowned, a look of concern brushing across his face. "But if the hill-folk hide in these parts because they are being pursued by those in the city, is it not just a matter of time before Aragorn and I are discovered? I must confess it surprises me that no one has come to check on this house, particularly if the old man was a target."
"I think," said Alun, "that the enemy had tired of chasing after Arath and his group. They are few, after all, and there are other matters that are more important. As for this house, there is little of value here. They knew nothing here would interest them, as Gildwas was a poor man. I have no doubt that someone came up here to be sure that their leg trap had worked though," he muttered, his face dark with anger. "But the house was ignored. They did not take the horse, for that would have raised suspicion amongst those who might recognize her. So it appears she was left to die as well. It is a good thing you came along when you did. With luck, this place will continue to be of no importance. I can think of no reason for anyone to come this way, especially once the snows come."
"You said you have spoken of us to another friend," said Aragorn. "Who is he?"
"The miller. He is with us in the fight. He lives on the outskirts of the town, near this hill. He will do what he can to provide you with bread, and we will contrive to get supplies to you."
"Do not endanger yourself and your friends, Alun," Aragorn said firmly. "Legolas and I can manage."
The soldier chuckled. "It is much too late for that, as we have been dancing around peril for the past handful of years. And it is unlikely that any of the things we take will be missed from the storerooms of our lord's house. They are filled with goods that would be better distributed to those in need. The great men have no need of so much, yet they hoard it all the same. It pleases me to work against them in any small way, even if I simply steal a cloak or two. Knowing they are helping to keep you warm up here will do much to ease my heart."
"But you do far more than steal cloaks for the needy," Aragorn said, looking with interest at his visitor. Alun sat solidly, chin on fist, watching him under his heavy brows. "You are the guardian of the son of the city's lord, and yet you plot against those in power. What is your role in all this?"
Alun nodded grimly. "It is a complicated business. I would not see you involved."
"We have little interest in that, believe me, but Legolas and I both want to know what goes on down there. Call it idle curiosity. We have been isolated here a long time, and would welcome a fresh story. Tell us first about yourself, guardian of the child and enemy of his father."
"No, not of his father," Alun interjected quickly. "Lord Cadean is not an evil man. But he is not strong, and those who seek power have managed to turn his mind from what is right and just. I was born in Carbryddin, and have lived there my whole life. When I was a boy, Cadean's father, Lord Peredan, ruled us with wisdom and strength. Cadean was a young man and newly married when his father died and he assumed leadership of the city. For many years, his counselors and advisors aided him in his decisions, and we continued to prosper. Our city was fair, a place of peace and beauty." The soldier paused, sighing deeply. "From the time I became a man I have been a guard of the city. I was trustworthy, and grew to favor with my lord and his family. The boy was born, and it was if he became the child of the entire city. Those were good years."
"When did things begin to go bad?" asked Aragorn.
"It began almost imperceptibly. To give you the start of it all, I suppose I must tell you of Gildwas. He lived in this house for ages. No one knows just how old he was, but certainly he was here when I was born. Even as a very young boy I knew of the old healer who lived in the hills. And when I was old enough I would ride up on my pony to visit with him. He was my friend, just as he became Tarnan's. He always welcomed visitors." Alun fell silent, his glance moving slowly over the small cabin and resting on the shadowed wall. He shook his head sadly. "It feels odd to sit in this very room and talk with two strangers, and realize that they live here now, and that he is gone. I have sat at this table many times with Gildwas. I have not yet fully grasped that I will see him no more."
"I am sorry," Aragorn said quietly. "It must be difficult to see new people in the place he held so long."
"It is," Alun said, reaching for his cup and drinking deeply. "Gildwas was loved in the city, and many came to him seeking help for the sick and injured. But he would not move down and stay with us, even when he grew old and the winters were harder for him. He loved this place. The solitude suited him. He would come down on his horse for his supplies twice a month, and, if summoned, would visit the sick. Folk looked after him up here, making sure he had what he needed, and he was a great favorite with the men in the hills. But then Malcovan began to push himself forward, as was his wont, and the trouble began."
Legolas lifted his head. "Malcovan," he murmured softly, rolling the name around his tongue and grimacing slightly as if he found the taste of it offensive. "The boy mentioned him. The sorcerer with the stinking beard."
Alun laughed aloud and thumped his fist on the table so hard that the wine cups jumped. "He said that? Valar, how I love that boy." His face grew serious once more. "It is an apt description. Malcovan is feared by many and loved by none, save by himself alone. Would that he had never come to us."
"And how did he?" Aragorn inquired, rising to tend to the hearth. He watched the sparks fly up as he dropped a new log onto the fire, and kept his eyes on the dancing flames as Alun continued.
"He has been around as long as Gildwas. In fact, they had once been friends, and had studied the healing arts together. For years, Malcovan was a healer as well, and had his own place some two miles from here. But he was very different from Gildwas, and their friendship ended years ago. Malcovan has always been a seeker of wealth and power. He moved to the city, and began trying to turn the people away from Gildwas." Alun's voice dropped, as if enemy ears were hidden in the shadows and might hear his words. "And it was said that he began looking for power in other ways than in the healing arts. He began to dabble in the black arts, and found that he had some skill. He would travel, vanishing for long periods, and return with eyes that had gone hard and cold. Slowly, he began to wield influence in the city, to gather followers to him, and to gain the confidence of Lord Cadean. And then, some three years back, the other man came. He was friend to Malcovan, though no one knows how or when they met. He is called Ramhar, and has become captain of our army."
Aragorn nodded. "Gildwas mentioned him in his notes."
"He is a talented leader of men. He knows how to command, and he knows how to fight. Imposing and vain, he now wields much power. But there is madness in his eyes. I see it. Together, he and Malcovan have slowly crushed the life out of us. All who do not obey risk either the punishments Ramhar devises in the dungeons, or are forced to face the spells of the sorcerer. They have taken Carbryddin, and are the only ones who now sit with Lord Cadean at the council table. They walk the streets draped in the finest robes, and live in our lord's house as his honored guests in rooms as rich as his own."
A frown creased Legolas' brow. "Aragorn, did not the old man state in his notes that this warrior is not from the Northlands? He referred to him as 'the foreign captain'."
"He is from over the mountains, as you are," Alun said, answering the elf's question. "Where he came from, and why he left his home, no one knows. He reveals nothing about himself."
Aragorn seated himself at the table once more as he pondered what Alun had said. He watched the elf's hand slide forward as he sought his wine. "And these are the two who speak ill of elves?" Legolas asked as he found the cup and wrapped his fingers around it. He looked troubled, and tired, his eyes darkening again as he raised his drink to his lips.
"Yes. Both of them tell stories of their power and trickery. They say that the elves revel in all sorts of evil deeds, and that the world would be a better place without them."
"And the people listen to them? Believe them?"
"Not all, but many do. When such stories are shoved down their throats about a race they have never met, they have nothing to counter the lies."
"But you sit beside me now," Legolas remarked. "You could have killed me the other day, or taken me to them. Why did you not? Have you met an elf before?"
Alun laughed. "Never in my life have I seen an elf until you. And I will confess that I have been more than a little uncomfortable sitting here with you tonight. I was frightened when I first saw you, and it was difficult to control that reaction. But I have heard good stories about your people to counter the bad. And always I remember the source of the bad. I do not believe them."
Aragorn looked at the soldier with interest. "And who told you the good stories?"
"Gildwas, for one. He thought it foolish to hate and distrust folk simply because they are different. When I was a boy he told me he had met some elves in his younger days, when he had been a wanderer. He said they were beautiful, and kind. They had helped him when he was injured."
"Did he travel over the mountains?" Legolas asked quickly.
"I do not know if he went over, or if the elves had been here."
"And who else spoke in favor of the elves?"
Aragorn watched as a curious expression crept over Alun's face. Sorrow mingled with a soft smile, and the soldier bowed his head. "Our lady," he said with a quiet sigh.
The ranger's brows came up. "She who died a year ago? Wife of your lord, and the boy's mother?"
"Yes. The day we lost her the sun set on our city, and all has been dark since."
"The old man said in his notes that he went down to try to help her, but was turned away by Malcovan."
"Of course he was, for had he seen her, he would have known instantly what had been done." Alun's voice was dark with anger, his eyes flashing as he raised his head.
"What had been done?" Aragorn asked in a hushed tone. Beside him Legolas leaned forward, resting his folded hands on the table, and both elf and ranger seemed to hold their breath as they waited. There was a silence, long and uncomfortable.
"They poisoned her," the soldier said slowly.
"You know this?"
"I know it. But I cannot prove it. She was a healthy woman, still young, and quite suddenly she fell sick. Malcovan allowed no one from the healer's quarters to see her. And he barred Gildwas at the door."
"But why would they want to kill her?" the elf murmured. "It was a dangerous move to make against one so high."
"But worth their while to attempt it. Their success removed the one person who still had some influence with her husband. She hated them, and ever sought to have them stripped of their rank. Without her, Cadean folded. His strength of will is gone, and now he is no more than a shell. A puppet in their hands."
"He was not able to see that they had committed murder?"
"He alone was with his wife during her sickness, and never left her side. In his eyes, Malcovan appeared a caring and devoted healer who had done his best. But he dripped poison into the draughts, as surely as I am speaking with you now. Gildwas believed it to be so, and when he came to our lord's house he accused Malcovan, publicly and loudly. He was ejected from the city."
"And by publicly accusing his enemy of poisoning the lady, he undoubtedly set the wheels in motion that eventually sealed his own fate," said Aragorn. "I do not suppose Malcovan would forget such an affront. Gildwas came too close to the truth. But why was his claim not investigated? Surely others had their suspicions, even if Lord Cadean did not."
Alun nodded. "We are too few. Malcovan, for all his self-importance, has power. He commands powers and spells. The people fear him and his captain, and dare not make a move against them. Folk have disappeared without a trace, and men do not speak out in public for fear that they will return home and find their families gone. Spies are everywhere, and they have followers who will do their bidding."
"You are guard to the boy, and yet you plot against the leaders of your city," the elf commented. "How do you hold such a high position?"
"Precariously," Alun said with grim smile. "I am two things," the man stated, and Aragorn heard pride mingled with determination in his voice. "In the light of day I am a solid and trustworthy soldier of long standing. I obey, never question, and in the eyes of the evil ones I support them. By night I am part of the underground, meeting secretly with my allies and plotting their destruction."
"You play a dangerous game Alun," Aragorn murmured. "It must be difficult at times to tell friend from foe."
"Yes. The ice is thin, but we will risk all to see our fair city returned to us. How it will happen I do not know. We wait, silent and watchful, learning all we can. The time to strike must be soon, though, for our people lose hope the longer this goes on."
"How much of all this does the boy understand?" Aragorn inquired. "He obviously has no love for the sorcerer."
Alun smiled, his eyes softening as he began to speak of his young charge. "He is well protected from the darkness of these days. Life in our city does go on, and our children thrive and are happy. Tarnan has friends and the active life any boy craves. He excels in his studies, and loves the arts of war. But Malcovan does have an interest in him. As Cadean's heir, the boy will have power one day. The wizard wishes to bend Tarnan to his will and believe the lies he speaks. He had taken it upon himself to teach the boy his narrow views, and to appoint tutors who do the same. Tarnan is smart enough to recognize falsehoods when he hears them, but I fear the effect the wizard will have on him over time. The boy dislikes him, but does not yet see the real evil." Alun paused, frowning. "But he continues to insist that Malcovan is responsible for Gildwas' death, though I told him it appeared the old man had simply died of age. The boy begins to open his eyes."
"I do hope you have warned him to keep his opinions to himself," Aragorn said. "Tarnan is better off if Malcovan believes that he continues to see with the innocent eyes of a child."
"I have. He knows that such matters are to be spoken of with me alone. And he knows nothing of the underground movement to which I belong. He is too young to be told of such matters, and it would endanger him."
"What of his mother's death?" Legolas questioned. "Is the boy aware of Gildwas' accusation? Does he know she was poisoned?"
"No, I believe he does not. We have shielded him. And Cadean, of course, believes she simply took ill. I'm certain the boy believes the same. But he grieves yet. He misses her terribly, for she was the one who loved him best. His father loves him too, but is too weighed down by his own grief and confusion to be as attentive to his son as he should be." A small smile tugged at the soldier's lips. "Tarnan has found a new diversion, however: the two strangers who live in Gildwas' cottage. He speaks of you with great excitement and begs me to bring him back."
"He would be welcome to visit us, if you think it safe," said Aragorn.
"I would enjoy talking with him," Legolas added softly, a thoughtful expression on his face. "And show him that an elf can be a friend."
"His request was the other reason I came back here," Alun said as he drained his cup and rose to his feet. "I wanted to spend some time with you and decide if you were appropriate company for the boy."
Aragorn laughed as he stood. "Did we pass?"
"You did. And I had better get him back here soon, before the snow falls and makes the trail difficult."
"Is it not possible to navigate the trail once it snows?"
Alun reached for the jacket he had slung over the back of his chair. "It is possible. The trail zigzags, and thus it is not too steep. Even after the snows fall we can make the trip, provided we are well insulated from the cold and have strong horses that can push through and open the trail for us. But such concerns can be put off for another day. Now I must be off. I will bring Tarnan for a visit, perhaps tomorrow afternoon, if it is no inconvenience."
"Tomorrow afternoon is fine. In the morning Legolas and I will be gathering firewood. It is tiring work, and we will be looking for an excuse to stop later in the day."
Legolas turned his head toward the soldier. "Thank you for telling us your story, Alun."
"I was hesitant, but perhaps it is for the best that you know all. And I will tell you what I told Aragorn earlier. You must stay hidden. They will kill you, Legolas."
The elf nodded, his features unreadable. "I know."
"Do not wander far from the house, either of you," Alun warned as he threw his heavy cloak over his shoulders. "I have a few supplies gathered for you and will bring them tomorrow. Until then."
Aragorn opened the door and stood aside. As the soldier passed him he extended his hand. "Thank you," the ranger said quietly. "We will repay your kindness somehow."
Alun shook his head as he clasped Aragorn's arm. "No need for that. I do not look for reward, but only to do what is right." With a quick salute, he vanished into the night.
Aragorn cleared the table in silence as he mulled over all that Alun had said. The elf too was quiet. He continued to sit, his elbow braced on the table and his chin cupped in his hand. His eyes were half-lidded, the fire lighting the planes of his face.
"You put something in my tea, Aragorn," he said after a time. "I can scarcely hold my head up."
"I thought it necessary. You looked positively ill earlier this evening."
Legolas nodded. "I have not felt that badly in some time. I wonder when my head pain will ease. I begin to fear it never will."
"It concerns me that your pain continues," Aragorn said honestly. "I hope it will improve when we are finished working so hard and you can rest."
"Aragorn, did you hear what Alun said? About the captain, Ramhar, having come from beyond the mountains, and of his hatred of elves?"
"The nearest elves on the other side of the mountains are those of Mirkwood. My people."
"It may mean nothing," Aragorn said as he straightened from stirring the fire and turned to study the elf in the flickering light. The flames wavered and faded, and for a moment Legolas' features seemed to recede behind a dark shadow that rose up and separated them. Aragorn blinked, squinting to see clearly, then the logs settled with a hiss and the fire sprang to life again. Suddenly fearful, he stepped closer to his friend. "Stay inside tonight, Legolas. Do not go to your tree."
"He gathers an army," the elf whispered, and turned his face to the wall.First > Previous > Next