Aragorn anxiously looked around him, ignoring the dull pain as he struggled to yank his hunting knife from his belt, certain that his assailants were watching. They would come for him now that he was helpless, but he would sell his life dearly if they thought to lay a hand on him, and his fingers curled tightly around the small weapon as he readied himself. Trembling, tense with anticipation and fear, he waited, listening to every soft sound the forest made and trying not to let them be overridden by his own panting gasps. This wind hissed through the bare trees and snow pattered down on him from the branches above his head, but no approaching footsteps broke the quiet of the winter woods, and after a few moments he allowed himself to relax. He closed his eyes as he leaned back and braced his weight on his arms. Inhaling deeply to calm himself and quiet his racing heartbeat, he knew he must subdue the scream of panic building in his mind before he could go about attempting to free himself.
After a time he was able to open his eyes and take stock of his situation. The pain was not too great, and he realized that his thick, fur-lined boot had saved him from the worst of the trap's crushing grip. The leather exterior was torn, the inner lining of rabbit fur exposed, but the dreadful metal teeth had not penetrated to his skin. The tension of the trap was fierce though, and he reached forward to wrap his gloved hands around the device. His breaths grew sharp as he strained, drawing on all of his strength to pry the thing open, but it would not yield. He could only budge it a fraction. Easing off and pulling his hands away, he grimaced as it renewed its savage hold on his ankle.
Ignoring the bright flare of fear that struck him at his inability to open the trap, his eyes moved next to the chain. His initial leap backward had extracted it from the snow, and his gaze followed it to the tree beside him. The links were wrapped low around the trunk, the snow built up around it. The length of his tether was short, no more than about four feet. He yanked on it once with his hands, eyed the heavy lock securing it to the tree, and turned his attention back to the trap.
Scooting forward to ease the pull of the chain, he drew his leg up and scrutinized the device clamped to his ankle. The make of it was the same as the one he and the elf had dismantled and thrown into a corner of the barn many weeks ago. It had the same cruel teeth, and the fierce grip was already beginning to make his foot ache. There was also a keyhole, just as before, visible on the bottom when he twisted his foot up – a motion that made him grit his teeth at the increase in his discomfort. Extracting his hunting knife from his belt, he began picking at the locking device with the sharp tip of the blade. He kept at it for some time, driving the point in at different angles, but it would not release. The hole was tiny, and the tip of the knife did not fit into the tiny opening. But it was the only chance he had, and so he continued his struggle, stopping only when he recognized a pang of warning in his mind. He was shivering. He was getting cold, and his fingers were beginning to stiffen inside their gloves. And his foot was now throbbing with a deeper ache that made him groan in misery.
Glancing anxiously at the sky, Aragorn realized with a start that the sun had begun to lower itself, and the shadows were growing long. Time was passing, and it was too precious to waste. It would not be getting any warmer out here, and he knew full well what his fate would be if he could not free himself of the trap and get back to the warmth of the cottage. And Legolas? Ai, he dared not think of Legolas. He must get free!
He peered into the darkened forest again and swallowed the sudden lump of fear that had lodged in his throat. He pulled himself to the tree, looked at the second lock – the one holding the chain to the tree – and went after it with his knife. After several minutes of fruitless effort he threw down the blade and grabbed the chain. He scrutinized the links in the fading light, checking over the entire length for a weak spot or rusted area that might offer some hope.
There was nothing.
The links were thick, heavy, and without flaw in the soldering. With a hiss of dismay he dropped the chain and pulled off his gloves. Grabbing at the trap again, he gathered all his strength and attempted once again to open it. Grunting with the effort, his body shook as he fought with the cruel device. Aided by the adrenaline coursing through his body, he strained until the sweat ran down his back and his pulse pounded in his head. Drops of blood wept from his lacerated fingers, but the trap would not yield. After a protracted gasping struggle he finally yanked his hands back, swearing as the crushing metal renewed its claim on his ankle.
Shivering miserably, his sweat-soaked shirt gone cold and clinging to his body, Aragorn shifted to the protected side of the tree and hunched against it as best he could to avoid the worst of the low bitter wind. His fingers were numb and stiff, and he fumbled awkwardly with the buttons of his coat, undoing them so that he could push his hands into his armpits to warm them. Once they had somewhat thawed, he would put the gloves back on and try again to open the trap. He drew his knees up and bent his body over them, curling up to conserve heat and stay behind the protection of the tree. Closing his eyes as the fiery ache began to send spasms through his fingers, he swallowed at the sickness rising in his throat and rested his head on his knees, waiting for the pain to pass.
He cursed himself for a fool. Someone had been watching him yesterday. That noise had been a footstep, and if he had investigated it properly and gone into the woods, seeking its source, he would have come upon signs and realized the danger. He would have known that the time had come, and he would have taken Legolas and abandoned the cottage. But instead he had disregarded the peculiar noise, having grown complacent. The quiet winter woods and the long weeks of uneventful life had lulled him into a false belief that the danger was remote at best. But now he knew, too late, the bitter truth: the danger was here and now, and he had walked right into it with no sense of foreboding. He and Legolas had been discovered.
The elf would be expecting his return by now. What would happen if he did not come? Legolas was resourceful, but he could not possibly survive on his own. Not for long. He was entirely dependant on Aragorn, and now the ranger's foolishness had sealed the blind elf's fate as well as his own. And if the enemies in the city had seen Aragorn and laid the trap for him with the certainty that he would return the next day to check his snares, they could know much more than that. Had they been watching the cottage? Had they been watching Legolas? Did they know he could not see?
Desperation drove the ranger to attack the trap with renewed vigor. Again he pried at the locks, jabbing at them with the tip of his knife until he succeeded in snapping the tip off the blade, and again he wrapped his hands around the metal vice and struggled to open it wide enough to tear his foot free. For a time he banged on the hinges of the trap with a large stone in hope of somehow breaking it apart, not caring that the loud clanging echoed around him and kept pace with his hammering heartbeat. Stomach clenched, gasping as the pain ricocheted through his ankle with each blow, he kept at it until his numbed, bloody fingers could no longer hold the rock properly and he accidentally slammed it into his foot instead.
At last the terror of his plight overcame his self-control, and his frightened thoughts exploded into panic as the evening sky dwindled to dark.
* * * * *
Aragorn had not come home.
Legolas had made dinner, bringing out two fish from the barrel and cooking both a squash and some onions – trying to make the meal festive – and waited while it grew cold. He had gone out to tend to the old mare, had dangled a string for Tithlam, made an attempt to locate the ranger's scattered socks, and then began pacing, certain that his friend would be along any moment with an apology and an explanation, but the ranger had not returned.
Aragorn certainly could not have gotten himself lost. Though a man, his abilities in the wild were nearly as developed as an elf's – a talent that the Prince of Mirkwood greatly admired in his friend. Aragorn had an intelligent head on his shoulders as well, and Legolas knew that he would never simply lose track of time or veer off his usual track on a whim to examine something new. And there was another certainly about Aragorn: a promise had been made. The man had told Legolas that he would never be away from the cottage after the sun had set, and the blind elf knew his friend would hold to that vow with his very life.
A heavy feeling of apprehension had crept over Legolas as the time passed. He knew it had grown dark outside, and eventually he gave up trying to keep himself busy. No longer able to ignore his growing fear, he went to the door and pulled it open. Standing silently on the threshold, he turned his head this way and that with furrowed brow as he attempted to quiet his worried thoughts and open his mind to his surroundings. All was hushed and tense, as if a breath was being held, and the elf shuddered as a tremor raced up his spine.
A freshening wind hit him and he noticed the cold, realizing immediately that the temperature would be a danger to Aragorn were he to remain outdoors long after nightfall. Damage to both the skin and the body were concerns in such weather. Even elves could be affected by the extremes if caught away from shelter, and Aragorn, though skilled in the woods and strong with the blood of the Numenor, was no elf. He had already been outside all day, and his mortal body would be harmed, perhaps beyond healing, if he did not return to the cottage soon.
Full of dark uncertainty, Legolas quietly closed the door and again began pacing the length of the small cabin, circling the table, walking to the storage room containing the herbs and back again. "Where is he?" he hissed aloud. "Why is his return delayed?"
The night felt wrong. Fear ached in the elf's bones, and his thoughts tumbled as he strode the length of the cabin. Something had happened to his friend. Aragorn was injured, or perhaps he had become ill with one of the random odd maladies that would occasionally beset him. Nothing else could explain the ranger's continued absence. Or he had been taken…
Legolas halted with a gasp in the center of the room. Was that it? Had Aragorn been taken by the men in the city? Had they been discovered at last? The elf closed his eyes and leaned against the table to steady himself as his heartbeat thundered in his ears. His thoughts spun in confusing circles, and for a time he could not move, so paralyzed was he with fear. For both Aragorn and himself, he felt the noose of terror and helplessness grow tight. He was blind, and understood full well how vulnerable he was. If Aragorn had been captured and taken to the city, Legolas could not hope to aid him. If he were to attempt to enter the city, he would be struck down by those who hated the elves, or taken by them as well. That is, if he managed to reach Carbryddin at all. And if he stayed here and tried to fend for himself in hopes that Aragorn would eventually return, he knew he would not survive. He quivered at the thought that he might possibly be alone now. Without Aragorn's help he would eventually starve, or become injured, or the men from the city would discover him. And, he realized with a shudder, he would have no chance of ever reaching home again and being reunited with his family.
A hot flush of anger rose in his blood at his thoughts, and a firm voice from within began scolding him. How can you be so selfish? Aragorn may be in danger, and you think only of yourself! What of his pain? What of his fear this night?
"How do I find him?" he whispered. "If he is taken, how will I follow?"
The elf slowly turned away from the table and bowed his head. "I cannot do this."
"I do not know where he is!" Legolas screamed aloud, his voice shaking with anguish.
Think. And while you do so, prepare.
The elf inhaled deeply and reached for the jacket he kept draped over one of the chairs. His fingers shook as he struggled with the buttons. Next he donned his heavy cloak. He went to the door and lifted his weapons from their hooks. He checked his bow, strung it, and made certain that his arrows and knives were in place. Slinging the quiver onto his back, he fastened the straps tightly across his chest.
What will he need, should you find him?
Legolas pulled the thickest blanket from Aragorn's bed and rolled it, tying it at both ends with strips of leather. He located an extra set of gloves, and a hat, and affixed them to the blanket. He could think of nothing else.
He remembered now what Aragorn had told him. The ranger had just moved his traps to a new area north of the cabin, beyond the small lake where they swam, past the apple orchard. Somewhere beyond that place, Aragorn would have been this day.
It was a start. The elf pulled the door open and paused briefly on the threshold to tilt his face toward the glittering stars that he could not see. "Help me. Help me to find him, please."
With a sharp intake of breath, he pulled the door closed behind him and plunged into the night.First > Previous > Next